mark and molly johnson

vocal performing artists voice teachers

Limitations – Bad

Limitations – Bad

In his career, Clint Eastwood created many memorable characters. Perhaps none stands out more than Detective Harry Callahan, aka ‘Dirty’ Harry.

Harry’s basically a good guy, but occasionally bends the line as a cop; he just wants to make sure those who deserve justice get it, while at the same time making sure the bad guys get what they deserve.

We like Harry, but he can get himself into some pretty tight places.

One of those is at the end of the movie Magnum Force (1973). After an epic battle between cops and organized crime goons, Harry and the crooked DA crime boss are the only two left standing. See the clip here.

The DA’s got the drop on Harry — he could blow him away and no one would ever know – but he doesn’t. Instead, he says: “I’m gonna prosecute you, Callahan; it’ll be my word against yours.”

But this time, the DA’s gone too far.

Now, what Harry may lack in good manners he more than makes up for with “street smarts.” The DA doesn’t see Harry pick up, then toss back in the car a small explosive device (oops). As the DA drives away, the car explodes.

With just a hint of a wry smile, Harry says: “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

Like that crooked DA, who thought he had it all figured out, we sometimes think we know more than we really do about singing (myself included!?!). We think we know certain things about singing, then, suddenly, new information or different experiences come rushing in and … well, everything just kind of explodes.

How can we avoid that?

It can be helpful to know where those “tight places” may be for us as singers  – the places we get ourselves into (vocally and mentally) – where there’s potential for limiting ourselves:

  • Inner Narrative – what we say to ourselves about ourselves can have a great positive impact on our training and performing when we make the mindful effort to avoid negative thinking;
  • Prior Learning – maybe something we learned about singing a long time ago sounded pretty good at the time, but now we realize that doing that could cause vocal problems. Once we know, those things are best avoided;
  • Previous Experience – like a pilot who’s flown in bad weather too often and always thought “Well, I made it!”, we sometimes fall back on bad singing habits thinking “Well, that’s kinda worked before!” But that thinking is also best avoided; just because the pilot didn’t crash flying in bad weather this time doesn’t mean it’s a smart thing to do;
  • Misinformation and Misunderstanding – the often (mis)quoted “Sing from the diaphragm!” is probably the most well-known misinformation about singing, but there’s plenty more where that came from! Knowing terms, understanding the meaning of the terms and how to use the knowledge when performing is of utmost importance in vocal training.

I’m forever thankful for the training I received from my mentor, Dr. Steve Austin, who was a Vocologist (combination of a scientist and voice teacher). He instilled in me the importance of providing two things to all my clients:

  1. The correct information and vocal training they need to become amazing singers; and
  2. The mental conditioning to thoughtfully execute that knowledge and training.

Like separate ingredients in a wonderful recipe, the blend of these two things is what makes excellent performers!

Bottom Line: being mindfully aware of the places where we could potentially limit ourselves, while getting and using correct knowledge and information to avoid those places, is absolutely the best kind of “street smarts” I can think of for performing.


Limitations – Good

The word flibbertigibbet is used in the iconic 1965 film Sound of Music  to describe the young postulate, Maria (see the clip here.) Although they admitted that she made them laugh, in other ways it just wasn’t working for them. We all know the story from there: Maria did indeed leave the convent and became Maria von Trapp. The rest, quite literally, was history.
Many years later, after the Von Trapps had immigrated to the US, Maria travelled from the family farm in Pennsylvania into New York City where sold the rights to her story to Rodgers and Hammerstein for $1,000. The rest (again) became history: first the Broadway musical and then the movie become history-making productions in their own way.
But back to our story, and it’s this: the older nuns of the convent thought Maria’s silly, scatterbrained, offbeat behavior was not how a nun should behave. Her way of approaching life just didn’t fit within the Convent’s proper ‘limitations.’
In vocal training though –and especially when singing—it’s good to know ones’ limitations.
  • Limitations keep us mindful and help us avoid hurting ourselves vocally by over singing;
  • Limitations help us find songs that best fit our voices and display our voice’s unique beauty and power while helping us avoid those not best suited for us;
  • Limitations steer us towards good singing habits, cultivating the good in our voices;
  • Knowing our limitations can, over time, help us develop an almost instinctive approach to how we sing that results in dramatic and powerful performances; and lastly
  • Limitations on what the voice can do are part of “playing” an instrument that is both delicate and durable and must be handled intentionally in a different way than any other instrument.
How do we find, learn and know our limitations as vocalists?
We go through active vocal training with a vocal trainer (me).
Then we perform – putting our work on the stage, into the studio, or a combination of both. You use the elements of your vocal technique that you’ve achieved, following the vision you have for  yourself as a performing artist.
My final point here is that your training –both on your own and in our sessions— must be regular, regimented and vigorous.
In this way you learn your limitations – then the muscles of the body and the mental conditioning of the brain blend powerfully together into a real, solid vocal technique that works, each time you do.
It is always my great joy to see and hear you work each week as you pursue your passion for singing, and I always look forward to it.
And I have one final question for the Mother Superior: how do you hold a moonbeam in your hand, anyway?


Slow, Patient, Gradually

The story of how Michelangelo created the magnificent sculpture, David, has always been inspirational to me, and not a few of you have heard me tell my version of the story.

After having been rejected by three previous artists due to a significant flaw in the stone (a large crack running down one side) Michelangelo insisted that this flawed, 40-ton block of marble be hauled from the quarry to his studio. It took one week, and the combined efforts of approximately 100 men and horses to do the job.

When questioned about why he wanted this particular block of marble he is said to have replied simply: Non siamo tutti imperfetti? (Are not we all flawed?).

He then began the daily toil (Regimen?) in his Studio. He labored first to remove the larger pieces of stone that were more obvious. Then, he began working to a finer and finer level of detail.

As artists often do, the Maestro worked with size and perspective. It was one of the largest free-standing sculptures ever created, standing some 18 feet tall – about 3 times the height of the tallest man at the time; some say, this was his acknowledgement to the Trinity.

The head, hands and feet were all larger in proportion to signify the dominant philosophy at the time, Humanism. The larger head, hands and feet corresponded to human Intellect, Industry, Exploration, respectively.

 Once the larger work was done, his support staff reported that, near the completion, the Maestro would sometimes sit for hours at a time, staring at the emerging statue. Then, he would suddenly stand, walk across the room, take up his hammer and chisel and – ‘chink’ – a tiny sliver of stone would fall to the floor.

This process went on for months at a time, until finally, after three years (3 years!?!) the work was complete.

When finally unveiled, public response was overwhelming – the Italian public, quite accomustomed to Fine Art – had nevertheless never seen anything quite like the scope and scale of this magnificent work.

The Maestro was asked “How, sir, how did you do this?”

He is said to have answered: “It was easy. I simply chipped away everything that was not a masterpiece.”

Easy?” we think. Perhaps for someone of his ability…yes.

But for all of us? Right: Not hardly.

Yet he does have a point, and it’s this:

Each time you set up your Vocal Training equipment and go through a practice training session on your own, or to prepare for our weekly sessions, or when we work one-on-one in a Zoom or in-person Vocal Training Session, we are esentially doing that same work.

Slowly, Patiently, Gradually – we learn to identify, relase and replace all the tiny vocal and cognitive ‘chinks’ that don’t need to be there: those small, almost unnoticiable physical habits that hold us back, or the swirls and eddys of our inner thoughts that would draw us away from mindful best practice.

Vocal Training – Mental Conditioning. Every little ‘chink’ and detail matters – inside and out.

And the masterpiece that is finally revealed? Well, my friends, that’s you.

Your God-given talent and intellect, as well as your passion for learning to sing and sharing that gift with others – that’s what makes you the Masterpiece.

My job, like Michaelangelo’s, is simpy to help you remove the chinks so the incredible work of art that’s you and your voice can emerge.


Reach For It!

Reach for the moon. Even if  you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

                                       Norman Vincent Peale

 Of all the silly myths perpetrated by Hollywood about The West, there is perhaps none more iconic than the two people standing, hands poised, squinting in the late-morning sun. Then, as the clock in the town square strikes “High Noon” one of them calls out: “Reach For It!”

Hollywood silliness aside (and it is just that), whether or not you realize it, each time you knock or ring the doorbell on my Home or University Studio or hear the little “ding-dong” as you log into your Zoom session, that’s exactly what you do: you reach for it.

The above quote is one of my favorites and is often used a motivational saying that encourages individuals to set ambitious goals and pursue their dreams despite the difficulty of the journey and the uncertainty of eventual results.

In our world, the world of Vocal Training, here’s what it means for us:

Aim high: The phrase encourages us to set our sights on learning to sing through the hard work and discipline of high-level vocal training. It emphasizes the importance of aiming for something significant and transformative in life. Learning to sing certainly is this, so that we might grow as artists, but also learn to move others through the expression of our art.

Embrace failure as progress: Even if you don’t achieve your ultimate goal, or if it takes much longer than you think it “should” (avoiding the “should” will be a future topic) the saying suggests that you will still be in a better position than where you started. It highlights the idea that pursuing ambitious life-long goals –like learning to sing – can lead to other great achievements and personal growth.

Have a positive mindset: The saying promotes a positive mindset by focusing on the potential for success and the opportunities that come with aiming high. It challenges the fear of failure and encourages individuals to take calculated risks for the possibility of extraordinary achievements.

Perseverance and resilience: The saying implies that missing the moon doesn’t mean giving up. It suggests that setbacks should be seen as opportunities to learn, grow, and continue striving for success. It emphasizes the importance of resilience and the ability to bounce back from the failures that always happen when training at this level.

Full Disclosure: for those of you who’ve been at this for a while, the idea that Vocal Training is hard is nothing new to you.

But for those of you newer to the process, know this: yes — training at this level is hard. But it also holds the potential for incredible personal and artistic growth.

And the prospects for your eventual success and what you can accomplish as a vocal artist are quite literally boundless.

Keep Reaching.


Train Hard, Sing Easy

I have a friend who used to own a WW-II era “Warbird” – a T-6 ‘Texan’ – that he loved to fly all over the nation to different airshows.

It was quite a challenge to keep up the maintenance on the old bird, and flying was also difficult and took longer due to the age and condition of many of the instruments inside the plane.

One time, a friend asked him why he kept the old plane around. As a successful businessman who could afford anything he wanted, why not get something newer and faster?

“Well,” said my friend Tom, “modern life takes a lot away from us  – our cars, computers, how we get information – everything is so easy, we forget that any success in life really does take work.”

Then he said: “I don’t want new and nice and easy.”

Fair enough, I thought.

Which brings me to singing – why does it all matter anyway? The effort and the time and money?

I think it’s this: we may not all be old music or old car aficionados or aviation history buffs, but we are human.

There’s just something life giving about connecting to a simpler, not necessarily easier, way of being human. Camping or hiking – being away from the modern world feels like this to me.

And whether we realize it or not, our vocal training  does that for us as well, because there literally is no app for it. Instead, it’s artists working in real time, to follow a passion or calling to be better artists – and better people.

And that’s why the hard work of real, solid vocal training is worth the effort and the time and the money.

Train Hard, Sing Easy.


Thoughts on Vocal Training By M&M

How To Allow

Perhaps you’ve heard the old story about the elderly gentleman who was at the altar during a Pentecostal revival?

On either side of him stood stalwart members of the church praying for him to “get religion.” One shouted: “Hold Ooooon, Brother…Hold Ooooon!” Another shouted: “Let Gooooo, Brother, Just Let Goooooo.”

Praying through to salvation was, for this gentleman, like learning to sing: at times, a study in contradictions.

But there’s also a great truth here.

All the world’s major religions include as part of their faith expression the idea of the release of the self … letting go, in other words. Budda, Mohammad, and the Hindu faith all address this concept in their culturally unique way. The major example in the Christian faith is Jesus himself who, even though he was God, humbled himself to be born as a human man and at the end of his life, was willing to be crucified to save humankind.

Of course, for Christians, that’s not the end of the story, but only the beginning. Christ’s resurrection and ascension to the Father followed, and, for Christian believers, the story continues today.

To bring this idea into our world of vocal training, for us as vocal artists, developing the ability to allow singing to happen is one of the most important aspects of singing and is also only the beginning of our vocal artistry.

As most of you have heard me say many times: release, relax, allow.

But how do we allow?

In the context of vocal training, it’s about the singer’s willing release of the intellect, and allowing the ear, brain, and vocal cords, as well as the human respiratory system, to function as the automatic systems that they are — without our willfull input.

Once mastered, this is a powerful and compelling gateway to effective vocal training and elite vocal artistry.

So whether it’s “overthinking it” or “manipulation” or the ever-present “EMG” (extra-muscular gesture), our weekly vocal training sessions do two things for you:

1) Condition the mind towards the awareness of these elements; and

2) Develop your willingness to release them and allow the automatic systems to follow their own best practices.

Simple? Yes. Easy? No.

But then, that’s why we train, yes?