How Teaching Singing is Like Gardening

“Teaching singing has much in common with the art of gardening. In many ways, one cultivates the garden of vocalism just as one approaches the flower garden: prepare the soil, plant firmly, water, fertilize, weed, and mulch, then enjoy the bloom. These responsibilities are equally rewarding. Careful soil preparation is an essential first step for both the singing teacher and the gardener. A good gardener looks over the terrain and determines conditions of light and shadow, observes what is already popping out of the soil, and sees what should be kept and what discarded. The wise teacher of singing listens to the new student, and determines the nature of the instrument and what technical weeds may be crowding out valuable growth.
 
In both cases, the weeding-out process must begin. The voice pedagogue faces a far greater task than does the sower of seed. Whereas the gardener may be able to immediately replace old, undesirable cultivars, the teacher of singing must proceed cautiously, substituting a new seed or planting in the place of each weed removed. The voice pedagogue cannot plow up the entire pedagogic plot and begin over. A teacher who declares, “We will have to start all over!” will not build a new garden but destroy the fertile plot itself. Vocal weed-killer does not work in the voice studio. An experienced gardener does not upset plant growth by vigorously pulling out every weed around a delicate plant, an action that disturbs the stability of its roots and causes the plant to wither. Tonal concepts cannot be yanked out; they can only gradually be altered. A form of tonal hybridization is required: improve the original tonal planting by altering it through the progressive ingraining of healthier influences around it. This can be done through a demonstration of good tone and by the application of an organized, systematic technique.
 
Seed cannot successfully be sown in cold, wintry soil. Harsh words do not produce vocal blossoms. Nor can young plant growth be transplanted without undergoing a hardening-off process accomplished by gradually accustoming the young plant to the changing conditions of light and temperature. So is it with the singing voice. One of the least productive approaches for either gardening or voice teaching is to try overnight to turn a recently severed cutting into a thriving bush. When the new sprout, the altered concept, has been properly planted, the nurturing process advances gradually. It cannot be forced.
 
Now comes the endless process of watering and mulching. Just as watering is essential to the life of a plant, so is encouragement to the singer. No matter how desirable it may be to rid the young transplant of unwanted growth around it, one must learn to wait until roots are more deeply embedded before ideal conditions become the norm. To change tonal concepts requires time. A garden is mulched to maintain uniform soil conditions and to discourage the return of weeds. Voice teaching involves a great deal of careful mulching. Good mulch does not act as a heavy blanket that suffocates growth. Voice mulching consists of guarding against the return of specious tonal concepts, and restrains physiologic and acoustic distortions from cropping up again. Good pedagogic mulch is weed-free because it contains only recognized nutrients required by the young plant. Experimental components are not found in proven mulch.
 
A strong vocal plant that has been properly nurtured can withstand adverse conditions—bouts with illness, unsuccessful competitions, unfair reviews, personal problems, financial crises—and in the long run will turn out to be more secure because of them. To both gardener and teacher comes the joy of watching plants mature, bud, and flower.”
 
Miller, Richard. Solutions for singers: Tools for performers and teachers. Oxford University Press, 2004.

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