Should a teacher demonstrate in lessons?

I know of two well-known teachers, one of whom is a woman who teaches sopranos who win competitions, while the other is a man who teaches winning tenors. Neither has had much success with the other’s voice type. Does this have to do with the students relating to the sound the teacher makes or is it simply that the teacher knows how to direct someone more like themselves? In either case, it would seem that these are not functionally oriented teachers, because the same functional principles should work across voice types.

Now, one may ask, so what? If Mr. Tenormaker is “producing” working tenors, who cares if he is a functional teacher or not? It may indeed not make any difference if he has a steady supply of tenors coming into his studio. However, those of us who don’t have the luxury of specialization have to work a different way. And honestly, I don’t think I would want a glut of musical theatre tenors in my studio. Vive la difference! So I teach men and women of many ages and levels of experience, and proceed with the attitude of taking them from wherever they are to something better.

So how do I show all these unique students how to do the exercises that I propose? How much do I sing, how much do I explain, and how much do I correct and manage their attempts? It’s hard! However, I think demonstration is valuable and helpful when accompanied with “here’s WHAT I’d like for you to sing” and never “sing it like this”. The WHAT is a pattern of pitch, vowel, volume, and rhythm. The student’s DOING makes the WHAT happen. Whatever sound emerges as they execute the exercise is useful feedback to me as to whether we are giving the voice greater ability or not. “How the teacher sounds” is virtually irrelevant if the teacher can illustrate the WHAT with freedom and clarity.

When the teacher demonstrates an exercise or demonstrates a correction, it should be accompanied by a clear explanation of the element needing attention (vowel, rhythm, etc.). If the student does not understand why they are singing an exercise, the only logical course of action is to mimic the teacher. Trying to sound like the teacher may or may not lead to better function, but it certainly will NOT lead to the student understanding what they are doing, and being able to get the voice working when conditions change (as in hormones, weather, respiratory system issues, different acoustical spaces, and absence of the teacher!).

Some people say that teachers should demonstrate very little in lessons to avoid having the student imitate. That makes sense, but sometimes a demonstration is worth a thousand words in clarifying the material to be sung. The context in which demonstration is used will have a big impact. “No! More like this!” is a very different thing from “Let’s try shading that vowel in this way.” As teachers we have to remember that although we may believe that every voice needs to be allowed its uniqueness, the student may not understand that. At first, the student might assume that mastery is found only by trying to sing like the teacher. Once the student understands that they will be singing with their own voices at all times, even when the WHAT is very specifically directed by the teacher, then extensive demonstration is unlikely to be a problem.

The paragraphs above are about the student’s issues with the teacher’s demonstrating. The other major consideration is that the teacher must always be protective of his/her own voice, and not demonstrate in ways or for excessive lengths of time that could cause injury. This includes advising the teacher to not imitate the student!

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