Sunday, April 18, 2021

Keep moving

Earlier this year, when I was out skiing, I saw this sign at the top of one of the lifts:

This hard-to-miss announcement serves as a reminder to quickly unload from the lift and move out of the way, since there is probably another chair full of skiers or snowboarders coming up right behind you. No one wants to be the reason they have to pause the entire lift because you couldn't get out of the way fast enough (been there—embarrassing). 

Given my penchant for searching for deeper meaning in the mundane, I wondered if this sign could be "a sign" of something more. 

The high school where I taught for six years has a very successful football program. Every year they go deep in the playoffs and, three times during my years there, they won state championships. One of my former teacher colleagues would always congratulate the team members he had in class after their title runs, telling them that they had accomplished something that few people get to experience. Then he would say to them, "Please, please don't make this the highlight of your life." 

In the moment, those comments could seem to be disparaging the team's achievements. His intention, however, was to guard these students against believing that any future accomplishments that do not receive as much praise or hoopla must be less important. In my experience, the most meaningful accomplishments often receive very little recognition. 

Those of you who are graduating soon have had an unusual (to say the least) ending to your collegiate career. It would be easy to look back and feel that you were cheated out of the "college experience" you were seeking. I believe that feeling, which is understandable, is partly because society has put so much pressure on making these years "the best years of your life." 

Honestly, the big lie in that expectation is that there is no one way you are "supposed" to do college. You have not had a lesser college experience if you had to work full-time in order to pay for school. Or if you lived at home. Or if the people you met here don't turn out to be lifelong friends. Or even if you had to take 14 months of online classes. That may have made your experience more exhausting, more taxing, or more challenging, but it doesn't invalidate what you gained during this time and it does not devalue your diploma. 

One of my main advisors during my doctoral studies once told me, "The only thing that earning a doctorate proves is that you are capable of taking on a long, arduous task and seeing it through to the finish." At the time, I didn't feel like that was the most robust endorsement of my decision to spend all of that time and money earning another degree. But, to a certain extent, he was exactly right. One of the most important things I learned during those years is that I AM capable of taking on long, arduous tasks and seeing them through to the finish. That's a skill I have definitely put into practice over the 12 years since I graduated (and a skill I have absolutely needed over the last 14 months). Knowing that I have accomplished difficult things in the past certainly helps me believe that I can make it through any current challenges. 

Going back to that ski lift, one thing I eventually picked up on is that when you get to the top, if you lean forward just enough on the chair, you get a little boost of momentum that can propel you forward. If you are sitting too far back, you just sort of plop on the ground and then you have to work a lot harder to get going. 

Seniors, before much longer, you'll be getting off the lift. You will have faced a long and arduous task that was made even more difficult due to the pandemic. You have persevered. You may not feel like you have thrived, but you have endured and you have made it to the finish. I promise, you will need those skills again in the future. 

It has been an honor to have been part of your journey at the University of Utah. Current circumstances may mean that there will be less fanfare this year than graduations typically receive. Nevertheless, I am celebrating your achievements and hope they will serve as a boost into whatever you choose to do next. 

Do not stop here. Keep moving. 


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Motivation: The Power of Praise

When I was a beginning voice teacher, some of my mentors and colleagues warned me to look out for students who only want to be told over and over again how great they are. These students, they said, grew up in the everyone-gets-a-trophy era where they supposedly learned to take any vocal corrections as personal affronts and have become addicted to praise. 

Memories like these and my ongoing explorations of how cognitive science has been informing how we teach voice have caused me lately to reevaluate the word "praise." Having just passed Easter, my immediate thought is to put the word in a religious context where it is often paired as "praise and worship." Although similar, these words are actually defined quite differently. 

Most definitions of "worship" relate to reverence or homage paid to a deity or higher power. We may have deep respect for some of our fellow humans, but we generally don't worship each other. Formal definitions of "praise," however, list some combination of synonyms we use to direct our admiration, commendation, laudation, or adulation toward another person. Intriguingly, of the several definitions of "praise" that I found, every one of them included one word in particular: approval. When we offer someone praise, we are essentially offering them our approval. 

So, let's define approval. According to Oxford Languages, approval is the belief that someone or something is good or acceptable. I think there's a lot to unpack in this definition as it relates to our singing.

For years now, I've been trying to avoid using words like "good" and "bad" in my teaching, although I still catch myself saying them sometimes. I just don't like how they are so tinged with judgment. When it comes to training singers, so many people equate "good" singing with a beautiful sound. But often, in musical theatre, the most expressive or appropriate sound for a given situation may not be particularly beautiful (depending, of course, on how we decide to define "beautiful"). From a technical standpoint, I prefer to focus on whether or not someone's singing is free, efficient, or low-effort rather than "good." In this regard, we can also consider classifying singing as successful or unsuccessful if we simply ask, "Did I accomplish what I was trying to do?" In this case, even unsuccessful singing can still be beautiful and expressive. But if we are trying to measure progress in singing technique, we can benefit from focusing on how consistently we are accomplishing what we are intending.

Be that as it may, what if, when we are singing, we are seeking approval in the form of being "acceptable," as the definition says? Acceptable could just mean "good enough," as in, "Was that good?" "No, but it was acceptable." Some days, depending on what challenges we are facing, acceptable might actually be quite an accomplishment. By this definition, however, acceptable may just be a lower version of "good" and can be similarly difficult to accurately assess. 

But I also think that sometimes when we are seeking approval for our singing, we're not just seeking to be acceptable. Rather, we are seeking to be accepted. In other words, we're seeking belonging. 

Belonging, of course, is a deep human need. And I would imagine that singing and theatre have helped us all find communities in which we sense we belong, feel valued, and are recognized for who we are. I would argue that those are all "good" things. 

However, we should also consider this quote from my colleague Prof. Jeremy Sortore at Utah Valley University. He once wrote

"Therapy is a great idea. Acting is not therapy. Both of these things have great value, but they should not be confused for one another. If you’re exasperated by preparation and only interested in performance, you might be using acting as therapy."

Now read that quote again and replace the word "acting" with "singing." 

So here's what this comes down to (if you will allow my amateur psychologizing to go on for just a bit longer!). When we are singing, it is natural for us to seek approval. We all want and need approval insofar as we all need to feel accepted and we all need to feel that we are good. 

But hopefully you can feel that you are good and worthy of being accepted because you are good and you are worthy of being accepted. Period. This has nothing to do with how you sing; it has everything to do with who you are and the right you have to exist and to be valued. 

Let's return once more to the definition of approval, but this time I'm going to italicize different words: approval is the belief that someone or something is good or acceptable. 

Consider this: When you are seeking approval for your singing, which is natural and healthy, are you wanting to believe that your singing is good and acceptable or that you are good and acceptable? Because sometimes I think we interpret praise (or the lack thereof) of our singing as praise (or the lack thereof) of our selves

Praise of our singing can be an important part of our training—we all need it from time to time. Praise helps us know we are improving and that what we are doing is effective. Praise also helps us know whether we are meeting a standard of success by earning the approval of our teachers, our peers, and our audiences, and that we are meeting our own performance benchmarks, which can be a useful indication as to whether or not we are on track in building a career. 

Seeking this kind of praise may just mean you are driven to meet the expectations necessary for success. But, as a mentor once told me, "You are not your voice." If you are seeking external approval to validate your own self-worth, there may never be enough praise to meet that need.  

The good news, however, is that even on days when your singing feels like it's not earning anyone's seal of approval, you can still know that the person doing the singing is already good and accepted and that those traits can exist independent of any vocal sounds you are able to create.

Praise be. 

Now go practice. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Motivation: Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive

A few years ago, a new student was joining my studio and, in our first lesson together, we were deciding which elements of her training should be our first areas of focus. To help identify this, I asked, "What are the aspects of your singing that you love the most?" She seemed confused and asked for clarification. I said, "Well, what do you think you do really well vocally? What parts of your voice do you feel really good about?" She paused for a minute and said, "I guess I don't really know. No one has ever asked me that before." 

To be honest, her answer shocked me. And then it made me sad. This student had been studying singing most of her life and had even completed a musical theatre degree, but no one had ever asked her what she likes about her voice. The more I thought about it, however, the less and less surprised I was. 

I think there is a culture in musical theatre training that perpetuates the belief that you aren't getting your money's worth unless you are being constantly barraged with critiques and criticisms. Instructors may pass out a compliment here and there, but we've been made to think that the real work gets done when we are zeroing in on your flaws rather than building on your successes. 

There are a couple of problems with this. First, it can be discouraging and demoralizing to students if all they ever hear are criticisms. Like the student above, it can give the impression that someone's singing is mostly "wrong," when it may actually be quite proficient. Second, it's just bad pedagogy. 

My friend and colleague at the National Center for Voice and Speech, Dr. Lynn Maxfield, wrote an article for the Journal of Singing in 2019 titled "Incorporating Motivation Into Your Model of Motor Learning." In the article, he commented on the instruction (feedback) that teachers give to their students during voice lessons. He writes, 

"Feedback should focus on summarizing the successes of the learner, rather than drawing attention to failures. While this seems elementary on the surface, I would wager that most of us are listening to our singers with an ear to identifying and correcting what is going wrong. All too often, we then verbalize that list of what is going wrong back to our students as our primary mode of feedback." 

He points out that one of the more popular vocal pedagogy books when he and I were in school is called The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. It's no wonder so many teachers feel it is their primary job just to call attention to "faults." But this approach is particularly useless if teachers do not also offer "corrections" by outlining a process toward improvement, complete with measurable goals that will indicate whether or not students are on the right path of skill development. 

Critique without correction is not education. 

Imagine if you took your car into the shop and the mechanic gave you a long list of things that aren't working with the vehicle, but when you asked about repairs you were told, "I'm just here to point out what's broken. You'll have to figure out how to fix it yourself." 

But focusing on what's broken may not be all that beneficial, anyway. As Maxfield describes, several studies indicate that learning improves when teachers focus their instruction on positive outcomes while reducing their feedback following poor outcomes. In other words, students learn better when teachers reinforce their positive attempts rather than pointing out their failed attempts. In one of those studies, positive feedback not only improved learning, but also served to increase the students' confidence and decrease their anxiety. 

It's logical to assume that this approach can work in your practice sessions, as well. Do you tend to pursue what is working or do you dwell on what is not working? If you try something five times and only get the intended result once, do you pick apart the negative attempts or do you focus on recreating the one that went well? 

As it says in Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen's famous song, studio teachers may facilitate learning when we "accentuate the positive." Students may never entirely "eliminate the negative," but they may make more progress if they can shift their focus in a way that allows them to "latch on to the affirmative." 

Now go practice. 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Deficiency Motivation vs Growth Motivation ("It's supposed to be hard.")

There is one more motivation-related theme found in Basics of Vocal Pedagogy by Clifton Ware that I'd like to bring up. Ware discusses humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow's theory that there are two kinds of motivation: motivation to satisfy a deficiency and motivation towards growth. Ware writes, 

"In deficiency motivation individuals seek to restore their physical and/or psychological equilibrium, while in growth motivation individuals seek to surpass what they have been and done in the past." (27)

These motivations then inspire actions that are tension-reducing or tension-increasing. As one author describes, "Deficiency motivation is an aversive state of tension that makes the person seek the goals that will fulfill the need, and thus reduce the tension."

The opposite occurs, however, in growth motivation. As Ware writes, "Growth-motivated persons usually welcome uncertainty, increased stress, and even pain to reach worthwhile goals in the process of fulfilling their potential." (27)

Of course, in singing training, one of the primary goals is to build efficiency in part by reducing unnecessary tension. But the kind of pain, stress, and tension Ware describes as part of growth-motivation are the natural "growing pains" of learning and skill development. This may include the discomfort of regularly extending the mental effort and concentration needed to master a skill. It may be the disappointment of prioritizing daily practice when there are other things you'd rather be doing. It also means leaning into the psychological stress of performing in front of others. 

Despite the negative-sounding name, deficiency motivation is not at all a bad thing. I would imagine we have all used singing as a way to restore "physical and/or psychological equilibrium." In fact, I would guess that's what led most of us to pursue vocal studies—because singing, in many ways, allows us to feel most ourselves, brings us comfort, and sets us right again. To be honest, many of us who have given our lives to the serious study of the voice probably don't use singing for that purpose often enough. 

Ware points this out, as well. As he says, "Singing for enjoyment is as valid as any motivation, especially if musical activity makes one's life more whole." On the other hand, he continues, "the realization of one's highest potential in any endeavor will require an inquisitive nature and openness to new experiences, ideas, emotions, and missions...Those who have serious vocal aspirations are typically oriented more toward growth-motivation objectives." (27)

A couple of blogs ago, as a way to find motivation, we entertained asking ourselves the questions, "Do I really want this?" and "Am I willing, TODAY, to do the work that will lead me to become a more skilled and expressive singer, even if I don't see those results immediately?" 

Based on Maslow's theories, we may go even further and ask, "Am I willing to welcome uncertainty, increased stress, and discomfort in order to reach my goals and fulfill my potential?"

One of the greatest baseball movies of all time is A League of Their Own (that's not my opinion—that's just fact), which chronicles the beginning of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. In one of the movie's most iconic scenes, catcher Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) is considering quitting the team, believing that the demands of the sport have become too hard. Coach Jimmie Dugan (Tom Hanks) tells her, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."

We all know that achieving greatness is not easy. But it takes a higher level of commitment to truly embrace the difficult aspects of the process, knowing that what is hard is what helps make us great. 

Now go practice. 

Dottie (Geena) and Jimmy (Tom)

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Motivation: Plateaus

In the last blog, we talked about focusing on process rather than product—the journey rather than the destination. As Clifton Ware says in Basics of Vocal Pedagogy, "...when the student learns to enjoy the journey, that is, the process of learning with the detailed routine of practice, real progress begins." (24)

So what do you do when you're engaged in the process but you aren't seeing any progress? 

Ware addresses this situation as well: 
"Students should be forewarned that even the most patient, enjoy-the-process approach inevitably will include learning plateaus, which are periods when little or nothing appears to be happening. Fortunately, frustration can be avoided and long-lasting results achieved by using plateaus as learning time for consolidating and internalizing muscular and mental responses through purposeful repetitious practice." (24)

Call it a plateau, call it stagnation, call it a rut. Regardless, we all know what it's like to be working hard but hardly seeing any noticeable progress. This can be a real de-motivator. 

In these times it can be helpful to remember our previous discussions of the three stages of motor learning. The middle associative/motor learning stage, which is between the beginning verbal/cognitive stage and the final automatic stage, is usually the longest period of the entire learning process. It requires the most focus, the most mental effort, and the most time (which may be measured in years, depending on the skill). It's just a part of learning to go through long plateaus of seemingly minimal progress. 

It's also worth defining what a plateau really is. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as, "a state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress." Been there. 

But there is also a second definition of plateau: "an area of relatively level high ground." This definition reminds me of the gorgeous sandstone formations of southern Utah. If you've never done any hiking in Utah's red rock country, you should probably skip school and get down there right away. (I mean, you probably shouldn't skip school. Or...maybe you should.) If you have hiked up to one of these plateaus, you know how much uphill trudging it can take just to get to the level ground. Simply reaching the plateau is an accomplishment in and of itself, one usually rewarded by stunning views. 

When we have plateaued in our technical or artistic development, it's easy to forget how much time, effort, and practice it took to get to that point. It's good to look back during these times to see how far you've come and maybe just hang out a while and get used to this new "high ground." 

Lastly, although we often measure our progress through specific achievements, during the inevitable plateaus, we can shift our goals more toward the amount of time we log working on our skills. If you aren't able to note obvious gains, then celebrate consistently showing up to practice and putting your time in. 

You don't have to set a land speed record every time you go out for a run. But if you keep lacing up your shoes and getting out there day after day, you are much more likely to reach your goals than if you allow the frustration of a lack of progress derail you from the regularity of your routine. 

Now go practice. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Motivation: Process vs. Product

To build on the last blog, I found some additional information on motivation on my bookshelf in Basics of Vocal Pedagogy: The Foundations and Process of Singing by Clifton Ware. 

Even though most of the volumes on my shelf made no mention whatsoever of motivation, Ware discusses the topic in just the second chapter of his book. As he says, the information is intended to "focus on information and techniques which allow for constructive thinking that lead to appropriate behavior." (14) Therefore, before he even begins to present the basics of anatomy and physiology or dig into vocal technique, he discusses how to cultivate a mindset that will enable voice building. 

The section of the chapter that is titled "The Goal and the Journey as One," begins with the following sentences: 

"As with any challenging long-term task, the road that leads to success for a singer will be more interesting and rewarding if the focus is on process (means) rather than product (end). Focus on the process means that our energy is concentrated on the journey rather than merely on the destination." (24)

In grad school, I had a professor who often compared elite singers to competitive runners. As she said, both have to engage in extensive training and preparation in order to build their skills so they can put them to use when performing a song or running a race. 

I understand the parallels, but I had to argue that singing a song and running a race have different purposes. After all, the point of running a race is to get to the finish line the fastest. But we don't sing just so we can get to the end of a song. In fact, one way to measure a successful performance may be to what degree both singer and audience wish the song would continue beyond the double bar at the end of the page. 

It's also not a great comparison because singing isn't (or, rather, doesn't need to be) competitive. Sure, when you're auditioning, that element of the "business" may feel like a competition. But when you're just singing (practicing, performing, or jamming along to a recording), you're allowed to enjoy that as much as you'd like. By comparison, the only person who celebrates at the end of a race is usually the one who finishes first. 

As you may have heard in Dem Lab, despite all of the Broadway shows Hugh Panaro has under his belt, he actually believes that rehearsals ("...where the real work happens") are more enjoyable than performances. That perspective really points to a love of process rather a focus that is primarily on the product. It's no wonder he reminded us all to constantly look for the joy in what we are doing, even—and perhaps especially—when we are tired or experiencing a lack of motivation.  

What part of the singing journey do you enjoy most? How can you find some of that joy every time you practice?

Now go practice. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021


On January 4th, the University of Utah published the results of the Online Learning Survey conducted at the ends of each of the last two semesters. By administering this survey, University officials hoped to learn how well (or how poorly) we all adjusted to Zoom-based education. 

Based on the data, administrators identified the "Top three challenges encountered when taking online classes." Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number one challenge—experienced by more than half of survey respondents (57.65%)—was personal motivation. 

As we embark on another semester of online learning, this is something we have to address. We can't go on with business as usual when we have identified an issue that has led to struggles for more than half of the University community.

For this reason, I scoured my bookshelf, which contains more than 100 texts on voice, singing, and vocal pedagogy that I've been compiling since my first undergraduate vocal pedagogy class (in 1994!). I looked in the table of contents and index of every book to see if I could find anything on "motivation" or closely related terms. I was hoping to find information specific to motivation when it comes to musical and vocal practice that might be useful in springing us into action and out of the complacency that online learning can allow.  

Disappointingly, the majority of the books had no mention whatsoever of motivation, ambition, or even inspiration, unless it was in reference to breathing. It's a little surprising that all of these volumes devoted to pedagogy, which is defined as "the method and practice of teaching," would not have anything addressing how to motivate students to learn. What good is knowing how the singing voice functions if I can't inspire students to want to learn? 

Thankfully, I did eventually find a few books that discussed the topic, which I will explore over the next few blogs of the semester. 

The first mention I found was in Finding Your Voice: A Practical and Spiritual Approach to Singing and Living by Carolyn Sloan. She points out that when people fail, it's not always because of an absence of training or skill. Rather, it's often due to an absence of desire. She writes, "A lack of desire then becomes a lack of energy and a lack of energy causes our persistence to waver until it finally disappears altogether." (34)

If you are struggling with motivation, she suggests asking yourself this basic question: "Do I really want this?" As it relates to vocal work, I think the question may be, "Do I really want to become a more skilled and expressive singer?" If the answer is "yes," then the next question is, from a day-to-day or practice-by-practice basis, "Am I willing, TODAY, to do the work that will lead me to become a more skilled and expressive singer, even if I don't see those results immediately?" 

Sloan also believes desire is directly tied to imagination, stating, "Most activities in life require an overlapping of desire, imagination, skill, and training." (36) She suggests exercising and honing the imagination so we are better able to envision ourselves with the skill set we would like to possess. In other words, once you have decided if you really want to become a more skilled and expressive singer, you should use your imagination to identify what that may actually look and sound like. As Sloan says, "When you are sure of your intentions and the quality of your desire, the journey will be pleasant and the learning will be easier." (34)

Consider exploring these perspectives if you are feeling a lack of motivation or desire. Ask yourself if you really do want the skills you are tasked with building. Ask yourself if you are willing to work today, even in a small way or for a short amount of time, toward building those skills. Imagine what those skills would feel like and sound like in your body and your voice. 

And then go practice.