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Voice science and vocal art, Part two: motor learning theory.

PART ONE OF THE PRESENT STUDY, "Voice Science and Vocal Art: In Search of Common Ground" (Journal of Singing 64, no. 2 [November/December 2007]: 141-150), explored the historical relationship between the two most prominent modes of understanding and teaching the voice: the scientific, versus the intuitive, or empirical approach. Whichever approach is used, the successful transference of voice technique from teacher to student ultimately hinges on the ability to impart a motor skill. Research in motor skill acquisition (a branch of cognitive science), which initially focused on basic physical education, (1) has expanded from the 1940s onward to include studies from neurophysiology, psychophysiology, and learning and information theory. (2) The results of this research augur profound implications for the future of enlightened voice pedagogy.

Recent research has produced evidence contrary to preferred training styles in many voice clinics and studios. The evidence strongly underlines the principle that knowing "what" to train does not necessarily translate directly to "how" to train it. (3)

If recent research in cognitive science is to be employed to answer the question "how?," a fundamental change of emphasis from how well teachers teach, to how well students learn, is in order.


What is motor learning? First, a simple definition of both the words "motor" and "learning" is useful.

Learning may be defined as a long-term change in behavior which results from the effects of practice. (4)

Motor: relating to muscle activity, and consequent body movements. (5)

Motor learning refers to the several-step process by which muscular skills are acquired, retained, and ultimately repeated automatically. Among several definitions of motor learning in the cognitive science literature, the one preferred by voice scientist Katherine Verdolini is:

Motor learning is a process, which is inferred rather than directly observed, which leads to relatively permanent changes in the potential for motor performance as the result of practice or exposure. (6)

According to Verdolini, "The [emphasized] portions of this definition are critical to understanding motor learning and how it is studied." (7) These five emphasized portions will be examined in order to elucidate how voice professionals may apply tenets of motor learning to the teaching of the singing voice. Throughout, the initial distinction between true learning and performance must be clearly differentiated: learning is the process by which one acquires skill or knowledge; performance refers to the manner or effectiveness with which someone or something functions.

The Five Components of Motor Learning

Motor learning is a:

1. process, which is

2. inferred leading to

3. relatively permanent changes in

4. potential due to

5. practice /exposure.

Process refers to the fact that "learning's essential nature is dynamic." (8) In other words, as most voice teachers know, the acquisition and retention of physical skills occur along a continuum. Temporary breakthroughs notwithstanding, progress does not happen all at once, but over a period of time.

That this process is inferred means simply that the only way a teacher can know for sure that a student has truly learned is to observe a stable change. For example, a positive change in vocal timbre might indicate that learning has occurred; if this change remains stable, then the teacher concludes (infers) that the student learned how to acoustically adjust her instrument. As such, these adjustments become relatively permanent changes, which in turn indicate the potential for more of the same (and by inference again, for more improvement). This conclusion is based upon the supposition that the student will continue to be exposed to the teacher's instruction, and that she will practice. Several of these components bear a second inspection, particularly the third and fourth, relatively permanent changes and their potential, respectively.

Permanent Changes versus Performance Shifts

Most singers are familiar with the phenomenon of early success, or mini-breakthroughs, which may occur in the midst of a voice lesson or practice session, only to vaporize moments later.

Should something spectacular happen during a practice, I give [my students] permission to come right away, knock on my door, and tell me about it. I want to hear about it right away, not next week when they can't do it anymore! (9)

This phenomenon is particularly common in a one-time master class setting, in which a guest teacher is able to evoke a certain response from the singer on display, but only in that moment. The student is at a loss to recapture that magical moment later, on his own, lacking the cues from the master that elicited the original response. Thus, while the evocation may have been vocally significant for the student, by the scientific definition of learning, real learning cannot be said to have occurred.

Learning involves stable changes in average performance over time. As such, studies that assess performance changes within a given training session cannot properly lead to any inferences about learning, whatsoever. Only studies that incorporate a relatively long term "retention test" can actually study learning ... this issue is crucial: many manipulations that enhance immediate performance depress long-term learning. (10)

With this explanation, voice teachers can understand why the student cannot be said to have really learned from the master; the changes brought forth were the result of a skillful manipulation which induced a onetime breakthrough, but cannot be said to have held over time. What is significant, and even shocking, is the notion that while the master's manipulation "enhanced immediate performance" (that is, the teacher, the student, and perhaps even the audience perceived a positive change), such manipulation may actually stifle real learning. This facet of the definition holds so much significance for practitioners of the voice that it will be revisited later in this article.

Thus the fourth component regarding potential becomes clear: real learning does not imply that performance (in this case, vocal technique) always will improve. As Verdolini explains it, "Learning does not produce a monotonic, inexorable increase in performance over time." (11) In essence, a fabulous performance does not necessarily indicate that the student actually has learned something; and neither does a weak, or even dismal performance indicate that the student has learned nothing.

Temporary Performance Shifts

Illness, depression, and other temporary physical or emotional states can affect performance both positively and negatively. Cognitive scientists call these performance moments temporary performance shifts, and negative performance may even signal that real learning is occurring. Negative temporary performance shifts actually can be seen as positive signs that a new, learned gesture is actively destabilizing an old, ingrained habit. Several analogies from the realms of both physical and psychological health help illustrate this point.

During a bout with a common upper respiratory infection, an attending fever may cause a person discomfort, but the fever is not itself the illness. Rather, it is a sign that the body's immune system has risen up to destabilize and conquer the offending invader. Fever causes the body's internal temperature to rise, which creates an environment hostile to foreign microorganisms. Consequently, nonallopathic approaches to treating fever generally welcome this characteristic and do nothing to suppress it (unless, of course, it reaches dangerous levels). (12) In most cases, the patient can be nursed through this uncomfortable process.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, and spiritual advisors long have recognized unwelcome emotions such as guilt, jealousy, or anger as important markers for deeper psychic distress, the cure for which does not involve procedures to mollify or repress the feeling. On the contrary, in psychotherapy, the practitioner's job is to allow and even encourage these emotions to come to the surface, then guide the client through difficult interior terrain and help him eventually emerge from the process having developed "adaptive ways of behaving to replace ways that have not worked well in the past or have been counterproductive." (13)

These two examples help illustrate a shared experience common among all students of fine motor skills: there is often an awkward "adjustment period" in which one can feel like a toddler learning to walk all over again. This comparison to learning a new vocal technique is not far fetched, as the vocal gesture being destabilized is an ingrained, kinesthetic, or muscle memory, which may feel to the student as natural as walking, even if it is inefficient or harmful. Practically speaking, it is the teacher's responsibility to guide the student through this awkward phase. Exactly how one manages this is more elusive, especially given the many parameters involved: the student's psychological state, technical needs, maturity level, talent, persistence, and work habits, to name a few. Often, simply alerting the student to the universality of this experience provides enough support. The method of early success is also valuable in this context. This technique will be revisited further in this article.

Returning to the final component in the motor learning definition, we can assume that the potential for improvement in vocal ability will be enacted, again and again, as long as the student continues to be exposed to the teacher's instruction, and/or that he practices those learned vocal gestures known to produce good results. In other words, common sense is corroborated by the laws of science: while practice does not necessarily make perfect, it certainly moves one in that direction. In addition, the quality of practice is a significant component, and will be addressed.


In the field of cognitive science, a distinction between controlled versus automatic processing is made. Controlled is further defined as "attentional" while automatic is defined as "nonattentional."14 The relevance to voice professionals in comparing these two processes is critical to understanding not only differences in training methods, but the basis of misunderstanding and rancor between those who consider themselves standard bearers for voice science and those who consider themselves paragons of vocal art through the process of intuitive learning and empirical observation.

For voice practitioners of all persuasions, these concepts are easily grasped, as they are informed by experience. Controlled processing is a method in which attention is called forth (by the teacher) and paid (by the student) to the mechanics of singing. In contrast, automatic processing does not call attention to these mechanics, but draws on a habitual psychological response, evoked in less specific ways than are used in the controlled mode. Excellent voice teachers throughout the ages have espoused a balanced approach between the two (albeit usually favoring one more than the other). It is both helpful and timely to consider a respected voice scientist's views on the matter:

The specific relevance of controlled versus automatic processing for motor learning is that much of motor learning can be seen as a dance between them. The wrong application of one or the other process in training, at the wrong time, can probably undermine the most brilliant intervention model. (15)

It would stand to reason that in order to execute this "dance" most gracefully, voice trainers would wish to know which approach is most successful. Studies in cognitive science and motor learning provides one possible answer.

[E]vidence more powerfully suggests that not only is conscious attention irrelevant, but may be actually harmful when directed to certain aspects of learning. That evidence suggests that, contrary to popular techniques in voice pedagogy and athletics, directing learners' attention to the biomechanics of motor tasks reduces both motor performance and learning. (16)

In light of the previous assertion, the following statement, which is representative of similarly held opinions by many voice teachers who do not embrace voice science, cannot be easily disregarded.

I myself was trained as a scientist, and am the last person to decry science. But science is only useful when it is appropriate. The science which seeks to reduce everything to a mechanical model is not appropriate to the human activity of singing. Indeed, the wisdom of earlier, "pre-scientific" days is sometimes more truly scientific than some of the "explanations" propounded by teachers who, lacking personal experience of singing, or more than superficial understanding of true scientific principles, substitute half-digested scientific jargon for true understanding: more truly scientific because it was concerned with the science--knowledge --of human feelings and emotions. An understanding of anatomy and physiology, if accurate, can be of help to teachers in dealing with singers' problems; but too much concern with anatomy, and the purely mechanical, anatomical aspects of singing on the part of singers, can actually inhibit their ability to sing. Indeed, frequently, this over-concern with anatomy can be the cause of those very problems. [emphasis added] (17)

Many voice professionals would agree, all or in part, with this statement. Until recently, however, there was only empirical evidence to support this and similar claims, and as such, they have been too easily dismissed by scientists, which in turn raised the ire of those not given to scientific principles.

Why is it that conscious attention paid to the mechanics of singing may be not only irrelevant, but actually detrimental to learning to sing? Isn't it a basic truth that the more one knows about the mechanics of voice technique, the more one is able to competently teach it? This statement rings true, yet the evidence does not concern the content or quantity of a teacher's knowledge, but the manner in which the teacher transmits that knowledge to the student. When voice teachers issue direct mechanical commands, such as "lift your soft palate," or "engage your abdominal muscles," those directives appear to actually inhibit learning. The use of imagery in voice teaching appears to have the potential to induce the same negative effect, and for the same reasons; it is thought that imagery meant to circumvent direct mechanical commands ironically draws attention to the movement itself, and thus has the potential to depress learning. (18)

There are three interpretations regarding this phenomenon. One suggests that directing attention to mechanical movement actually causes existing muscular patterns to stabilize, thus working in opposition to the teacher's goal of subverting the student's poor habit and replacing it with a beneficial one. (19) Another states that by the time solutions to mechanical problems are given verbally, then received by the brain, then translated into nonverbal cues for the body to finally physically enact, the moment is gone. In other words, verbal directions for nonverbal activities may not work because they are, in effect, "lost in translation." (20) Finally, some researchers have concluded that the solutions learners discover for themselves simply work better than those imposed by a teacher or coach, because they are retained and thus truly learned. (21) This third theory has to do with the interrelationship between two components: the introduction of "desirable difficulties" into the learning environment, and the way normally "wired" brains respond to those difficulties.

"Desirable Difficulties"

Research into the biochemistry of the brain reveals that the more difficult a task is, the more "neuronal firing" from our brains is required; in essence, we must dig deeper for more complicated tasks. Repeated firing of the neurons from this deeper place, or baseline, creates a neural pathway which becomes stronger each time it is activated. This strength is basically equivalent to memory and thus, learning. Teachers of any subject activate students' neuronal firing every time they do their job, which essentially involves throwing a challenge in the student's path, on the assumption that the student will meet the challenge and, thus, learn.

Cognitive psychologist R. A. Bjork labeled these instructional tasks "desirable difficulties," and based on the interrelationship between brain wiring and learning, it appears that benevolently constructed obstacles must form the foundation of any viable teaching method, especially if the goal is true learning and not simply improved performance in the short term. (22) At this juncture, it is important to consider the student's contribution to the process. Specifically, what role does the intention and desire of the student play in meeting the challenge of desirable difficulties proffered by the teacher? What of the quality of the student's intention? And finally, if a student's attempts fail, is simply trying harder a possible solution?

Sing or Die: The Role of Desire

How important is intention and desire in learning to sing? According to a recent survey of prominent American voice teachers, it is crucial, if not fundamental.

The student must have the desire to sing. I don't think Margaret Harshaw would have shot me for quoting her: "It's got to be sing or die." That need is the bottom thing. Loads of people should sing and should always be encouraged to sing for the enjoyment of singing, but in terms of having a career or anything important, it must be "sing or die." (23)

Many children are reared on the belief that if they just try hard enough, they may achieve anything they set their minds to. However, the vicissitudes of life later may expose this platitude as being naive, disingenuous, or simply false. Concerning singing, most voice professionals agree that while intention is crucial, it must function as the handmaiden to that essential prerequisite, vocal talent.

The number one attribute that contributes to the success of a young professional singer is, without a doubt, an outstanding natural instrument. (24)

Even among nonprofessionally tracked singers, a certain amount of vocal ability must be present to benefit from training. Many pedagogues, especially those in the beginning years of their teaching careers, will host studios full of these less gifted singers. It is among the minimally vocally talented where the inadequacy of simply trying harder--augmented intention--is especially exposed. There is both anecdotal and scientific evidence that demonstrates augmented intention is often not only inadequate, but trying too hard can actually depress performance. Before examining these factors, it is reasonable to state the obvious: intention does matter: most people would not study singing if they didn't want to.

Quality of Intention: Levels of Desire

Given that intention matters, does intention carry a rating situated on a quality scale somewhere between "sing or die" versus "I want to ... sort of "? If the simple motivation of wanting to sing is not enough to turn a mediocre talent into a fine singer, what about adopting a sing or die approach? What becomes of very talented singers who lack motivation? What about an intention that lies in the middle of these two extremes?

It appears that, as one might guess, this last approach is the best one. Scientists in one study gauged quality of intention in terms of "arousal level." (The layman can simply think of it as "motivation level," although arousal is assessed by taking measurements of physical reactions.) While the study did not reveal conclusive results a propos motor learning, Verdolini nevertheless concludes that "it is reasonable to think that intermediate arousal levels favor learning."25 In other words, low arousal, or motivation, in the voice studio will produce the predictable result by not bringing forth enough vocal resources from the student. This explains the rationale behind the "tough love" approach in many types of teaching: demand more of students and they will tend to rise to it or, in cognitive science terminology, they will invoke more cognitive abilities for the task. In doing so, they will probably learn more, too.

In contrast, a motivation level that is too high for the task at hand (the "or die" philosophy) can make students so anxious and tense that the physical and psychic resources needed for the singing task are diverted, even so far as stoking the so-called "fight or flight" response. (26) This helps explain the veracity inherent in the phenomenon known as "choking" or "trying too hard," experienced by professional athletes, musicians, dancers, and others who depend upon a high level of motor skill for their livelihood.

Choking takes place when your conscious or thinking mind steps in to try to control skills that you've already learned well enough to perform automatically. With the added pressure of an audience or your hiked-up expectations, you tell yourself to be careful, then revert to the mechanical performance of a novice. In fact, you are better off without this extra oversight from your well-meaning brain! (27)

Trying Too Hard: The Inner Game

Many people may be familiar with the "Inner Game" phenomenon, brought into the popular media by tennis pro and author Timothy Gallwey in his 1974 best-selling book, The Inner Game of Tennis. Gallwey described his methods of "establishing harmony between mind and body" and learning to "get out of your own way so that you can learn and perform closer to your potential." (28) Gallwey's theories either resonated with a 1970s Zeitgeist or a phenomenon more universally experienced, or both, for he has since turned his Inner Game into a one-man industry that has spawned similar books on golf, skiing, and music, along with regular presentations on the international lecture circuit.

Learning to sing is so similar to many other athletic pursuits that the term "vocal athlete" is now common parlance in the profession of voice pedagogy. In reading Gallwey's Inner Game philosophy, it is not far-fetched to simply substitute "singing" for "tennis," especially regarding the teaching and acquisition of technique.

Although I have never doubted the value of technique ... the question about how best to learn technique is worth further inquiry. I was very aware from my own experience how much technical instructions could end up creating barriers to learning. And I admit that when I first discovered the Inner Game methodology, I was so surprised and excited at how much technique could be learned without technical instructions, I emphasized the point strongly. (29)

Since the fields of singing and tennis belong to the same motor learning "family," they also exhibit a similar host of "star" players and teachers. Because of this, it should come as little surprise to voice professionals that both fields struggle over the age-old dichotomy between technique and intuition, science and art. Gallwey describes the reception his book received from tennis professionals.

Some tennis professionals were less than receptive to the ideas expressed in the book. For some it was too simple; others saw it as a challenge to their way of instruction. For some years, a debate ensued among those who believed in teaching technique and those who thought you could learn tennis more intuitively, without so many instructions. (30)

Vocal empiricists or intuitive learners may find much accord with this account. For singers, it is not overstatement to say that some of the best moments in both singing and teaching have come when attention to technique was thrown out and artistic expression became their goal. It is fair to claim that most singers would give almost anything to relive those moments, albeit at more predictable intervals. Massive amounts of time, money, and other resources are directed toward this goal; indeed, the teacher or coach who has a gift for regularly evoking thrilling motor moments in students' lessons can develop both a sizeable bank account and a quasi spiritual following. Pedagogue Richard Miller spoke to the fickleness of "specific vocal sounds" that may be "interesting --perhaps even momentarily thrilling," and issued a caution against chasing the chimera of a voice guru.

Running from one famous teacher to another, from one master class to the next, from one symposium to yet another, and reading each new "complete" vocal method published, may open some doors. Yet there comes a time when the singer or teacher of singing must stop shopping around and make a choice. (31)

In the end, it appears that an "intermediate arousal state [evokes] ... the right level of cognitive resources appropriate for the job." (32) Seen through an empirical lens, none of this may come as particularly revelatory information. Yet the art of teaching entails creative solutions to these and other psychological conundrums; teachers often must light a friendly fire under students with low motivation levels and steer the "sing or die" types toward a masseuse or the gym for release of physical tension. Similarly, attention to the mechanics of singing must be leavened with loftier artistic ideals.

Acts Borne by Ideals versus Mechanical Directives

Left-brain thinking, which tends to be analytical, is thought to stifle biomechanics; therefore, commands that highlight mechanics are, in essence, tracked into a region where they are "lost in translation" and smothered. Alternatively, intention that focuses on creative process and sensory information, thought to be the domain of the right hemisphere, is conducive to biomechanics. It may be concluded that in order to bring forth functionally fluid singing, we must invoke the ideal of emotionally expressive singing in order to realize this goal.

[E]very time a student makes a vocal sound which is not guided by the imagination, and which is devoid of elan vital and emotional content, he is separating singing from its source and therefore conditioning himself to make vocal sounds which are not appropriate to singing within our best tradition. (33)

It is through our desires, our sensations, our perceptions that we gain control of our activities in body and mind. This is especially true of singing. Our acts are fashioned by our ideals of melody, harmony and poetry. (34)

Locus of Attention

It would be tempting to conclude that all attention paid to the mechanics of movement is irrelevant to motor learning. Interestingly, however, "we cannot. Again and again, studies have shown that attention does, indeed, appear relevant for motor learning. The catch has to do with where attention is directed." (35)

That "catch" is the locus, or place, of attention. Cognitive scientists distinguish between an internal and an external location. An internal locus of attention refers to what has been addressed so far: attention to the biomechanics of motor tasks or, attention focused on the movement itself. An external locus of attention refers to directing attention toward the movement's effects. This distinction is critical to answering the question: In what manner can voice teachers most effectively transmit their motor knowledge of the singing voice to their students?

It has been shown that an internal locus of attention, that is, mechanical directives, depresses both immediate and long-term learning. External locus of attention involves eliciting a desired vocal response by asking the student to focus on the desired result of a movement, not the movement itself. In other words, the desired result may be better obtained, enhanced and even retained by saying something like, "Smile into the tone as you take in your air," as opposed to, "Lift your soft palate as you breathe in." To an experienced singer and pedagogue, the differences between the two directives are subtle, while the aims are identical. A beginning singer probably would not know that the teacher is attempting to lift the soft palate, but even a technically knowledgeable singer, creatively engaged in the moment, would be more likely simply to respond rather than to translate the external locus directive back into a mechanical one.


Feedback is essential to learning. There can be no learning without memory, and feedback is the essential spark that ignites it.36 The term appears in motor learning literature variously as augmented feedback, generally referring to verbal commentary or directives coming from another person, and biofeedback, which usually indicates sensory information coming from a device, either automated (video camera, tape player, spectrograph) or nonautomated (a pair of hands, a physioball). What is significant for pedagogues is that feedback actually may invoke an external locus of attention in the student. (37) In other words, when pedagogues or devices (biofeedback) provide an immediate response to the student's efforts, it may stimulate the student's attention to become and remain externally focused. While the role, necessity, and types of feedback available generally are accepted, there are other matters, namely frequency and timing of feedback, that must be considered.

Feedback Frequency

How often a voice coach should provide augmented feedback seems directly related to the difficulty of the task and the abilities of the learner. A common sense approach, codified by science and termed the "bandwidth method," indicates that students do best when provided with frequent feedback early in training, and as their experience and skill grows, the feedback diminishes. (38) It may be inferred from the band-width method that it is advisable in the early stages of voice study for every lesson to contain some task in which the student effectively can achieve, especially if a student's frustration is actually blocking learning. As mastery of singing increases, these setups should be withdrawn. It is wise to recall the importance of this withdrawal with regard to the caution that immediate performance gains generally depress long-term learning.

Feedback Timing

Another consideration regarding feedback is timing. Is verbal feedback best utilized by the student "terminally," after the lesson, or "concurrently," while the singer is engaged in singing? This question is especially important when considering computer-aided display devices, such as spectrograms. This and similar voice analysis equipment operate on a "real time" basis; in fact, it is this feature that its proponents tout as an advantage for use in the voice studio. Results from several studies yielded varied results. It appears that, all in all, verbal commentary from teacher to student provided during the lesson is most effective. Too much augmented feedback--for example, a stream of verbal coaching while the student is singing--may boost short term performance, but probably depresses real learning. Terminal feedback may be most effective by asking learners to provide their own terminal feedback, for example, by self evaluation through journaling. (39)


Manipulation, or physical guidance, is also a type of biofeedback. This is literally the hands-on approach in which the teacher touches a student's body in order to elicit a physical and/or tonal response. Ethical and legal considerations aside for the moment, evidence suggests that manipulative correction sometimes follows the same outcome as mechanical directives and concurrent verbal feedback: such solutions may temporarily benefit performance, but ultimately do not take root in the singer's kinesthetic memory; therefore the correction cannot be said to have been learned. In other words, because the singer's cognitive resources were not called forth, the neurons did not fire; this laying on of hands produced a result only as long as the touch was in effect. This explains why students who achieve stunning vocal results in master classes due to manipulation often fail to recall the same effect on their own. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence does suggest benefit from manipulation techniques. One may surmise that success has everything to do with the relay of the sensation to the kinesthetic memory bank, and the consequent recall abilities of the singer.

Some voice pedagogues are understandably wary of physical manipulation techniques due to the litigious culture in which we currently live. If physical guidance is regarded as a useful tool, voice teachers will have to make their own decisions regarding whether or not to withhold its potential benefits.

The State-of-the-Art Studio

A recent development in the tools available to voice pedagogues is known variously as computer-generated feedback, voice analysis, and/or acoustic analysis equipment. Garyth Nair proposes a fourth term, real-time, computer-generated visual feedback, which he has assigned the acronym VRTF. (40) A testament to the rapidity with which this equipment has become easily available, due to the advent of personal computers, can be found in two separate statements from the following two well known voice pedagogy texts, published only five years apart.

At some time in the future it may be possible to furnish your teaching studio at reasonable cost with electronic equipment which can give you instantaneous feedback on the particular tone the student is producing; this information might include such items as vowel accuracy, harmonic spectrum, vibrato rate and extent, vocal faults present, probable causes, and suggested techniques for correction. If and when that day arrives, much of the creativity and a lot of the joy of teaching likely will have been lost. (41)

Another purpose of this book is to advocate the use of real-time computer-aided feedback in the voice studio, both as a means of speeding up the process of voice training and as a means of helping both teachers and students achieve a greater understanding of voice science. The personal computer is no longer a luxury item ... and many voice practitioners own powerful, fast machines that were the stuff of fantasy just a few years ago ... this new technological capability is within easy reach of the average voice practitioner. A new world awaits anyone who is willing to consider the use of this technology in the voice studio. (42)

Among voice practitioners, interest in computer-generated feedback for everyday use in the studio has been piqued, and its proponents regularly proclaim its merits in books, journal articles, and professional voice conferences. Often, evidence marshaled to convert the cynical cites the advantages of biofeedback to the learner; computer-generated biofeedback is named as a particularly effective training tool because it produces visual results for an ephemeral occurrence (sound), given by a rational and nonjudgmental source (the computer) in real time, as opposed to terminal feedback. However, some experts suggest that there are limitations to technology.

Computerized voice analysis is not a panacea. No matter how fast the computer or how complex the programming, it is unlikely to ever surpass the human ear and brain. (43)

Even Nair cautions his audience to remember the "unique" qualities of each student and declares that he uses his VRTF "only briefly during the session to address specific short-term events. In all other respects, the lesson or coaching goes on as a traditional voice lesson." (44) Research in cognitive science also shows why caution against dependence and withdrawal from biofeedback tools is prudent.

If biofeedback adds information above and beyond the subject's own internal feedback, such information may become incorporated with the task in the subject's head. The danger is that when such information is withdrawn during later, no-biofeedback, "real-world" trials, performance decrements may result. (45)

Any voice teacher who has experienced a particularly needy student will understand this caveat. However, it has not been proved that withdrawal of biofeedback of any kind necessarily depresses performance, and as it applies to computer-generated voice analysis, proponents claim that once the desired effect (for example, change in timbre) is achieved and confirmed by the display output, the kinesthetic memory of the student singer registers and stores the change. Further studies would be needed to ascertain whether these stored changes could be recalled repeatedly in "real-world trials," and in turn, be quantified as performance shifts over time, or real learning. Thus the information remains, for now, a caveat.

The Path to Carnegie Hall

According to scientists Richard Schmidt and Timothy Lee, practice itself is the single most important variable in the process of motor learning. (46) "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" the hapless New York City tourist asks. "Practice, practice, practice," goes the punch line. "Practice makes perfect," or so we believe, and often tell our students. But how much practice? Is more practice better practice? What about quality and type of practice? What happens cognitively in between practice sessions? Because students spend the vast majority of singing time on their own, away from their teachers, these questions are critical to the final act in the transfer of fine motor skill from teacher to student.

Effective Types of Practice (47)

Spaced practice is more effective than massed practice. People whose regular learning sessions alternate with periods of respite retain more than piling information on all at once in mega-practice sessions. Therefore, practicing every day for one hour would prove more beneficial than twice a week for three and a half hours, even though the total number of hours would be the same.

Variable and random practice is more effective in the long term than nonvariable and blocked practice. In cognitive science, there are discrete distinctions made between these types of practices. For the purpose of voice pedagogy, they can be divided into two basic groups: Variable and random practices are types of practice that incorporate variations, yet eventually manage to elicit a more or less consistent vocal response. In voice, variations can be reflected in differences of language, style, and tessitura. Variations also can be made by introducing changes in practice environment: space size, acoustic type (rich or dull), and venue (audience or no one). The goal, in terms of vocal response, would be for these variables to eventually strengthen the singer rather than dislodge his healthy technique. However, experience and anecdotal evidence in the voice studio tell us that this goal often is not reached immediately, nor even very soon. The voice pedagogue would do well to recall the maxim of "desirable difficulties" in judging when and to what extent to introduce variables as "desirable difficulties."

Nonvariable and blocked practice focus instead on one gesture, or movement, until mastery is gained. The same challenges are put forth for the student in the same setting. One need not be a scientist to comprehend that, in this setting, short-term performance would probably soar while long-term learning would stagnate. Further, it has been shown that motor tasks that involve the interrelationship between optimally coordinated systems benefit from variable practice. As any singer understands, the voice is indeed a system that depends upon optimal coordination among its subsystems (respirator, vibrator, resonator, articulator, and psychological systems) for finely wrought, cultivated singing. Therefore, in general, the voice will not respond well to blocked or nonvariable practice, a training system that ignores these interrelationships and practices components in isolation. (48)

There is one exception to this, however. One study took into account the skill level of the test subjects in relation to the difficulty of the tasks being measured. To sum up the implications for voice, it appears that in so-called "low-skilled subjects," blocked practice is more beneficial, especially in the short term, than variable practice. In other words, introducing difficulties before students with little ability can manage them probably will do more harm than good. (49) While most pedagogues hope never to be consigned to a voice studio comprised solely of "low-skilled subjects," it is safe to say that some may have to manage such a clientele, especially early in a teaching career. Teachers would do well to remember that in such cases, blocked or nonvariable practice may be the wisest pedagogic route. Exactly when to introduce "desirable difficulties" into this type of lesson plan is not a quantifiable consideration, but a sagacious judgment call.


The Voice Teacher in the Postmodern Age

Knowledge of biomechanical and acoustic principles of voice production is insufficient to train those same principles effectively in the physical domain. (50)

This statement seems to refute the omnipresent exhortations in voice pedagogy literature that tout the worth of voice science to voice teachers. Opening salvos such as, "What should a responsible voice teacher be teaching in a scientific age?" (51) imply that to teach in the so-called "scientific age" without scientific knowledge is to be, in fact, irresponsible. Suggestions for improvement have morphed into inferred requirements, until the nonscientifically oriented pedagogue feels harangued into a position that he may not be comfortable or even equipped to manage. There obtains, at this juncture in the history of voice pedagogy, a sense of division between either a wholesale acceptance of the scientific approach, or outright rejection, neither of which leaves much room for an integrated method.

The idea that knowledge alone of biomechanical and acoustic principles of voice production is insufficient to train the voice effectively may not seem revolutionary if it were uttered among singers hostile to voice science. It is therefore revelatory to disclose that the author of this sentiment is voice scientist Dr. Katherine Verdolini as it appears in the forthcoming book Vocology (coauthored with Dr. Ingo Titze). What may be gleaned from this declaration is that it simply isn't enough to possess the knowledge of how the voice works; the knowledge in itself is "insufficient." However, "insufficient" must not be confused with "unnecessary." The successful transference of voice technique from teacher to student depends primarily upon possession of this special knowledge in the first place--and ultimately hinges on the ability to impart it successfully to the student.

On a practical level, it would seem that the best course of action for voice teachers is to gather as much information as is possible and reasonable from the field of voice science, and in turn, infuse one's teaching with those discoveries. Most successful singers and teachers would agree that what Lilli Lehmann, Mathilde Marchese, Richard Miller, and other great teachers of singing have had to say about the acquisition of technique as a prerequisite to vocal expression would support this objective. Yet other qualities that are not quantifiable also must be cultivated: creativity, discretion, acute psychological insight, interpersonal warmth, and even a dose of charisma--these are all attributes required for successful teaching.

A common theme that can be found in differing cultures, eras, and disciplines concerning the art of teaching expresses the philosophy that the master does not bestow skill upon the student; rather, one guides the student on a path of discovery so that he himself may find that which lies dormant or half-formed inside. Modern cognitive science might say this effort strengthens the student's neural pathways; intuition tells us that the student's true voice is revealed.

The Dance between Science and Art

The ways in which voice science has influenced and even defined voice pedagogy in the twenty-first century have been considered, and the prognosis for reaching common ground between science and art in voice pedagogy appears optimistic. While advances in technology will allow more people to become increasingly familiar and comfortable with its byproducts, such advances often raise more profound questions and engender deeper needs than can be satisfied by scientific reasoning alone. Paradoxically, aversion to science and technology may be ameliorated by recent research in cognitive psychology, which posits a theory of "multiple intelligences," including intelligences located in the interpersonal and kinesthetic spheres. (52)

As the history of voice pedagogy continues to unfold, the most rewarding arena for teachers of singing is likely to be found in the dynamic dance between science and art.


(1.) Matthew Kleinman, The Acquisition of Motor Skill (Princeton: Princeton Book Co., 1983), 24.

(2.) Ibid., 23

(3.) Katherine Verdolini, Ch. 10, "Motor Learning Principles," in Ingo Titze and Katherine Verdolini, Vocology (in preparation; used by permission).

(4.) Kleinman, 4.

(5.) Encarta[R] World English Dictionary, [C] 1999 Microsoft Corporation.

(6.) Verdolini, 2.

(7.) Ibid., 3.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Bruce Lunkley, in Elizabeth Blades-Zeller, ed., A Spectrum of Voices: Prominent American Voice Teachers Discuss the Teaching of Singing (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002), 129.

(10.) Verdolini, 3.

(11.) Ibid., 4.

(12.) Antonio Gotto, ed., The Cornell Illustrated Encyclopedia of Health, s.v. "Fever" (Washington, DC: Lifeline Press, 2002).

(13.) Ibid., s.v. "Psychotherapy."

(14.) Verdolini, 17.

(15.) Ibid., 18.

(16.) Ibid.

(17.) Thomas Hemsley, Singing and Imagination: A Human Approach to a Great Musical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 9.

(18.) Verdolini, 20. This and other conclusions are not definitive. Before a pedagogue rejects imagery entirely, it is prudent to note that this result was based upon a study with relatively narrow parameters.

(19.) Ibid., 23.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Robert Bjork, Metacognition: Knowing about Knowing (Boston: MIT Press, 1994).

(23.) Dale Moore, in Blades-Zeller, 173.

(24.) Barbara Doscher, in Blades-Zeller, 167.

(25.) Verdolini, 37.

(26.) The so-called "fight or flight" response is a physiochemical response brought on by a perceived threat, either real or imagined. It is also sometimes called "freeze or faint" and/or "fight, flight, or freeze" response. This response can cause various physical reactions, including increased heart and respiration rates, and decreased digestive system function and body temperature. An increase in blood flow rate to muscular and limbic systems provides the adrenaline "rush" needed in emergencies to counterattack ("fight") or "flee." The "faint" response is also another "way out" of a perceived threat situation. Sources: Leon Thurman and Graham Welch, coeditors, Bodymind and Voice: Foundations of Voice Education (Denver: National Center for Voice and Speech, 1997); Gotto.

(27.) Roberta A. Isleib, "Choking Your Inner Choker," first published in Women's World of Golf (May 2002); accessed online at

(28.) W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis, revised edition (New York: Random House, 1974), xii-xiv.

(29.) Ibid., xiii.

(30.) Ibid., xii.

(31.) Richard Miller, The Structure of Singing: System and Art in Vocal Technique (New York: Schirmer Books, 1986), xv.

(32.) Verdolini, 37.

(33.) Hemsley, 9.

(34.) Ibid., 8, quote by Giovanni Lamperti.

(35.) Verdolini, 24.

(36.) Gary Marcus, The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

(37.) Verdolini, 29.

(38.) Ibid., 58.

(39.) Ibid., 45.

(40.) Garyth Nair, Voice--Tradition and Technology: A State-of-the-Art Studio (San Diego: Singular Publishing Group, 1999), 68.

(41.) James McKinney, The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults (Nashville: Genevox Music Group, 1994), 32.

(42.) Nair, 2.

(43.) Scott McCoy, Your Voice: An Inside View (Princeton, NJ: Inside View Press, 2004), 51.

(44.) Nair, 69.

(45.) Verdolini, 30.

(46.) Richard Schmidt and Timothy Lee, Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis, 4th ed. (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2005), 322.

(47.) Ibid.

(48.) Ibid.

(49.) Ibid.

(50.) Verdolini, 30.

(51.) Richard Miller, in Robert Thayer Sataloff, ed., Vocal Health and Pedagogy (San Diego: Singular Publishing Group, 1998), 297.

(52.) Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind (Cambridge: Basic Books, 1983).

Mezzo soprano Lynn Helding has appeared in recital throughout the United States, Italy, England, France, Germany, Spain, and Australia (where she served as Artist in Residence at Melbourne's LaTrobe University), and Iceland, where her performances were broadcast on Icelandic National Radio.

A singing voice specialist in the emerging field of voice science, she spent the summers of 2002 and 2003 studying at the Summer Vocology Institute at the National Center for Voice and Speech under the direction of voice scientist Dr. Ingo Titze.

In 2005, she was selected as the annual Van Lawrence Fellow, given jointly by the Voice and NATS Foundations, and she completed a Master's Degree in Vocal Pedagogy from Westminster Choir College of Rider University, where she pursued research in the relationship between singing and cognitive science. She served four years as a member of the voice faculty at Vanderbilt University, and from 1993-2006 was Senior Artist Faculty in Voice at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She currently holds the title Associate Professor of Voice at that institution.

As an undergraduate student, Helding studied voice at the University of Montana, in Vienna, Austria, and at Indiana University, where she completed the Artist Diploma in Voice under the direction of Dale Moore.
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Author:Helding, Lynn
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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