Vocal technique yardsticks and learning styles [via @AuditionsPlus & @ChoralNet]

Posted: January 3, 2013 in blogs, technique

Credit: Six Flags

These last couple months, I’ve been thinking a lot about vocal technique. I came across a couple of blog posts that really resonated with me, given where I am right now on that journey.

The first post, “How’s Your Technique?” by guest contributor Mark Watson at the Auditions Plus blog, opens with the following:

In full voice, at a medium-slow tempo, sing a steady, ascending 12- or 16-note scale on “ah.” Breathe, then sing a descending scale. Do not force or go to either extremities of the range. Kid stuff, right? Let’s see.

Watson follows with a aural checklist for evaluating this exercise. Read the post for the full details, but I’ll summarize it here:

      1. Intonation: Was every note in tune?
      2. Stability of tone: Was the vibrato even and matched on every note?
      3. Ease of production: Was every note produced effortlessly and neatly?
      4. Rhythm: Was the rhythm solid and steady?
      5. Evenness of scale: Was every note of equal volume and weight?
      6. Volume: Would all the notes carry in a theater?
      7. Legato: Were all the notes connected cleanly and smoothly?

Just seven items in the list – but it’s incredible how many physical and mental processes have to be developed and then coordinated perfectly in order to achieve these goals.

I need to print out Watson’s blog post and nail it to my practice room door.

The other blog post that caught my attention was by Richard Sparks, guest contributor for the ChoralNet blog, who wrote a post titled “Mindset” about success, failure, and learning. He quotes a story about violinist Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg’s early technique, which worked well enough to earn her a debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 10, but which had limitations that held her back and caused her to be surpassed by her peers when she commenced training at Juilliard. The point of the story was how difficult it was for her psychologically to make the leap from her old technique that was somewhat successful but ultimately limiting, to a new technique that could throw her into a period of awkwardness for an unknown length of time, but which offered the only way forward. Sparks then shares the advice he gives to his conducting graduate students:

All of you are talented and have had some success […] However, to really succeed, especially long-term, you have to be ready to give up past “successful” habits (like Sonnenberg’s way of holding the violin) and go through the struggle of taking away what is comfortable and do something new. This means you will be worse for awhile (a new gesture, new way of rehearsing) and feel awkward and uncomfortable. But unless you’re willing to go through that “failure,” you will cap how much you can grow and how much you can achieve.

This basically sums up what my own learning experience feels like, with respect to vocal technique. A roller-coaster of periods of awkwardness and feeling/seeming worse, followed by breakthroughs where the things that were awkward suddenly click into place and I’m better than I was when I started the cycle. It is not a comfortable style of learning for me, and the awkward periods can last long enough for me to start questioning myself, my path, my teacher, the universe, etc… It is not every singer’s style of learning – others have more of a “slow and steady wins the race” learning modality. And to compound things, once one is performing in any sort of capacity, the process of vocal evolution becomes a very public one, however smooth or bumpy it may be.

I didn’t choose this style of learning, but maybe it chose me. And so maybe I have to just own it. The blog post from ChoralNet doesn’t necessarily make me feel better, but at least it makes me aware that there are others out there who must ride this roller-coaster in order to find the way forward and grow as musicians.

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