The Importance of Positive Reinforcement

Singers, the world is punctuated by vocalists who no longer perform because they were abused by a teacher and developed phobia or anxiety in response. These singers who no longer perform, many of them are gifted singers with years of investment in their voice. I personally know more than a few – all sensitive ppl, as good singers tend to be, but that makes them vulnerable to abusive instructors.

You cannot use “negative reinforcement” (punishment)* with singers, it causes them to sing worse. This is because if you stress the singer their body pulls in and the doesn’t functioning normally. Resonance is off. Breathing is compromised. The breathing issue makes the tension worse and the worse tension makes the breathing worse and there you are spiralling downward. Emotionally, too, the way to access soul in singers is to cultivate trust, not to be aggressive and criticising. If you do this to a singer you are either unskilled at teaching or else just a mean, abusive person.  Punishment is usually psychological as it’s experienced by voice students with abusive trainers. It can be any one of many things.*

I don’t usually pull out the braggy thing but I’m gonna call on my authority as someone who has trained nominees and winners of GRAMMYs, Chinese Music Awards, LA Music Awards, multi-platinum-selling artists, etc – and as someone who has gotten fearful singers back on their feet with singing. People will tell you their punishment-based teaching methods are the way to get results and people who quit the business because of them just didn’t make the cut, but I say they are wrong.  Absolutely, dead wrong.  And that they are damaging people who could be a GRAMMY winner, a Chinese Music Award winner, a multi-platinum artist, a skilled amateur singer who has a deep love of music that they share with their freinds and family.  The result of negative reinforcement, apart from making people sing worse, is the trail of human collateral damage quitting the business in its wake.  EVERYONE is entitled to sing – it is a human need.

Singers, if a teacher uses “negative reinforcement” on you – criticising and so forth – they are not awesome for being “tough”, they are not being exacting to bring out the best in you. This is not how the “pros” act so you should just accept it.  They are simply unprofessional and abusive — and abuse will cause you harm. If you value your career and your continued love of music, you’ll get out of there while the damage is minimal, as soon as you notice it. Protect yourself. “Negative reinforcement” is not an effective teaching technique and if you leave your sessions feeling worse than when you walked in, harm is being done to you. You are associating negative things with performing and creating neurological pathways that start to associate anxiety with performing. It’s pretty straight forward.

It is okay to say “yes that one you got!  Oh, that one?  Not as much.  Oh THAT one you nailed!  That one – yes, again!!” because it gives feedback and the singer can understand the successes and what is involved in getting there.  But even that must be used with care.

Even in animals, positive reinforcement (“reward” **), not “negative reinforcement” (punishment), is what trains police dogs, service dogs, film star dogs.  In animals, punishment trains fearful, defeated, non-curious dogs.  And so it is in humans.  We are not so different and there is a lot of research to back this up.  You can even train goldfish to do things using positive reinforcement – something you can never do with negative reinforcement – such is the power of this technology.

And if a teacher can’t say something constructive, they are no teacher. It is abuse. In which case stfu and get a dayjob.  As you can see, I’m totally neutral on this topic.  😀

If you’ve had “heavy-handed” instructors in the past, please let me know and we will work to build positive associations with singing and get you back up and running.  I want you to sing – and to enjoy it – and to realize your dreams.


* What lay people call “negative reinforcement” is called “punishment” by behavioural scientists.  It can be anything from berating you, saying you sound bad – especially without offering a way to remedy a vocal issue, mocking you in private or in front of others, singling you out as a bad example, etc.

** “Reward” is the term used by behavioural scientists for what lay people sometimes call “positive reinforcement”.  Reward can be anything from – with animals – food, praise, and toy access to (in adult people) praise, access to alcohol, etc.  Other things are sometimes used by teachers as reward depending upon what is meaningful to the student.