Safety in Numbers?

There are many pedagogy programs, certifications, and continuing education opportunities in the marketplace today. All of these programs offer outstanding knowledge for teachers and singers wanting to know more about the singing voice. They enable teachers to learn from one another, to share common problems, to analyze their teaching practices, as well as receive new information.

Many of these systems are built upon the work or research of a singular person. Historically, this is how voice teaching and training has always occurred. An apprentice would work with the Master Teacher and would continue that teacher’s legacy in the form of passing down information to others. Even acting teacher Stanislavsky worked this way with teachers who went on to transmit “The Method” to American actors. The idea of pedagogical lineages in singing were a development of the 19th century, it should be noted.

Pertinent to our discussion is the fact that Stanislavsky’s ideas were misinterpreted by his students in his lifetime. Stella Adler, seeing that there were discrepancies by those applying “The Method,” traveled to Russia to meet personally with Stanislavsky to clear up these misunderstandings. She was able to get the validation from the master himself on his intentions, and could clear up several misunderstandings.

But what would have happened if Stanislavsky was dead?

There would have been no rational basis (except conjecture) upon which Adler could have validated “the Method” except by way of fellow acquaintances, writings, and fellow teachers, and even these would have been secondary sources.

Systems of learning that rely on one person as a sole authority can be very hard to maintain when said authority is no longer living. We can’t raise F.M. Alexander, Moishe Feldenkrais, Manuel Garcia II, or Francesco Lamperti from the dead to ask them our burning questions, or get their particular take on confusing or conflicting issues of their methodology.

And so it is with vocal pedagogy centered on a singular authority.

I remember once reading that a teacher affects eternity, and can never tell where his influence stops. This could be applied to other professions and is true of personal relationships. The reason that a teacher can have such an influence ‘on eternity’ is that he or she is supposed to have the answers, and to convey ‘the truth’. Teachers (like priests, gurus, and even parents) are often invested with undue authority, especially when their charges relinquish their own responsibility.

Harrison, Peter T. “The Human Nature of the Singing Voice: Exploring a holistic basis for sound teaching and learning.” (2006).

What concerns me is not the leaders of these organizations, but those following in their footsteps once these leaders have passed on. Because we are all human beings, we are subject to cognitive biases, distortions, personal preferences, emotions, and experiences. We all interpret information differently. We misinterpret information, even when exposed to it repeatedly. We may think one thing is going on, when another issue is under question.

Many teacher organizations (in fact, all of them) can be said to engage in certain ‘cult’ behaviors. There is NO pedagogical system that has not struggled with these issues. Wherever there is an US (inside group), there will always be a THEM (outside group). It is Darwinian.

The truths that teachers convey to their pupils, however true or false they may be in fact, are passed on, elaborated or distorted for new audiences or new situations, involving and affecting others as they are passed on. I remember several occasions on which ‘answers’ said to be my own came back to me in a revised version! The one-to-one teaching relationship is a particularly powerful and influential one, in that it is often assumed that the pupil is dependent on (if not in awe of ) the teacher, who is going to make him what he wants to be. Unfortunately, much that the teacher says is turned into an ‘answer’. One can only hope the result of the ‘doing’ in lessons is more productive than what one says! Singing teachers are not repositories of the truth – the best we can hope for is to be conscientious seekers after the truth, which will, as this book illustrates, be different for each individual singer. There are dangers on both sides in not being aware of the negative effects of the ‘all-powerful teacher’, whether he or she feels infallible or not.

Harrison, Peter T. “The Human Nature of the Singing Voice: Exploring a holistic basis for sound teaching and learning.” (2006).

This is not to argue against the existence of teacher organizations. Far from it. They should exist and are helpful and useful for broadening one’s horizons. I personally belong to several professional associations, and am grateful for my experience in each of them.

However, in any training system, the adherents, if not monitored by some kind control system, can deify the leader. This results in several stultifying behaviors for all.

  • First, members can become obsessive about the leader, which then results in exclusion of any other practical considerations, ideas, or questions. Participants are not able to appreciate their own individuality, ideas, and experience, and need nothing more than the leader’s ‘stamp of approval.’
  • Secondly, any criticism or questioning of the leader is instantly seen as ‘persecution’ by other members. If ideas of the leader are questioned, members can be swift to attack those who challenge ideas or ask pointed questions about the leader or even the group itself.
  • Third, followers become more unable to solve problems on their own – relying on the leader to settle all disputes, find solutions, and define meaning without any reflective thought from the members. There can develop an inability to think for oneself as a member/follower, and without the leader’s input, independent thought is untenable.
  • Fourth, the leader can always be justified by other members, no matter how harsh their behavior. I have known of one organization where a leader was psychologically abusive to members, and yet these people continued to return to the source of abuse for more information, because they did not feel that they were ‘good enough’ without this teacher’s work and association.
  • Fifth, people who leave the organization or group are seen in a negative light or in worst cases, evil, and to be shunned. Some will leave the group and the leader and members will not acknowledge them in the ‘outside world’. They are literally dead to the leader and other members of the group.

In Feet of Clay – A Study of Gurus, the psychiatrist Anthony Storr writes:

Psychotherapists are familiar with the occurrence of transference, a phenomenon first described by Freud as the process by which a patient attributes to his analyst attitudes and ideas that derive from previous authority figures in his life, especially from his parents. Later, the term became extended to include the patient’s total emotional attitude towards the analyst. Freud at first regarded transference with distaste. He wanted psychoanalysis to be an impersonal quest for truth in which the relationship between patient and analyst was entirely professional and objective rather than personal. The role he wanted to assume was that of a mountain guide. Instead, he found that his patients made him into an idealized lover, a father figure or a savior.

Some teachers enjoy their pupils’ dependency and hero-worship, and take advantage of it. Young teachers in particular can be gullible. Storr reminds us:

The very young perceive that their parents know more about life’s problems than they do, and it may take years for a child to realize that his parents are not omniscient but fallible. A lingering hope that somewhere there is someone who knows persists in the recesses of the minds of most of us, which manifests itself more obviously when people are distressed or ill.

This phenomenon is all too common, and we must be diligent as teachers of singing that we do not fall into the traps of group-think, and guru-worship that affect any group of like-minded people united in a common cause.

Leaders and members must be on alert for these tendencies, and should weed out thinking that results in loss of independence. Fawning, emotional adulation must be directed into more productive channels, setting teachers on their own feet, lest they run the risk developing coteries of admirers that prevent growth to all.

In conclusion, teaching associations provide a vital part of professional, personal, and educational development. But teachers should be forever diligent against cognitive distortions and emotional transference that can take place when dealing with the group’s authority figures. Once the leader is gone, they can no longer be questioned or deferred to, leaving the teacher-student survivors bereft and ‘parent-less.’ Then, and only then, will many of them be faced with the reality of growing up.

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