The Blind Men and the Elephant

I attended the regional mini-conference of the National Association of Teachers of Singing at Worcester State University yesterday. Among all of the day’s events was a lively conversation with my colleague Kayla Jane Gautereaux about the perspectives with which we examine and conceptualize the voice.

There are so many vantage points from which we can view the singing voice, and many of us cling to our particular perspectives – thinking that ours is the correct one, and ignoring our potential blind spots. We don’t like to think we’re wrong after all – pesky ego.

The conversation with Kayla brought to mind a poem that I had read in graduate school but emerged from the fog of memory while we were chatting. It was the parable of “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”

The first version of the story itself is traceable to the Buddhist text Udana 6.4, and dates to about the mid 1st millennium BCE. It is a parable that has crossed between many religious traditions and is part of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts of the 1st millennium CE or before.

The most famous version comes to us from John Godfrey Saxe, writing in the 19th century.

It was six men of Indostan 
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant 
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation 
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant, 
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, 
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant 
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk, 
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp? 
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant 
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal, 
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, 
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant 
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand, 
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like 
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“Tis clear enough the Elephant 
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, 
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most; 
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant 
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun 
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail 
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant 
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan 
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion 
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, 
And all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars 
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance 
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

John Godfrey Saxe

The applicability of this poem to the world of vocal pedagogy is rich.

Many of us stare at the voice and find our reasoning solid, not perhaps noticing the ‘blind spot’ that we have while examining this rather large beast.

Each blind man, in his own way, is CORRECT despite the fact that he is only seeing one part of the elephant. But the elephant does not exist in parts! This translates to vocal pedagogy when we see one aspect of the voice and mistake it for the whole thing. For example, thinking that all of singing is a matter of breath, or registration, or resonance. This blindness is the root of all arguments over the singing voice, in my opinion.

Each view of the elephant is correct, but may miss the bigger picture.

I have been guilty of this throughout my career, believing that the conundrum of voice was always an issue with “X.” And X could have been invariably at any time: resonance, breath, registration, posture, interpretation, expression, etc., etc. As a young singer, I would often think, “My high notes will come if I can just figure out my breathing!” – A classic example of seeing the elephant from one viewpoint.

Many of our celebrated and venerated pedagogues bring their piece of the elephant to the marketplace of ideas. I’m thinking of those who have assured us that singing is all a matter of laryngeal registration, or vocal acoustics, or appoggio, or pelvic support, or, or, or… While these authors are correct – again – this is just ONE part of the elephant. The trombone section mustn’t be confused for the whole orchestra.

Becoming a good teacher, at the end of the day, is trying to unify all of these blind men into one person – your own teaching self.

Where are my blind spots? What am I missing? Am I clinging to a piece of the elephant and refusing to see what the others around me are seeing?

Richard Miller, in his essay “Have You Read the Literature?” had this to say about the dangers of solidifying a solitary approach to looking at the elephant:

It is improbable that the particular technique chance and circumstance have dictated to a singer is the only or even the most efficient approach to vocalism. ‘After all, if it works for me, why should I look elsewhere?’ is no more applicable to the teaching of singing than to other disciplines…

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

How do I keep perspective?

I try to always keep before me the idea of spiral learning. Rather than thinking of the voice as ONE thing, I try to move ‘around’ the voice and take on all the perspectives of these blind men while working. By acknowledging my own blindness, I can get a better picture of ‘seeing’ the whole instead of just parts. (In my opinion, this is where many of us go wrong, and therefore off into the land of dogmatism).

A spiral session might focus on the following:

  1. Posture/Alignment
  2. Ergonomy of breathing
  3. Laryngeal registration (Head/Falsetto/Mode 2; Chest/Mode 1)
  4. Acoustic registration (Vowel concepts and formation throughout the range)
  5. Laryngeal suspension
  6. Articulation
  7. Interpretation and Expression
  8. Stylistic considerations
  9. Vocal health

Any of these areas can have sub-categories of attention. By keeping myself going through the spirals, I don’t get stuck in any one area.

Berton Coffin, in his books on singing, often recommended that the voice likes variety and keeping the voice too long on one vowel or pattern can be fatiguing to the voice. I like that very much. So, in lessons, we work through the spirals, all the while examining the elephant from many angles.

William Leyerle took the allegory of the blind men and the elephant a step further, and wrote a variation on Saxe’s poem, which I will include here below as further demonstration of our need to always keep ourselves alert to our own blindness. The voice is multi-faceted, and I believe we will benefit from our individual examination – but should always remember that there is a whole elephant there, provided we have the COURAGE to zoom out and see each other’s perspectives.

In our own way, we all have a little bit of the truth.

And for me the greatest gift of this parable is the following: kindness towards others. Rather than becoming indignant because someone sees the voice from a differing perspective than I doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. I just need to understand their view of the elephant. Keeping the parable front and center with my colleagues has helped me to become less reactionary, less judgemental, and more kind, and that brings more happiness into my life.

And isn’t that the point of any good parable?

Here’s Leyerle’s whimsical rendering of the poem. “The Deaf Men and the Diva.”

Six worthy men of Academe
Whom study never tired,
While listening to a diva
(Though all were deaf) aspired
to learn by close analysis
What was to be admired.

The First proposed a postulate
His insight did advance,
Observing how erect she was,
Her figure to enhance;
“My goodness, but her artistry
Stems from her noble stance!”

The Second, noting how she could
her torso so disport,
Was moved to chance an estimate
And loudly did report,
“It’s clear to me what makes her great:
Abdominal support!”

The Third responded eagerly,
The first two to negate.
“I feel it, most distinctly,
Upon my very pate;
Induced reverberation,
My word, she can phonate!”

The Fourth spoke out, forthrightingly
The others to confound;
“See, when the lips purse gently,
The jaw drops toward the ground?
It’s clear, the upper partials
Do make her voice resound.”

The Fifth replied astutely,
the secret to unlatch.
“Look how her mouth so deftly
Her tongue and teeth do match?
With fine articulation
The words she can dispatch!”

The Sixth would give no quarter;
With ardor he averred,
“Her obvious expression,
Above all else preferred,
Proves her supreme involvement
With each and every word.”

And so these men of Academe
Did argue hard and strong,
Each firm in his conclusion
What makes a well-sung song,
While each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theoretic jousts
The combatants, quite absurd,
Fight on and are oblivious
To one another’s word,
And bicker o’er a diva
Not one of them has heard!

William Leyerle

Leave a Reply