singing redefined

 Anyone can sing.  I’ve made this statement any number of times and amateurs roll their eyes at it, thinking of bad karaoke.  I don’t say anyone can do it without any training at all–in most cultures, people take for granted that singing is a part of every day life, so “training” is constant from the time you’re born.  But, for us in the Western world, where singing has become a competition, only trained singers are regarded as singers.  It’s bullshit and it’s unfortunate, so I literally would like to teach the world to sing, but I can’t do everything.  

Anyone can sing.  Anyone.  I guarantee.  It’s not only possible, but really good for you.  I highly recommend it.  Join a choir if you haven’t already.  I bet you’ll love it.

But I am going to talk for a moment about trained singing.  Opera-ish, art songy, bel canto, classical style singing.  That list is contradictory, according to some, but you can go find those singers to tell you why.  

There is a book, published a dozen years ago, called Singing Redefined, by Walter C. Foster.  It was one of my undergraduate vocal pedagogy text books, so it has clearly influenced the way I work.  It is not uncontroversial, but I just don’t have time to present the controversy here.  I’m just going to tell you Walter’s side of the story and if you’d like to point out the flaws in the approach, feel free.  

Arright, so Walter C. Foster wrote that singing is controlled by the imagination.  Of course, this makes sense. I mean, when you’re talking to someone, telling a story of an interesting thing that happened to you, the expression in your voice comes from your own unconscious intentions.  Intensity, focus, warmth, resonance, etc. are controlled by your expressive intent.  The same thing happens to singers, but generally this is only addressed with expert singers.  After a singer studies for years and years to develop healthy technique, then she learns to be expressive.

Walter C. Foster says that, when we teach singers, we should have them engage their imaginations from the very beginning.  Yes, before we teach them about breath support and adduction of the muscles of the vocalis, we teach them to imagine.  When they sing [u] on a five note scale whilst imagining it’s their response to a fireworks display, they sing with greater clarity and focus than if they’re just focusing on the technical aspects of singing with clarity and focus.  

Cool, right?  I’ve done it with ensembles and it has worked.  I work on technical stuff, too.  Conductors of amateur and student groups, like me, use warm-ups to teach vocal technique.  I have often used warm-ups with stories and words that engage the imagination at the same time as they develop good habits and establish healthy tone.  It not only makes the tone better in the moment that they are singing it, but it promotes the practice of singing with expressive intention.  So when we do repertoire, it’s not just a new thing I throw at them: “Okay, that sounds good.  Now do it with feeling.”  Whatever that means.

I also suspect that teaching conducting could work the same way.  The physical skills must come, but if those skills come without intention, then we’re just teaching them to be traffic cops.  We want students to have the physical skills, but we want them to use them for a purpose.  I posit that the physical skills can come as a result of the purpose.  I mean, we already move with purpose–throwing a ball, ironing a shirt, shaking out a picnic blanket–without thinking of what the movement is, just thinking of the purpose.  Can’t that work for conducting?  

I think so.

And on the other side of that coin is the motion perception I’ve posted about before.  Clearly, the mind perceives intention from motion in a holistic way.  Can it not be taught that way?  Might it not be taught better that way?

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4 Responses to singing redefined

  1. Tom Carter says:

    All jokes about taking over your blog aside, I agree with you 100%. Combining the physical and the authentically psychological (often engaging the imagination) is exactly what's needed to shift the current choral paradigm. Several people do great things with the physical, applying Dalcroze Eurhythmics and more. These folks include Henry Leck, Leslie Guelker-Cone, and Tim Caldwell. I use similar techniques, but amplify the psychologically authentic — connecting the two as they are connected in real life.For more, check out these two pages on my website: my best,Tom

  2. Amelia NP says:

    In my experience, this *is* the paradigm among great performers. If it's a paradigm shift that's needed, then the shift is simply to *start* with expressiveness, use it as a tool to teach technique (gotta love alliteration) rather than saving it for *after* technique is developed.

  3. Tom Carter says:

    Absolutely. I recommend teaching how to be expressive from day one, then building the expressive elements no later than the first day the text is introduced. Due to connections between neural networks (new ones included), this actually enhances the technical elements, getting the choir to be unified (and more musical) weeks ahead of schedule.

  4. Tom Carter says:

    Although as I re-read our posts above, I think we're not talking about exactly the same thing when we describe expressiveness. I'm not talking about what is sometimes called imagery — using the imagination to help singers understand certain technical concepts (your fireworks display). While I'm not against that when combined effectively with a physiological approach, the expressiveness I'm talking about is what happens when we actually communicate with one another. When singing, "and the rockets red glare, the bombs busrting in air…," a singer using what Method actors call imagery would be imagining — in concrete detail — those images. They would have developed them from day one of textwork so that, when they sing, they are virtually singing "from memory." Many more elements of authentic communication on my website and in my book, including what I consider to be the most important element — the (conscious) objective/intention. I also suggested a few exercises in reply to "Ah, dolente partita!" ChoralBlog, should you want to take a look:

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