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defensive singers

Working with defensive and hesitant singers

What makes a singer reluctant to take the advice of their teacher? Here are two case studies for dealing with defensive and hesitant singers.

Imagine this: 28-year old Jemima Jenkins arrives for her third singing lesson with you. She’s a professional gig singer who recently landed a job in Royal Caribbean’s onboard cast of the musical We Will Rock You.

During singing, you notice that Jemima has a clenched jaw which tends to jut forwards and, as a result, you recognise some visible and audible tension. 

Straight after this session, you welcome another client: 23-year old Dennis Duke, a hobbyist singer who had never had lessons before he started working with you last month. You note that he sings (nervously) with Thyroarytenoid (TA) muscle dominance and takes high clavicular inhales.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson…

You’re confident that you have an efficient plan of action to help Jemima and Dennis with their individual goals and needs. However, despite their differences, both singers are similar in their reluctance to try out your suggestions. They say that the sensations they feel during singing are “awesome”, “normal” and “rated 5/5” when your senses suggest something opposite. You decide that this behaviour can no longer be assigned exclusively to first-lesson nerves and seek assistance.

Taking a brisk walk down Baker Street, we can ask ourselves a series of questions, the answers to which might help us conduct our sessions with Jemima and Dennis more efficiently:

  • What might be triggering the defensive and hesitant behaviour?
  • Why might there be contradictory feedback?
  • What is their habitual “normal”?
  • Do they have any means by which to measure their performance?

The four stages of learning.

‘The four stages of learning’ dictates that, in order to be perceived as an expert at a specific skill, a person goes through four stages of competence:

1) Unconscious incompetence: A person doesn’t understand something, nor do they recognise its value and so will choose not to address it.
2) Conscious incompetence: The value of the skill is understood, but a person holds no further knowledge of it and chooses not to address it yet.
3) Conscious competence: A person understands the skill and can perform it, but only with the presence of concentration.
4) Unconscious competence: The skill is considered automatic and a person can perform the action without much concentrated effort.

Dennis the Newbie: What could be triggering his behaviour?

Understanding the stage of competence: We could say that Dennis is consciously incompetent as a novice singer. He has recognised that this skill holds value to him, and he knows that he requires assistance to improve it. But he isn’t knowledgeable about the skill at this point and doesn’t yet understand fully the ways in which it can be bettered.

It might take Dennis a little longer to build kinaesthetic awareness of his instrument and to recognise the relevance of the tasks we assign him. Therefore, proceeding at a digestible pace and continuously offering our encouragement will assist Dennis’ transition through the different stages of learning, and may just help those nerves to dissipate.

Challenging his “normal”: Having had no previous training or vocal exposure, Dennis has nothing to compare his experiences with, other than his shower concerts and road-trip recitals where high breaths and chest voice drag have provided him with his singing “norm”. Stripping Dennis of his usual anchors and introducing what we understand to be a more efficient approach could be rather alien for him, and the unfamiliar sensations may initially make him feel unstable.

Nerves and embarrassment: We know that, at times, vocal development requires us to make some weird noises and do questionable movements, whether that be pretending to be a feisty cat by twanging a “meow”, wagging the tongue out of the mouth or hula-hooping. All these might feel embarrassing to the newbie singer, thus provoking hesitation. Far from the desired sound, this might well relate to Dennis’ competency state as he isn’t yet been able to recognise the value such vocalises bring.

Jemima the Professional: What could be triggering her behaviour?

Understand the stage of competence: As someone who has more vocal experience Jemima might be considered to have mixed competency, meaning that she may be unconsciously competent in some areas of the skill, and consciously competent in others. Jemima may need to concentrate more on specific tasks (in this case, releasing articulator tension) in order for it to reach that automatic and efficient state. 

Challenging her “normal”: Singing whilst anchoring onto the jaw has become Jemima’s habitual “norm” and, evidently, hasn’t cost her jobs considering her successful function band and recent job offer. As with Dennis’ case, deconstructing the current set-up will challenge what has become familiar to Jemima and, therefore, may automatically feel worse despite visible and audible freedom from the viewpoint of the listener. Vice versa, there may be times when, audibly, the sound is desirable but, for the singer, it feels uncomfortable.

Provoked anxiety: Jemima’s defensive and hesitant behaviour may be a response to feeling challenged as a professional and may even be provoking fraudulent feelings. Having made a living from singing professionally, being exposed to vocal faults may trigger anxiety and thoughts of being underserving of success. Therefore, looking at how we propose an exercise and communicate with this type of singer may be required.

Team spirit and communication

Both Jemima and Dennis evidently want our help as they’re willing to part with their hard-earned cash to better their skill. Not many people will commit to paying £30+ a week to be told they’re faultless and have a larynx which has been kissed by the angels. Therefore, we need to use our coaching tools to communicate appropriately with our singers. 

The five fundamental skills of coaching:

Julie Starr talks about the five fundamental skills of coaching in her book The Coaching Manual.

These are listed as:

  1. Building rapport and relationship: Creating a warm and trusting environment
  2. Different levels of listening: Being able to interpret what the client is saying to provoke the appropriate action from us – the coach.
  3. Using intuition: Having the ability to interpret subtext in order to steer the situation or scenario towards the most helpful outcome.
  4. Asking effective questions: Starr says: “In coaching, a well-timed, simply worded question can remove barriers, unlock hidden information and surface potentially life-changing insights.”
  5. Giving constructive feedback: Communicating feedback with positive intent that is constructive and beneficial in inspiring, motivating and encouraging the client.

Choose helpful language like: “I wonder what would happen if we tried…”, “let’s see what happens when we…” and “what do you think about…” may help to reinforce a sense of partnership with our singers, and turn the studio into a laboratory where experiments take place together. 

Ask for their opinion: Even though we may have established ourselves authoritatively in our business marketing, advertising ourselves as the go-to vocal coach in our area, the learning is rarely one-sided. We are constantly being educated by the singers we work with.

Asking Jemima and Dennis for their opinions and getting them to share their ideas may cement the feeling of teamwork. In Jemima’s case, it may give credence to her as a professional vocalist and her deserving success.

Reference points

The way in which a person registers sensation and perception is quite individual. For example, Jemima might step on a plug and howl a few curses before continuing her day whilst Dennis might cry in pain and end up with a 24-hour limp (I’m with Dennis on this one!). Both individuals have differing pain thresholds, so it’s likely that the sensations one vocalist perceives as comfortable and released won’t be described as such by another. Therefore, if we can refer to a criteria against which we can measure the singer’s sensations and audio, it might help us gain a clearer perspective.

Example criteria:

  • Was the singer in tune?
  • Was the singer in time with the music rhythmically?
  • Did it feel, sound and look free from unnecessary tension?
  • Did it feel comfortable?
  • Was emotional expression present? 

Playbacks: As we are aware, bone conduction means that what we hear inside our heads when we speak and sing isn’t an exact replica of what is communicated to the audience. Therefore, listening to or watching a recording of the performance or exercise can help us to question the sensation vs the audio, as well as help to refer to the criteria above more effectively. We could also reference videos of other singers performing the song in a way which adheres to the criteria, however with the intention of avoiding negative “comparison-it is”

Negative practice: The tactic of performing a task at the two extremes allows the singer to feel sensations both weakly and in excess as a way to find the optimal medium. This approach may help the singer to identify more clearly if what they are feeling is too disconnected or has too much tension for their desired outcome.

Encouraging an open mind: Everyone has their own traditions. Take Christmas, for example: you might religiously watch It’s a Wonderful Life with your grandparents every Christmas afternoon, or you might be the family who has opened all of their presents by 7am. Anyone who does it differently to you is weird. However, if we were open minded to different traditions and were willing to try them out, we might just rediscover the magic of the festive holiday. As vocal coaches, we understand how important it is for our clients to offer their co-operation and willingness to learn. If we can utilise the tools in our toolbox to encourage Jemima and Dennis to be open-minded and try something outside of their vocal traditions, they may be able to unlock some exciting potential.

As ever, there are many ways to approach the different scenarios we are faced with, so if you would like to share how you conduct sessions with your Jemima Jenkins’ and Dennis Dukes’ then you can find me and the BAST trainers in the BAST Facebook group.


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