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January 29, 2010

Don't try this at home! Why it's not possible to recreate your voice lessons on your own

The way we work together in your voice lessons is basically this:

I give you an exercise to sing.  You sing it, as spontaneously as possible, doing your best not to interfere with the reflex response of your voice.  I listen, evaluate the results, and carefully choose a next exercise to exploit any successes while correcting any problems.

In this process, we both have firmly differentiated roles, requiring dissimilar mindsets.
I need to be in an analytical mode, since I have to judge what is going right and wrong in your vocal coordination based on the sensory information coming to my ears and eyes.

In order to sing with the freedom required in these exercises, you need to be as free as possible from judgment of the results of your singing.  Self-judgment stifles your spontaneity, making it more likely that you will gravitate towards the familiar, rather than the new and potentially better.  Only when you are not concerned about the result can you properly focus on the process you are undertaking to produce it.  (This is similar to that sought-after Zen state of being in the moment, focusing on means rather than ends.)

The upshot is that my way of vocally working with you requires one of us to be a judge and one of us to abstain from judgement.  If you tried to replicate this process on your own between lessons, you would have to simultaneously judge and abstain from judgement, clearly an impossibility!

There are more productive uses of your practice time than to try in vain to be your own voice teacher.  I suggested some in another post yesterday.  If you want more ideas for self-study, feel free to ask me in your lessons.


  1. What is your opinion on recording yourself singing, and then judging the playback?

  2. I think that developing the skill to do this is an admirable goal. The secret is in objectivity. You are not listening to see how pretty it is; you are learning to listen FUNCTIONALLY. This means that you are learning to connect what you were thinking and doing at the time with what resulted in the form of registration and resonance. (Teachers may wish to remember to listen functionally rather than aesthetically when they are teaching as well.)

    Most of us are not able to be very objective when observing ourselves, however, at least not at first. If you doubt this, try to look at yourself in the mirror and describe what you see dispassionately and without value judgment. F.M. Alexander had an uncanny ability to use the mirror in just this way; he spent years (!) observing himself as he recited lines, figuring out as he went just what he was doing to interfere with his best coordination. Most of us would have been fussing about our bad hair days and worrying if our pants made our butts look fat.

    Some students get quite discouraged when they hear recordings of themselves singing, because they are listening judgmentally with harsh standards. If this happens to you, I would consider not listening to your lesson recordings until you can do it without becoming distressed. If it's helping your progress, though, by all means continue.

    As in all things, there's no one answer to fit every singer's situation. Feel free to comment again to let other readers know how you find listening to your recordings helpful or unhelpful. Thanks for your question.