Evidence-Based Vocal Pedagogy and Other Mystifications Part I

I’m developing a 5-month digestible program for singing teachers who haven’t had the opportunity to develop a hands-on understanding of what “evidence-based” teaching of singing means in the 21st century.

Dr. Kari Ragan has written her thoughts on this topic in a Journal of Singing article. You do have to be a NATS member to access it on line. However, you can always contact Kari, tell her you are interested in her work, and ask if she will forward you her article.

I’ve been able to work privately with many masters-in-pedagogy and performance graduates, in classical, jazz and contemporary genres, after they graduate with their degrees. I’m seeing a strange trend that has developed over the past 10-15 years, of voice teachers not understanding what to do with the information they have learned. They aren’t sure how to make it useful or fit it in with their world of experience. So the next summer, they go to another pedagogy intensive, hoping to learn what they still do not understand.

There are many fine voice pedagogues who teach in useful ways, and are able to distinguish between voice science, vocal pedagogy, what is true and what is useful. But if you want to be the best teacher you can be, and are not in their programs, how to you begin to make the same distinctions?

That’s what my program is for. I am collaborating with Dr. Patrick L’Espoir Decosta (Australian National University School of Business) to lay the infrastructure for the course.

In Part II I give you a little quiz on what you might think “evidence-based” means in the field of Adult Learning. Especially interesting if you teach adults!

A Later Life Singer: Vocal Master Class #4

“In helping a person increase functionality, it is important to follow the logic of human development.  You can not expect someone to run who can not walk.”

–from “Singing With Your Whole Self–The Feldenkrais Method and Voice,” by Samuel Nelson and Elizabeth Blades-Zeller.

Val is a 64-year old retired business woman who has sung her whole life and studied singing privately off and on. She is in good health. After her husband passed away, she decided to renew herself by studying singing and exploring  jazz standards in several languages.

Somatics

I had noticed that Val routinely “held” herself very carefully and there was a veiled sound to her singing, although it also had a lovely timbre and was tuneful. She sang in a swallowed chest registration, tongue tension was easy to hear. She shared with me that her mother always told her she couldn’t sing and frequently made fun of her attempts to take lessons as a young adult. She had no parental support for her singing and obviously felt she did not deserve to be heard….

…..and I could see by the way she carried herself that she had no kinesthetic sense of her spine as supportive and flexible. She said she often had lower back pain, but as far as she knew, there was no medical issue. So  I chose to  start with exercises I learned from Andover Educator, Dr. Sarah Adams Hoover. Dr. Hoover introduced me in 2000 to the study and practical application of Body Mapping, a phrase coined by the founder of Andover Education, William Conable. Here is one exercise that Sarah taught me:

I asked Val to drape herself, stomach first, over a 55 mm Pilates ball and gently roll back and forth until she became comfortable and relaxed. After asking her permission to touch her back, I placed one hand on the center of the back of her head and the other on her tail bone. (essentially the length of the spine.)

Through slow awareness exercises, such mindful breathing and mental images stimulated by spinal animation videos on the web, she became aware of differences in sensation between 1.) holding herself in her habitual rigid pattern and 2) being able to feel her spine contracting when she inhales, and lengthening on the exhale. The reason this is important is that if the spine is not freely moving on inhaling and exhaling, there will be incomplete movement anywhere else, including the larynx and vocal folds!

With time, this awareness was transferred to sitting and standing, allowing for the change in gravity with each. Her new awareness needs to be reenforced as she sings.

Dr. June Wieder, author of Song of the Spine calls this natural movement “…a standing wave between these curves in order to maintain the structural and neural integrity of the nervous system.” The freedom of our singing is dependent on the function of our central nervous system.

Functional Voice Training

Thanks to the baby boomers and those who came of age in the late 1940’s,  1950’s and ’60’s, there are more senior singers than ever working to stay vital and sing longer. When working with older singers you must understand what happens to a body and voice as it ages.  Also know that it is possible for new neural pathways from brain to body to be forged with the right kind of physical and mental exercises in voices that have functional problems.

If I was to work with Val according to how she sounded, I would have started with breathing and brighter vowels, “getting the sound forward,” trying to relax the tongue, relearning vowel formations, activating the soft palate, etc.  She would have improved for a time, maybe 3 months, then tapered off, because the issues did not stem from how she sounded.

They were the result of what her vocal folds were not doing.

“They way she sounded” were symptoms of atrophied vocal folds and general largyngeal muscle weakness. which caused all these other things. Also, ossification of the larynx (cartilage turning into bone) actually starts in a fetus, but the process continues and amplifies as we age. There are vocal advantages to this, but it does make it impossible to “have your voice feel, sound and act like it did when you were younger.”

In spite of Val’s singing entirely in a low register, it was a weak ‘chest voice function’ which was a surprise to her. Our process, once a week for the first 3 months, focused on exercises to coax response from those weakened laryngeal muscles, then strengthen them in balance with her newly found head voice. Only then could we start to entice a more enjoyable and effective  breath and breath management system.

In the second 3 months, we added a few traditional vocalize after the functional technical work. I had to remember that I could not move faster than Val was ready to go functionally AND emotionally. She began personal therapy which has enabled her to move through her study with more purpose and happiness.

Vital Singing

From the start, I made a deal with Val that if she would trust me and not work on any songs during her lessons for 6 months, she could use the following resources to play with her singing at home. I promised we would begin working on songs after she had been regularly studying and practicing what I wanted her to practice for 6 months. I wasn’t sure she’d cooperate but she did!

  1.   Flight: Rhiannon’s Interactive Guide to Vocal Improvisation
  2.  Pages from Bob Staloff’s book Scat! Comes with a CD. (This is actually an advanced book for people already skilled in jazz style, not just straight American Standards found in collections. So unless you are working with an accomplished jazz artist, I strongly recommend that the teacher be able to sing the exercises before introducing the exercises to students.
  3. I built some exercises around some of the Spanish and French songs she wanted to sing, focusing on singing the phrases without consonants. (snuck some traditional pedagogy in there!)

This approach enabled her to have fun until she caught on to what the functional work could help her do and why we were doing it.

Then, after working with her consistently for about 11 months, I partnered her with a client who is a professional guitarist interested in the same kinds of music, and they prepared a one half hour Christmas set for a holiday gathering. That is a huge deal for someone who has never done such a thing before!

She is now singing at local open mikes, and has developed the confidence to sign up for summer music camps with major artists like Bobby McFerrin.  Her voice has lost the veiled, “stuck” quality, is brighter and more present, and she has a usable 2 octave range with easy transitions from bottom to top.  She now has an instrument that she can “play” with.  She also started a Circle Singing group in her suburb and leads it weekly.

This is a real “voice building” process. I know that many voice teachers don’t bother with students like Val.  But we live in a world sorely in need of transformation. By transforming ourselves and helping students transform themselves, we become part of an alchemical process of healing a very sick culture.

And post-menopausal women, when guided through the change with a team of supported friends, teachers and other guides, become incredible pillars of creativity, strength and power!

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