Music Teacher's Helper Blog

I don’t care what you DON’T want.

I care what you DO want.

Why do we spend so much time worrying about what we don’t want in life (& singing)?  I learned SO much from my three days with Shirlee Emmons at an Arizona NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) workshop in 2007  that it is still influencing my thoughts of how I approach life and teaching.  Her book Power Performance for Singers, co-written with sports psychologist Alma Thomas, focuses on how to think so that we perform better.  Unfortunately, we lost Shirlee in 2010, but her thoughts and words are still a daily inspiration to many throughout the singing community.

One of the biggest thoughts I learned from Shirlee that I try to focus on, in singing, teaching & life in general, is that “We don’t care what we don’t want.”  Basically, let’s not focus on what went wrong, let’s focus on what went right and how to repeat it.  To that end, I ask questions of both myself and my students: What happened?  What worked?  What could you do to make it better?  Where did the sound go?  How did it feel?  How did it sound?  What were you thinking about?

The exact questions I ask differ, depending on the basic learning style of my student.  Sometimes we have to focus on feeling.  Sometimes it’s a color.  Sometimes it not thinking at all & just letting the sound happen.  But then, I ask questions of how we got there & we try to replicate it a minimum of 3 times (the amount of time it takes for the body to learn a new action).  But, while I am exacting (my students know that something they’ll hear from me time & again is “That was good, now give me more!”), I also always try to say things in a positive language.  This means that I focus on what we have and where we’re going, rather than what went wrong.  If we reinforce the correct physicalization in the voice, then ultimately the bad habits fall by the wayside without us having focused on them & given them more weight than they needed.

Because the voice is part of the automatic nervous system, what we think has a HUGE impact in how the sound is produced.  The other side of the “think positive” equation (besides creating a more supportive environment) is the fact that studies have shown the brain doesn’t “understand” a negative directive.  This means that when we tell our students “Don’t gasp,”  the brain hears “Gasp.”  The negative (don’t) is not computed at the same time as the directive.  So, I try to state the same thing in terms of what we DO want (a positive directive), such as “Inhale slowly, directly off of the sound so the muscles engage easily.”  Now, that takes a bit more time to say, but it’s clearly exactly what we want – if I had just said “Don’t gasp,” then I would also need to say what we do want.  We don’t care what we don’t want – it’s a waste of our time and energy.  State clearly what we want, figure out how best to get there, & think THOSE lovely thoughts.

Concern yourself with where you’re going & what you want (and how best to get there!).  Anything else is a waste of your time and energy.

About the Author

Rachel Velarde
I began my music career in Bloomington, Indiana. After receiving my B.A. in Music from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, I earned two Master of Music degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Luminaries I have worked with include Vernon Hartman, James Caraher, Lorenzo Malfatti, Shirlee Emmons, Mary Sue Hyatt, John Sikora, David Jones, David Britton, and Carol Smith.

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  1. Valerie

    I completely agree, Rachel, and thanks for articulating this idea so well. I also learned this a while back, and it makes teaching so much more rewarding, and the students more confident and self-aware. Thanks for a great article.

  2. Rachel Velarde

    Thank you Valerie! I try to implement this every day, and it also makes a great difference in how *I* approach my continual learning. Happy music making!

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