Technique. Its a word that has achieved pet status among singers and voice teachers alike. Perhaps its a compliment on how “good” your technique has gotten, or a complaint like “if only [insert latest pop star icon here] had better technique, they wouldn’t have had to cancel their tour.” New performers are encouraged to build it, experienced ones are warned not to lose it, and artistic work is even rated because of it (“their such an incredible performer with AMAZING technique” or “He wouldn’t be flat all the time if only he improved his technique” etc..)
So what is technique, exactly? If your experiences have been similar to mine, you’ve probably never had anyone give you an actual working definition of it (which is kind of ridiculous considering how much the word is tossed around). Don’t you think it’s a little absurd to work so hard towards something and not even be able to clearly articulate what that thing it is?
tech·nique: a way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.
That is, literally, Webster’s definition. So concise, right? Technique is just the way you do something. This applies to athletes, scientists, musicians, actors, etc.. My opinion is that we can take this one step further. What you do, when you aren’t thinking, is your technique. Not what you wish you did. Not what you would like to do. What you do, now, by force of habit. The other thing might be ‘technique in training”, so to speak, but your real technique is just the normal thing that happens the majority of the time.
So, the question is, are you completely satisfied with your current abilities as a performer or speaker? If the answer is yes, there is zero reason to read further, or ever worry about this topic ever again (or talk to another human, you narcissist). Of course, I’m speaking in hyperbole. None of us are so gifted that we couldn’t improve in some way, and if you think otherwise, well, good luck! A question we should all be asking ourselves is what exactly do we want to learn? What is our end goal? Are we seeking out colleagues, mentors, and environments to work towards those results? Do we even have a clear picture of what we want? If you don’t actually know what kind of performer or communicator you’d like to be, it’s going to be hard to feel like you’re making any progress.
Once you have an idea what you’re working towards, the next step is figuring out what steps to take to actually improve. Learning any skill involves three things: your body, your mind, and the connection between them. Your mind starts with an impulse, or thought, which is translated (hopefully accurately, but not always) to a body part, and then muscles are activated to perform an action. Science has shown that muscles themselves can be embedded with patterns, so once you practice something enough times you’ll do it without the brain even needing to trigger it. (you can see this in people’s posture, which is completely a habitual neuromuscular response). So, first you have to know what you’re working towards. Then you can give your mind a new thought, which will illicit a different reaction in some part of your body, which will hopefully be a little closer to your ideal. Or sometimes your body can be prompted to discover the new thing and in turn relay that to your mind as a new or altered sensation which you could replicate in the future. That would be working the system in reverse.
Notice, I haven’t labeled anything as “good” or “bad”, yet. But, if you practice enough to make a difference (which, honestly, is any amount of practice; also, we use our voices ALL THE TIME), you will turn whatever you’re practicing into your technique. Know what builds neural pathways? Repetition. This is why practicing anything is one of the most dangerous things you can do! But it’s also how you change (as far as I can tell, its the ONLY way to change). So, now you understand why I am skeptical (and you should be too) of anyone I'm going to let influence me.
Ask a potential teacher to give you a clear idea of what they are working towards with their students. See if you hold similar artistic values. For example, my goals with any singer or professional speaker can be summed up in one sentence:
“I want to cultivate sound that communicates to an audience in an efficient, honest, dynamic, and meaningful way, while working within the structure of a given style and staying aware of the commercial implications of said choices.”
If that resonates with you, at least you know we have similar end products in mind (it doesn’t mean that my ideas and how I communicate them are any good, however). It’s a nice first step, though. Another helpful thing to do is to get as in touch with your own body's sensations as much as you can. Usually you can trust your instincts (not always, but usually). If someone is presenting you with an idea that is contrary to what you previously thought, take some time to examine it. Feel it out. Try it out in an active way, don’t just think about it. With experiential skills like singing or speaking you typically will know when something feels good and when it doesn’t.
And just remember, you are always learning something, so ask yourself, are you learning what you actually want to learn?