Pedagogically Agnostic

Many who know me personally have been a part of my vocal journey to rehabilitate and restore my singing voice.

In 2005, I experienced a complete loss of my lower range from F3 and below. From there I sought out help from a variety of sources to help me restore and repair the dysfunction that I could actively feel in my larynx. For many such voice teachers, the solution was centered primarily in the breathing. As I tried desperately to enact greater ability from this perspective, the nagging discomfort of my throat did not abate, but was now wedded to an overt approach to the lower muscles of the torso.

The greatest gift of this terrible vocal occurrence was that I became pedagogically agnostic. Anything could be true, and anything could be false. Much like someone who alters their religious or political beliefs, this shift of faith can cause much internal suffering and fear as you begin to think for yourself and decide upon “What do I believe?””Will others be hurt by my new feelings and beliefs?,””What will I base my understanding upon within the framework of this new system of thinking?”.

In my agnosticism I asked myself several important questions:

Why did I lose my voice?

What could I do to restore its function?

How could I help others to avoid the pitfalls I encountered?

What were the teaching methodologies that were world-renowned in a time of history when singing flourished and vocal disrepair was generally unknown?

I have always been a member of the ‘Tell Me What to Do and I Will Do It” school of singing. If a teacher told me to do something, I would do it unquestioningly, because I had an inherent faith that they knew what they were doing, especially at more advanced levels of teaching. There was always a sense of trust.

I often describe it like this:

To hire a plumber to come to your house and fix the pipes, you shouldn’t have to have an advanced degree in plumbing to make sure that the plumber is doing his job correctly. To fix your car, you shouldn’t have to go to vocational school to make sure he/she knows what they’re doing.

By that, I mean that no student of singing can know if the ‘plumber’ knows what they’re doing when they’re under the sink. Are they able to fix the problem? Or are they there just to admire and polish the leaky pipes? When we ask someone to help us with something that is broken (be it a car, an appliance, or even our own bodies), we want to know that they know what they are doing, and that they can fix the problem.

It seems that in the instruction of singing, ours is the only field open to so much instruction based on opinion, feelings, loyalties, and personal preferences.

This wouldn’t fly in car mechanics, where advanced systems of diagnostics enable the mechanic to determine the CAUSE of the problem and develop solutions to expedite repairs. Additionally, a mechanic wouldn’t personally shame you if your fan belt was broken (“This wouldn’t have happened if you had just driven more responsibly and weren’t so ignorant!”). 

Additionally, you would be skeptical of a mechanic who told you that the problem with the engine was due to the type of leather that you had in the seats of your car. Likewise, a doctor who prescribed the same medicine to all patients would lose his license in the profession.

I’m happy to also say that I am not the first singer who has lost a voice, and thereby deepened their exploration of pedagogy and vocal knowledge. Manuel Garcia Jr. lost his voice at an early age and began a life-long study of the voice to build beautiful singing voices. E. Herbert-Caesari’s voice was destroyed by a teacher whom he believed would teach him to sing as well as a famous tenor that he admired. He also sought out a school of singing based in the precepts of older Italian pedagogues. Cornelius L. Reid also had a voice ruined by the destructive work of arch-mechanist Douglas Stanley, which placed him on the path to learn and study more to understand the human voice. All three of these pedagogues have had a tremendous effect on my understanding and teaching of voice.

I’ve often said the greatest thing that could happen to a voice teacher and our profession as a whole is for all voice teachers to lose their voice for a period of time. This would enable them to experience a loss of ability and understand how a student might feel in a lesson who can’t ‘get’ a particular concept. It would also serve as a test of their own teaching. If I, as a teacher, cannot do the thing I am asking you to do, how do I know how that feels and if it even WORKS?

Agnosticism and skepticism in life is not a bad thing. We could use more of it as voice teachers to guide us to fact-based pedagogy, and less on ‘what I think’ or ‘what I feel’, or what ‘Signor Insegnante said’.

Our students, with their hearts opened to sing, deserve just such a teacher.




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