Episode 120 – Your Brain on Singing

Singing is a skill that can frustrate even the most gifted musicians.

Part of the problem is the tenuous connection between our brain and instrument.

In this episode, John discusses how to approach your brain and singing, and how the right thoughts can help you improve as a singer.

Episode Transcript

Episode 120 – Your Brain on Singing

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. All right. I am in the process of getting ready to leave, to lecture at the IVTOM- International Voice Teachers of Mix Conference, this weekend. I am very excited about that. But subsequently I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about singing, which I often do, but a little more so this week because I have to put together slide presentations and I’m having a great time doing it. But as I’m thinking about singing and the thinking about thinking about singing, it really made me want to talk about the brain and singing and this relationship that we have with this very, very high level skill that not everyone is able to do easily. Even people with a high musical aptitude, and I’ve worked with great musicians, but they struggle when it comes to singing.

They’ll even struggle a bit matching pitch, although musicians tend to be good or much better than non-musicians in this regard. But, there’s even some struggle there. And I myself, I’ve talked about this before. I did not come to singing easily. I really, really struggled with this. And I also have to stay up on this. My voice is not an easy voice to tame. It’s a bigger voice. It tends towards wanting to be heavy. I like to kind of force things and muscle things and that works its way into my voice as well. And the really interesting thing in my own journey was, originally being a drummer and playing drums for a living before I started taking voice lessons was when I would sing, how rhythms suddenly left me to a certain degree and my rhythmic accuracy as a singer really dropped.

And it took me quite a while to get the same control over time and phrasing that I had as a drummer. Now what’s wonderful about singing is your ability to play with time and to phrase is far more expansive than most musical instruments. Even in pop music. It’s very, very groove-driven. And the time tends to be very, very strict and it’s dance music, et cetera. As the singer you have play over the top of it. And then now there are songs that are very syncopated where you have to really be in the pocket. But there are times where you get to play and you get to pull back and what they call back phrase and you’ll slow down and then speed up to catch up and you can delay the expectation that you set up in the listener of hitting a note.

And it’s just absolutely fascinating and that’s why I’ve done podcasts on rhythm. I think singing is one of the ultimate rhythmic instruments. But getting back to the brain and how we control this instrument. Well the huge challenge is we don’t have direct control. It is indirect control over these muscles. And as I’ve talked about before, you have muscle that you don’t control at all such as your heart. It’s going to beat regardless if you remember to keep it beating or not. And then you have muscles that you’re very aware of. You have this direct control wiggling your fingers and toes. And then come the vocal folds and these muscles within the larynx, and you don’t have an awareness of them. You really can’t feel them. You can feel the sensations and the after effect. But to directly control them and flex them, we don’t have that same connection.

So the brain has to create these abstract thoughts of pitch and color and intensity. And the brain will often have trouble in estimating the output. When you go to match pitch. Almost all of us, are very good at hearing pitch, of being pitch aware. And people talk about tone deafness and I’ve never seen someone with tone deafness , it’s extremely rare. If you can recognize one song over another, then you can hear pitch. You are not tone deaf. However, if you have trouble matching pitch, your brain is having trouble estimating the output, estimating the signals that it needs to send to these muscles that we don’t have direct conscious control over. And when it sends these signals, it’s not exactly right. And then we fall into the trap of once we accept what the brain is sent and we start singing this pitch, we’ll kind of push it for dear life.

We’ll kind of will it into it being the note or we realize because almost all of us have a decent ears and we can recognize pitch that it’s not right. And we start to panic. And then the inability to estimate the output goes off the charts and we just start randomly just shooting out notes. As this develops and gets better, you’ll find yourself getting close to the pitch, usually a little under and then having to scoop yourself in. But you can practice this and this can be changed. You can make stronger and stronger mental connections from your brain to the vocal folds. And it is a process of you have to compare the target and adjust. In other words, you go to sing the note and then you have to stop and analyze. And by analyzing, it’s not just getting frustrated and saying that was awful.

That’s a waste of an event that does you no good. But if you are able to look at that event and go, okay, I was off on the pitch, was I above or below? Now you’re starting to analyze properly and you can start to give new commands and help the brain compare the target and make an adjustment. And so you make an adjustment. And even if the adjustment takes you further away, at least you’ve started the process. And I know this can be very, very frustrating at first, but it’s something you need to work through. We need to get the brain tied in to these muscles and to send the correct instructions with these abstract thoughts. Now, one of the key ways that we gauge, if we’re singing correctly or not, at first it’s usually sound. We can just hear it. It doesn’t sound good.

It sounds like it’s out of key, off pitch, and we make adjustments that way. But the more experienced you become with singing, the more that you will be in tune to sensation and the more you will guide by sensation and the experience of singing a lower note versus a higher note versus a more intense note versus a brighter note, a darker note. This feels higher. This feels as if it’s more in the chest or it’s ballooning behind my eyes. It feels more forward, it feels more back. It feels as if it’s ringing out the top of my head. All of these different sensations have to be cataloged and you really have to start tying your awareness and then your expectation into the upcoming singing event. One of my vocal mentors would say, “Expect it. Don’t direct it.” You’ve done the events so many times.

You’ve sung this note so many times as an experienced singer that when it is time to sing it again and you’ve got to sing this high B-flat, you already have an expectation. You don’t start trying to force your body to do the right thing. You expect it and allow it and that’s a very subtle mental shift, but it is a mental shift that ultimately needs to occur through practice, through this dedication of being a singer, your awareness training, and getting and cataloging these sensations becomes critical. Now, abstract thoughts can be helpful, but this is where I kind of draw the line on abstract thoughts. And by abstract thoughts, I mean someone will say what I’m going to sing a high note, I imagine X, Y, or Z, or you may get an instructor– instruction from somebody saying, imagine the audience is behind you on a high note or that there is a string that is connected to the floor running through you and the notes are being placed on the string.

There’s all kinds of different imagery that can be used and this can be helpful, but in my experience it’s best that this mental imagery be yours. If you can get yourself into the right place and experience that, you can hear what this right balanced note sounds like. You can feel what it feels like. You start to catalog the sensations, then you can start to paint and place word pictures on this and that becomes your thought process. But when it is dictated to you and I am really, really careful about using this in my teaching because for me, what will work for one student can be absolutely confusing for another when you get into these abstractions. So I prefer it to come from the student. What I will do is get the student into the right place and I’ll ask them, what was that experience like?

What does that feel like to you? What was that to you? And if they come up with something kind of off the wall and bizarre, I’ll usually understand it because I’ve experienced it as well and I’ll say, that’s great. I allow them to put it in their own words. And that can become a great shortcut where you just think this abstraction that you’re on top of the note or whatever it is, and that helps set in the right expectation, which then sets in the right balance of air, focal fold, resistance, resonance, the things that you really do physically control. But when you are singing, you don’t have time to go through your checklist of I’ve got this many pounds of air pressure meeting my folds that have a closed quotient of 65% to a vowel that is where the second formant is tuned to the third harmonic. That’s not gonna work.

That’s not to say that understanding science on that intellectual level is not helpful. It really is. Because when you’re breaking down the voice and really learned to do this, it can be invaluable. But when you’re really singing in your performing, it’s really on a more abstract in-the-moment level. And these almost metaphysical ideas and thoughts can be very, very useful. Now when we’re thinking about singing, the way that we communicate with ourselves is, as I’m communicating with you now, language. But language often falls short. When you’re learning to sing, you start picking up other people’s language. You start picking up the language of the person you’re following on YouTube or listening to me, and the way that I’ll call something, how I’ll describe it, the names that I use for things or your voice teacher who you’re studying privately with.

But these words fall short. They don’t explain the entire experience in the way that we need it when we are performing and when language fails. I was recently just watching a special on 9/11, recently had the 18th anniversary. And they were talking about Air Force One and just kind of the panic. They didn’t know if a plane was going to try and slam into Air Force One as they were taking the president around and they were trying to communicate with the FAA and I believe it was NORAD, which is the air defense system that we’ve set up with Canada, that North American Aerospace Defense Network. I’m sure somebody out there knows what it’s called properly, but as they were trying to communicate, they weren’t able to very effectively because they had different words for this same thing. And that’s what you’re going to find out in the world of voices.

There will be different words for the same thing. And then you run into the problem of, you will get voice teachers for purposes of marketing or you may have a guru-based voice method where they’ll start creating their own terms and they may have some really valid stuff going on, but now it’s their terms versus all the other terms that are floating around. So that becomes an impediment. So  when there’s a name for something, whether it’s chest voice or mix or whatever this is, it’s really helpful to understand what they’re talking about on a more scientific fundamental level. That’s why I really encourage everybody to understand the function of the vocal folds as well as even, more importantly, acoustics. How all this works and how you utilize this to create a balanced vocal sound. The other part that becomes difficult is just the way our brains tend to work.

We like to look at things in a binary fashion. We like to look at things in groups. It’s either A or B, it’s this or not this. This is either belt or it’s not belt. This is head voice or it’s not head voice. This is classical singing or it’s contemporary singing. And singing, as most things in life and in the universe, it’s a continuum. It’s on this spectrum and you don’t instantly go from one state to another, but there is a constant moving and a blend and we have to think of things in slightly more complicated ways, or less black and white ways. The singing industry, voice lesson industry, will fall prey to this because in marketing voice teachers want to differentiate themselves. They want to stand out. And so they will say, I am X and everything that’s not X is no good.

And I’ve said this often in this podcast, be very, very aware of marketing. There are voice teachers out there who have great information, but unfortunately they want to couch it in this idea that they’re the world’s best voice teacher or they have the world’s best technique. And then it’s constantly slamming other techniques or other styles of singing, other ways of doing this, other approaches. And that becomes, I’m sorry, but now I’m going to take a binary approach that’s almost always wrong because it’s so much bigger than any one method. Any one person, and I don’t care who it is you’re talking about, what voice teacher you’re talking about they’re wrong about something. I’m wrong about something. Okay, I’ll admit to one thing, but there’s something I’m wrong about. And even worse, not exactly sure what I’m wrong about, but we’re all varying degrees of wrong.

And even right or wrong, there’s a little less wrong, then it’s kind of right. Then a little more right and then extremely correct. Absolutely right and everything is falling on these spectrums. So you have to be on guard for this either/or thinking. Just keep your mind open, take what is working for you, what’s working for your voice and always keep in mind what it is that you want to sing. You just need to find a way to produce the sounds that you need to make on a consistent basis and a vocally healthy manner or at least the healthiest manner you can find. That’s it. I remember talking to this well-known blues singer and he went to a voice teacher who had the student before him singing opera and he was saying, don’t you want to be able to do this?

And his thought was, no, I don’t. And he never went back. You have to find what works for you that gives you the tools to say what it is that you want to sing. And that’s all vocal technique is. It’s just a tool to assist you in musical expression. And just don’t get caught up in this idea of right and wrong, better and best, only way. It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t happen, and again, that guru kind of school of singing, I was in one before many, many years back and it had some pluses in it. It definitely had its minuses. And then in recent years, I was approached to join another guru type school of thinking. And by that point, I knew there was no way, no matter how good the person giving the education, when I even sniff that the person is not to be questioned and all knowledge comes through them and all knowledge must be vetted through them, it’s over for me.

Those days are gone. And I would hope that those days never happened for you. You have to stay open. Now when you’re working with a teacher, listen to this teacher, work with them, give it a chance. But if a teacher says I did this when I was a young teacher, but start saying that this person’s wrong. This is right. That’s wrong. You’re getting into that closed binary thinking and you need to keep your mind open. Your brain and singing really just has to be open and you just need to keep seeking for the truth that you need to express your truth. And that’s all I got for today

Hey, if you want to know more about me, go to johnhenny.com. And if you are thinking about being a voice teacher, I can tell you, my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy, I am going to be raising the price it can very soon. I’ve kept the price much lower than it’s ultimately going to be. I did that to kind of get it going and get feedback and I had it in beta for a while and the course is going really, really well. I’ve recently added another level to it called CVTA Elite where I interact with Academy members and I will critique lessons and even give them personalized, business advice to help grow their studios. That’s ultimately going to be a separate, more expensive tier. But for right now, you can get both, the course and that tier, it’s $59 a month. It will soon be going up to $69 a month. So if you are thinking about it, go to johnhenny.com and just click on teacher training up in the menu. Hey, I really, really appreciate you listening to me babble. And if you hear barking in the background, that is my ill-tempered bulldog, French bulldog Wee Man. He thinks I’m talking to somebody and he’s completely annoyed. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.