Since I took the postural respiration course with Postural Restoration Institute a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately in regards to the teaching of singing and how good intentioned instruction is sometimes, ummm, not so helpful, and can even cause problems down the road.
I’ve LOVED my voice teachers. Not one of them wanted to do me harm. They all wanted to make me the best singer I could be, and I soooo appreciate them.
Now, I know that we (teachers) do the best we can with where we are in our teaching journey. The problem is when what we’re teaching/being taught is actually harmful in the long run. We have a huge responsibility to our students because what we say can have consequences that go beyond the voice studio (which is why voice teaching can be a powerful tool for building confidence, but that’s a different blog post.)
Let me give an example. I was taught for a looooong time by multiple teachers that I needed to lift my ribcage when I sing, and that I shouldn’t ever let it fall because that was good singing posture.
And I did it. I did the hell out of it. My ribs were lifted. A lot. But how were they lifted? By the breath? Nope. By pulling my shoulders back and down while I pushed my chest up (boobs to god was a saying from one of my teachers--well intentioned but harmful in the long, and short, run).
And I was Good. At. It. I did it all the time. I lived there and felt like I was really working for that GOOD POSTURE. (Ummmm, not really, it was terrible, and can we stop even using that term, please? kthx.)
Ok, how is this damaging in the short term?
Well, when we artificially lift our ribs in this way, we’re actually putting the diaphragm in an inhalation pattern all the time. Which means, we can’t get good inhales because the diaphragm lives in a state of contraction towards the end of its range. It also means we can’t get good exhales because the ribcage never comes to a place of rest to encourage the diaphragm to release.
...so, no good inhales or exhales. Can you imagine how this would affect singing? I was working so hard all the time. All. The. Time.
It’s like I was trying to drive a car with square wheels--I needed sooo much effort to move my air.
Now, how is this damaging in the long term?
Let’s start with neurological stuff. Living in a state of inhalation turns on our flight or fight responses (our sympathetic nervous system). Which raises our cortisol (stress hormone). Our sympathetic nervous system is amazing. If we’re about to be eaten by a bear. It’s not so great for our mental health to live in this constant state of panic.
And there’s a lot of research out now about how living with constantly raised cortisol levels is damaging to our physical health. (Inflammation, anyone?)
AND, more physical stuff, when we’re living in a pattern of inhalation, remember, this means the diaphragm is staying contracted towards the end of its range, it can affect other aspects of physical health. Did you know that there’s a sphincter in our diaphragm that the esophagus goes through? Yup. And if the material surrounding the esophagus is constantly “stretched,” might that affect how the digestive system functions? Say, by loosening it and letting acid come up the esophagus (Reflux??)? And might that inflammation from the reflux affect our sinuses (the answers to both of these are yes).
Have you ever met a singer that struggled with reflux and sinus issues?
Does a bear...well, you know. [The answer is YES.]
[Side note: if I had a nickel for every singer that has come to me with these issues, I’d have a crap ton of nickels. I just worked with an AMAZING professional singer last night that has been struggling with the fallout of these issues for years and years.]
Again, we teachers do the best we can with where we’re at.
Unfortunately, we don’t always appreciate how our directions may affect more than we intend.
So, how do we change this when we (teachers) don’t know what they (we) don’t know?
My first thought is to be honest with students--encourage curiosity in them and let them know that we’re still learning. And I want students to ask questions. Like, a lot of questions! About everything. Seriously. This can solve a couple of things--it lets you know if the student heard what you thought you said, or some variation that is nothing like what you thought you said lol. Also, it challenges teachers and holds them accountable. If my student asks why we’re doing something, I should be able to tell them. And if I can’t, well, then I need to hit the books (or the internet, more likely).
The next most obvious answer is seeking out continuing education. The problem is that not all teachers have the funds to access continuing education. You don’t go into music teaching to become rich (and also, we need to rethink how we charge, but again, that’s a different blog post. ) This is why organizations like NATS, The National Association of Teachers of Singing, can be sooo helpful--local chapters often offer affordable educational opportunities for voice teachers (shameless plug here--I’m the president of my local chapter!). You can also reach out to other teachers to create your own discussion and book groups. There are ways to seek out the info that are affordable, and it needs to be a priority since well-intentioned, but poor advice can cause problems for our singers down the road.
Like anything, there’s no one right answer. Being aware matters. Staying up to date and informed around the science of singing and the body also matters. We need to stay curious as teachers, and, most importantly, we need to appreciate how what we say and teach can have long lasting effects in as well as out of the voice studio.
How do you encourage this in your studios? I’d love to hear from you!
I want to build on last week’s Mindfulness in the Voice Studio post where I talked about helping students release shoulds and should-nots to help them experience their authentic voices in their own bodies.
The latest leg on my self-care journey is about what internal “rules” we follow in life. This can be rules around....
...how we’re supposed to eat (COOKIES ARE EVIL, right?? Umm, no, they’re delicious).
...how much space we take up on the sidewalk (ok, now we want to be six feet apart, but before the pandemic….I’M NOT GETTING OUT OF YOUR WAY--womxn friends, amiright?).
...and yes, rules about how we’re ALLOWED to sing.
Where do these rules that we live by come from, and how many of them are ACTUALLY TRUE?? In my limited personal experience, very few. In my extensive experience as a voice teacher, also, very few.
A couple of recent examples:
I was working with a pro student last week on freeing her body and breath for singing. I told her that she could sit back in her chair and sing and she said, “I didn’t know I was allowed to do that.” Shew. That’s a lot, huh?
Another student that grew up singing choral music (which is great, and…) she didn’t know she was “allowed” to sing in her chest voice. (I wish this were unique--not only have I heard this a million times, there was a time in my life that I said it. Sigh.)
Any of these sound familiar, fellow voice teachers?
It got me thinking, what do I remember from my own training, or, dare I say it, my own teaching, that supports this idea of things being allowed and not allowed?
Uh huh. Nope. I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that some things are allowed and not allowed (classical training is soooo guilty of this). I want to help my students CREATE their rules. This means that voice teachers need to instill in our students a sense of curiosity about how their voices and bodies work, and give them the tools needed to figure out the "rules" for their own bodies and their own voices.
Here's where this can get tricky: I am intentional in my teaching to set up a playful and risk-welcoming environment, however, how can I address the rules that my students are following if I don’t even know they’re there? Well, I'm super dorky (this will surprise no one that knows me), but this is one of the fun parts of teaching singing. Voice teachers need to get curious themselves, and stay curious, as they listen and watch their students. We need to ask our students questions. Lots of them. Because the only person that knows what that student is feeling, or what internals rules they're following, is THAT STUDENT. We also need to stay curious about the voice in general. Continuing education events. Pedagogy books. Talk with other voice teachers. STAY CURIOUS.
Here's an example of a rule that I find a LOT of students are following and have no idea--I hear some version of this quite often: “I thought I had to work harder to make that sound happen” or, “that felt too easy so it must be wrong.” So the internal “rule” that these singers are following is that “SINGING SHOULD FEEL HARD.” It’s 100% true that singing takes a lot of energy in our bodies. It’s 100% not true that singing needs to feel hard (except in our brains as we’re concentrating on gaining new skills and building new neural pathways, of course!). This is just one of many examples. Let's break some rules. Like, for real.
Teachers: What are the most common "rules" you come across with your students?
Students: What “rules” do you follow in singing?
I'd love to hear from you!
Ok, y’all. Let’s break some rules. Who’s with me?
I was struck by something I heard in @jameelajamils @i_weigh podcast last week -- Dr. Deepika Chopra was the guest and said something along the lines of: “who we think we should be is not the same as who we are.” As I'm working on self care right now, this really hit home.
This got me to thinking about the shoulds and should nots of voice teaching. What "shoulds" do our students bring to their lessons? And, what "should nots?" The problem with shoulds is that they limit us. They can (and do!) keep us from discovering what's possible.
How can I help my students let go of what they think they should (or should not) sound like and embrace their authentic and unique voices?
Along these same lines, how can we help them release their own expectations of what something should or shouldn’t feel like?
When we have expectations of what we think something is supposed to feel like we close ourselves off from the discovery of what that “thing” actually will feel like. This sounds so simple, AND, until you have the experience for yourself, you can’t understand what it’s going to feel like.
For example, sooo many students believe that because a high belt sounds powerful it should feel like you’re working really hard to make that sound. Now it definitely takes a lot of energy in the body to make and sustain high, powerful belts, however, it’s almost never the type of energy that students use to try to make those sounds. So much pushing and straining--it certainly doesn’t feel good and it’s not sustainable!
What I try to do is set up an atmosphere of safety and discovery. Let’s take some risks, make some ugly sounds, let our voices crack! We’re here to explore what these things feel like in your voice and body, and, to find YOUR voice. What does it feel like in your body? What does YOUR voice feel and sound like? And, let’s play with how to make those sounds feel easier and energized!
Here's my favorite part, when a student discovers they are actually capable of doing these things that seemed sooo difficult in a new way, they may start to ask, "what else can I do that I didn't think I could?" And that, THAT is my favorite part of teaching.
Ok, so my intention for the year is self-care, and so much of this has to do with mindfulness. As I'm working to be more mindful in my own life, (in my mental health, in my eating, etc, I could go on and on!) I started to wonder how I can bring this same practice to my students.
Now, I always try to encourage mindfulness in the studio, and this year my goal is to be even more intentional.
One of the things that my students always do when they sing something they didn't love is just jump in and try again without any thought on it. (I mean, come on, we're all guilty of this, aren't we??) What usually ends up happening is they take a quick breath (yes, it's almost always a tense breath, and it raises all.the.things in the throat!!) and then they jump in and do the exact.same.thing. Only worse.
Now, I know if they're doing this in a lesson that it's deeeefinitely coming up in their practice making sure it's a big ol' ingrained habit.
This is actually something I picked up when I practiced Aikido what feels like a million years ago. So often in life when we try something and it doesn't do what we want, we just bang our heads against the wall creating all kinds of anxiety and unhappiness.
This is something I'm trying to practice in so many aspects of my life: Stop. Breathe. Think. And then, try again.
I've got a whole slew of them, but I'd love to hear how you all use mindfulness in the studio! And I'm guessing that you all see soooo many correlations between how to live a content life and what we teach in the voice studio!! I'd love to hear them!!!