A quick way to garner attention, especially online, is to develop a rebellious, contrarian stance against the “establishment.”

In the world of voice, there are debates launched, proclaiming certain ideas or techniques to be “completely wrong.”

This can create a lot of confusion for the singer, especially when something they have studied is dismissed.

In this episode, John looks at the nature of these debates and how you should consider them as you continue your vocal education.

Episode Links:

Straw Warmups: Free course with John’s favorite straw warmup exercises.

The Secrets of Belting: Mini-course on how belt singing really works

Episode Transcript

Episode 89 – Everything You Know is Wrong

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another edition of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious time with me. And today it’s just me. I’m back to another solo episode. I think it’ll be fun to kind of break it up that way. I’ll have guests on, when I can get together with the interesting people or people I at least find interesting. And when I don’t have a guest, I can just babble about vocal things that interest me. And today I want to talk about this idea of something being completely wrong. And you may see it online, YouTube or discussion groups, and there’ll be a singing concept that will come up and somebody will proclaim this is absolutely wrong. And there are very, very few things I can think of that are absolutely wrong. I have heard maybe a handful of things in my teaching career that I could say, “No, that’s completely 100% wrong.”

And one of them was, I remember, in a private discussion group, somebody talking about that we don’t make sound from the vocal cords and it’s some other manipulation of air within our vocal tract. And I just went, “Okay, that’s 100% wrong that I know.” And some ideas about that the cords zip up for higher notes as you go through the vocal transitions, and that’s been shown to not be completely right. There’s some thought that maybe it happens up in the extreme high ranges of the voice, but not down where it was proposed. But that being that as it may, there really isn’t much. And the reason I was thinking about this was I saw a post where a voice teacher had proclaimed that straw exercises– And I actually have a straw exercise workout. If you go to the show notes, johnhenny.com/89 for episode 89, I will put the link in there. It’s free. And it’s a whole workout utilizing the straw, or actually it’s a warmup, just some quick warm ups you can do utilizing a straw. The idea is the back pressure from the straw helps create this healthy resistance, and it also makes some adjustments in how the voice changes registers, and all of it’s really positive and really healthy and there’s a bit of scientific research behind it. But getting back to the story, this person proclaimed that because Caruso, who is a very famous tenor at the turn of the last century, who was actually one of the very first recording stars, because his recording technology was so poor that you needed a very, very strong voice and just the sound of his voice and the timbre and the strength was just optimal for recording technology, and so he was a recording star of his day and a brilliant singer.

But because Caruso didn’t use the straw, it’s nonsense. And part of that is true. Caruso most likely did not use the straw. However, we don’t know if he didn’t use other semi-occluded vocal tract exercises, which is a fancy way of just saying exercises where you’re partially blocked and you have some extra resistance. Lip bubbles, they are a really popular one. Tongue trills, some people use Z’s. And what it does is it creates some back pressure to assist the chords and hold back air. And it’s not the only thing that a singer will do, but it’s part of a good vocal regimen and it’s a great way to warm up, as is the straw. But the truth is, well that part’s true, but there’s a big jump from Caruso didn’t use them, Caruso’s a great singer, therefore they’re nonsense. And that’s where I get lost.

But this voice teacher proclaimed it in such a loud, strong way that his audience, his followers, were just absolutely thrilled. And they were in anticipation of the onslaught and criticism he was going to get because he was shaking the tree. He was going after, you know, the establishment and rattling that tree. And of course people started to respond. And to his credit, he stood his ground and he would just take people on and just dismiss them. And someone pointed out that this famous soprano uses the straw exercises, to which you responded, “And she’s terrible.” And it was just kind of a hullabaloo. And I really– one thing I’ve learned and I’ve gotten really good at it, I just stay out of this stuff because what is happening, whether this teacher is just naturally that way or whether he’s put some thought into it, but it’s a brilliant way to create some noise online.

And it’s a fast way to establish some authority. And it’s actually a specific marketing technique, is that you become the contrarian. You find a popular, established idea that most people in your industry agree with, and then you are the one saying ‘the emperor has no clothes.’ You’re the one that’s going to say, ‘This is wrong, and let me tell you why.’ And you will get instant attention, and when you see this happening online where people will stand up and they will take a vocal idea and they’ll say, ‘this is absolutely wrong,’ you really need to take a step back. And with a grain of salt, look at it again. And it may not even be something that you necessarily use or agree with or term, but you gotta look at why the person is proclaiming it wrong. There are, I’ll take for example, a chest voice that is a vocal register, if you will.

But people will say that chest voice is nonsense. And it’s like, yeah, we don’t sing from our chest. So why is that a vocal register? Well, you have to look at where the term comes from and what the term is trying to explain because there’s a lot going on with singing, and chest voice is very tied into the singer’s sensation of singing. And when you sing a low note, I will feel a lot of vibration in the chest. And it just became known over many, many years as chest voice. I don’t think that the term chest voice is wrong. Now, is it incomplete? Sure. Most singing terms are, and there is kind of a push to get people to start using things as ‘mode one’ as opposed to chest voice or head voice or any of these other ideas.

People will talk about mix. I talk about mix a lot. And then you will have voice teachers that say mix is nonsense, and it’s okay. When you look at their definition of mix and what they think the word is trying to say, then they usually make a good point as to it being nonsense. But they’re reappropriating the word and then putting their own definition on it and then destroying that definition, which is basically a straw man argument. You take someone’s argument and then you create a weak version of it, or a straw man version of it, and then you proceed to kick the straw man down and it looks like you’ve destroyed that person’s argument when all you’ve done is you’ve destroyed your weakened version of it. So the term mix– we’re always using our entire resonance tube and the vocal cords are phonating completely throughout.

And some people will say that there’s just a lower register and an upper register and you just go from one to the other. And within that, the way they define it within the parameters, they’re right. But again, when I go back to what a singer feels, because so much of this is, what does this feels like? What are we experiencing? We need to know what’s going on beyond that. Like, I know that the earth is round, but my day to day experience of it is that it’s pretty much flat. Maybe a little bit of hills here and there. And I don’t experience it as round as I walk down the block. So what is the singer’s experience? And as you begin to go from your lower register to your upper register, there begins to feel this shift in registration. And some people will even say that the sound waves are now splitting and they’re splitting behind the soft palate.

And that’s when I stop and I go, okay, now we’re starting to take the explanation and we’re stretching it a bit too far and now we’re talking about things that aren’t necessarily happening. But I will acknowledge that it feels like it. But this feeling of mix and this feeling of a combination of registers can be very real for the singer. And I have a definition of mix that I find that works well for me and I find it works for my students.

So to proclaim that mix is absolute nonsense I don’t think is entirely correct. Anytime a singer or a voice teacher proclaims something is absolute nonsense, it’s very often, again, a straw man version of the argument. And what this does is then it just gets people talking because now they get instant attention. And quite frankly, if I was going to do a YouTube post and I wanted people to pay attention, if I take this contrarian view, if I start attacking an idea, I will instantly get more eyeballs on my video.

I will get people debating in the comments. I’ll really stir things up. And again, it’s an effective marketing technique. It’s an effective way to draw attention to the teacher. And now these teachers may be very good and I don’t completely fault them for doing this. It makes sense. There’s a lot of noise out there and it’s hard to get noticed if you’re trying to have a reasoned view of things. Yeah. Because if you’re agreeing with the consensus, how do you really stand out? How do you quickly create authority? Well you kind of don’t, you just have to keep espousing your ideas and just the way that you teach and communicate this consensus. My audience, I’ll tell you right now, I put out recently a course called The Secrets of Belting. Now the word secrets, there are no secrets in it.

That’s a little bit of a marketing trick that I’m using. I’ll be completely honest with you. But belting is often misunderstood as to what’s really going on, especially even amongst voice teachers. We’ll debate and we’ll argue. And the reason being is we’re kind of debating something that has a very, very large spectrum. If we’re going to debate something like bread, we need to talk about the type of bread that it is. There are many variations within bread before it ceases to be bread and becomes a donut. So within what we can define as bread, there are different types of bread and there are different types of belt. And on the extreme end for me, there’s yelling and on the other extreme end there’s flipping to head voice. And so for me, belt lives within this spectrum, and people will debate one type of belt over another.

They’ll just take this term bread and in their mind only pumpernickel is bread. And you’ve got another person who will just get on Facebook and fight anybody who doesn’t agree that rye is the bread. Bread equals rye. So I use the term ‘secrets’ because just to break through some of the misunderstanding, explain what’s going on, but the course really doesn’t have any true secrets. And I’ve said this before, one of the first episodes of this podcast is called The Greatest Secret of Singing. And more people have clicked on that and listened to that than any other episode I’ve done because it’s got the word secret in it. So voice teachers have to market. They have to create authority on some level. Even the voice teachers who don’t say that, who claimed to never market, are making their presence known in some way. And being a contrarian gets you noticed really, really quickly.

So let’s say that you have been learning to mix. You’re studying with a teacher who talks about mix and then you go on the good old YouTube and somebody says mix is nonsense. There’s no such thing as mix, insinuates than anyone who teaches mix is completely wrong and suspect, etc. You really just got to stop and look at the argument. Look at how they’re positioning the term.

Are they understanding and defining it the way that your teacher is? Are you getting results from this? I’ll even go a little further. If you have a teacher that’s talking about concepts like your cords zipping up, or resonance splitting behind the soft palate as you go up, that the sound waves are suddenly going in another direction, but you’re getting great results and his other students are getting great results, I’m not going to fight somebody on that.

These are quibbly things. And I think a teacher is better served by knowing really how the voice works. But I know some really good voice teachers whose voice science understanding is not 100%. They kind of created their own little thing. They’ve created their own little words and I don’t fault anyone for that either. Sometimes people will take techniques that are already in existence, rename it a little bit. Well, marketers have been doing that forever. I mean, if you take a book, The 4-hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, which is this huge business book, oh my gosh, this revolutionary new concept– His whole concept is to outsource. You just, you hire people to do the tasks, the lower level tasks so you can stay on higher level tasks. But if he had named it ‘The Guide to Outsourcing,’ not many people would have bought it.

Nowhere near as many people that ended up buying The 4-hour Work Week. So renaming things, calling them something different, pretending things are kind of proprietary. That’s just part of the business. That doesn’t diminish what a teacher does and it doesn’t diminish the results you are getting. So the next time you see something proclaimed as absolutely wrong, foolish, false, and this voice teacher is now going to expose the establishment and shake things up, doesn’t mean they’re a bad teacher, but you should be aware of a little bit of smoke and mirrors quite possibly going on with that.

All right. There endeth my soapbox standing. If you want to see the show notes, go to johnhenny.com/89. You know what, I’ll put a link to my straw course there as well, as well as my Secrets of Belting course. Yes, secrets. The belting course is only $10. And the straw warmups course is free. So no charge there. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.