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! 

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

[Edit: A revised version of this article has been published on the Classical Singer blog. Please visit]

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!