In the field of sports medicine, or more specifically ‘sports psychology’, there is a term known as ‘balking’; describing a devastating fear that causes athletes to suddenly abort their task or skill mid-flow. Gymnasts, for example, are understood to experience this in situations such as dismount of the high or uneven bars, and also with beam performance and training; considered to be one of the most common skills known to trigger immobilisation. There are undoubtedly many and varied causal factors, however considering the way in which the body is being propelled at height, it is understandable that the potential for paralysis is there.
Unfortunately, many past methods of working with athletes suffering in this way, were either based on complete denial (ignore it and it will go away), or on goaded repetition (forcibly pushing a way through). Positively, significant research in recent years, in the extended areas of neurology/psychology has successfully demonstrated that a systematic approach of ‘resetting’ allows for new neural pathways to be formed; providing the brain with an alternative. From this perspective, the gymnast, or certainly any student thwarted by fear mid-flow, is going to benefit from such an approach; starting again from the most comfortable point in the skill development. Guided by an astute coach, and with much patience and care, there is then great potential to move forward supported by a framework conducive to ‘practicing under the right conditions’ (Doidge, 2007).
What has this to do with singing?
The expanding field of performance medicine acknowledges that musicians (and in this case singers) are faced with similiar challenges; like those experienced by the gymnast as previously described. Putting aside the performance aspect for now, the actual process of uncovering our voice can present the occasional ‘bump in the road’. One of the areas that can create difficulties is the upper register or upper tones of the voice, and certainly using language such as ‘hit the high note’ or ‘belt out the top one’ to encourage fearlessness is not particularly useful! Apart from creating a rather unfortunate image for the singer, this kind of advice only serves to isolate ‘the top note’ from the rest of the phrase or music, reinforcing the hesitancy that may already be present. If this area is not approached and subsequently practiced, as Doidge suggests, ‘under the right conditions’, singers are at risk of developing an unnecessary concern about this area of the singing instrument.
The score (printed music) by its very design has a strong vertical element. We cant help but be very much aware of the intervallic relationship between the notes, and the ‘angle’ that results from the way in which the melody is constructed or shaped by the order of its tones. It definitely takes practice (and surely courage), to focus on the breath and stay with the body, when our mind is busy elsewhere-with the ‘highs and lows’ of the pitches.
One of the most respected vocal pedagogues of our time, Stephen Austin, acknowledged that some singers may have concerns with ‘high notes’ in his book Provenance, and indicated a need for ‘desensitization’. Highlighting the exercise below, Austin suggests singing increasingly wide intervals, working the voice as if ‘all tones are emanating from the same place’. Using this exercise, it is possible with practice, to sing the Middle C, and keep the tone spinning to the E and back again, without the inclination to provide extra effort as the pitch changes. It is as if the continual ‘spinning’ of the tone or the legato, provides the sound with such energy, that it is compelled to flow, with powerful momentum, into the subsequent tones, irrespective of direction.
Taken from Methode de Chant, and written in the 19th century by French soprano and teacher Cinti-Damoreau, the exercise can be taken in the key that is most comfortable for the singer. We can observe that the systematic return to the tonic (Middle C as the key is in C) establishes a crucial point of reference; providing the singer with a certain comfort or home base. Intervals can also be reduced as necessary, and sometimes a third followed by the fifth, with its return to the tonic, is all that is required to begin with.