Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Motor Learning and Voice Training: Locus of Attention

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Motor Learning and Voice Training: Locus of Attention

Article excerpt

PERCEPTUAL MOTOR LEARNING IS, QUITE SIMPLY, how our bodies learn to do their movements. A more complex definition from the field of perceptual motor learning research is that motor learning is a process, which is inferred (rather than directly observed), that leads to permanent changes in behavior as the result of exposure or practice.1

Perceptual motor learning research has its roots in psychology and kinesiology and stretches back over a century. New advances in cognitive neuroscience have eroded the artificial barriers between mind and body, with some results for motor learning being that the adjective "perceptual" has been dropped and research on this topic has "exploded" recently.2

Since motor learning is fundamental to what we are doing as singers, several past columns have been devoted to this subject, as will several more in the future.3 "Mindful Voice" guest columnist Christine Bergan wrote that the principles of motor learning research

have proven very useful in their applications to the teaching and learning of a variety of tasks requiring various types of coordinated physical movement [that are] necessary for skilled performances...It is important to consider the wealth of information available in this domain and to determine which, if any, of the principles can or should be attempted in the voice studio.4

In the five years since that article was published, research in perceptual motor learning, especially in the field of athletics, has continued apace. However, controlled studies on motor learning principles in the training of voice are rare, and of the singing voice, more rare still. There are several possible reasons for this that should first be considered, before looking at how motor learning might actually assist in the training of singers.


Few studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of using principles from motor learning theory on voice training. The explanations for this may be as simple as the observation that not many singing teachers are also active voice science researchers. Or it may be a reflection of the way motor learning research itself is conducted. In this research, so-called discrete tasks (those that have an identifiable beginning and end, like dart throwing) are more easily studied than the opposite, continuous tasks. Such was the case in one of the few studies that have been conducted on the effectiveness of using principles from motor learning theory on voice training. In that study, the researchers had subjects practice a "novel vowel nasalization" task.5

In contrast, singing is a complex process, made up of many continuous muscular tasks-respiration, phonation, articulation, and resonation-all operating simultaneously. This complexity partially explains the dearth of research on the connection between singing and perceptual motor learning theory.

Another reason that may explain the lack of research in motor learning theory and voice is that much voice research, at present, is concerned with pathological voice problems. In a previous article, I wrote about the well known phenomenon called the "clinician's illusion," in which voice trainers may be biased, by conditions of their profession, into seeing a higher incidence of voice pathologies than actually exist in the general population.6 In the context of this article, I suspect that the clinician's illusion, and its resultant overpathologizing of the singing voice, may be crowding out studies of the healthy voice. If more studies of the healthy, functioning voice were to be conducted, they could offer us much valuable insight by considering the most popular voice training methods in light of recent research in motor learning. Such studies could lead to better practice regimens and more effective feedback, the two most important parameters in motor learning.

Studies of the healthy singing voice that do exist are often concerned with the entwined topics of acoustics and formant tuning theory. …

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