Today, I’d like to invite you to ask yourself the following question :
« Am I acting or activating ? »
Over the last twenty years or so, I’ve been able to observe a lot of singers (and trainee teachers) who all have one thing in common : they want to improve. What seems unfair, though, is that some seem to make more progress than others. I believe the major difference lies in their behaviour in learning situations. Some of them take action and some create activity.
What’s the difference?
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to say that action means doing concrete tasks in the skill you’d like to improve, so in the case of singing, things such as singing songs, taking part in open mics and auditions or recording yourself. Activity, however, means doing things that take up a lot of time and make you feel dead busy, whilst neatly avoiding any chance of getting better at your chosen skill - things like reading books on singing technique, buying stuff (mics, the latest singing gadget, muffins…) or doing research about which singing method is best.
What’s wrong with that, then? It’s easy, really. Activity takes up loads of your time, but doesn’t give you any net benefit on your skill base. Only action will make you better. What’s worse, those who do a lot of activity often feel like they’re working loads and not really getting anywhere - it’s exhausting and frustrating.
Here are a few singing-based examples:
Trawling through YouTube picking songs for your setlist = activity
Learning a new song and singing it = action
Reading books on vocal technique = activity
Singing tricky repertoire and fixing the hard bits by trying stuff out = action
Having long discussions about how the voice works or the reasoning behind such-and-such an exercise = activity
Testing things out and making your own mind up like a grown-ass adult = action
You can see how easy it is to mistake the one for the other!
Should we avoid activity, then?
Of course not. This doesn’t mean that activity is never useful - on the contrary, it can help us figure out which teacher to work with, which course to sign up for or which mic to buy - and sometimes it’s just lovely to have a voice-geek chat with a like minded procrastinator. It becomes a problem, though, when it’s tall we do. If there’s only ever activity instead of action, we feel like we’re working very hard, but we aren’t actually moving - we’re essentially treading water and wondering why we aren’t getting any nearer to the edge of the pool. Just as walking around a load of gyms, picking up brochures will not get you into shape (trust me, I’ve tried…) reading about and discussing vocal technique will not make you into a better singer (or teacher). Only singing (or teaching) - and even getting it horribly wrong from time to time - will do that.
This is why TCM training is ferociously task-based. By that I mean that we spend a lot of time on practical application of a given solution before we discuss how or why it works. In our longer training programmes (such as the académie) the singers spend most of their time applying TCM techniques directly to their repertoire and very little time discussing the theory behind it (which doesn’t make a difference to your voice either…) Even in our short, introductory courses we make sure every participant spends time trying out everything we introduce in the context of their own repertoire - because that’s where they will need to use it later. We are trying to make changes, not help people memorise stuff.
Learning and understanding are not the same thing Too many people confuse learning and understanding (or even worse, learning and note-taking), but you just need to listen to great singers talking about vocal technique to figure out that you don’t really need to understand what you’re doing in order to be able to do it really well. Equally so, I‘ve lost count of how many singers and teachers I’ve met who use a lot of technical terms, ask very complex questions and can debate the finer points of vocal fold biomechanics - but can’t actually sing or teach that well…
Choosing action over activity means more progress
Those who make the most progress are those who spend most of their time in action rather than activity. Consider singing methods - the market is full of choice at the moment and there are two very different ways to deal with this: certain people start with one approach, then give it up and move on to another, convinced that this new approach will be better or more efficient, then they do it again and again - always looking for ‘the’ one method that will make all their vocal dreams come true; five years down the line, they will have learned a lot about different vocabulary and how different schools describe singing in different ways, but they likely still won’t be any nearer to nailing that high C. On the other hand, some people pick one approach and stick with it, working assiduously and actually singing songs instead of reading books (crazy, I know) - even if they didn’t pick the ‘best’ method, they will invariably progress considerably over the same time period (and they always have the luxury of trying out something new later on, if they feel there’s something lacking in their technique). Of course, I don’t mean that all approaches to singing are equally valid - they aren’t, some are far more rational and well-supported than others, but the simple fact of taking action (choosing one method and sticking to it) will always be better than activity (constantly changing approaches, looking for the holy grail) when it comes to progress. What’s more, whether we act or activate is totally under our control - we can simply choose to do one or the other. Why would you consciously pick the path that’s least likely to take you where you want to go?
Some ideas to help you take action in your singing
- Record yourself (preferably on film) singing songs. Analyse the recordings and try to change the things you didn’t like, then rinse and repeat.
- Take part in open mic events or sign up for auditions to get feedback.
- Sing in front of anyone who will listen - your friends, your family, people in the supermarket…
- If you take part in groups and online forums, instead of asking lots of technical questions and getting involved in debates about which muscle does what - post a video of yourself singing and ask the only question that matters ‘how can I make this better?’
- Set yourself deadlines for learning and performing certain songs. Set a date for a concert six months from now and make it happen.
If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this article it’s this : activity won’t make you improve, only action can do that. As one of my former teachers used to say:
If you want to get better at singing songs, you have to sing songs. No amount of reading will make you sing better.
TAKE ACTION, LES CHANTEURS MODERNES!
Article by Allan Wright, October 2018.