Which Teacher is Yours?

1. Is he the know-it-all dictator?

2. Or is he a guide attempting to help the learner arrive at a destination which neither of them may see in the distance, but will know when they get there?

There are both kinds of teachers out there, and probably always have been. The people in category (1) tend to write books; the ones in (2) know that a book can’t really begin to tell the story.

Now the temptation to be a category (1) is strong, particularly with those teachers who are failed or frustrated singers themselves. For them there is one and only one way to sing—my way or the highway—and they will get the results they want in any way necessary short of physical abuse (well…maybe). Category (1) is not noted for patience, and all his baritones sound alike, and if you can’t “get” his method, it’s because you don’t have any “talent” or aren’t “gifted with a good voice.”

Category (2) is less common, simply because he’s discovered that being too specific about goals isn’t useful, and of course that appearance of aimlessness puts off the “serious” voice student. Besides, his students tend to be less flashy than Category (1) students, and flash always attracts a certain kind of learner. Flash begets more flash.

In addition, Category (2) may have the effrontery to teach “voice” instead of “singing,” and that puts a lot of earnest students off, particularly if they want to be professional establishment singers. Category (2) tends not to be impressed by the establishment even though he may be a product of it; he knows the pitfalls, having survived them and lived to tell the tale.

Category (1) has a “system” or a “method,” and he may write a good deal about it, and promote it as the only way to learn to sing.

Category (2) tends to be an explorer, to fit his approach to the student’s needs and desires, and to invent ways of relating the process of voice to real life outside the establishment.

Category (1) has come straight down the line extending from the scholae to the colleges and universities and conservatories of the present.

Category (2) is your basic folksinger, no matter what music he likes, trying to pass on the experience of his lifetime and those before him who have made sense to him, tweaking and simplifying, trying to learn the plainest way of sharing his knowledge in simple words and direct actions.

Category (1) believes the voice is something to be tamed, built, developed; he thinks it’s OK to talk about “my voice” as if it were a third person who had to be fooled and disciplined into behaving at the will of the student. He may even believe the voice should be “protected” and kept in a safe place when it’s not in use.

Category (2) kind of thinks maybe the voice is something that’s been in there since birth, and just needs to be allowed to come out and play. So he finds as many games as he can to tease it and encourage it and make it safe for the voice-part-of-the-whole-student to be complete and whole, to come home and join in the fun of living.

He doesn’t much care what kind of music the student likes as long as it’s not something that harms the voice or the student, and he may be very curious about all the different ways people sing and have sung all over the world.

Pedagogy works if it answers the student’s needs and desires. There’s no accounting for what students think they want to be able to do, and the wise teacher goes along with that unless it’s harmful. If the student wants to do some kind of specialized singing, the teacher needs to help him find the right way to do it so that not only does it sound right, it’s easy to do and reliable.

If the teacher thinks he knows the answers before he’s heard the questions, he’s an idiot or a fool, and it’s hard to tell which is worse. The teacher needs a good ear, common sense, empathy with the student, and a great deal of imagination.

Without those, he’d damned well better have a never-fail “method.”

Edward Foreman unpublished essay, “How Pedagogy Works.”

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