What Matters When Teaching is What Remains After Lessons // Mark Baxter

There’s never been a shortage of advice when it comes to helping singers improve.  However, the most obvious question has never been definitively answered: What matters most?  How is it that there are miles of books and research papers and yet no unified answer?  At first, the search for an answer just leads to more questions.  Does our curiosity set us on a path up to the temple of wisdom or down into an endless maze?  To reassure one’s self, it’s best to ask even more questions with every unexpected twist: Does this particular issue matter?  Will this lead to better singing?  Over the course of this journey we come to understand the difference between what matters and what remains.  What matters is individual.  What remains is universal.

Comfort matters.  Without it the singer is not in control.  I understand the desire to seek control first when singing.  That’s all I wanted when I was young.  But I now understand how that mindset delayed my development and I see it countless times with those I train.  Yes, you can achieve a level of comfort after establishing control but I highly recommend working from comfort down rather than control up.  Establishing comfort first allows the brain many pathways when asking for a particular sound.  These micro-adjustments are what allow us to sing well in less than ideal conditions and as we age.  Establishing control first locks the brain into a particular behavior.  That means the singer is stuck like a car in a traffic jam without a GPS to offer alternate routes around illness and aging.  Don’t just honk the horn – expand their options.

Control matters.  What drives control is the result the singer has in mind.  This is yet another reason why asking for a sound instead of telling the body what to do is a superior approach when singing.  The two mindsets may seem the same.  After all, you can’t produce a sound without activating the body.  But that logic completely dismisses what occurs in the brain a split-second before singing.  It’s that preliminary brain activity that dictates coordination.  It’s a focus on specific timbres, volumes, pitches and durations that informs every muscle involved.  It’s not magic – it’s music.  Yes, the process of singing matters but it’s the result that remains.

What matters is relationships.  Singing is the result of many split-second interactions occurring in the body, brain and mind.  However, for the last few centuries, vocal scientists and educators have placed a lopsided importance on the physical aspects of singing like acoustics and physiology.  This is because science is a method of observation based on objective measurements.  Hopefully, advances in neurology will balance this research going forward.  It’s also important to remember that singing is not a scientific endeavor – it’s an artistic journey.  And so much of what makes art captivating is subjective and cannot be measured; it can only be experienced.  The science of singing matters.  But the art of singing is what remains.

Voices don’t make choices.  People do.  The choices made when singing will either connect or reject listeners.  This social pressure tends to trigger inhibition.  As teachers, it’s important we don’t mistake the fear of judgement for ignorance.  Great singers don’t know more about the voice, they just have faith that the sounds they choose will connect.  It’s their courage to make choices in vulnerable circumstances that doubles the reward when a connection is made.  So, we should continue to offer evidence-based well-researched behaviors to expand what singers trust.  But the art of singing has never, and will never, be any more complicated than making just four choices: What pitch? What timbre? What volume?  What timing?  When singers choose like it matters – what remains will be great singing.

Identity matters.  It defines every relationship.  Most importantly, it defines the relationship we have with ourselves.  Identity either unlocks a singer’s potential or keeps him or her dreaming about “someday.”  It matters whether a person identifies as a singer or someone who sings.  Those are two different mindsets and ultimately two different brains.  Identity matters because the brain will do everything in its power to defend it.  This is the number one reason why improvements require so much practice before they become permanent.  The mind leads the way forward with an intention to sing better but the brain pulls back to protect the “old self.”  This internal tug of war dictates the progress of the singer.  For instance, even though I was singing for a living in my twenties I didn’t refer to myself as a singer.  Hmm, I wonder why I wasn’t improving?  My father was right.  I was a dreamer.

There’s nothing wrong with identifying as someone who sings.  I really enjoy playing drums and riding motorcycles but the lack of hard callouses or grease on my hands reveals that I’m not a drummer or a biker.  The difference is a little four-letter word that defies scientific scrutiny.  If you want others to be passionate about your singing then a shift within is the answer.  Identity is the “I” in “IT factor” (T is for talent).  IT adds an indescribable quality to a voice that unlocks listener’s hearts and minds.  You feel it when you hear it.  It’s the sound of someone connecting with their love of singing.  It wasn’t until I started identifying as a singer that people responded emotionally to my voice.  When singing matters, what remains is love.

Love matters – a lot.  Love fuels one’s identity.  Love is the only force powerful enough to override the cynic within, imbalanced chemistry, unfortunate circumstances or restrictive cultures.  Love provides the grit and dedication that is vital for real and lasting change.  If these proclamations seem overly simplistic then, like me, you have mistaken love for attraction.  I was attracted to the glamour of a musician’s life when I was young in the same way that I was attracted to my wife when I first saw her.  The romance roller coaster is very exciting!  But as the day to day unfolds into year after year, the endorphin-high of attraction either evolves into passion, purpose and patience or dissolves into indifference.  Ironically, hate is driven by the same three factors as love.  The difference being they spin us in the opposite direction.  Hate will tear a person down where love builds us up.  When love matters, what remains is mastery.

Love is not an emotion – it’s a state of mind.  Mastery is not a result – it’s a pursuit.  At first, I was attracted to singing because of how it made me feel.  It nurtured my heart.  The same was true when dating my wife.  She excited my heart.  I dreamed of a future that included both and so I asked for the sounds of singers that inspired me until they became my sound and I asked until my girlfriend became my wife.  Both took many years to happen!  Over time, what began as chasing emotional dreams evolved into a life of passion, purpose and patience because I fell in love.  Only love can guide you through the ups and clowns of life.  Only love will wait for you to grow up and appreciate the relationships that elevate you.  Attraction is the spark.  Love is the light.

Mastery matters.  Not for the sake of perfection but for the sake of the pursuit.  Any singular purpose, fed by passion and nurtured by patience presents a life-altering challenge.  It pits the old you against the new you.  Mastery is often confused with perfectionism, which is just a phobia of making mistakes.  Mastery differs in that it’s an internal quest rather than an external fear.  Mastery tests the brain and teases the mind.  It seduces with glimpses of singing in the zone.  It is the pinnacle of comfort and control.  As you know, this bounty of vocal benefits is available to everyone, but not until they make peace in the most important relationship in their lives.  When the pursuit of mastery matters, what remains is a mirror.

The connection between the brain and mind reflects every relationship in life.  People that lie to themselves lie to others.  Those that genuinely care for themselves care for others.  It’s not selfish; it’s self-care.  Just like comfort must precede control when singing, love precedes mastery.  Love didn’t solve my internal dramas, it put them in perspective.  It allowed distance between my desires and my inner cynic.  It’s not that I have all the answers, it’s that the questions no longer matter.  The bonus of caring for myself was a better relationship with my father.  Unfortunately, my inner cynic has my father’s voice.  So, sitting with him was always a double dose of gut punches.  But as I detached from my inner father, my real father’s cynical comments lost their power.  He still said insensitive things.  I just deflected the blows.  He didn’t change.  He didn’t have to.  I did.

Perspective matters.  No one can take another’s power; it can only be surrendered.  A person’s voice, real and metaphorical, is their power.  Teach love.  If someone finds that difficult then instruct how to love a song.  If that fails to connect then suggest singers love those they’re singing to.  If that doesn’t empower then focus on the reason someone is singing.  Finding the love in singing makes it a masterful moment.  Although my father left when I was 15 years-old and had only heard me sing three times, he was always critical of my singing. The final time my father heard me sing was at his sister’s memorial.  I sang Amazing Grace.  My aunt didn’t request it but I offered because I’m a singer.  My father’s immediate response was that my high notes had improved.  I believed he meant it as a compliment.  I said thank you and I meant it.  Deflect, deflect.

The following year my father passed away.  I am grateful for those later years as the shift within me allowed me to feel my power in his presence – so I stopped blaming him for feeling powerless.  We had passionate yet patient conversations about our differences.  He had zero tolerance for my views on life.  That’s OK; they’re my views.  I expressed my appreciation for his tough love and the resilience it gave me.  He laughed when I told him I was writing a book to prove him wrong.  Then he taunted me by predicting I would never finish it.  Once again, he was right – at least in his perspective.  The last time I saw him was bedside in hospice.  He said it was wonderful of me to visit but he didn’t want to die in front of me.  I respected that and stood to leave.  Before walking out I said I love you and I meant it.  When connection matters, what remains is the truth.

3 Comments

  1. A wonderful insight into the deep connections involved in singing that move beyond the mechanistic and reductive approaches to singing that have dominated much vocal pedagogy. A whole human being communicating to other human beings.

    Like

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