Reflections on Teaching Voice in the 21st Century: December 2018:
Today’s students are different learners than the generations before them. They face challenges older generations did not. Having grown up with the ability to see and hear some of the most amazing performances ever given at their fingertips creates immediate expectations that are not attainable for a beginner. Further, they have grown up in a culture of constant productivity, access to information, and stimulation. I have often remarked that some high schoolers who audition for us have longer resumes than we do, and it makes me wonder if they had the chance to be a kid – go play outside, be creative, and let the mind wander. Under such constant engagement, being over scheduled can lead to anxiety disorders exacerbated by the knowledge of the very best in any given field because of online accessibility. And in the performing arts, anxiety can be a crippling issue to face.
I remember a young artist program I went through as I was nearing the completion of my doctorate. We had a business masterclass with one of the principal artists who came in that season. We were all at young, beginning professional standards, so our headshots and resumes were such that she didn’t need to spend much time fixing issues that weren’t there. To make use of the remaining time, we could ask her anything, she said. After a brief moment of silence I asked her if she ever dealt with performance anxiety and if so, how. Her masterclass with the young artists was before our first rehearsal, so she had not yet heard me sing. Her reply shaped my mental approach to singing ever after. Without ever having heard me sing she said: If you fix the technique, the anxiety will go away. It’s when our singing is unpredictable or unreliable that we experience anxiety. The rest is just normal performance jitters.
How right she was, she must have known. Today, I tell my students that there are two reasons – and only two reasons – to have performance anxiety: preparation and preparation. The first kind of preparation is mental. We must prepare so well that pitches, rhythms, entrances, and words (all of the nuts and bolts) are never a concern. If our brains are allocating mental resources to when our next entrance is, then we are not focused on managing singing. We must also learn what our brains need to do to control the singing voice in a calm, predictable way. Without these kinds of mental preparation, singing will be erratic and lead to anxiety. The second kind of preparation is physical. We must learn how to manage the technical aspect of singing relying on the physical coordinations upon which singing is based. Without these physical coordinations habituated in the role, songs, or arias a singer will present, singing is unpredictable which leads to anxiety. With the right mental and physical preparation, anxiety is far less likely to enter the performance setting because singing feels familiar, predictable, and the brain knows what is going to happen. It is controlled.
So it seems that even though today’s students are different learners than earlier generations, the process of learning to sing remains the same, as do the needs of a student in voice. Learning technique and mental preparation is key. So, our job as voice teachers is not so different than before. The delivery of technique and tools for mental preparation to our students is what we must make as accessible to today’s learners as possible. In so doing, we protect and preserve the future of the amazing art form that is classical singing. How can we change our delivery of classical singing so that this generation fulfills their potential?
Having grown up in a culture of instant gratification where answers to questions are returned from Google in a fraction of a second, we must first help students understand that learning classical singing is much like athletic training in that it takes time. In the same way that an eighteen-year-old athlete will almost never go straight from high school into professional level sports, an eighteen-year-old singer will not (and should not) sound like a 35-year-old professional opera singer. There are physical developmental reasons for this, as well as technical reasons. Once students realize this, we can build their awareness of the process: practice. Process over time will yield better coordinated singing, stronger singing, and more athletic, efficient singing. In the same way an athlete trains over time for strength, speed, and agility, students of singing must also train. We give them exercises to build coordinations and strength in the support, the oscillation which creates the source sound, and the resonator, coordinating power source, vibrator, and resonator. During this process, exercises are designed to help students build strength, stamina, and agility.
Once a student understands the necessity for process over time to learn to sing efficiently, packaging classical singing in metaphors, images, and mystique as it once was seems to be far less effective for students we teach who are used to instant facts at their fingertips. Asking a student to imagine a piece of candy on the back of their tongue while they sing that they are not allowed to move or swallow has proven far less helpful for today’s students who will leave that lesson to read about the anatomy of the tongue, how it functions to articulate language, and what its effects on resonance are – at least the motivated ones will. Then, at the following lesson when they ask you about, say, the genioglossus muscle or the digastric muscle, you may wonder how they got from imagining holding candy on their tongue to such specific anatomy. Further, you’ll realize that they may have become more confused because what they were reading likely did not come from a voice teacher. They practiced with their half-baked concept of singing all week, and now, you’re left to try explaining complex anatomy to a confused student who wants to know the answers to their questions AND thinks it will help them sing. In the ensuing discussion, your student is not singing, and you, therefore, aren’t teaching them how. Some of these old methods may have worked well in earlier singing history, but they are far less effective now because of the type of learners we teach and the environment of accessible information in which we teach.
Many in this generation want to know exactly what is happening in their anatomy when they sing, and what should be happening. Go further, and offer them an explanation of cause and effect: When you optimally compress breath, the airspeed will increase and the sound will gain more clarity and strength. This is science that we now know, so our perception of it is less necessary than telling a student what to do, how to do it, and why it matters. They will discover what their perception of it is as they do it. Hear me clearly when I am saying that a voice lesson need not be a science class, but that many of our students today learn directly. If we tell them specifically what one does physiologically to sing, they are more likely to figure it out than if we use the old-fashioned, perception-based tactics of the past. Hear me also when I acknowledge that there are different types of learners in the world as there have been in every generation. Adjusting for them is as important as ever. Whether an aural, kinesthetic, visual, or some other type of learner, knowing exactly what is happening when they sing is important to the process. And with all the resources out there, if your students aren’t getting this information from you, they will get it from somewhere. We can be what our students need instead of asking them to learn the way we did. The results might just keep opera alive for another generation or two.