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The Curse of the Smart & Talented: Procedural Learning in Singing

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

How to Help Your Students Learn Faster & Better

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

You’ve asked your client for a new or modified behavior or skill. You’ve made a recommendation for treating a phrase a certain way, for instance, or you’ve introduced a technique. Your student tries and assesses that they are "doing it wrong."

The student may then do one or more of the following:

· Give up (I can’t do this!)

· Get angry (I hate this!)

· Announce a personal flaw (I’m so stupid!)

· Decide they have no talent (I suck!)

· See the future (I’ll never be able to do this!)

· Feel defeated (This is too hard!)

· Feel frustrated (Why can’t I do this?)

Then you reach into your tool box and try to find the Thing that will help that singer.

You’ve probably become good at helping them detach from that charged emotional state so that they can make use of their lesson time with you. But not always. And, honestly?... wouldn’t it be nice for both you and your client if that hadn’t happened in the first place?

The article is about why that happens. It’s about why smart, talented people don’t get things the first time, and why that causes them to become emotionally reactive. It’s about how people learn. It’s the 10,000-foot fly-over, and worth knowing.


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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 very vital and active organ that is always changing.

Our bodies birth new neurons (brain cells) throughout our lives. The functions of each neuron are 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 different types of memory. Each type of memory is created, processed, stored, and retrieved differently in the brain. They fall into the categories of implicit - those you remember unconsciously and express in behavior - and explicit - those that can be consciously remembered.

Declarative memory

Also called semantic, this is your memory for facts. Information, figures, dates, lyrics, and other things you memorize and remember fall in this category.

Episodic memory

…is your memory for events. These memories are often “tagged” with emotion; we can have emotional experiences when we call up a memory of an event.

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Procedural memory

This is the bad guy/good guy in our story today. An implicit memory, procedural memory is how motor learning occurs; it’s how you learn to DO stuff. Although motor learning can build on existing motor memories, it really doesn’t matter how smart or talented you are. Building new skills takes time.

There is a formula for building a new skill:

Intention + attention + repetition + time = 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 from 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

The thing that’s frustrating for smart and talented people is that building a new skill is building a motor memory.

We usually 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.

Meredith Colby, August 2021


Meredith Colby is available for private voice and

vocal coaching, as well as classes, seminars

and workshops. Click here to get more information.


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#meredithcolby blog post and video about #proceduralmemory, #neuroplasticity, and #teachingvoice. This post is directed at #voiceteachers and #vocalcoaches to help them manage the expectations of their #voicestudents. Meredith is a #voicecoach, a #vocalcoach, and a #voiceteacher from #chicago. She helps #voiceteachers and #vocalcoaches teach for #popularstyles and #microphonestyles by teaching privately, supplying helpful content, and offering a #certificationclass in #neurovocalmethod.

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