Don’t Tell Me What To Do

There’s a great exchange involving the philosopher Epictetus that encapsulates my approach to thinking about marketing. “Tell me what to do!” the student says. Epictetus corrects him, “It would be better to say, ‘Make my mind adaptable to any circumstances.'” It is true for marketing, just as it is for life. Principles are better than instructions and “hacks.” We can figure out the specifics later – but only if we learn the right way to approach them.

Ryan Holiday, “Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts”

  • What exercise should I use for a trembling jaw?
  • How do I deal with a singer with no chest register?
  • How do I tame an unruly vibrato?
  • What can I do to get better breath-support in a singer?
  • What should I do with a student that can’t match pitch?
  • My soprano sings flat. Suggestions?

These are all “tell me what to do” questions.

As I contemplate our pedagogical world, I am struck by parallels Epictetus offers us as voice teachers. A better prayer should be:

“Make my mind adaptable to any set of pedagogical circumstances, I already have enough information!”

Many teachers (myself included) seek efficiency by being told what to do. Being told is such a mental relief. It makes us feel better about ourselves because we either get an answer or validation – both feel great!

But do not be fooled – even the BEST voice teacher suffers from an occasional sense of impostor syndrome! We all feel so unsure of our own choices and instincts. Having someone tell you what to do all the time lessens some of the heavy pedagogical lifting: critical thinking, reading, contemplating, analysis, philosophizing, re-reading, searching, listening, endless observation. 

Let’s also remember that voice teachers LOVE to tell other voice teachers what to do! We have whole conferences on it! 🙂 But needing constant validation can become unhealthy when taken to extremes – Consider for a moment the guru/disciple relationship and you’ll have a good grasp where ‘tell me what to do’ can lead. Buddha himself said if you saw the Buddha on the road you should kill him. That’s succinct and serves our argument well. 

On vocal “tricks”

In an effort to be ‘trendy,’ we often feel that we must incorporate the latest vocal tricks lest we be seen as retrograde amongst our colleagues. Richard Miller had strong things to say about those teachers that would build a pedagogy built upon collecting “tricks”:

Given the diversity of vocal problems and the individuality of the singing voice, it may at times indeed seem that no two voices can be taught in the same general fashion. Are we, however, really to believe that there are no universal principles on which to base a philosophy of vocal production? On the contrary, every voice teacher must obey certain functional laws if freedom is to result. Compensatory “tricks” may randomly be attempted, and on occasion may momentarily serve to correct some technical problem, in the same way that medicine from the medicine chest taken without a medical diagnosis or prescription may seem to alleviate the symptoms of an assumed illness. Just as assuredly as there is danger in “doctoring” without proper diagnosis and prescription, so “tricky teaching” not based on principles of mechanical freedom may cause detrimental reactions in the singing voice.

Miller, Richard. On the art of singing. Oxford University Press, USA, 1996.


For many teachers, methods can fill the “tell me what to do!” gap. They give us psychological security in knowing what to do – except when the method fails. Then what? We go back and ask for more tricks. We have to remember that even medicine (which has been vigorously tested in labs) does not work EVERY TIME. Why should a prescribed exercise?

Cate Frazier-Neely recently wrote an insightful blog on this particular issue and I recommend it as an important part of the “methods” puzzle. In it she smartly recognized the tendency that methods can quickly devolve into rigid, inflexible thinking.

One of the main differences between intelligence and creativity is that the creative person has the ability to draw connections among bits of information and imagine various paths and outcomes. And this is the missing ingredient with many voice teachers who run around collecting information, certifications and degrees by the boat-load.

Frazier-Neely makes a plea for more creative thinking in the studio and awareness when chasing certifications, and in my opinion she has zoned in on an important pedagogical element – application instead of collection of knowledge. Her thesis would argue for a pedagogy that was, to use Epictetus’s words: “adaptable to any circumstance.”

Methods at their worst lead adherents to rigid, inflexible thinking, making for a teaching that becomes fundamentalist and dogmatic.

Shifting the Paradigm

A paradigm shift would serve vocal pedagogy if we would learn to keep our minds flexible. Rather than thinking “What exercises do I need for a trembling jaw?” we should question how we need to be more adaptable in the circumstances. Perhaps a direct assault is NOT the best solution? By getting rid of one problem with a ‘trick’ what are we gaining? For example, now that the jaw isn’t moving anymore because of the application of a ‘trick’, you got unexpected tongue tension. Oops.

My pedagogical philosophy is to trust the body and allow the response to work its way out by constantly revisiting functional principles.

Learn from many places. Take information from many sources. Meditate on the voice from time to time. Go deeper than the surface “hack” or trick of the moment. Always remember that you are you – and what you do in the studio is uniquely YOURS filtered through the lens of your life, your experiences.

Ask for a flexible pedagogical mind – not a collection of vocal tricks.

Waiting to be “told” leads to the death of individual creativity, and sucks the artistry, imagination, and life-force out of teacher and student. Voice training becomes transactional (I would say “production oriented”) rather than being an occupation in discovering creative solutions to vocal issues as they arise (I would say “cultivated”) with compassion and empathy.

Festina lente. Hasten slowly.

Moderation in all things.

So make sure you ignore the people trying to teach you how to find shortcuts to this destination or that destination. Be wary of those who claim to have an exact prescription on how to do some really hard thing. Learn how to be adaptable and flexible—learn how to learn. That’s a better recipe for lasting success.

– Ryan Holiday

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