Stages of Learning and How It Affects your Singing Progression

In recent years, motor learning theory has taken a more prominent place in vocal pedagogy. The theory itself is described in depth in Vocology by Ingo Titze and Kittie Verdolini Abbott and the three stages of motor learning are outlined in The Vocal Athlete by Wendy D. Leborgne and Marci Rosenberg. Knowing which stage of learning we are in can impact the way we approach our performances.

The first stage of motor learning is the verbal/cognitive stage. This is where you’re just starting to explore a new skill and getting a feel for what you’re doing. This stage requires a lot of repetition, a lot of guidance and feedback, and involves a lot of failed attempts. 

The second stage, the motor learning stage, is where you start to get the hang of things and you begin refining the skill. It’s still not perfect every time, but you’ve done it successfully enough times to know what it feels like and to begin to be able to self-diagnose and to work through some of your own problems. 

Stage three, the automatic stage, is where the skills become automatic (as the name implies). You are able to execute the skill without as much concentration as before and you are able to do it in different settings, different situations, and even among distractions. Your self-diagnosis skills are also well developed, meaning that you won’t need the help of a teacher as much as before.


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Of course, singing is not just one skill but a series of skills. Some of you may be really great at breath management but not as good at singing in a wide range. Some of you may feel really comfortable in chest voice but less secure singing in a more head voice-dominant register. Some of you may feel great singing vocal exercises but have a hard time bringing those sounds into songs. 

In other words, some parts of your singing are probably in stage three while others are in stage two or even in stage one. 

Part of what I like so much about understanding the stages of motor learning is that they come without judgement. People are not good singers or bad singers—we are all just in different stages of learning. 

If you are in stage two of singing through your passaggio, that means sometimes those notes are going to feel and sound great and sometimes they aren’t. That doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible singer. It means you are in stage two of learning that particular skill, and that inconsistency is a necessary part of being in stage two. 

If you are so frustrated by being in stage one or stage two (which, when we’re talking about singing, can literally last for years) that you give up, then you will never reach the automatic stage. That applies to singing, bowling, throwing darts, or any other skill you’re trying to learn. 

Consider setting a goal to make each performance this year as expressive as possible—and to have as much fun as you can—while enjoying all the abilities you currently possess, instead of wishing your skills were more developed. Practice for tomorrow, but perform for today. 

We are all works in progress. No performance is a final, perfect statement of how something is done. It is only a reflection of what we are able to do on a given day with our current skills. None of us need to apologize for or feel bad about that. 

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, D.M., is an assistant professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the National Center for Voice and Speech. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing and he blogs at drbrianmanternach.blogspot.com. Visit brianmanternach.com for more information.