The Fallacy of Expertise

If you want to know one of the glaring difficulties and obstacles in much of voice instruction in the world, well, these paragraphs offer a white-hot slice through the current paradigms of the “the celebrated diva/divo as voice teacher”.  Just because an opera diva has sung all over the world doesn’t mean that she can teach beginners or students with technical problems.  

Sailors often know how to tie knots, and can tell when others are tying knots incorrectly, but they often can’t explain why they are tying them in that way or show someone else how to tie them.

From Theodore Dimon’s book “The Elements of Skill”

The faulty assumption that it is the teacher’s job to convey positive know-how is compounded by the fact that most teachers of performing skills are deemed qualified to teach precisely because of their performing ability.  They naturally assume that their students will be able to learn as they did – by following positive instructions on what to “do”.  “Get the racket back,” the teacher exhorts his student as he continually hits the ball to him. “Step into the ball! Drop your shoulder!” he repeats ad infinitum.

But the premise on which this approach is based is fatally flawed.  Like many professionals, the teacher may have been naturally gifted.  This means that many of the predisposing habits necessary to his skill were intact, making it reasonably easy for him to learn and to implement his teacher’s instructions.  But he cannot automatically assume that his own students will possess these predisposing characteristics; in fact, they may have harmful tendencies that he did not have.  Instructions that were helpful to the teacher in his own learning simply don’t work for his students.

Let’s say, for example, that a voice teacher instructs his new student, who is having trouble producing a strong and supported tone, to “support from the abdomen.” Obviously the goal in such a situation is to help the student achieve a better vocal support by increasing the involvement of the abdominal muscles.  But in many cases the teacher has based his assessment of the value of such an instruction on the condition of accomplished singers, including himself.  For example, the teacher may have possessed in himself the proper freedom in the ribs and back which would make such an instruction successful.  His student, however, may be slumped and too rigid in the ribs, and so the same instruction may be completely wrong for him and therefore of no benefit.  Again, the teacher’s instructions are based on the faulty premise that the student is in a position to benefit from his suggestions when in fact the student is positively blocked by his own habits.

In all likelihood, the teacher is unaware of the conditions that must be present in the student to ensure success.  He is also likely unaware of the importance of preexisting habit, precisely because he never needed to consider it.  This explains why, when he undertakes to teach someone, he will believe that the only factors to be taken into account are the ones that appear to be most immediately involved in learning the specific skill in question.  When his student fails, he will have no idea why and will assume that the difficulty lies in his student’s inability to implement his instructions properly.  Nor does he realize that, if the student’s predisposing condition is harmful, asking him to do anything is bound to invoke precisely those habits that will interfere and guarantee failure.  Unfortunately, failure is too often what results.

This explains why even the most brilliant and talented singer, when asked what makes great singing, can be completely mistaken in analyzing his own actions and unable to teach others.  In fact, it is often the most natural and gifted performers who make the worst teachers, precisely because they never had to consider the various obstacles that stand in the way of the average learner.  Possessing talent does not guarantee a knowledge of what is responsible for that talent.  If the performer’s physical condition deteriorates, or if he acquires the wrong habits with time, he will be no more able to correct his own habits, of which he is very likely unaware, than to correct those of others.  The cases of such losses of skill are legion, and need hardly be cited.

Of course, teachers do recognize in some cases that the problem is in something that the student is doing, as did the voice teacher in the above example.  But knowing that something is wrong and knowing what is wrong are two different things…A working knowledge not just of specific habits but of the muscular system and how it functions as a whole is necessary for reasoning out how the learner can successfully overcome his difficulties.”

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