Anatomy in Vocal Pedagogy?

#pedagogy Apr 27, 2023

Some teachers like to understand and teach the anatomical function of the voice. Some don't. I largely experienced vocal training without any anatomical understanding of how my instrument worked. As I began my teaching, I felt like I needed to understand how the body worked to be able to explain things to my students. They will ask you! This quest began a decades long love affair with anatomy.

As a result, the more I understand vocal function the more informed my ears become. It is important to be able to hear whether the tongue is released or tense, whether or not the onset is balanced, whether the air flow is consistent or bumpy, etc. since we are not able to look at our students a fair portion of the lesson …because we are looking at their music. 

Most of the time when I explain what the body is doing or needs to be doing, there is immediate improvement.  I would say over 90% of my students learn faster and are able to consistently sing with their new understanding when they learn their vocal function.  Some students don’t (so be prepared with your metaphors) but most do.  If your students' eyes start to glaze over, it is either too much information or they need to be taught in a different learning style than the one you are using.   I have multiple ways of teaching vocal anatomy.  These teaching tools include line drawings, 3D models, recordings, occasionally videos and, of course, kinesthetic exploration. 

I like to find kinesthetic explorations of the natural processes for my students to experience. The truth is, we use our larynx and respiratory system all day every day. How do they work?  While we change these functions from involuntary to voluntary, I believe we should mirror the natural function as much as possible.  My favorite exploration is to have the students take in a surprise breath and then say ZZZ until all their air is gone.  While this is happening, I coach them through observing which support musculature is engaging until the natural recoil takes place and we start the process over again. 

I also LOVE the mindset shift that understanding anatomy creates.  We shift from a “talent” paradigm to a “needs conditioning” paradigm. Now, when students come in feeling "othered" because their singing has been “less than,” I can invite them into a growth mindset of conditioning their instruments to improve their singing rather than sitting in the "I wish I were talented" fixed mindset. I love the light that comes into their faces when they adopt this "I can condition my instrument" growth mindset. Happy Sigh!  I love my job!