Apr 01 2013

I'm Quitting!

I received this email the other day and I think he has made a valid argument.

Your article on Jonas Kaufman was truly ridiculous. I’ve also a degree in voice, I’ve been studying singing 20 years, and have students. I think anyone who harps on about the anatomical facets of vocal production to be a quack… Some of the greatest charlatans do (and have done) this throughout their dubious careers. What happens anatomically has nothing to do with how it feels to sing. Neither can it help the student or the teacher. The result of such teaching is ridiculous methods like Dr White’s Sinus Method. Unfortunately, I’ve seen them all.

​​The truth is, buddy, that Kaufman, like many famous singers, is out there with what he’s got. There is no ‘right’ way to sing, just like there is no ‘right’ way to play piano or guitar. I play three instruments and know many musicians, and I can tell you this off pat. There is only style, form, and art. The rest is using what you have to produce that art.

I feel that he has certainly put me in my place and I have decided that what I am doing is just a waste of time. So I’m taking his implied advice and getting out of the business.

April Fools!

I’m sure you could see this coming. But I can only guess that this is what he wants me to do. Since there is no right way to sing and all you have is “what you’ve got”. Then there seems to be no point in trying to improve. Which then seems odd because he says that he has students. So maybe he should quit as well.

I am familiar with Dr. White’s Sinus Tone Method that he refers to. It was a method that encouraged singers to move the air through their sinuses to produce the tone. Which is obviously an impossibility. In fact it seems to me that this is an example of what can happen when we ignore the physiological facts of the vocal instrument, not emphasize them.

Another thing, what happens anatomically does have a great deal to do with how it feels to sing if it is being done correctly. I have to disagree with just about everything this writer said. But this kind of email is part of the territory I have placed myself in by writing publicly on the Internet.

There is actually some truth to the statement that what happens anatomically and how it feels to sing are completely different. This is definitely true for singers that have trained themselves based on imagery and technique based on beliefs. This approach tries to develop an ideal “sound” and uses images and sensations of the result.

The problem is the images and the sensations are illusions of the resulting sound that we get after we sing. And often they are based on what we hear when we listen to a good singer. So we try to recreate the image our mind creates when we hear a good vocal sound.

This imagery based on illusions and impressions is the basis of a lot of the technique that is out there. Now, this is not to say that these illusions and images don’t exist. They do. But they don’t accurately tell us what causes them to happen. They only tell us the quality of the result.

And working for a result rarely is successful. We must understand the causes that make up our vocal result. This is why if we use imagery, which we almost have to because of the nature of our instrument, it must be based on the physiological behavior that causes our vocal sounds. And if we use sensations to guide us, which again we must because we don’t hear ourselves accurately and sensation is how we understand what our body is doing, they must be the real sensations of our physical behavior and not the illusory sensations of the resulting vocal tone.

The only other thing I would agree with is that once we get onstage we are out there only with what we have at that moment. But this means where we are in our developmental process and our current level of skill in coordinating our instrument.

So we train to improve our condition and our coordination, then when the time comes we only can do what we can do. So we must just do what we can at that moment to the best of our ability. And the best way to accomplish that is to be as sincere as we can in that moment.

That is what it means to “do the best you can”. We have heard that phrase since we were children, but I wonder if we ever really sit down and investigate what that really means. Often it seems like to just do the best we can is a cop-out, opening the door to failure. Making it OK to not do well or try our hardest.

But what that belief assumes is that trying our hardest is the best option for achieving success. Often it is not. By trying hard we are likely doing more than is necessary. Often it includes complicating things and overworking.

The concept of balance is defined by doing what is necessary for the fulfillment of our action. No more and no less.

Unfortunately it is very easy to fall into the trap of doing more. Especially in a performance. We want many things in a performance. Naturally we want to feel successful with the outcome of our performance.

But if we are honest we likely can identify an element of wanting to impress others with our performance as well. And this is the danger.

Because if we allow this desire to impress lead our actions we will risk over-doing everything in an attempt to impress the listeners. Anything that we do well we will likely over-do if we are trying to impress someone.

And this is very difficult to deal with because when the instrument is balanced it tends to not seem very impressive to us. That is the nature of being balanced. But we have to learn to trust that the balanced voice will actually produce the most impressive possibility we are capable of.

So to get back to this email. There are many people who have shown me repeatedly that we can learn to sing “the right” way. What this means is learning to sing as the design of the instrument desires to function. With some pretty simple guidance many have experienced vocal coordination they never believed possible.

Sometimes the first time we experience this natural behavior it can be very emotional because in that moment we can see that it is possible to overcome the difficulties we’ve been held by for years.

This concept applies to every instrument. There is a right way to play every instrument based on how it is designed to operate. By playing it that way you will get the absolute most potential of expressiveness out of that instrument.

With the voice there is the added element of staying healthy. But by playing the instrument in line with how it is designed we maximize the likelihood of keeping the voice healthy. And for anyone who loves to sing that should be the most important thing.

Because who wants to lose the voice before we are done wanting to sing?

I did forget one thing I wanted to talk about. I joked about quitting at the beginning of the post. I thought it would be a little bit of fun. I don’t think I could ever actually quit. This is so ingrained into my being that it is just how I think and it comes out of me naturally.

And the reality is I am very good at it. For whatever reason this is my gift. I have worked hard at it for a long time. But my ability to assess vocal function is not a product of that work. That work just made me better at it. I have had an innate understanding of the voice since I started teaching in college.

Having said that, I think there is a great deal of value in regularly considering quitting what you do. It is a form of refreshing your commitment to it. If we never think of quitting we may be doing something on autopilot. And that is never very good because our heart isn’t in it. We might be doing something because we think we can’t quit.

So I do ask myself occasionally if I want to quit, and each time I am reminded of why I do what I do and am re-energized in my commitment to it. Consider this sometime when you need a pick-me-up. We’re taught in our youth to quit is bad. But sometimes quitting is what makes room in your life for what you are really good at and what you can actually make a difference in the world doing.

So don’t be afraid of quitting. We can quit anytime. But if we answer that we want to continue, then continue with your whole heart.

  1. Thomas Harvey

    Well said. What joy it is to sing when one has prepared well and is comfortable and balanced in his presentation. As you said, it usually turns out wonderfully for the hearer and the singer.
    Thanks for the encouraging word.

  2. charles humphreys

    Michael – I have just finished a lesson with a guy who has been with me for 3 years. When he first came he sang a little off key and had a breathy tone and his throat closed and he was unable to sustain any form of legato and also had nothing in the way range – to put simply – he couldn’t sing.

    Yet when I saw him that first time he was “Doing his very best !” & “trying really hard!”

    Today 3 years on he was late for his lesson (a very rare occurrence for him) so I said “Do you want to sing straight away?”
    Singer: “What? Without warm out?”
    Me: Yes go ahead!
    Singer: OK.

    So we did and the result was open throat, no breath, pretty good coordination, hugely better range and a clear unbroken signal of sound. Yes he can improve but boy what a difference!

    He said to me that he would have been better with a warm up. I said yes he was right but that he should think about what just happened. He was “doing his best” without warm up. What a difference his best is today than three years ago.

    I have used 6 different ways to explain the same things to him over the years until his mind and body reacted in accordance with the correct physiology. Funny he feels physical sensation but very little in the “voice”. That’s a wonderful “physical” sensation. Where else do we get feelings from if not from our bodies.

    Although I kind of want to be charitable and try and see a point to your chaps words this really did it for me…

    “What happens anatomically has nothing to do with how it feels to sing” This statement shows how in danger his students are. He uses the word “Anatomically” – well anatomy only deals with parts of the body it doesn’t deal with the function – that is physiology and so in some strange way he right, anatomy dealing with organs is not as important as what those organs do. As you have said time and time again – it is the function.

    Isn’t it good to be challenged?

  3. Thank you for not quitting. I panicked when I saw the heading the to your post when it arrived in my email. I normally just read your posts through my email, but I immediately clicked on to get to your site.

    Then I saw that it was a joke.

    Were it not for your instructions, I would have already lost my voice. I had pushed it so far and didn’t know how to get it back. I was an example of trying to work with what I had and I nearly wrecked my voice completely.

    I will go back to reading your posts via email now. Don’t do that again. LOL

  4. Mary Ellen Ottman

    Boy, you got my attention with your subject line! I’m so glad that you aren’t quitting; and your response to that man was right on. Some of us can sing pretty well when we are young without really understanding why, but as we get older, it is very important to know what happens anatomically, so that we can help ourselves when singing isn’t as easy. Keep up the great work.

  5. Craig Stine

    Extremely well said, Michael! Less really is more!

  6. Thank you all for your comments. Nice story, Charles. Yes it is good to be challenged. I welcome it. Colleen, I’m sorry for the panic. I appreciate hearing that I have helped you. Best of luck with your continued progress. Excellent point, Mary Ellen.

    I have added some more thoughts to the post. The section a little ways down that starts, “There is actually some truth to the statement that what happens anatomically and how it feels to sing are completely different.”

    And then at the end, “I did forget one thing I wanted to talk about.” Thanks.

  7. Kimberly Haynes

    Great article!! Loved reading! AND so happy you aren’t quitting ;-)

  8. Michael, yes you did have me worried for a second. Everyone has the right to quit anything they want to at any time. But, for someone to quit something they love and are determined to succeed at due to a letter containing the rants of such a misinformed, ignorant, biased and laughable opinion would be the height of foolishness. And, I know from reading your articles you’re not a foolish person but very serious and dedicated to what you do. Keep on doing such a great job with your articles here.
    They are so informative and written so well and therefore easy to understand and digest. Thanks again so much.
    Scott Miller, Pennsylvania

  9. I think the name of your blog, Vocal Wisdom, is really apt. Wisdom is so rare yet ridiculously underrated in our society and I congratulate you for publicly writing on the internet where tire-kickers and other so-called experts can attempt to pick you apart if they like. Leading others is often thankless, but it can be rewarding too so I hope you have been rewarded enough over the years by your students to keep going and never quit. And by just knowing you are right and doing right not harm!

    Your statement “when the instrument is balanced it tends to not seem very impressive to us.” is particularly excellent. I suppose you didn’t want to use the words vanity and pride, but performing can incorporate this. Have you noticed traditional singers chanting their songs often used a balanced tone, because they’re not ‘performing’ so much as emoting to communicate their spiritual beliefs. Same with a gospel choir like Brooklyn Tabernacle choir or even southern gospel singers as in Bill Gaither’s Gospel hour.
    People who want to see some real balanced singing should seek out performances that are focused on the person they’re singing to. Some of the most painful singing I’ve ever seen is when you know the singer is listening to their own voice and thinking how lovely they sound!

  10. Hi, I would like to hear your opinion about Netrebko. I still don’t like the way she approaches arias and her singing, but this vídeo I see some improvement http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djCq3u6gEx4 what do you think of it? Am I mistaken about her improvement? (P.S. I still think she is too overrated as na opera singer – just na ordinary professional with a very beautiful voice, but doen’t use it appropriately)

  11. Hi Evandro – thanks for the video link. I think she is still singing much the same, just now in Verdi she is more full. So it might seem different. The low notes reveal that the higher notes are “beefed” up. It is good to have deep resonance, but it also needs to be able to blossom through the high resonance. I feel she is missing that higher resonance.

  12. In other words, is she getting worse? kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk

  13. It most likely is. When we are overly concerned with making resonance we usually are taking away from the purity of the source vibration. And the vibration is where tuning happens.

  14. Hello,
    I just started reading the articles on this website. The information seems sound. I am stumped on what is called the activator and how to begin singing with a closed glottis. I have spent the better part of 20 years singing with what is I’m sure an open glottis and have always felt like a cat in a bag trying to get out when I sing. My instincts tell me that singing with a closed glottis is correct but I can’t get my head (I should say my body) around how to start correctly with the proper air pressure. I looked at the category “activator” on the website and it’s empty. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the topic. I have so far really enjoyed the information on this site…. Thank you.

  15. Hello Beth – I replied more in depth by email. But I thought I should reply to your comment as well. I apologize that you found one of my unfinished pages. The activator is the air pressure from the respiratory system. But I don’t recommend that we have our attention on that.

    More effective is to keep our attention on the larynx. That is how we create the condition of a closed glottis. (Notice how I said that. We create the condition. We don’t try to close the glottis) By thinking of pronouncing the vowel with the larynx we stimulate it into action.

    It is reflexive behavior that we set into action. Not something we are trying to do with the larynx. And it is definitely not something we are trying to do with the breath.

    This is why I don’t recommend focusing on the breath. Because if we do we will then try to pronounce with the breath, which will overpower the larynx.

    The details of this needs to be learned through guidance and experience. But I hope this gives a little more idea of what direction to go. Thanks.

  16. Hello Michael,

    What an intelligent and gentle way of answering! And funny! Yes, if we don’t need to study in order to improve, so why studying… open your mouth and sing! I just pitty those who are around…..rsrsrs

    Well, and believe it or not, I was told that singing was this, as easy as throwing a tennis ball to your partner… and that came from a teacher who studied in Austria, one of the homes of great Lieder! Gosh…. The class before quiting, and maybe that’s because I did so, I said to her, “Listen, have you ever noticed how your facial muscles pop out? How your instrument is shaped? As for me, I have a blank face, and I surely do need training, singing won’t come out of nowhere….” Well, that was the last time I saw her…

    Thank you one more time!



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