Visualization? Can it be Detrimental?

Detrimental Visualization

We often think that practicing "Visualization" can solve any problem. But is that always true?

A singer/teacher submitted a question regarding why he gets hoarse and also told the following:

I tell my students to imagine breathing slowly and delicately into a balloon, like breathing out of a pin hole... So you’re breathing out slowly, always keeping your stomach in…

So, let's address the big problem with this...

In order to fill up a balloon, you need to blow air into that ballon - and you need to blow hard. Yes, you need significant levels of air pressure, often to the extent that a child cannot do it.

Blowing up a ballon slowly and delicately doesn’t make it any easier. In fact, that would be even more difficult and take even more pressure and effort.

The pressure needed to blow up a ballon is far far greater than you ever need for singing. Trying to exert that kind of pressure (active blowing) while your vocal cords are vibrating would be a surefire way of damaging your voice. If you wonder why you get hoarse, this is exactly why.

Now, let’s address the important “imagine” stuff…

Imagination/visualization techniques are used by athletes for the purpose of creating similar neuromuscular responses as if you were doing the activity for real.

Visualization techniques are exceptionally powerful. Unfortunately, laymen use abstract visualizations without the knowledge of the real physiology and therefore create havoc.

A classic example would be the suggestion “relax your shoulders as if you held a heavy bucket in each hand”. This nonsense is written in a classic book on singing and I have personally heard it quoted by many teachers. From an external point of view it would seem that this visualization would make the shoulders relax downwards.

However, the person who understands physiology knows that if you actually held a heavy bucket in each hand, your shoulders would do anything but relax. Nor should they.

Your shoulder muscles should automatically engage to protect your shoulder joint. The heavier the bucket is, the greater muscle contraction is needed to make sure the arms DO NOT succumb to the downwards force. (Those who have done the Sing With Freedom program understand force vs. counterforce.)

The person skilled in visualization would indeed be able to create the same physiological response and would create the exact opposite from the intended “relaxation”.

A student of mine had once been given the instruction to “feel like a pelican swallowing a salmon while you sing”. Again, those who know physiology know that if an object tries to enter your throat, your gag reflex would, and should, immediately engage. The person who is skilled at visualization would engage the same gag reflex.

Often the defense tends to be: “Ah, but you know what I mean. I just mean to have an open throat”.

Really? Well what does “open throat” mean? That is just as vague as any other of the standard statements that are thrown around.

Now, I don’t mean to bash singing teachers. Quite the contrary. I want to encourage and inspire all the wonderful teachers out there to raise their game and not fall into the trap of just repeating old mantras they’ve heard in the past.

Singing teachers are some of the worst offenders of these kinds of disastrous “visualizations” or “imagine as if….”. The reason is because singing training is so captured by tradition. While sports training and sports coaches evolve all the time, singing teachers many times say they same things and play the same scales.

Singing teachers are seldom trained in physiology, anatomy, advanced learning strategies, or the mental aspects of learning and performance unless they have a deep and intense athletic background. Many do not know what they do when they sing, how they do it, and how to help the person with a completely different “talent” to discover their unique voice.

The old statement “feel as if you're yawning” is no better. Anyone with has a moderate level of kinesthetic awareness (which most gain after lesson 1 of the Sing With Freedom program) recognizes the muscle tension in the midst of a yawn. The skilled visualizer knows that “feel as if” is complete nonsense in this case. Either you yawn or you don’t.

With an increased level of awareness and muscle isolation skill, you recognize the difference between a larynx that is low through relaxation (release of compensatory muscles), and a larynx that is low because it is being held low through tension (engages even more compensatory muscles).

Now, this kind of well-meaning, but counterproductive advice is not new. This is the very reason why so many have come to believe in “breath-control”, when what they have been taught is, in fact, breath tension and breath pressure. This is the very reason why so many sing with tension and restrictions, when they attempt to do it “correctly”.

This is also why so many believe they are lacking talent when after years of training they still don’t sing anywhere close to where they could and would like to. This is also why numerous contemporary singers shy away from “singing lessons”, and rightly so, because they realize it will change them rather than improve them.


…to the person who wrote the ballon example” I sincerely hope you get going with the Sing With Freedom program quickly so that you no longer give your students this kind of advice, and you become a far more effective and successful teacher. And also, so we can fix your own hoarseness.

To everyone else: What kind of confusing “imagination” or visualization” suggestions have you been exposed to?