When Imagery Hurts A Singer

Posted on 12. Sep, 2008 by in Performance, Singing

I feel it is very important that I publish this letter below. Forget for a moment that this is addressed to me.  This is not about me and that is not why I am publishing it. The reason why this is so important is because her experience is, unfortunately, so frighteningly common. Go ahead and read it first, and then I'll discuss it…

"Your program has me excited about singing again. I just started to sing a year ago at the age of 34 with the goal of getting a good part in a community theater musical production in 2010 – just for fun.  I also dream of being in a band :-) .  I am a dancer but untrained as a singer.  I have had a singing teacher for the last 8 months and I have been liking singing less and less.  I just quit lessons a month ago. Talk about the opposite of your approach.  He would laugh at me when I would make a mistake.  Then I would try to control my voice even more so I was singing with a lot of tension.  Then he would tell me not to be tense. 

After all this time I still do not understand the particular method of vocal production he was trying to share with me. It had to do with staying open, e.g. feeling like a pelican swallowing a salmon while you sing.  He was indeed a beautiful singer himself so I am certain that this method works for him but he was unable to teach me how to do it.  I am working on ridding myself of the tension, so far I have made good progress with the first couple of your DVDs.  And I don't mind practicing as I do not feel the frustration I was experiencing with my private lessons. Thanks!"

So was she just in the hands of a bad teacher?  Not necessarily. This teacher probably did exactly what he has come to believe teaching should be. He teaches the student how to sing according to what he believes is the right way. If the student then doesn't "get it", frustration naturally sets in.

Now before we go on, I'm sure you understand why it is difficult for me to write about this. It is difficult to try and bring the art of learning forward without coming across as I if I am critiquing other colleagues.  I have written extensively about the art of learning and how it goes hand in hand with the evolution of consciousness and increased knowledge of our psychology. Discussing the evolution of learning should in no way be considered critique towards the many brilliant teachers around the world who inspire people to sing. 
However, the woman writing this letter above is a classic case of someone who has been taught what is supposedly "correct" singing. She has been taught from an external point of view of what is supposedly "right", rather than having been allowed to discover her instrument. As a result, the student undoubtedly becomes more controlling. She is after all trying to please the teacher and do it "right". And this is exactly what is intended according to traditional ways of thinking.

Control was, and is still, seen as good. However, what our writer experienced is that the attempt to control is indeed fear-based.

Unfortunately, she is yet one more person who has been exposed to produce sound in an artificial way. And even worse; She has been exposed to devastating visual suggestions.  "Feel open like a pelican swallowing a salmon".  What does that mean? As I mentioned in the free video that I offer at www.TheSingingZone.com, visualization is one of my strengths and people who know how to visualize effectively can create phenomenal results from visualizing. 

Visualizations can create accurate internal responses in your body. You can learn advanced physical skills by using your mind. But if you really were to swallow a salmon, what would happen?  Would your throat open up? Would you relax? Would it feel good? Of course not.  With any foreign object entering your mouth, your throat would close up for protection.  What about a pelican swallowing? I, for one, have never had the experience of being a pelican.

While taking on an animal as a character can be fun and interesting for an improv comedy class, it is exceptionally destructive when you want to develop awareness of your physical instrument.

And then when everything else fails, the tendency is to give the student the standard instruction to "relax" – failing to realize that telling someone to "relax" is seldom productive. No one has ever relaxed by being told to relax.

Of course we understand that the imagery was just a well-meant attempt by the teacher to get the student to open her throat wide, and he is just accustomed to use artificial external images to get her to do so.

But then we may want to consider this old-fashioned idea of "open throat".  Unfortunately, we see people all the time trying to sing with this belief, trying to artificially manipulate the position of the larynx, trying to artificially manipulate the sound.  Not surprisingly, many who believe they are creating an "open throat" are in fact creating enormous restrictions in body and mind – just as our writer above realized. And not surprisingly, many evolve to sound like… well, come to think of it…. darn close to a pelican swallowing a salmon.

The point here is that people shouldn't have to lose interest in singing. Congratulations to the woman who wrote the letter for not giving up on her dreams!

Singing can be one of the greatest joys in life. Feeling comfortable to express yourself in sound and rhythm may be one of the healthiest activities you can engage in. Singing is for everyone.

How about instead of engaging in "right" or "wrong", you get to experience the truth – the true YOU – the you that constantly evolves?  How about getting a chance to really experience what "relaxation" is?  How about you get to discover what it really feels like to let out sound with less and less restrictions, with more and more power, with greater and greater and freedom?  How can we ever lose interest in that?

Please add a comment:

90 Responses to “When Imagery Hurts A Singer”

  1. Amber Rewis

    29. Jul, 2012

    Your approach sounds so much more natural & pleasant. Due to vocal cord damage from spinal injuries/surgery, it hurts to sing. My throat tenses up & I get a headache. It’s so depressing as a musician/songwriter to lose my voice. It’s like a painter losing her fingers. Some of my singer friends have been through vocal damage & after years of effort, healed & are singing professionally again. So there is hope, right?

  2. Fiona Weir

    24. Jul, 2012

    One of my teachers, a well-known Professor from
    the Guildhall Schoo of Music here in London, talked
    about feeling a little baby’s arm going down one’s
    throat – that wasn’t even slippery like a salmon!

    My last teacher, sadly no longer with us and greatly
    missed, didn’t speak about technique at all. He had a
    very good warm-up routine and then we sang songs
    that we both loved. If anything went wrong we
    stopped and tried again. At each lesson he produced
    some new music he had chosen for me to read.

  3. gail nichols

    11. Jul, 2012

    Hello Per,
    This woman and her salmon visual is a nightmare and my experience is too. I have a salivating problem. When I sing in front of anyone I begin to salivate to the extreme …the slober will actually run down out of my mouth. How does it feel? horrible. I think it is a bad fear that comes up in me. I Tend to sing too loud and strain in order to overcome my fear.
    I have been singing two years and I no longer have a teacher. I am determined to overcome this problem which I think comes from my childhood and My father who was overbering.
    I enjoy your help.
    I have tryed another singing program and did not get very far with it.

  4. Taru Pääkkönen

    02. Jul, 2012

    Hi, Per.
    While reading this article about that poor woman,
    thoughts like “Is this for real?” kept crossing my mind.
    I mean, I believe in singing “carefreely”, never mind if others think you hit the notes in the “wrong way” (that is, in a way they consider to be wrong), as long as you feel good.
    After all, singing is supposed to be fun and you can’t be a “pro” if you don’t rehearse.

    I haven’t bought any of the “sing with freedom” dvd’s yet (plans to though), but I can tell you that much that my singing have indeed improved just from watching the “introduction video” you sent me.
    I’ve been a member of a church choir for, I don’t know how many years, and I can honestly say that the video you sent me gave me so much more than all of those pointless hours as a choir member.
    There’s so much I’d like to tell you, like all the ways you inspire me, but let’s just say that for the first time ever I no longer dread to sing in public.
    Thank you!

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