August 19, 2010

How we learn to sing

How do we learn to sing? And how does an effective voice teacher interact with a singer? These are two questions that were addressed in a masterclass I attended a year ago as part of NYSTA's Pedagogy Weekend. The presenter was Dr. Katherine Verdolini Abbott, a professor and voice science researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research is as provocative as it is instructive.  

Here's some of what I gleaned after seeing Verdolini in action.

1) Learning to sing is not unlike how we learn our native tongue as a child.  It involves implicit memory, which does not involve the conscious recall of information, unlike explicit memory, which does. What does this mean practically speaking? It means that giving a student lots of facts about the vocal mechanism is akin to making a child diagram a sentence before they can utter 'ma-ma' and 'da-da.' In short, singing is a 'language' that is learned like any other; bit by bit, moment by moment sound by sound. Analysis comes later! This recalls the words of Anna E. Schoen-René (a student of Pauline Viardot-Garcia) in her book America's Musical Inheritance (1941): "Scientific explanations can only be understood by singers already educated in the principles of their art." 

2) Learning to sing involves attention. Attention is not the same as awareness, which is a product of explicit memory and is about making judgment calls about 'parts'. Another way to say this is that learning to sing involves active listening rather than passive hearing. 

3) How one uses feedback is important. It seems that too little is just as bad as too much. If the teacher is stopping the student every second and making value judgments, the brain doesn't have time to make sense of the stimulus being given. In short, lessons need to be more about 'doing' and less about 'talking about doing.'

4) Learning to sing involves repetition. Lots of it. The child learning his/her native tongue benefits from the same technique an adult does when learning a second language. And what would that be?  Immersion. Singers need to immerse themselves in the 'language' - the sounds - of singing. 

5) Use of imagery is only helpful when it addresses physiological processes. The more general it is, the more ineffective it becomes. 

6) Confusion is a sign of progress. It means that the student isn't controlling the process any more, but rather, becoming the process. 

For additional information on Verdolini's research, I highly recommend this article.

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