The Delicate Balance of Technique and Artistry // Laura Donohue


I’m fascinated with the complicated relationship between Technique and Artistry, in part because I strive to help my students stay connected to (or discover) their own artistry. But the other reason is personal: as an artist and songwriter, myself, I feel as though I am often chasing wildness.  I have an insatiable appetite for learning; at the same time, I frequently find myself seeking freedom from the enormous amount of vocal technique and musical training I carry around in my brain. Of course, anyone can struggle with over-thinking, even a student who is new to the concepts of vocal technique, but this blog post focuses on the unique challenge of balancing knowledge and uninhibited expression.  

I love the way Pablo Picasso said it: “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”  By “rules” he meant Technique, right?  We all know that rules can be good and, at times, necessary. They give us boundaries within which to safely live, work and play. As voice teachers, we know that the tools of Technique are also good and necessary: they help our students understand their voices better, solve vocal challenges, achieve greater expression, and stay healthy. 

Yet. In the world of popular music, rule-breaking is often the name of the game.  There are exceptions, but generally speaking, singers of popular music should not sound trained. And the point that Picasso was trying to make is that unique artistic expression does not come from adhering strictly to formulas and expectations and guidelines, but rather from the kind of thinking and exploration that takes the artist “out of the box” and into the realm of his own very unique voice. According to Picasso, a great artist understands the importance and value of Technique, learns it and implements it, but then is able to step away from it to access Artistry. 

An Artist Has a Distinct Voice

Why is a distinct voice so important for the commercial vocalist specifically? To be commercially viable and authentic within the genre, it is essential for a singer to have a distinctive, recognizable sound that sets her apart from other singers. 

Part of the fun of teaching commercial vocalists is that unique expression can be found anywhere on an enormous spectrum. As a result, I like to see my teacher-self as a guide.  I am there primarily not to instill knowledge, but to guide the vocalist along his path to his unique voice and to keep Technique and Artistry in healthy balance along the way. This process looks different for every single student, but I find that there are two main scenarios of imbalance that can occur. (The remainder of this blog will focus on ways to navigate the second scenario but I believe it’s very important to acknowledge the first.)

In the first scenario, let’s imagine a major Rule-Breaker of an Artist, a Janis Joplin for instance, walks into your voice studio. This vocalist IS Artistry.  Her singing isn’t technically “correct” and maybe it isn’t even sustainable.  But it worksIn this situation, I believe the voice teacher’s job is to provide enough Technique to aid in the preservation of the voice but not so much that any of that magic is lost.  This requires a careful and thoughtful approach, and a great deal of respect for what is already working. Certainly, a daily regime of vocal hygiene is of utmost importance for this vocalist. 

The second scenario is the reverse situation, where Technique is studied to such an extent that it takes over in the singers’ mind and body, leaving little room for the freedom that Artistic expression requires.  Ideally, technical tools can offer up a doorway into greater artistic expression; but in this case, it seems Technique gets built up into a big bully, stomping all over Artistry’s toes.  In my experience, Artistry can be quite fragile, particularly in its early stages— it is mysterious and elusive, and retreats quickly when threatened!  Technique, by its very nature, loves a good workout, so this bully scenario can happen very easily.  Again, we are faced with a question of balance.   

The Role of Cognitive Rhythm

“Have you ever observed your mind as you write or paint or compose? I see my awareness shuttle back and forth, like the subway between Times Square and Grand Central Terminal, from my conscious mind to my unconscious, my superconscious.”  

~Steven Pressfield, The Artist’s Journey

Not surprisingly, Technique and Artistry utilize very different parts of our brains. The field of Cognitive Neuroscience points to specific regions that are labeled FOCUS and UNFOCUS.  In his delightful and fascinating book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, Harvard-trained psychiatrist and brain-imaging researcher Srini Pillay explains that these different regions of the brain function best when they work together in what is called cognitive rhythm. Dr. Pillay acknowledges that, since we live in a culture of hyper-focus, exercising the Unfocus centers of the brain can at first feel counterintuitive and even counterproductive; so, how do we assist our students in tuning into their own cognitive rhythm?

The Rhythm of the Lesson

Let’s took at the rhythm of the lesson itself: How much time do we spend on Technique?  How much Technique is needed by a particular singer at any given time, anyway?  When do we encourage a student to stop seeking technical answers? These are great questions, and the answers change, of course, from student to student and from lesson to lesson, but by staying aware of the importance of balance we can quickly identify when we are losing it.  

Remember, since artistic expression is so individual, we cannot tell a student what it will look like for him; again, we can only guide him to practices that will support its unfolding.  

There are many practices that we can utilize in the context of the lesson, but I’m going to share four of my favorites with you.  

  1.  DIG DEEP INTO EMOTION

This is one of the quickest ways to get out of Technique Brain.  We can ask questions like:  What is the song about?  What story are you telling?  Why do you want to tell this story?  What is your own personal connection?  I also find that exercises that bring a student’s awareness into the body, such as mindful breathing, can often help that person move out of a thinking place and into more of a feeling place. Asking a student to incorporate different emotions (anger, surprise, sadness, joy) into a vocal exercise is another fun way to loosen up what is often a very technical headspace.

  1. IMPROVISE

Functional MRI’s of musicians improvising have shown a great deal of activity in the Unfocus centers.  Implementing improv exercises are a great way to practice Unfocus while also strengthening musicianship!

  1. WRITE

For those of our students who do not consider themselves to be songwriters, we can encourage them to write songs.  This can be one of the most powerful tools to assist in the discovery of one’s unique voice.  Many students will learn that they are indeed songwriters, those who do not will at least grow as creative beings, develop a greater respect for the songwriting process, and receive the always-useful gift of getting pushed outside one’s comfort zone! 

  1. LISTEN TO AND DISCUSS THE GREAT RULE-BREAKERS OF POPULAR MUSIC

We must do our own listening but we can also recommend listening to our students, and initiate conversations about the artists we listen to. There is no shortage of wonderful examples but I will share one of my favorites that has emerged in recent years:   Prince’s astonishing self-accompanied version of “Mary Don’t You Weep” from Piano and a Microphone. (Really this entire album is a study in technical achievement in service of artistic expression, a fluid dance between the conscious and unconscious realms.)

In addition to monitoring the rhythm of our lessons, we can pay attention to balance in the kinds of homework we assign.  What percentage is artistic practice?  I love to encourage my singers to “play” with their voices, and have fun experimenting with vocal sounds of all kinds.  We knew how to play as children, and we can learn to do it again.  

Helpful Mindsets

In all of these things, in our lessons, our assignments, our practice, our PLAY, we can provide a great deal of additional support by reminding our students to keep the following concepts in mind:

  1.  MISTAKES ARE NECESSARY

Mistake-making is essential in any kind of learning, yet I find that sometimes vocalists are the most resistant to making what they consider, or perceive, to be undesirable sounds.  This is no doubt related to the incredible vulnerability associated with the human voice (and the cultural myths and messages that exist about singing).  It is imperative, however, that our students give themselves permission to make mistakes— when they can do this they will learn to fearlessly explore and mine the extraordinary range of expression available to them.  I like to pose the scenario of a gymnast learning to do a cartwheel on the balance beam.  Would anyone expect that kind of athletic skill and artistry to be acquired without numerous awkward falls off of the beam?  Of course not, yet we often hold a much different expectation where singing is concerned.

  1. CHOOSE CURIOSITY INSTEAD OF CRITICISM

I have found that when a vocalist is attempting to sing something, whether in focused practice or in play, and the sound doesn’t come out in the way he desires, it is incredibly useful to teach him to shift his mindset out of criticism and into curiosity.  Criticism can shut us down.  Curiosity opens us up.  Curiosity lets us ask questions like, “What did that feel like?  How did that feel different from the other time, when I liked the result better?  What was I thinking about as I sang that? What was I thinking about before I sang that?” Criticism implies judgement but Curiosity reminds us that there is no right or wrong, there is simply useful information

  1. HAVE PATIENCE

Quite simply, Artistry usually takes years to emerge, and it cannot be forced or rushed.  It is helpful to remind our students that they have plenty of time.

Finally, there are so many wonderful resources that provide more tools with which our students can practice, and we can direct them to these resources.  Here are a few of my favorite books on the subject:

In conclusion, by approaching our teaching with a reverence for unique expression and genre-appropriate vocal styles, and by implementing tools that support freedom of expression, we can teach our students how to monitor their own cognitive rhythm and achieve a healthy balance between Technique and Artistry. In doing so, we assist them in becoming champion rule-breakers and truly distinctive singers. 

6 thoughts on “The Delicate Balance of Technique and Artistry // Laura Donohue

  1. What a wonderful piece on the importance of artistry, play and rule breaking.! A compassionate, joyful and deeply knowledgeable approach to the teaching of singing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Technique can be awe-inspiring and is something to be admired. It doesn’t necessarily mean connection, let alone feeling, which is what the song and the singer must be completely after. Thanks for this wonderfully intriguing and thoughtful post.

    Liked by 2 people

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