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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.

Efficiency is sometimes necessary

For singers who are at the very top of their profession, I think efficiency is a worthy, and maybe even necessary, goal. If you're singing multiple shows in a week, often using the extremes of your range, or singing for long periods of time, I can see how cutting out excess muscle recruitment would be highly ideal. After all, every muscles that gets used pulls from our energy reserves, and in some cases, it can make things harder. If a soprano needs to make it through an entire Rossini opera with multiple lightning fast coloratura passages several times in a week, that's a different kind of vocal demand than a cantor who sings two services on Sunday morning with a single rehearsal during the middle of the week. Or a middle school choral teacher who is teaching singing to dozens of changing voices in large classrooms, maybe with amplification (but maybe not) and barely 20 minutes to shove food in his face in the middle of the day, that voice is going to have different vocal demands than a hobby singer taking lessons for fun so she can sing karaoke with her colleagues when they go out for drinks after work.

All four of those voices have important vocal goals, but not every one of them is going to care about efficiency in the same way. And maybe they don't have to. For the vast majority of singers who take voice lessons, there is likely some work that could be done in the efficiency department. I think we would all want our clients to have the kind of vocal technique that will keep them singing for the rest of their lives in a way they enjoy and that feeds their souls. But what if efficiency is actually a hindrance rather than a help?

When efficiency gets in the way

I think the idea of efficiency might be counterproductive when it becomes the end in itself. I can get absolutely lost in the inner workings of the voice, because it is the most fascinating system in the body. In my humble opinion, of course. I could literally go on for hours about how it works, and how inspiring it is to watch it in motion. We make sound with it! To really think about how phenomenal that can make me weep with the beauty of it. But efficiency isn't the same thing as beauty. And it's not the same thing as confidence, or agency, or health, or soul fulfillment. Efficiency, for most singers, is likely going to be an incredibly small part of their singing journey. I think it will be more important for some than for others because of many reasons (feel free to ask me if you want more info, this blog is getting long enough), but most of the time, we can use the idea of external focus to help guide our clients to the singing they want to do, and to heck with it being the most efficient way to do it.

If efficiency doesn't matter, don't force it

If you've got a client who could not care less for efficient technique, leave it be. It's absolutely enough that they're singing. Efficiency is inherently about the doing of the thing, but sometimes singing is about being.

What this might look like for me is not caring too much about posture, or if they are breathing too many times in a phrase, or they get breathy on some soft passages, or it takes them eight weeks to learn all the right notes UNLESS any of that stuff matters to them. If it doesn't matter, maybe I suggest it to them as a matter of expression, but if they don't care about it, neither do I. And if they have no goals they want to work toward, I'm not going to force productivity culture into their lessons. We will practice being, instead of doing.

I thank you for sticking with me as I ramble through my thoughts here, and I'd be very interested to know your thoughts, too. What does efficient singing mean to you? Has that thought ever gotten in your way? Has it freed you in some way? Let me know in the comments below, or send me a message. This is a discussion I'd really like to keep going!

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