Acquired Instinct

If you want to succeed as an opera singer, it’s vital that you have a good relationship with your singing teacher. In that regard, I was very lucky indeed.

Jeffrey Neilson Taylor was more than just a teacher to me – he was a mentor, and, in many ways, a surrogate father. He would have been 84 years old last Saturday, had cancer not finally taken him in December of 2010.

For nearly two decades, Jeff patiently guided, nurtured, and moulded my approach to singing, so much so that his voice remains a part of my singing consciousness to this day, sometimes encouraging, sometimes reproaching, but always with that unique blend of charm, humour, and blunt Yorkshire pragmatism that I came to love so much.

I studied with Jeff for twenty years – I’ll save the tale of how we met for another blog – and in all that time, there were no “Eureka!” moments, great revelations, or massive leaps forward, just regular, relentless hard work that led to slow, steady vocal improvement.

Looking back to my very first lesson, it’s easy to assess the technical issues facing that naive, inexperienced teenager. In later years Jeff would joke that my one great strength as a beginner was that I had none. I was a clean slate, so young and fresh to singing that I had not had time to develop any bad habits that needed unpicking.

“However,” he would take great pleasure in reminding me, his eyes creasing up with gentle, mischievous mirth, “that doesn’t mean you were a natural. Far from it.”

Most of the early vocal issues facing me were to do with breathing. As a then violinist of 12 years, I had a fair idea of how to shape a phrase musically, but absolutely no idea of how to control my breath. “Breathing with the music”, as my old violin teacher used to call it, is a far cry from literally making music with your breath.

The main issue affecting me was that my breathing was shallow. When I observed myself in the mirror taking a breath, I could see my upper chest inflating, and my shoulders rising, but the bottom of my torso, the tummy and abdominal area, didn’t move at all.

It’s probably not surprising that Jeff, a former professional footballer prior to his singing career, frequently used sport to illustrate and illuminate his teaching. Over the years it would provide many analogies that would help me to get my head around vocal technique.

He told me to go swimming. “Your problem is that you’re trying to tell your body how to breathe deeply, but your body already knows how. You’re just getting in your own way and tying yourself in knots.”

He suggested that I try ducking down under the water, blowing all the breath out of my body, and waiting as long as I could bear it before coming up for air. “When you’re starved for air,” he said, “your body automatically opens up to take in as much as it can. Try and memorise that feeling. That’s the space we’re looking for when you sing.”

When I went to the pool, I saw what he was getting at, but it took many, many months of vocal exercise and practice to apply that lesson to my singing. Even to this day, if I’m not careful, I can find my breathing starting to become shallow, and I have to actively resist it.

I also had another problem with stopping my breath. I would hold it briefly between breathing in and breathing out. Golf provided the analogy this time. “You’d never stop the club at the top of your backswing, would you? You just change the direction of the swing smoothly. It’s the same with breathing. Change direction smoothly.”

Ah, it all sounds so simple, but that little nugget of wisdom took nearly two years to be fully assimilated. Whenever I would get nervous (which was quite a lot, as regular readers of this blog will know), I would find myself slipping back into the bad habit of holding my breath.

And this is the point I really want to make here – change takes time. There is no such thing as a quick fix.

In the past few years, younger singers have started approaching me for advice, often asking if I would agree to coach them. Something that I have found with a great many of these singers is that they are seeking that elusive quick fix. They’ve started enjoying a modicum of success, and, now that they are regularly working at a professional level, they are starting to panic when they run into problems. They sorely need that quick fix in order to keep working.

I see their fear and desperation, and, as someone who’s been at this game for a few years now, I recognise it all too well, and both empathise and sympathise with their dilemma. They’ll come into a session with their particular vocal issue clear in their mind and hope that, in the space of an hour, you’ll be able to fix it for them.

But you can’t. Of course you can’t. Singing technique, at its most basic level, is a series of learned habits. Identifying the problem is only the start of a long, involved process that will enable you, with time and hard work, to let go of the bad habit and totally embrace a new one.

To boil it down into two words, singing technique is simply this – acquired instinct.

That might sound somewhat oxymoronic, but it’s entirely in keeping with the often counter-intuitive nature of singing. As a singer you don’t practice until your brain grasps the concept, rather you practice until your body instinctively carries it out. Or, as I am fond of saying, don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong.

Most of the time, it’s pretty easy for a teacher to identify a problem, and to point it out to a singer. But that doesn’t fix the problem. It’s the hours, weeks, months, and years of hard work that follow which do that. And that’s where a great teacher comes into their own. Endless patience, encouragement, discipline, focus, and unwavering support are those values that set them apart.

A great teacher will be with you every step of the way, as Jeff was with me.


  1. I was a close friend of Jeff for many years, and we kept in touch after I emigrated to Australia. Your blog explains why his correspondence ceased about five years ago. He had such a practical approach to singing, and so many singers benefited from his no-nonsense approach. I’m an accompanist and coach, and much of what he said at first confused me, but then – it all made sense! It’s so true that young singers are all looking for the ‘quick fix’ – it just doesn’t exist. His birthday would have been last week – Sept 20th. I think of him often – especially on his birthday.

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