Honoring the Masters. Sharing the Journey.

Lynn Helding

Professor of Practice in Voice and Voice Pedagogy at the USC Thornton School of Music, Editor-in-chief of the Journal of Singing

Biography

Lynn Helding, Professor of Practice in Voice and Voice Pedagogy at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, is the author of The Musician’s Mind: Teaching, Learning & Performance in the Age of Brain Science and the chapter “Brain” in Scott McCoy’s Your Voice: An Inside View 3rd edition. A thought-leader in the movement toward science-informed voice pedagogy, she is a co-founder of the new NATS Science-Informed Voice Pedagogy Institute. In May 2023, she assumed the role of editor-in-chief of the Journal of Singing, the premiere peer-reviewed journal of the singing voice, received in forty-four countries around the world.

Helding is a devoted teacher, counting among her private clients members of the Los Angeles Opera and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Her USC voice students have won fellowships to the Aspen and Tanglewood Music Festivals, among others. She was recognized as a “legendary figure in the field of voice pedagogy” by the Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) Vocal Pedagogy Institute at Shenandoah University, receiving their 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Teachers of Singing (AATS) in 2022. Helding created the “Mindful Voice” column in the Journal of Singing, authoring it from its debut in October 2009 to October 2017, in order to advance her proposition that cognitive science must be considered the “Third Pillar of Voice Science.” Helding’s extensive research in cognitive neuroscience, with an emphasis on motor learning and expertise studies, formed the foundation of both “Mindful Voice” and The Musician’s Mind.

Helding’s voice science honors include the 2005 Van L. Lawrence Fellowship, jointly awarded by the by the Voice Foundation and the National Association of Teachers of Singing Foundation to singers who have “demonstrated excellence in their profession as singing teachers, and have shown knowledge of voice science,” and election to chair the founding of the first non-profit vocology association PAVA, incorporated in 2014 as a 501(c)(6) non-profit association. She holds a courtesy appointment as a team member at the USC Voice Center, Keck Medicine of USC.

Helding’s stage credits include leading roles with Harrisburg Opera, Nashville Opera, and Ohio Light Opera. Her passion for contemporary American song inspired her to commission new works and to refashion the traditional recital into theatrical performance pieces presented throughout the United States, Australia, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Iceland where her performances were broadcast on Icelandic National Radio. Highlights in chamber music include Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, broadcast on Nashville Public Television, and Good Night, written for her and the Baltic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra by Icelandic composer Thorkell Sigurbjornnson.

Lynn Helding studied voice at the University of Montana with Esther England, in Vienna, Austria with Kammersänger Otto Edelmann, and at Indiana University with Dale Moore, where she was the first singer ever accepted to pursue the prestigious Artist Diploma. She earned her master’s degree in vocal pedagogy with distinction from Westminster Choir College of Rider University under the direction of Scott McCoy, and studied voice with Chris Arneson. She completed the Summer Vocology Institute (SVI) directed by esteemed voice scientist Ingo Titze at the University of Utah’s Center for Vocology, and periodically returns as guest SVI faculty. Previous to USC, she served twenty-two years as Associate Professor of Voice and Director of Performance Studies at Dickinson College.

LynnHelding.com

Interview with
Lynn Helding

What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”?

There are two. The first is practicing what I call “science- informed” pedagogy, and the second is the proposal, or introduction, of cognitive science as what I dubbed the “Third Pillar” of voice science.

I define “science- informed” pedagogy as a type of pedagogy that unites science and art by translating voice science for use, while simultaneously hewing to a hallmark of science—peer review—and interpreting the science by making connections between what is known, which is a hallmark of the humanities.

A footnote to this definition is that what is known and considered true does not begin nor end with science, but rather, takes account of the full measure of human experience. So the word “informed” rather than “based” in the definition is intentional; to practice science-based teaching means that the practitioner is firmly in the science research realm and/or clinical arena. I believe that the word “based” implies being bound or bordered by science. In many settings this is not only desirable, but crucial; for example, I would want my cardiothoracic surgeon’s training to be based in and bound by science! Conversely, “informed” means just that; a science-informed teacher is informed, but not bound, by science.

The second is my contention that the number one reason why cognitive science should be the “Third Pillar” of voice science is that the first two pillars (physiology and acoustics of the vocal tracts, respectively) are missing both the delivery system and the receptacle of knowledge: the human brain. My foray into cognitive science began as an insight, namely, that in pedagogy (which is the “art of teaching”), the “how” is vastly more important than the “what.” In cognitive science, this would seem to privilege procedural learning over declarative learning, but my study of motor learning has taught me what we singing artists in the physical realm have probably always known: it is a false dichotomy to separate the brain from the body. In other words, even though science-informed practitioners must learn everything they can about both voice science and the art of singing, in the end, how that information is delivered to another person is crucial. As I posited in my book, The Musician’s Mind: “How much better might teaching and learning proceed if the focus were switched from the content of the teacher’s brain to the landscape of the learner’s mind?” (MM p. 136).

How did you discover your calling for your specialty? How did it start?

I fell in love with the science-informed approach many decades ago in Graduate School. I began my studies in the studio of a new teacher and very quickly found myself spiraling into vocal distress. Let’s just say that my teacher was anything but sympathetic. After wandering in the wilderness for a while, I found my way to the studio of Dale Moore when he had first arrived at Indiana University. He advised I purchase Richard Miller‘s book The Structure Of Singing, announced “Read it, that’s what we are doing,” and I fell instantly in love with the physiology of the voice and the clear answers to many technical issues.

The second specialty was a topic I also found at Indiana University which had a well-known ballet school where I was taking class. One of the ballet professors was researching something called “kinesthetic memory” and I thought, “Wow! that it is exactly what singers are engaged in.” But this was in the pre-computer era, so information like this was much harder to come by than it is now. Fast forward many years later when I was a student at the Summer Vocology Institute and in a brilliant lecture on motor learning theory, Kittie Verdolini-Abbott said, totally off the cuff, “Well, you know, teaching WHAT to train doesn’t necessarily translate to HOW to train it.” I often say when I recount this story that I heard the angel choir sing in my brain, and that’s how I knew I had found my topic. I was off to the races researching motor learning theory, which quickly led to an expansion into the enormous field of cognitive science in general. Ten years’ worth of research later, I published The Musician’s Mind: Teaching, Learning and Performance in the Age of Brain Science.

What do you love the most about your work?

I really love being able to clear up vocal “mysteries” with factual information and help singers find free and optimum function, as well as help choral conductors and coaches learn about voice function in order to tailor their directives to match physical reality. After all, directing singers to just “get out of your own way” or “toss that high note to the balcony” doesn’t really work if their function is maladaptive — no matter how much they may want to follow such directives. And what is sad is when singers feel like the inability to do so is their fault, rather than questioning the directive—and especially the knowledge behind it—to begin with. So I love being able to give singers information which then becomes their own power source. Knowledge is power!

In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?

First and foremost, I think is the quality of empathy, which is the ability to feel another’ person’s experience. The ability to recall what it is like to struggle as a singer, even if the struggles are filled with joy rather than trauma, is the basis of empathy in the voice studio. Empathy underpins what I said previously in this interview: the “how” is more important than the “what.” Having said that, though, it doesn’t mean that voices pedagogues can snag a “get out of jail free” card and not be well-informed about voice physiology and acoustics, as well as some aspects of cognitive science. A voice teacher can possess all the knowledge in the world, as well as a remarkable résumé as an artist, but unless that information can be delivered in an empathetic and humane way, it just will not be delivered effectively (if at all) to the student. (And that’s not even getting into the realm of psychologically abusive teaching, which is a whole other discussion.) But I would like to state clearly, and for the record, that any kind of “tough love” teaching just simply does not work. That doesn’t mean that teachers cannot set high standards for their students, particularly those who can match and exceed them. And it is absolutely clear from cognitive science that no learning happens without effort expended on the part of the student. But all teaching and learning has to be done in a humane way. Which takes us right back to empathy. I think a simple and valuable Golden Rule for voice teachers to follow is, “treat singers as you wish you had been treated yourself as a young, aspiring singer.”

Can you speak to the importance of having mentors? How have mentors influenced your life/career? Can you tell us about some of your mentors?

Well of course mentors are critical, particularly in an art form that is still largely based on the so-called “master to apprentice model.” In modern parlance, we might say in the delivery of expertise, we still depend on artists to pass on their lived experience to younger artists-in-training. I have already mentioned two of my mentors here, Dale Moore and Kittie Verdolini-Abbott. I would also mention Scott McCoy, Chris Arneson, and Lindsey Christiansen at Westminster choir College of Rider university. Going further back, my very first voice teacher, the late Esther England, professor at the University of Montana who gave me a wonderful fund of basic voice knowledge and also challenged me professionally. Going back even further to middle and high school, my piano teacher, the late Shirley Braxton, was an amazing musician who in midlife had an inspiration to change her entire piano pedagogy to a three-times-per-week model. So, when I was in middle school, I had piano lessons three times a week: an old-fashioned repertoire lesson, and a group lesson in which we gathered in her home for two hours each week in the evening, and learned rhythmic dictation, harmonic analysis and improvisation. There was also a third “partner” lesson that was supposed to draw these two experiences together, but I think that became too much for the parents who had to drive the kids back and forth. But I stayed with that piano method for a number of years, and it really made a solid musician out of me.

When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Without writing a dissertation on this huge topic, I would say that the difference between breath control and breath support are critical. Many singers (and unfortunately, many choral conductors), use these terms synonymously; yet physiologically, they are quite separate. Breath control is how much air the glottis lets pass, whereas breath support functions like a gas pedal in a car, via utilization of the respiratory musculature to regulate the amount of air sent to the glottis (i.e. subglottally). I believe that understanding this critical difference, and refraining from thinking of them synonymously, is the first step to understanding breath support, and how to use it.

When it comes to the larynx, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

The number one thing I would say here is “flexibility.” Understanding that the larynx is an incredibly flexible structure is the first step to understanding how to play it as an instrument so that one can sing in many different styles. A connected idea is that “lower” is a very relative term; “lower” doesn’t necessarily equate to “better” in terms of laryngeal placement. I like to work with clients around the idea of a “flexible” larynx, especially in terms of controlling voice timbre. Once singers can do that, they can sing with a wide variety of color choices.

When it comes to the vocal folds, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

It never ceases to amaze me how many singers, let alone citizens on the street, do not understand the primal sound made by the vocal folds themselves. Over the years it has been amusing to figure out how to demonstrate this to unbelievers! Many natural science museums have a wonderful display that demonstrates this quite effectively. You can also build one of these machines at home with an assortment of plexiglass tubes that mimic the shape of the vocal tract, and any kind of machine that will emit a constant buzz tone.

When it comes to acoustics/resonance, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

This is a huge topic. For the purposes of this interview, I will just say that in my opinion, the discoveries made about the acoustics of the vocal tract, particularly the discoveries made by Johan Sundberg (regarding the singers’ formant and tuning strategies) and Ingo Titze (on the interactivity of the vocal tract) have led to huge understandings in how to harness that energy for the benefit of singers. For decades (and perhaps even hundreds of years), skilled singers have known that one “secret” to good singing involves harnessing resonance rather than simply pushing more power through the vocal tract. So, it’s a huge topic, but a difficult one as well, because it involves the physics of sound. But singers should not shy away from attempting to learn about these properties. Don Miller, the inventor of VoceVista, did some great work in the early days through his book Resonance in Singing, and the many workshops he gave before his death. More recently, fellow pedagogue Ken Bozeman’s books on Practical Voice Acoustics are great places for singers to start learning about this invaluable vocal attribute. I am at work on my second book, and am writing an extensive chapter on vocal tract acoustics, modelled on the “For Dummies” book series; but instead of “Formant Tuning For Dummies,” it will probably be titled something like “Formant Tuning For The Educated Yet Nevertheless Confused Singer.” Tongue-in-cheek aside, I think that title might capture the feelings of a majority of singers’ attitudes about this vexing topic.

When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

See everything I said in the question above! It is no longer possible to understand registration in the ways that many of us were taught, which is solely at the muscular level. For example, many singers are familiar with the analogy of registration shifts to a car shifting gears. While there is some truth to that regarding shifting muscles, in the 21st century, it is no longer possible to understand (let alone teach) voice registration without understanding that, as Scott McCoy wrote, “The voice is highly interactive.” I would refer people to the great work of Christian Herbst and Jan Svec. Look up their research on Google Scholar! Christian Herbst also wrote two excellent articles on this topic in 2020-21 for the Journal of Singing called “Registers: The Snake Pit of Voice Pedagogy.”

When it comes to vocal health, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Everything you’ve ever read or been told about hydration is true! As the Nike ad campaign says: Just Do It. Here is the exercise I assign to my clients: every morning, fill two 32-ounce bottles with water (like those big Nalgene bottles for hiking; note that this is eight 8-ounce glasses). Resolve to put that amount of water into your body before bedtime. Without fail the singers who actually practice this (for at least five days) always come back with pretty much the same reactions: “OMG that’s a lot of water! I was going to the bathroom all the time!” and “OMG, my voice has never felt better.” Yes to both!

When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Experiment. Singers can learn invaluable lessons by taking little forays into many different styles.

When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

I believe that posture must be organic, but that doesn’t mean that singers should sit back and do nothing. I try to teach my students and clients to find some form of physical exercise they like, and then do that thing every day. When I was younger, I used to love to run; now I love vigorous hiking and walking. But I also adore yoga. Whatever it is, singers must attend to their body, since it houses their instrument. If they can do this, I believe it then becomes much easier for them to find optimal posture. I emphasize a high and wide rib cage, as in the Italian school, which is not easy to maintain unless there is a basic level of physical fitness. I’ve seen singers try to maintain a high lifted rib cage by recruiting their chest and shoulder muscles, and this can create a whole host of problems in the neck and specifically the larynx, in my opinion.

When it comes to teaching methods or communicating complex ideas about singing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Well, that this is a huge question— but is the question that was foremost in my mind when I wrote my book, The Musicians Mind. It’s very hard to pare down a 300-page book into a few tips, so I would say if you are a voice pedagogue and not just a singer, it is really important to learn about how people actually learn, and to do that by reading cognitive science. Some very old ideas about how people actually learn have been put aside in favor of what actually works.

One example comes to us from motor learning research, and it has to do with cognitive processing (how we process all information that comes at us, and through us) and augmented feedback. “Augmented feedback” is the fancy word in motor learning research for “instructions delivered from an external source,” and most of the time for singers, that source is a coach or teacher.

If you are going to be an effective teacher in the 21st century, I think it is paramount to understand how much cognitive overload is inherent in a voice lesson to begin with. When teachers talk too much, or worse, talk concurrently, while the student is singing, the cognitive overload within the singer’s mind is just massive. When cognitive overload is present, most singers will just have to literally tune something out. In the motor realm, they are working to pay attention to all of the cues they are receiving from their environment, particularly acoustic or “sound” cues, along with the proprioceptive cues they are receiving from their body. Running commentary from a voice teacher is simply too much to process, cognitively speaking.

There is also an incredible body of research that reverses a 100-year-old finding which essentially states that more information given to the learner is better. Actually, this has been found to be untrue. The old way of thinking emphasized how much the coach or teacher knew—the “what.” The new way thinking understands how the learner absorbs that information; now we know that more information is not necessarily better information.

But I must stop there because when you are talking about the brain, you are talking about the most complex entity in the known universe! And as a very wise neuroscientist, Eric Kandel said, “we are only standing at the foothills of a great mountain range” in terms of understanding of our beautiful brains.

Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Books, Resources)?

Thank you for the opportunity to think out loud about all issues related to the voice and, specifically, to voice pedagogy. Pedagogy is, after all, the art of teaching. So, final thoughts on the art of teaching: stay curious; keep up on the literature; read!

As the editor in chief of the Journal of Singing, each time I receive the pile of articles to prep for the next issue, I am amazed anew at the breadth of knowledge and experience in the voice pedagogy tribe. So I would encourage pedagogues to do something that sounds rather simple: read. When you think about it, reading is actually a profound way to connect with another human’s brain. So, devote a certain amount of time each day or each week to find a quiet moment to just read one or two articles from your fellow pedagogues. We are connected in our love of one of the most beautiful, yet slightly mysterious, human attributes: voicing. The fact that we evolved beyond the ability to make simple grunts and murmurs, and even beyond communicative language to introduce pitch and inflection, is something we share with many other forms of life on the planet. A book I’m reading right now on at least some of these themes is called Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins Of A Good Society by Nicholas Christakis, the author of Connected, another highly recommended book. I also highly recommend Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Poole and Mindset by Carol Dweck. The former includes a lot of information about Ericsson’s construct, “deliberate practice” that can be applied not only to singing, but to life in general. The latter book is especially important for pedagogues if they want to do a deep dive and interrogate the notion of “inborn talent.” Dweck’s work has focused on the difference between people with a “flexible mindset” and those with a “fixed mindset.” The fixed mindset is especially toxic when it becomes entwined with the notion of inborn talent. To my mind, “mindsets” are at the heart of what is involved in helping singers effectively in the psychological realm.

 

Please note that Lynn Helding is not affiliated with VocalPedagogy.com and we do not disclose contact information. We hope you enjoy the interview!

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