Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Vocal Training: Should We Train the Intellect or the Senses?

There is a point and counterpoint dancing among teachers of voice. Some say it's best to teach the intellect, using facts, logic, the left brain, so to speak. Others say the way to go is to teach the sensory system... with imagery and subjective "feeling" of concepts. Like many, I think the answer lies in the mix. Teaching is always a team sport, and needs the input and energy of both teacher and student to really make a lesson come alive. This becomes especially true in the art and science of teaching voice. Observation of the student as he or she tries to apply teacher's suggestions, insight and creative approaches to problem-solving are vital as factual knowlege of anatomy and effective, healthy and proven effective vocal technique.

I believe it is healthy, protective and empowering at vocal lessons to train on two fronts: Intellectual and sensational.
  1. Intellectual vocal training deals with our thinking brain...the hemisphere commonly referred to as "left brain" ... which uses a mathematical and analytical processes to learn a technique such as vocal support.
  2. Sensory vocal training deals with more abstract "right brain"... more visual and artistic in it's processes... which considers feelings and sensations that go along with ways to do something. Paradox: The sensations our nerves present us with often do not correlate with anatomical movements, i.e. a vocal break is "felt" in the back of the soft palate, but is happening in the larynx. The power of breath, when properly applied, should be "felt" as coming from the pelvic floor instead of the diaphragm or lungs. Consider the phantom limb syndrome, when a felt body part is not really there.
Some reasons both intellectual and sensational training is needed (and I speak from experiential success with my students and clients and my own professional vocal experience) is that both hemispheres are necessary for working the voice. In fact, according to Natasha Mitchell's webpage;
Every single cognitive function has right hemisphere and left hemisphere components. - neuropsychologist Associate Professor Michael Saling
When you use the intellect to understand how your anatomy is supposed to function, you can use the imagery that goes along with sensation to much better effect. You can protect yourself from what your intellect knows is damaging, even if you sense no damage (pushing when you're so used to it you don't even feel it).

But intellectually studying and understanding anatomy is not enough. Case in point: A math geek who understands the science behind throwing a ball might make a poor baseball player due to limited muscle coordination and under-rehearsed (or wrongly repeated) muscle memory.

For sensory training I find it often very effective to find out what physical activity is familiar to my client's body. Many times performing an athletic skill can be correlated to a vocal technique. If the singer plays basketball, golf, baseball, does karate, etc, I can suggest that they power their voice from the same center that they do their physical activity. This unlocks the naturalness of good support without eliminating the necessary effort for breath support and control. At the same time, I teach the student what should be going on vocally, and I call attention to a harmful sensation that might be right in a physical skill, such as tightening the neck and shoulders for dance or weight training.

Even though there is tension involved in low abs, butt & back for breath support, I call it a "power center" instead of a tension center. It is also not like a solid foundational stone; the vocal power center has to change shapes to support our voices, because singing is not static. It is a living, moving thing. It should become so natural to power our voices from this center that one is not aware of even using it. It should feel instead that our voices just resonate out of us, even when we up the volume or scream metal.

This dance of teaching both sides of the brain is a tricky and sometimes sneaky thing. Sometimes I still get puzzled as to where the source of the incorrect tension lies in my student. This is where, as a voice teacher, I find concepts and insights from the Alexander Technique, as well as the Feldenkrais Method, highly useful. When mysterious vocal inabilities don't respond to my usual methods, I try to be creative. I constantly study other reputable teachers' techniques. I am always looking for new ways to defeat vocal challenges. Sometimes it can be as simple as addressing the other side of the amazing brain!

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  • At December 20, 2013 at 5:20 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

    Hi. I've never read your blog before, I came here for a post of yours dealing with tongue tension, but I stumbled over this post aswell. I just have to say that as a very serious student of singing (doubly educated as a musician and a voice teacher in a couple of years) I was so happy to hear what you had to say on this subject. I have such respect for singers that do not fear to acknowledge these elements in learning (and teaching) how to sing, but instead face, and tackle the duality of it - understanding that there's more to be had that way.

    Without boring you with the whole story, I can say that I've gone from one ditch to the other in trying to learn how to sing. I was discontent with my progress and decided to read everything that had to do with anatomy, which gave me benefits and drawbacks. Singing became even less fun when everything was about moving this or that part, and eventually I became apprehensive of that approach and started to welcome the imagery much more. Today I'm much more free in applying whichever gives me the best results, and knowing when to surrender to one "sense" over the other and when to use both (if you understand what I mean). I'm rambling, but I just wanted to let you know that it gives me, and probably others, joy to see singer-teachers out there with this approach.


  • At December 20, 2013 at 12:46 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

    JW... it is so wonderful to receive your feedback here; thank you for taking the time to write! I, too, am very happy to know of other singers and teachers that feel this way. Exchanging experience is so helpful to us all. Thanks again and keep in touch!


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