Have a question about singing or an issue you'd like me to write about? Email it to me at michaelhanko.nyc@gmail.com!

August 12, 2014

New blog address

Hello, readers. As of today, I am moving this blog to my new website: NYCvoiceguru.com. Please check out the new address for future posts. (All posts from this blog have been relocated there for your convenience.)

Thank you.

Michael Hanko
The Art & Science of Singing

April 1, 2012

Beware the "method"!

My teacher Cornelius Reid used to warn budding teachers, "There are as many singing methods as there are singers."

He meant, I believe, that 1) people come with a unique blend of problems, skill levels, misconceptions, attitudes, and enrgy levels; and 2) everyone has an individual style of learning. Disregarding this truth is one of the core problems with our system of school education. If you don't believe me, ask yourself and a few friends if your educational needs got met to your satisfaction in high school. Did you feel adequately nurtured, challenged, appreciated for your unique gifts?

Thought so.

That is why I have taken Cornelius at his word and worked hard to derive a custom method for each of my students that addresses their goals, talents, and challenges precisely.

If you know of a teacher who applies a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching her students, pray that the method either miraculously suits the one person for whom it might be the perfect solution. . .or is so far off the mark that students are able to perceive its ineffectiveness when applied to them.

Pity the poor student for whom the method is almost right. That singer might never learn how close he came to great technique without actually reaching it.

I beg you to excuse the dire tone of this posting, which I'm going to attribute to this blasted flu, which has caused me for the first time in my life, ironically, to lose my voice. I just hate to see learners of anything unnecessarily limiting their growth by buying into the Myth of Method.

And that is no April Fool!

December 31, 2010

Reducing throat tension - my new bodywork method for singers

Hello again, readers.  Did you wonder where'd I'd been all these weeks?

Well, I've been busy studying anatomy texts, taking new bodywork courses, reading books on singing physiology — in short, I've been creating a new throat-freeing procedure!  I've been offering my students what I call Voice-Enhancing Bodywork all along, but recently, I've been developing a new sort of mini-protocol to use at the beginning of a voice lesson.  Unlike a full session of VEB, this new protocol takes as little as 15 minutes to perform.

So far, I have been astounded by the effectiveness of the new protocol: some students who could produce a pure falsetto only with great difficulty and constriction are suddenly able — after only one short session on the table — to sing in falsetto more freely, at greater volume, and in an expanded range. In other students I have observed an immediate stabilization of the larynx, which is no longer being pulled in unhelpful directions when they sing.

October 25, 2010

Book Review: Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code: Intriguing neurobiology, disastrous and illogical conclusions

One of my students recently recommended that I take a look at Daniel Coyle's book (Bantam Dell, 2009), The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born.  It's grown.  Here's how.   Like my student, I was fascinated by Coyle's description of an emerging scientific model of skill development.  Apparently, recent research has suggested that myelin, a fatty substance that gets deposited around neurons as brain connections develop, not only provides insulation to the neurons, but also both strengthens and speeds up particularly well-practiced neural connections.  It seems that the more frequently a neural pathway is used, the more layers of myelin get deposited, resulting, as Coyle writes, in a "broadband" effect which increases the effectiveness of the nervous system in performing the skill set under development.

The biological facts that emerge from the research Coyle describes help to explain how learning happens — how we develop skill — and why habits are so hard to break.  Firing a neurological circuit causes myelin to wrap the neurons involved, which is how skills get built up as we repeat the associated actions.  Coyle further reports that there is no mechanism which undoes this wrapping (other than aging or disease), which means that, once you develop an enhanced neural pathway, it is there for life, waiting to be triggered whether you desire it or not.  (Unfortunately, Coyle glosses over this inescapable and critical phenomenon in one short paragraph and never returns to flesh out its consequences.)

Once he has laid the (greatly simplified) neurobiological groundwork for his book, Coyle goes on to draw conclusions and make recommendations that 1) do not follow from his premises, 2) are largely irrelevant to both students and teachers/coaches, and 3) perpetuate a prevalent but detrimental attitude towards learning that can be summed up as "you gotta try hard to succeed."  In the following paragraphs, I'll address each of these weaknesses of Coyle's arguments in turn.

October 14, 2010

Under Construction

When a highway is being resurfaced, you have to find a temporary alternative route.  In a similar way, the new vocal technique you are working on in your lessons may be not available for "real" singing for some time.

This inaccessibility of your best resources can be downright frustrating, as my students D. and C. found out recently.  They both have begun working with me in the past few months, hoping to address some inconsistent results that arose in performance situations.  Both of them have a high degree of musical intuition, so they have been able to achieve a much-improved register balance during their lessons in a relatively short time.  Both of them have experienced the effortlessness and beauty of sound brought about by a well-coordinated vocal mechanism — while singing exercises in my studio.

Both of them have also experienced a demoralizing return to the problems that brought them to me when they have sung songs outside their lessons.  What is going on here?

August 30, 2010

Levels of Intervention

(While I'm on vacation — from teaching and blogging — I hope you enjoy this piece from my website archives.)

As a youngster, I was a bit of a smart-aleck.  One of my sisters would ask me a perfectly legitimate question: “Do you know where my pink hairbrush is?”  “Yes,” I’d answer, with my characteristic supercilious pursing of the lips guaranteed to drive my siblings insane, “I know where your hairbrush is — it’s in the world.”   I delighted in wasting my sister’s time by providing information that was not specific enough to actually be helpful.

Other than by annoying my little sisters, I liked to amuse myself with nerdy activities like writing out my return address on envelopes in what I fancied to be its properly complete version.  Writing the tiniest characters I could manage, I crammed all of this onto the upper left corner of my envelope:

Mike Hanko
5403 Rolling Rd
Springfield, Virginia
North America
Western Hemisphere
Solar System
Milky Way Galaxy

Now I was wasting my own time (and ink), by providing much more information than the Postal Service needed to get a letter to me.  (Not that it wouldn’t serve me in other situations to comprehend my precise place in the scheme of things.)

August 23, 2010

The View from the Mountaintop

(While I'm on vacation — from teaching and blogging — I hope you enjoy this piece from my website archives.)

Have you ever become so engrossed in a book that you completely lost track of time and eventually looked up from your reading to realize that you’re a little achy from sitting for god knows how long in an uncomfortable position?  Or have you ever zoned out into auto-pilot mode while driving home from work and somehow gotten to your destination without any recollection of the trip?

Lately, under the influence of Missy Vineyard’s excellent new AT book, How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live, I’ve been contemplating this kind of situation, in which my awareness shrinks, leaving me with only a partial picture of my experience.

What constitutes complete awareness?  I distinguish at least three aspects of any moment of experience which my awareness may encompass: my Self, my activity, and my environment.  While recognizing that my awareness exhibits a fluid, delicately shifting balance among these three aspects of experience, my goal is to neglect none of them and favor none of them above the others.

August 16, 2010

Expending Effort Wisely

(While I'm on vacation — from teaching and blogging — I hope you enjoy this piece from my website archives.)

Many people have the misconception — and I have to admit to my own deeply ingrained version of this misconception — that the Alexander Technique is about relaxing.  Don't we all want to live with the minimal amount of muscular effort?  The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is not really.  At least, not minimal effort in the way most of us mean these words.

There are actually at least two different kinds of effort that we employ as we go about our activities.  One is familiar: it's the effort we expend to perform various actions.  We expend effort to lift a stone, to sing a note, to walk across the room.   The other kind of effort goes largely unrecognized for most of us: it's the "background" effort that supports our bodies in response to gravity.  It takes a certain amount of energy to be upright to varying degrees in standing or sitting or even lying on a couch.  (Dr. Wilfred Barlow, one of the first teachers trained by Alexander, attibutes to him "a vision of a way of life in which the body was to be used well and actively during even the most sedentary of pursuits."  [Italics mine])

I'm beginning to tune in to the inverse relationship between these two types of effort.  It seems that if I expend a little more energy to organize myself into a more dynamic uprightness, I actually need to expend a lot LESS energy to perform the lifting of stones and singing of notes, etc, that make up my daily activities.

August 9, 2010

The power of intention

(While I'm on vacation — from teaching and blogging — I hope you enjoy this piece from my website archives.  It's from a few years ago, for those of you who may be wondering why Willy doesn't get a mention.  He hadn't been born yet!)

The skill I've developed through my Alexander work in manifesting intentions paid off in an unexpected way today.

I have been running with my dog, Freddy, for a few months now.  Several times a week, we jog down to the river park along the Hudson and back--perhaps 3-4 miles in all.  Freddy is faster than me and has far more stamina (who knew Chihuahuas were so athletic?), so he always tended to run a bit ahead, barking all the while.  I interpreted this behavior as wanting to go faster and greeting everyone we passed.

Yesterday I began reading a book by the "Dog Whisperer," Cesar Millan, on dog psychology and training, Cesar's Way, and learned enough to realize that Freddy was running ahead of me because he considered himself the alpha dog in our "pack" and he was barking to alert his pack of perceived threats--bikes, buses, other dogs and runners, etc.

This morning, I changed my intentions for our run.  I decided to actively take on the mantle of alpha dog, designating myself the leader in my own mind and taking the responsibility for alertness and judgment that comes with this role.   I noticed that the change in my thinking brought about an immediate if slight change in my carriage and my confidence, which Freddy apparently picked up on.

August 2, 2010

Am I leading a recycled life?

Happy August, Readers!

In honor of this hot and lazy month, I am taking off from teaching starting this weekend until after Labor Day.  I'd like to make this month maximally relaxing, so in lieu of active blogging, I'm going to be recycling some entries from my now defunct former blog, starting with this entry from May of 2007, entitled "Am I leading a recycled life?"  (How ironic.)

And if you're intrigued by the topic of this essay, head over to my partner Peter's blog, where today he brings up some closely related issues.  Browse around while you're there; he's a brilliant and often brilliantly funny writer.

Am I leading a recycled life?

One of my students came in for his lesson this week with a fascinating account of how he had become aware of a set of habits associated with seeing pretty girls on the street.   This seeing-a-pretty-girl habit pattern included muscular tensions that interfered with his freedom of movement.  We discussed various ways he could address these habits, from removing the stimulus altogether by maintaining a more internal focus —with the unfortunate result that he would not get to see pretty girls — to applying the principles of the AT to the situation, allowing a new kind of response to evolve.

July 22, 2010

Welcome, Classical Singer readers!

I'm very pleased to announce that Classical Singer magazine has published an article I wrote in their August 2010 issue, which is now on sale.  (Non-subscribers can read this article — called "Beyond Posture: the Alexander Technique for Singers" — on my blog.  I posted it in four parts starting March 22 of this year.)

If you're coming to this blog for the first time after reading about it in the magazine, I'd like to specially welcome you and thank you for visiting.  I'm hoping you'll browse through past posts for topics of interest to you. . .and that you'll leave comments about your own experience as a singer or as a teacher.

You are also welcome to write with questions or topics you'd like me to cover in future posts.  You may leave these as comments to this or any other post or email them to me at michaelhanko.nyc@gmail.com.

May you feel a part of a community here — a community of singers and teachers and others interested in perfecting our craft, exploring the mind-body connection, and supporting each other.

All the best,

Michael Hanko

July 18, 2010

Coming this fall — new teaching format!

Hello, dear readers.  I'm back from Fire Island, where, as planned, I did nothing much other than rest and take the dogs for romps on the beach.

I figured that something productive would come of leaving my brain free to romp unleashed as well for a few days. . .and I was right.

Towards the end of our time in the Pines, during that delicious half-conscious state following a lazy afternoon nap, a stunningly constructive idea popped into my head: I will start teaching in GROUPS!  Both Alexander Technique and voice!

July 11, 2010

Thinking vs. feeling: the eternal conundrum

We decided to take a later train and ferry to get to Fire Island this evening, so I find myself with a couple of extra hours to write a blog post.  I am challenging myself to use this windfall time to tackle a tricky and crucial question posed by my reader Jack over a month ago — I've been avoiding it ever since, but now I'm going to face the music.

Jack's question is one inevitably encountered by serious students of the Alexander Technique.  His particular version of this age-old conundrum came in response to my posting about how I'd recently made the mistake — twice! — of trying to feel my way into change:

If I ask myself "is my neck free?" isn't that attempting to get a feeling? How could this properly be converted to "thinking"?

Great questions, Jack!  This topic deserves a book-length treatment, but I'm going to focus today on just two potential paths to understanding.

July 10, 2010

How to elicit students' vowel awareness

Wow—has it really been a month since my last posting?  It's ironic, but since I started blogging and otherwise increasing my web presence as a teacher, the increased number of students it's brought me has left me with little time to continue blogging.  So I'm having to learn about managing a larger practice, but this is a welcome challenge, no doubt.

Oh yes, and the high temperatures of summer leave me feeling mighty lazy.  When I have a few extra moments of time during this part of the year, I usually just stretch out next to the chihuahuas on the couch, where they like to take the sun.

Peter and the dogs and I are all headed out for a week at the beach (Fire Island Pines) starting tomorrow.  There's apparently little wireless coverage out there, so we're going to leave blogging behind.  We'll return bronzed (well, whatever color one turns with SPF 70, perhaps a darker shade of cream), relaxed, and ready to dig back into sewing, blogging, teaching, and chewing on bones, respectively.

Anyhow, before I leave, I wanted to respond to a reader (Chaz) who posed the following question on one of my past postings about vowels:

Can you say more about how you teach students to discern the quality of their vowels? Some of mine have a "natural" ability to hear, and others seem to have no awareness of what seems so obvious to me. Is relentless repitition the only way? 

June 9, 2010

Feelings...nothing more than feelings

It's a very human characteristic to want to finally figure something out: "Now I've got it!"

Unfortunately, the moment we think we have figured something out is usually the moment at which our relationship to that particular thing becomes set in stone, and thus not amenable to further development.  In this way, unconscious habits are formed.

What I want in life is to maintain a constant state of improvement.  I have come to realize that the aha moments that occasionally come along and delight me represent not a permanent figuring-out of how things should be, but more like a provisional state until I reach the next phase of my development.  (This next phase may come 2 seconds or 2 years later.)

I forgot my own wisdom twice this week, allowing moments of improved functioning in my lessons to evoke a now-I've-got-it state of mind.  In both instances, I fell into the mistake of abandoning my thinking, reverting to trying to feel my way into an activity.

June 3, 2010

Arm, arm, ye brave!

In singing or any other activity, we get the best response out of our bodies when they are well coordinated. This means that all the muscles of the body are pulling against each other in a state of harmoniously balanced tension.  Anytime that there is a "pocket" of over-slackness somewhere in the system, meaning certain muscles are not participating in the web of coordinated tension, this creates a drag on the whole system.  This drag forces the body to work harder to do anything, even just to maintain its uprightness.  It's like having an idler in a team of workers: when someone is not pulling his weight, his coworkers must work harder to compensate.  This imbalance -- in the team of workers or in your body -- creates tension and stress!

Even the non-participation of a seemingly insignificant muscle group can wreak havoc on the responsiveness of our bodies.  I've written before about the importance of allowing the facial muscles to stay "activated" when we sing.  If your cheeks go over-slack in the middle of a phrase, the resulting downward tendency of the face snowballs into a detrimental downward force along the entire front of the body, including the area of the vocal cords.  The state of balance of the body is delicate, so any force that offsets the balance even a little can cause strain as the other available muscles struggle to take up the slack.

Whenever a part of your musculature is under-energized, you can be sure that somewhere else in your body other muscles are over-working to compensate.

May 30, 2010

Is it worth it?

This past week, my student Jake asked me if I thought this quote represented the truth:

"No matter how many specific ends you may gain, you are worse off than before, if in the process of gaining them you have destroyed the integrity of the organism."

(It's a statement attributed to F.M. Alexander, as reported in Frank Pierce Jones's wonderful book, Freedom to Change.  My student Danielle, about whom I wrote a few days ago, had found the quote while reading the book and brought it (back) to my attention.  It clearly reflected what Jake and I had been exploring in his last lesson, so I passed it along to him.  Do you think Alexander ever suspected that one day his wisdom would be shared among his followers via text message?)

Well, Jake, my own experience supports F.M.'s conjecture.  Even though it goes against "common sense" and against most people's expectations, it seems that we are better off paying a bit MORE attention to the integrity of our bodies and a bit LESS attention to the specific goals we are trying to achieve.  Not surprisingly, when I pay more attention to the ease and organization of my body, I feel better and my body works better.

What is really astounding, however, is that this shift in focus away from the achievement of the goals I am pursuing actually improves my performance of these goals as well.  It is as if paying attention to the ease in my neck (for example) keeps my brain occupied so that it can't (badly) micromanage the use of my body in carrying out my goal-related tasks.  Actions over which I'd otherwise struggle seem to "do themselves" with far more skill and efficiency than I'd be able to consciously call up.  I have noticed this effect improving my performance in singing, swimming, running, dog behavior management, and arguing, among other activities.

May 25, 2010

Hello 12, Hello 13, Hello Voice Lessons?

I recently received an email from a young man named Alex wanting to know whether he should start voice lessons now, while his voice was still changing, or wait until puberty has finished.

The usual advice in this situation is to wait, but if a young person has a passion for music, I would not want to squelch his (or her) enthusiasm by refusing to give lessons.  So here is what I am going to recommend for Alex:

1) As you might suspect, this is not the time for extensive technique development, since your bodily conditions are undergoing dramatic changes.  Over-stressing your vocal organs right now would only interfere with their healthy development.  Also, whatever control over your mechanism you manage to achieve now, you will only have to relearn when things in your body have finally settled down.  Don't bother with technique lessons until you are 17 or 18 or even older.  (I did not start voice lessons until I was 22.)

2) Focus now on learning other things that will stay with you throughout your vocal career:

May 21, 2010

The Danielle Principle

My student Danielle had the opportunity a few days ago to take a lesson with her former voice teacher.  It seems to have been a real eye-opener for her. . .and led to her coming up with a brilliant and individual way of applying the Alexander Technique.

During this lesson, Danielle's teacher suggested many of the same manipulative techniques she'd always relied on -- "unhinge your jaw," for example -- but with her new Alexander/Reid perspective on singing, Danielle was noticing that these recommendations were producing more tension in her technique, not less.  She realized that her former teacher's approach was no longer valid for her.

Danielle told me that the detrimental instructions were causing her frustration to mount along with her tension, until she experienced a sudden shift in thinking.  It started with an Alexandrian pause; she gave herself a moment to stop responding with tension and frustration.  This inhibitory moment allowed Danielle to come up with a more beneficial approach.

May 14, 2010

Smiles, everyone, smiles!

Toni asked me recently to explain the concept of bocca ridente, Italian for "smiling mouth."  This is an old term, first used by singing teachers in the bel canto era.

Like a lot of teaching concepts, bocca ridente contains a kernel of validity along with the potential for misunderstanding and misuse.  I guess the originators of the term were acknowledging that in good singing, the facial muscles (along with all the rest of the muscles of the body) engaged in a particular energetic way, similarly to the way they engage in an authentic smile.  Good singing technique, therefore, produces a smile-like engagement of the facial muscles.

It's unfortunately easy to get this the wrong way around, thinking that smiling can produce good singing technique.  Like any localized attempt at muscular control, putting on a smiling mouth can imbalance the delicate whole-body muscular coordination we are after, eliciting tension and self-consciousness in the process.  The opposite situation -- a frowning mouth, or under-engaged facial muscles -- is just as harmful to singing technique.  Without enough tone in the facial muscles, the face sags, putting downward pressure onto the larynx and creating imbalance throughout the body.  If a muscle is not doing its job, if it is under-energized, another muscle must over-work to make up for it.  What we are after is balance, which can occur only as a whole-body, simultaneous pattern.  You can't possibly command each of your muscles to pull with the appropriate amount of force, which in any case changes from moment to moment.  This impossibility extends to your smiling muscles as well.

Let's do a little experiment to test the differences between a smile that arises spontaneously and a smile we consciously produce.