Dec 26 2014

Why I Avoid Scientific Explanations

I often receive questions about vocal topics, and recently I was asked if I could give a description of my work in more scientific terms.

They said that someone they wanted discuss this with is very rooted in voice science, and they felt they could make a better impression if they could discuss my concepts in the scientific therms their friend was familiar with.

I can understand the reasoning for the request, but I am always reluctant to get into a scientific discussion of vocal function for a couple reasons.

The first is science tends to look at the material of the voice. The muscles, cartilages, mucosa and other soft tissue.

But these are only part of the situation. And studying these will only give a limited understanding of the voice.

What is left out is the living aspect of the voice. The nerves that make those muscles move. The thinking of the brain connected to those nerves. And the spirit of emotion that stimulates it all to come to life and express vocally.

So we have people who know all the names of the different muscles and cartilages but have next to no understanding of what it feels like to stimulate those into action.

And they certainly have no idea of the subtle ways emotional state can positively influence the behavior of them. And without this knowledge the potential to help someone improve the use of their voice is very limited.

I feel this is a big part of the reason the success rate of voice therapy is much lower than it should be. I can’t count the number of people who have found me over the years and told me of their experiences with clinical voice therapy.

I feel the rest of the reason for the limited success is a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the function of the voice. And this is because voice therapists learn from text books and not from the degree of experience it takes to thoroughly understand the vocal instrument.

That is one reason I avoid scientific discussion, because the knowledge acts as a distraction from really learning through experience.

The second reason I avoid it is because it is simply unnecessary. And frankly it sounds a little arrogant. When we can talk in scientific terms it makes us feel like we know a lot and are higher on the totem pole.

The problem is, like we can observe with some people, those who have some scientific understanding use it as a form of superiority over those who don’t.

The majority of people who want to learn to use their voice better don’t understand the scientific principles involved. So they would have no idea if the things being said are true, or if they just sound true because it is above their head.

“I don’t know what he’s saying, but I hear a lot of words I don’t understand so they must know more than me and be right.” This makes it easier for the teacher to seem more knowledgeable so the student is willing to keep paying the teacher.

I prefer to avoid this kind of situation. I would call what I do “experiential science”. Which is what science originally was, before there were all kinds of instruments and computers. (I also like “Logical Science”, which focuses on what just makes sense)

Science was conducted through observation. Observation of nature and how things happen. Through those observations the scientists would gradually see patterns show up. Over time they were able to make conclusions regarding results and their causes based on those observations.

That is what I have done. It is what the original vocal masters did to learn the principles of vocal behavior by observing natural singers. Which others then copied, perhaps without understanding things completely, and turned into a tradition.

What I have done is researched and studied the most accurate and effective traditional concepts, while at the same time observed and researched the natural functions of the body.

Then I have compared these and looked for similarities between non-vocal natural functions and vocal ones.

For example, what is traditionally called “support” – I have observed that it is really the natural act of breath compression. (Logical – makes sense)

So I have compared that vocal behavior to other, non-vocal behaviors that involve reflexive breath compression, like sneezing, laughing, crying, coughing, clearing the throat, etc.

By experiencing and understanding the natural behavior of when and how we compress the breath we can develop a more clear understanding of this fundamental aspect of vocalization.

There are examples like this for each of the major components of vocal coordination. And I have explored them all repeatedly.

So in a very real sense this is a scientific based approach to learning to use the voice. In fact, I would argue that it is more scientific, and more effective, than learning and understanding the textbook terminology that is typically meant when we say “science based”.

The reason I say this is because the science that people learn from school and textbooks is basically dead. They are pictures, words and names. In fact the pictures are of dead bodies. (How else can you cut one open to look at it closely?) It is teaching people how to look at something but not how to do it. To live it.

Talking about a certain muscle, or even the action of those muscles, is still not talking about the experience of that muscle being active. Or, more importantly, the experience of the coordination of several muscle groups balancing each other.

This is why teaching how to use the voice is so difficult. You can’t just learn it by reading or taking classes. You can’t even learn it by just doing it. We must combine all of our capacities of experience and imagination.

For example, any action that happens in the body needs to be stimulated by the nervous system. This fact is generally overlooked by scientific discussions of the voice. Probably it is just taken for granted.

There is a belief that these things just take care of themselves. And this is true, but only to a certain extent. They can’t happen if the condition of the body doesn’t allow for them to happen.

We have to remember that the body functions in order to fulfill an intention the brain has. But there must be the combination of condition and stimulation in order for that response to actually happen.

There are actually two sides to how this natural response breaks down.

One is the side of poor condition.

This refers to the condition of the body when we want to sing. I always talk about the first thing we need to do in preparation to sing is put the body into proper position.

What this really is, and probably a more accurate description, is creating a productive condition in the body.

This comes from an understanding of the influence emotional state has on the conditions of the body and how that can improve the ability to function reflexively.

The other side is poor coordination.

This is the skill of using the voice. If we don’t know how to coordinate accurately our functioning will break down.

We must understand the realities of the voice. Not just what we believe or what we have been taught by people with limited beliefs.

There is so much to understand in order to master the use of the voice. But the good news is it all is very logical. It all makes sense.

The bad news is it is not what most of us have been taught. It is my mission to do what I can to remedy that disservice.

Please leave comments of questions at the bottom of the blog post. Thank you!

  1. How true! The scientific explanations are good to learn or at least have explained once or twice, but my best voice teachers have spent 99% of our time listening and working on what they hear and how to improve that without explaining the mechanics.

  2. Besides, the brain and entire body are so important in creating a good sound. Ever notice how your mood has such a major effect on how you sing on any given day? Foe example, for a bass singer, much relaxation is very important in producing an open low tone. Thanks for your continued good advice.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Chris. I do explain mechanics, but it is from the perspective of what you experience while doing it. And I don’t use all of the names of the different muscles like some do. I feel it is distracting. But your comment about mood relates to a major aspect of what I teach. Since being in a good mood helps, why not learn to create the conditions of a good mood intentionally. Then use the beneficial effects to improve your singing? That is, in a nutshell, what we do.

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