Working with Technology : When it's not about the technology

As many of us have jumped into online learning over the last few weeks, I expect most have run into some glitches that needed to be worked out and experienced a learning curve that had to be overcome.  Nevertheless, I’m taking a moment to revel in the relatively new technology that can even make this possible.

When I was growing up, video calls existed only in the land of Star Trek. (In fact, video calls are just one of several technologies we use today that first appeared on Star Trek.)

Today, I can watch my students on one screen while I check in with a pdf of the music they are singing on another screen. We can play pre-recorded accompaniment tracks of either a piano or a full orchestra. In fact, a resource like the Appcompanist app provides tracks that can be played in different keys and at different tempos, and it even features a fermata button so we can sustain those high notes for as long as we’d like.

That being said, I have been reminding myself over the last few weeks that what I am doing is not really about the technology. It can be easy to geek out and get lost in all the things we can do. But, ultimately, the technology is just there to allow us to keep doing what is at heart an old-school, unplugged activity.

Technically, the only element required for singing is the human body. The sounds created are felt, heard, and experienced by the person making those sounds and by any others who are in the physical (or virtual) proximity to also experience those sounds. Technology simply allows us to extend that proximity to include more listeners in additional locations.

Our task in voice lessons is to help singers create sounds that can reach both the ears and emotions of their listeners. Therefore, the singing must be efficiently produced and emotionally enlivened. For most classical singers, this is generally done without the benefit of a microphone, ensuring that what audiences are hearing is what is actually occurring. Music theater singers have the same goals, since even though their performances regularly involve microphones, the purpose of the mic is usually to amplify, rather than to modify, the sound.

Like singers, the most important tools that voice teachers use do not require a power cord, either. Our eyes and ears observe, and then our brains interpret what we see and hear and filter that information through our knowledge and experience. Then our voices allow us to offer thoughts, ideas, and—hopefully—inspiration to our students. Of course, tools like spectrograms can precisely break sound into many components, providing a more in-depth perspective. But, as author, pedagogue, and professor Scott McCoy states in Your Voice: An Inside View:

“Computerized voice analysis is not a panacea. No matter how fast the computer or how complex the programing, it is unlikely ever to surpass the human ear and brain. A computer can help its user understand what is happening in a voice; it cannot, however, tell if the sound is beautiful or musical.” (p.83).

So plug in, power up, launch the apps, and log in. But remember that we are working with human beings, not screens. That way, we can focus on the holistic, organic process of singing by plugging our attention into our students instead of our devices. I am grateful that technology will allow us to keep moving forward in our singing lessons. But I will also be reminding myself that it is there to facilitate our work and not to be the center of our work.

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.