“Prescribing the Symptom” in the Voice Lesson

Evan Bortnick   Wiesbaden

Evan Bortnick       http://musa-vocalis.de/

Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden

A voice student begins singing in a lesson and you hear an OBVIOUS mistake, hindrance, inefficiency or blockage (nasality, jaw tension, tongue tension, over-darkened vowels, raised shoulders, high larynx, etc. etc.). What’s the next step?

The simplest way would seem to be to just tell the student to correct it. There are several important pre-assumptions here;

  • the student knows what you’re talking about,
  • if the student does not know what you’re talking about, he/she will admit it and ask,
  • the student has the capacity to sense what you’re saying while they’re singing,
  • the student has the ability to make another choice,
  • the student can make another choice without compensating to another extreme.

These are large assumptions, especially for younger students. If any single one of these (and a few other) assumptions is not fulfilled, helping tensions result. Is there another way? I’ve been experimenting with one possibility which is showing promise and have been labeling it recently with the catchy name “Prescribe the Symptom”. Therapists and Coaches call this a “Paradoxical Intervention”, because you’re asking the student to do something in the very short run which you want them to stop doing in the long run; hence the ‘paradox’. So in “Prescribe the Symptom” we actually direct the student to do what she’s already doing and wants to stop. This idea is mirrored in Yoga practice. A Yogi will have shoulder tension and the teacher asks the yogi to tense up the shoulders. Sounds weird, I know. Why should this work?

Evan Bortnick   Wiesbaden

It makes an involuntary/unconscious action voluntary and conscious thereby increasing its regulation. An over-tensed muscle or muscle chain is easier to release after the muscle tone is increased. Let’s say you have a student who sings all vowels with a slight nasal twanginess. Let’s say you’ve tried ‘direct and simple’ and asked the student to remove nasality and heard; ‘what nasality?’ Using this idea you might ask the student to

  1. say the 4 french nasal vowels; “Un bon vin blanc.”,
  2. sing the first word “un”, notice where it resonates and exaggerate that,
  3. say the English word “Father”,
  4. sing that word, notice where it resonates and exaggerate that,
  5. sing, going back and forth between œ̃ and ɑ between (French “Un” and English “Father”)
  6. Describe the difference in resonance and
    1. What internal felt muscular (not resonance) movement determines this difference?

By asking the student to exaggerate the nasality, not unlike the Yogi example above, you are increasing the student’s ability to regulate and calibrate the subtle (and not so subtle) soft-palate movement dynamics.

Take another example; the student sings with a fixed and high larynx with no awareness of this. You could simply tell him to lower his larynx and if he could do it without helping tensions, compensations or exaggerations, that would definitely be the way to go. If not, trying this idea would entail asking him to sing with a high larynx and notice the ‘advantages’ (second format intensity, the feeling of carrying power (illusory as it may be), a ‘bright’ sound, a sense of forward placement (as illusory as that may be), ‘ring’, squillando (illusory as well), fidelity to the aesthetics of an earlier voice teacher {mostly badly misunderstood!}, etc. etc. etc). Notice the disadvantages (voice gets unstable through ‘lifts’, ‘registers’, vowel changes and ‘messa di voce’— crescendo-descrescendo, voice gets tired fast, a sense of excessive stiffness around the tongue and floor of the mouth, etc. etc. etc.) Next, ask the student to,

  1. place a finger on the adam’s apple, not to push it, rather just to notice what’s going on and, while singing a single note (not too high),  raise the larynx even more and notice the;
    1. resonance sense change
    2. tone color change
    3. accompanying movements,
    4. leave the finger on the adam’s apple and this time after raising the larynx and noticing what happens, to allow it to flexibly sink ever so slightly more than before, noticing a, b and c above,
    5. notice exactly how he would recognize this laryngeal flexibility without the finger,
    6. sing again and find the balanced position within this newly won regulation,
    7. remove the finger and repeat until it’s a habit,
    8. go through a ‘register’ or ‘partial-register’ cross-over and note the difference

It’s much faster, of course, to note these steps here. In a lesson each step takes time and patience, for the student as well as the teacher! Even if you do choose ‘quick and easy’ and simply tell the student what to “do”, on some level you are encouraging self-awareness of what both the present habit is, what is being sought and what the potential of the voice holds in store. “Prescribe the Symptom”, as I mean it here, is just another way to integrate this Self-Sense-Perception in your singer.

Evan Bortnick   Wiesbaden

This is, of course, a metaphor. In our case of singing, the entire complicated emotional, artistic and physical apparatus is somehow improperly aligned. When it IS aligned and ‘facing the right way’, we’ve given our student the gift of ‘self-direction’ and the voice will grow into its potential.

Evan Bortnick       http://musa-vocalis.de/

Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden


About evanb54

I'm a passionate, curious learning junkie--- an X-Opera Singer turned Voice Teacher, Voice Teachers Teacher, NLP Lehrtrainer, Off-Path Coach, Cranio-Sacral worker and a few other even less mainstream things. Everything I've learned or taught revolves around THE VOICE. The Voice as a tool of artistic expression. The Voice as a tool of emotional transparency. The voice as a tool of flexible communication. More information can be found at my Institute Site: www.musa-vocalis.de The Wiesbaden Academy of the Vocal Muse Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden, Coaching, Voice Pedagogy
This entry was posted in Anatomie, Art, Authenticity, Communication, Music, Pedagogy, Performance Training, Presence, Singing, Teaching, Voice and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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