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Passing down the curse of knowledge

Sharing isn't always caring, if recent research is to be believed.

Especially when it comes to having a more thorough knowledge of the inner workings of the voice, Melissa Treinkman cited authors that found the greater explicit knowledge some subjects possessed, the less likely they would perform a given task well, particularly under pressure. Said another way, the knowledge these subjects had of what it takes to do a task actually got in the way of doing the task well. What does this mean for singers, and for teachers like me who absolutely love the way the voice works, and loves sharing that even more with my clients?

One caveat to point out, the studies cited were from psychology and sports research journals, and not from singing studies, so we're generalizing here in a way that might not be appropriate. A lot of times research on human performance are done with large motor tasks and are testing for things like speed and accuracy. Singing is a bit different than trying to throw a frisbee or tap on a screen rapidly, so we might not be able to transfer these ideas to our singing. It's still interesting to think about, though. Okay, onward.

The goals of most singers who take lessons likely include doing the kind of singing they want to do, consistently and predictably. There's almost nothing more discombobulating to a singer than opening her mouth and having no idea what might come out at any given time. Singing lessons is supposed to reduce some of that uncertainty by practicing the skills needed to execute that particular singing task. When we've learned something well, we can take those skills and transfer them into other singing tasks. Much of this learning requires sensory memory, which doesn't necessarily require knowing what's happening inside, as much as how it feels. For at least some singers, myself included, knowing what gave me an agency over my own voice that I didn't really have before, and I know there are others out there like me.

Does that knowledge get in my own way, though? I can't really say it does. What I can say is that because I know the intricacies of the voice, I am more and more fascinated with it. I've said many times that my favorite thing about the singing voice is that most of the time it just works. There are so many ways the voice can go sideways that it's a phenomenon that most of the time, without any extra thought at all, we can create sound. Even beautiful sound! So when things go wrong in my singing, I can often pinpoint where along the way it went off the rails. For me, knowing these things have allowed me to have more grace with myself and to take the mistakes as they come in a more accepting way. Sometimes things just happen, because the voice is complex and it takes just one tiny thing for it to go weird on me.

I also know there's a real danger of paralysis in analysis, and trying to figure things out can make folks overthink or spiral. For singers who have those kinds of tendencies, knowing too many things may indeed lead to death by details, so to speak.

So how can we, as teachers, know when it is a good idea to tell our clients more about their voices, and when should we allow some mystery to remain? I'm not certain of the answer to this, but I do think we need to let our clients lead the way. They will know themselves more than we can know them, after all, and they can tell us what they want to know, and if they're not interested. Of course, our wisdom as teachers can play a big part in that, too. We can decide how much to tell our clients, and usually the smaller the chunks of info, the better. People need time to digest the information they receive and work with it in a way that they can apply that knowledge in a meaningful way. Information alone is not learning, after all. It is in working with that information through application that is learning.

What do you think? How much to do you share with your clients, and how much do you hold back? I'd love to hear your thoughts! You can post them in a comment below, or send me a message through the chat function.

And if you would like to know more about the voice, I'm here for you! I'm your Personal Pedagogy Professor, and I'd love to get more in depth into the function of the voice, and how you apply that knowledge to your teaching. You can book some time with me and talk about all the things!


Treinkman, M. (2021). Focus of attention research: A review and update for teachers of singing. Journal of Singing, 77(3), 407-413.

Helding, L. (2020). The musician's mind: Teaching, learning, and performing in the age of brain science. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

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