Vocal Pedagogy Master Class #8: Beliefs that Hinder Singing

“Alex” is an amalgam of two students that I found to be exceptionally challenging to work with, but ultimately rewarding. There were many moments when I struggled with “do I keep this person in my studio or admit defeat and pass them on?”

Both singers are tenors and sing classical music. Both singers have inner belief systems that greatly hinder their singing and sometimes make it difficult to work with them.

Somatic Education

Alex #1 harbors the belief that he is just a few voice lessons away from being able to sing perfectly at every choral rehearsal and every performance because “others seem to be able to do so.” When I first became aware of this belief,  I said,

“Expecting to experience The Ineffable every time you open your mouth to sing, every time you practice, rehearse or perform, is setting yourself up for disappointment…”

To which he replied with the very hilarious

“well, maybe that is why I keep experiencing the F-able when I sing!”

Singers seem to be the only musicians who don’t understand that building a vocal instrument to sing the music you want to sing, and keeping it in shape over a lifetime, is a different task than developing musical skills and being a musician. I highly recommend H. Wesley Balk’s books Performing Power and The Complete Singer-Actor, which explores this idea from a musical theater singer/actor point of view.

Alex #1 views his world through an Asperger’s lens. Among other things, he sees many things very literally, very black and white. He started studying singing with me after I had taught some vocal workshops for one of his choirs. He decided he wanted to try to develop more kinesthetic awareness and was fascinated with the concept of functional voice training, which he had not been introduced to in 25 years of studying singing.

So for the past 2 years, every other week, we have explored elements of Body Mapping and Andover Education. He does not like much else of what I have tried, but this method appeals to him. (Check out Barbara Conable’s What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body if it is not already a staple in your pedagogy library.)

We have had frank discussions of what it means to “balance” vs. “blend” in choral rehearsals, and I repeatedly have had to remind him that he takes on too much responsibility in choral rehearsals. He feels that because he can sight-read anything, including complicated scores in other languages, he should lead others. For example, if 3 tenors of 6 are absent from rehearsal, he personally takes it on  to make up volume, and ends up shoving air through his vocal folds and fatigues quickly. His belief system causes him to abandon what he has learned. He understands the idea that in choral singing, one should be able to hear oneself, but not louder than those around you. This Ideal drove him crazy until I explained that the concept only works if everyone in the choir is of equal vocal ability. If your whole section is made up of people barely putting out anything, you can sing softly and still sound like a trumpet. When someone is singing next to you like a nasal brass band, there is no way you can hear yourself. “Loud” will always be heard over “lovely.”

When a singer’s personal belief system hinders somatic education from taking root after 2 years of consistent work, it’s time to pass the student to another somatic educator and/or call in extra help. I told him to bring this up in his counseling–this basic trait to feel personally responsible for things that are out of his control. It is often a fear-based control response that requires great courage to look at and begin to heal with new behaviors and thoughts. I am also helping him find a low-key meditation instructor so he can begin to learn the art of mindfulness through another manner of working. He is resistant to studying other forms of somatic education or I would have him study with other somatic educators. Staying in the moment, focusing on what his body is experiencing, is actually very frightening to him, as he does not trust his body, and therein lies a dilemma for someone who wants to sing.

This is actually a huge topic, because it has to do with physical health and life experiences, cultural and religious attitudes. It turns singing lessons into a healthy path for challenging beliefs that are getting in your way.  He liked my suggestions and we’ll see how he gets on over the next few months.

Functional Voice Training

Alex #2 is a super-controlled, intense personality who is very friendly with a great sense of humor. He has three children, a wife with MS and works full-time in the corporate world, so it is amazing to me that he has made time for voice lessons consistently. He studied singing in college and loves musical theater and sacred Jewish music. He has a history of severe sinus and throat issues, including terrible allergies and multiple procedures to remove nasal polyps. His health history, plus a very driven personality, plus his concept of tenors belting out high notes, all contributed to his habit of shoving excessive quantities of air through his throat. He carried massive tongue tension in speech and in singing.

His is a case where we could get his air flow regulated and his throat freed up with the slow work of functional exercises (including lots of various kinds of semi-occlusions and registration development and balancing,) but two weeks later, he often would be back to where he started. His identification with being  a “go-getter” and “the rock of his family” was so bound up with the feelings of muscle dysfunction, that letting go of his habitual feelings without in his throat to develop another coordination made him feel at a deep level that he was giving up on the energy to live his life the way he felt he needed to do. And yet, he knew his singing needed to be easier.

If you look up YouTube teaching on “tongue tension,” you can find lots of exercises for tongue tension.  But “tongue tension” is often the result of poor laryngeal and vocal fold function, not the other way around. Separate tongue exercises do little to teach the tongue how to do its part in free singing. Alex #2 had studied with a practitioner of a very popular method which had tied him up even further because it asked him to consciously create muscle patterns in the larynx and throat. They had him start with tongue-release stretches, and then create these patterns. What a mess.

The body is one continuous craniosacral facial web. Restriction anywhere can and does cause symptoms, often several body segments away from the location of the tongue itself. I find that specific, slow massaging of the fascia of the tongue and throat, which includes the back of the neck, coupled with functional vocal exercises, to be more useful with consistent results. (some of you may be interested in The McClosky Institute of Voice, which is compatible with Somatic Education principles.)  I also got Alex #2 into regular cranialsacral therapy and body massage.  He took it upon himself to work with an integrative health specialist on adrenal fatigue, hormonal balance and nutrition, which frankly, made all the difference in the world.

Alex #2 studied with me regularly–every other week–for almost 7 years–SEVEN YEARS!– before the air flow pattern and tongue tension issues were transformed to consistently freer singing. But kudos to him for not giving up when most people would have because of family and work, and kudos to me for having the patience of the Biblical Job! Alex #2 now sings as a lay cantor in his synagogue and enjoys singing legit musical theater repertoire. He’s also singing with his high school alumnae choir.

If you teach voice primarily in academic music programs, or even work mostly with children and teenagers, chances are good that you don’t see students like  Alex 1 and 2 in your studio. As people age, their belief systems and health patterns become “fixed,” unless they are tenacious about learning to change and grow. This is obviously complicated by the number of responsibilities one has, as well as inner-attitudes, personal expectations and mental and physical health.

All we want to do is sing and enjoy our singing! But the ability to do so is very tied to every facet of our being.  Not everyone should try to sing professionally, and as Rossini said “the vocal cords have to have been kissed by God” in order to do so. But singing is part of living well–everyone needs some movement, some exercise, some beauty and the support of a tribe to connect body to soul, the stuff of a well-lived life.

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