Pedagogical Significance of Breakthroughs in Singing

A Qualitative Study of Voice at the Desautels Faculty of Music

This phenomenological qualitative study examines the reported experiences of the vocal breakthroughs of singing teachers and students, and proposes a model for understanding their significance and application in the context of the stages of vocal change, motor learning, and voice performance. Breakthroughs are new capabilities producing insight and physical ease. Preconditions and catalysts for the breakthrough revealed in the data are explored in the context of the vocal pedagogy literature. Learning culture and attitudes toward team teaching emerge as factors that support the management of breakthroughs. Two kinds of breakthroughs, different in scale and nature, are important to vocal progress as indicators of vocal identity and potential. Examples from the lived experience of voice teachers and students demonstrate that different ways of focusing attention in singing change the way breakthroughs are experienced and retained.


The Significance and Pedagogical Applications of the Vocal Breakthrough



Concert pianist William Westney captures the spirit and nature of the performer’s breakthrough in vivid detail: “The breakthrough, comes from a shift within the learner– something lets go, the person becomes more relaxed and at the same time more focused, the process begins to be trusted, some kind of inner connection is made. This connection can’t be talked about, and really can’t be taught. It’s the genuine ‘Aha!’”[1]


Like pianists, singers experience these shifts in awareness and ability, and as we will see, breakthroughs have much to teach us; however, to date there has not been a comprehensive study of the phenomenon. We will look first at the ‘aha’ moment as described in the scientific insight and vocal pedagogy literatures. Next we see what the experiential evidence reveals about the breakthrough as it relates to the stages of vocal growth, the catalysts that produce breakthroughs, and what this can teach us about vocal development. We will note how the data suggests that there are two different kinds of vocal breakthroughs being reported, each with their own pedagogical imperatives. Next, we examine the ways that students and voice teachers link breakthroughs to aspects of their institutional culture. Finally, we explore the pedagogical context and applications for the two kinds of breakthroughs.


The Breakthrough as an ‘Aha’ Moment

Cognitive scientists Topolinski and Reber have studied how it feels to have an ‘aha’ moment. They conclude that there are four characteristics.[2] Such a moment:

  • is sudden, surprising, and immediate
  • produces a sense of ease because it simplifies what was difficult
  • is pleasurable and gratifying because fluency is gained
  • seems true and right, producing confidence resulting from the sense of having found a solution to something problematic.


In their review article on insight literature Chu and MacGregor discuss various theories on the perception of insight, including the notion that insight may be a gradual process that takes place subconsciously when taking a break from problem-solving.[3] For singers, the ‘aha’ moment is not only cognitive but also physical and musical, and we turn now to the vocal pedagogy literature for context that accommodates these dimensions.


The Breakthrough in the Vocal Pedagogy Literature

The word ‘breakthrough’ is mentioned relatively sparingly in the literature, though the idea has a significant presence. We see this in the many synonymous words or phrases found in the vocal literature that reflect the meaning and impact of the breakthrough experience. These include: new technical and interpretive breakthroughs, major epiphany, light dawning, wonderful improvement, exciting change, immediate result, vocal serendipity, fabulous practice, significant breakthrough, fresh perspective, dramatically-improved response, stunning vocal results, peak performance, exceeded expectations, one-minute fix. There is not, however, a comprehensive treatment of the phenomenon, and many direct references to the breakthrough treat it as potentially problematic.


Managing Vocal Breakthroughs

Bruce Lunkley invites students to come to his office “should something spectacular happen” in practice, so that the breakthrough moment is not lost.[4] Jack Coldiron tells students that “if something is going well in a practice session, please come to my studio immediately” so feedback and guidance can be provided.[5] Richard Miller believes that the hope of achieving a breakthrough can be a snare, and the results deceptive. He warns against searching for a ‘quick fix’ in a society hooked on fast results.[6] He reminds students that there are teachers who will exploit their need for answers, and serve up what appear to be “mysteries and miracles.”[7] Miller observes that students often go to a new teacher hoping he or she will be the one who will “put it all together” for them and introduce them to the previously-overlooked phonatory muscle that will make all the difference; however, Miller maintains that real progress in singing is the result of the continued efforts of two individuals: the teacher and the student. The teacher has the expertise to diagnose problems, prescribe solutions, and lead the student through experiences that provide opportunities for learning, and the student is the one who has to “put it all together.”[8]


Lynn Helding also warns that the breakthrough can be an aberration within the context of long-term study, and points to the fact that breakthroughs have the potential for change in motor performance but do not in themselves signify learning if they are not relatively permanent. She writes: “Most singers are familiar with the phenomenon of early success, or mini-breakthroughs, which may occur in the midst of a voice lesson or a practice session, only to vaporize moments later….This phenomenon is particularly common in a one-time master class setting, in which a guest teacher is able to evoke a certain response from the singer on display, but only in that moment.”[9] She says, “As most voice teachers know, the acquisition and retention of physical skills occur along a continuum. Temporary breakthroughs notwithstanding, progress does not happen all at once, but over a period of time.”[10]


Voice scientist Katherine Verdolini Abbott agrees that “the coveted breakthrough” can be counter-productive, and offers guidance according to principles grounded in scientific research on motor learning relating to the way feedback from the teacher to the singer is given.[11] Titze and Verdolini Abbott define motor learning as “a process, which is inferred rather than directly observed, which leads to relatively permanent changes in the potential for motor performance as the result of practice or exposure.”[12] Verdolini Abbott emphasizes the principle: Motor learning is enhanced by learner effort.[13] Paradoxically, restricting feedback somewhat within a lesson promotes learning more effectively than effusive feedback, because the student has to think more and work harder. This means that, although students should be given some information about whether or not they are on target, this feedback should not be given too frequently. Verdolini Abbott says “Even if our lessons do not seems as impressive, our students will actually learn more if they have to do a lot of the mental work during training.”[14] Lynn Maxfield expands on this in his article “Improve Your Students’ Learning by Improving Your Feedback,” and explores other research that supports the principle that the type and frequency of instructor feedback can help students sustain the breakthroughs they discover. He states: “Few moments are as exciting as seeing a student who has grappled with a new task suddenly experience a breakthrough as a result of some tidbit of guidance you have provided. However, by giving as much attention to the manner in which we present information as we do to the content of that information, we can improve the long-term sustainability of those ‘Aha’ moments and facilitate the learning that students need in order to stand on their own as performers.”[15]


He would agree with Pier Francesco Tosi who observed in 1723:


After long exercise, and the attainment of true intonation, of a messa di voce, of shakes, of divisions, and recitative well expressed, if the scholar perceives that his master cannot teach him all the perfection of execution that is required in the more refined art of singing the airs, or if he cannot always be by his side, then will he begin to be sensible of the need he has of that study, in which the best singer in the world is still a learner, and must be his own master.[16]



Breakthroughs in Context

Learning to sing is an activity that is steeped in the traditional master-apprentice model that originated in the medieval guild system. In this system, a student spends an extended period of time devoted to learning from a ‘master’ teacher.[17] The expectation long held among respected pedagogues is that the study of singing requires much dedication and continued effort. Tosi, in his 1723 singing treatise Observations on Florid Song writes: “The best time for study is with the rising of the sun: but those, who are obliged to study, must employ all their time which can be spared from other necessary affairs.”[18] Current vocal wisdom supports this view. Marvin Keenes says, “It takes time to build a kinesthetic sense of what it takes to make music from our bodies. That is self-discovery.”[19]


There are instances where the vocal literature describes the general patterns or predictability of the appearance of breakthroughs during the course of study. Peter Harrison writes about uncovering each student’s unique individual sound, and describes this process as a subtle and gradual one with many “‘aha’ moments” that occur for both teacher and student. He points out, some of these ‘aha’ moments are more significant than others.[20] Mitchell et al. studied the progress of singers over the course of their post-secondary programs, and found that for most students, the beginning of the third year was a pivotal time when most dramatic changes were noticed. They found that when students were in their later years of study, progress was more steady and gradual.[21] Shirlee Emmons describes her “major epiphany” when “the light dawned” and she found the technique that helped her put her voice back together after a long and discouraging struggle.[22]


In the vocal pedagogy literature, ‘aha’ moments are understood to occur in both subtle and dramatic forms. Clearly, whether incremental or startling, breakthroughs of awareness and ability dot the learning landscape of every vocal journey. Evaluating their significance and incorporating them meaningfully into the singer’s experience of vocal progress is the focus of this study.


The Study

This phenomenological study examines the lived experience of student singers and voice teachers for evidence revealing the preconditions, catalysts and stages involved in vocal breakthroughs, in order to better understand the breakthrough experience in the context of vocal learning. Certain pedagogical applications emerge that suggest best practices for singers, teachers, and institutions to consider.



Phenomenology reflects upon lived experience in order to understand its essence. This study tells us much about the essence of what it is like to experience vocal breakthroughs; however, the study goes beyond the traditional boundaries of phenomenology because it incorporates aspects of grounded theory data analysis and also because it goes beyond reflection on essence into the realm of application. At the heart of pedagogy is the love, care, and respect that motivates and directs dedicated educational intentionality. Educational intention includes empowerment. In this sense this study aligns with the purposes and intentions of action research–a cycling through of action, reflection (upon that action), and adjustment that is made as a result.[23] Action research empowers the people participating in the research. The singers and teachers who supplied their stories were aware that through participating in this study they would have the opportunity to reflect upon, improve, and refine their own thinking and doing as individual singers and teachers. In a similar manner, the community as a whole at the Desautels Faculty of Music has an opportunity to reflect upon, improve, and refine its thinking and doing as an institution. Max Van Manen connects phenomenology with action research in his book section entitled “Critically Oriented Action Research” wherein he writes:

Pedagogy itself is a mode of life that always and by definition deals with practical action. We must forever and ongoingly act in our living with children or with those for whom we have pedagogic responsibility. What the phenomenological attitude gives to educators is a certain style of knowing, a kind of theorizing of the unique…I have called this knowing and acting “pedagogic thoughtfulness” and “pedagogic tact.”[24]


The ‘theorizing of the unique’ is a beautiful concept for singers and singing teachers, and makes this adapted form of Van Manen’s phenomenological approach the right one in considering the research question “What helps singers bloom?” Each voice has unique qualities, and as this study will show, it is the respectful and expert drawing forth of these unique qualities that characterizes effective teaching and contributes to joyful singing.

This study is centered on the phenomenological qualitative research methods recommended for research in music education and performance. The idea of exploring “lived experience” is central to the human scientific research field of phenomenology, which seeks to understand the way people experience the world.[25] In their article on the use of phenomenological qualitative research methods in music performance research,[26] Holmes and Holmes make a strong case for using this approach by examining the many completed phenomenological studies in music performance that have proven to be appropriate and effective.[27] The authors recommend in particular the later refinements of the Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) technique for data analysis[28] as developed by Patton[29] and Smith and Osborn.[30] IPA seeks to understand the subjective experience of the individual and recognizes the interpretive hermeneutical role of the researcher. This study reflects this approach and utilizes a version of IPA data analysis methods. Along the continuum between the idiographic (seeking to understand the individual) and the eidetic (seeking to unfold universal and essential meaning), this study takes a middle position. It focuses on understanding the experience of individuals in order to unfold meaning about the phenomenon as a whole. The study describes particular instances, looks for themes, and seeks structure in these themes that reflects the essence of the phenomena, an approach similar to that of Halling, who “counsels researchers to move back and forth between experience and abstraction.”[31]


The methodology also borrows elements of Van Manen’s interpretive phenomenological approach that begins with an “abiding concern”[32] that seeks educational applications. The driving interest in vocal breakthroughs in this study stems from an abiding concern for the well-being of students and voice teachers, and a desire to contribute to the development of effective vocal pedagogy. Van Manen sees pedagogy as scholarship that creatively, responsibly, and respectfully reflects upon individual human experience in order to understand how best to respond. “For the artist, as well as for the phenomenologist, the source of all work is the experiential lifeworld of human beings.”[33] Van Manen considers the act of reflecting on the lived experience of students and educators to be a form of action research, and quotes Langeveld in support of this view: “The study of pedagogy is a form of research which inquires into its subject matter not just in order to know how the world is; it wants to know what it researches in order sooner or later to know how to practically act.”[34] This study therefore summarizes for the community of singers and teachers their lived experience of vocal breakthroughs, and places it in the context of the vocal pedagogy literature for the purpose of giving back to the community knowledge of “how the world is” and building back into the community the resulting emergent themes that suggest “how to practically act.” It seeks theory based on the perspectives gleaned that suggest principles for vocal study and teaching, and so as such the methodology is a mixed-methods approach utilizing grounded theory to produce models for best practices.


Procedure: Data Collection

Data was collected from nineteen students and seven voice teachers between January and April 2013. The voice teachers took part in an afternoon-long focus group led by an interviewer who is a psychologist with a background in voice but outside their acquaintance and sphere of professional interaction. The interview questions were as follows:

1) How would you define a vocal breakthrough?

2) Can you describe the vocal breakthrough your student experienced? (there is the possibility to describe the experience of more than one, of course)

3) What were the circumstances (e.g. individual lesson, class, class with another teacher (observed), public master class (observed) etc.)?

4) What was going on for the student during the period leading up to the breakthrough, in relation to their singing?

5) What was going on for you during the period leading up to the breakthrough, in relation to your own singing and teaching?

6) In what way does the breakthrough influence the student’s singing today?

7) In what way does the breakthrough influence your own singing and teaching today?

8) On the basis of the experience you’ve described, what do you think made it possible for the student to have their breakthrough?


The focus group discussion audio recording was transcribed by a student in an area of study outside the Desautels Faculty of Music, an undergrad who was not previously known to the teachers. This student also conducted the interviews of voice students contributing to the study. The interview questions paralleled those provided to the teachers.

1) How would you define a vocal breakthrough?

2) Can you describe a vocal breakthrough you experienced?

3) What were the circumstances (e.g. alone during practice, alone during performance, individual lesson with regular teacher, class with regular teacher, class with another teacher, public master class etc.)?

4) What was going on for you during the period leading up to the breakthrough, in relation to your singing?

5) In what way does the breakthrough influence your singing today?

6) On the basis of the experience you’ve described, what do you think made it possible for you to have your breakthrough?


Data Analysis
Prior to reading the data I wrote a description of my own breakthrough experiences as a singer and voice teacher in order to understand what my prior knowledge was on the subject. I also described what I expected to find in the study in order to reveal preconceived notions and recognize how they could influence analysis and interpretation. Next, the individual student transcriptions were read and a summary written of each. Then I read these individual descriptions again, circling themes that emerged as being important to the person’s experience, and made notes in the margins about these themes. I noticed particular themes clustering together, and made a list of possible thematic clusters. Then I created a matrix with the vertical column being the student’s pseudonym and the horizontal column being the theme. These were clustered as a first ‘pass-through’ and a way to sort thoughts. The themes that emerged were:

  1. The Necessary Preconditions for Breakthroughs (subthemes: In the Student, In the Environment)
  2. The Nature of the Breakthrough (subthemes: Stages, Feelings, Quality, Result)
  3. The Catalysts for the Breakthrough (subthemes: with Main Teacher, in Master Class, Alone)
  4. Comments on the Experience of what it is like to be a singer

Then I returned to the interviews and read each one to understand the individual’s experience of vocal progress overall, and wrote a summary of each. Next, I identified three main themes and wrote a paper on the students’ experiences based on this structure:

  • The Essential Quality of a Breakthrough,
  • The Preconditions for their Appearance,
  • The Structure of Vocal Change (Catalysts and Stages).

The stages of vocal change were identified as:

  1. Experiencing vocal restrictions or difficulties, frustration or confusion, and recognizing the need for change
  2. Recognizing a desired vocal concept and outcome, and placing one’s personal trust in it as a solution
  3. Experimentation
  4. A catalyst releases a new vocal capability marked by greater ease and freedom, experienced as a breakthrough, whether large or small
  5. Deliberate practice of the new capability in various contexts
  6. Automization of the capability

This paper summarizing the student experiences included exploration of the nature of the breakthrough including feelings, visceral sensations, and results. I saw that breakthroughs can appear anywhere on a continuum from tiny to huge– from the life-changing emergence of a new vocal identity, to changes so gradual that they cannot be noticed except in retrospect. I noted the various preconditions and factors in the environment, and listed the catalysts mentioned. I summarized the structure of vocal change and noted some vocal wisdom enunciated by the students regarding the hard work of discovering how not to work hard, where students noticed that certain kinds of attention to the process of singing blocks progress in singing. Next I re-read the interviews looking for fresh themes not previously noticed, and took a new look at how they might be clustered, and coded them.


Following this, I analyzed the teacher’s focus group transcripts. I began with reading through the entire transcript to see if there were any power relationships evident that would influence the individual’s description of their experience. Finding none, I proceeded to read it through again and came up with a list of 23 themes. They were clustered around the following overarching categories: a) The concept of ‘What is Singing’, b) The Unique Journey, c) How students learn to let go, d) The Role of Trust, e) What does a Breakthrough look like, f) Institutional Culture of Shared Responsibility. Then I went back to the literature review, and connected these themes to the literature.


Next I compared the themes from the student interviews to those in the teacher interviews. Using the structure of the paper I had written about the student experiences, I incorporated the teacher experiences and the literature into a comprehensive paper.


Results and Discussion

Results indicate that understanding the preconditions, catalysts, and stages pertaining to the breakthrough experience can assist in the successful management of the phenomenon. The experience of the singers and teachers in this study reveals that although individuals have unique vocal journeys, nonetheless there are certain factors that once understood are informative for all.


Breakthroughs were defined by all as new capabilities producing insight and physical ease. Two kinds of breakthroughs were identified in the data, and both were deemed important to vocal progress as indicators of vocal identity and potential. These two different kinds of breakthroughs were described as different in scale and in nature. They appear at different stages, and they have different functions and applications. Sports science and psychology literature helps place the reported experience of these two kinds of breakthroughs in context for the singer. One type of breakthrough is incremental, and is associated with the singer’s focused attention on a specific vocal mechanism, and the other is a more global ‘aha’ moment associated with the singer’s attention to holistic coordination. Each type of breakthrough and each way of paying attention has its role to play in vocal study and performance, but the misapplication of the two causes difficulty for singers. Detailed examples from the data propose solutions for these difficulties and place them in context within the literature.


The Nature of Vocal Breakthroughs

“Something clicks.” That’s the phrase most often used by students talking about their breakthroughs in singing. Whether it is an incremental change or a dramatic difference, the vocal breakthrough is described as a visceral sensation. Something suddenly feels right in the body. Frustration and strain give way to singing that feels good and seems natural. Students report breakthroughs that result in renewed passion, more fun, new confidence, greater presence, longer endurance, and increased capability in range, tone, projection, flexibility, breath control, sostenuto technique, or a vibrato that isn’t forced. In its most dramatic form, breakthroughs yield a degree of physical and artistic freedom that inspires joy in the singers who experience them.


Breakthroughs Great and Small

Vocal change can occur anywhere along a continuum, from barely perceptible to life altering. Students report that there are two kinds of breakthroughs: smaller, incremental ones that build up over time, and ‘boom breakthroughs’ that have a huge impact. Both are valued, and open up new possibilities. The two kinds are related: “Just like going to the gym, your body gets stronger and stronger” and small gains prepare you for the larger ones;[35] however, the two kinds are different in significant ways, as we will see later in the discussion.


We consider first a dramatic breakthrough that created a vocal and personal identity shift for a student. “I mean, my entire life has changed, which I know is a crazy statement, but it has kind of opened up this wall, that maybe I could actually try to be a performer, because this breakthrough has made singing ridiculously more accessible to me.”[36] Her breakthrough took about four weeks, and during this period she worked with her teacher to discover her real Fach, the voice classification that best fits the physical parameters of her instrument and grants it optimum freedom in range, projection, and tone. She now believes she has new career possibilities. Although her breakthrough brought the realization of what she could become, for her it felt like a discovery of what she really was all along. “It feels like I am me now,” she said.[37] The breakthrough resulted in an unveiling of her authentic self as a singer.


Students define breakthroughs in ways that reveal how important they are to them. “A breakthrough is the moment where a teacher says something in a certain way that leads you to feel a new sensation or a new freedom or colour that you have never been able to access before.”[38] “Then suddenly, it’s there! *snaps* I didn’t know I could do that!”[39] “When it happens, there is a realization of, oh! That was new, that was better! And then I would backtrack and figure out how it was.”[40] The lead up to the breakthrough might involve some long periods of struggle. “I guess when something dawns on you that makes a really big difference in the sound that maybe your teacher has been telling you to do for so long, but you haven’t been able to wrap your head around it, and suddenly it just kind of clicks, and then the sound is there, and it feels right and sounds better.”[41] “I think a breakthrough is not only that you realize something new about your vocal technique or production, but also when it starts to click in your body–when you really feel it.”[42]


These students described striking events that occur in an instant of time, whereas for others, vocal change is so gradual that it is only noticed in retrospect, or with the help of “external ears” like recording devices or feedback from others:

I consider my development as a singer to have been one gradual sing over the course of my studying here with my teacher, so it would be very difficult for me to identify a time for me in university where I had one moment where everything started to happen. I notice the change if I have an opportunity to listen to myself, so if I’m practising in a practice room and I record myself on my phone and I listen back I will be like: oh! that sounds different than what I’ve heard before, or for instance when I did my recital in April I went back and listened to the recital and that was different from my own perception of my own singing, different from when I’m just in the room hearing it acoustically or in my head. I would also say that my perception of my singing changes, based on what I hear from other people, the most important person being my teacher. So he will tell me ‘that sounds like X,’ and that’s a huge indicator to me what changes I’m making, what the result of the changes are, but also from my peers and people who hear my performances, audience members, people who would hire me, feedback from all those people–that’s a huge part of where I hear change.[43]


Another student describes his singing studies like the work of a sculptor, “chipping away at this one little block”[44] to remove unwanted layers. The sculptor chips away to reveal an internal shape projected onto the block by the artist’s imagination. Similarly, a singer “chips away” at blockages to uncover the free voice. Students are aware that there are parameters of physical possibility built in to the physiology of their instrument, and they work with the voice teacher to uncover the best version of themselves that can be discovered. To that end, the teacher sets before the student’s mind the ideas, possibilities, and demonstrated examples that spark the imagination as to what could be. The instruction serves to point to a vocal goal. Exercises and songs explored in the lesson become ‘happy traps’ for the singer’s voice to fall into, so something new may be discovered.


Struggle and Plateau

But sometimes the goal isn’t clear and it is elusive. Students report that it is hard work in the trenches:

I feel like singing is this big process of one step forward two steps back…..I can go and do something, and I can feel totally good about it for an instant… and then I can go home, and the next day I won’t know what I did, and then I have to try and figure out what I did that made it work and struggle to get it back, and if I do get it back, then it’s something else that opens up. It isn’t all of a sudden like I’ve ‘got it’.[45]


This student is not alone. For many struggling through this experience, perhaps encouragement can be found in knowing that struggle is a preliminary step to the next breakthrough, a fact borne out in the experiences reported by others.


“For me, a breakthrough always happened after some sort of vocal plateau [when] I’m trying to get to that next level.”[46]The plateau itself might be viewed as a stage within the breakthrough experience, but that may not be much comfort at the time. Periods of plateau are frustrating, and may be accompanied by feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, tension, strain, and fatigue. There is huge motivation to find a solution. During this period of struggle, students describe vocal study like running a series of marathons.


The Emergence of a Clear and Specific Goal

What is the next step that characterizes the beginnings of change? It is the welcome thought of a well-defined vocal goal in the student’s mind that feels like a plausible and reliable answer to the problem being experienced. The student trusts in an approach. One student explains, “I felt that the breakthrough was the mind shift of wanting a certain result, and trying to see what I have to do to achieve it.”[47] Some illustrations from the students may help to illustrate the kinds of vocal goals that initiated the change and defined the route to be taken, the belief for example, that “breath should empower everything,”[48] or “don’t over think and micro-manage every note,”[49] or “singing should feel natural,”[50] or “sing with a ‘raw formation’ without tension or a preconceived idea of beauty.”[51]


A Decision to Take a Risk

In addition to having a well-formed and trusted vocal goal, students report that experiencing a vocal breakthrough involved reaching a stage where they decide to ‘let go’ and take a risk. They ‘let go’ of a way of singing that has felt normal up to that point, and the decision to take that risk is an internal shift in their mindset, a mental calculation that the risk is worth it. In its extreme form, this is a decision that there’s “nothing left to lose.” This student explains:

Oh, leading up to the breakthrough, I was singing lots and hating it, just absolutely hating it, and I was sort of feeling like I had nothing left to lose, and I’m just going to sing it and hopefully it works, and then it did, and then I just kept on doing it again, and then he told me what it was, and I realized, you don’t have to put so much work into it. You can put in less and get more.[52]


Frustration was also a motivator for another student to take a risk that allowed him to break through a barrier that was physical as well as psychological:

The other [thing that made the breakthrough possible] is coming to a point where it is frustrating and it feels like it isn’t going well, and just going for it, and trying it, and it might be in a public performance or a practice room and it might just sound really really awful, but you don’t know until you try. I needed to just try and sing those high notes and see if it was there and if that was actually a possibility because fear and insecurity was the thing that always keeps me from doing it and even when practicing the fact that I knew people would be maybe not actively listening but could be listening to me experimenting with my voice was always a hindrance to me but I needed to just tell myself that this was something I need to do or I will never get to the point that I want to.[53]



Willingness to Be Vulnerable

Students explain that the decision to ‘let go’ connects to feelings of vulnerability. “Voice is a very vulnerable thing because you’re giving something of yourself.”[54] Vulnerability is seen as a requirement, if one is to make sounds that feel alien, even ugly:

I think for any breakthrough, you have to be able to be vulnerable…I just came from a lesson actually and I made a sound that to me sounded so bad, like just awful. In my ear it sounded like it was a tinny harsh sound, and then I listened to it just before I got here [on a recording] and it was really cool because it doesn’t sound like that at all to the public. I guess I have to embrace the sound that I can’t stand. It was so much more open and free. Because that sound that I hate, it feels naked to me, it feels so raw and open and emotional that it is terrifying, and I think every singer has to be able to get there, in order to find their true voice.[55]



Stages in Vocal Breakthroughs

What we have uncovered thus far reveals that there are a number of stages that are part of the breakthrough process. First, students report experiencing a feeling of frustration, strain, or confusion, and they recognize the need for change. Next, a vocal goal takes shape that is a trusted possible solution. Then a decision is made to let go of an old way of singing, and then take on a new one. Students maintain that this ‘letting go’ requires a willingness to be vulnerable. The next stage is not for the faint of heart and requires diligent practice, but before we discuss this we will explore further how the ‘letting go’ and taking a risk involves a playful attitude that can carry over into subsequent stages.


Experimentation and Play

The next stage described in any vocal breakthrough is invariably a time of experimentation, often through ‘trial and error’. Students say there isn’t a formula to it, but rather they are playing around or messing around for the fun of it. “Those moments happened while I was alone, so I could get silly and explore different things and make noises that nobody alive should have heard.”[56]


One student describes intentional delicate play with tongue position, jaw release, and resonance space for high notes, “so that the muscle memory is there and I don’t have to work at it as hard, so I can focus on some other aesthetic things.”[57] Previously she had “just wanted to sing and not worry about why the tongue mattered.”[58] But she realized that to get to that place where she could “just sing,” she needed work at fixing the little things that had been corrected in lessons, and that took a lot of thinking, re-listening, note-taking, and practicing that amounted to diligent playfulness. The alternative is “that you will just keep going through the motions and you won’t make any changes.”[59]


Trial and Error

We have learned thus far that there are stages in motor learning, and that these stages include moments of discovery which is perceived as an ‘aha’ moment or insight breakthrough. These discoveries are pleasurable, and come with a sense of ease and relief at having arrived at a solution. They may be preceded by plateaus where learning seems to have stalled, or by stages of subconscious incubation and preparation. We understand that these preliminary stages or plateaus may be monitored, at some level of awareness, with respect to progress toward an imagined solution. We see that when breakthroughs happen, they can be the result of prolonged intense and focused effort, or by trying a better training method, or alternatively, by applying surprisingly random ideas and methods such as ‘trial and error’. For the vocal studio, sometimes the ‘better training method’ is simply ‘trial and error’.

Trial and error is discussed as one means of releasing new insights and behaviors in learning in the voice studio. Caldwell and Wall’s Excellence in Singing: Multi-level Teaching and Multi-level Learning describes trial and error as a “Stochastic Process” which is useful in the voice studio.[60] The term “Stochastic Process” comes from the field of mathematics, and relates to probability theory. It involves three parts: a set of unpredictable elements, a mechanism that acts as a filter that selects from the random elements, and a unique result from the interaction of the two. Random elements + filter = a result. Translated into the voice studio experience, the random elements are the vocal exercises or sounds attempted, the filter is the guidance provided by the teacher toward a desirable outcome (together with the student’s reported experience), and the unique result produced is the vocal utterance selected. At times where the student and teacher experience this unique result as a desirable change, a breakthrough has occurred.


Students report various catalysts that one might expect to prompt vocal breakthroughs, such as inspiration from observing, listening, and imitating, but at other times the precipitating events are surprising.


One student explains: “Sometimes it’s just serendipity. Virgil said in the Iliad [sic] ‘Fortune favours the bold.’ So, if all the other factors are right, the time is right, the piece is right, the circumstances are right, the audience is right, you can get a breakthrough.”[61] This singer lets the energy of the music take him through difficult vocal passages, rather than thinking about the mechanics of performing. “It’s like inertia…you just barrel through the original block…when I just let the music drive me, and bring me along, it’s easier when the inertia runs with the music versus when I try to understand how I do it.”[62] Music is the catalyst for “something glorious” that happened:

The music is written in a way that sort of leads you to where you are supposed to go in the piece, and sometimes what I find is when I try too hard to go through the music note by note, instead of just letting the music drag me along and bring me to where it wants to be, it’s harder to get a breakthrough. It’s easier when I just slide in with the music and then feel it, letting the music lead me to where I want to go.[63]


This “sliding in” with the music and letting it lead him, is a way of paying attention that we will revisit later in the discussion.


One aspiring solo singer had a breakthrough while singing in a choir:

It was a larger choir, and I had some of those insecurities being a first year and being intimidated by older students and where other people were at, and I decided I was going to experiment with my voice in this choral context because it is so massive and I can dare to risk … and so I started playing around with my tone, where I was, I don’t want to say colouring my voice but how I was projecting I guess in a sense, and from there I was getting different sounds, and then I took those steps into the practice room when we got back, and took them to my teacher, and we played around and experimented with that. I got to a different place and had a breakthrough.[64]


The choral setting for a vocal breakthrough seemed to provide a freedom to experiment afforded by the student’s perception of relative anonymity, and his subsequent work described in the studio was equally playful.


New or unusual wording for an explanation can trigger a new response:

Recently I have found a way to connect my range fluidly. My teacher told me to ‘switch up’ how I how I coloured notes. Who would have thought, that when he said it so simply, I would understand it completely? When I made my low notes bright and my high notes darker, everything evened out and I was able to sing through my entire range with no glitches.[65]


Singers and voice teachers are familiar with the good results that can come when an approach is flipped upside down. This achieves a correction that is not a direct mechanism adjustment, but an indirect shift of attention. Again, we will revisit this way of making adjustments by shifting the manner of paying attention.


One student had broad-ranging results while consciously tinkering with vowel shapes:

More recently I’ve had another sort of major breakthrough. Messing around with vowels and overtones I’ve come to find the sweet spot for most of the vowels that I have to work with, and it has made a big difference to my vocal endurance, my vocal health and also my enjoyment of singing.[66]


Here, the filter as defined by Caldwell and Wall in their description of the stochastic process is the balanced resonant sound desired, and the random factor is the “messing around” with vowel shapes to produce the breakthrough result.


Many times students mention direct encouragement as a catalyst, one that has the effect of maintaining momentum at a tricky moment. For one student a major breakthrough occurred in a private audition for his University of Manitoba teacher for the first time. He kept stopping because he felt afraid of the high notes.

I said “I don’t think I can do this” and he said “No, no, no, no, no you can, go!” and all of a sudden the voice is there, it’s big, it’s wide, it’s open and then when the song is done he goes, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with that voice, right?” And then I go, “I could not normally do that, no way…it’s never happened before.” He says “No, no, no it’s there… you just need to refine it.”[67]


On the other hand, getting away from voice lessons for a while can be the catalyst for vocal change. One student took some time off from school and rediscovered things about his voice. He observes that sometimes “I think it is really valuable to not get regular feedback on your voice, to just let your voice figure itself out, and as for the male voice, it’s still growing, and I think that there are certain things that when you just let it rest, or not always be trying to tweak things, that sometimes things can line up a little bit easier.”[68] He also credits his current teacher “who taught me how to really focus on fundamentals, and even now I try to see him once a week and he will still always take me back to the basics and having him as an instructor keeps me grounded.”[69]


Catalysts in the Vocal Literature

Edward Baird emphasizes how “new technical and interpretive breakthroughs” lead to increasing self-confidence in students.[70] Karen Sell reveals how the use of new technology helped singers make “wonderful improvements” because they could see their larynges functioning with the help of videostroboscopy.[71] Wesley Balk shows how “exciting change” and “immediate results” were found by singer-actors exploring his Dominant Mode Perception theory and exercises.[72] Barbara Doscher describes “the one-minute fix” that was possible during a telephone conversation with a student, providing the context for a sudden realization of the answer to a vocal problem.[73]


The wide-ranging variety of catalysts found in the literature raise questions as to why these various stimuli produce vocal breakthroughs. The concept of ‘locus of attention’ provides some interesting context that links to other catalysts that may be active for reasons other than their particular nature.


Locus of Attention
Sergius Kagen vigorously defends art over science as the foundation for vocal excellence. He advises singers to look to musical and expressive impulses as the wellsprings for singing, and not to the mechanics of conscious control over specific muscle-movements. Kagen asserts the importance of the mind’s ability to imagine and produce a vocal sound. He believes that muscles are best controlled indirectly, by the subconscious.[74] It is interesting and somewhat ironic that his views anticipate and support some very recent scientific discoveries. Though Kagen’s views were expressed almost 50 years earlier, they echo the findings of Verdolini Abbott et al. who state that “motor skills are readily acquired without awareness of mechanical principles. Furthermore, several studies have indicated that explicit verbal instructions about mechanics are useless or even harmful to learning….. All in all, we conclude that there is little basis in the scientific literature to support the use of verbal instructions about the mechanics of singing, or any other motor behavior.”[75] The reasons for this lie at the root of an important concept called ‘locus of attention’. Interestingly, for a singer, not paying attention to the internal mechanics of what she is doing, is seen as preferable.

In some literature, ‘locus of attention’ is considered a key concept for singers and for voice teachers to reflect on as they seek to discover what hampers vocal development and what can be a catalyst for progress. Verdolini Abbott in Lynn Helding’s comprehensive article on motor learning[76] sees the use of technology (video cameras, tape players, spectrographic display) as useful in their own right, but also because they become an external focus of attention, as opposed to an internal focus that can hamper results. It is believed that an internal focus turns the singer’s attention to the mechanics of a movement, rather than on what that movement is meant to achieve, whereas an external focus directs attention to the end rather than the means. It is striking that Kagen comes to the same conclusion much earlier through decidedly non-scientific means, maintaining that voice lessons and mechanical practice can make a good singer worse if the focus is self-conscious attention to the mechanics of singing. Thomas Hemsley would agree. He believes that science is useful where appropriate, but that singing is inhibited when anatomy and mechanics override the connection to human feelings and emotion.[77] In her article “Voice Science and Vocal Art, Part Two: Motor Learning Theory” Helding states: “Left-brain thinking, which tends to be analytical, is thought to stifle biomechanics; therefore, commands that highlight mechanics are, in essence, tracked into a region where they are ‘lost in translation’ and smothered. Alternatively, intention that focuses on creative process and sensory information, thought to be the domain of the right hemisphere, is conducive to biomechanics. It may be concluded that in order to bring forth functionally fluid singing, we must invoke the ideal of emotionally expressive singing in order to realize this goal.”[78] Having shown how science supports art, it is easy to see why Helding believes that effective teaching is a “dance between science and art.”[79]Rather than being in contention, they complement one another. The manner in which a singer pays attention to singing processes is of major importance to the discovery and assimilation of vocal breakthroughs, a topic that will be revisited in concluding sections of this discussion. It is important at this juncture to continue with our examination of catalysts for vocal breakthroughs mentioned in the literature, in order to link them up with the concept of the external locus of attention, because it is possible that they function this way because they distract from the mechanics of singing and provide an external locus of attention.


Physical Manipulation

Although more controversial now in today’s world where the public consciousness has become sensitive to perceptions of unwelcome touching, vocal teachers used to be more “hands on” in the private studio and in master classes. Helding[80] describes manipulation or touching as a form of biofeedback that has had its successes as a catalyst for vocal breakthroughs, although the question of whether or not a singer is able to recreate that benefit may depend on the abilities of the singer to recall the sensory experience from the mind’s memory banks. The question remains whether manipulation is sometimes successful as a catalyst for vocal breakthrough because it is biofeedback, or because it becomes an external locus of attention, as we have seen in the previous section.


Technology is thought to be a catalyst for new vocal discoveries. As we have already seen in our initial exploration of synonyms for the vocal breakthrough, Sell, in Chapter 4 of her book The Disciplines of Vocal Pedagogy: Towards an Holistic Approach observes that the use of videostroboscopy can help singers make “wonderful vocal improvements” after seeing their vocal apparatus in action and making small changes that result in substantial and immediate successes.[81]Welch et al.[82] in “Real-Time Feedback in the Singing Studio: An Innovatory Action-Research Project Using New Voice Technology” also found that visual feedback in the form of spectrographic display was a helpful educational tool for both teacher and student. Williams and George[83] studied the effect of using an anatomy visualization tool in the voice studio, a three-dimensional feedback system that provides opportunity for a degree of student interaction with the images. The authors concluded that this technology motivated students to learn and enhanced student understanding of pedagogical concepts. Kirkpatrick and McLester found that the use of EMG biofeedback to study the action of muscles involved in lowering of the larynx was useful in teaching students how to use those muscles, and it was also helpful in reducing unwanted tension in muscles of the neck, shoulder, and jaw.[84]


Singer-Actor Training

Wesley Balk established a model for understanding the individual learning styles and preferences of singer-actors. He called them Dominant Mode perceptions:

kinesthetic, hearing/vocal, and facial/emotional. He found that singer-actors achieved significant breakthroughs when they understood their own dominant perceptual mode, and explored their underutilized modes. The words “exciting change” and “immediate results” appear frequently throughout his book Performing Power, and its thick descriptions of his students’ experiences bring these results to life.

I explained to him that because of his kinesthetic dominance, he had a need to communicate physically while singing, but that the means he chose were not always appropriate. I asked him if, knowing that, he could ask the kinesthetic mode to turn the communication burden over to the hearing/vocal mode and allow it to do the work. And somehow, now that he had a reason for the insistent behavior of his arms and body and could understand the possible cause of it all, he was able to sing an aria without the annoying gesture tension for the first time in his life. In one brief session, with the aid of the modes concept, he made greater progress than he had made all year.[85]


“One of the gratifying things about the modes approach is the relative ease with which change can be stimulated in the performer. It arouses an enthusiastic, sympathetic excitement in observers as they see a familiar performer make immediate and obvious improvement. As one of my students said after two months of class, ‘It’s as though little miracles happen every day.’”[86]


And here the word ‘breakthrough’ appears:

One of the most gratifying events in achieving release from mode interference and entanglements is the response of the group to the new feeling of freedom in the performer. When the release of tension happens, “the response is nothing one could have programmed; it is genuinely visceral– a nonverbal, non-intellectual energy flow in all the observers who have become attuned to the performer’s struggle to achieve freedom. Cheers and applause burst out spontaneously at the simplest breakthrough because our own body-voice-emotion minds participate in the joy and warmth of the energy release.”[87]


Several things are notable in Balk’s examples. First, it is possible to achieve a vocal breakthrough by expanding a student’s awareness of the ways that a singer habitually behaves, and the ways that a singer might potentially choose to behave. Balk called clusters of habitual behaviors “entanglements,” where choice doesn’t come into it. A simple example of an entanglement is always wrinkling the forehead while singing, no matter what the text’s emotive content is. By disentangling the singing process from the muscles of the forehead, new possibilities emerge. The singer has unlocked what was previously thought to be a necessary coupling of muscular efforts, and expanded the repertoire of muscle movements available. Second, we are reminded that breakthroughs in singing can be reinforced in a group situation through the supportive response of student colleagues. Third, Wesley Balk’s approach helps students release tension, and this is connected to changes in perception of the modes of expression that are available. Something that was previously done is now no longer necessary. Something that was not previously done is now possible.


But perhaps the most significant finding from these reported experiences is the relationship between theatricalization and freedom in singing. The breakthroughs reported were not just improvements in expressive ability, but also in vocal ability. This connection is being tested scientifically in current experiments freeing singers from the constraints of the traditional stance and positioning in the art song recital, and coupling sung speech with movement, gesture, and theatricality at the Vancouver International Song Institute (VISI) and the results indicate that there are striking improvements in vocal technique and ease, phrasing, and connection with the text in evidence.[88] Movement brings into effect Balk’s kinesthetic mode, and dramatic/textual realization brings into effect his facial/emotional mode. These may be catalysts for breakthroughs because they somehow add something that completes the singer, or they may be effective because they act as an external locus of attention that distracts the singer from holding on to mechanisms that impair singing. It may be the case that both are true. These matters will be taken up again later in the discussion.


Psychological Health

Laurie Shelton and a number of other voice practitioners quoted in her article “Vocal Problem or Body Block? A Look at the Psyche of the Singer”[89] believe that there are important ties between healthy singing and a healthy psyche. Shelton believes that singing is a mirror that can reflect personal problems and the progress of their healing. She explains that it can be frustrating for both teacher and student “to wait for the healing, and the breakthrough into the true voice.”[90] She believes that this shift can be extreme, where “seemingly hopeless technical morasses will emerge as truly exceptional instruments once the psychological damage or block is healed or resolved.”[91]


William Westney links breakthroughs to emotional health and the ability to take risks. “It’s common knowledge that if we want a breakthrough, we must make our own mistakes and embrace them as a crucial part of our process. Let them happen, get interested in them, learn from each one, don’t waste time and emotional energy feeling bad about them!”[92]


Fresh Perspectives

New perspectives are cited as a catalyst for vocal breakthroughs. Ginsborg and Woellner report that students gained fresh perspectives from studying singing in a program using a team teaching approach,[93] things that they may not otherwise have encountered. The authors note that students say they learn from listening to other students in master classes, and hearing the advice offered to them.[94] This finding was supported in Elizabeth Haddon’s 2014 study on “Observational Learning in the Music Masterclass” [sic] where students enjoyed the opportunity to try for themselves the ideas they observed; however, the study noted that there was room for teacher involvement in assisting with the transference of skills observed.[95] This suggests that the norm for master classes is one where the responsibility for student learning is not truly shared, as it would be if teachers taught as a team.


Many students in the current study described their breakthroughs as connected with the instruction they received from their regular teacher; however some receive help in a master class experience. “Often I find these vocal breakthroughs happen when someone else tells you to do something, but says it a different way. This would happen in a master class setting. Also, sometimes my own teacher will say something he’s said for two months a different way, and then it ‘clicks’.”[96] These epiphanies feel dramatic after a long period of struggle. One student had been hearing from her teacher that her voice needed to be brighter, but couldn’t find access to this brighter sound until a couple of factors converged. One was the need to get away from the stress of preparing for a jury, get back to singing for the fun of it, and “be in a place emotionally where I wasn’t freaked out.”[97] Another factor was hearing different words to describe the vocal goal. She needed someone to say, “make this noise.” The word “noise” removed for the student the pressure of making something beautiful happen. She also believes a major factor in her breakthrough was hearing someone demonstrate the desired sound who had a similar voice type to hers.[98]



This ability to imitate is fundamental to human learning. As Richard Miller observed, “most accomplished singers possess amazingly good imitative powers.”[99] This was in evidence in the information gleaned from voice teachers in the study. One voice teacher describes his own vocal breakthrough and the application to his teaching:


Teacher: He showed me how to access notes I didn’t even know that I had.

Interviewer: So you had a vocal breakthrough?

Teacher: Yes.

Interviewer: How, what happened?

Teacher: Well mostly by imitation, seeing where he placed these notes and how easily he accessed them, and by vocalizing with him, all of a sudden my ear was tuning into his colour where he did a shift and I could feel how he was doing it. We don’t have positions on keys or frets or whatever, we have to feel sensations in our body that tell us that it is right.

Interviewer: And what did it feel like when you’d sung those notes?

Teacher: Freedom, incredible freedom, that all of a sudden, I found that the notes I thought were beyond my reach were actually the easiest to attain and required the least amount of effort. Doing it with students now, all of a sudden they go. Oh my god it’s weightless, I don’t feel like I’m working at all, and maybe they can’t apply it right away to their repertoire but at least they got the feeling.


Imitation is Linked to Human Empathy.

Iain McGilchrist uses the term “mimesis,” a Greek word for imitation. The meaning includes the concept of miming or copying, but also the idea of intuitive representation, with the potential for transformation through re- presenting (presenting again) in a manner that is not simple replication. “The enormous strength of the human capacity for mimesis is that our brains let us escape from the confines of our own experience and enter directly into the experience of another being: this is the way in which, through human consciousness, we bridge the gap, share in what another feels and does, in what it is like to be that person. This comes about through our ability to transform what we perceive into something we directly experience.”[100]


Furthermore, McGilchrist believes that “imitation gives rise, paradoxically as it may seem, to individuality.”[101] He states: “It is how we get to know what we know, but also how we become who we are.”[102] It is deliciously ironic that imitation can lead to the discovery of one’s authentic self as a singer, as seen in this description by a voice teacher of one such transformation:

I just recently had a young tenor who had auditioned to come into the faculty and didn’t get accepted, and he’d never had a voice lesson, and I said, so no one has had a chance to ruin you, wonderful, so I had my chance and I realized I was pushing against a wall. He looked incredibly indifferent and frustrated and unhappy. So one day I was listening to the struggling with this aria, so I said let’s listen to who sings this on YouTube, get an example of performances and different voices that sing it, and I clicked on Daniel Taylor, who is a wonderful countertenor, and all of a sudden behind me I hear him imitating Daniel Taylor and singing it beautifully an octave up and it was so easy and free all of a sudden, and that was a breakthrough.


For singers, copying without this depth of transformation can be a fruitless exercise. It is a meme, the smallest possible unit of information, devoid of context, and such a breakthrough results in frustration for the singer because the experience cannot be repeated. This is what Lynn Helding describes as “Master Class Syndrome”:

It is common for a singer in a master class to execute a novel vocal task on demand quite well, even to the point of amazement by the auditors and the singer himself. It is quite another feat to be able to replicate the technique on one’s own.[103]


The learning environment can facilitate the development of breakthroughs discovered in master classes so they may be replicated and incorporated into one’s own technique.


Predisposing Factors in The Learning Environment

Students and teachers described factors in their learning environment that contributed to their breakthroughs, and the following themes emerged:


  1. Students can freely explore ideas from teachers other than their own studio instructor. “I really value that our faculty really supports learning from a variety of teachers, because not all faculties are like that, where they have lots of master classes from different teachers or where you can go and get coaching or voice lessons. That doesn’t happen everywhere. But at this faculty the teachers are all supportive of that and see the value in that, which is so important, because I’ve learned these things that I don’t think I would have learned if it weren’t for having lessons with other people and getting that different perspective.”[104] Voice teachers describe the way responsibility is shared for the well-being and vocal progress of each student.

Teacher 1: One of the things that is wonderful, I find, that we have here is that we all teach each other’s students in master class and I think we have all experienced this where we have been hammering at something for two or three months and then in fifteen minutes with somebody else, ‘bing’ there it is, and then you have to put your ego in second place.

Interviewer: Can you give me an example?

Teacher 1: We do have a unique set up, in that I would hope that if a student has a breakthrough with somebody else, that I would say, okay what did this person say, what did they do, let’s go with it if it works.

Interviewer: And then whatever it was is added to your repertoire and it becomes a tool in your toolbox.

Teacher 1: Exactly.

Teacher 2: I think that there is the moment when your student comes to you after they’ve sung in master class and they’ve got a smile four miles wide, and you do sort of have that moment where your ego has been crushed for a second, and you go, okay, but that is ultimately what I was after also… Sort of from a different perspective I go and I teach a master class and … I certainly hope that the teachers they go back to, with those smiles, are just as receptive.

Teacher 3: I just want to add to that, I think that is what makes this faculty unique. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes an entire faculty. We open them up to every single possibility, so that going forward no rock was left unturned…The students, all of them feel very comfortable and very safe, even the ones who come having done other programs, like opera diploma programs, they come here and tell us, you guys all play really well together, like we have never experienced this.


The students’ well-being is given first place, and so the students feel safe in bringing their breakthroughs to their studio teachers to incorporate the new sound into the singer’s ‘natural’ vocal self. They feel safe because it has been made explicit that learning from others in master classes is part of the program. The students bring their newly discovered sounds to their studio teacher, first exploring how to repeat it, and then how to apply it to many different musical contexts.


  1. Good communication between the student and the teacher is a necessary precondition. “This teacher and I really ‘get’ each other, and that is a big part of my breakthrough too…being sympatico like that. It is hard to have a breakthrough if you don’t connect with your teacher and you don’t feel like you are in a safe place to be vulnerable, and here I have found a fantastic mix of both. She can say things and I know what she is talking about, and she will demonstrate and our voices are nothing alike, so it’s not that she is teaching by imitation at all, it’s just that I can duplicate the feeling of what she is doing, and that also helps a lot that I get that, and we understand each other.”[105] This reveals a high degree of empathy, “the capacity not just to put oneself in someone else’s shoes but, importantly, to feel what they are feeling.”[106]


  1. Students are encouraged and empowered to find and identify solutions for themselves. A close look at one student’s experience points to the practice of teaching an attitude, in addition to teaching new skills. His breakthrough was discovering a “whole new register” that allowed him to sing in his upper range without strain. This discovery “was something that I figured out on my own in practice,”[107] but he states:

I really accredit that to my teacher. I think she gave me the right attitude right from first year in that she stresses that she can only offer suggestions and that I have to find what works for me and that means experimenting. A lot of our lessons will be sitting on a note and moving it around in my mouth and finding all the different colours and tones I can make on a particular pitch and that attitude towards vocal production and the idea that you know provided its healthy production there isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong just what is appropriate in a particular situation and I think my teacher really opened my eyes to, you know I want to have options and I want to explore my voice and find out what it can do.[108]


  1. Students value “growing up” in a program with a cohort of supportive peers progressing together. “The structure of our program here has also been a factor, like how you go from year one to year four and how you have a group of peers you sort of grow up with, and how you do recitals and then the recitals get longer and the ensemble requirements get more heavy and the repertoire gets bigger and so there is a big culture of growing up as you go on in years.”[109]


The Stages of Vocal Change Summarized:

Although each student experiences a unique trajectory, there are some common experiences that can be identified as the normal stages of vocal change, and the vocal breakthrough is part of that pattern.


  1. Vocal change starts with feelings of frustration that stem from the perceived discrepancy between one’s current ability and a desired capability. The student experiences vocal restrictions and recognizes the need for change.


  1. A goal takes shape that is recognized as a possible solution, and the student takes a step toward it with a measure of trust. This stage requires a decision to be made, that is the decision to the shed a particular vocal behavior, and take on a new one.


  1. A new capability is experienced, one that is marked by greater ease and vocal freedom.


  1. A conscious effort is made to find the way to be able to repeat this experience at will. This may require experimentation and analysis.


  1. Once the new capability becomes repeatable, it is incorporated into the singer’s “natural” vocal behaviors through practice. This requires applying it to many different musical contexts. The progression is normally to work first with isolated exercises and then to imbed the new concept into song repertoire. The manner of distributing practice sessions should be guided by recent research on practice regimens.[110] Ease increases gradually from practicing alone to rehearsing with an accompanist to performing in public.


This last step is the focus of the next section of our discussion. The information gleaned from the interviews helps us understand how vocal breakthroughs are evaluated, analyzed, and incorporated into the singer’s available palette of sounds and behaviors.


How are Breakthroughs Assimilated?

This happens as a transformation that is experienced as a journey by each individual singer, and the pathway for this journey traces a line that has unique contours for each person; however, the trip doesn’t have to be done in the dark. There are signposts, lights, and directions. These are the things we can learn from the collective wisdom revealed in the experiences of the students and teachers who gave their time for this study, together with what we learn from the vocal pedagogy and cognitive science literature.


What makes the difference between an ephemeral moment of brilliance, and learning that reflects an improved and stable level of performance over time?

We are reminded of Verdolini Abbott’s definition of motor learning:

Motor learning is a process, which is inferred rather than directly observed, which leads to relatively permanent changes in the potential for motor performance as the result of practice or exposure.[111]


For answers, Helding points to the last portion of the definition: “This conclusion is based upon the supposition that the student will continue to be exposed to the teacher’s instruction, and that she will practice.”[112] To set these in context, we will briefly visit the concept of stages in motor learning. A variety of theories exist, but for our purposes the foundational work of Bruce Abernethy in The Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement helps us to see motor learning in three general stages:[113]

  • Cognitive, where a new movement pattern is conceptualized
  • Associative, where some parts of the new pattern are integrated into action and
  • Autonomous, where the new movement pattern is wholly integrated and automated.

It is notable that Abernethy’s cognitive stage relates to the ‘aha’ moment in the insight literature, and his latter two stages relate to Verdolini Abbott’s terms exposure and practice.

Motor learning theory and research over the last century acknowledges that learning may not proceed in predictable stages but may involve periods of apparent stagnation or plateau. The now classic 1897 study of the learning plateaus and breakthroughs of individuals learning the telegraphic language concluded that motor learning takes place primarily through conscious intense effort, but that there are plateaus that seem to be necessary and unavoidable. These plateaus, it is believed, seem to act as precursors to an apparent “sudden ascent” in ability.[114] F. S. Keller took the position in his 1958 study that plateaus can be avoided.[115] He concluded that this can be accomplished by applying a new and better method of training, whereas Dji-Lih Kao found that plateaus are best overcome by ‘trial and error’ methods.[116]


Concert pianist William Westney sums it up for musicians: “One of the most misleading notions about learning… is that progress should always be visible and steady. We tend to expect the straight-line steady climb, especially from someone who is known to be a good student, whereas a more true-to-life pattern has plateaus and breakthroughs.”[117]


Incorporating the breakthrough through its stages requires different forms of attention. Helding uses the terms controlled versus automatic cognitive processing. “Controlled,” she states, “is further defined as ‘attentional’ while automatic is defined as ‘nonattentional’.”[118] The difficulty with these terms is in the educational applications. How can the mind achieve the second state, which is essentially the effort to attain to “not paying attention?” How do you consciously become not conscious? A deeper examination of the concept of attention helps to move us toward some answers.


We have seen in Helding’s comprehensive article on Voice Science and Vocal Art how singers must be careful not to pay conscious attention to the mechanics of singing; however, there are other terms psychologists use for these two states that may help clarify their applications to the learning process and to dealing with the vocal breakthrough. In the following description there are two main types, with subgroupings.

The conventional neuropsychological literature distinguishes five types of attention: vigilance, sustained attention, alertness, focused attention and divided attention. While not identical, vigilance and sustained attention are similar, and they are often treated as one concept. Together with alertness, they form the basis of what has been called the intensity axis of attention. The other axis is selectivity, made up of the two remaining types, focused and divided attention.[119]


One type is open, sustained, and allows in new information in order to take in the whole, and the other is focused, selective, and puts on blinders in order to study the parts. The first is ‘the forest’, the second is ‘the trees’. This is important to understanding how singers and teachers approach vocal breakthroughs and their absorption into regular singing habits, as we notice in the stages of vocal progress and the varying contributions of the breakthrough experience.


A vocal breakthrough appears first as a serendipitous release. Then it becomes the focus of regular work. Finally, the work must be released again so it becomes incorporated into the body. These disparate tasks require the application of these two different kinds of mental approaches, these two very disparate ways of paying attention. To reiterate, one is the selective, focused, controlled kind of attention that ‘zeros in’ on a particular part or mechanism, and the other is the alert, open, sustained kind of attention that scans the horizon and allows in new possibilities.


How do each of these kinds of attention pertain to ‘Aha!’ moments in singing? The data has shown that the breakthrough occurs when the singer has the ‘open’ mindset. Thereafter it is analyzed and practiced using the ‘selective control’ type of mindset. The final stage is to abandon selective control and return once again to the ‘open’ mindset that allows the breakthrough to become an organic part of the singer’s art and craft. How are these shifts accomplished?


This subtle movement is a dance that takes skillful maneuvering, because of these two ways of paying attention McGilchrist says, “We must inhibit one in order to inhabit the other” and this is not as straightforward or easy a task as it might sound.[120] If true, it explains much about the challenges of learning to sing. He states: “My thesis is that the hemispheres have complementary but conflicting tasks to fulfill, and need to maintain a high degree of mutual ignorance. At the same time they need to co-operate.”[121] The significance of this statement for singers is huge. How can a singer become aware of two different ways of paying attention that, by their very nature, need to remain mutually ignorant of the other’s way of paying attention?


Cognitive scientists debate the significance and role of the two hemispheres, but do not dispute the existence of these two disparate ways of paying attention. What is pertinent to our study, is what we can learn about these two different mindsets from the lived experience of students and teachers as they reflect on how breakthroughs are assimilated, particularly with respect to the “complementary but conflicting tasks” of the two hemispheres of the brain, as described by McGilchrist. To that end, we use the terms “left hemisphere” and “right hemisphere” in accordance with McGilchrist’s terminology to represent his understanding of their roles.


The normal progression for assimilating breakthrough experiences is to start with isolated exercises, then to imbed the new sound concept into longer vocalized segments, and finally to incorporate it into song repertoire, first in rehearsal and then in performance. This sounds deceptively simple, and we have seen the struggles that students have had “in the trenches,” with voice study being sometimes so frustrating that it feels like “running a series of marathons” or “chipping away at this one little block.”[122] To understand and provide assistance in these struggles, we need to see what the right and left hemispheres are able to accomplish, and how they can interact.


The “Two Kinds of Breakthroughs”

One student outlined two kinds of breakthroughs. The perceptive way he describes his experience reveals much about the process of learning to singing in general, and about breakthroughs in particular. These concepts will take some unfolding. The student describes one kind of breakthrough as conscious and gradual. “It is worked for, and you build up to it by exercising, just like going to the gym and your body gets stronger and stronger. [Of the two kinds of breakthroughs] this kind is greater. It allows you to be more unique, because you know what your voice is. It gives you more confidence.”[123] The second kind of breakthrough, he explains, is musical, subconscious, and flowing. “It’s easier because the inertia runs with the music versus when I try to understand how I do it. The music is written in a way that sort of leads you to where you are supposed to go in the piece, and when I try too hard to go through the music note by note, it’s harder.”[124]


In noticing and labeling these two different kinds of breakthroughs, this student is aware at a deep level of two different ways paying attention, two different ways of achieving positive change in singing. He refers to one as conscious, gradual and intentional, and the other as subconscious, surprising, and free. The first flows from conscious work on specific exercises, and the second is the result of letting go of conscious control. For the one, he says “I let the music lead me,” and for the other he does “hours and hours of practice for the earned breakthrough.”[125]


These two ways of paying attention match up with the two different control centers that McGilchrist believes are made possible options because of the structure of the brain. He points to extensive research on the science of cognition that indicates that the ‘aha’ moment originates in the right hemisphere.[126] This is the domain of possibility, opening the mind to new options in order to connect and contextualize. Its vision is holistic and empathetic, and it is accepting of paradox. The left hemisphere is the domain of probability, narrowing the focus to what is known in order to identify and analyze the components. Its purpose is to understand in order to gain control, and it is selective according to what is deemed to be relevant and useful. The two hemispheres appear to be at cross-purposes, though both are needed. McGilchrist explains further:

If one had to encapsulate the principal differences in the experience mediated by the two hemispheres, their two modes of being, one could put it like this. The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care. The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of other things already known. It can never really ‘break out’ to know anything new, because its knowledge is of its own representations only.[127]

In McGilchrist’s characterization, these two hemispheres seem to have different personalities and goals. They certainly have different values, and seem quite incompatible, like warring siblings. The right hemisphere mediates the arrival of the breakthrough experience, the ‘aha’ moment. The left hemisphere oversees the work of analyzing what made it happen, and understanding the mechanics and acoustics of the event in order to appropriate it. How do the two work together in ways that allow each to do their job? We can learn something of this from the lived experience of a singer who got stuck in a world of over-thinking. It is the details in her story that allow us to really understand the dangers of letting the left hemisphere have its way, the cranial equivalent of ‘letting the inmates run the asylum’. Her journey reveals much about how breakthroughs are assimilated. Ultimately, it is the right brain with its global kind of thinking that has to be given the job of coordinating the body, mind, and emotions while singing. Indeed, McGilchrist’s position is that the right brain can do the left hemisphere’s job, but better, because of its “unifying tendencies.”[128]


A Case Study of a Breakthrough

There was a student years ago in a vocal pedagogy course who came to every class with every requirement and assignment thoroughly prepared. She often appeared pale and stressed and often chewed her nails. If I were to select a word that would describe her overall affect, it would be “anxious.” She would focus intently on the details of an assignment and ask questions about what was expected in a way that indicated she was fearful of missing the tiniest of requirements that may have escaped her attention. She habitually overworked herself in order to excel, but also had a self-awareness that good-naturedly allowed her to openly acknowledge this tendency. In class as her professor I had encouraged and modeled a culture of moderate vulnerability, and she was a willing participant. I would often tell stories about my own vocal development–the good, the bad, and the ugly–hoping that my willingness to be real would unlock the students’ important questions, so that their real stories would reach the light of day instead of being sidelined to private whispered conversations. She asked genuine and honest questions and wrote well, reflecting a strong intellectual capacity. She excelled in the class and met her own high academic expectations for each assignment. Her observations and contributions to class had depth and insight. She earned excellent marks in the class by means of her thorough approach to studying the whole of the course content plus her willingness to engage bravely in finding answers to her personal quest to be the best singer she could be; however, it was a very grueling journey.[129]

She reflects upon that experience:

I struggled with the issues that are usually termed as “not being in the moment”, “not being expressive”, or even worse “looking dead faced on stage”. As a singer who always gave my all, these things were extremely hard for me to hear because, while I was on stage, I thought that I was in the moment and I was thinking about what all the words meant. I could not distinguish the difference between thinking about what the words meant, and simply saying the words. I was completely trapped in my head by overcomplicating things, and as a result was disconnected from my body both technically and emotionally during performances. This was all a result of my natural instinct to over think everything that I was doing.  Thanks to a team effort from the Desautels Faculty of Music I was taken on a journey of self-discovery in which I could unveil what I needed to do to become what I like to describe as an embodied performer.

After many attempts to understand what it felt like to be an embodied performer I was getting frustrated. I was starting to show some improvement but it still did not seem to be enough. My musicality was becoming more embodied but my face had yet to reflect it. I then, with encouragement from my principal teacher, branched out to other faculty members to seek help. I worked with [a movement coach] on physicalizing songs by associated physical actions with emotions and phrases. [Another professor] suggested I watch my face in the mirror while singing as well as had me practice using my face to portray a variety of emotions. While doing this I was able to experience what it was like to feel my facial muscles engaging. All my teachers had me find the changes in emotion or energy within pieces so that I could play with these changes. All these ideas, though helping me to make steps forward, were still too widespread and complex to allow me completely to be an embodied performer.

I began to realize that these tactics were tools to awaken my body, but independently they were too controlled to allow me to feel spontaneous. At some point I realized that I had to simplify what I was doing. Throughout this whole process my teacher had been telling me to always connect everything to my breath. I gradually began to realize just how much I needed to do this in more ways than one. I began to connect the emotion to the breath. I could feel it energizing my physicality, lifting my soft palate, and animating my face. I practiced doing this in all of my songs and even began to apply it to my vocal exercises so that I could allow it to become second nature. Most of all, doing this allowed me to have fun with my art and rejuvenated my love of the craft.  By simplifying my process through the help and guidance of many faculty members I was able to experience and understand what it was like to be an embodied performer.

When I think back on how this change occurred I realize that it came to fruition due to a number of factors. During the Fall exam period I performed in a half jury. It was told that I was still not meeting the performance standards for the school for a third year recital because I was so disconnected on stage and that I had to make some big changes if I wanted to present a successful recital. This was a very jarring moment that awoke an even stronger drive to achieve what was being asked of me from within. The undergraduate program provided me with many opportunities to get feedback from teachers. My performance skills class provided an individual opportunity to perform as well as receive feedback on my stage presence while performing. As a performance major I received an hour and a half of private lessons per week which allowed me to make quicker progress and have more regular feedback from my teacher. As students we also have free access to take lessons with an acting coach.  I also received biweekly coachings with a diction coach as part of the program. In general the approach of all the teachers is one that supported my growth but allowed me to explore and make decisions as my own artist. Moreover, if I could pin point what made the largest difference for my development over the past year, I would have to say that it would be the teamwork between all of the faculty members. Each teacher that I went to for help reaffirmed what I was learning with my private instructor while building on it by presenting new things from a different perspective and teaching method.  What’s wonderful about the Desautels faculty is its ability to open so many cohesive pedagogical resources to the students through the teamwork of its teachers.[130]

The release that occurred for this student was a shift from analyzing and working on details of her craft in a segmented way, a left hemisphere task, to discovering how to connect all the elements in a unified whole, which is a right hemisphere task. She describes this shift as one that made her an embodied singer. The layers of work that she laid down time after time in her deliberate practice were brought together and coordinated in the one gesture of breath engagement, and her voice was present with an immediacy that rendered all her technique available to her as second nature. As McGilchrist explains: “Too much self-awareness destroys not just spontaneity, but the quality that makes things live; the performance of music or dance, of courtship, love and sexual behaviour, humour, artistic creation and religious devotion become mechanical, lifeless, and may grind to a halt if we are too self-aware. Those things that cannot sustain the focus of conscious attention are often the same things which cannot be willed, that come only as a by-product of something else; they shrink from the glare of the left hemisphere’s world.”[131] McGilchrist goes on to provide this apt quote from the 16th century philosopher Montaigne who wrote:

Even things I do easily and naturally I cannot do once I order myself to do them with an express and prescribed command. The very parts of my body which have a degree of freedom and autonomy sometimes refuse to obey me if I plan to bind them to obligatory service at a certain time and place.[132]


By handing everything over to the breath, she allowed all her other skills to appear as a by-product, one that emerged while her conscious mind was occupied elsewhere, on her trusted task of ‘connecting everything to the breath’. This was her method of avoiding the deadening efforts of over-thinking and introducing an element of passivity that was life-giving. Her voice became empowered by the body, and she became open to the body’s subconscious knowledge that had already become automatized.

The shift from a self-conscious attention that focuses on the mechanisms of technique, to an external locus of attention was also noted in the results of the experiments of the Vancouver International Song Institute. Enhanced technical ease was the result, with quantifiably greater control over duration of notes and dynamics, though the breakthrough was achieved without realizing the source or cause, and was not the result of selective focused attention to these details. Rather, the students reported choosing to abandon thoughts about singing, and turning to thoughts about the text and the characters, resulting in deep holistic engagement with meaning-making. The authors conclude:

One might propose that in the move from the recital mode to the theatrical mode, attention is supplanted by intention, and in the latter state choices are selected by a mind utilizing an array of integrated components— gesture, relational communication, and facial response processing, for example—within a dynamically creative and fluid synthesis. We suggest that these choices result from a complexity of neural network syntheses that may be different in nature from the recital modality. As well, the acute self-consciousness of a student’s recital performance mode, in which the audience is often experienced as a judgmental ‘other’, is transmuted into a hyper awareness wherein self, other, and audience cohabit a charged environment.[133]

This research mirrors the work by Emmons and Thomas who describe breakthroughs as peak performances and utilize sports psychology in overcoming the barriers to achieving them more consistently. “These peak performances are exceptional and appear to surpass any ordinary level of performance. When such a performance happens to you, you will sing better than you have ever sung before. It will be a supreme high. Yet peak performances are rare and may be involuntary for some.”[134] It is the involuntary aspect of the process that creates a challenge, and causes singers to turn to many solutions to the problem of self-consciousness.


Building Awarenesses

The arrival of an expansive moment of new possibility in singing feels like a gift. At the time, how it happened seems like something of a mystery, and singers tend to try to trace their steps to find out what made it work and how to repeat it. The exact point of release of the new ability is a confluence of internal and external factors. Internally, an act of volition on the part of the singer to ‘let go and try it’, collides with the new action or incoming idea being tried. Sometimes the singer can recreate the feeling and repeat the new behavior. Other times, replication is not possible, perhaps because the singer has already “let go,” so on the repeat the singer is no longer experiencing a “letting go” but rather a “taking on” or a “linking up” with what just happened. The goal posts have moved. This teacher explains:

So much of singing training is getting people to let go of a thing to find what it is that they have, and sometimes when you have a breakthrough, and this is my experience as a student, you have an awesome day and for the next month you work to recreate that day. So you end up holding on to your breakthrough, which is the exact opposite of [the letting go]. So when I was a student at university, amongst the students we used to talk we’d have these plateaus of learning, you’d have a little epiphany and you’d work that out for a while and at first you think that’s the answer for everything and then you realize after a while it’s just part of the answer and then the next plateau would come along, so it’s a series of building awarenesses.


Teacher A’s phrase, “letting go of a thing [in order to] to find what it is that they have,” is paradoxical, yet practical. This “letting go” represents a shift from one kind of attention to another—from a selective form of attention to an open and holistic one. Selective attention seeks to control particular mechanisms in order to problem-solve while singing, whereas open attention lets emerge what has already been learned and absorbed by the subconscious.

The experiential data gathered from students and voice teachers reveals that if singers become aware that the “letting go” has become “holding on,” it is time to either get new input or get back to basics and rediscover what they once knew. In the following example, the student attributes the stability in his singing to two things. The first is the solid foundation laid by his studio teacher. The second reason he gives for his sense of arriving at a stable and solid technique, is the realization that the voice sometimes just needs time to grow. He took some time away from his formal singing study and recognized the value in getting away from the pressures of dealing with regular formative feedback, to just tinker with the voice himself and see where it would take him. On returning to his regular teacher he found he had grown vocally. This was an extended time of “letting go.” Laura Brooks Rice advises students about the benefits of taking breaks, even from “a fabulous practice.”[135] At such times the elusive breakthrough may weave its way back into the voice’s awareness.


Accessing the Holistic Wisdom of the Right Hemisphere

Because the vocal journey can be derailed by conscious attending to technical matters, students and teachers discussing the vocal journey believe that it is wise to begin as if nothing needs to be dissected, nothing explained. The data gathered from the teachers suggests that one should begin with a sense of the whole, as if everything is a single gesture. Then, if that single gesture is right, repeat it regularly to build the voice’s strength and flexibility. This is supported by noted pedagogue Scott McCoy who believes that noticing the sudden and significant moments of “vocal serendipity,” where the voice has flashes of brilliance, is a more effective teaching tool than dissecting the performance and looking for vocal faults to correct.[136] He recommends following the voice’s inspirations to see where they lead.


Note particularly in the following example, the phrases that one teacher in the study made referring to teaching without step-by-step explanation.

I remember that my second teacher was a revelation…She didn’t do it by talking about it or defining it or saying, here’s a break and here’s this and here’s that. She set simple exercises that forced me to do that, if I was doing it regularly, if I was doing it religiously, and I’ve relied on that same set with a few variations all my life. They have rescued me, they have saved me from disasters where I’m in a new role that’s very vocally demanding and very stressful and I’m using more voice than I’m used to using and then find myself at intermission very tight, go back to my dressing room get into the exercises again and I’m all loosened up and ready and refreshed for the second half of the opera. I find with my students it is the same thing, if I can persuade them somehow that these exercises are going to do an awful lot of the things they want to do without having to be explained step by step what it is doing, I can give them a step-by-step explanation of what each exercise does and I will do that, but then I say now you have to trust it and do it regularly.


Here is another example of a student who identifies her breakthrough as the integration of her breath control into her singing so that it is part of the whole. Upon being asked what created that breakthrough she replied: “I remember when I wasn’t singing on the breath, and I know now that I am singing on the breath, but I don’t remember what it was [that caused the change] because it was so gradual, and I find it a little bit purposeless to talk about just one thing and to take it away from all of the other things that our bodies do because they are all so connected, because my entire body is my instrument so if I just take one thing it is only going to make the minutest change because everything plays a part.”[137] This student has her singing so firmly under the sway of the right hemisphere, that the individual steps are inconsequential, unnecessary, and counter-productive.


Singing is a complex act that balances many parts moment by moment so they function as a whole. The ideal is to keep it that way. Only if necessary would one wish to turn a singer’s attention to a particular part of the physiology, a particular mechanism that needs adjustment. But once that adjustment is made, the next task is letting the right hemisphere take back the role of being the command center. This begins with release, letting go, and substituting self-conscious self-correction with other motivating forces.


But how is this accomplished? So what does one think about when trying not to think about singing? What kind of awareness needs to come to the conscious mind in order to make it possible for it to hand over the mechanics of singing to subconscious control? The evidence gathered thus far has pointed to the importance of such things as thinking about text, emotion, body, movement and characterization as motivators of free singing.

The other vocal breakthrough happened on stage during a performance. I recently performed my 3rd year recital. I knew that my recital would either involve a vocal breakthrough or not. Thankfully, it did! What I’ve been working on this year is trying to “let myself go” on stage. I’ve been working too hard and trying to sing perfectly rather than feel the music and share the song like I want to. I found my recital to be so fulfilling because I finally was able to do what all my teachers/coaches have been asking of me. It was hard to just let my technique speak for itself but when I did, I knew I was really performing. I realized that before I was still “practicing” on stage. I was struggling a lot with the vastness of my voice and allowing all parts of it to be free. I was also struggling with performing and trying to loosen up on stage. I was trying too hard to be the perfect classical singer and lost myself in the process.[138]


Perfectionism is in the domain of the left hemisphere which seeks to control, to narrow down, and predict. This singer gave up the goal of being “the perfect classical singer,” and concentrated on the music and sharing the song. It is a generous act, a selfless one.


When her left hemisphere took control, she lost herself as a singer.

When her right hemisphere took control, she regained herself as a singer.

It stands to reason, that the vulnerability that it takes to release oneself in this way is easier to accomplish in an atmosphere where selflessness is modeled among teachers who willingly share their knowledge. This singer shifted to a more global way of paying attention, and was able to coordinate the ‘juggling act’ that is singing.[139] The juggler pays attention to the whole of the fluid movement, and not on any of the individual objects in the air. [a]Similarly, this singer turned her attention away from individual aspects of singing, toward the energy that united their complex interaction and allowed her to find what Titze and Verdolini Abbott refer to as “the combined equilibrium positions of anatomical structures that facilitate vocal output.”[140]


The manner in which this is achieved will vary, according to the particular background and personality of the singer, but there are some general conclusions that can be drawn from the data. Yielding control to the right hemisphere can be achieved by:

  • Letting go of holding in any area of the body
  • Relinquishing perfectionism and any impulse to micromanage
  • Finding an external locus of attention that becomes a distraction
  • Letting the textual meaning drive the body’s energy
  • Letting each breath be a loop of energy and emotion that is joined in one purpose
  • Being in the moment


It is not however, a simple matter of learning this yielding of control once and for all. Sometimes there are harder passages in a song, and even in performance the singer needs to focus conscious attention on a particular phrase or a vowel, but a satisfying performance is not a sequence of planned actions that are executed. It is living artistic response to the music that reflects the beauty of the individual’s vocal and personal contribution, and to accomplish this, attention must shift to the right hemisphere where sound and meaning are united. However, these efforts of the right hemisphere in its coordinating capacity will only be successful once the voice has already mastered the necessary individual aspects of vocal technique. This left hemisphere activity must eventually relinquish its control so the singer can stop thinking about little movements, and let singing become one holistic movement once more.


When there is trouble, likely it is because singers need to be balanced in another direction and this may require a team of people who can help troubleshoot, and find the missing link or the needed release. One teacher said “It takes a village,” and many students expressed their gratitude for a team approach that allowed them go to others for help when they were in difficulty. The team of teachers and directors at the Desautels Faculty of Music puts the well-being of the student first, and works together to find solutions.





The student interviews are rich with detail about vocal breakthroughs. They provide insights into how voices develop in ways that are unique to an individual. It is sometimes a gradual ascent, sometimes jagged, sometimes circular, and sometimes a spiral upwards. John Donne seems to be describing the quest for vocal freedom when he writes:

On a huge hill, Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.[141]


In the struggle toward the summit, self-consciousness will usually block our best efforts. “The best things in life hide from the full glare of focused attention. They refuse our will.”[142] That is why the wise voice teacher works obliquely sometimes to help uncover the voice’s potential, directing the student’s attention in a way that sustains an alert awareness to possibility rather than lock it down to a probability. This process will look different for different students. It begins with the willingness to trust in a teacher or a new idea and explore it through risk-taking, trial and error, and playfulness. Thus, a new awareness can be transferred from breakthrough status to the level of full ownership, wholly incorporated into the singer’s body at an autonomous level.


Peter Harrison describes the values that are the prerequisites for genuine ‘aha’ moments in vocal instruction. Harrison believes that breakthroughs can only come when recognizing the individual’s unique vocal identity is a valued goal, and the primary concern. He writes: “it is essential that teacher and pupil work on an equal footing as a team of explorers.”[143] After examining these many lived experiences it seems clear that singing training involves a three-way relationship, between the singer, the teacher, and the voice. The singer and teacher work together, observing how the voice responds along the way, in order to allow the instrument to emerge as its best self. Singer and teacher chip away to “shape” something latent, which is the singer’s imbedded, authentic, true sound signature[144] breaking through.

  1. William Westney, “What’s Right About Wrong Notes?” American Music Teacher 46, no. 4 (Feb 1997): 14-15.


  1. Sascha Topolinski and Rolf Reber, “Gaining Insight Into the ‘Aha’ Experience,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 19, no. 6 (December 2010): 402.


  1. Yun Chu and James N. MacGregor, “Human Performance on Insight Problem Solving: A Review,” The Journal of Problem Solving 3, no. 2 (Winter 2011): 122.


  1. Bruce Lunkley in Elizabeth Blades-Zeller, A Spectrum of Voices: Prominent American Voice Teachers Discuss the Teaching of Singing (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002), 129.


  1. Jack Coldiron in Ibid., 131.


  1. Richard Miller, On the Art of Singing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 38.


  1. Ibid., 68.


  1. Ibid., 174.


  1. Lynn Helding, “Voice Science and Vocal Art, Part Two: Motor Learning Theory,” Journal of Singing 64, no. 4 (March/April 2008): 418.


  1. Ibid.


  1. Katherine Verdolini, “On the Voice: Learning Science Applied to Voice Training: The Value of Being ‘In the Moment’,” Choral Journal 42, no. 7 (February 2002): 49-50.


  1. Ingo R. Titze and Katherine Verdolini Abbott, Vocology: The Science and Practice of Voice Habilitation (Salt Lake City, UT: National Center for Voice and Speech, 2012), 219.


  1. Verdolini, 49.


  1. Ibid.


  1. Lynn Maxfield, “Improve Your Students’ Learning by Improving Your Feedback,” Journal of Singing 69, no. 4 (March/April 2013): 476.


  1. Pier Francesco Tosi, Observations on the Florid Song; or, Sentiments on the Ancient and Modern Singers…, trans. Mr. Galliard, 2nd ed. (London, 1743), 89.


[17]. Marion Long et al., “Blast from the Past: Conservatoire Students’ Experiences and Perceptions of Public Master Classes,” Musicae Scientiae 16, no. 3 (November 2012): 287, 304 footnote.


  1. Tosi, 89.
  2. Marvin Keenes in Blades-Zeller, 146.


  1. Peter T. Harrison, Singing: Personal and Performance Values in Training (Edinburgh, Scotland: Dunedin Academic Press, 2014), 54.


  1. Helen F. Mitchell, Dianna T. Kenny, and Maree Ryan, “Perceived Improvement in Vocal Performance Following Tertiary-Level Classical Vocal Training: Do Listeners Hear Systematic Progress?” Musicae Scientiae 14, no. 1 (March 2010): 73-91.
  2. Shirlee Emmons in Blades-Zeller, 199. Shirlee Emmons discussing her study of Berton Coffin’s book on singing, The Overtones of Bel Canto.


  1. Richard Sagor, “Chapter 1. What is Action Research?” in Guiding School Improvement with Action Research (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2000), n.p., accessed June 24, 2014,


  1. Max van Manen, Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 5.


  1. Ibid., 5.


  1. Patricia Holmes and Christopher Holmes, “The Performer’s Experience: A Case for Using Qualitative (Phenomenological) Methodologies in Music Performance Research,” Musicae Scientiae 17, no. 1 (March 2013): 72-85.


  1. Ibid., 78.


  1. Ibid., 80.


  1. Michael Quinn Patton, Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).


  1. Jonathan A. Smith and Mike Osborn, 2nd ed., “Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis,” in Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods, 2nd ed., ed. Jonathan A. Smith (London: Sage, 2008), 53-80.


  1. Linda Finlay, “Debating Phenomenological Research Methods,” Phenomenology & Practice 3, no. 1 (2009): 10.


  1. van Manen, Researching Lived Experience, 31.


  1. Ibid., 96.


  1. M. J. Langeveld in Max van Manen, “Action Research as Theory of the Unique: From Pedagogic Thoughtfulness to Pedagogic Tactfulness,” Department of Secondary Education Occasional Paper 32 (1984): 1.


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Steven.”


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Kathleen.”


  1. “Kathleen.”


  1. Ibid.


  1. “Steven.”


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Carol.”


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Sharon.”


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Thomas.”


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Barbara.”


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Richard.”


  1. Ibid.


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “William.”


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Joseph.”


  1. “Barbara.”


  1. “Steven.”


  1. “Joseph.”


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Michael.”
  2. Student Singer Transcript, “Gary.”


  1. “Joseph.”


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Debra.”


  1. Ibid.


  1. Ibid.


  1. “Sharon.”


  1. Ibid.


  1. Ibid.


  1. Robert Caldwell and Joan Wall, Excellence in Singing: Multilevel Learning and Multilevel Teaching, vol. 1, Beginning the Process (Redmond, WA: Caldwell, 2001), 21-34.


  1. “Steven.”


  1. Ibid.


  1. Ibid.


  1. “William.”


  1. Student Singer Transcript, email submission.


  1. “Michael.”


  1. “Steven.”


  1. “Joseph.”


  1. Ibid.


  1. Edward Baird in Blades-Zeller, 142.


  1. Karen Sell, The Disciplines of Vocal Pedagogy: Towards an Holistic Approach (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 128.


  1. Wesley H. Balk, Performing Power: A New Approach for the Singer-Actor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 49.


  1. Barbara Doscher in Blades-Zeller, 217.


  1. Sergius Kagen, On Studying Singing (New York: Dover Publications, 1960), 41.


  1. Verdolini, 48.


  1. Verdolini in Helding, “Voice Science and Vocal Art,” 417-428.


  1. Thomas Hemsley, Singing and Imagination: A Human Approach to a Great Musical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 9.


  1. Helding, “Voice Science and Vocal Art,” 422-423.


  1. Ibid., 427.


  1. Ibid., 424.


  1. Sell, 128.


  1. Graham F. Welch et al., “Real-Time Feedback in the Singing Studio: An Innovatory Action-Research Project Using New Voice Technology,” Music Education Research 7, no. 2 (July 2005): 225-249.


  1. Susan E. Williams and Daniel R. George, “3D Virtual Anatomy Technology in the Voice Studio: A Pilot Study to Evaluate the Functionality and Limitations of Visible Body,” Journal of Singing 69, no. 4 (March/April 2013): 437-442.


  1. Adam Kirkpatrick and John R. McLester, “Teaching Lower Laryngeal Position with EMG Biofeedback,” Journal of Singing 68, no. 3 (January/February 2012): 253-260.


  1. Balk, 38.


  1. Ibid., 75.


  1. Ibid., 130.


  1. Rena Sharon, Laurel Fais, and Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson, “Wiggle Room: How Gestural Parameters Affect Singer and Audience Cognition in Art Song Performance,” in Language and the Creative Mind, ed. Mike Borkent, Barbara Dancygier, and Jennifer Hinnell (Stanford, CA: CSLI, 2014), 367-392.


  1. Cornelius Reid, Horst Günther, Mark Nabholz, Pearl Wormhoudt, and H. Hollien in Laurie S. Shelton, “Vocal Problem or Body Block? A Look at the Psyche of the Singer,” Journal of Singing 53, no. 5 (May/June 1997): 9-13, 16-18.


  1. Pearl Wormhoudt in Shelton, 10.


  1. Shelton, 10.


  1. Westney, “What’s Right about Wrong Notes?” 14.


  1. Clemens Woellner and Jane Ginsborg, “Team Teaching in the Conservatoire: The Views of Music Performance Staff and Students,” British Journal of Music Education 28, no. 3 (November 2011): 310.


  1. Ibid.


  1. Elizabeth Haddon, “Observational Learning in the Music Masterclass,” British Journal of Music Education 31, no. 1 (March 2014): 62.


  1. Email submission.


  1. Student Singer Transcript, “Nancy.”


  1. Ibid.


  1. Richard Miller, “Establishing or Altering a Tonal Concept,” Journal of Singing 56, no. 1 (September/October 1999): 27.


  1. Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 248.


  1. Ibid., 249.


  1. Ibid.


  1. Lynn Helding, “Master Class Syndrome,” Journal of Singing 67, no. 1 (September/October 2010): 75.


  1. “Nancy.”


  1. “Kathleen.”


  1. McGilchrist, 144. McGilchrist describing phenomenologist Husserl’s emphasis on the role of empathy.


  1. “Thomas.”


  1. Ibid.


  1. “Barbara.”


  1. A good guide can be found in Chapter 7, “Perceptual-Motor Learning Principles: How to Train,” in Titze and Verdolini Abbott, 217-238.


  1. Ibid., 219.


  1. Helding, “Voice Science and Vocal Art,” 418.


  1. Bruce Abernethy, The Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement, 3rd ed. (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1997), 260.


  1. William Lowe Bryan and Noble Harter, “Studies in the Physiology and Psychology of the Telegraphic Language,” Psychological Review 4, no. 1 (January 1897): 52.
  2. F. S. Keller, “The Phantom Plateau,” Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 1, no. 1 (Jan 1958): 1-13.
  3. Dji-Lih Kao, “Plateaus and the Curve of Learning in Motor Skill,” Psychological Monographs 49, no. 3 (1937): i-94.
  4. William Westney, The Perfect Wrong Note (Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2003), 121.


  1. Verdolini in Helding, “Voice Science and Vocal Art,” 419. Italics added.


  1. McGilchrist, 38.


  1. Ibid, 210. McGilchrist’s significant contribution is the contextualization of neuroscience to clinical psychology and philosophy. Italics added.


  1. Ibid.


  1. “Richard.”


  1. “Steven.”


  1. Ibid.


  1. Ibid.


  1. McGilchrist, 65.


  1. Ibid., 174.


  1. Ibid., 206.


  1. This student has had opportunity to read this description of my perceptions and agrees that my observations were accurate.


  1. Email message to author, July 29, 2014.


  1. McGilchrist, 180.


  1. Montaigne in Ibid.


  1. Sharon, Fais, and Vatikiotis, 382.


  1. Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas, Power Performance for Singers: Transcending the Barriers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 11.


  1. Laura Brooks Rice in Blades-Zeller, 129.


  1. Scott McCoy, “Voice Pedagogy: Vocal Virtues,” Journal of Singing 69, no. 5 (May/June 2013): 570.


  1. “Barbara.”


  1. Email submission.


[139] I am indebted to my colleague Mel Braun for this metaphor of the ‘juggling act’ that is singing, shared in conversation (August 2, 2014).


  1. Titze and Verdolini Abbott, 26.


  1. John Donne, Third Satire (79-82).


  1. McGilchrist, 181.


  1. Peter T. Harrison, Singing: Personal and Performance Values in Training (Edinburgh, Scotland: Dunedin Academic Press, 2014), 54.


  1. Ibid. “Recognizing the Singer’s True Sound Signature” is a heading in Chapter 5, “Individual Identity.”