Teach Less and Learn More

Cornelius Reid often said that as voice teachers we are in the business of observing a natural phenomenon and causing changes in that through the application of vocal exercises utilizing the triangle of pitch, vowel, and intensity.

Much like contemplating the sea, a voice teacher’s first goal should be astute and careful observation before any instruction is proffered. If we took upon ourselves the duty of contemplating and observing as our first responsibility, we could lead the nature inside the student to realize its functional potential. But we must be willing to get ourselves and our egos out of the way and ‘teach less.’ Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818.

Motor learning theory has begun to support a view that talking less and observing more in lessons leads to better learning outcomes, and Alan Gumm had the following to say in his creative and quite wonderful book Making More Sense of How to Sing: Multisensory techniques for voice lessons and choir rehearsals. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2009:

Beyond principles that guide singing is an educational principle to guide the teaching of singing. Simply put, less teaching leads to more learning. This conclusion comes out of an extensive line of research that is more thoroughly explained in the book Music Teaching Style (Gumm 2003). Other findings that support the basic less-is-more principle include the following:

  1. The more time the teacher takes to teach, the less time is allowed for students to be involved in the act of learning.
  2. The quicker the pace of learning activity, the more gets done yet at a shallower level of understanding.
  3. The more the student is expected to focus externally on the teacher, the less the student focuses on internal and personal sensations and insights.
  4. By doing most of the observing, thinking, and deciding, music teachers leave singers merely to act upon the decisions made for them.
  5. The tighter the teacher’s extrinsic or external control over learning, the less intrinsically students are motivated, the more narrowly learning is confined, the less sense the experience makes to students, and the less insightfully singers think and act on their own.
  6. A traditional conductor-decision centered choir mostly attracts singers who already prefer to learn by following a leader’s decisions, and to a lesser extent attracts or meets the learning needs of singers who prefer to learn by observation, self-reflection, or personal problem solving.
  7. The more singers observe their own progress, reflect on their own experience, and make decisions for themselves, the more they develop learning skills needed for continued self-directed learning beyond formal education.

A traditional teacher-oriented approach neglects sensory learning experiences of students. A full enough variety of learnable teaching skills has been identified that music teachers no longer have an excuse to stick to teaching traditions that only meet the needs of particular types of learners.

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