Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Associative/Motor Learning Stage

Continuing our discussion of motor learning theory, which explains how we develop skills, this blog will more closely examine the second stage. The authors of The Vocal Athlete refer to this as the motor learning stage, while the authors of Vocology call it the associative stage.

In the motor learning stage, the skill we're learning is no longer brand new. We start to get the hang of things and begin to refine the skill. We've done it enough times for it to start to become familiar and somewhat predictable. We can also start to self-diagnose and work through our own problems when it doesn't go the way we'd like.

As students get more practiced at self-diagnosing in stage two, the role of the teacher has to change. As I mentioned before, in stage one, the teacher has to provide a lot of guidance, direction, and feedback. He or she needs to validate successful attempts, point out failed attempts, and offer more continuous instruction on how to correctly execute the skill, since the students are not yet able to distinguish that for themselves.

When you all are in stage two, I become more of a facilitator than a teacher. I do a lot more asking questions to get you to self-analyze rather than just giving you the answers. Admittedly, that can make this process feel tedious and frustrating. At times in the past, when I have asked students questions like, "How was that time different from the first time you sang it?" or "What did you notice when you sang this time?" they have responded with, "You're the teacher. You tell me."

But, once the student reaches stage two, if the teacher continues to give as much feedback and direction as was needed during the first stage, it can prevent students from developing their own self-diagnosis abilities. In this way, giving students directions instead of guiding them to reach their own solutions actually HARMS their ability to learn the skill. It may improve their performance in the short term, but if they did not get there on their own, they are less likely to be able to repeat that performance in the long run or when their teacher is not present.

Of course, in order for you to make progress in stage two, you have to be consciously engaged in the process. Going through the motions without being focused may lead to some changes in your immediate performance, but those changes will be more accidental rather than intentional. You have to be the one making decisions and making changes while I try to help keep you moving in the right direction and then stay out of your way as you explore, struggle, and eventually find your own answers.

Honestly, I think the hardest stage to get through is stage two. In stage one, there is the excitement of learning something new, and you aren't so afraid of failing because you understand that you are a beginner. Stage three is also nice because you are reaping the rewards of all your hard work and enjoying your new capabilities. But stage two can last for a really long time (years, for some skills) with seemingly incremental progress or periods of stagnation.

The good news is, the necessary frustration of stage two means that you are getting closer to the automatic stage. If you are avoiding the frustration, or if you quit when you start to get frustrated, or if you are waiting for your teacher to "fix" the problem, then you are keeping yourself in stage one.

What aspects of your singing are in the motor learning stage? What skills are you starting to get the hang of? What skills are getting more consistent but still aren't automatic yet? What have you been discovering in your singing this week?

Now go practice.

There are always lots of options, but you have to decide where to go.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Verbal/Cognitive Stage of Motor Learning

In November, we discussed the stages of motor learning that are involved when we are building new skills. In the next few blogs, we will take a more in-depth look at each stage, the first of which is the verbal/cognitive stage.

As outlined in The Vocal Athlete by Wendy D. Leborgne and Marci Rosenberg, the verbal/cognitive stage is where we're just starting to explore a new skill and getting a feel for what we're doing. This stage requires a lot of repetition, guidance, and feedback, and involves many failed attempts.

When students come to my studio singing with a significant amount of jaw tension, for instance (a common inefficiency among singers), my job is to help them create a new habit of singing with freedom at the jaw. To let you in a bit on the process, here is how I often structure voice lessons to help them work through the verbal/cognitive stage as they acquire this new skill.

First, I explain the important role of the articulators in singing (jaw, lips, tongue, etc.) and how they allow us to have clear diction as well as open, resonant vowels. In order to provide accurate anatomical understanding, I show them pictures of the temporalis and masseter muscles and explain their function as jaw-closing muscles. Then I direct students through self-massage of these muscles, encouraging release of any tightness or tension.

Temporalis muscle, by Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See "Book" section below) Gray's Anatomy, Plate 382, Public Domain,
Continuing, I ask students to place their hands across their jaws while encouraging a sense of looseness, using their own sense of touch to create sensations they can feel and remember. Then I have them vocalize on simple, easy patterns while maintaining the sensation of looseness at the jaw. When they can do this, I ask them to look in the mirror as they vocalize so they can see what it looks like to sing with freedom at the jaw.

Masseter muscle, by Kevjonesin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Then I will start to take some of those cues away. I will ask them to drop their hand from the jaw but to continue looking in the mirror. Then I will have them look away from the mirror and only use their internal awareness (proprioception) to see if the jaw is still free as they sing. Then I will change the vocal pattern they are singing and after every third or fourth repetition I will ask them to either touch their jaws again or to look back in the mirror. By doing this, the students start to build a repertoire of visual cues and physical sensations of what it is like to sing without excessive jaw tension.

I may then move on to a completely different exercise and change their focus to another element of their singing. After a few minutes, I will ask, "Was your jaw free on that last exercise?" If the students say, "I don't know," I'll say, "Let's do it again and see what you notice."

I try to avoid simply telling students, "Your jaw is tight," even if that is something I see. Instead, I prefer to redirect their attention back to the jaw so they can make their own assessments. This causes the singers to check back in, observe, and make an adjustment, if needed.

Progressing through the verbal/cognitive stage of specific singing skills means practicing the unfamiliar until it becomes familiar. In this process, there will be some successful tries and some failures, each of which will begin to inform our successive attempts IF our attempts are done with focus and awareness.

As I have mentioned before, there are some elements of our singing that are more developed and some that are less developed. It may be human nature to avoid practicing the skills that are less developed since they tend to frustrate us. But without doing the work of focused repetition, we won't progress beyond the first stage of motor learning.

What elements of your singing are in the verbal/cognitive stage? How have you been doing in working toward your semester goals so far?

Now go practice.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Failure is the only option

If you've ever seen the movie Apollo 13, you may remember the famous quote by Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris), "Failure is not an option!" The funny thing is, Kranz never actually said that in real life, according to Jerry Bostick, one of the key flight controllers responsible for the Apollo 13 rescue and a technical advisor for the movie. Kranz described being interviewed by script writers about what things were really like in Mission Control, saying:
"One of their questions was 'Weren't there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?' My answer was 'No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them.'...Only months later did I learn that when they got in their car to leave, [script writer Bill Broyles] started screaming, 'That's it! That's the tag line for the whole movie, "Failure is not an option."'"
Much like we do in the voice studio, when Kranz and his colleagues were presented with challenges, they worked to identify several possible paths to success. With lives in danger, like in the Apollo 13 situation, they wanted to work out any bugs before they implemented their rescue mission. Even though singing does not feature such high stakes, we also try to work out our strategies in the practice room so that mistakes don't happen in performances.

Although no one sets out to fail, the reality is that failed attempts help us home in on what does work. In fact, according to a recent study, it's actually required for long-term success.

An article by David Noonan in Scientific American profiles the work of a team of researchers at Northwestern University led by Dashun Wang. In their research, originally published in Nature, the group looked at the success and failure rates of people engaging in various activities, including venture capital startup investments, applying for National Institutes of Health grants, and even launching terrorist attacks.

One of their major conclusions is, as Wang states, "Every winner begins as a loser." In other words, everyone who was eventually successful first had to experience some form of failure.

This may not be all that surprising. But what is surprising is that the people who succeeded and the people who failed basically had the same number of attempts. This seems to contradict the conventional wisdom of "Just keep trying and eventually you'll get it." As the article states:
"It turns out that trying again and again only works if you learn from your previous failures. The idea is to work smart, not hard. 'You have to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and then focus on what needs to be improved instead of thrashing around and changing everything,' says Wang. 'The people who failed didn’t necessarily work less [than those who succeeded]. They could actually have worked more; it’s just that they made more unnecessary changes.'"
The other big takeaway from the study is that the sooner people made another attempt after a failure, the more likely they were to succeed. Conversely, the longer they waited to try again, the less likely they were to succeed.

I think this research has three significant implications for singing.

First, we can't just go through the motions of vocal exercises, mindlessly doing them over and over. That may help keep our muscles conditioned but it will not help develop technique. The more conscious and observant we are of the process, the more we can make intelligent adjustments to what we are doing instead of, as stated above, "thrashing around and changing everything." This is the "work smarter, not harder" idea.

Second, when we fail or make mistakes or make sounds we don't like, the sooner we try again, the more likely we will be to succeed. If frustration causes us to walk away and take a break, and keeps us from another attempt, we are less likely to find success.

Third, instead of avoiding failure, this research implies that failure is actually necessary for success. It's a step no one can skip. Getting something right on the first try doesn't mean we'll be able to do it consistently. We have to fail, make a thoughtful adjustment, fail differently, make another thoughtful adjustment, and so on, until we are consistently successful. This is completely in line with the stages of motor learning we discussed in the November blog (stages we will discuss more in the coming weeks).

Back in August, I wrote a blog that outlined four parameters for setting goals. Then you all identified three specific goals for the semester. For this first blog of 2020, I'd like you to revisit those goals. In the comments below, list three goals you have for this semester. Some may be the same, some may be slightly different, others may be completely different. Regardless, be as specific as you can in determining how you want to improve and what you want to accomplish in our time together this spring.

Welcome back, and Happy New Year!

Now go practice.

P.S. To read other blogs on the subject of failure (riveting, I know) click here and here.
The sun is rising on a new semester. Let's get back to work!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Stages of learning

[EDIT: A revised version of this blog is now published on the Classical Singer website. Please visit:]

In recent years, motor learning theory has taken a more prominent place in vocal pedagogy. The three stages of motor learning explain how it is that we learn new skills and are outlined well in The Vocal Athlete by Wendy D. Leborgne and Marci Rosenberg and in Vocology by Ingo Titze and Kittie Verdolini Abbott. Knowing which stage of learning we are in can impact the way we approach our performances.

The first stage of motor learning is the verbal/cognitive stage. This 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 guidance and feedback, and involves a lot of failed attempts. 

The second stage, the motor learning stage, is where you start to get the hang of things and you begin refining the skill. It's still not perfect every time, but you've done it successfully enough times to know what it feels like and to begin to be able to self-diagnose and to work through some of your own problems. 

Stage three, the automatic stage, is where the skills become automatic (as the name implies). You are able to execute the skill without as much concentration as before and you are able to do it in different settings, different situations, and even among distractions. Your self-diagnosis skills are also well developed, meaning that you won't need the help of a teacher as much as before. 

Of course, singing is not just one skill but a series of skills. Some of you may be really great at breath management but not as good at singing in a wide range. Some of you may feel really comfortable in chest voice but less secure singing in a more head voice-dominant register. Some of you may feel great singing vocal exercises but have a hard time bringing those sounds into songs. 

In other words, some parts of your singing are probably in stage three while others are in stage two or even in stage one. 

Part of what I like so much about understanding the stages of motor learning is that they come without judgement. People are not good singers or bad singers—we are all just in different stages of learning. 

If you are in stage two of singing through your passaggio, that means sometimes those notes are going to feel and sound great and sometimes they aren't. That doesn't mean that you're a terrible singer. It means you are in stage two of learning that particular skill, and that inconsistency is a necessary part of being in stage two. 

If you are so frustrated by being in stage one or stage two (which, when we're talking about singing, can literally last for years) that you give up, then you will never reach the automatic stage. That applies to singing, bowling, throwing darts, or any other skill you're trying to learn. 

We are all works in progress. No performance is a final, perfect statement of how something is done. It is only a reflection of what we are able to do on a given day with our current skills. None of us need to apologize for or feel bad about that. 

As you perform in your upcoming vocal juries and class finals, I hope that you will all be as expressive as you can and have as much fun as you can within your current (and varied) stages of learning. 

Thanks for a great semester. I can't wait to hear you all SING!

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Sweet Dreams

"Sleep now, O sleep now, O you unquiet heart." -James Joyce, Chamber Music
The University of Minnesota football team is having its best season in decades. Besides their practice schedule, their training regimen, and the hours spent watching game film, they believe their success is also due to another factor: sleep.

On the advice of Dr. Michael Howell of the M Health Fairview Sleep Center, players and coaches are placing an emphasis on achieving quality sleep, which includes a daily nap. “Anything that gives you a 5 to 8 percent edge in high-performance athletics goes a very, very long way—and that's what we can expect with people sleeping better,” Howell said.

Vocal pedagogues have long been making comparisons between sports athletes and singers, since both have to train for intense physical activities that directly depend on a healthy body. For both groups, strenuous activity must be followed by a sufficient amount of rest for appropriate recovery. Even 25 years ago, author Barbara Doscher understood the importance of rest for both athletes and vocal athletes, writing in her seminal book The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice, "The one thing an athlete cannot do without is rest, particularly the night before a game or a performance."

Voice researchers Bridget Rose, Michelle Horman, and Robert Thayer Sataloff also advocate getting more sleep prior to heavy voice use, which may include a nap on the day of an important speaking or singing engagement. As they report, "General body fatigue is reflected in the voice. Optimal vocal efficiency might not be possible when the performer or speaker is tired."

Voice teacher and certified personal trainer Claudia Friedlander points out that most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night to support good health and energy. In Complete Vocal Fitness, she says that when we are sleep deficient, we compromise our immune systems and are more vulnerable to viruses, infections, and various diseases. "In addition to supporting your physical health, adequate sleep promotes optimal brain function, improving your abilities to retain new learning and make effective decisions," she says. "Rather than burning the midnight oil to memorize your score or plot your next career move, get a good night's rest. You'll improve your productivity as well as your chances of maintaining your health."

A survey discussed in Vocal Health and Pedagogy: Science, Assessment, and Treatment asked singers about the most common vocal consequences they notice in themselves when they have gotten poor sleep. Most reported difficulty with breath support and that their voices would get tired more easily. They also reported a significantly reduced ability to maintain focus and concentration and an increase in overall frustration and irritability (Getsy, Sataloff, and Wang, "Sleep and the Vocal Performer").

Now, maybe it's not helpful to lecture students about getting enough sleep when many of you have class from 9am-5pm and then rehearsal or work from 6pm-11pm or later. And then you're expected to practice, do homework, exercise, buy groceries, etc. Then you get up the next day and do it all over again, hoping to recover sometime over the weekend or at the end of the semester. But it's important to understand exactly how a lack of quality sleep can impact your ability to perform vocally on a regular basis. And if you are experiencing vocal difficulties, it might not be the fault of your technique or your abilities. You might just need more sleep.

So go take a nap.

(And then go practice.)

-William Shakespeare

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Words, words, words!

As we get closer to the vocal juries and class finals that come with the end of the semester, the focus of our preparation shifts. Once the notes have been learned, the text has been processed, the technical challenges have been addressed, and it's all been memorized, we can delve more completely into the expression of the music.

Of course, we don't have to wait until this point in the process to experiment with different expressive options, but this is a necessary step that requires an equal—if not greater—degree of attention as any other element of performance.

I recently read some good advice on how to approach this aspect of preparation from American operatic composer Jake Heggie in an interview in Classical Singer magazine. In his early years as a composer, Heggie was told by mentors that he was being "too reverent with the text" in his music. They told him that his musical settings did not make it clear how he felt about the text as a composer.

Although Heggie believed he was simply being respectful to the poets, he eventually realized, "you've got to mess with [the text], or why bother?" He then began to consider a series of questions:
"What is the point of setting it? Why not just recite it? What do you want as a performer or as a composer? What is the ache in the middle of it that is causing you to declaim it in a different way?"
Heggie poses several other questions that he feels singers could apply to their approach to music and text:
"How do you feel about this? What do these words mean to you? What do these notes mean to you? What does that rest mean to you? Why do you think that is there? How do the words and music fit together, and what does it mean to you?"
Sometimes our biggest challenge as singers is to reconcile a lyricist's words with a composer's notes with our own feelings about both. In my mind, one way we can judge the value of a song is to consider how well the composer's musical language expresses or enhances the ideas found within a poet's or lyricist's words.

As performers, our job is not simply to be an empty vessel through which other people's ideas flow. Rather, it is to filter those ideas through our personal experiences, perspectives, and abilities and to then infuse the words and music with our own unique spirit. I believe this is how we add our "voice" to the music, which is arguably the most critical aspect of any performance.

How has your practicing been this week? What can you do in the coming weeks to add your particular voice to the songs you are preparing?

Now go practice.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Compliance, Third (and FINAL) Part

In the last two blogs we've been exploring some of the issues that contribute to compliance in the medical field and trying to make connections to our vocal practice schedules. Specifically, we saw how singers with an internal locus of control and strong self-efficacy may be more likely to stick to their practice schedules.

There is one more factor worth mentioning from Dr. Verdolini Abbott's lecture that impacted patient compliance: The demeanor of their doctor.

According to several studies (Korsch et al., 1968; Korsch and Negrete, 1972; Francis et al., 1969), patients who perceived their doctors as business-like were less satisfied with their clinician-patient interaction and were, therefore, less likely to follow directions from those doctors. On the other hand, patients who perceived their doctors as warm and caring were more likely to stick to the programs and procedures prescribed by those doctors.

If we again make a correlation to voice instruction, we might assume that students who perceive their voice teachers to be business-like are less likely to follow their teacher's directions. But if they perceive their teachers to be warm and caring, then students are more likely to do what their teachers say.

So, hold on, does this mean that if I'm not warm and caring enough, it could be my fault if you aren't practicing? I have some thoughts on that. :)

First of all, I don't necessarily believe that being business-like is the opposite of being warm and caring. I think teachers can have a professional demeanor and high expectations for their students while also being warm and caring. Conversely, I don't think teachers who have a warm and caring demeanor automatically have lower expectations for their students.

As an educator, I have long believed that one of the worst things I can do is to burden my students with low expectations, which allow students to underachieve and avoid exploring their true potential, and which condition them to expect rewards for even mediocre accomplishments. This idea is explored beautifully in a blog written by 2013 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year Jessica Waters titled, "We Can't Let our Love for Our Students Morph into Low Academic Expectations."

That being said, we all have demands that impact our ability to complete course requirements. One semester, I taught a single mom who was working a full-time job and dealing with a temporary physical disability. She earned a C in voice lessons, which reflected the effort she put into the class and what she was able to achieve that semester. That C also represented a triumph for this student. When factoring in all of her life circumstances, the fact that she could still pass college classes spoke volumes about her work ethic and character.

I don't always know how well I tread the balance of encouraging you, advocating for you, treating you like professionals, loving you, AND insisting on excellence. One of the best (and worst) aspects of higher education is that the more you know, the more aware you are of how much you still have to learn. So as I continue to commit myself to serving you in the most effective and meaningful ways, I'll keep pushing you while also doing my best to follow the Plato-attributed quote, "Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Now that we're in the second half of the semester, what are the academic and artistic areas in which you need to push yourself harder? How are you doing on the goals you set at the beginning of the semester? Do you need to adjust any of those goals?

Now go practice.

Is it my fault? Is it your fault? Should I stop trying to figure this out and just go practice?