Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

A lot of ink has been spilled over the singing voice.

From science articles to historical vocal pedagogy articles to learning about this or that technology in the studio. The buffet of choices is a delectable cornucopia of delights. You can choose to study the rates of thoracic pressure in the lungs on certain notes, the effects of semi-occlusion on canine larynges, or find out how spectrographic analysis of certain vowels shows whether or not they’re being sung correctly. There’s also an entire world of ‘Old School’ resources, which can be fascinating and affirming and can open the door to further exploration of how singing has been taught for hundreds and hundreds of years. Anyone who reads this blog knows that the foundation of all my studies have been to re-explore and integrate these Master Teachers.

Despite this ’embarrassment of riches’, it’s important that teachers don’t lose sight of the fact that we are working with human beings, and ultimately we should be able to TEACH.

If a teacher’s ear cannot distinguish changes in sound as more or less functionally free, make the aural distinction between what is a chest and what is a head or falsetto tone, or guide the student towards a greater balance of vocal freedom, then all of our collected knowledge is useless. It floats in the ether as a ‘pedagogical concept’ with no grounding in reality for the needs of the studio. And gee, isn’t that fun to know that, and aren’t I a smart teacher for knowing about that pedagogical ‘thing’.

I went to a pedagogy workshop a while back, where a very well-known pedagogue was teaching us all about the writings of the “Old School” and showing us their usefulness to the present day. I became more and more excited as he covered ideas on registers, the importance of the chest voice for women’s voice, and other great admonitions from the Old Masters.

Then he started to teach.

Out the window went ALL of the concepts that he had taught in the previous day, and he resorted to ‘easy wins’: focusing on breathing, having singers stand against the wall, and working with their resonance.  It was as if this presenter had been abducted in something right out of the “Pod People” and another Modern pedagogue was put in his place.  He led a tremendously exciting course the day before, and I was so thrilled to see his ‘proof of concept’ by working with singers along these Old School lines. NONE of that was present on day two. Despite this man’s knowledge of historical pedagogy, he didn’t apply a single concept in his Masterclasses with students. His studies and knowledge were useless in practicum with singers. And that was a very sad experience for me. He couldn’t bring the voices before him to any level of success, because he bailed on his knowledge of how to engender freedom and ease in their voices.

This brings me to my point: it is USELESS to glean and collect and develop all this pedagogical knowledge if the teacher has no idea how to apply the concepts with an ACTUAL STUDENT in an ACTUAL LESSON. In fact, I think over-intellectualization stifles us terribly. If we STOP HEARING, and start theorizing in lessons OR don’t apply any of the knowledge gained to the student – then let’s just admit we’re really just historians or scientists, not voice teachers. The KNOWING of something is not the same as the APPLICATION of it, married to a LOGIC of WHY we’re doing it that way.

I challenge all of us in our community (myself included) to never forget that as voice teachers we need to perfect our ears and our ability to diagnose the voice before us. We need to have an understanding of the mechanics of the voice which will assist our students to gain greater freedom and expressiveness in song. You can have a DMA in Vocal Pedagogy, or an MS in Voice Science, and still not know how to teach – sorry but it’s true. Advanced degrees in voice are NO GUARANTOR of successful teaching ability. I’ve seen teachers with a high school diploma be able to effectively diagnose and solve a vocal problem in 20 minutes based on hearing alone – not fancy vocal ‘theories’. Vocal teaching isn’t all about ‘intellectual’ or ‘academic’ knowledge.

Can you get the student to a place of freedom?

At the end of the day, if you’re a VOICE TEACHER, that is your mandate.