Sunday, October 11, 2020

Drivers Ed, Part Two ("Motor" Learning)

In the last blog, I compared the processes of learning to sing and learning to drive. At the risk of extending a metaphor too far, there is another relatable takeaway from this analogy. Although I didn't realize it at the time I was in driver's ed, I appreciate now how skillfully my instructor guided me through the stages of motor learning. [Note: "Motor" learning in this case refers to the movement of muscles during skill acquisition. It has nothing to do with the engine of a vehicle...or does it?]

I have written about the stages of motor learning quite a bit in previous blogs (here, here, here, and also here), as they are outlined in The Vocal Athlete by Wendy D. Leborgne and Marci Rosenberg and Vocology by Ingo Titze and Kittie Verdolini Abbott. As a reminder, the first stage of motor learning (the verbal/cognitive stage) is where you're just starting to explore a new skill and getting a feel for what you're doing. This stage requires a lot of repetition, a lot of failed attempts, and a lot of directions from a teacher (augmented feedback). 

When I was in the verbal/cognitive stage as a driver, my teacher was giving me nearly constant directions. He would tell me when to let up on the gas pedal and when to begin applying the brake for upcoming stop signs. He would tell me how far before an intersection I should activate my turn signal and would remind me often to check the mirrors to see what was behind me. It seems ridiculous now to think that anyone ever had to tell me something like, "Put the car into park before you open the door to leave the vehicle." But, at that early stage in the process, I needed specific directions and frequent reminders. 

Given the potential seriousness of "failed attempts" when operating a motor vehicle, my instructor chose the relatively safe environs of an empty parking lot and the sparsely-populated streets of my hometown for my first driving experiences. Only when my skills progressed in those situations was I given the additional challenges and higher speeds of highway driving.

Eventually my skills reached the second stage (the motor learning stage) and I started to get the hang of what I was doing. I was beginning to refine the basic skills of driving and I could perform most tasks without such explicit instructions from my teacher. Instead, his augmented feedback shifted from directions to questions. As I was driving, he would ask me, "How fast are you going right now?" "Is there anyone behind you?" "Is anyone in your blind spot?" "How many miles is it until the next town?" "What's the reading on your temperature gauge?" This allowed me to assess what I was doing, evaluate whether an action was needed, and choose how to respond. In short, his questions were designed to help me develop my self-diagnosis skills. 

Sometimes he would articulate observations that would speculate about the future. I remember once he said, "I see that the car in front of us has an out-of-state license plate. I wonder if that driver has been on this road before. He may not know that the speed limit is about to lower because of the sharp turn ahead." In this way, he was teaching me to anticipate potential problems or hazards before they even came up. 

Similarly, my teacher would sometimes simply call my attention to different options. He would say, "You're going to need to turn left eventually so you can probably start looking for a safe opportunity to change lanes." He no longer had to tell me how to change lanes or exactly when to do it. But he continued to help me consider challenges that were farther "down the road." 

One of the characteristics of the third stage of motor learning (the automatic stage) is that you can execute the skills in different settings, different situations, and among distractions. Sometimes simply a change of setting was enough to provide unique distractions. City driving, for instance, usually meant trying to maintain focus among blinking advertisement signs, streets lined with stores and restaurants, and an increase in traffic. Sometimes, on the relatively distraction-free open highway, my instructor would create distracting tasks for me, like turning on the radio and tuning to a particular station while driving. Then he would ask me to change to a different station or to adjust the volume. Trying to do too many things while driving (like texting) is known to be dangerous, but a certain degree of multi-tasking is inevitable and has to be practiced. 

Once again, we can see how these stages of motor learning relate to singing and how the role of the teacher shifts from providing answers and direction to asking questions that allow students' self-diagnosis skills to develop. 

As singers approach the automatic stage, the ultimate distraction is singing in front of an audience. Singers can ask themselves: Are my skills automatic enough that my singing is more or less the same when I am in front of an audience as when I am alone in a practice room? Even if I may feel nervous when performing, is my singing relatively consistent regardless of whether I am in an audition, in front of my peers, or in front of an audience of strangers? 

Take note of where you are in your progression through the stages of learning this week. Notice which skills you are able to self-correct and which require more outside help. Consider how automatic you may be in certain skills, as well. Then give your singing the green light. 

Now go practice. 

Oh, the places you'll go...

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Drivers Ed

    Learning how to drive was an important rite of passage for me in my early teen years. It was a big deal to be able to get behind the wheel so, once I was old enough, I was eager to start the process toward earning my driver's license. 
    The first thing I had to do was to pass a written test in order to get my driver's permit. This meant studying DMV materials until I could demonstrate a basic knowledge of laws, procedures, and general rules of the road. 
    Once I earned my permit, I was allowed to enroll in a summer-long driver's ed course. Besides a class component (with lectures and exams), this course also required that each student log a certain number of hours of supervised driving. 
    During my first of these supervised trips, my instructor had me drive around an empty parking lot, just to make sure I could stop and start smoothly and safely maneuver the car. He gave me step-by-step directions to make sure I did everything right: "Put your hands on the steering wheel at ten o'clock and two o'clock. Press the brake and put the car into drive. Remove your foot from the brake and slowly press down on the gas pedal." It all seems so rudimentary now, but it was my first time operating a motor vehicle, so it was important not to take on too much too soon. 
    Once I was sufficiently capable of these basics, we headed out into the relatively uncrowded streets of my small hometown. Instead of the wide-open space of the parking lot, now I had curbs and lanes to negotiate, complete with oncoming traffic reminding me of how important it is not to drift outside of my designated lane. 
    When I could handle driving at these slower speeds, my instructor eventually directed me onto the highway to see what it was like to drive at 55 mph. Now he directed my attention to what was further off in the distance, since higher speeds meant obstacles that seemed far off would need to be contended with sooner than expected. Inevitably, we would come up behind a tractor or a combine (this was Iowa, after all) and I would have to check my mirrors, use my turning signal, and safely pass these slow-moving vehicles. 
    My last supervised trip was into the big city (OK, it was Cedar Rapids, which was less than 110,000 people at the time...but it was big to a small-town boy like me!). Driving in a more populated area meant changing lanes in traffic, dealing with stop lights every block, and being aware of a LOT more cars on the road. I was practicing all of the same skills I had been learning throughout my driver's education (acceleration, braking, negotiating turns, adjusting to traffic, etc.) but I found it much more difficult in that situation. I could easily see why this driving challenge was saved until the end of my training. 
    I have often thought that learning how to sing is similar to learning how to drive. For those who aspire to be serious (and even professional) musicians, there is a certain amount of "book knowledge" that is necessary: music theory, anatomy and physiology, musical theatre history, etc. 
    Then, in order to build skills, we have to gradually take on increasingly difficult tasks. As those tasks become easier, we can move on to new challenges that will continue to stretch our abilities. 
    Now that I've had my driver's license for nearly 30 years, it seems funny to think that I ever would have been intimidated by driving in mild city traffic or that I would have had trouble passing a tractor on the highway. Similarly, I've been singing so long that it can be hard to remember when I gained certain aspects of my technique and what it was like not to be able to make certain sounds. 
    But I know that I learned both skills the same way: gradually, over time, with lots of instruction, lots of mistakes, and lots of refining amid lots of repetition. I'm confident the same process will help drive your success, as well. 
    How has your singing been this week?
    Now go practice. 

Knowing where you've been can help you plan where you're going.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Prerequisites for advanced singing

As college students, you're all familiar with prerequisites. Obviously, you can't take Algebra II unless you have passed Algebra I, and you wouldn't want to take Advanced Composition if you have haven't completed Beginning Composition. 

Pre-reqs are a little different in voice studies, however. Since I believe wholeheartedly in the process of "discovering your voice," I want everyone to have the experience of taking voice lessons—even those without professional singing aspirations. To that end, some students have come to my studio as complete beginners and others have come with a significant amount of previous singing training. 

That being said, I believe there are some prerequisites that are necessary for embarking upon advanced vocal studies. 

First, advanced singers should have at least a basic knowledge of vocal anatomy (parts of the body) and physiology (how those parts work) in order to accurately understand what their bodies are doing when they're singing. They don't necessarily need to know every minute detail or have the same in-depth knowledge that you would expect a voice teacher to have, but they should know enough about vocal function in order to self-diagnose certain inefficiencies and prescribe vocal exercises that work with physical reality rather than against it. 

Second, advanced singers should have a good grasp on the main tenets of vocal health. They need to know which vocal uses can cause fatigue and which can lead to undue stress on the vocal mechanism. They should know how to pace their vocal use and how to efficiently train their instruments, and they should understand how lifestyle factors (diet, sleep, hydration, etc.) can impact their vocal health. 

Third, advanced singers should know what professional-level singing sounds like. That doesn't mean they have to imitate other singers, but they should know what the industry standard is (especially if they expect to meet that standard). Ideally, this will be done by thoughtfully observing professional singers in live performance. In lieu of that, thankfully, YouTube is a thing. Recordings of live performances with minimal "aural airbrushing" or studio sound mixing will be the most representative of what's actually going on vocally. Of course, it's perfectly fine to listen to music just for the fun of it. But advanced singers should also take the time to listen with "singer's ears" to try to determine how professional singers create their sound. 

Fourth, advanced singers need to know what their own successful singing feels like and sounds like. This may seem obvious, but in order to consistently create advanced-level sounds, singers need to have enough experience making those sounds to know what it is they are recreating. In other words, their singing should be beyond the trial-and-error guessing game that takes place in the early stages of learning. Naturally, it may vary a bit from person to person as to what designates "successful singing." But in order to reach an advanced skill level, singers must have a foundation to build upon. In fact, it stands to reason that the more singers experience successful singing, the more they will be considered advanced. 

I suspect that if you ask other voice teachers what they would consider prerequisites for advanced singing, you may get a variety of additions to this non-exhaustive list. And, as the Dunning-Kruger Effect indicates, the more we know about a subject, the more likely we are to realize how much more we still have to learn. To that end, the more singers become advanced, the more conscious they may be of all they are not yet able to do and, ironically, the less advanced they may feel

Even so, the more singers can confidently check the boxes indicating that they have met each of these prerequisites, the more likely they are to have graduated beyond the beginning levels of vocal study. 

How has your practice been this week? How are you progressing toward the goals you outlined in the last blog? 

Now go practice. 

"Curiosity is a fuel that powers the engine of human advancement." ―Keigo Higashino

Sunday, August 23, 2020

What's the plan?

Welcome (back), everyone! 

    Two years ago, in my first blog of the school year, I explored the difference between goals and dreams, as I heard them discussed in a conference by voice pedagogue Matt Edwards (he later wrote about the same topic on his own blog). As we get started in the semester, I encourage you to read (or reread) both blogs, although the main idea can probably be summarized by this quote:

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”  ―Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry

    To learn more about how to develop useful plans, I presented some guidelines in the first blog of last school year about how to set meaningful, achievable goals from author, professor, and vocologist Lynn Helding. In her chapter of the book Your Voice: An Inside View by Scott McCoy, she advocates four parameters to consider when setting goals: 

1. Goals should be specific and not too general

2. Goals should be written down (not just kept in mind)

3. Goals should be challenging and not too easy

4. For every goal, you should be able to answer, "How am I going to reach that goal?"

    In Prof. Helding's new book, The Musician's Mind: Teaching, Learning, and Performance in the Age of Brain Science, she adds some additional points to consider: 

    Who is the goal-setter? Since self-motivation is the most effective form of motivation, you should be the one who decides what your goals are. You may get good suggestions from your teachers, your peers, or your family, but you are most likely to work diligently toward your goals if you are the one who ultimately decides what those goals will be. 

    Goals must be valued by the goal-setter. This is closely connected to the previous point. If I set a goal for you, but you are not particularly interested in that goal, it will probably not lead to the greatest results. This is all the more reason why you have to be the one to set your own goals and why they should be goals in which you're truly invested. 

    There must be both short-term and long-term goals. This relates to the goals-versus-dreams discussion. "I want to have a successful career on Broadway" is such a long-term goal as to really be more of a dream, mostly because there are so many steps between where you are now and finally reaching that goal. But, if you want to make it a goal, consider breaking it into shorter-term goals: I'll audition for every university show our program offers. I'll audition for every musical Pioneer Theatre Company produces during my time in school. I'll audition for professional summer stock theaters the summers after my sophomore, junior, and senior years. After I graduate, I'll start auditioning for non-Equity tours and for regional Equity theaters. Then I'll start auditioning for Equity tours and for Broadway productions. 

    Of course, that's not the only path to take in order to achieve success in this field. But, by breaking the long-term goal down into steps, you have given yourself regular benchmarks to achieve, which can motivate you to continue progressing. Notice also that I stated these goals as "I'll audition" instead of "I'll be cast." That's because you have no control over whether you will be cast in a production other than to be as prepared as possible. But you can control how many auditions you attend, which increases the chances that you will book a show. 

    But let's not worry about shows just yet. Let's focus on developing your vocal skills this semester and this year. 

    For this first blog, I'd like everyone to share one shorter-term goal (something to achieve over the first few weeks or the first half of the semester) and one longer-term goal (something you're setting out to achieve by the end of the school year). And, as Prof. Helding advocates, make the goals specific, make them challenging but achievable, and identify at least one tactic you will use to complete each goal. 

    I'm really thrilled to be back in session and am so ready to have a great year. Let's get to work.

Now go practice. 

“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” – Barry Finlay

Sunday, April 12, 2020

A future not our own

Often in my life, when I have been overwhelmed or feeling aimless, I have read and reread this reflection by Ken Untener (frequently attributed to Oscar Romero) called "Prophets of A Future Not Our Own":
"We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest."
I find that, by acknowledging that I can't do everything, I am freed from the responsibility of trying to do everything. This also comes with the reminder that, of the things I am able to do, I don't have to do all of them right now. I can focus on one thing at a time and do that to the best of my ability.

This applies well to the voice studio, since I teach one student at a time, each of whom requires guidance and instruction that is individualized. I can't give my students everything they need, and I am aware that what I am able to offer them is often incomplete. But it can be a step along the way, which can lead to another step, which may lead to yet another step. Maybe that's just Newton's first law of motion at work ( object in motion stays in motion...) or maybe it's something akin to grace.

This was the impetus behind my first assignment to all of you when it was first announced that we would be moving our lessons online: Given the current circumstances, what are two or three vocal goals you can work on for the rest of the semester? Faced with a new normal, I knew that it may not be realistic to try to adhere to the same goals as at the start of the semester. However, I also know that, in order to "do something and do it very well," we have to first identify what that "something" is.

Even so, Untener offers this caveat in an earlier section of "Prophets of a Future Not Our Own":
"No set of goals and objectives includes everything."
So, even when we identify the "something" we intend to do very well, it's likely that even those efforts will be incomplete. I'm choosing to view that as liberating, as well.

Untener's reflection continues:
"This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities."
The image of seeds growing is so familiar in education as to have become cliché. But, we can tie it into the stages of learning. In some of your skills, you are just planting a seed. In other skills, you are nurturing a small, budding plant. In other skills, you are harvesting fruit. You can't get fruit from a seed you have just planted, but you can water that seed, give it sunshine, and keep the weeds at bay so that it has the best chance to reach full growth.

Untener's reflection concludes:
"We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. 
We are prophets of a future not our own."
Although we may aspire to be master builders in our craft, the best artists I know still consider themselves to be workers, reaching toward greater "end results" that they may or may not ever reach. That future is not their own since they can't dictate what the ultimate results of their efforts will be. All they can do is continue to lay foundations that they know will need further development.

In another sense, we build our voices so that our songs can be released into the world. We can never know the full impact they will have, how they will be received, or how they will be remembered. All we can do is infuse our singing with the greatest skill and greatest intentions we can manage and hope that it will reach people in meaningful ways.

We are living in a time when "reaching people" is increasingly difficult and yet vitally important. In this global pandemic, too many lives have been lost, questions linger about the future that no one can reliably answer, and our "normal" has been permanently altered. While life is weighed down by these concerns and we feel the sting of isolation, we rely even more on tools of connection, especially those that artists provide.

We can't do everything. But let's keep doing something. It will be incomplete and we may never see the end results of our work. But it will be a step along the way, planting seeds for a future not our own.

This was a semester unlike any other. As the world turned upside down, it was a privilege to continue to hear your voices.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Working with technology when it's not about the technology

[EDIT: A revised version of this article has been published on the Classical Singer website at]

As many of us dive into online learning this week, I expect there will be some glitches to work out and a learning curve to overcome. Nevertheless, I'm taking a moment to revel in the relatively new technology that can even make this possible.

When I was growing up, video calls existed only in the land of Star Trek. (In fact, video calls are just one of several technologies we use today that first appeared on Star Trek.)

From the episode "Wink of an Eye"
Today, I can watch my students on one screen while I check in with a pdf of the music they are singing on another screen. We can play pre-recorded accompaniment tracks of either a piano or a full orchestra. In fact, a resource like the Appcompanist app provides tracks that can be played in different keys and at different tempos, and it even features a fermata button so we can sustain those high notes for as long as we'd like.

That being said, I will be reminding myself in the coming weeks that what I am doing is not really about the technology. It can be easy to geek out and get lost in all the things we can do. But, ultimately, the technology is just there to allow us to keep doing what is at heart an old-school, unplugged activity.

Technically, the only element required for singing is the human body. The sounds created are felt, heard, and experienced by the person making those sounds and by any others who are in the physical (or virtual) proximity to also experience those sounds. Technology simply allows us to extend that proximity to include more listeners in additional locations.

Our task in voice lessons is to help singers create sounds that can reach both the ears and emotions of their listeners. Therefore, the singing must be efficiently produced and emotionally enlivened. For most classical singers, this is generally done without the benefit of a microphone, ensuring that what audiences are hearing is what is actually occurring. Music theater singers have the same goals, since even though their performances regularly involve microphones, the purpose of the mic is usually to amplify, rather than to modify, the sound.

Like singers, the most important tools that voice teachers use do not require a power cord, either. Our eyes and ears observe, and then our brains interpret what we see and hear and filter that information through our knowledge and experience. Then our voices allow us to offer thoughts, ideas, and—hopefully—inspiration to our students. Of course, tools like spectrograms can precisely break sound into many components, providing a more in-depth perspective. But, as author, pedagogue, and professor Scott McCoy states in Your Voice: An Inside View:
"Computerized voice analysis is not a panacea. No matter how fast the computer or how complex the programing, it is unlikely ever to surpass the human ear and brain. A computer can help its user understand what is happening in a voice; it cannot, however, tell if the sound is beautiful or musical." (p.83).
So plug in, power up, launch the apps, and log in. But remember that we are working with human beings, not screens. That way, we can focus on the holistic, organic process of singing by plugging our attention into our students instead of our devices. I am grateful that technology will allow us to keep moving forward in our singing lessons. But I will also be reminding myself that it is there to facilitate our work and not to be the center of our work.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The automatic stage of motor learning

As we've been exploring in previous blogs, in order to develop a skill we have to experience the three stages of motor learning: the verbal/cognitive stage, the associative/motor learning stage, and finally, the automatic stage. As the name implies, this final stage is where the skill becomes automatic. We are able to execute the skill without as much concentration as before, we are able to perform it in different settings and in different situations, and we can even perform it among distractions. Our self-diagnosis abilities are also well developed in the automatic stage, meaning that most of the time we won't need the help of a teacher to continue practicing automatic skills. do you know when you've reached the automatic stage and finally learned how to sing? 

Well, as we've discussed, singing is not just one skill but a series of skills. I'm not sure anyone can reach the automatic stage in absolutely every element of their singing. (Although, maybe one of you will prove me wrong on this!)

That being said, as Titze and Verdolini Abbott write in Vocology (quoting the research of Schmidt and Lee, 2010), 
"[...] we do not observe learning directly. We can only infer it from observation of performance changes that follow practice or exposure." (p.219)
One indication that you have reached the automatic stage of learning in a particular singing skill is if you can execute that skill with relative consistency on different days, at different times of day, in different settings, and in different situations. For instance, let's say you're a tenor and you want to belt a high A. If you are in the automatic stage, you will probably be able to belt that A with pretty reliable quality on any vowel, early in the day (if you're warmed up) or late in the day, in the practice room, in auditions, and in performances. If you can consistently belt a high A on an "ah" vowel but not on an "ee" vowel, you may be in the automatic stage on the "ah" but not yet on the "ee." But, if you can belt that "ah" perfectly when you're by yourself but every time you try to do it in Dem Lab, you end up cracking, then that skill is probably not yet in the automatic stage. 

So...once you've reached the automatic stage on a particular skill, does that mean you have arrived and no longer need to practice? 

The answer to this question may actually lie in exercise physiology rather than motor learning theory. As Leborgne and Rosenberg discuss in The Vocal Athlete, singers need to be mindful of reversibility (which I blogged about in 2016). They write, 
"[...] use it or lose it. If we train our voice to adapt to the demands of a specific role or song and then stop, we will lose those gains fairly quickly. Additionally, the longer you refrain from training, the longer it takes to reestablish gains." (p.324)
In other words, we have to continue to practice the skills we want to maintain, even if they are "learned" and in the automatic stage.

What elements of your singing are in the automatic stage? How has your singing been this week?

Now go practice. 

Sorry, the road toward learning never ends!