Spiral Learning and Voice, Part 1

When I was studying for my music education degree, I took a course in which I learned about the concept of “spiral curriculum”. The idea is that a subject is revisited at intervals in order to deepen understanding as the student grows, either in cognitive development and/or quantity of knowledge.


In learning a complex skill such as singing or playing an instrument, we have to start with what we can do and gradually learn new things. Then those new things get refined and practiced. As we learn and practice, “going back to basics” can feel fresh and yield better results. New awareness and skills lead to stronger understandings of basic concepts.

An example: A new singer comes with major pitch-matching difficulties. At first he is unsure how to make his voice go up or down. We work with getting him to feel and hear which direction is up, and which is down. Then later, we get him to match our singing voice. After that, he may be able to start matching pitch with a piano or other instrument. Then he might be able to hold his pitch in a two-part harmony, a four-part harmony, etc. This is all “pitch-matching” but each time around the spiral he is matching pitch in a new context.

Context is very important. A skill that seems impossible in one context may be attainable to some degree in another. Anyone who has been around babies understands at least a little of how they learn to make vocal sound. In the context of a baby’s home, random, experimental vocal noise is expected. In the context of a first grade classroom, we expect vocal utterance to be “appropriate” speaking or singing, and little else. The child has learned over the years, through vocalizing in different contexts, what is appropriate and what is not, along with the skills needed to comply.

Teachers are learning as well, hopefully. Concepts come to be much better understood after repeated exposure and practice. Teachers need to keep learning, whether it’s empirically, through academic research, classroom study, mentorship, or independent reading. Inspiring teachers tend to be models of lifelong learning for their students. They cannot maintain an attitude of “I have all the answers” and also be open to learning and change.

In future “Spiral Learning” posts I’m going to write about some of the areas in which my understanding has changed as a result of revisiting a subject, sometimes many times.

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