Skill acquisition – a breakdown of Verdolini’s paper on how singers learn

Here’s a training video and transcript on skill acquisition I recorded for our Singing Teacher Accreditation Programme Cohort21. It’s an explanation, deep dive and commentary on the article Principles of Skill Acquisition Applied to Vocal Training by Katherine Verdolini (pdf at the end). So I’m starting with a precis of everything that she was saying, and I’ve put it under the category headings, but I also added some thoughts of my own.

Knowing THAT versus knowing HOW

So when she says theoretical background, knowing THAT and knowing HOW are two different things. So I know that bending my knees is essentially good for a skiing technique, but until I experience my own knees bending under my body weight and what that requires my own muscles and my mind to do, both in the short and the long term, if I don’t actually experience it, it will just remain knowing THAT.

I actually don’t know HOW, and I’ve not experienced it. So the bulk of the paper that Verdolini writes, rests on the definition of implicit memory or procedural memory. Um, now there’s something that is quite important. The research that she cites, to build around this paper was done on verbal cues or hand-eye coordination and it wasn’t done on voice.

So she’s making some assumptions that are going to cross refer. Um, she knows that, we know that, so we’ll go with it. I do want to say right at this beginning, none of this, none of the Verdolini paper contradicts what we teach, um, or what we understand or what we work with. There is one small tweak that I would add, which is sort of implicit, but, um, I’m going to say it out loud anyway, and that comes later.

Implicit Memory

So she starts with implicit memory is memory without awareness. Now this can actually be quite scary because one of the questions that came up was, well, what are we supposed to be teaching? But go with this, cause implicit memory is quite important. You do things automatically. And I’m wondering if it’s the old muscle memory thing that we use, we talk about which people are not saying doesn’t exist. But this is really interesting because there is an implication that implicit memory might be this. You want your memory to be unconscious when you’re performing or teaching, but particularly performing so that you can get on and do the job without having to think about a whole load of things.

Uh, so basically you can focus on the mood or the vibe or the story. Implicit memory includes learning skills and using already learned skills automatically. That’s called priming. Conscious awareness is not needed and it’s not wanted because it’ll get in the way. So Graf’s research that she cites says you are statistically more likely to use the words you’ve previously studied, even if you don’t remember studying them. Essentially, you go with what you already know. Even if that’s unconscious, you go… it’s almost like you recognize the words that you’ve studied, even if you don’t notice that you recognize them.

Perceptual Process

Okay. Next section. Implicit memory appears fundamentally governed by perceptual processes.

This is important. Implicit memory is gained by your senses, not by your intellect. You need to experience it. You need to experience it via your perceptions, your senses, it doesn’t understand. It doesn’t involve understanding or context. Essentially, this is sort of where repetition by rote comes in. It’s where you repeat things over and over again, until it sinks in.

There’s a really interesting school of thought that says you should be doing that consciously, but there’s a sort of gray area around this. You do something consciously, but it may not be consciously focusing on the repetition. I’ll get into that later. It’s basically, you need to experience it rather than be told about it. And remember teaching isn’t telling.

So in the research that she talks about here, the subjects had a better chance of remembering words if they found an emotional connection. That is than if they examined just the lettering or if they looked how it wrote, they created an emotional connection with it. BUT. It made no difference to the implicit memory test.

So, although they felt better about it, they had a better chance of remembering consciously if they had an emotional connection, it made no difference. What made the difference was rote. It was repetition.

Wrong instructions?

She then says implicit memory requires attentional processing. Okay. I love this bit. Her study revealed that if left to their own devices, people would achieve good marks in the task, just using implicit memory. So this is the unconscious stuff.

Then when they were given instructions to follow, use the imagery of a locomotive wheel or stirring a bowl, or told to concentrate and pay attention, they did worse. It got in the way. The instructions actively interfered with implicit memory. This is important for teachers. Now I’m going to suggest that the instructions were irrelevant to the task or too non-specific to be of any value.

This is why we want to be precise in the diagnosis of what we’re listening to and focused in our instructions. And also don’t give as many. And I wrote something down, which I thought was interesting; when instructions of any type were imposed subjects, paid attention to the instructions and not to the perceptual array asserted associated with the task.

Thus priming -implicit memory- fails to develop. They’re too focused on the instruction and not what they’re going through. Absolutely. This underlines what we teach on the Accreditation Programme. Focusing on the instruction removes your ability to experience the moment and focusing on more than one instruction… remember to stand straight, breathe deeply, have a loose jaw, soften your eye focus, make sure you’re planted on both feet and sing from your little Mary… means that you have no chance of experiencing anything. You need to experience. You need people to experience what they’re doing. So S T F U. And this doesn’t contradict what we’re doing.

One small tweak I would suggest

Although this is where the small tweak happens. We’re careful to do two things and you’ve seen us do this. Give people a simple, single instruction they can follow and let them do it once to try out the instruction. Then repeat it several times without comment. That was great. Can you do that again? Can you do that again? Let’s do that again to see if we can embed it.

The second point allows them to experiment with the instruction in their own body, in their own time. And after a couple of versions, they get to experience it themselves, their own version of it. Often when we ask for feedback, then, they share something in their own personal take. It’s their personal wording. This means they’ve taken it in from their own perspective. And sometimes people really surprise us with, with the sort of wording that they use.

One sequence of learning

So you can put it like this, give someone instruction to do something. They will one blindly follow the instruction. 2. Check the… Second time, check the instruction is being.

Third time, get curious and go inside to start checking it out themselves. And fourth time start to embed in a personal way. That’s why we say you need to do this at least three times, because it’s only really on the third time that people start to go inside and find out what’s going on.

There’s something that I want to say here. You could see your instruction, the first one, as a simple jumping off point for the singer to explore. The more targeted the better, obviously, but it’s still a jumping off point and the goal is personal awareness of what people are doing. So this is an interesting shift in what your instruction is supposed to be doing.

Is it supposed to be leading them directly to the way to do it properly, end of story! Or is it here’s an instruction, here’s the direction that I’m going to give you, do it, take that direction, see what happens. You as the teacher are still listening consciously and being aware consciously of what that person is doing, but that person’s job is basically to find out what happens when they follow it.

And you have to give them time to understand that, to go inside, to find out, to measure, you have to give them time and at least three repeats at least. Hope that makes sense. Um, so for what it’s. I usually ask what happened and the singer will give me feedback. The feedback is sometimes completely unexpected.

Now I twitched my left bicep and that made all the difference. This, okay. That may not be what we’re aiming at. So I asked them to repeat whatever they just did several times with and without the bicep twitch. We need to check out whether their feedback is accurate or whether they’ve latched onto the wrong thing.

Input versus Outcome (VERY important!)

It’s the difference between acknowledging a related involuntary movement, the bicep Twitch, then going deeper to find out whether it was accurate or not, or acknowledging the related involuntary movement, and hanging your entire technique on it. It’s like, oh, well they, you know, I Twitch my bicep when I do that same.

So therefore, um, that’s what happens in you Twitch your bicep and you’ll make that sound. This is for me, the big difference between input and outcome. If one of the outcomes is I Twitch my bicep when I make that sound, you need to find out whether that’s a real input moment or it’s just something that happens.

Okay. That was long. Um, then she goes onto implicit memory depends on repetition. And I’m going YES! As long as the repetition involves personal perception and sensory input. You don’t need to understand it. You just need to do it.

Learning in and out of context

Um, then she says, implicit memory is modality and context specific, and this is really fascinating. You can learn something in context. So you’re learning it in the lesson or you’re learning it in the zoom session. Then when you have to do it outside of that context, you can’t rely on your implicit memory. So we’ve taken a step backwards now, which is implicit memory is all about repetition and you don’t have to concentrate on it, but that implicit memory will only really be fixed in the context you’re doing it right now.

This is a great reason to work on a technique or an instruction in different circumstances. You’re more likely to be able to embed the technique and then do it in different songs or different contexts. And environment’s crucial. Uh, personally, it’s why I rehearse in the venue. And I think it’s so important because if I’m going to do a concert or I’m doing a recording, I want to go there first and explore how different it feels to do this new thing, this technique, in an environment I’ve not been in before. And again, you’re much more likely to embed it permanently and embed it across a range of things. Really important bit.

Knowledge of results

Okay. And we’re about two thirds of the way through. Skill acquisition requires information about performance during training. Now this is, she calls this knowledge of results, and this is basically how much feedback do you give to your student and when. Knowledge of results, KR or feedback in our terms, is essential for learning but it depends on your goals as a teacher. Now, she makes it really clear that there are two things going on here. One is immediate improvement, and that is the day before a concert. The day before an audition, the day before an exam, the day of an exam. You need something to happen really quickly. It’s unlikely that that is going to embed longterm. This is short term.

So you might want to give quite a lot of constructive feedback right then. Because they’re going to be able to remember it and take it in, short term. If you want people to learn and discover and improve over time, give them less feedback. This is really fascinating. The gaps in the feedback, so you give them feedback once, then they get to try it three or four times, and you don’t say anything. The gaps in the feedback allows them to go inside and process. And then they end up relying on themselves and not looking to you all the time to make sure they’ve done it right. It’s another example of STFU talk less in lessons. By the way, STFU does not stand for talk less than lessons. You know, what it stands for.

Be consistent!

Now, there’s a very interesting one and I really had to think about. To be able to perform acquired skills along with other tasks, consistent responding is required during training. There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence. I really had to work on this one. If you want your clients to use a new vocal technique while they’re dancing or acting or juggling or unicycling, you need to be consistent in your teaching, your targeting and your feedback while they’re learning the vocal technique.

To me, this is another example of stick to the point. Don’t give unnecessary instructions or gets distracted by secondary problems, “ooh, remember your breathing!” No, not the point. The point is that you need to be consistent and targeted. Give your client the same task, but in different contexts. Sing the same thing, do the same technique in a different phrase or a different song or a different style or different key or a different speed or standing still, or moving around or jumping up and down. Same task, different context helps embed it long-term.

Applications to voice and voice training

Then she gets onto a long section. We’re nearly at the end, long section on applications to voice and voice training.

Right. I’ve summarized them.

One. You don’t need to share everything you know with the student, it’s counterproductive, amen.

Two, stop telling and show them, then let them experience it for themselves, multiple times. And be aware of unrelated, metaphorical images. They could be more detrimental than you realize.

So really interesting one don’t give them lots and lots of images. Just let them experience it for themselves. And if they come up with an image, note it. Check it out.

Three beware of multiple instructions even if they’re in brackets like this one and over explanation. Anything like that will take away from their sensory experience.

Four. Stop practicing, stop using the word practice. Just do it, several times. And in different contexts and environments, it’s a really interesting one. Stop practicing, just do it.

Five, give feedback, occasionally. Give them space to experience it more than once before you give them the next bit of feedback.

Six, be consistent in your teaching goals when they’re learning a new technique and

Seven, Get them to apply that technique in different circumstances. Generalize the technique once it’s learned, it helps to embed it solidly for different unknown, unexpected tasks. You get a singer who’s more flexible and resilient in different circumstances.

My summary

So here’s my summary. No matter how you teach and what information or techniques you share, get them to repeat the exercise several times without any interference from you.


Set them up in the first place with an instruction. And you may, you may need to tweak the instruction the first time, but once that instruction is there and they’re doing whatever it is that you want them to do, even approximately, let them do it three or four times and do not say a word, not even good, good, good, yes.

No, that’s still feedback and it’s still distracting. Your goal is to set them up with a targeted situation, stand back, and provide a safe space for them to experience and experiment themselves. Repetition will embed it all by itself. If you absolutely must correct, well, first of all, wait, but secondly, correct only the technique that you’ve suggested. If you’re talking about tongue position, don’t start correcting breathing, just do tongue position. Only when the technique has been experienced and embedded can you then build on it by adding a new instruction. And remember, because it’s a new instruction, you have to start the whole process again. Give the new instruction, make sure it’s okay, stand back. Let them experience.

Okay, please note, there are a few of you I am speaking to here, each time you give a correction that involves a new instruction, it’s not a correction. It’s a brand new instruction. It’ll pull the singer off the self-focus. If you feel tempted to correct, “remember to breathe, stand upright!” Whatever. Lie down until the feeling wears off.

And I’m going to say this specifically to the people who are working in colleges who are on deadlines, it might feel like it takes much longer to achieve since you’re allowing them to repeat without further instruction. This is a really interesting one. The long-term benefits are much better. Even if the short-term benefits seem like they suffer.

Now, this is a choice for you. If you feel that you must get this student to this point on this date, check your motivation. Because ultimately you are not responsible for people taking on information. All you can do is present it to them and allow them to find it themselves. You cannot cram it for them. You can’t push it down their throats and go, now you’ve learned it.

So if they get to their exam and they don’t do terribly well, that may not be your problem. So you have to look at, and it’s a choice. Do you do short-term work in order that they pass an exam or they get a technique for the class next week? Or are you looking at a much longer term teaching possibility where what you’re embedding goes past their college life and out into the real world?

And genuinely, this is a, it’s a choice. It’s a choice that you make every day. There isn’t a one or the other, one is right, one is wrong. It’s all context. Um, yeah, that’s it. So there’s my summary. Uh, this has been quite a long video, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it. And, uh, hopefully it’s answered some of the questions that have come up from this paper and, and how it is or isn’t supporting the work that we’re doing.

Uh, questions below!


To read the original paper by Verdolini click here: verdolini-principles.of.skill.acquisition

To find out more about our Singing Teacher Accreditation Programme, go to our YouTube channel and watch Cohort21 talk about their experience of working with us

To book a 1-1 coaching session with Jeremy click here 

To discover more about Gillyanne and Jeremy’s work go to the Vocal Process Learning Lounge, with over 600 videos, downloads and resources on voice training in different genres