Positivity in Teaching

It is better to point out what is right than to draw attention to what is wrong.

Clara Kathleen Rogers

Clara Kathleen Rogers (1844-1931) was an English-born American composer, singer, writer, and music educator. Under the name Clara Doria she pursued a career as an opera singer. Her career ended in 1878 when she married lawyer Henry Monroe Rogers and settled in Boston, MA. She has been covered in many blogs on this site. Including here, here, and here, to name but a few. It just so happens she is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a short walk from this blogger’s home.

In her wonderful book, The Philosophy of Singing, published in 1893, this female pedagogue has many wise things to share about the teaching of voice, especially the attitude and system of approaching vocal faults.

In our own time, this mirrors what Jeannette LoVetri refers to as, “Pianoside Manner” – how the teacher should interact with the student in the course of a lesson.

It’s my opinion that this manner is also pedagogical and should be included right along science and anatomy:

For where defects are unduly emphasized, they take on gigantic proportions in the mind of the singer, and possess the consciousness to the exclusion of everything else. Thus the defects continue to express themselves in an augmented degree, and may take firmer root than before.

For Rogers, too much attention on what was wrong in the singer’s voice was bound to lead to problems down the road. As teachers we can make laundry lists of what needs adjustment in the singer’s voice. But for Rogers, none of those things should be the center of attention. When made the center, the singer becomes obsessed with eliminating the fault, often causing more harm along the way. (It is for this reason that I do not call too much attention to breathing in singers, having learned that to do so often creates MORE problems than it solves.) Too much negative mechanistic pedagogy spoils the singers’ instinct and spontaneity.

Rogers has a similar compatriot in the philosophy of W. Stephen Smith. From his book The Naked Voice, as recounted by his student, Joyce DiDonato:

I was at the critical point of learning to trust all that I had begun to understand; however, I was still deathly afraid of slipping back into old habits, such as cracking wildly on any note in my upper passaggio! Steve identified in one critical lesson that I was holding my breath to avoid cracking rather than moving the breath steadily on a pure vowel, which of course, if employed correctly would never result in a cracked note. He simply said, “Joyce, never avoid doing the negative . . . always do the positive.” This is something that has crossed over into many facets of my thinking, and I’ve realized it is such a powerful way to approach life: It puts you in control of accomplishing what you intend to achieve.

Smith, W. Stephen, and Michael Chipman. The naked voice: A wholistic approach to singing. Oxford University Press, 2007.

For Rogers, too much attention on the negative could have overwhelming psychological and pedagogical effects. I have often fallen into this trap, only to see the student over-correct and end up worse off than if I had just kept my mouth shut!

For many singers, when they hear what a teacher thinks is wrong with their voices, they go about trying to solve the problems and creating more deeply entrenched faults over time. It’s a particular phenomenon of voice teaching.

Rogers appears to be advocating a rather holistic pedagogy, and one that I try to follow as well in my own work.

I have stated in preceding chapters that perfect sound cannot be attained without freedom, spontaneity, and concentration of energy or singleness of purpose. It follows, then, that the mind of the pupil must not be hampered with the thought of things to be avoided; for how can there be singleness of purpose if the pupil is thinking of what he must guard against, as well as of what he desires to do, at one and the same time ? If the whole courage, the whole energy, the whole consciousness, the whole heart of the singer are needed for the tone-impulse — which tone-impulse is, in effect, the perfect, the true, the spontaneous tone-attack — the thought of what is wrong, of what is to be avoided, of what is to be feared, must not obtrude itself or invade the consciousness. Only the positive side must be dwelt on; for if the positive side is to prevail, it must be strong; and if the positive is to be strong, the negative must be held in abeyance. This is exactly the point where an intelligent and properly equipped teacher can be a godsend to the young singer, by sparing him years and years of fruitless striving; for the intelligent teacher perceives the defect, and has it in his power to apply the remedy without even giving his reasons; so that the hopeless agony of consciously trying to do right, and consciously trying not to do wrong, both at once, need not be suffered by the singer, who instead can give himself wholly up to the beautiful, the perfect, aspect of his purpose. He can steadily and surely climb upward towards the right, without being pulled back by the leaden weight of wrong attached to his feet.

The stories of accounts from singers who have been taught by the word “Don’t!” are legion. What Rogers is advocating for here is a subtle form of teaching which seeks to remedy vocal ills over time. Using a LoVetrian phrase, to ‘wait for the bus.’ There is much Psyche and Soma in Rogers’ pedagogy. Singers are people, and also bring their mind and bodies to their voice lessons, and voice teachers should tread carefully.

Rogers acknowledges that it is very easy to slip into the trap of the negative in teaching:

It is so much easier to point out defects than it is to prescribe their remedy, that the negative method of teaching most frequently prevails. In fact, the temptation to declare the defects is very strong — nay, almost irresistible ; but it is not to be encouraged, and it should be part of the teacher’s education to abandon. that habit where it exists.

For some teachers, this eradication of negativity will be quite difficult, but could lead to a more fruitful and positive experience for all who enter the studio door. There’s no need for harsh criticism in general. Too much negativity in lessons can affect a singer’s mood and general outlook on singing, and on themselves. What is the wake you will be leaving in your student’s hearts and minds?

Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t work to correct faults. It merely adjusts the spirit and approach with which such corrections are made.

There may be some cases where to point out the specific defect may be a necessity; for instance, where some perversion of process has already become deeply rooted — where it is, in fact, already automatic, so that even the sporadic occurrence of the correct tone is an impossibility, or where the pupil connects the wrong habit persistently and unconsciously with his purpose ; but even in such cases let the teacher first have recourse to indicating and enforcing the practice of certain exercises for relaxing and rendering plastic the offending parts.

Rogers is on solid pedagogical ground. There’s no reason not to work around or deny the vocal issue to ourselves – merely to work on holistic exercises that put the offending vocal fault into abeyance over time, as Rogers states. Much positive work can be done on making the breathing, phonation, and resonance easy and ‘plastic.’

Working this way will allow the teacher to know what is amiss, but be able to correct without the student becoming self-conscious.

What Rogers is advocating for is nothing short of a kinder, gentler view of teaching, which allows Nature to develop along positive and constructive lines, without destroying a singer’s spirit while they are working to build their voice. If we are to follow Nature (as the Old Italians admonished) we teachers need to occasionally get out of the way.

To paraphrase an old Biblical phrase from Mark 8:6: What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain his voice, and lose his own soul?

The one broad rule, however, is, Hold up constantly what is good, and do not emphasize what is bad. It is time enough for the pupil to recognize the bad in the distance, when he is well clear of it. […] Then will he have reached a point where all that is wrong, all that is perversion, will have ceased to be a hopeless burden, but will appear instead as a rung of the ladder, on which to plant the foot while mounting to the next higher.

Then will the pupil, in his turn, have become a master, and then can he go forth to lighten the way for other aspirants.

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