Updated: May 5
Placement. It’s a word many of us use in our teaching. But is it a thing? Should we be teaching it? Should it even be a word we’re using?
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. So let’s take a look at that. For the sake of this piece, let’s say that placement refers to “a singer's physical sensation of the vibrations generated from phonation; specifically in the areas of the face and mouth”.
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 like my mother did when she took voice lessons.
My mom studied for years with classically trained singer who kept encouraging her 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 create bad feelings.
Placement is a thing that can come in through the front door, through interoception, or the back door, through concepts.
Most voice teachers and coaches rely heavily on concepts to do their teaching. If we look at what a concept is, we can see clearly why it sometimes works really well, and sometimes doesn't.
Concepts are a creation of the human mind. There are many different types and definitions of concept. The short version: anything that does not exist in nature is a concept. E.g.,a single dog exists in the physical world. Dogs as a unified group, do not. 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 has adjusted to this way of interacting with the world at a conceptual level.
We create concepts based on our experiences. Because of that, every concept we have is created from a unique and diverse set of instances. In a general sense, we all have to agree on concepts, otherwise they don’t work. We all agree, in large part, on birds and cars, on comedies and tragedies, and on centimeters and inches. But when you get down to the granular stuff, like what can happen in a voice lesson, relying on concepts can be a little more dicey.
Here's an example:
Blue. It’s a color, and a concept. Color is a concept. Color also means different things to different people. For instance, if you’re a lighting designer, “dark blue” is a combination of filters and light intensity. If you’re a painter, it is some combination of several dark hues mostly from the “blue” family. If you’re colorblind, blue could be what the rest of us call a type of green. If you’re an athlete, you might be aware of 4 or 5 different blues, but if you’re an interior designer, you can rattle off 30 different blues without blinking. The word “blue” represents different concepts to different people based on their experience, abilities, and interests.
Generally, the more complex a concept is, the more personal and unique it is. So, “blue” is a somewhat individual concept, whereas “money” or “trust” would be much more specific and individual.
Now let's bring that into the voice studio.
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 concepts 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 should be aware of it.
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.
So 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 are asking them to match their concept to your concept. We know from experience that this can be very effective. But we also know it can be ineffective and lead to frustration. This is because we all generally assume that our concepts match our students’ concepts, when in fact they seldom do.
So what should we do? We can’t change everything we do in our teaching!
When you teach a single individual, you are in the luxurious position of finding out what their concepts are. Regarding placement, you may want to avoid saying, “you should feel this and this when you make that sound” and instead guide them toward, for instance, a more relaxed sound. When they get the sound you know to be preferable, even if it is just on a single pitch and vowel, you can ask them what their concept is.
For instance, let’s say you have them doing an exercise on an E vowel and every time they get to the G# you can hear that their sound is more present and ringy. You can stop and ask them if they notice that. If they do, you can ask them how that feels to them - if we’re talking about placement - or what that makes them think of - if we’re avoiding using placement. When you ask them that, they will probably share a concept with you. That's their concept. Since it belongs to them and was not generated by you, it becomes a very useful tool that you can use in helping that individual.
In my approach based on brain science, which is called Neuro-Vocal and which was developed, basically, to help singers in amplified music situations, we use some conceptual teaching. But that's not where we start. The reason we don't start there is because sonic feedback is normally filtered through your conceptual system. The necessity to hear oneself can become extremely unreliable in situations where a singer cannot hear themselves, such as in amplified situations.
That’s why we begin with interoception. Interoception refers to your perception of sensations from inside your body.
The Neuro-Vocal approach begins by learning how to help a singer shift their attention from what they’re hearing to what they’re feeling.
It sounds easy, and for many people it is, but for most people it takes some getting used to.
Once a person gets used to it, though, and once you know you can feel the vibrations that occur when you phonate, an interoceptive experience can become an extremely reliable tool. Even in situations where you can’t hear yourself well or at all.
In this case, then, placement becomes a function of interoception. It’s a feel-thing. It’s not like making a circle with your finger in front of your face, saying “mask,” and hoping your student has a concept that matches yours. Rather, it’s a learned and practiced skill that nearly everyone can learn.
Using placement (or whatever word you use for feeling the vibrations of singing) as a teaching tool, and using concepts to do that, can be a very effective tool as long as you know everyone’s concepts are unique; as long as you use the students’ concepts rather than your own. Even better, though, is using placement as a learned interoceptive skill, one that the student can reach for in even the most sonically challenging situations.
Meredith Colby, May 2022
Meredith Colby teaches privately online to professional & adult singers, and voice teachers and coaches from all over the world. You can book individual sessions or classes from this site.
Books referenced for this subject are The Creating Brain 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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