When is efficiency a problem?

When I was doing my PhD in pedagogy and voice science, so much of the conversations we had in my department around teaching singing had to do with efficiency. We preferred to use that word instead of talking about "healthy" singing, because "healthy singing" was something that we didn't want to be responsible for defining. So, instead we played with the semantics and made vocal efficiency the goal.

Lately I've revisited an article about focus from Journal of Singing, and rethinking some things that have been important to me as a singing teacher. In the article, the author, Melissa Treinkman, discusses the difference between internal and external focus, and recounts research that suggests external attention tends to be better at getting folks the results they want. She summarizes EMG studies on athletes that showed when they focused on external things, like the ball in their hand, instead of internal things, like the position of their wrist, they tended to have more accuracy, and there were fewer unessential muscles recruited during the movement. The internal focus of attention was less efficient, because it used more muscles to complete an activity that could be done with fewer muscles.

Treinkman then wondered if the same might also be true for singers, that if they focused on internal things, like a lowered larynx, rather than external things, like a connected phrase, for example, perhaps more muscles than were absolutely necessary might get involved in the act of singing, making it inefficient.

The first time I read through the article, I wrote in the margin, "Is efficiency always the best goal?" Today I'm taking the time to think through it, and I invite you to think along with me.

So, is it?

The best answer I've come up with so far is, "It depends." So unsatisfying, right? But I think it's true. Like so many other things in singing, there are very few black and white answers, and being able to confidently navigate the grey areas is where excellent teaching really lies.

Like so many aspects of our American culture, I think productivity mindset is creeping into how we teach singing. It's so hard to get away from! I have noticed lately that I always have some sort of goal in mind for my clients, and we talk about it in our sessions. This is something I'm trying to let go of, and it's a complete mind trip! It's totally changing the way I'm thinking about why I do things I do in lessons. In fact, just last week I had a lengthy discussion with a client about why I wasn't going to set goals for her in her sessions. I told her that ultimately she had to decide what was important to her, and then I would be able to serve as her guide along the way. We tend to always be working toward somethin in singing lessons. Often that something is measurable, with markers we can hit along the way, and that is for the purpose of "getting better" at singing in some way. And then when we hit that goal, we make another one and move on toward it. Very, very rarely have I had the experience of singing with clients simply for the pleasure of singing, without any other motive, and I wonder how many times that was because I reinforced the cultural emphasis on self-improvement on my students without realizing what I was really doing.

Now, don't get me wrong, I think it is generally fine to have some sort of end in mind, if that is what is best for the client. The unspoken assumption is, however, that there is something deficient in their singing, and they need to work on it in order to fix that deficiency. That is a WHOLE can of worms that we could crack open, but for now, I'm going to just chuck that can into the bushes and not mention it again. But we all know it exists. We just don't have time to deal with it today.