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Cultivate the Curiosity Superpower in Voice Lessons // Laura Donohue


You know those moments when your mind is suddenly and irrevocably opened up and everything is different from that point on?  Most of us have a number of those in our lives on a number of subjects, if we’re lucky (and learning). I have a handful that are directly related to my relationship with curiosity, which I didn’t even know I had, or needed to have, previous to those moments. One moment impacted me so strongly as a teacher that it set into motion a whole new approach to my one-on-one work with vocalists, not to mention new ways of relating to myself as a performer, artist, and human being.

Trading Cheerleading for Curiosity

I was reading The Inner Game of Tennis about 7 years ago and the author (and tennis coach) Timothy Gallwey was talking about observing two different types of serves: one that hits the target and one that misses. Gallwey writes “you should free yourself from any emotional response to success or failure; simply know your goal and take objective interest in the results” (emphasis mine).

Wait, free ourselves from an emotional response to success??  I understand the notion of releasing a response to failure, but I thought we were supposed to get really excited when we did something well. Not only that, I thought I, as the teacher, was supposed to get really excited when my students did something well! The cheerleader role comes naturally to me, and I’ve always erred on the side of praise. And this is not all bad. But I read further and thought about this some more, and then I understood.

When Cheerleading Backfires

As the teacher, my own emotionally-charged reactions, even the ones we can label as “positive”, set up an expectation for the student. And expectation is a slippery slope. An expectation is the result of a judgment, and even a positive judgment can quickly turn into pressure and shut down the learning process.

As the “guides” in the voice lesson, we are responsible for setting the tone, for directing the flow of the learning, and for helping interpret what happens in the lesson. We have a great deal of power, and most of our students strongly desire to please us. I began to realize that if I choose to come from a place of emotionally-detached curiosity when I’m teaching, and suspend my own judgments to a certain degree, then I give the student the space, and the permission, to do the same for themselves.  In my experience, this space is a magical space, an open space where anything is possible because nothing is expected. This is the space of play, of fun.

But Don’t Lose Your Cheerleading Skills

Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t react positively when a challenge is met, a hurdle lept, a light-bulb electrified, or a powerful connection made. Our students need to feel seen and it’s important to acknowledge the “successes” in whatever way feels correct in that moment.  But staying in a state of curiosity and wonder actually helps us to integrate that growth more fully, more easily.  It helps us observe, in a light, detached way, what just worked so beautifully so that we can choose to do it again. So that we can make it the new habit. 

Trading Criticism for Curiosity

Think about the way these two states of mind feel for a moment.  See if you can actually feel them in your body.  For me, curiosity feels light. Criticism feels heavy. Curiosity is open, expansive.  Criticism contracts, shuts down. Curiosity is neutral, interested.  Criticism is judging. 

Set the Intention to Remain Curious

When I have a student who really struggles with self-criticism (which is almost everyone at some point), I encourage them to substitute curiosity for criticism.  I pose the question: what if we stop thinking in terms of “right and wrong” or “good and bad” singing and we’re simply curious about it all?  What if we set the intention in this lesson to be curious about everything that happens, curious about how different sounds feel in the body, curious about the things that change those sounds?  This can take some practice but, like anything we practice, we can get really good at quickly interrupting criticism and substituting a childlike curiosity.

Be Detectives and Gather Information

One of my favorite ways to play with this idea is to suggest that we are detectives– teacher and student– that’s actually our job, together in the lesson, to be curious about what we discover.  Detectives don’t classify information as right and wrong, it’s just information.  And they study all of it. What if we viewed our voices and our singing in the same way? What if we are simply collecting information and then we get to decide what to do with that information?

As the teacher, taking on the role of detective helps me stay connected to the concept of Beginner’s Mind– I stay more open, more present, I see myself as the student as well as the teacher, I see every student as a unique individual and the lesson itself as a creative process. 

For the student, it is an opportunity to play a game, to be like a child, filled with wonder. Not to mention, as a part of this process we get to bust up some cultural myths and double standards around singing. If a gymnast falls off the balance beam when learning a complex new series of skills, do we judge the fall as “wrong” or shameful in any way? Of course not. We accept that falling, and other “mistakes”, are part of the learning process. Yet we hold singing to a different standard.

Neutralize the Emotional Charge

Part of the power in applying this kind of light-hearted curiosity, this “detective with a magnifying glass” approach to the voice, is that this subject is typically so charged with emotion. So loaded. We know why this is, and it’s human and understandable; at the same time, it doesn’t really serve us when we are learning.  Releasing this emotional attachment is a game-changer– it is incredibly freeing.

In The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield reminds us that “the pro stands at one remove from her instrument– meaning her person, her body, her voice, her talent…she assesses it coolly, impersonally, objectively” (emphasis mine). Again, objectivity is key. And again, this takes practice, but, per usual, Pressfield is right. We can’t achieve at our highest level, or be our version of a “pro” if we are overly emotionally involved with our work.  

Carry Curiosity Everywhere

Like all superpower mindsets, the state of curiosity hands us gifts that we can carry with us out of the voice lesson and into every area of our lives. Simply reminding our students that they can choose their mindset, and giving them an opportunity to practice curiosity in their lessons can not only transform their relationships with their voices, but empower them to approach virtually any situation, relationship, or challenge from this place of wonder, openness, and possibility.

About the Author

Laura Donohue is a holistic voice teacher, professional vocalist, and songwriter based in Nashville, TN. She’s also the creator of the Vocal Muse app.

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