BOOK REVIEW: “The Heart of Teaching” by Stephen Wangh

This week I finished Stephen Wangh’s valuable text on teaching. Entitled, “The Heart of Teaching,” he lays out his experiences as a teacher of the acting techniques of theater director Jerzy Grotowski.

His text works to answer some very important questions regarding the teaching of artists. His most important exploration includes such questions as:

  • What are we really teaching while we teach technique?
  • How do we ask and answer questions?
  • How do we listen, or fail to listen, to our students?
  • How do we give our students feedback?
  • How do we become entangled in fearing or loving or hating our students?
  • How do we wield or conceal the power we have?
  • And how can we cultivate the endurance that teaching requires?

These are lofty questions, and Wangh includes not only his own experience, but the experience of several other teachers and writers on these important topics. Wangh gives some discussion of the fact that many in the fine arts are trained in their craft, but they are not taught how to TEACH. This is something that I see over and over again in the vocal world as well. Many fine singers graduate from degree-conferring institutions of higher learning, but are unable to teach because it did not form one of the core areas of their study. This leads teachers to become fearful of talking to each other, and makes them closed off to communication with other teachers for fear of exposure.

The author spends each chapter on a dedicated topic and explores it in some depth based on his own experience in the classroom. What I found interesting were the chapters on students that ‘resist’ learning, as well as teachers either ‘hating,’ or ‘falling in love’ with students.

One of my favorite sections of the book was on how students learn. This has provided me with much food for thought over the course of the past several days in the studio. He asserts maintaining WONDER is the key element to learning, through exploration and discovery. I keep returning to this quote over and over again:

Wonder is a receptive state, a moment of being struck by a new phenomenon. But Questioning is Wonder that has acquired a purpose, a sort of unsatisfied Wonder in search of something, an attempt to grasp the phenomenon observed, a thirst that must be slaked with Knowledge. What has been gained in this transaction is the apprehension (in both senses) that the Unfamiliar is something to be overcome, controlled, or conquered with knowledge. What has been lost is the naïve experience of pure joy in the Unknown. It’s not, of course, that there is anything bad about asking questions. The danger lies in separating intellectual comprehension from experiential sensation and in coming to accept Answers as a substitute for Awe.

One of the striking points he makes is when we intellectualize pedagogy and separate it from its experience, we shut down a process of physical and creative learning. In our world of unlimited intellectual and scientific knowledge of the voice, can we get away from the comparing the EXPERIENCE of singing with the need to know the WHY? Have we lost our experience of singing in favor of a more intellectual activity? Do we sing from the experience of it, or from the place of a ‘checking off’ of list items? This question has haunted me. It has challenged me to lessen my explanations in lessons and encouraged me to allow an EXPERIENCE of something, more in line with play and discovery, than an intellectual need to demonstrate ‘proof of concept.’ It has forced me to be more open, to not ‘need to know,’ and to occasionally NOT to have an answer.

Wangh offers what he refers to as a via negativa, or a way of exploring pure exploration and creativity as a way of learning. Something that resembles more of a stripping away of blocks and accumulated limits, and freeing the artist from within. I’m reminded of the quote about Michaelangelo and the David, when the artist chipped away at everything that WASN’T David. As a teacher, this further helped me with the idea of allowing the students voice to grow from within, rather than imposing on it from without with a ‘pre-formulated’ technique.

Much like functional voice training, the via negativa road to learning might cause:

  • anger at exercises that seem impossible to get “right,” or anger at the teacher who may seem to be refusing to “teach” in the manner they expect;
  • frustrations with their old habits, which have served them so well in the past but now only seem to be getting in the way, and frustrations with a process that offers no sense of completion;
  • powerful inner judgments, echoes of the voices of teachers who undermined their confidence and instilled fears of inadequacy, comparison, and failure in the past;
  • moments of rising fear and of feeling lost because the practices they are learning require the discovery of a forgotten kind of pleasure: the pleasure of not being in control.

But Wangh also explores the role the teacher plays in this way of working:

Just as the students who embark upon the via negativa may discover that the first steps they must take are “negative” steps— giving up old ways of approaching the work, or confronting and removing blockages and judgments that inhibit free exploration— similarly, teachers who wish to support their students in this process of un-learning and self-discovery, may find that they must relinquish some of the pleasures of teaching to which they’ve become attached. Pleasures such as:

  • the pride we take in being able to answer questions;
  • the righteous indignation we experience when working with difficult students;
  • the secret delight of knowing that our students are dependent upon us.

I think this book is going to remain in my mind for a very long time. It is a book that challenges teachers to higher levels of understanding of what it means to teach, and offers insights for the road ahead. It is a book that teaches how to ask questions, how to listen, and how to use silence as a teaching tool when necessary.

For anyone looking to improve their skills as a teacher or to try new ideas, this book will be a welcome addition to your library. You can purchase it on Amazon here. I recommend it.




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