In: 2012 June

Comments Off on Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” While her motive in asking the question was suspect, Snow White’s wicked queen might actually have been onto something. She was quite faithful in asking her mirror, every day, if it liked what it saw. And the mirror couldn’t lie. I believe that if singers looked, with such regularity, into a magic mirror that was bound to tell us the truth about what we actually look like when we sing, many of us would come face to face (literally) with some very valuable information. But since magic mirrors are hard to find these days, most of us can make do with a regular one.

The idea of singing in front of a mirror, at least occasionally, is as old as the history of voice teaching itself. One of the most famous early treatises on solo singing, Observations on the Florid Song, by Pier Francesco Tosi, written in 1723, contains this sage advice:

When he studies his Lesson at Home, let him sometimes sing before a Looking-glass, not to be enamoured (sic) with his own Person, but to avoid those convulsive Motions of the Body, or of the Face (for so I call the Grimaces of an affected Singer) which, when once they have took Footing, never leave him (Tosi 1923, p. 89).

 Our modern pedagogues still offer the same counsel:

Performers who…refuse to watch themselves in mirrors need to be reminded that everyone else sees what that performer looks like. They must give up considering singing a thing to be privately enjoyed. (Richard Miller, Solutions for Singers)

“Yes, of course!” I hear you agreeing. “I know singers should practice with a mirror sometimes. In fact, my teacher has a huge mirror in her studio.” The real question is, how do you use it? (Or, even, do you use it?) In my experience, while mirrors abound in voice studios and practice rooms, singers often avoid them or find it deeply challenging to look into them. Once, I even had a singer tell me it would ensure that she had a “bad day” if she looked in the mirror while singing! Given this widespread mirror-resistance, why should we challenge our discomfort? And encourage our students to do the same? The answers are both incredibly simple, and surprisingly easy to overlook.

Clearly, one of the great challenges of teaching and learning singing is the fact that the vibrating source of our instrument is not externally visible. Luckily, many other important parts of our instrument are visible:  our postural alignment, motions of the abdominal muscles and ribcage, head and neck position, facial posture, embouchure/lips, tongue blade, and jaw. The position and movements of these visible elements can affect our laryngeal position, mode of vocal fold vibration, and the acoustical properties of the sound waves that are filtered by our vocal tract. As with most coordinated physical endeavors, visual feedback can help us learn to mentally guide our movements—assuming we have clear ideas about what to watch for (which, in some cases, is a big assumption.)

But just as important as watching for function—perhaps even more so—is expression. The face is an exquisite instrument of communication, but one which often gets far less scrutiny and training than the one that makes the sound. Have you learned how your face reacts to feelings of joy, anger, sadness, surprise? Have you gauged how these physical reactions may affect your vocal production? Do you have facial habit that might affect a viewer’s perception of your emotion while you sing? (For example, a furrowed brow can look like anger; a raised and wrinkled forehead can mimic surprise.) And when you feel that you are truly expressing your music, do your face and body reflect that internal engagement? To what degree? (For example, nuances of facial expression that would be quite effective up close or on camera, do not “read” in the same way across greater distances, e.g., from the stage to the back row of the house.) All these questions are quite difficult to answer without occasional use of a mirror.

Despite these powerful rationales for using a mirror in practice, why is it so common for us not to? I suspect that our resistance often stems from the greater mental challenge posed by staring some of our technical issues in the face (again, literally). But that very dissonance, as uncomfortable as it may be, can become a powerful feedback tool that leads us to quicker improvement.

However, a few caveats are in order. The mirror is not an effective feedback tool when:

  • The singer uses it as an instrument of destructive self-criticism, focusing only on the negatives, and failing to notice strengths and improvement
  • The singer is distracted by critical feelings about his or her appearance in general
  • The singer’s self-scrutiny actually contributes to physical tensions, or even leads to new ones
  • The singer over-uses the mirror, and fails to develop his or her kinesthetic sense, or “inner eye”

After all, this ability to internally guide the voice, using the sounds and sensations that have become associated with balanced coordination, is the end goal of all technical work. Unless we are singing Marguerite in Faust, there will probably not be mirrors on stage with us!

So here is today’s practice challenge. If you do not already use a mirror in your practice (or, more likely, if it’s been a while since you’ve done so), give it a try. Just for a few minutes! Use a compact mirror if necessary, or pick up an inexpensive small hand mirror from the drugstore. (These allow you, at least, to monitor your jaw, tongue, and embouchure.) Of course, a full-length mirror—which allows you to watch your whole body’s alignment—is even better, and can also be found inexpensively.

In front of the mirror, sing a few exercises. Sing a few phrases from your repertoire. What do you like about what you see? What would you adjust? Do you know what to look for? If not, discuss the question with your teacher and discover what ideas emerge.

Please share your questions, views, or successes regarding singing with the mirror. Happy practicing!

For an interesting perspective on mirrors from another artistic discipline, read “Reflections on the mirror: six teachers on when you should and shouldn’t look” which appeared in Dance Magazine, July 2007.