Music with Words Blog

Motor Learning Theory, or How to Get In the Zone

A fascinating new area of research has captured the attention of some visionary voice people such as Lynn Helding, teacher and regular contributor to the NATS Journal. Her article in the latest issue of the Journal is an engaging expository of her work in motor learning theory in relation to voice training, a promising new way of understanding how singers learn and a better way to teach. I was introduced to the basic concepts of the theory when I attended Helding's presentation of her research at the Voice Foundation's Symposium in June.

Clearly explaining reasons for the scarcity of studies of motor learning theory principles in voice training, Helding makes a compelling case not only for further research and development of motor learning theory principles in voice training, but for the effectiveness of using it in practice . Many traditionally oriented teachers might never consider how the differences between explicit knowledge (book learning or “know-that”) and implicit knowledge (experiential body sense or “know-how”), affect the response of the learner. The central tenet and principle of Helding's article that illuminates the pedagogy in much of voice teaching is the what and how of where the performer focuses his attention in the use of his body. The use and feel for this locus of attention is where the inner game is played for the singer. Oddly enough, what this motor learning principle shows us, the key is not to focus attention inside the body, but out.

I once read an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine about the Zone, in which the author discussed the mental states of elite athletes when they perform at their best. Interestingly, these athletes - basketball players, archers, gymnasts- all reported a similar sensation of being focused outside themselves, in an effortless state, seeing their actions succeed, as they excelled in the act of performing in their sport. As it happens, effortlessness is a primary goal of motor learning theory, and is closely related to achieving accuracy and speed. I remember as a young singer in training, and still later as a professional, grappling with voice and singing technique as I tried to coordinate, control and use to my best ability specific parts of my body to consistently produce what one of my teachers called an opulent sound. All that grappling with body parts resulted in a lot of tension, and that constant effort of balancing to which many singers can relate. As I got better, what really improved was my muscular efficiency. In other words, the improvement was achieved by balancing strength and coordination with the resulting feeling that I wasn't working as hard.

A great deal of motor learning research shows that this "result" (for lack of a better word) comes more reliably from concentrating one's focus on an external locus of attention, rather than on specific groups of muscles. By focusing on the end result of the movement rather than on specific body movements, researchers have shown an "extremely robust" effect that could be of significant value to the field of voice training. As Helding explains, this value of motor learning research on voice training can be deduced by "generalizability", the degree to which the efficacy of an external locus of attention can be seen across many athletic and movement-related skills, including musical, and across multiple skill levels and populations. Helding chooses to illustrate here with the example an external locus attention to teach a student how to effectively relax the abdominal muscles to achieve an intake of breath that helps establish the best conditions for breath support and an open, relaxed laryngeal position.

Despite the apparent dearth of behavioral science research specific to voice training, from my own experience I can attest to Helding's assertion that the external locus of attention effect is indeed applicable to training the singing voice. Some of this implies using imagery in the process, which has been often dismissed by many of those in the voice science community, myself included. Using imaginative sensory tasks in voice teaching is nothing new, but most would probably agree that the results would not be permanent if the imagery used is a vague or intellectual concept. Where a voice trainer directs a student's attention (contrasted with what) can have an immediately observable effect and the difference in execution can be striking if the teacher's understanding of the actual physical processes are aligned with an immediately observable, desired, and clearly defined effect of the movement. The way I see how this works is beginning with an external intention in a trial-and-error process that involves a high degree of clarity and specificity in teacher/student communication, something at which effective teachers are already skilled, but might see an entirely new curve of progress in their students. I certainly have seen it in mine, and it’s already provided me with a new point of reference in creatively finding solutions to students’ technical challenges.


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