It Doesn’t Matter How Smart You Are // Meredith Colby

How to Help All Your Students Learn More Easily and Faster

It’s happened to you as a voice teacher. It may have happened to you as a voice student yourself. 

You’ve asked your student for a new or modified behavior or skill, or recommended treating a phrase a certain way, or introduced a technique.  Your student tries, and it doesn’t work.

The student immediately does one or more of the following:

  • Gives up  (I can’t do this!)
  • Gets angry  (I hate this!)
  • Announces a personal flaw (I’m so stupid!)
  • Decides they have no talent  (I suck!)
  • Sees the future (I’ll never be able to do this!)
  • Feels defeated  (This is too hard!)
  • Feels frustrated  (Why can’t I do this?)

Then you, the unlicensed therapist, have to reach into your tool box and try to find the Thing that will help that student.

Likely you’ve become good at talking them off the ledge.  You can usually help them detach from that charged emotional state so that they can make use of their lesson time with you.  But not always. 

The article is about why that happens.  It’s about why smart, talented people don’t get things the first time, and why that can often cause them to feel frustrated.  It’s about how people learn. I hope it will help you to help your students; more time growing, less time feeling bad.

You’ve probably noticed that your brain traps things.  Some things, but not everything. 

It trapped a list of the intransitive verbs, but not the “eight word groups of grammar”.  It trapped the memory of your daughter’s first birthday, but not your dad’s Christmas visit, 2005.  It trapped all the lyrics from the entire Just Whitney album, but refuses to remember a single new song.  It remembers how to ride a bike, but not how to do a cartwheel.

So, what’s going on with that?

Two things: neuroplasticity and functional memory.


Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to continually change its structure, chemistry, and neural connections. It’s the process by which a thought, behavior, or skill is created or altered.

Scientists once believed that we were born with a certain number of brain cells, and that once they were gone, they were gone.  We now know that the brain is a vital and active organ that is always changing. 

Our bodies birth new neurons (brain cells) throughout our lives.  The functions of each neuron is defined by the conversations it’s having with other neurons.  If certain neurons keep having the same conversation (e.g., getting from home to work, the first verse of Crazy, or typing on a keyboard) that creates a very strong neural connection.  The stronger the neural connection, the easier the thing is for you.

You have a catalog of thoughts and behaviors that have strong neural connections, and are therefore easy for you to access.  Said another way, thoughts and behaviors that are familiar and easy represent a strong neural pathway (connection) in your brain.

Functional Memory

You constantly create three different types of memory.  Each type of memory is created, processed, stored, and retrieved differently in the brain.

Declarative memory

This is your memory for things you know.  Information, figures, dates, lyrics, and other things you memorize and remember fall in this category.

Episodic memory

Your “event” memory for things that have happened.  These memories are often “tagged” with emotion; we often have an emotional experience when we call up a memory of an event.

Procedural memory

This is how motor learning occurs; it’s how you learn to DO stuff.  Although motor learning can build on existing motor memories, it doesn’t really matter how smart or talented you are.  Building new skills takes time.

There is a formula for building a new skill:

There’s no getting around it.  Nerves that fire together, wire together.  So, if there is a new skill you want to learn, you have to repeat this formula.  If you “fail” at the new skill, it does not mean that you’re stupid, lacking talent, or any of the other things I listed at the beginning of this article.  It means that you weren’t clear in your intention, or that you let your attention wander, or that you haven’t repeated the desired skill enough times.

It’s not personal. It’s how your brain works.  It’s neuroplasticity.  It’s an organic change, so it takes time.

The Curse

Building a new motor skill is frustrating for smart and talented people because it is building a motor, or procedural, memory. 

We often confuse our procedural memory with our declarative memory.  We’re used to the ease with which we understand new concepts.  We think that if we understand this new skill we should also be able to execute this new skill.  But that’s not how it works.

There’s only one way it works.

Intention + attention + repetition + time

Singing does incorporate all three types of memories.  You use your declarative memory to memorize the melody, harmonic progressions (however intuitive), and lyrics.  You use episodic memory to infuse a lyric with an emotion. 

The singing part?  The part where you make sound come out of your respiratory system?  That is a collection of motor skills.  If you want to add to those skills, or alter them, you have to treat them as procedural memory.  You have to use the formula.

Even if you’re smart and talented.

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