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Good Results, Questionable Causes

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Mustn’t there be good teachers who have played a vital role in the development of their students’ voices? Without a doubt! Yet, oddly enough, it is often not for the reasons believed by voice instructors themselves. One of my first singing instructors had me press my abdomen against the piano while I sang. He claimed that this exercise “trained my breathing muscles and made them stronger,” and provided “better diaphragmatic support,” which he insisted was the key to singing well. After a few months of doing this exercise, I noticed that my voice, in fact, did become stronger. Perhaps he was right! But then my progress inexplicably came to a standstill. To make matters worse, I actually bruised my hip by continuously pushing my abdomen against his piano. I realized that my teacher was not quite on the mark, so I moved on.

It was only after I had developed my voice building system that I understood why I had made some progress with this so-called breathing exercise. By pushing my abdomen against the piano, I was forcing breath pressure up against my approximating vocal folds. Eventually this upward breath push resulted in increased strength in my vocal fold musculature (adductor muscles) and created stronger, more stable sub-glottal pressure, and therefore, more vocal power and thrust. Strengthening my breathing muscles, in other words, had nothing to do with my vocal progress.

It was startling to realize that my teacher had no awareness of what he was really accomplishing with his so-called breathing exercise. He never once mentioned vocal folds or vocal muscles during our lessons and yet his work had strengthened them—at least temporarily—to some extent. This is typically the way it goes with successful voice instructors: they employ techniques that, at best, indirectly affect positive changes in the voice without really understanding why. And as so many students of singing have unfortunately found out, without this crucial understanding it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to realize a singer’s full potential. It should come as no surprise that, beyond stunting a student’s potential, voice coaches routinely cause physical harm to the vocal mechanism with which they have been trusted.

Gary Catona, photo by Issam Zejly



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