On the Value of Stating the Obvious

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The musical directors of BABS had the opportunity on Saturday to hear a presentation from vocal health expert Julian Nicholl at our periodic MDs forum. Julian has that combination of specialist knowledge and kindness that gives you confidence the voices he cares for are in good hands; I particularly liked the way he recognised that while we all have the same basic vocal mechanism, everybody’s life circumstances - and thus needs - are individual.

At this point, I realised that my original title, ‘On stating the obvious’ sounded a bit dismissive towards Julian’s presentation, so I’ve gone back and tweaked it to better capture the reflections that followed.

One of his key points was that the things you need to do to nurture vocal health are exactly the same things you need to nurture any other aspect of health: get enough sleep, exercise and hydration; eat nourishing foods in adequate but not excessive quantities; engage in activities that promote positive emotional states and reduce stress, etc. And this is, in one sense, kind of obvious: a healthy lifestyle gives you the best chance in anything you do.

But it’s obvious because it is fundamental. Just because you probably knew that already, doesn’t make it any less important. And it doesn’t mean that we don’t need reminding.

It struck me that vocal coaching often seems to have this quality of giving information that the recipients already have, and can as a result come over as either redundant or patronising. But my observation is that the more fundamental the information, the more impact it has as an intervention. There is rarely much point in getting into the minutiae of tongue position or soft palate until you’ve shed extraneous tension in neck and shoulders, connected your feet to the floor and released the breath.

This is largely because the information is easy to understand but the behaviours it implies are much more challenging to embed. To automate a bodily habit takes a lot of repetition, particularly when it involves un-automating a less helpful one already well-established. (As Steve Jamison once put it: understanding is the booby prize.)

And I guess it is something to remark upon because it goes against our expectations in other areas of learning. Especially as adult learners, we think of learning as progressive, as increasing in depth and complexity as our knowledge expands. We don’t expect to keep having + and – signs explained to us once we’ve started to learn calculus. To constantly be told to ‘go back to basics’ feels like we’re being kept back in the beginner’s class when we’ve been up in the improvers or advanced for some time already.

(Incidentally, that is one of the reasons I prefer the term ‘fundamentals’ over ‘basics’. Basics sounds like the simple stuff you move on from, whereas fundamentals remain there supporting everything else for all time.)

One of the challenges for the coach, then, is how to keep the most important elements of our craft front and centre of our work with singers without the singers zoning out because they’re not learning anything new.

Part of this lies in keeping our teaching methods refreshed. New learning activities and different ways of expressing the same idea can help people re-engage and discover new things about themselves and their craft. They keep the teacher fresh too; I don’t want to hear myself just saying the same thing all the time any more than anyone else does, and the creativity of the coaching process lifts me as well as the people I work with.

Lying behind this creativity is the fact that the information may be the same, but the way it interacts with this particular singer and their needs on this particular occasion is always unique. Whether you’re working with individuals or large groups, the trick is to find the particular bit of obviousness to state that will help them achieve their aims from where they are today. And when you find it, the transformation of the sound, and the increase in ease and comfort of creating it, means that the statement of the obvious is experienced as ‘Ah, of course, that’s just what was needed!’

Stating the obvious, that is, becomes valuable when tailored to context. In the abstract, it may just sound like platitudes. Possibly you knew that already…

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