Since the coronavirus pandemic we’ve switched all sessions to 100% online – and I noticed something unexpected – and very excellent – happened when we made the switch.
Obviously there are differences between online and in-person lessons. Travel time isn’t needed for online, you can have your sessions in the comfort of your own home, use your own instruments/ear, etc. Singers pitching also gets much better through following the vocal exercises without as much assistance from the piano.
The whole point of these exercises is to build technical facility and vocal balance into a singers’ voice. This involves building new habits whilst unpicking old pre-dispositions where they force their voice into one place or another. This better vocal balance is all about smooth and even connection from bottom to top, free from said bad habits/forcing of the voice, so that the singer’s voice behaves how it’s meant to behave. In turn, whatever they want to sing, they can just launch into unimpeded.
Now I’ve been aware of all of these differences for a while, but it wasn’t until everyone went online that I noticed something profoundly different, made obvious by those who moved from only ever having had in-person singing lessons, to online singing lessons:
Their vocal balance got better.
And when I say better, in some cases it was a minor adjustment, and in others it was huge. In some cases, within just one or two online sessions technical “baggage” I had been chipping away at for months just got addressed. These clients even emailed me, buzzing about the change in their voice since switching to online. To be clear, we’re using broadly the same exercise selection, same lesson approach; yet achieving a different vocal result – especially in how it feels to the singer.
So what changed? Here’s what I’ve found:
They can’t see the keyboard of the piano.
Bear with me on this.
As human beings, we learn by pattern matching. As we try to learn to do something, we establish neurological patterns to operate our body/do the task based on certain cues. For example, if a singer struggles with a particular note, especially when they keep attacking it unsuccessfully for long periods of time, they build up bad/unhelpful neurological patterns that get triggered whenever that note arrives… or more specifically, when the right cues trigger that pattern, either in the middle of a familiar song, or when a certain place on the piano/guitar is reached.
For these particular clients, when things start to feel tough, they inevitably glance at the piano or have some awareness of where I’m playing the exercises on the piano – and suddenly, that pesky neurological pattern they’ve worked so hard to avoid, gets triggered. At that point, no amount of instruction or clever lesson programming from me can fix this. We’ve got to avoid that forcing to “reach notes” at all costs.
But, when a singer cannot see the piano, we change the cues.
And when we change the cues, we’re in new territory – neurologically speaking.
In an online session, I can – in theory – be playing the notes I am asking of them literally anywhere on the piano. Visually, nothing changes for them whether I’m playing the notes higher or lower. I look the same on camera regardless. The singer just has to do as they’ve been asked and do it as comfortably and as accurately as requested. They can’t adopt whatever their normal tactic is for hitting note X or Y, because they can’t see if I’m playing note X or Y.
Suddenly, there’s no forcing of the voice towards the top of their range. There’s no reaching down to get into the bottom… precisely because they can’t even tell if we’ve reached the top or the bottom of the piano or their voice. They just have to go by what feels right in the exercise I’ve given them.
By removing the external cues of the piano, by asking them just to do the exercise as feels right, and to get it to feel the same each time we do it, we achieve a significantly better approach towards vocal balance. They have to do it by feel, and I’ve been finding that online lessons can facilitate this in a remarkably helpful way for many singers, that couldn’t be easily achieved in-person.