Brute force learning is a concept taken from computing. The idea is to approach a problem or area of learning from multiple angles.

With singing, it can be highly beneficial to get a wide array of sources to increase your understanding and skill.

In this episode, John discusses how brute force learning has helped him and why it might very well work for you.

Episode Transcript

Episode 157 – Brute Force Learning

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. Today this marks I think it has been nearly three months since I’ve had coffee. And I have not necessarily been enjoying it. I love coffee, but my caffeine intake was just way over the top. And I’m now on tea, which has caffeine but I’m consuming far less than I was with coffee. First of all, I don’t enjoy the taste of tea anywhere near as much as coffee. So that slows me down, combined with the fact that tea just has less caffeine and I would drink strong coffee.

It’s interesting. I’ve been listening to the new audio book by Michael Pollan called Caffeine. I believe it hasn’t been released as a book. I don’t know if he’s planning on doing that later. But it’s a short audiobook on Audible, and it’s quite fascinating. The way he ties in the growth of our civilization to the discovery and use of caffeinated plants, and the way that plants with caffeine have caffeine in the nectar, and this causes bees to prefer to go to these plants, even when the nectar is not as fruitful as other nearby flowers. So the bees become enslaved to the caffeinated plant just as 90% of humanity is. So I’m still considering letting coffee back into my life. I just have to do it slowly. It is insidious addiction, I will tell you.

Today, I want to talk about a concept called brute force learning, and there’s probably other names for it, but I saw this in a book I’m reading by Jonathan Levi entitled The Only Skill That Matters, and he has created this super learner system. And he has different brain hacks for learning different things for memorization, speed, reading, etc. But he talked about a concept called brute force learning, which comes from the computer world where, let’s say, a hacker wants to break into a site, they will use brute force attacks of passwords. And they will have more than one computer, create all different variations of passwords and just attack the website over and over until they find a combination that works just through sheer numbers.

And applying this into the world of singing, I have found this concept actually very helpful for myself. If I think back to when I really made strides in my singing and my understanding, it was when I sourced different avenues for my education, not just being stuck in one method, or one teacher or one book, but approaching a concept from all different angles. And this can get tricky because in singing, you will sometimes find the voice guru syndrome. And this is something I always encourage people to avoid. No matter how much you love your teacher, don’t let the teacher become an all-knowing guru. No teacher knows everything. And you get into some of these guru techniques, these methods, and what they start to do is they claim exclusivity, that they are the source of the real knowledge. Very often, it is some forgotten vocal knowledge that they have rediscovered. That’s usually a popular way. The rest of the world has forgotten this, the modern world, but we have discovered this ancient secret. The science is usually shaky. It’s kind of quasi-science. And while these can get great results, it’s not the whole picture. And I’m really about looking at everything and taking what works for you. You really do need a whole variety of sources because you just don’t know when it’s going to click for you. And it’s very often not one thing that will make it click, it’s that combination.

When I was first looking at voice science, I had a really tough time, especially getting into these ideas of formats. Harmonics made sense to me, that a sound is made up of a stack of sounds, if you will– these frequencies that sit on top of each other and the lower frequencies blend into the pitch in our ear and the higher frequencies become the color.

But the idea of format, how it was filtered within the vocal tract so that some frequencies are boosted over others and how that becomes vowels, that was a difficult concept at first. The very first time I heard it, I was at a teacher conference and I specifically remember sitting in a lecture, and it was just going right over my head. And I went up afterwards to the person giving the lecture and asked, hey, do you have a book or something that I can study so I can get this inside my thick skull? And he did indeed have a book, and I’ve said this before, but I read two paragraphs and I felt like I needed a nap. And I found out, subsequently, that book was written for other voice researchers. And then the author also had a book that was a little more for the layperson.

Not much, but it was better. But then I started attacking that from various sources and reading other books and finding websites and attending lectures, speaking with other voice teachers. And it wasn’t that there was one book or one lecture that had opened it up to me, but it was the combination. And then what really sealed it for me was I said, Okay, now how can I take what I’ve learned and explain it to others? Can I teach this to other people? And the act of trying to create a lesson plan, trying to create a lecture really, really helped me. Trying to simplify it so that other people could understand it. And even in my own singing, even when I would have a teacher that really worked for me, I would go take occasional lessons with other teachers because teachers are going to hear you differently. We all have our biases, where we will hear the voice in certain ways and our ear will naturally gravitate to specific things. And some teachers will focus a little more on breath. Some teachers will focus a little more on vowel tuning. Some teachers will focus more on cord closure and resistance. Now, all teachers are listening to all things, but it’s just what pops out a little more. What exercises does a teacher prefer? What speed do they like to go at? How much do they like to explain? How sensation-based are they versus science-based? And there is no ultimate right or wrong answer to this. Every teacher is going to have a different approach. And you may take a lesson with a new teacher that doesn’t really rock your world. But you’re going to get something out of it. Even if you just get this idea of, Okay, that’s not how I like to learn. That’s something. But more than likely the teacher is going to approach your voice in a way that’s going to open things up for you. How many times has someone explained something to you that you’ve heard before, but they said it in a slightly different way that it just makes sense to you? It’s a constant unfolding.

You’re never going to land in your singing and that you’re never going to arrive as a completed singer. You’re done. You’re finished. All you have to do now is just sing. There’s always more to learn. It’s ever changing. Your instrument is ever changing. Your brain is ever changing. Your connection with your instrument changes constantly. So, you need to keep finding new ways to approach the voice, to think about the voice, to experience the voice, getting new feedback, new ideas. This brute force learning, if you embrace it, can really open up new understanding. Don’t just take one online course. Don’t just follow one voice teacher on YouTube. Don’t just read one book. Keep bringing in new ideas and embrace new ideas.

Be open and then keep what works and let go of what doesn’t. This is your journey. And ultimately you are responsible for this journey, and the way that you connect with your instrument, the way that you understand your instrument is going to be unique. What makes sense to you is going to be unique. So I want you to embrace how you learn, embrace how you relate to your voice, embrace all types of knowledge and ways of looking at the voice. Seek out new teachers, new sources of information, and discuss singing with your colleagues. 

I just spoke with someone recently who– it’s a group of singer songwriters, and they will get together and listen to this podcast and then they’ll discuss the podcast and break it down, and I think that’s a great way to learn. Not just using my podcast, but just any source of information. Form a reading group and keep getting new sources and discuss them and see what works for you. See what really starts to blossom in your singing and your understanding.

Hey, if you want to know more about me, please visit my website and be sure to sign up for my email list. I just did a webinar with my wife Tracee Theisen. Tracee runs my Music Academy. And this was a free “ask us anything” that I only did for my email list. So you’re gonna want to be on my email list. And when you sign up, make sure that you opt in to get the emails. Finish that process or I’m not going to be able to communicate with you.

Also check out my free vocal warm ups course. It’s warming up with straws. And if you are interested in teaching voice, I encourage you to go to my website, click on the tab that says teacher training. My Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy has hundreds of voice teachers all over the world, and it’s getting a really good response. People are really enjoying the course as well as the monthly webinars and being able to ask me questions within the course. So go ahead and click on the teacher training tab and see if that might not just be for you. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.