Voice Lessons in the Time of Corona

Dear Voice Colleagues,

In these trying times, as the world is adjusting to the reality of the Corona Virus, many of us are transitioning to teaching online voice lessons – some for the first time. Aside from the obvious technical know-how and details required (Zoom vs. FaceTime; types of microphones, accompaniment apps, etc.) there’s a whole other level of adjustment one might not yet be considering when it comes to conducting lessons.

As teachers in in-person lessons, we often rely on our senses (ears, sight, bodily sensations) and observations – live and in real time and space – to know how a lesson is going, how the student is doing, and how to proceed. And, all too often, our students are relying on those such abilities of ours for accurate feedback and guidance too.

It is my opinion that, even under the best of “normal” circumstances, it would behoove us as voice teachers to expand our repertoire of pedagogical techniques and approaches in order to deepen the student’s learning and self-perception so that they can become more self-reliant, capable and independent on their own. Perhaps now, under these new remote-learning conditions, when they actually ARE literally on their own, is the best time for us to consider upping our instructional game!

Over the past 20 years, I have been incorporating learning and integration techniques and principles from the fields of Experiential Learning, Somatic Education, The Feldenkrais Method®, Neurology, Voice Science, Vocal Technique and Pedagogy into my voice lessons. It has been doing so over those years that has made my work online (for 7+ years) just as effective – if not MORE EFFECTIVE – as in-person lessons and classes. Why more effective? Because, online, the student really has to rely on their own sense of self and interpret their experience in relation to our instruction in a totally different way. They, through our guidance, can become much more self-aware and self-reliant in the process.

The following are the 5 most important things you can do right now – regardless of what and how you are already teaching online – to improve the efficacy of your work and increase the likelihood of deep integration on the part of each student.

1. REFERENCES
2. GUIDE ATTENTION
3. SITTING vs. STANDING
4. REST
5. VARIATION

REFERENCES
Like in any good science experiment we need good references and controls in effective voice lessons. After all, facilitating true voice learning is like devising and executing a good experiment in which the student is the subject and you and the student share the roles of observer and experimenter, although, most of the time, we the facilitators, take the lead.
A reference, in our context, is an established baseline such as a performance of a particular song, a sung phrase, a specific sound or movement, and/or warm-up exercise that the student can do in the beginning of a lesson, before any experimentation begins. That is crucial. It is important to do first, or early in the lesson, because as any changes or learning occurs through the course of a lesson or exercise, the reference can be returned to and the results can be compared to the first rendition as a way to track any changes that may or many not have occurred. Then, the differences experienced can be reflected upon and discussed with the student. This reveals the effects of any intervention, good or bad, and also helps integrate positive learning into the system more clearly. As the brain detects difference more than similarity, this allows the changes to be seen and understood and the effects and importance of any learning to be recorded experientially. Without a reference and a return to that same reference after an experiment (or several times throughout), how do we know what’s happened other than just vague impressions or outside feedback?
So, use references. References are your friend. You can use one or several. They can be strategic or random. As you use clear references more and more as part of your lessons – online or off – you will see how you can use them artfully and effectively for maximal learning and integration during and after a lesson. Advanced tip: Don’t be afraid to use seemingly random references! I do this one often – especially when singers don’t understand how styles are connected (It’s one voice, after all!). Have them sing a “Legit” song in the beginning of a lesson. Then proceed to work on “Belting” and “Belt” music – facilitating many improvements, of course. Then at the very end of the lesson have them sing the “Legit” song again and see how it’s changed/improved after all that “belting.” This is often a revelation. Student: “Wait a minute, I didn’t warm up my high soprano notes… why are they better?” (Of course, you can use any styles, “Belt” and “Legit” are arbitrary, but useful examples here.)

GUIDE ATTENTION
Attention is not neutral. What we attend to grows in our awareness; what we do not attend to shrinks. We can use this neurological principle to our advantage while facilitating learning. In other words, if you want a student to notice or feel or figure out a specific thing, it is helpful to guide their attention to that area or specific detail BEFORE attempting to change or influence it. This wakes up sensitivity to that area so that when something happens there, they can be more aware of it, and have more of a connection to what’s happening there. A simple example of this would be to spend just a few minutes guiding the student’s attention to the jaw – its dimensions, shape, weight, movements, etc. – before engaging in any activity related to releasing or moving the jaw in a particular way.
Attention can also move. And, in allowing it to move we can broaden the scope of our awareness – building a clearer sensory picture (self image) of what is being experienced at any given time or in any given situation. A simple example of this is to take one phrase of a song – either one that has a technical glitch in it somewhere, or one this is going really well – and have the student repeat it. But, each time they repeat it ask them to notice a different aspect of the experience. “Sing it this time and notice your breathing”; “…this time and notice your palate”; “…this time and notice your Vocal tone”; “…this time and notice your posture.”, etc. – whatever might be useful or interesting. In doing this, a.) they can begin to self-diagnose an issue if there is one by noticing more precisely what is happening or b.) if it’s going well, they can anchor that sense of it going well in their awareness in such a way that is spread through the vocal mechanism and whole body because they are more and more aware of what is happening when it is “good” and why. This helps long-term integration because it helps the student develop an experiential, somatic understanding of and be able to retrieve that positive vocal experience or organization in the future.

SITTING vs. STANDING
Most of us perform in an upright, standing position while singing, so it is important to look at one’s standing habits in general. We don’t just stand for singing, of course, so to see how the standing itself might be impacting actions related to breathing, vocalizing, articulating and resonating is important. (You can warm up your voice all day, but if your feet/legs are a mess, it won’t get much better.) But, standing is much more complex than it may seem. And, for sure, it is much more complex than sitting.
Sometimes, especially when exploring or experimenting with something very subtle vocally, it is advantageous to do so while sitting down. This can relieve the student of much of the unconscious work of maintaining upright balance (which can take up a lot of physical and mental energy) while trying to learn something new.
Now, not all sitting is created equal. If you are going to have a student sit during a lesson (online or not) it matters how they sit. Ideally they are not leaning back, slouching or over-arching. The posture should be upright and long (a floating quality), the weight evenly distributed on the sitzbones and both feet evenly on the floor. (If online, you may want them to sit sideways from time to time to be able to see the curves of the spine, etc.)
In this sitting context, focus on what is at hand vocally. When the lesson is complete, then transfer the learning to a standing position and see how it feels. If it does not transfer to standing. Sit again, find it again there. Stand slowly and aim to have them “bring it with them.” You can ask the question: “How could you stand in such a way that allows the torso to be organized in standing similarly to how it was organized when sitting.” This transfer may take a few minutes, but it’s worth it!

REST
As most of us know by now, from research and writing about learning and neuroscience, it is in the intermittent periods of rest while in a learning process that the learning can be unconsciously processed and integrated.
Working on something for 30 or 45 or 60minutes in such a way that one does many things again and again with no rest is like asking someone to eat and eat and eat without swallowing or digesting. So, give pauses. Build in rests. They can be short. 30 seconds.
There are two instances in which rest is vitally important: during times of struggle and success. If a student is struggling with something in particular, don’t just keep hounding them about it nor let them hound themselves. Have them rest. Often when they return to it, even after a brief rest, it is automatically improved because their brain had a chance to work on it without having to deal with even more sensory input and stress. The same is true when a totally new sound or skill emerges or a success is achieved after much work. That is a good time to have the student rest, because then the system can have time to register the new changes and take them in. If you have them move on too quickly or ask them to do too much more on top of it, it may not have a chance to sink into the system in a meaningful, lasting way. If the system cannot register the new experience sufficiently, the new skill will often slip away and disappear – which can be frustrating and demoralizing for teacher and student. (i.e. Student: “I sing well in lessons, but I can never seem to repeat it on my own.”) This is also a great time to ask noticing questions and guide their attention to the new sensations and details of the experience (as above).

VARIATION
One of the greatest tools we have as vocal educators and facilitators of vocal learning is variation. This is a bit counterintuitive for many because we think that there is a target sound that needs to be reached and therefore we keep aiming toward that target sound and, consequently, look to eliminate most other variations. But, that’s just not how learning works, the natural kind, at least. For lasting, healthy learning of a new motor skill to be most effective, it is helpful to purposely and systematically explore variations in relation to a goal or target sound so that one can really know what one is doing – when one is doing what one wants to do – and can ultimately choose, among many options, the thing that one wants to do – or better – at any given moment.
Variations can be gross or subtle. In the beginning of acquiring a skill or sound, gross variations are helpful. But, as one advances, subtler and subtler variations are key. For one, they allow for expression and artfulness while singing without having to go too far from a certain target sound or style. But also, and maybe more importantly, they allow the student lots of “wiggle room” in and around a certain way of singing so that “as things happen” (aka “as things go wrong”) they can adjust their way back to where they want to be again and again with ease and elegance.
If you only have one basic way of doing something – even if it’s good – you’re still stuck. And, when you’re not doing it… it’s probably going to be pretty far away from what you want to be doing. This becomes more and more obvious over time, sadly.
A good way to apply the variation principle in lessons is when a success happens – a new sound, an easy high note, etc. Have them rest (as explained above) then from there find various ways to have them go away from and come back to the new sound or sensation or note, etc. from various other sounds or positions. While at first this seems counter-productive, if you think about it, what you are doing by doing this is solidifying this understanding, experientially, of the new vocal discovery and showing them that they can go away from it can come back – in subtle and big ways – from so many different places. This strengthens the learning and helps with confidence and flexibility in performance. When facilitated well, variation is like intelligent play. It’s fun AND functional!

Well, there you have it.
I hope that these ideas will be helpful for you, my fellow voice teachers out there. Whether you are new to online teaching or a seasoned online instructor, I’m sure that thinking about and applying some of these strategies and techniques in your lessons (as you are comfortable with and as seems fit) will bring more efficiency and ease to your work with your students and allow them to take more away from each lesson.

If you have any questions about what I have explained here or would like to know more, email me at robert@robertsussuma.com

Stay safe. Stay healthy. And, keep learning!

Yours in solidarity,
Robert

Robert C. Sussuma
MMus., Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner®