On Certifications

I recently returned from a teachers conference in Costa Mesa, California for a teacher’s association entitled IVA, or The Institute for Vocal Advancement.  This was an exciting conference that got me thinking quite a bit about the idea of certification in the voice teaching profession.

If you had asked me years ago about certifying voice teachers I would have looked at you askance and said that you were crazy. “Voice teachers can’t certify! That’s silly!” you might have heard me say. Some teachers might even think that the only certification that you need is your degree in voice, opera, or music.

I’ve now come to wholeheartedly reject that premise.

For one thing, certification is common in many fields: aviation, technology, construction, and other industrial sectors. Health care, business, real estate brokers, and financial officers must have certification to practice in their chosen career fields. For voice teachers who are teaching voice, there is no credential or criteria for what the student will be taught, and any person can ‘hang out a shingle’ and call themselves a voice teacher. There is no guarantee that the teacher teaching knows ANYTHING about how the voice works, except as regards their tonal preference for sound. This would be unheard of in any of the above mentioned fields, yet for the singing teacher no one bats an eye. And what’s more, the conferring of an advanced degree in music doesn’t always guarantee proficiency in dealing with the mechanical workings of the human voice.

Very RARELY do advanced courses in vocal pedagogy deal with the actual ‘teaching’ of voice (how to structure a lesson, how to understand the usage of tool selection and the logic of building a voice from nothing, dealing with issues of psychology, or working with an advanced/damaged/young/old/beginner voice). It’s often up to the graduate or doctoral student to eke out for themselves what to teach, and most of that is based upon the vocal instruction that they received from THEIR teacher. In most cases, they just parrot back to the student what they are working on in their own voice: a certain recipe for vocal disaster. (When you consider the VAST AMOUNT of undergraduate Music Education majors that are taught by graduate students with a passing familiarity of the deeper workings of the voice, it might cause some reflecting on the vocal estate of those music educators being dispersed into schools throughout the country).

Certification in singing in my opinion will be the wave of the future. Teachers should connect with other colleagues to discuss, and yes – debate with each other, as we all move toward greater knowledge. Certifications can provide a community of like-minded teachers that can serve as ‘sounding boards’ for difficult vocal and studio issues and can offer suggestions on approach, repertoire, and encouragement. Many organizations will pop up to fill this need, which is as it should be: no ONE person or group should own or have all the ideas when it comes to singing.

For teachers interested in certification programs, what has to go up on the shelf is the ego. If you feel that you know everything there is to know about singing because you trained ‘classically’, it might be hard for you to learn from a jazz, R&B, pop, or musical theater singer about their particular needs. But certification programs often feature just this audience: singers and teachers from different genres and backgrounds that want to grow and know more, and learn how to train voices. It allows you to ask yourself, “Why do I teach what I teach? Is there a better way? A faster way?”.

Many well-known teachers are virulently anti-certification. They feel that teaching is not something that can be ‘taught’ to someone, or that a novice teacher must strike out on their own and do it alone to make an impact, or study with the ‘right people’. They believe that these programs are built to take in hapless teachers and bilk them of their money and time. And while some programs can be costly, in reality they are no more expensive than a continuing education course at a university, and the impact that they can have on one’s teaching are worth the expense. Perhaps indignation is a natural response to changing tides of vocal learning for those that ‘did it on their own’.

Another salient point that I must make is that aesthetics are TOTALLY personal, but function is not.

What I like in a voice may not be what you like in a voice. If I love the sound of Monserrat Caballé’s voice but you hate it, then we’re deep in the world of artistic preference. But if you and I are both voice teachers, we should be able to sit down dispassionately and discuss what is HAPPENING in her voice; not just what we like/don’t like. – THAT is aesthetic. Aesthetics will always be personal, and no two people are the same in their preferences. FUNCTION, however, is impersonal. As I’ve written many times before, either the voice has a wide range, or it doesn’t, the vowel is ‘ah’ or it isn’t.

Aesthetics can be the purview of the teacher who is dealing with generally advanced voices to begin with. There’s very little car to build when it rolls into your studio in tip-top shape. Those voices usually tend to need just a good polish. It’s the difference between building the car, and ‘sham-wow’ing‘ it.  Polishing voices can be a very aesthetic experience for the teacher with advanced students, but this shouldn’t be confused with actual voice building or vocal rehabilitation.

Certification programs offer the teacher of voice a place to learn, to grow, and to interact with others in the learning of teaching singing. Discussions can be lively, energetic, fun, and challenging. But the ultimate distinction of certification is that the student is being instructed by a teacher who has put in the time, effort, and money to learn the craft of teaching voice, and has demonstrated a commitment to the betterment of their pupils.

You wouldn’t go see a financial advisor, doctor, or accountant without a certification in their resume. So why see a teacher of voice without one?

Food for thought…

3 thoughts on “On Certifications

  1. This is a hot topic in the vocal pedagogy blogs and discussion groups lately. I was very leery of certification just a few years ago, but I have found that there are some organizations out there that offer educational experiences that can help teachers. I will be very interested to watch the development of the IVA. Their mission statement would seem to me to be part of “the wave of the future” as people (at long last!) see the benefit of open collaboration, pooling of knowledge, research, and proven and improving methods.

  2. Being a part of a couple of organizations that required certifications, I’m just not sure certification is for everyone. The client base of the teacher has some part, if not a major part, in dictating the business aspect of the teacher’s studio/practice. While being certified in two major vocal organizations I’ve NEVER had one student require nor ask if I was “certified.” To further the point, several students in my past were former students of “certified” teachers who just didn’t feel that the teacher was addressing their needs but more pushing a formalized structure that felt forced and made for uncomfortable lessons/recording sessions.

    I love that more and more people are sharing their research and findings, that wasn’t the case in the past 10 years when I posted videos on youtube. In fact, the backlash of “giving it all away” was enormous. It was like we (the organization) had the secret ingredients and it was a violation to share it with the world. I’m in favor of conferences and mastermind groups, etc…but “wave of the future?” I’m just not convinced because the internet exists, I exist, and others like me exist and will continue to share openly to the world.

    Maybe, it comes down to confidence and ones ability to create a relationship in which the client knows, likes and trusts the teacher and the “certification” stuff is for the teachers.

    But, maybe I’m wrong. Just my opinion.

    1. I agree with that. Certification is for teachers, not students. If the organization makes for more effective teachers, it’s good. If it’s a franchise holding secrets, then it’s not for me. I have gotten a couple of students each through networks created by my two certifications. I think the education, networking and cooperation among teachers is the real benefit. Effective teachers get more students, and retain them, so that is how I see it being good for business.

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