This week’s blog isn’t going to be funny or snarky or smartass. It’s mostly informative. I know. You’re shocked.

So am I. This doesn’t happen all that often, so we should probably both enjoy it.

This week in teaching I realized that there are lots of things that hold people back from getting better playing and singing skills. Two of my vocal students are struggling with opposite issues that come from the same problem.


Audrey is 14. And loves singing country. When she started with me about 8 months ago, she had a tiny little voice. We’ve worked a lot on her confidence and on getting her out of singing like a mouse, but she has consistently gotten stuck on one thing: when singing anywhere above about middle G, Audrey flips into head voice and backs off even though she doesn’t really need to.

An alto who has been forced to sing soprano in her school choir, Audrey has learned to deal with the anxiety of singing in her higher register by not dealing with it. But that’s become a problem. Because the songs she wants to sing typically are comfortable in her chest range until we come to the chorus, where the average country song might have an A or B note that isn’t unachievable, but will take a little extra support and placement to get out solidly.

The irony is that Audrey is also a cheerleader. So one day I decided to use that experience to get her out of her fear. We started by cheering the lyrics over the problem area – something she does naturally. Then we chose a comfortable note to cheer the whole line on. From there we moved up the scale until we got to the problem note. And I could see the wheels turning in her head. As we moved up, her fear would grow, and she would start to do it, then stop. Start again. And stop. Finally, after several lessons using the technique and working through her fears about it, she broke through it and was able to easily sing the B below treble C in a strong blended chest voice.

Audrey’s problem was mostly underconfidence – but also the desire to not challenge herself too much. Fear can do that to you. It convinces you that you need more time. Sometimes you do. But often you just need to get on with it.


Daniel is 44. A real estate agent by day, he loves to sing along with the radio and came to me about 4 months ago. Sometimes he has trouble hearing the right notes in the melody. And, though he has a very naturally warm baritone register, he has consistently brought in songs to work on that are in tenor range, are extremely difficult even for an advanced singer, and doesn’t want to drop the key on them.

Daniel arrived last week and announced that he was very discouraged. When I asked why, he said he wasn’t able to sing back a melody once he turned off the track he was listening to, and so he thought he was not progressing – something that I knew was not true, because he is very committed to practicing and has definitely gotten better.

I explained to Daniel that for a beginner, tonal reference is still important, and that he couldn’t really expect to simply take away the music at his stage and immediately be able to sing back the melody perfectly.

Daniel’s problem is overshooting his goal. He typically chooses goals that at his level are not attainable. He wrongly believes that even with minimal training if he just does certain steps or exercises, he should be able to achieve the goal within a matter of weeks. I explained to him that this was hopeful at best, and a little delusional at worst.

Daniel plays a little guitar, so I suggested that he strum the basic chords once to find tonality and see whether he could sing the melody over it. On four songs, he was consistently able to. He just wasn’t ready for the tonality to go away entirely. He was pretty excited to see that he actually had progressed more than he thought.

Work From the Middle

For both students, the actual source of the problem is the same: Audrey is undershooting her abilities, while Daniel is overshooting them. Neither is referencing the middle ground where their abilities actually are.

This is a massive mistake in practicing because all learning is building blocks. It is difficult to get to point Z by starting at A, yet trying to skip everything in between. It’s also not helpful to be at G and still looking back at A instead of ahead at M.

If you’ve found that you are consistently not getting better at your instrument, look at whether your head has accepted where you are in the first place. Working to your middle is a better game plan than under or over shooting it.

And if you can’t figure it out for yourself, find a solid teacher who can help you at least evaluate where you’re at. Having that as a reference can only help.

More likely, it will also determine whether you feel accomplished in your practicing or totally defeated.

Originally posted 2011-06-18 21:07:04.