April Fools! A Plea for Skepticism in Pedagogy

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – Carl Sagan

That which can be asserted without evidencecan be dismissed without evidence.” – Christopher Hitchens

Happy April Fools Day!

I grew up in Missouri and learned the state motto in fourth grade in Mrs. Collins class. The “Show Me State” didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, but my dad would often say, “I’m from Missouri, so you’re going to have to show me.”

What I subconsciously learned was that Missourians were skeptical. As for myself,  I was VERY gullible, and did what my elders told me. When my dad jokingly told me that Long John Silvers took off at night to fly over Kansas City, I believed him. Not only that, he got a waitress in on the joke, further cementing the verité of the assertion.

In an age where the internet disperses claims on a daily basis, we are inundated with information about everything from weight loss to fake celebrity deaths. It is becoming more and more important for us to accept skepticism as a virtue of freethinking voice teachers.

Pedagogical discussions are rife with claims that sway from the useful to the ridiculous. Dogmas are propped up, and solutions are offered that strain one’s credulity to the breaking point. These forums become an echo chamber, where everyone just confirms everyone else’s worldview and biases.

I personally believe that skepticism is a good quality to have in a voice teacher. It allows you to think for yourself, to question claims, and understand and affirm WHY you believe what you believe. Skepticism is vitally useful to a deeper understanding of the voice, and how it should be led to greater freedom.

  • When teachers ask for repertoire for a student that has never been heard by those offering the rep…I am skeptical.
  • When teachers make claims about solutions for a singing voice, without recourse to that voice, or offer medical advice…I am skeptical.
  • When teachers make claims that are counter to what is KNOWN about how the voice works…I am skeptical.
  • When teachers assert a solution to a claim that seems more like dogma than actual well-thought advice…I am skeptical.
  • When pedagogues assert that they have abilities to diagnose and fix vocal problems like magic…I am skeptical.
  • When people say that they can ‘see sound’…I am skeptical.
  • When people claim that they know intimately what someone else is feeling, thinking, or experiencing in the singing act…I am skeptical.
  • When people use words like ‘magic,”metaphysical,’ in their teaching…I am skeptical.
  • When pedagogies offer solutions that are far away from the vocal mechanism itself, and deny the larynx’s role in the phonative act…I am skeptical.
  • When pedagogies assert that breathing fixes all vocal problems…I am skeptical.
  • When a faulty registration is attributed to improper vowel modification…I am skeptical.
  • When people say that they teach ‘bel canto’ technique…I am skeptical.
  • When people reverse engineer a 20th century pedagogy upon a 17th century one…I am skeptical.

How can a voice teacher become a better skeptic?

  1. Learn the basics of skepticism in the form of Logic, Arguments, and Fallacies. There are many terrific books out there that can help a teacher develop skepticism as a skill and discipline for their work. This reading is time well spent, and will make the teacher more able to question claims – even the most self-evident – for their truthfulness.
  2. Inspect the claim – what does the data say? What have the largest number of writers and scientists said about the voice? What checks out with physiology, acoustics, physics, and common sense? It’s very VERY rare that a teacher can “do their own thing” and make up pedagogical claims that fly in the face of established facts on the voice .
  3. Check your arrogance – It’s important when disabusing people of their sacred beliefs that we tread lightly. No one ever changed their mind under the force of an egotistical personality.
  4. Ask pointed questions, and expect specific answers. It’s important to get to the bottom of a claim by asking the claimant specific questions. If they dodge more probing questions, perhaps their command of the information can’t hold up to scrutiny?
  5. Fact check. This should be a teacher’s side job. This is where knowing about the voice, the science, as well as the history comes into play. NO particular expert is “Vocal Jesus,” and immune from criticism or disagreement. The more a teacher knows, the more powerful their reasons for teaching WHAT they teach WHY they teach it.

Avoid turning skepticism into cynicism. One does not have to equal the other.

Perhaps the next time someone makes a claim about the voice, we can begin to practice a healthy skepticism of that claim.

It might make us better teachers, pedagogues, and intellectuals.


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