What Did You Learn In School Today?
Pete Seeger wants to know
Singers, what did you learn in your most recent voice lesson? Teachers, what have you successfully imparted to your students so far this week?
I’m inviting you to reflect on these questions because the greater our clarity about what is successfully imparted and actually learned, the more valuable the lesson and the more likely the learning will be retained.
There is certainly an ineffable, je ne sais quoi component to the way artistic growth occurs, and good communication between teacher and student often seems to happen as much via osmosis as it does through any method.
However, learning to sing does involve the development and integration of codifiable skills, including breathing, phonation, registration, resonance, diction, and flexibility, as well as the ability to apply those skills to dramatic and musical interpretation of repertoire.
So, aside from the je ne sais quoi, what did you learn in school?
The codifiable skills you learn in voice lessons consist of concepts and practical strategies that enable you to expand your singing technique in permanent, measurable ways. The je ne sais quoi moments are unique and ephemeral in the same way that a magical performance experience is, suspended in time and impossible to capture. Those moments provide motivation to woodshed and habituate the technical skills, because you know they will support and facilitate more such magical moments in the future.
However, I would argue that we could be doing a much, much better job of codifying and teaching those technical skills, particularly in our institutions of higher learning, and especially where classical singing is concerned. This is because we persistently adhere to a teaching model that evolved not from pedagogical wisdom, but rather from a well-intentioned attempt to develop academic programs centering on vocal instruction, so that any singer with the aptitude, desire, and means could learn those technical skills and experience and share those magical moments.
This poorly conceived teaching model has now been so ubiquitous for so long that we fail to notice how staggeringly inadequate it is for conferring the skill set classical singers need. We fail to notice that this model both makes it extremely difficult for great teachers to do their job effectively and enables teachers with little to no pedagogical skill or moral fibre to underserve and gaslight their students.
I failed to notice it myself, for decades. As a student, I did notice that I wasn’t progressing at a satisfying and encouraging rate. As a teacher, I noticed myself becoming continually flummoxed when I found myself saying the same things to the same smart, talented, committed students, week after week, without them seeming to take root. But it took me forever to start questioning the ubiquitous teaching model I had inherited, because it didn’t occur to me that there could be an effective alternative.
Until I realized there had to be. Because if there wasn’t, I didn't want to do this any more.
I have since developed an alternative voice teaching model that I have been finding much more successful and enjoyable, and I will describe it shortly. But first I’ll deconstruct the ubiquitous standard model, because so universally is it regarded as The
Way It’s Done that it can be very difficult to imagine an alternative, or even that there would be a need for one.
The teaching model to which I refer goes like this:
The singer shows up for their weekly lesson.
The teacher leads the singer through a series of vocal exercises, stopping to work on whatever doesn’t sound great or seems poorly coordinated.
The singer then performs a song or aria, and the teacher stops them to work on whatever doesn’t sound great or seems poorly coordinated.
The lesson concludes with the expectation that the singer will use the recording of the lesson to practice all of the things the teacher addressed.
I mean, that’s what a voice lesson is, right? Even though I’m the one writing this blog post, my conditioning still has me looking at the description I just composed and going, “Wait, how could it possibly be any other way? What the hell is she even getting at?”
What we collectively fail to observe is that this model is in itself not a curriculum. That there is no codification of skills to be imparted or specific results to be anticipated, other than a generalized hope of getting “better,” whatever that means. That the model requires no concept of pedagogy, or any actual competence at teaching. That there is no overarching structure, but rather an open-ended sequence of one-hour sessions. That there is virtually no requirement that the teacher teach anything, or that the student actually learn anything.
It’s not so much that there is something wrong with this model, as it is that there is nothing right about it. It’s not really even a teaching model. It’s just an appointment. An appointment with a start time and an end time, in between which one person makes noises and the other person provides commentary. Pedagogical excellence and actual learning are 100% optional.
An excellent, caring teacher with good organizational skills will make the most of each hour. An incompetent, ego-driven teacher will take phone calls during your lesson and shame you for your lack of progress. But so long as they keep their appointments, both will be considered to be doing a fine job, as there is rarely any oversight over what goes on during those appointments.
Even the most excellent, caring teacher will find it more challenging than it should be to facilitate actual learning, because without a structured, overarching curriculum for their students’ course of study, they have to use singing to teach singing. As I pointed out in a previous post, a coach would never just use pole vaults to teach pole vaulting, or approach teaching any other movement skill set in this fashion. It’s only us voice teachers who resign ourselves to using the entire skill set to teach the entire skill set, right from the get-go.
Unlike instrumental lessons, there’s no rudimentary phase in voice lessons where the student learns how their instrument works while practicing simple movements within a limited range. Unlike sports, there’s no rudimentary phase where the athlete learns and habituates the essential movements and coordination required for excellence in their field. The standard voice teaching model assumes even complete beginners already know how to sing, and the purpose of lessons is to identify and fix whatever doesn't sound great or is poorly coordinated. The exercises and the repertoire we expect students to cover in lessons presume the ability to do all of the things required for singing. The teacher has to address all of those things, all at once: the breathing, the registration, the resonance, the range, etc., all of these things have to be addressed whenever a not great sound or imperfect coordination asserts itself.
Consequently, none of these things ever gets addressed in a truly meaningful way, a way that would facilitate a deep conceptual understanding and convey a practical strategy for improvement. A great teacher will choose their battles carefully, homing in on the one or two things that seem most important. But because the whole point of the enterprise is to make the exercises and repertoire sound better, the individual skills themselves—the actual learning—are seen as a means to that end, rather than respected as the very heart of the instructional content.
When the standard model fails to help a student improve, teachers generally assume it’s due to a lack of aptitude, commitment, or effort on the part of the student. The excellent, caring teacher believes they are doing everything they can—after all, other students appear to be responding well to their instruction, so when a student fails to progress, it must be on them. The incompetent, ego-driven teacher makes the same assumption—the only difference is that they are likely to disparage the student for their presumed laziness and lack of talent.
My teacher for my doctoral studies accused me first of sabotaging my own progress, then of having a serious learning disability that I failed to disclose. He was an excellent example of an incompetent, ego-driven voice teacher who didn’t want a loser like me messing up his track record. My first teacher for my master's degree was another example—when I asked to leave her studio in pursuit of the actual learning she had no idea how to facilitate, she viciously excoriated me for my entitled attitude. In both of these cases, I concluded that my failure to progress was due to incompetence on their part. It never occurred to me that the bigger problem was the teaching model that enabled them to hide their incompetence.
It was only after I had the opportunity to work with two excellent, caring teachers and had started my own teaching career that it gradually became apparent to me how problematic the standard model is. Both of these teachers offered strong technical concepts and excellent strategies for applying them. Both knew how to clearly explain the purposes of their exercises and provided me with feedback in practical, specific terms. And when working with them, I always felt that they cared about both my progress in singing and about my overall wellbeing.
Yet I would still say that both were hobbled by a shitty teaching model that makes it so much more difficult for their students to make swift, steady progress than it ought to be.
I arrived at my current teaching model by conducting an audit of all of the skills that facilitate free, well-coordinated singing, reverse-engineering those skills, and creating a structured curriculum designed to impart and integrate all of them.
There is a structured curriculum. The curriculum for my Vocal Elementals program is a progressive sequence of 24 lesson modules that systematically teach and integrate all of these skills and qualities. Weekly one-on-one lessons are supplemented by exercises, as well as reading, viewing, and listening assignments. The curriculum is customized to meet each individual student’s goals, musical stylistic preferences, and current level of skill and understanding. It provides an overarching structure.
There is a codification of skills to be imparted and specific results to be anticipated. All of this is laid out in the form of a written assessment and customized syllabus that each singer receives after the first lesson module. Each individual lesson module is accompanied by clearly articulated outcomes for that lesson.
There is a clearly defined pedagogy that runs through the program. One of the outcomes for the final lesson module is for the singer to articulate their own pedagogical understanding and discuss how to apply it to their singing practice.
This model demands significantly more effort, time, commitment, and expertise than the standard model. But I am more than delighted to invest that effort, time and commitment, and to continue developing my expertise to meet the needs of my highly diverse studio, because my job satisfaction depends on successfully imparting skill and understanding to my students, and on their experiencing actual learning, every single time we meet. It means so much to me that, at long last, I have a teaching model that provides for all of that.
I wish that all of you could experience this model for yourselves. In addition to finding it vastly more effective than the standard model, I am also finding it vastly more enjoyable for my students. It’s so much more fun and interesting to them, to be developing and improving skills rather than trying to fix problems. Best of all, those who embark on this program soon develop the confident expectation that they will be able to master the skills required to sing well, alleviating the stress of wondering whether they’ll ever get there.
Despite its prevalence, that stress is not an inevitable component of learning to sing. It is an inevitable component of trying to learn to sing via the poorly conceived teaching model that is essentially an impoverished distant cousin to the one we inherited from our 19th-century predecessors.
The celebrated teachers of the bel canto era really had no choice but to use singing to teach singing. They lacked our modern understanding of anatomy, biomechanics, psychology, and motor learning. Therefore, they could really only undertake the training of those singers who demonstrated an instinctive ability to sing and a “naturally” beautiful voice. That training consumed as much of their time and energy as they were capable of investing in each student—far more than the once-weekly lesson most modern singers receive.
The celebrated opera singers of the early and mid 20th century also received far more individual attention than modern singers during their years of training. When I interviewed the great soprano and voice teacher Diana Soviero for The Singer's Audition & Career Handbook, she told me, “When I was young I didn’t have all of the distractions that singers contend with now; when I was studying, I just studied. And we had so much more time… So when I’m teaching, that hour goes so fast. I have to listen so intently. Otherwise, far too little attention will be paid to the fine details, and there are all these little notes that will just go unsung. I have students pursuing master’s degrees who can’t perform a trill or initiate a chromatic scale correctly. It’s very frustrating for me, because I would have been thrown out of my teacher’s studio if that had been me.”
What Soviero is complaining about is the inadequacy of our current voice teaching model for imparting singing technique in anything resembling a swift or efficient manner. For me, the most frustrating aspect of this is that it’s not like any thought or expertise went into developing our current model. What happened, at least here in the US, was that first, we adapted the 19th century model to train elite singers like Soviero who showed early promise and enjoyed enough privilege to receive many hours of instruction. Then, conservatory and university voice departments began to proliferate, with a view to making vocal instruction more widely accessible. But they didn’t take the time to reverse engineer the singer’s skill set and design an effective curriculum. Instead, they looked at the number of singers they would need to run their program well, the amount they would need to pay voice teachers to instruct them, the budget they felt they could afford to allot for lessons, and tah dah! the weekly one-hour model was born.
The teachers these schools hired were accustomed to using singing to teach singing, so no alternative to the open-ended sequence of minimally structured lessons was considered.
The schools had no means of evaluating voice teaching, so they hired teachers who had enjoyed successful performance careers and/or had trained some singers who went on to enjoy successful performance careers.
Thus began the modern era of voice teaching, where Survivorship Bias is primarily what passes for pedagogy: Do as I say, and you will get the result I achieved. And if you don’t, it’s because you lacked adequate aptitude and commitment, not because I lack competence and/or a well-designed, intentional teaching model.
That is why our voice departments simply do not offer the infrastructure and resources necessary to train all, or even most, of the singers they accept. When you have to use singing to teach singing, you need a lot of one-on-one time with each student, so you can realistically only train those who come in with strong instincts and a naturally beautiful voice, and even they will not receive anything resembling the amount of time and attention previous generations enjoyed.
That is why a significant majority of singers who enroll in classical voice performance programs graduate without having achieved a professionally viable level of competence. In the absence of a well-designed curriculum, it’s actually something of a miracle when any singer does manage to achieve that.
When singers are frustrated by a failure to make swift, measurable progress, they are often told it's because it takes time for the voice to develop, for the high notes/low notes to “come in,” for their artistry to mature, and so forth.
When a singer can’t access the high notes required for the repertoire that best suits their voice, or perform a fast, accurate scale or an elegant decrescendo, they are often told it’s because their voice is inherently incapable of managing these things and advised to stick to repertoire that does not require them.
When a singer needs to be told the same thing week after week after week, e.g. “relax your jaw,” “take a lower breath,” “stop shifting your weight from side to side throughout the entire aria,” they often find themselves accused of being lazy or self-sabotaging, or hiding a learning disability.
Yes: It does indeed take time for one’s voice, range, and artistry to develop. But not forever! And the amount of time it takes to impart the fundamental skill set a singer needs also need not take forever. My Vocal Elementals program imparts all of it in six to eight months, a far briefer interval than the four to six years singers will commonly take to complete undergraduate and graduate programs.
No: In the absence of verifiable physiological limitations (which may actually need to be ruled out, assuming access to adequate healthcare), no singer is inherently incapable of learning any of the skills required to perform their chosen repertoire well. When such a ridiculous thing is suggested, it really should be obvious to everyone that it’s the teacher who is incapable of teaching whatever skill the student is failing to master.
Maybe: Sometimes singers don’t practice frequently or efficiently enough to make measurable progress. Sometimes a singer’s preferred learning style is different from what a teacher might expect it to be. But it remains the responsibility of the teacher to ensure that the singer understands how to practice efficiently, and to discern and accommodate the singer's learning style to the best of their ability. Besides, if you’re so sure that the student is being lazy, or has issues obstructing their progress that you don't know how to contend with, you really owe it to yourself and to them to suggest they either discontinue lessons or move on to a teacher whose skills are better aligned with their needs.
What did you learn in school today? Or, what did you successfully impart?
If the answer is “not enough,” then I invite you to get in touch. Let’s have a conversation about it.
Because I can help! I already did the heavy lifting of codifying the skill set and creating a structure to effectively deliver it. The curriculum I've developed isn’t the only effective way to go about things—in fact, if you’re a teacher looking to improve your own delivery, you will almost certainly come up with something that will work better for your teaching style than what I have devised, because each of us has our own unique way of expressing ourselves.
Every singer shows up to lessons with their own unique array of expressive desires, natural aptitudes, challenges, and learning styles. It’s vital that voice teachers offer them a pedagogical model that takes all of those things into account, and offer a structure that will be both effective and enjoyable for them to engage in.
The only thing the standard model really has going for it is its familiarity and ubiquity. All of us deserve better.