Vocal technique is a vital skill, but it can also become a trap, leaving singers frustrated and less connected with their performances.

In this episode, John discusses getting beyond technique to the highest level of singing – selfless communication and connection.

Episode Transcript

Episode 191 – Beyond Technique

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of the intelligent vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending this precious listening time with me. 

Today, I want to talk about something a little bit esoteric, a little out there. But in performance, in communication, in music, I think it’s really important. It’s this idea of getting beyond technique. And this is something in my own teaching, I run into time and time again. People will come to me, and I’m very often not the first teacher they’ve seen. And so they’ve bounced around a few teachers and these are students who’ve worked incredibly hard. They’re very serious. They’re very focused, and they are determined to improve their voice. But what they do is they put all of their faith, if you will, in technique, and they become obsessed with technique. 

Now, people come to us for technique. However, you can’t get stuck in technique. I’ll give you an example. Someone came to me a number of years ago, and I was having them do a scale on a mum and they went mamamoo, mamamoomoo, mama and I went, wait a minute, what are you doing with this mamoo and they had heard a voice teacher tell them that they had to create a figure eight in their voice. In the same concept that Pavarotti talked about in his famous Juilliard masterclass, that is on video, and you can see and he talked about singing through this transition as being like a figure eight. But what Pavarotti was talking about was, when you hand over the resonance from the lower register to the upper register, there is an area where it feels a little more compressed, and I’ve gone into this in other podcasts, but there is an acoustic handover. 

And when you’re in the middle of this handover, in this vocal bridge, it feels as if the voice splendors down, it comes into a literal bridge. And I’ve heard voice teachers talk about it, you’re on a four lane highway, it goes to a two lane bridge, and then it opens back up to a four lane highway. And this is this sensation of a figure eight, but he took this so literally and he was so focused on it, that he just pounded this idea that and over narrowed as he went through. And I just see people do this, very often, they take an aspect of technique, and they work at work at work it until the technique actually starts to work against them, that they you know, very often when we are teaching voice, we will give students the opposite, we will try and introduce the opposite condition of what they were experiencing if they are experiencing an imbalance. 

So if somebody is really, really wide and shouty, then the voice teacher will usually give them a vowel that’s a bit more closed and narrow. And what will happen is the student will feel almost immediate relief if it’s the right exercise that’s chosen. And very often the exercise depending on how imbalanced the student is, the exercise will drift towards an exaggeration because you really have to make a course correction to try and pull the student to center. So they will feel this improvement and we naturally think that’s the ticket. And now I’m just going to narrow everything and what will happen is students will come to me and everything’s over narrowed. It’s closed which now reduces energy in the voice especially as you sing higher. 

If the vowel is too closed, if the vowel and by closed, I mean rounding your lips out. closing down the mouth. And if the vowel is too closed, we lose the upper energy in the sound wave, it’s like a filter. And we’re filtering out all of these upper frequencies. Now that’s fine if you’re singing light. But if you’re trying to sing really big intense notes up there, it’s not going to work. And what ends up happening usually is the singer will start to squeeze because they’re not getting this good feedback of resonant energy. As I’ve explained before, when we’re really balanced acoustically, the sound waves will reflect back down to the vocal folds and assist them in holding back the air and creating the sound waves and we lose that. So we end up starting to, we end up squeezing, and students end up all bound up and they’ve worked themselves into this condition. 

I mean, they’ve spent good money, and they’ve spent many hours in this exaggeration. And to be fair to other voice teachers, because I don’t judge a voice teacher’s ability based on their students, because we can give you an instruction in our studio and what you do with it, especially if you only take a couple lessons that we don’t see you again. But sometimes these people are very earnest, and they’ve been studying consistently, and the technique has become overwhelming, and they’re focused on my technique has to be right, my technique has to be right in there afraid to sing a note, unless it’s exactly right. So then you have students, when they go to sing these notes, when they go to sing a song, they’re so deathly afraid of being wrong, that they’re constantly hesitating. And basically, their vocal balance is just collapsing. And they’re always on the verge of this cracking and this falling apart now, are they yelling and hurting themselves? No. So there is good in that. But they’re so afraid of getting towards that condition that they’ve pulled themselves the other way. And man, I say this as a technical voice teacher, I’m not a vocal coach. 

A vocal coach is somebody who really works the material. stylistically, and there are vocal coaches who specialize in certain types of music. There are vocal coaches who specialize in specific operas, vocal coaches who specialize in r&b vocal producers that help you get the right performance in the studio. I am primarily a technique coach. But I will tell you technique is far from the end all be all. And unless a singer’s technique is inhibiting them, or their lack of technique is inhibiting them from expressing themselves the way they mean to and you can hear them struggling, then that’s an issue. But if someone is expressing themselves in the moment, and connecting emotionally and connecting musically, I almost don’t care about technique, I’m pretty darn forgiving. Unless I’m worried the singer is going to hurt themselves, or they just can’t get the notes. But I allow a pretty wide berth as to what I as a listener will enjoy. It’s kind of funny, because when I will do YouTube reaction videos, and if you want to check out what I do, just go to YouTube John Henny Vocals. 

As of right now I just passed 50,000 subscribers, which does not make me an influencer. But it’s nice nonetheless and I appreciate everyone who subscribed but a critique that I will get if we can call the comment section of YouTube critiques, it’s pretty comical. But a critique will be that I don’t hear music, emotionally. I’m just this technical robot and what I’m doing is I’m actually breaking down what the singer is doing, technically, and talking about acoustics because there are plenty of people who are very good at just simply reacting and they’re quite popular. There are those far more popular than me. But for the audience that enjoys what I do, I’m talking to them and explaining it and so I can get a rap of being overly focused on technique but that’s not true. I really listened to music from an emotional place and I listen to singers from emotional places. I turn off that teacher’s brain when I listen to music for enjoyment and I want you to get to that place, I don’t want vocal technique to be this chain around you to be this fear of not being right. The only time you’re wrong as a singer is when you’re not communicating is when you’re not being musical is when you’re not in the right mindset. 

And what this over focus of technique does, is it turns your focus inward. And that is one of the worst places you can be as a performer, you’re over focused on yourself and that is where a lot of insecurity will come from, and imposter syndrome and stage fright and all of these different struggles that we can have as singers, because you are focused on yourself, you are focused on being perfect, you are focused on being technically correct, you are focused on what people think of you and do they like me and am I going to be appreciated, and that is not where your mind should be. As a matter of fact, you’re sense of self, who you are, as you listen to me, you have this sense of who you are. Unless you’re staring in a mirror, you don’t see your face, you don’t see your head, you just see the world. But you have a sense that you are you in a great performance that disappears.

You disappear, sense of self disappears, worry disappears and what you have is you have the music, the musicians, the connection to that, the emotion, the audience, communication, all of these things, that if you can get into that beautiful flow state that is talked about, that athletes will achieve, where they get the ball, just as the buzzer is about to go and time seems to slow down and they don’t even they don’t hear the crowd, they’re just completely in that moment, and sending the ball to the basket, they’re not focused on themselves. Because their attention focuses down to the ball in the basket, as the,as a performer, your attention opens to the music and the audience in the field of emotion. And it is just that flow and this is something you need to cultivate, this is not something that’s magic, I mean, you can wait for it to happen. 

But as a performer, you need to be able to go into that state instantly and the best way that I have found to begin to cultivate this control of awareness, this control of mind is mindfulness is meditation. And just being able to be completely in the moment, without a sense of self. But to just experience to feel your body as just changing sensation. As to see with your eyes open. It’s just a display of varying color, light shadow, all of the sounds that they don’t sound far away, everything is just there, there’s no sense of distance, there’s no sense of the I’m in front of the back of my head, there is just the back of my head, my knee, my hand, sound, vision, light shadow, it’s just all there. And in that moment, even though it just becomes something that just passes through. And the sense of self begins to dissipate and disappear. And this is just a wonderful state to be in as a performer.

Now, when you are in rehearsal, and you really have to be focused and you’re figuring out you know what, on this cue this part of the song do not stand here, because there is some element of the stage that’s going to be dropping, I mean, you have to be you can’t be floating away when that’s happening, because that could be dangerous. You also have to obviously watch the conductor if you’re in a musical theater piece, but it really as you practice this, you can come in and out of this and move in and out and vocal technique. I Don’t think you can stay in this flow state all the time as a performer and there will certainly be known that you’re, you’re in this flow state, here comes this note. And you may have to just pull in a little bit, think of technique coming inward ever so slightly, just make sure you drop your jaw, you form the vowel, right? You don’t clench, support the tone, whatever it is you need, and then you hit that note and then you allow yourself to be the passive vessel. For the energy of the note, you don’t get over involved in the production, but you set it up correctly and then as that passes, you can go back into the flow. It’s this back and forth. 

But I don’t want you stuck in technique. And it really saddens me when I see people lose their joy of singing, because they are so stuck in this technique. And I really have to watch myself, even as a teacher, over correcting people. Because it can be very tempting, we always want to fiddle and move this and move that and that’s not right. And sometimes you just have to let students say and it’s a little bit wrong, but I have to let them get it in their body. And if you listen to my podcast a few episodes ago on inner and outer singing, and just this idea of allowing outer instruction, just being focused on the energy and that your tone is emanating. I mean, I remember hearing people say imagine there’s energy from the balls of your feet, and it emanates out of your head and you’re singing to an audience out of the top of your head. And I thought, well, this is just ridiculous instruction. 

But they are finding that actually can be a very helpful instruction if you stay too internalized. And if you become too focused on the micro adjustments, you can’t really break through to the higher level motor skills and singing is a very high level motor skill. And so you have to let go if there’s too much technique. And if you’re experiencing this, maybe just take a little break from your formal practice and just allow yourself just to do some singing, pick some simple songs Don’t be trying to sing crazy Steve Perry or Jane by Jefferson Starship. This crazy, crazy, high stuff I just saw. Great voice teacher, Daniel Formiga sings that on YouTube is just phenomenal, it’s crazy high. Give yourself some easier material, he can nail it. If you can’t nail it. Give yourself something that you do feel that you can nail and allow yourself to experience. This flow state starts letting go of your sense of self and yourself correction and criticism and just being in the music. 

This is the highest level of singing, no one cares about technique. And at the end of the day, I don’t care about technique. Communicate, say something to me, be musical. interact with the musicians who are playing behind you respond to what they’re doing. I promise you if you are playing with great musicians, they will respond back they will be so appreciative of a singer who actually acknowledges other musicians on the stage, not just acknowledging by nodding your head and smiling I mean, musically just locking in, and you become just this one unit of energy that’s communicating with the audience. That’s what I want for you. 

Hey, if you want to know more about me, please visit my website, johnhenny.com. Be sure to sign up for my free warmups course and get my new book Beginning Singing. I’m really happy with it. It’s been a number one bestseller on Amazon. I’m just thrilled with the response you can go to beginningsingingbook.com to check out your copy. If you are interested in becoming a voice teacher go to johnhenny.com and click on teacher training up in the menu and you can learn to be a voice teacher online. I have an online course and it’s quite inexpensive compared to other training programs. And if you’re interested in voice lessons, there are still a few slots available with my associate, Darlene Yam. She’s really, really good and she helped me get your technique together so that you can then get in that flow state. 

And until next time to sing better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye