Voice science is advancing our understanding of singing by leaps and bounds – but it’s also becoming a bit overwhelming.

In this episode, John looks at the role of knowledge in singing and why an overreliance on science can be a problem.


Episode Transcript

Episode 123 – Information Overload

Hey there, this is John Henny welcome back to another edition of the intelligent vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Oh boy, talk about overwhelm. These past couple of weeks have been a bit of a mind bender for me and if you’ve ever done a creative project there is that point where you’ve lost the initial excitement of the inspiration and of the doing and getting going and then it’s going back in and cleaning up and not getting stuck in perfectionism and not getting into that paralysis by analysis but cleaning up your work and my book. Oh my gosh I’m just in that final stretch of going through and all these wonderful test readers who have given me notes and going through and incorporating and stamping out the last little typos and debating if a comma should go in or not go in. 

And again that’s paralysis by analysis and fighting through that and you just start to lose some steam and I gotta tell you, this is the point where in the past, and we’ve all done it, where you just kinda stop and we all have those projects that are nearly done and then they just go in a drawer. And I am fighting through this because this book is not going into the drawer. I’ve made a commitment to get it out by the end of this month. This is the beginning of October. I’m falling behind just a little bit only because so many great suggestions came in from the test readers and I’m really working to incorporate as much as I can. Oh man, I am pushing through and I’m pushing through on my next course, which is going to be the expanded belt course and I just did a recording session yesterday with a great singer Angelic Kalvia who also teaches at my Academy. 

And I’ve created these original songs that use specific words and vowel sounds to help registrate the voice to dial you into your lower register and then your head voice and then that middle voice or that mix area and then finally short songs that really start to push that belt and it’s been a lot of fun. Working the songs is really cool to hear them come to life. I’m really excited to get that out, but that’s a push to get through and I’m really committed to getting that done at the end of the month. So I almost didn’t get in here to do this podcast. I’m rushing in, before my actual work, work day starts to just share my thoughts with you. But in this idea of overwhelm, I want to talk about the knowledge explosion that’s going on with singing and the information overwhelm that can happen to us all and what role knowledge should play for you. 

And you really have to decide for yourself how much you truly need to know about the voice, what serves you? Because the ultimate goal here is to sing. It’s not to know about singing, it’s to actually sing and knowledge has to serve you. Knowledge for its own sake is fun and I will certainly indulge in that, but I do want it to be practical. I want it to be practical for my own voice. But more importantly for my students being a voice educator, and this is a whole other podcast topic, but you really do get into this area and this debate of how much time you spend on your own voice versus the needs of your students and how well do I as an educator need to sing, how much practice do I need to do and working on my own voice to benefit my students. 

And there is a certain amount but I’m not an active performer at this stage of my life and careers. So I put more focus on my students and this is a battle back and forth between voice teachers that if a teacher’s voice is not at its absolute best or they’re not a fantastic singer and they’re not an effective educator and I have not found that to be true. I know amazing singers who are rather poor teachers and rather mediocre singers or bore people who even struggle with their voice, but who can bring it out in others and you do have a problem with demonstration and you certainly want to be good enough to demonstrate. But it really is a balance between myself, and my needs, and my students’ needs and right now my students are going to win out. 

I got to make a vow to myself when I was younger. It was really about me and I wanted to be a rock star and I got a record deal that went belly up and all that and I kind of fell into voice teaching. And now at this stage I just really want it to be about helping people and less and less about myself. My little needs and ego will creep in here and there, but I really do my best to try and stamp it out and just help people. So now that I’ve wandered away from the topic back into this knowledge explosion and the role that it could and should play in your singing life, as I mentioned before, got back from the international voice teachers of mixed conference and just some incredible presenters. Ken Bozeman, who I’ve talked about before on the podcast, presented brilliantly on voice acoustics and the kinesthetic mapping of the voice, just feeling where the voice goes. 

For the first time I met Chadley Ballantine who I have to introduce by talking about Amos Tversky, who was a very famous psychologist and who’s work with Daniel Conaman ultimately won the Nobel prize, although they don’t award it posthumously. So he had sadly passed away and didn’t get it. But Amos was so brilliant that his colleagues had an IQ test and the IQ test was the faster you realized Amos was smarter than you, the smarter you were. And I can just say that I very quickly realized how much smarter and next level Chadley is so I give myself a pat on the back for realizing that I’m nowhere near as smart and these presentations, I mean just brilliant stuff, but on a level I understood it. And on another level because there were teachers there and just demonstrating their approaches and new knowledge where I got overwhelmed and when I get overwhelmed I’m like a toddler and I were a toddler gets overstimulated and starts to cry. 

I have to go find a quiet space and just like lay down cause my brain just starts racing and it’s just too much. So I am still percolating over all the information that I learned. I’m going to be reviewing the recordings of everyone’s presentation when those are available and just really seeing what I can apply, how I can apply it and ultimately what works for me considering my students. And for you, information should work for you and your singing. I’ve seen discussions about singers and voice educators and the more they talk about science, the less well they seem to sing. And whether that’s true or not, I’ve certainly seen it in instances where someone becomes obsessed with knowing all they can about the voice but really doesn’t work it into their own body. The problem with this line of thinking for me is it tends to just be binary and our brains love to be binary. 

When you’re walking down the street alone at night and you’re considering whether to walk down an alley, if is this alley safe This is not the time for nuance. This is the time for very broad decisions and erring on the side of caution. If it’s a well lit alley with people walking up and down it, well that’s one decision. If it’s a dark alley and you notice some rustling behind a dumpster, that’s another decision. You don’t really need to think that through, but that binary thinking that keeps us safe as a survival mechanism just creeps into all of the parts of our thinking and just destroys our political discourse and our interactions with each other and the shunning of people who aren’t of our group and rejecting information that doesn’t work within our own cognitive biases. It’s a problem and binary thinking that somehow knowledge about the voice and good singing are exclusive of each other. 

I just don’t find it to be true. But I will admit there are those that get over fascinated with the science or they think that science is the answer to everything and it’s not, it’s just understanding just as the map is not the territory I can look at my directions of where I’m going and I know that I have to take a left on a certain street, but in the moment as I’m taking that left and a semi truck is heading the other way, I have to calculate whether I’m should make that left turn now or not. I have to make split second decisions that the map doesn’t give me the information and voice science in the moment of singing. There are so many decisions you have to make. There are so many muscles involved. It’s such a subtle and complex act that in that split second before and note you can’t be thinking about a resonance tune to parts of the sound wave. 

You just have to sing and that singing has to get into your body. This is a physical act where we guide by sound to a degree and sensation to a degree and both of these send us false signals depending on where we are singing our ears and our bodies begin to lie to us as we’re singing, especially as we are singing higher. We have as human beings evolved and developed the ability to communicate very well, to call out for danger. All of these different survival mechanisms when we speak, we get a lot of sensation. I can feel a lot of buzzing in my throat. I know what my voice is doing. I have a great sense of how I am communicating. If I’m feeling emotion, if I’m getting a little angry or if I’m just kind of getting a little reticent and maybe even a little sad, I can sense that. 

And my nervous system is very, very tied to it. And also these lower sound waves because they’re omni-directional, they travel in a circle, if you will. I’m getting feedback straight to my ears from the sound wave. I’m hearing a certain amount through the bone. I’m getting a lot of information from the instrument. As we sing higher, that all changes. And here comes the singers struggle, because when you hear somebody sing and sing well, their upper notes don’t sound divorced or separate from their lower notes. It’s an extension of one voice and we naturally make the assumption that the sensations should therefore be unified just as the voice is unified. But we soon find from experience that it’s not. But the great singing mistake, the mistake that keeps us voice teachers in business is we try and force the sensations, the feedback we get from the instrument on a lower note to the higher notes. 

And that is hard to let go of. And that is hard to trust. And I’ve led people into the right place and beginning singers want to dismiss it. That feels too light. It feels too easy. I can’t really hear it. It feels less stable. They’re getting less feedback from the instrument and they process that as this doesn’t sound the same because it doesn’t feel the same. Now when you have the knowledge that our nerves actually receive and process vibration and frequency very well in the lower range, but as we go higher, our nerves pick up less and less until it begins to disappear. So higher frequencies, you’re simply not going to get that same feedback and when you understand that’s how the body works, it’s easier to let go and trust it rather than trying to over muscle and force sensation that shouldn’t be there. 

When you understand that the interaction of the sound wave to your resonators is going to change on the higher notes and then that is going to give you a false kinesthesia or a false sensations that, of the voice lifting up behind the eyes going out the head and you realize that is the way that the sensations of those interactions feel and it’s pretty much across the board. Some of us are more open to these sensations than others. But if you understand that’s how resonance is working, it’s easier to accept and trust. Vowel modifications, the fact that if you want to belt an E or U vowel it can’t be the same as a spoken E or U vowel because of the interaction of the changing sound wave to your resonators and when you understand that vowels are just how we perceive certain frequencies or pitches. 

It’s not the shape, but it’s where the energy is being boosted within the sound wave and I know that’s a little esoteric. If this is the first podcast you’ve been listening to, you can go back and get some of this knowledge that I like to think is useful knowledge. But once you understand that, then these modifications of the vowels and even though it doesn’t feel like your making the right vowel you understand that the singer and the perception of the vowel is there and you need to make this adjustments for registration if you able to had a voice balance for the high notes and also for the color intensity that you want. It becomes easier to accept, it becomes easier to control. Now ultimately and I said this before you just wanna sing stupid, you just got to let it go and be in your body.

So knowledge plays a part and gaining this knowledge plays a part in the analysis of your own voice as you’re working it. And then the big question, why is this happening I’ve said it before. There are three questions. When you’re singing, What’s happening? Why is it happening? How do I fix it? Or How do I maintain it? If it’s really good. What is happening is usually easier. I sound nasal and cracking, I’m straining. The Why is the important one? And that’s where increasing your knowledge gives you more and more of the why. But you can’t get fixated on knowledge for knowledge’s sake. You really have to think about what it is that you need to do as a singer. Your job is communication and you’re communicating through a musical medium and you’re communicating through speech and it’s primarily speech on pitch. Now, if you’ve developed a type of music where all you need to do is grunt in your lower register, then you don’t need to know about singing high notes. 

You don’t have to worry about vowel modification. All you need to know is how to do these grunts consistently in the healthiest manner possible so that you can continue your platinum grunting career and you can go on your grunt tour and then maybe years from now there’s an, there’s an oldies, a nostalgic, a grunt tour. The days you kids with your music today. I remember when we used to listen to grunting, that was music. But that’s all you need. You just need to be able to sing what you need to sing. Don’t try and do everything I get singers that become fascinated with whistle register and yet what they need to sing is through their middle voice and through that transition that’s most of the material that they’re doing, but they want to spend all this time on whistle registers. 

Now you need to focus on what it is you need to do and you need enough knowledge so that you can help yourself do it. Do you need lessons No, not everyone does. If you want to point out that, that great singers don’t know about voice science. Some of my favorite singers of all time have never studied Paul McCartney, to my knowledge, has never studied. He’s in his late seventies now and he’s still touring and he’s vocals in the Beatles. He could go from a full throated scream to sounding sweet, singing through all his registers. You never heard a change in the quality of his voice unless he intended you to hear it. And he could really make his voice sound any way he wanted it to. And that was his natural gift and he just had it in his body. I had the great privilege of lecturing at the Paul McCartney Institute of the arts in Liverpool, and one of the teachers there was telling me he came in, he would I don’t know if he still does, but I do masterclasses, and someone had written all this voice teacher stuff on a chalkboard and he array crossed it out and said, you don’t need any of that. 

And my argument is, Paul doesn’t need any of that. Some of us mortals do I know I do and I wouldn’t have been able to sing to the level I do without studying. It just didn’t come naturally to me. So just as this voice science explosion continues and, and that’s what’s so beautiful is so many people are embracing it. If it overloads you, if you don’t understand it, just relax. It’ll be okay. You’ll get this to the degree that you need it, but ultimately internalize it in your body. This is a sensation. This is, this is hitting a fastball in the major league and the batter has just got to get those instincts and the reading of the pitch and the feel of the swing. The hitting coach is the one who really needs to think more about physics and mechanics and all of those to get it into the batter’s body. 

You just have to get it into your body. And if you have a voice teacher, let the voice teacher guide you into that. But internalize the sensation this is singing is doing. You have to sing to sing. You can’t read about singing, you have to sing about singing. But knowledge can help you build the voice, understand the voice, let go of misconceptions and chasing down blind alleys. It can help inform you about choosing a teacher when you’re watching videos on YouTube who knows what they’re talking about and who doesn’t, who you should follow because you’re, you’re going to have to more and more filter information that’s really going to become the job. It’s no longer “Can I get the information?” “It’s how I get through all of this information to what it is that I, the singer, need?” 

Hey, if you want to know more about me, visit my website, johnhenny.com. If you’d like to know more about voice science, click on courses and you can get my new science of singing 2.0 course where I really break down these science concepts into bite size bits, applicable knowledge. I even have exercises where you can apply it. And if you’re a voice teacher or becoming a voice teacher, there’s a certification test that you can show your students that you’ve gone through this and you, you do have a practical voice. Science knowledge and registration is an opener. Enrollment is open for my contemporary voice teacher Academy. Just click on teacher training in the menu at johnhenny.com. You can get more information about that and until next time to sing better singing. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.