Psychology of Vocal Performance

by Diana Yampolsky, a Toronto-based Vocal Coach/Consultant. The Article Is As Written by Diana Yampolsky by cleverjoe.com

In this column, I would like to talk about something human psychology-related. When I speak at Music Conferences, I often make the statement that vocal coaching is not really about working on the voice, it is about working on the mind. I like to think that one reason that I have been successful over the years is that while I did receive a very comprehensive musical education, I have also tried to learn things from other scientific and artistic disciplines and use them to enhance my capabilities as a Vocal Coach/Consultant.

One field that has bearing on pretty much every human endeavour, including singing, is Behavioral Psychology. In 1891, the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov conducted a series of experiments using dogs to prove that behaviours are conditioned over time via repetition. In essence, he programmed the dog’s brains so that they would react in the exact manner in which he wanted them to.

For example, if he wanted the dog to learn the command to sit, he had to say it with a very firm voice and put the dog into a sitting position – always rewarding the dog with a treat. Eventually, the dog learned the command and with the command “sit” would do it himself while salivating, obviously at first expecting the treat. Pavlov proved that their saliva was produced in anticipation of the reward. Furthermore, the dog does not know any language. The Russian master would command “Sit” in the Russian language, the Japanese in Japanese, etc. The dog recognizes the sound and responds accordingly.
Now let’s suppose that the dog got into an obedience school in which the masters weren’t sure of what command to give and what response they wanted to receive. With the command ‘sit’, they were making the dog ‘lie’. With the command ‘lie’ they were making the dog run and so on. The dog would get completely confused and not know what to do anymore. Furthermore, let’s say the dog then enrolled in a different obedience school and the new master started giving him the correct commands. The new master would be perplexed – he couldn’t understand why the dog was lying when he was commanding the dog to sit and why the dog was running when it was commanded to lie. Obviously, the signals were mixed up.

With vocal coaching, I meet the similar situation every hour of every day. Many singers have mixed signals and “run” when they should “lie”. To recondition the mind and the response of the body is not an easy task, but it can be done; however, in a lot of cases with a great degree of difficulty. Therefore, I am use a structured set of speech and singing exercises to condition the mind and body to work in synchronicity and synergy. In many ways, what I am doing is similar to another scientific methodology - neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which is basically a methodology that has been designed to help people change and reprogram people’s behaviours by “installing” a certain set of instructions into their brains. Similarly, I have found that while all people are given a voice, nobody per se has given instructions on how to use it, at least not in a scientific way. The “manual” and “programs” that I give singers consist of special speech and singing exercises that train people in a way that is really not all that different from the way that Pavlov trained his dogs. After I have supervised the repetition of these exercises over a consistent but relatively short period of time, the way that singers use their voices are the result of a programmed instinct that will give them optimum results with a minimum amount of effort.

In many instances, the hardest part of improving an individual’s performance is not “programming” the new behaviours, it is actually getting the singer to truly admit and, more importantly, understand that they have a problem. I call this the “Vocaholics Anonymous” syndrome because in many ways it is similar to the behaviour of an alcoholic with respect to alcohol. Alcoholics abuse their bodies through the excessive consumption of alcohol in a manner similar to the way that many singers abuse their vocal chords (and ultimately the ears of their audiences). In both cases, they usually feel pretty sore the next day. Similarly, both are often told by friends and family that they have a problem but they usually do not listen and cannot admit to themselves that they have a problem. The first step for any recovering alcoholic is for them to admit to themself that they have a problem. For a “vocaholic’ the steps are pretty much the same. The singer first has to admit to himself that his current vocal technique (or lack thereof) is a problem. The 2nd step is to commit to doing something about it. The 3rd step is to get expert help and the 4th is to be able to establish the proper habit so that they won’t fall back into their bad habits. As with alcoholism, the goal of any vocal coach should be to cure their students of their bad habits to the point that there is no chance they will ever fall back into their old habits.

In conclusion, singing, like almost any other discipline, is based on conditioning. If your voice is conditioned the right way, you will sound better than you ever imagined possible. Like a dog, you need a competent master and a great obedience school. For more insights into how you can correctly condition your voice and mind, look for my future columns, visit my website at www.vocalscience.com , and look out for my upcoming 2nd book, Vocal Science II – Flight from the Virtual Music to Reality.