It may seem like students are alone when they enter your studio or log onto Skype, but there’s a crowd present at every lesson. Invisible influencers hover over everyone, unconsciously guiding behaviors. This is not a problem when those influences enhance the ability to sing. But the number one reason anyone seeks a vocal mentor is due to negative influences. Struggling singers usually have no clue that an invisible entourage is to blame for their vocal restrictions, but their ghostly gang should be the first thing you address. Your students’ past will continue to limit their future until you can usher them into the present by exposing their haunted heritage.
I hear dead people when I teach. Not literally, it’s just that everyone’s voice tells a story. Listen closely and the sound will take you back before birth. At the moment of conception, a blueprint is created. Sex, hair, skin color, eventual height and whether the person will have a high or low vocal range are determined before the mother realizes she’s pregnant. Every cell in the body has a nucleus and inside each one is where the blueprint is found. Within each nucleus there are coiled strands of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) called chromosomes. Everyone has 46 chromosomes, 23 from your mother and 23 from your father. Each chromosome contains molecules called genes. There are 20 to 25 thousand different genes in humans and together they create a code of conduct for the trillions of cells that will eventually make up the body – including the voice.
The home environment also plays a large role in shaping vocal behavior. Many of those influences occurred before birth. Who the mother chose as a partner; their beliefs, their personalities, their parenting skills, their parent’s parenting skills, their financial situation and level of education are influences that shape one’s sound. For those not raised by a parent, the environmental influences came from whomever they were dependent on for care. Was music a part of the household? Was singing? Inquiring about a singer’s genes and family culture isn’t what brings about change. The history will always be “what’s so.” However, our role as mentors is to show that the path forward is not determined by their dynasty or DNA.
A person is more than their blueprint – there’s also potential written in those genes. No matter what choices were made before birth, we still arrive with somewhat of an open mind. Newborns have millions more brain cells than adults. A large proportion of these cells are un-programmed and waiting for direction. From crawling to walking, from gibberish to speaking, from phonating to singing, all activities owe their coordination (or lack of) to additional brain cells getting stimulated and forming connections. As an adult, anything you do well – including singing – is due to the sheer number of neurons dedicated to the task and the quality of their connections.
The blueprint guides some of these connections but not all. After smacking a baby’s behind, the doctor checks breathing, circulation, several reflexive responses, hearing, phonating (crying) and the mother of all programs; the will to survive. Every healthy baby is born with the same basic abilities. It’s that survival instinct that assesses the situation and triggers the un-programmed brain cells to start connecting like crazy towards any advantage. The problem with this arrangement is that an infant’s mind is all we have at the time to assess the best chance for survival – and some families are easier to survive in than others.
Humans have a longer period of maternal dependency than any other animal. Coming into the world in such a vulnerable state makes it vital to learn which behaviors ensure you’ll receive care. Any mother will tell you babies arrive with a temperament already in place, and rarely do siblings duplicate what’s already present in the family. If a woman has seven kids they will no doubt emerge as the Seven Dwarfs (Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, Sleepy). This diversity, for better or worse, insures we all show up on the parental radar. So, inquire with students about their siblings – it will provide great insight as to what’s influencing their behavior even if they claim to be independent-minded.
Think of temperament as the foundation to personality, and therefore an undeniable influence on singing. The term refers to patterns of behaviors, perceptions and emotional reactions that are present so early in life that they are not believed to be shaped by the home environment. This is most likely due to time in the womb. Many studies now link the emotional state of the mother during pregnancy to the emotional disposition of the newborn. Stress hormones can pass through the womb and influence a developing brain’s emotional center (the limbic system). It’s not a reach to point to the connection you experience with your mother as the driver for every other connection in life. Not only does this mother of all connections guide your internal voice, but she guides your physical voice as well.
Newborns instantly recognize their mothers’ voices because it was transmitted into the womb through her body. Studies confirm that outside voices, as well as music, also reach a fetus without much distortion (Busnel, Granier-Deferre, and Lecanuet, 1992). Reactive listening has been observed as early as 16 weeks into gestation (Shahidullah and Hepper, 1992). This is interesting because the ear isn’t fully formed until week 24, indicating that primal listening occurs via many receptors, like skin and bones. No wonder why certain music just has to be experienced at volume eleven!
The pitches, inflections and rhythms of the mother’s speaking habits are literally vibrating the skeleton of the fetus and heavily influencing vocal traits before a word is spoken. After birth, if the household speaks English (or French, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese, etc.) then the brain cells immediately connected in such a way that the larynx, tongue and lips will someday form those very sounds. Infants are born with the capability to speak any language. But by age seven, the ability to form the sounds not included in the languages spoken in the home become more difficult. This is because the brain starts “pruning” away un-programmed brain cells in an effort to become more specialized. It’s a classic example of, “use it or lose it.”
The pruning process isn’t reserved for just language skills. From birth through twenty-some years old, the brain is feverishly modifying itself to be the best possible brain to service your needs. It assesses those needs based on genetic heritage and what stimulates an individual’s mind. This is why children who are introduced to multiple languages, an athletic skill or a musical instrument have a much better chance at mastery as adults. As they practice, their young brains are supporting the effort by increasing the number of neurons dedicated to the skill and wrapping those connections with an insolating substance called myelin for processing that’s 3,000 times faster then ordinary connections. The end result is a brain literally sculpted to be multi-lingual, coordinated athletically or gifted musically.
The vocal folds also await physical developmental cues during infancy. Newborn vocal folds are constructed differently then adult folds, in part to withstand all the crying. There are cells in the outer lining of infant folds that hold vital genetic instructions needed to construct mature vocal folds. But these cells, called stellate cells, are only triggered into action by vocal use. Like the brain, from infancy through the twenties the vocal folds are developing based on genetic info and physical demands. In my example, the quiet house that my mother coveted (and my temperament as a “good kid”) meant my folds were not allowed much action early in their developmental stage. But someone growing up in a more vocal household (or someone who chose to rebel by being loud) would have more fortification in their folds later in life.
If all this information makes you think there’s little hope for a teacher’s influence when so much of one’s vocal abilities are determined before they even begin to sing, please read just one more sentence. All of the factors and influences I’ve described so far as “what’s so” can be flipped to become “so what.” That’s not an overly optimistic statement. It’s based on a rather conservative estimate made by genetic researchers who state, “All human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup (National Human Genome Research Institute, genome.gov, 2018).”
This is incredibly good news for all of those not born with golden pipes or into a musical dynasty. The observation suggests that the difference between the worst singer in the world and the best is miniscule (even though it certainly doesn’t seem that way). Yes, there is a lot of circumstantial influence and a point-one percent genetic advantage for those who sing well early in life. That tiny percent, though, is what makes us individuals; the rest of the genetic code is what makes us human. Which means anyone born healthy possess a deep instinct to sing.
Long before there were categories of singers and music genres, before stages, audiences, recordings, and tours, before there was a word to label it, there was singing. Predating civilization, the wheel and controlled fire, the ability to communicate information and emotional states by modulating our voices became pivotal to our success as a species. Melodic calls and responses throughout the African savanna allowed us to stay connected to one another beyond our visual field. The sound of a mother’s voice comforts an infant whether she’s in the next room or in the next tree. Vocal communication provided one of the necessary ingredients for us to become hunters and gatherers, and for us to organize and eventually civilize.
There is an expanding group of researchers who are convinced that singing gave birth to language (as opposed to the other way around). This theory is based somewhat on evidence from archeological digs but mostly from the new research on how our brains are wired. Nature has one driving force – and that is to survive. Wasting energy on anything that does not promote the survival of a species all but guarantees extinction. All living things pass along successful strategies through their genes. Rather than digging in the dirt to discover what was vital to our ancestor’s survival, we can now investigate our brain’s wiring to view how early advantages paved the way for human behavior today.
Steven Mithen, a professor of early prehistory and head of the School of Human and Environmental Sciences at Reading University in England, has compiled a fascinating case on the role music played in human evolution. In his book, The Singing Neanderthals (2006), he states that the universal musical traits encoded in humans evolved right along with social organization, tool and weapon building, hunting, cognitive thinking and the birth of language. It’s easy to overlook the significance of singing these days because it’s considered entertainment and our survival is viewed as a right to life.
All humans share six basic emotions: anger, fear, worry, grief, joy and sadness. These emotional states are always expressed the same way, no matter what tribe a person is from, and they were present before language was developed. It’s easy to imagine that angry prehistoric people made gritty sounds to convey their feelings – much like modern day rock singers. It’s also easy to presume that the sighs and cries of joyous or saddened humans at any point in time had the same elements heard in present day Indian ragas, Broadway showstoppers or barroom Blues ballads.
It’s important to counter your student’s inner-entourage the moment you witness a struggle. Those ghosts are whispering in his or her ear that it’s not in their DNA to achieve the voice of their dreams. Nonsense! Remind your skeptical singers that all humans have the same basic neural wiring, anatomy and genetic code, as opera divas and pop idols. The only difference is the time spent pursuing refinement. “What’s so” is that they, too, were born with highly specialized singing genes passed down for a million or more years. What also may be true is that some people have an easier time developing their voices. They may have been born into more suitable circumstances or have an easier time granting themselves permission to excel. To this there is only one response, “So what?”
Rather than bog their minds down with irrelevent comparisons to popular singers, suggest they draw inspiration from the trillions of souls who have sung on this earth before them. It is because of them, and the genes they passed along, that the number of nerve fibers leading to the larynx is greater then the number that serves the eyes. It is because of their quest to use their voices for higher and higher levels of communication that our brains process singing so deeply. It is, in part, thanks to primitive singing that our distant ancestors were able to connect with each other in social groups – increasing their chances for survival. Those same genes are in us today, encouraging us to stay connected by rewarding us with a sense of well-being whenever we sing together in large numbers. Singing is the first social network!
Embrace this rich vocal heritage as the bedrock of your teaching. Every student has a highly developed brain that can be stimulated to sing at any level of refinement. Inspire your students to honor all those who have sung in praise of their Gods and passed their stories down. Suggest gratitude for the genes they inherited. Of course, an appreciation of the physiology of singing will allow you to streamline your efforts when teaching. But technique, alone, is the longest route to deliver a new inner-culture. Ironically, what speeds the development of the physical skills necessary to sing well is an agreement among all the non-physical influences inhabiting a student. So, teach the ghosts as well as the hosts!
Mark Baxter is one of the industry’s premier vocal coaches. His client list includes rock giants Aerosmith, Journey, STP and Goo Goo Dolls to unique artists like Vampire Weekend, Aimee Mann and The Dresden Dolls. Mark splits his time teaching between three private studios (New York City, Boston, Los Angeles) as well as online. His book, “The Rock N Roll Singer’s Survival Manual,” has been credited for inspiring the careers of many of today’s contemporary vocal coaches. With his new offering, “Split-Second Singing,” Mark’s unique perspective on vocal pedagogy continues to expand the paradigm by diving deep into the psyche of the singer. More info at http://www.voicelesson.com