How to listen to voices while teaching

In this post, I will answer a question posed to me by my student Paulo J., who is a voice teacher as well as a singer. He wanted to know how I developed the skill to listen acutely to a student: to identify, for example, when the student is pushing—by the sound of the voice.

The answer, Paulo, lies in learning to truly listen. To let in the sound of the student’s voice without engaging in an inner dialog about it. Having taught hundreds and hundreds of lessons, I am now able to access a more intuitive part of my mind—the part that transcends language. When I hear a voice, I let the sound in without judging it, describing it in words, trying to explain or understand it. Thus my brain is allowed to process the incoming information and guide me in where to take the lesson next. This processing is instantaneous and often seems to defy logic and reasonableness. But when I have the courage to follow my deep sense—often into unfamiliar territory—its wisdom (my wisdom) reveals itself.

I believe we all have this capacity already, but that it can take practice to trust it and to set in abeyance the part of the mind that likes to chatter about things. I have come to be suspicious while teaching of thoughts that arise in words: “That note was flat.” “The chest voice needs to be less dominant here.” “I have no idea what I am doing.” Instead, I am coming to rely more and more on a more intuitive knowing. It takes some clarity and cleverness to convert this knowing into words or gestures that communicate something useful to the student. It’s so easy to muck up the brilliance with clumsy or inexact language!

Paulo, I want to give you a way of homing in on your own intuitive knowing without over-activating your conscious analysis. I have to use words (which speak to your analytical brain) to ultimately help you access the part of your mind that processes beyond language. This is the art of teaching!

When you listen (in the way I am describing) to a student’s sound, you are hearing multiple aspects of the tone simultaneously. Every one of them is a clue to the state of the student’s vocal functioning: pitch, breathiness vs. clarity, volume, vibration or lack of vibration, steadiness, as well as many qualities that we don’t even have words for. As I have grown as a teacher, I have learned to not disregard anything I hear, no matter how small. Or anything I see or feel through my hands when they are touching my student.

I have come to realize that the tiniest change can open up an awareness of what is actually going on in a singer. When I first started teaching, I tended to ignore these little clues, thinking that they were insignificant. Now I vigilantly follow up on every twitch of a lip, shift of gaze, subtle change of vowel, or infinitesimal stiffening of a muscle. These barely perceptible signs, easy to lose in the grandness of the spectacle of a human singing, nonetheless often provide the key to understanding what is blocking the full, free expression we are after.

Wondering how to hone the skills I wrote about here? Anyone who wishes to nurture their own intuitive sense is encouraged to visit and buy a book, listen to an archived podcast, or register for a seminar. These resources provide me with regular opportunities to practice listening and following my intuition. In fact, I am attending a seminar later this month called “Creativity and Intuition”—feel free to join me!