Photo by Colin Czerwinski on Unsplash

Photo by Colin Czerwinski on Unsplash

When a highway is being resurfaced, you have to find a temporary alternative route.  In a similar way, the new vocal technique you are working on in your lessons may be not available for “real” singing for some time.

This inaccessibility of your best resources can be downright frustrating, as my students D. and C. found out recently.  They both have begun working with me in the past few months, hoping to address some inconsistent results that arose in performance situations.  Both of them have a high degree of musical intuition, so they have been able to achieve a much-improved register balance during their lessons in a relatively short time.  Both of them have experienced the effortlessness and beauty of sound brought about by a well-coordinated vocal mechanism — while singing exercises in my studio.

Both of them have also experienced a demoralizing return to the problems that brought them to me when they have sung songs outside their lessons.  What is going on here?

In a voice lesson, I set up conditions conducive to improved vocal coordination.  Distractions are minimized because we are working alone and unobserved.  The exercises pare down your mental and physical responsibilities to highlight the issues on which we are working — often, an entire exercise will consist of a single vowel sound and no complicating consonants.  My guidance in the lessons helps you to keep your focus where I think it will be most helpful.  It’s easy to make your best sounds under these supportive conditions.

When you are singing a song, or perhaps even performing a song in the real world, many distracting stimuli compete for your attention.  First off, the simplest song is much more complex than the exercises we use in your lessons: you have to attend to rapidly shifting vowels sounds, intervening consonants, rhythms, emotional content, and stage movement, among other aspects of performing.

Even more potentially disconcerting is your desire to sound good, especially when others are listening, which can overwhelm your desire to pay attention to your technique.  Particularly when the technique is new and not yet habitual, it is easy to revert to the comfort of your “old” technique in moments of pressure, because the old technique still feels right to you.  It takes a great force of will in the midst of performing to choose a new technique that feels unfamiliar over an old technique that still feels right.

I have two ways of helping you to deal with this conundrum:

1) Over the long term, we will practice your new technique in your lessons many many times, until it becomes your new habit.  At that point, it is likely that even in performing situations, you will more or less unconsciously choose the new technique, even when I’m not around to help you maintain your focus.

2) If your lessons include Alexander Technique (which I strongly recommend for all singers), you are getting practice in the skill of choosing the unfamiliar.  That way, your brain will get more comfortable with the disorienting feelings that arise when you are changing conditions in your life, more example, when you are developing an improved vocal technique.

The reversion to old habits when the pressure is on is the central problem F.M. Alexander was exploring as he developed his technique.  Even after he had learned how to use his body in a new, healthier way, Alexander noticed his tendency to call upon his old, habitual way of using his body, which became even stronger under the stressful conditions of performing on stage.  Alexander  called this tendency “end-gaining” (focusing on the end result rather than the process), which means going with what feels right instead of paying attention to implementing your new technique, which very likely feels wrong at first.

It’s a very human tendency, this end-gaining!  Recognizing it in your own life and learning to deal with it will save you a lot of frustration.

Have any of you readers ever had trouble accessing your new-and-improved vocal technique outside of your lessons?  How have you dealt with that?


  1. Taminophile says:

    I find tantrums, cursing, and overeating to be effective ways to deal with these issues.

    OK, maybe not. I've been around enough to know that it's a process and progress is not always–in fact, rarely–linear, and all the other things we tell ourselves, but it still gets frustrating. I still forget those things and have to remind myself, and I'm not always successful in reminding myself of them in the moment.

    An even greater frustration is being in the place where the old technique, which might never have really worked well, works even less well, and the new technique isn't fully functional yet. I've been in that place for a while and it makes me want to throw tantrums and curse and overeat! (OK, everything in life makes me want to overeat.)

    Glad to see a new post from you! It's been a while.

  2. Michael Hanko says:

    LOL! I can't give in to the urge to throw tantrums because (per Cesar Millan) I need to stay "calm-assertive" around my chihuahuas, but give me a pie and a fork and I can stave off all kinds of problems. . .for a while, anyhow.

    Ah yes, that in-between place where you've cast aside an old technique that wasn't working and the new technique hasn't fully arrived yet. It can take a lot of courage and persistence to get through these phases. Having a teacher or other trusted advisor to help you while you are between techniques can be a great help. All alone, it can be too scary to abandon what's working (at least badly) without knowing what will come in to take its place.

    So you noticed the nearly 3-month gap since my last new post?

  3. JOAN BARBER says:

    Welcome back! As one of my teachers reminded me "First there is no mountain; then there is a mountain; then there is no mountain." I frequently find myself reminding my students (and myself) when we are in that challenging time of things working well in the studio but old habits rearing their heads in performance that we are just "climbing another mountain" on the never ending journey of learning. If we are lucky we get a chance to keep on practicing our new techniques and taking them out for a spin and we have learned to observe our process rather than judge it.

  4. Michael Hanko says:

    Thanks, Joan — it's great to be back! I relate totally to your mountain analogy. It reminds me how invigorating the process of learning is; new knowledge is as bracing as the cool air you inhale at the top of the peak. . .as you contemplate the next peak you will climb. Give my good wishes to Norm.

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