Discourse and Dissent in Vocal Pedagogy

myway_highway598x215Recently a voice teacher posted a controversial statement on his Facebook page. When others responded to it, he allowed comments that agreed with him and removed those that did not. This has been his pattern in the past. He is accustomed to writing large articles and posting them on his website without an opportunity for readers to comment, and seems to think that Facebook is a similar one-way street. Why he chooses to make pedagogical proclamations without wanting to engage in discussions about them is a mystery, but it brings up a problem that happens over and over again in the vocal pedagogy field.

Voice teachers generally work in isolation. There is virtually no team-teaching, supervised student teaching, observation, oversight, or licensure for private voice teachers. By “private”, I mean teachers teaching individual lessons, whether within an academic institution or not. If a voice teacher is able to attract students and earn a living, and is the least bit prone to egocentric thinking, we sometimes see some or all of the following:

  1. The teacher automatically believes that his instruction is highly effective.
  2. He believes that he has the one true way and all other peers are suspect.
  3. He has nothing to learn from peers.
  4. A criticism of his methods is a personal attack.
  5. A question about his methods is the same as a criticism.
  6. Students of the studio take on the biases of their teacher, since the isolated teacher presents everything as irrefutable fact.
  7. Evidence of peers producing similar or better results seems threatening or is denied.
  8. Considering changing a long-held belief or way of doing something is threatening.

These things can come about because human beings are social creatures, and when a person has a part of their life that is NOT shared, such as how they work, an imbalance can form. Sharing is more than showing. It includes explanation, discussion, and openness. The “social” part of social media includes people interacting. Billboards and magazine articles are not social media. Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp are not magazines.

In academic and scientific research, there is a process called peer review. Peer review means that a panel of colleagues examines the person’s work, asks questions, and elicits defenses of assertions in an orderly, neutral, civilized manner. This is for the common good, and helps better information to be delivered to the public. Contrarily, a voice teacher, working in isolation, coming to their own synthesis and conclusions about any part of vocal pedagogy, will often write a book or post to websites without peer review, cross-check, or references.

If you are going to write about singing, you need to be very clear about what you state as fact, and what you state as your working hypothesis (your “idea” about something). This can be as simple as framing your writing as “this is how I do X” or “I believe that X” or “Here’s what Ms. So-and-So said about X”. Stating something as irrefutable fact is a slippery slope.

If someone questions what you are saying, the chances are in favor of their simply wanting to learn more. If they state their disagreement, a continuing discussion of the two (or more) sides, in a civilized discourse, can yield much helpful fruit. It may be uncomfortable at times, and it may be confusing, but it’s not bad or undesirable per se. As teachers we must be willing to listen and to bend, or we will not grow. And what fun is it to refuse to grow?

There are many things that can lessen this dictatorial tendency among voice teachers. Team-teaching, referrals between studios that expose students to different teaching styles, vocal pedagogy discussions, vocal pedagogy certification programs where you can get a more in-depth look at a way of doing things, and mutual observations of teaching – all can be very productive.

In medicine, surgeons observe each other’s work. In research, no one will accept the findings of one person without corroboration. In public school teaching, a teacher is not allowed to run a classroom without student teaching, certification, and ongoing (at least twice a year) observations by a school administrator. Restaurants must be inspected yearly. Examples abound. A teacher teaching in isolation for 30 years who is unwilling to receive input from the outside world is going to be very susceptible to developing some strange ideas about his place in the profession, and will reduce his opportunities to learn.

If you don’t want to learn, why would you want to teach?

7 thoughts to “Discourse and Dissent in Vocal Pedagogy”

  1. Thank you for a great post, Brian. I know you are a busy guy, and look forward to reading everything you have to say: I simply wish you posted more often!

    This private teaching becoming isolated thing? It is a problem, one which I work at ameliorating with discussions/coffee dates/dinner with colleagues. We all have our biases, which can benefit from more information, not less.

    Wishing you all the best- Daniel

  2. I LOVE this, Brian. I too get too isolated and can start to think very myopically. Thank goodness we have SVW!

    1. Yes, Eden. It seems to be human nature to need the interaction, and also human nature that makes us a little strange if we don’t get it.

  3. What a wonderful article about TEAM TEACHING!!!
    Not only this, but also all other articles of yours are truly inspiring!!!

    I really adore your way of thinking OUT OF THE BOX to make MUSIC more productively reachable.

    Hats off to you Brian!

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