The (singing) voice – more than just the sum of its parts

If we look at how voice teaching has developed over centuries, we came quite some way: From not really knowing what was going on physically and merely teaching what helped ourselves (maybe even without understanding why), we started to move into a direction that focuses more and more on “vocal mechanics”:

Activate this muscle (by squeezing imaginary oranges under your armpits), adjust this cartilage (by doing that squeak), and shape your pharynx in the appropriate way for the desired sound (by thinking you are an evil witch). Easy…


When I teach, I obviously try to get immediate results, be it improvement in sound, taking undue stress off the vocal folds, or even improving musicianship and stylistic awareness. Vocal coaches should have a very good idea of what physical adjustment the student needs to solve a specific problem, and what “triggers” them into that particular adjustment. If done correctly, it will show results straightaway, and so it should. This “compartmentalisation of singing” is very effective.

What however if we get the impression that this adjustment only takes the student from, let’s say, a 1 to a 5 (measured on a scale to 10), when we think a 9 or 10 would/should be achievable?

First of all: The adjustment the student made was still effective, because everything that results in improvement is a success. However, no singer is a machine: You don’t pull a lever here and a lever there, and out comes the desired “item” – all day, every day. The goal is to get close to that state (and for this, teaching based on sound physiology is a must), but very often, this requires more work than just focusing on “vocal mechanics” alone.

Singing is a holistic process in my opinion. And no, I am not prone to believe in any kind of woo or quackery, if this is what the word “holistic” triggers in some of you. I use it in the best sense of the word, a bit like one of my all-time favourite quotes about music and singing by Rabindranath Tagore:

“The singer has everything within him. The notes come out from his very life. They are not materials gathered from outside.”

(By the way: If you don’t know Tagore’s work, I highly recommend reading “The Parrot’s Tale” as an introduction – an interesting insight into non-effective educational approaches.)

Learning to sing, or indeed singing as an art form, involves “body, mind and soul”, which means that a multitude of physical, mental, emotional (and to some even spiritual) problems can surface during the process. A student might have problems in any of these areas, and sometimes they weren’t even aware of them until they started singing. These problems can prevent them from reaching their full potential as a singer. Even if we as coaches do everything right. Even if the student does as best they can, working really hard during, and between, sessions. Unless we have additional specific expertise in the field concerned, it is not our job to solve these issues, or to even remotely make the student believe we can. It IS our job however to spot things “out of the ordinary”, and to then send the student to a specialist in that field. These can be counsellors, physiotherapists, GPs, ENT consultants, speech therapists, even someone who can offer spiritual guidance if the student is e.g. religious – the list goes on and is as long as the list of potential problems.

Even if we move away from psychological and mental obstacles (which are difficult to pinpoint, and often even more difficult to solve): On a purely physical level, the vocal coach wants to enable the student to use all muscles required for singing efficiently, at virtually all times. What if we e.g. spot physical alignment issues and muscular tension or weakness? Our spinal alignment mainly depends on an intricate balance between various superficial and deep trunk muscles. If any of them are weak, tight, shortened, or otherwise dysfunctional, others will usually follow suit or overcompensate, and proper alignment and/or sufficient support levels for the desired singing style can be hard to achieve – and, above all, to sustain: Activating a muscle is one thing – keeping it activated another.

So to get back to the initial point: It can be hard, or even bordering on impossible, for the vocal coach to take the student all the way as long as there are other obstacles. It is not without reason that professional singers (and instrumentalists) very often work with physiotherapists or practitioners of Alexander Technique – they can work on problems the vocal coach alone usually cannot solve completely (unless they have additional training in that field). And don’t even get me started on the mind – you might want to take a look at this previous blog.

In that case, it is the coach who should point out the problem in question – but it is also the responsibility of the student to take it a step further and seek additional help…

© Petra Raspel 2012

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