I’d like to talk about one of my favourite teaching and coaching tools today: Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. As singers, we probably all know one thing: Feeling isn’t hard (we do it all the time), but being at ease with our feelings, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, is. We so often talk about “negative emotions” and consequently try to get on top of them, or eliminate them altogether in a bid to have a “more positive” outlook.
However, censoring our emotions is problematic in more than one way. If we are trying to mask negative emotions with false positivity, we can very much get into a cycle of emotional avoidance and thus coping strategies that aren’t very beneficial to our mental and physical wellbeing.
For performers, there is another problem: As soon as we begin to censor ourselves, or our inner critic “goes online”, and we experience higher activity in our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. When we’re uninhibited, “ugly” emotions included, this part of our brain becomes less active, and we have more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.
Why am I telling you this?
Because higher activity in our medial prefrontal cortex is also linked to “flow”, and being in a highly creative state (you might want to read Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s work on flow if you are interested).
The difficult part for us, as voice teachers, is basically to help the student lose their inhibitions (or, one step further, to practise in an uninhibited way ourselves). That’s where trust comes into play – in ourselves and others.
It is hard to make yourself vulnerable in a practice or performance situation, but vulnerability is paramount if we want to progress – technically, musically and on a personal level. Our audience won’t feel if we don’t, or if we try to censor our feelings.
Can we bring up emotions safely in a lesson or practice situation?
Many students (and teachers) are worried about using emotional cues in a lesson situation because ultimately, it always bears a risk – the risk of triggering or losing control. However, as already mentioned above, we need to feel. We can try to be as technical about singing as we like (and good technique is absolutely paramount): If we avoid connecting with our emotions for fear of losing control, or if we judge our anger or frustration as “not desirable”, we will sooner or later run into trouble.
It is absolutely possible to deal with, and even bring up, emotions safely and in a way that doesn’t affect vocal performance negatively (although it’s really not a problem either if the voice cracks while you’re in a safe space and until you’ve worked through your emotions so they enhance your performance and technique instead of hindering). As a side note: Why are we so worried about our voices cracking, even in a practice situation?
Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions
American psychologist Robert Plutchik proposed that we experience 8 primary emotions: Joy, Trust, Fear, Surprise, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Anticipation. Whether you personally agree with those 8 emotions being the primary ones or not – it is a very useful model for exploring how emotions heighten or dampen our performance, and how they even change our sound.
So whether humans have 27 or over 30,000 different emotions (whaaaaaaat? Yes, it depends on the studies you read), Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is so great because it enables you to explore 8 very basic emotions and then see what happens if you think of them as stronger (towards the centre of the wheel), weaker (towards the outside) or mixed.
Let’s dive in even deeper
In psychology, we believe that emotions have different components that influence us:
They are broadly responsible for
- Feeling/internal focus,
- Voluntary or involuntary action,
- Cognition/Thinking/Communicating our feelings,
- Expression (voluntary or involuntary, e.g. facial expressions, tone of voice),
- Neurotransmitters, hormones etc.
Especially those last points might give you an inkling why Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, or using emotions in the studio, is a very valuable tool (you can also use emotional cue cards by the way).
It serves as a short hand, e.g. when doing character work or exploring lyrics. The wheel has other benefits though, for instance when it comes to tonal goals: In all the years I’ve been teaching, I found the majority of students to be more responsive to emotional cues when trying to reshape the vocal tract or manipulating glottal closure (to just give an example) than purely technical instruction or even mimicking.
Of course, there’s always an element of “faking it” involved when we tell a student to be angry, happy or sad without a real live event triggering these emotions. One step further: We don’t necessarily need to feel what the character feels (the old “you don’t need to have killed someone to play a murderer”), but we need to be able to connect to the emotion the character feels in that moment (this also applies to pop songs or own material by the way: At the end of the day, we are always telling a story). Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions helps us to heighten or dampen that emotion, thus negotiating beneficial adjustments in a very short amount of time.
EDIT 17/03/21: In this context, I would like to introduce you to this really cool study by Cowen, Elfenbein, Laukka, & Keltner:
They generated an interactive map (it won’t work on Safari, so use a different browser) with emotions recognised in vocal bursts – there is so much to play around with here, so I hope you enjoy it and find it helpful in your own studies, or as a teacher. Oh: You might want to make sure you warn people when you work with this map, because they might otherwise think you are watching something NSFW 🤣