Friday, August 21, 2015

High but not lifted?

High but not lifted?

Singing is hard to teach and confusing to learn. I think a lot of this has to do with our need as singers to balance opposing elements. After all, we are trying to use highly contracted vocal cords within an expanded throat; a contraction within an expansion. I have often found myself in a lesson, wondering at how such contradictory advice can come out of my own mouth. “Up and over” I say, only to follow up a moment later with, “No, you’re lifting!”  Related to this is “lift the palate…. But don’t go up!”
This clearly needs a bit more unpacking to make sense. I think it comes down to imaginative work as opposed to physical work. Physically lifting the palate is less effective than feeling your palate is high: best of all may be to “see” the palate high as a kind of visualization of inner space. You want the singer to imagine that the voice is lifted and the palate is high, but not to physically lift anything to do it.
Cognitively speaking, muscularly lifting the palate would involve the sensorimotor strip of the prefrontal cortex, which initiates conscious action. Imagining a lifted palate may involve proprioception, or the felt sense of body, an activity involving the parietal lobes. The “beginning of the yawn”, a concept taught by the old Italian masters, involves imaginatively triggering the body feeling leading to the yawn without fully engaging the unconscious reflex. The only way you can hope to do this effectively is with the inner imagination, or mind’s eye.
I might just as well say, “Don’t do it, see it”! You can’t imagine a ham sandwich and have it appear, but if you imagine your palate is lifted, it is. Try it!


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Music Psychology at the movies

Music Psychology at the movies

One of the best movies I have seen recently was the animated feature, Inside Out. Actually, it brought me to tears more than once. The authors have created a cartoon that is based on modern cognitive psychology, in particular, modern theories of personality, memory formation and retrieval, cognitive development and emotional function. I was particularly touched to see how, in the control room of the mind of an 11 year old girl, musical memory has a privileged route to consciousness. No matter who you are, where you are, or what you are doing, a musical thought can find its way into your mind, imbued with all the emotional significance that has accrued to it through your experience.

I was touched to think what a delight and what a privilege it is to study music as a psychological phenomenon, and to attempt to add to our understanding of its’ unique function in human mental and emotional life. Oh, and by the way, birds do it too!

Help! My student is getting worse between lessons....

When the student gets worse between lessons

There are times when, with all the good will in the world, a motivated and hard-working student  just seems to get worse instead of better. What is going on?

In my experience, most singers fall into certain types, when it comes to practice. There are those who really know how to practice effectively, can take what the teacher gives them, and run with it. On the whole, these are students who know how to work imaginatively with the important concepts. Unfortunately, they are in the minority. Among the others, some practice too little, and some too much. Among the former are those students who treat voice lessons like a kind of massage therapy. They arrive for the lesson, have a good workout, and then don’t think about technique until they see the teacher again. This type of student will not progress much from one lesson to the next. They won’t actually get much worse; but any progress made at the last lesson has to be relearned, over and over.

Among the most challenging students to teach are those who work hard and get worse between lessons. When this happens, perhaps the first thing you should ask yourself as a teacher, is whether the student is being overly zealous in carrying out your teaching instructions. An overly physical approach to vocal technique is as bad (or worse) than no approach at all. Emphasize that all physical instructions must be carried out imaginatively. “Up and over” is not about lifting your eyebrows: “lifting the palate” is not about muscularly jamming the pharynx and tongue: “breathing from the back” does not mean grabbing the intercostals and employing a “squeezebox” technique on the inhalation.

One of my students last week came in sounding noticeably worse than at her previous lesson. Being somewhat aware of her issues, I know that she tends to overdo it, physically. Turns out she was focusing so hard on the “gesture of inhalation” and on the feeling of a lifted palate, and doing it in such a physical way, that she wasn’t feeling the voice in the front at all. “Singing is like calling” I said to her. “If you’re not calling to someone, you’re not really singing”. Without balancing the elements that cause the voice to emerge, beautiful and expressive singing just cannot happen.