a singing woman

Voice Placement: What Does It Mean? Should We Use It? // Meredith Colby

Placement is a word many voice professionals use in teaching. But is it a thing? Should we be teaching it? Should we even use the term?

For some people, the word “placement” has been very helpful in their singing and teaching. For others, the use of that word may have been problematic or even painful. 

Sometimes voice placement is confusing

You might be a voice teacher who uses the concept of placement very successfully in your studio. There are also people, though, who have experiences similar to my mother’s. 

My mom studied voice for years someone trained in Western Classical Music. That teacher continually encouraged my mom to “feel it in the mask.” My mother didn’t know what that meant, or what the teacher was asking for. It was frustrating for both my mother and, I imagine, her teacher.  So when pedagogues are encouraging you not to use the concept of placement, they are probably hoping to avoid situations like my mom’s. These situations can, for many people, waste time and even create bad feelings.

..and sometimes it’s helpful

The idea of “placing” the voice can be a very helpful tool for many singers. In the interest of keeping both the baby and the bathwater, let’s take a look at a couple of positive ways to address “placement.”

Two Positive Ways Voice Placement Can Be Experienced

For the sake of this piece, let’s say that voice placement refers to “a singer’s awareness of the vibrations generated from phonation”. Placement is a thing that can come in through the front door, through interoception, or the back door, through concepts.

The Front Door: Interoception

The word interoception refers to the messages your brain receives about the state of your body. There are unconscious signals between the brain and the body about both when and how much to regulate glucose levels, for instance, and signals from the body to the brain telling you that you need more energy from food or sleep. Some interceptive signals we’re aware of – typically when all is not well in our internal state – and those can really come in handy. 

Singing is both active and intentional. It can give the singer information about their internal state. When a singer learns to shift their attention from what they’re hearing to what they’re feeling, they can learn to be sensitive to the interoceptive experience of the vibrations that occur when they phonate. This skill can be cultivated, and can be an extremely reliable tool for singers of popular styles. It can also be referred to as placement

So, interoception is the “front door” version of using placement, as it gives the singer direct and physical information about how they’re using their voice.

The Back Door: Concepts

The “back door” version of placement is through concepts. Concepts are a teaching tool that voice professionals use all the time, and they can work really well. Concepts can also lead to frustration for both teacher and student.

Concepts are a creation of the human mind.  The short definition of a concept is anything that does not exist as a single, tangible thing.  For instance, a dog is a thing. Dogs as a unified group or category, are a concept. 

What that means for us humans is that almost everything we think about is conceptual. Our language (which is a concept), our thoughts, and therefore our biology have adjusted to this way of interacting with the world at a conceptual level. 

Our brains create concepts based on our unique experiences with a diverse set of instances of a thing. Because of that, concepts are often unique to the individual. 

In a general sense, we all have to agree on concepts. If we don’t agree, they don’t work. We mostly all agree on birds and cars, on comedies and tragedies, and on centimeters and inches. But when you get down to the granular and personal stuff, relying on concepts can be a little dicier. 

Effectively Using Concepts of Voice Placement

Teacher and student concepts must (eventually) match

Whenever we ask a student to assign a concept to a sound, we are gambling that our concept will match the student’s concept.  The probability that the concept we throw out during a voice lesson will exactly match our students’ concept for the same thing is almost zero. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. It just means that we need to be aware of that fact.

We’re constantly asking our students to listen to themselves and assign some kind of aesthetic value to the sounds they are making. Those values are concepts.  

When you say to your student that you want them to “lift” the sound, or make a sound like a siren, bird, or crying baby, you’re asking them to match their concept to your concept. 

We know from experience that this can be very effective. We also know it can be ineffective and lead to frustration. This is because we all generally assume that our concepts match others’ concepts, when in fact they seldom do. 

You can find out what your student’s concepts are, however, and use those. 

For instance…

For instance, let’s say you have them doing an exercise in which you can hear a preferable sound, or placement, on a certain pitch.  You can stop and ask them if they notice that.  If they do, you can ask them what that sound brings to mind for them.  When you ask them that, they will probably share a concept with you (e.g., “it sounds like a mosquito…” or “it sounds like my dog yawning…”) Since this is their concept, and was not generated by you, it becomes a very useful tool that you can use in helping that individual.  

If we look at what a concept is, we can see clearly why it sometimes works really well, and sometimes doesn’t.

Checklist for Using Voice Placement in Lessons

In order to use placement as an effective teaching tool, it’s important that we know:

  • How we’re defining placement
  • How we’re asking the singer to identify placement 

And, if we’re using concepts rather than interoception,

  • How to use the singer’s concepts, rather than our own, to anchor and guide the singer. 

If you’ve been concerned about using placement in your teaching, but know that it’s worked really well for you, you’re in good company.  I hope these ideas will help you!

If you’re interested in learning more about interoception for teaching or singing popular styles, learn more at my website or my youtube channel.

The books I’m referencing for today’s subject are The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius by Nancy Andreason,  How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett, and the seminal How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker.

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