Sensory Confusion: How it feels, vs how it sounds for singers

To illustrate this point, I want to reference a story I read a few years ago.

Braille readers

Blind people read using Braille – a system of raised dots to indicate letters and words. They do this using the tips of their index, middle and ring fingers. Their brains and bodies become more and more attuned to those tiny surface markings to interpret them as data to form words and meaning. Like normal reading, the brain has to sense individuals letters, then chunk them together to form words, then sentences. The faster one can sense and interpret these markings, the faster one can read.

The plasticity of the brain enables this. What this means is that as the Braille readers feed their brain data from their fingers, that the parts of the brain linked to interpreting sensory experiences from the fingers grows and becomes more developed. The more advanced and experienced the Braille reader, the more developed and complex that region of the brain becomes.

Here’s where it get interesting

Researchers did an experiment on a group of Braille readers, where they essentially poked the ends of the readers index, middle and ring fingers. What they found was this: the Braille readers would not always be able to identify, or even misidentify which finger was being prodded, i.e. you prodded their index finger, but to them it could easily be one of the others.

What is going on?

In effect, the regions of the brain that interpreted signals from separate fingers had complexified and overlapped to such an extent that the sensations were no longer distinct to that person. The brain had specialised and tuned into sensations from the fingers to facilitate Braille reading, making the index-middle-ring fingers more like a sensory palette than individual fingers. To the average person, this would be an odd experience, but the sensory confusion is a by-product of the long-term effect of Braille reading.

Let’s bring it to voice.

I was having a few conversations with clients recently, about how they were finding specific exercises. There were certain moments of language along the lines of:

“This sounds thinner than these other exercises”

“When I do this, it sounds better to me”

The language used by the singer was always around how it sounded. But in reality, the sounds they were generating were pretty congruent with the other exercises. But if it actually sounded more or less the same, what were they picking up on?

What they were tuning into was how it felt to them.

When one is singing a song, the sound and the feeling are inextricably linked. For more experienced singers, even just older singers who have sung the same way for a long time, this is typically extremely ingrained and unconscious – much like the Braille reading example.

This is typically to such a degree that when they say their voice “sounds” a certain way, they cannot fully trust their own assessment without recording themselves and listening back.

For most singers, it’s much more likely to be the sensory experience that they are confusing with the aural.

Other ways this leads singers astray: Yelling is a powerful feeling

Consider the sensations you experience when you yell. There is certainly a volume jump associated with yelling over speaking, but the actual sensations experienced during yelling are one of power.

This is (in part) another source of the epidemic of singers who are just yelling. The sensations mislead them into thinking they are gaining power by yelling. The experience of yelling is one of intensity, of attention grabbing, but the sustained note lacks the depth or “make the walls move” power of a well sustained note.

Many singers who like to bellow notes out on stage are confusing the feeling of difficulty and intensity of yelling, with the actual power that they are desiring in the sound. Often, the right sound has a sensation that feels contrary to that sound.

For example, Pavarotti did this interview in a masterclass, and demonstrates some huge sounding top notes. But his comment about the sensation? That the vocal folds are in a position of rest, very small, very little fatigue… and yet the sound is enormous.

While one could only hope to sound as good or be as vocally successful as Pavarotti, I relate very strongly to his description of the sensations vs the resultant sound. Certainly, the actual coaxing of the note into life is far more genteel than people realise. The resultant sound is huge, but is therefore misleading as to what is going on internally.

If I was to judge my ability to do it correctly by how it FELT, rather than how it sounded, I would 100% assume I was doing it wrong.

How do we combat this?

Simply knowing that the feeling and sound can often be divergent, or that we are more likely to confuse the former for the latter, is only one part of it. It doesn’t tell us what to do differently in terms of how it should feel/shouldn’t feel.

What it DOES tell us to do, is to monitor the sound in conjunction with the feeling. Record yourself and listen back. Do it regularly. At the very least, you may start to realise that the impression you are getting regarding how you sound, is very different from how you actually sound.

By doing this on a regular basis, you’ll start to develop a better ability to listen to yourself as a quasi- third person. In turn, the more you can lock in to the actual sound, and not get distracted or misled by sensations, the better your ability to self-monitor becomes.

Leave a Reply