Developing talent in the singer

Developing talent in the singer

Developing talent in the singer is an integral part of the singing teacher‘s role. Kaya Herstad Carney shares her experience and know-how to help other teachers hone the talent in their students. 

I am one of those vocal coaches who discovered teaching more by chance than design; I needed to earn extra income while I pursued my own music and preferred teaching to performing at function gigs.

I don’t hide this fact from my students because much has changed since then. I may have fallen into teaching but I continue to pursue with equal passion to my performing career because I love it so much – especially when a student has a breakthrough and hits a note they’ve never managed before, or in a way they didn’t think possible.

Such moments can leave you buzzing but they are few and far between, especially when working to develop talent in advanced singers; it is much easier to measure the progress of a beginner and such leaps forward may be enough to maintain motivation. When it comes to keeping singers motivated and striving to achieve their best, there are a number of issues to consider.

The ritual/novelty of developing talent

Students need a mixture of novelty and ritual to maintain high levels of motivation. As a coach it is important to know when to repeat things – repetition is the key to learning new skills and building confidence and technical facility – and when to move on. Novelty is used to inspire students, catch attention and make learning fun and playful. It’s important to strike a balance: too much novelty can be exhausting and prevent the body from creating muscle memory and automate the skills while too much ritual can become boring.

Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s myelin

As I mentioned earlier, repetition is the key to learning a new skill and developing talent. Through repetition you build “muscle memory” paths. Skills are created by chains of nerve fibres carrying a tiny electrical impulse – basically a signal travelling through a circuit conditioning the technique until it feels like second nature. This is true for any new skill you learn, from tennis to playing drums or singing a high note with tone and presence. The muscles need conditioning and the technique is then automated and feels “natural”.

As Shinichi Suzuki, the famous Japanese musician and educator, said: “Talent is no accident of birth … the right environment can change a person with undeveloped ability into a talented one.

Every time you fire off these signals, a substance called myelin wraps those nerve fibres, making the signal stronger and faster. So what is myelin?

“A mixture of proteins and phospholipids forming a whitish insulating sheath around many nerve fibres, which increases the speed at which impulses are conducted.” – Wikipedia

Myelin sheath of a neuron
Myelin sheath of a neuron

Think of the neural circuit as working like a pipe transferring signals from the brain to the muscles. Myelin is like an electrical tape that strengthens this connection. When we fire our circuits in the right way our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit. The thicker the myelin the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become. You can read more about developing talent in The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

Comfort zone and risk taking

Famous performance coach Dr Don Greene, who works across sport and music, makes a compelling argument for pushing yourself just that right amount in order to achieve the goals: “Both boredom and fear make learning inefficient because they make your mind wander.”

Students will take more risks when they feel emotionally safe; that is when they are not afraid of being embarrassed. Embarrassment results from a feeling of being exposed or viewed as having a lack of knowledge or skills. Each person has a different threshold for emotional safety based on their psychological background. A part of developing talent and improving technical facility requires mistakes needs to be pointed out in a positive manner so that they can be corrected.

Right brain, left brain 

The right side of the brain is in charge of all things creative and artistic, emotions, imagination, intuition and holistic thinking. The left side of the brain is the sensible, logical, analytic, factual and linear side that helps deal with language and mathematics. Although technically you can’t work completely from just one side of the brain, your right brain is your best companion for performances. You might have heard the phrase “get out of your left brain”.

This is misleading; what you actually need to do is find a better balance to increase activity in the right or reduce it in the left. If you were to solely use the right brain you would not have access to language. If you let the left brain dominate when trying to be creative you will be overly critical and nip any ideas in the bud before they get a chance. In short it will kill your inspiration.

Kaya's Style menu
Kaya’s Style Menu

Crucially the brain will reorganise itself depending on how you use it; musicians use the left lobe to listen to music even though non-musicians use the right. In other words musicians recognise the logic within the music.

Sparking creativity

You don’t have to be particularly creative yourself to inspire creativity in your students or work on developing talent. All that is needed is to move away from the routine by selecting a song or style of music than you normally wouldn’t choose. If a student is in a rut, get them to work solely on the emotional journey of the song or to consider who they are singing to. If a student has a tendency to overthink sections encourage them to do physical gestures while singing to get them thinking about something completely different.

If you are trying to encourage a student to explore songwriting it is crucial to spark their creativity. One method I use is to give singers who have more left brain activity a copy of my “Style Menu” (a full-size version from my website).

This is a tool to help them experiment with new ideas and lists a number of options for them to select ranging such as cord closure, embellishment and rhythm. The idea is picking something from the creative menu feels less intimidating for performers who need encouragement to try new things. Occasionally this tool has helped ignite a new creative fire, other times it is merely a safe space to improvise.

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Kaya is an award winning singer/songwriter with her band Science of the Lamps, authorised Vocology in Practice singing teacher with Balance Vocal Studios, passionate performance lecturer at the Academy of Contemporary Music and University of Chester, artistic director of Threshold Festival, general harmony fanatic and vocal geek with an interest in quirky instruments and new experiences. Originally from Norway, she’s become an established artist with a track record of performances from The Royal Variety Show, to the BBC Songwriting Showcase, from Sound City to touring UK and Europe.