“Remember to bring the top down” – “Bring it forward, get a more forward sound”
“Try to get it into the pocket” – “Sing in the mix”
“Don’t bring the chest too high” – “Turn it over. Flip it” – “Focus the sound”
“Try to find that higher placement” – “You must learn to navigate/negotiate your break”
“Support!” – “Get it in the mask” – “You need more space”
“You are singing too much in the throat” – “That sound is too back”
More than a few of these sorts of phrases are heard in voice studios with some regularity, often with an urgency that suggests they are the means by which one avoids vocal harm. And yet – there is almost nothing real about any of them. They are in fact mostly non-things. The very closest of them only begins to hint at some kind of physical reality. For an active inquirer these vague platitudes can actually raise more questions than they answer. In the event of a question about a platitude, another platitude is usually given in response, eg. “The sound is too back.” – “What is that? How do I fix that?” – “Get it more in the mask.” Perhaps a tilt of the head is suggested or a generalized concentration on a “forward” idea is recommended…… and still we are left with a host of questions:
If I bring down the top, isn’t that no longer the top? Bring down what?
What is forward, or back, and how does one or the other happen?
How does sound arrive at my “mask”?
Do I have a thing in my anatomy called a break? What am I mixing?
Turn what over? Over what?
I have a pocket?!
How can I not use my throat in singing?
I don’t actually have a voice in my chest and another in my head, so what are we actually dealing with here?
And now here is the further problem: Many people, encouraged with sensory imagery and then praised when they stumble onto it or mimic it well, content themselves with having “learned” to do it. But what happens when a person, now some time removed from their last voice lesson, is experiencing some vocal difficulty, and they try to use some vague direction that was given them (which may even be the source of the problem, a direction carried too far) and now they double down on it, because it brought them success in the past. And still the problem persists or even gets worse. The truth is they simply don’t know what they are doing. But they have a degree on their wall! And money has left their pockets in great sums! And all of this supposedly says they have an education and are some level of expert in singing.
Many singers go through a period of necessary vocal reevaluation. Similarly, many singers who turn to teaching for income remark on how much they learn about singing from teaching. Investigation into the “how” of the process becomes necessary for anyone seeking to have answers for inquisitive pupils. One could argue, frankly, that these instances of reevaluation or investigation for teaching purposes are actually the singers’ first, and truly honest education in singing.
And why was this not happening in the studio their first time around? Youthful complacency? Eagerness to not ruffle feathers or question too much? Social conditioning to not demand explanation from seeming authority figures, to simply take what they offer and no more? Inherent trust that the teacher knows best and they will be given what they need? These are probably all some part of the truth. And this is why I lay the lion’s share of the responsibility on the instructor. But the pupil is not without responsibility in this. Any person with any education knows that every course of study has practicalities, and every athletic endeavor has physical realities. Remaining cognizant of this is the responsibility of any student who wishes to make the most of their investment in their vocal education.
All of that said, sensory imagery is one of the most important tools in the teacher’s bag of tricks. I would never mean to suggest that they are disposable or even counterproductive. And a great many students even prefer them to tedious, highly technical explanations as they engage in the actual production of these sounds. But these images and platitudes are too frequently treated as equal to or sufficient replacement for pertinent physiological description. But I put it to the reader to consider that the person who should truly be allowed only vague, minimally technical descriptions and suggestions is actually the coach…..not the teacher. Coaches are ears for singers on the road to music-making that aren’t expected to address technical issues in depth. Not so with teachers. The job of the teacher is to educate as well as apply.
Approximations and vagueness breed imitation, not authenticity. One might as well say that in learning to roll one’s Rs and inflect their voice upward at intervals they have learned to speak Italian! The teacher owes it to the student to make sure that a physical explanation goes hand in hand with whatever sensory imagery is used. The student may then apply and make use of whatever helps them the most. And in so doing, they will likely see the truth of both. But without the knowledge of what is actually happening, instruction in the physical realities….. can it really be called an education at all?