• Scott Carlton


Although the study of voice can be, and should be, a straightforward process of acquiring and incorporating information, the factors that distinguish voice instruction from other fields of pedagogy are: aesthetics, personality/temperament and personal experience. Aesthetics are the great intangibles of art, and include artistic expression, emotional impact of art, coloration, all that moves us and makes us feel that art is above the ordinary. Personality and temperament include how one learns (i.e., right brain, left brain, synthesis of both, sequential) and most importantly, one’s past personal experience of voice study plays a very large role in the success or failure of future voice study.

We are born with instincts that guide us to pleasure and away from danger. In executing music, our instincts can tell us whether or not we are on the right path. Is singing becoming more satisfying? Are the challenges of acquiring this new skill fun or a source of frustration? We will instinctively know when we are on the right path in singing. HOWEVER, all too often a singer can lose his or her connection to instinct to the degree that the singer cannot ascertain whether or not he/she is progressing, backsliding, or whether the act of singing is becoming easier or more difficult. This is complicated by the fact that the force of habit is such that we can convince ourselves that difficulty in singing is “just part of the process” and that when “enough strength and skill is attained” we will “get it”. Habitual tension, overly compressed singing (a compensatory tension usually resulting from lack of proper breath support), even singing the in the wrong vocal classification (i.e. soprano singing mezzo, tenor singing baritone), can feel “normal”. Challenges to these habits can evoke a sense of threat in some students, especially those who have already studied a great deal. Transitioning voice classifications can involve a sense of threat to the singer’s vocal identity

It can be disconcerting to lose trust in one’s instincts. In my transition from baritone to tenor, I went through a period where I could not sing with line, I had difficulty with cracking and I could not sing with softly or with nuance. I felt I had lost my aesthetic sense of singing and all that kept me going was the brilliance and “trueness” of my new-found tenor top notes. This was the element of instinct that kept me going. Singing baritone was simply not satisfying after “tasting the waters” of singing tenor. I experienced tremendous frustration and surely drove my teacher at the time (Dennis Heath of Los Angeles) to distraction with my questions and troubled emotions around singing. My love of singing and the feeling that I had “something to say” as a singer kept me going.

There are unfortunate cases where singers will persist with instructors to the point that they experience vocal dysfunction or outright damage. This is often the case where the extremely strong personality of the instructor overwhelms the student, who is made to feel that questioning or discussing frustrations is unnecessary (See the “Drill Sergeant” in my blog post “Types of Voice Teachers”). Singers have presented in my studio who have been so victimized by poor instruction that it took a huge amount of patience and time to regain trust and to get on the right technical track. Large voices who have been forced to chronically “under-sing” (a common problem in educational institutions) suffer in particular the phenomenon of loss of trust in instinct.

It is the task of the voice teacher to guide the student back to his or her true instincts about singing, to the place they started from: a love of singing and music.

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