Vocal Pedagogy is NOT Voice Science

I’ve recently come to an interesting and personal conclusion. Voice Pedagogy is NOT Voice Science.

In many academic institutions throughout the United States, voice students can take classes in Vocal Pedagogy at the college level.  Most of these classes are formed upon an intensive study of laryngeal muscles, the throat, the torso, as well as an in-depth discussion of acoustics, resonance, and formant tuning.  But I believe that this particular approach is deeply, deeply flawed.

The aura and imprimatur of science is dangerously alluring and tends to give a sheen of respectability to these higher education courses. Science legitimizes its own study, precisely because it is so respectable, and because of this it is not questioned for study in Vocal Pedagogy classes. But, in my opinion science is the what; pedagogy is the how.

The definition of ‘pedagogy’ according to dictionary.com is as follows:

1. the function or work of a teacher; teaching.
2. the art or science of teaching; education; instructional methods.

For Vocal Pedagogy courses to be TRULY pedagogical in nature, their function should be established as a discovery and study of the great teachers, writings, and teaching methods of the past. This is because study should be upon the art and science of TEACHING voice.  Science to date has offered fascinating knowledge of what the voice is DOING, but has not offered us an operant principle upon which a system of voice training can be built.

HOWEVER, the writings of the Great Masters DO provide us with a treasure trove of information on how voices have been trained over centuries. This is valuable information for the emergent voice teacher, and CAN help the teacher formulate a method based on the work of centuries in singing studios all over the world.  No mathematician or scientist EVER made a contribution in their field without knowing the theories and work of those men and women that came before. For a college student to take Voice Pedagogy and NOT study the writings of Tosi, Mancini, Manfredini, Garcia, and Marchesi is a miscarriage of justice! You cannot formulate a technique of singing on charts and graphs of the human body alone.

My particular theory on why academia teaches SCIENCE instead of TRAINING HISTORY is because science is not as controversial to college voice faculty who may be publicly exposed for teaching untenable concepts in their lessons. I can imagine a student poring over bel canto texts and wondering why their teacher is talking about ‘putting it in the mask’, ‘spinning the tone’, or ‘inflating the tube’ when NONE of these classic voice training texts mention anything of the kind.  This type of pedagogy course could potentially put out of business many of those in academia who suffer from an “Emperor Has No Clothes” teaching methodology. Students might demand a higher level of instruction if they were to become aware of the vast body of teaching information that dates back to the 1600s.

As a corollary, I recently purchased a book on pedagogy for teaching piano. Chapters include such topics as “Developing a Teaching Philosophy”, “Systems and Principles of Learning”, “Goal Setting”, “Note-Reading Approaches”, “Teaching Children/Adults”, “Common Problems of Beginners”, and “First Year Goals”. THIS kind of pedagogy is what is SORELY lacking in many academic programs throughout the country.  Many of these questions can also be solved by reading the Old Masters and how they tackled many of these same issues.

Voice Science is a wonderful thing for teachers everywhere, but it shouldn’t be lumped into Voice Pedagogy courses as if it were somehow the foundation and crux of all voice training.  In my opinion, two classes should be offered: Voice Science, and Voice Pedagogy. The bifurcation of these two ideas would give them their proper setting and place them within a specific context for teaching purposes in higher education.

Historical teaching and pedagogy needs to take place of prominence in any course carrying the title of “Voice Pedagogy”.

6 thoughts on “Vocal Pedagogy is NOT Voice Science

  1. I completely agree! Last year I took a vocal pedagogy class at my university, and the first month mainly consisted of recreating the larynx out of Play-Doh (allegedly to aid in memorizing the structure of the larynx and vocal tract), reading esoteric articles on acoustics and resonance, and memorizing how many times per second the folds vibrate at various pitches. This is great information for a singer to know, however, following these topics of “preparation”, we were to give lessons to high school students preparing for Solo & Ensemble. Needless to say, most of us had no idea what to do, other than recreate the methods we’d observed our instructors use with us during lessons, and possibly describe what was anatomically happening in the breathy-voiced girl’s vocal tract – which wasn’t exactly an efficient skill set to help her improve. So I really appreciate you saying “science is the what; pedagogy is the how.” I’m about to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in music, and to reference another of your posts, much of my education consisted of learning an “aesthetic” as opposed to correct function and how to help others do the same. I’m strongly considering studying with a certification program first, such as IVA, instead of pursuing a master’s degree. Do you know of any master’s programs that give decent pedagogical training? Jeanie LoVetri through Shenandoah Conservatory perhaps?

  2. Dan,
    I think it is valuable that you are considering options other than university for your continuing education. As you and Justin stated so well, pedagogy is only good so far as it gives practical application to diagnosing and then training the voice. Anatomy does not inform the instructor as to how to best correct imbalance in the singing voice. I can vouch for IVA and its program. I am not an expert, but I don’t believe there is anything in a Master’s program at university in the US that will give you the tools that IVA does as a voice teacher. The training is exceptional. I understand that as far as employment in a university is concerned, the Master’s Degree is valuable. Jeanie LoVetri also seems to be a fantastic resource for continuing education. Justin can speak to that better than I can. I wish you well in your journey! Tina Meals

  3. I totally agree. There is a historic for the lack of organization of vocal methodology. Unlike many other forms of knowledge, vocal wisdom has always resisted institutionalization. Ancient transmission of knowledge was reserved for Sages, the famous white-bearded ancient stereo-type. Martial arts also resisted the modern systems of transmission and remained in the Feudal sphere, where Master and Apprentice are at the center of the activity. There are no intermediaries. If you want to learn, the only way is to find a Master and subject yourself to his discipline. Many times the knowledge stayed within the same family (Like many generations of the Bach family of musicians).

    Singing also resisted the scholastic system even if there were “schools” of a determined approach to training iike the Vocal School of Bologna. The place where most of the castrati were educated was the Conservatory. The Conservatorio was sponsored by the Catholic Church and housed many orphans (or children born out of wedlock of rich patrons who did not want to be associated with the product of an adulterous affair), or boys of poor parents. They were the vocal altarboys of the Catholic Church as they sang in the kids Choir. The regimen was strict. They learnt musical theory, ear training, dictation and had vocal instruction everyday. They were educated to become professional musicians. It worked like the Viennese boys choir except for the castration of the most promising voices. Horrible pactice, because not all castrati became vocal superstars.

    In any case historically the Conservatorio is the only Institute that succesfully transmitted the Wisdom of the voice to other generations. After conservatorio the Castrati became like Feudal Masters of their own Singing Guild, transmitting their craft to the next generation. Or they became employed by wealthy Patrons (like Farinelli). Many superstar castrati even adopted the name of their Teacher/Master and gave him part of their enormous salary. Some even used the Masters name in an artistic nickname (Cafarelli and Farinelli who’s real name was Broschi).
    I mention this to show that the relationship between Master and Apprentice in singing is a much closer one than the scholastic master-pupil connection we inherited. The content is very personal and encompasses the psychology of the Apprentice and the generosity of the Master. and the love of his craft. That is mainly the reason why the transmission of this knowledge is difficult to mediate, objectify or methodicize, institutionalize etc. Eventually the Conservatorio model was adapted for instrumentalists and the modern Conservatory was born. However, he figure of the Wise singing Master,like that of the wise Martial arts master did not disappear. The conservatorio became a mixture of the old Catholic Conservatorio and the Academia (his workshop/internship center) of the ex-Feudal Guild master.

    But still this esoteric form of knowledge resisted institutionalization and commercialization. It resisted the social revolution when the figure of the ancient Sage was eclipsed by the Man of Science. Who became the new Keeper of valuable information . Encyclopedia was born (Diderot and D’Alembert). The advent of the bookpress had already created the esteemed position of the Author. The new figure of Keeper of valuable information had a different kind of prestige. Where the Sage used his prestige to facilitate knowledge on a person to person basis, the Man of Science just wrote a book, and tried to exhaust the subject to silence all other competiton and thereby creating a following without being partially responsible for them like the Sage was. Subscribing to a system of thought, or school or academia was your own choice. the resposibility became institutionalized like the Church and today’s conservatories is very abstract. Even the University could not properly catalogize vocal knowledge/wisdom and transmit it accordingly.

    The content of musical treatises of the 16, 17 and 18th century is usually a historical overview followed by, the requirements, ethics etc. The present state of the Art/Craft, inventory of best practices and refutation of “bad practices” always asserting the authors convictions. The treatises of Quantz, Leopold Mozart, C.P.E Bach, Tosi, Mancini evn Caccini follow this type of model. However there is a difference in tone between Mancini and e.g Clementi (Gradus ad Parnassum). Mancini talks affectionately like a Genitore paving the way for a new generation by teaching old practices (evidenced in the Messa di Voce paragraph on this website). Mozart-pupil Clementi however talks to an objective public he may never meet personally. The more distant, objective instructor may work for visible instruments like Clementi’s piano, but the singing voice is not an objective instrument, it’s always unique, not a model in a series. More alive than a Stradivarius.

    Today the figure of the vocal Sage has died In vocal pedagogy. Proverbially it died with Manuel Garcia Senior. Manuel Garcia junior was of the new generation of Maestri di Canto who wanted method, encyclopedic order, innovative research and technique. He invented the Laringoscope widely used in Medicine to study the anatomy of the vocal folds. The scientific explanation of the singing voice was born.

    After all these centuries, vocal pedagogy still eludes standardization. Our society was unable to monetize Vocal Wisdom and its secret knowledge. Science is already eclipsed by technology and is becoming her servant. That will not happen to the counter-intuitive craft of Singing.There are vocal superstars but even they do not know why they are succesful beyond their equally gifted and hardworking colleagues. The vocal superstars will continue to appear along the way. As long as we keep the Legacy of Artistic Singing alive by our own innovative revival and by listening to the voices of its Apostles: the Masters of the Craft.

      1. Thanks Justin. just revisited this article and it is still as current as when I read it the first time. What changed for me is that now i am very positive about the division between Pedagogy and Science. If these become too compatible, the next A.I Sophia-robot might be programmed into an excellent opera singer who has dominion over all the Fachs.😊. Check out the robot Sophia singing on the Jimmy Fallon show. How would you diagnose or improve her singing?


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