Teachers’ responsibilities? Students’ responsibilities?

Looking back through these old articles has been illuminating in terms of seeing how thoughts about teaching have developed. My recent research as part of my voice pedagogy studies have seen me revisiting the ideas of what we concentrate on, and how we avoid concentrating on things that we should be avoiding. I’ll be writing a little more about this in the coming weeks, but you can see my articles from 2012 about letting it happen on this site.

Corneulius Reid, Oren Brown, and Giovanni Battista Lamperti all advocated that we should avoid thinking about the sound of the voice. It is very easy to write and say this. Do we, as teachers, say to our students “Don’t think about the sound of your voice” and then just assume that the student can do this? Do we think that we have done our part in imparting this bit of vocal wisdom, and that if the student has difficulty in grasping it then it is the student that is lacking in ability or application? I sincerely hope that this isn’t the case for singing teachers. Merely giving verbal information and expecting a full intellectual and somatic understanding on behalf of the student is not realistic – nor is it, in my opinion, ethical. Singing has been described, by Oren Brown amongst others, as a process of discovery. As teachers, one of our major roles is to assist and support in that journey of discovery. I have, sadly, been witness to less than supportive behaviour in the world of singing. Several years ago one of my students, at the time a talented soprano studying A-levels, was cast in a school production and was given a song that was far too low for her vocal range. Wishing to do her best for the school she kept attempting to sing it before she brought the problem to me. My suggestion was to transpose the song to a key which fit her voice. She was then able to develop a sense of character, and learn and perform the song with confidence and authority. Of course, that also meant that the band parts would need to be transposed for the performance. The school music teacher was very reluctant to do this, and insisted that she could sing it in the lower key, and it would be easy if she just “remembered to use her diaphragm!” In this simple, and often abused phrase, the teacher had absolved himself of all work, and laid the blame squarely at the student for doing it badly. If I were to take up athletics coaching, I could simply advise all of the sprinters to simply remember to run faster. If they didn’t win, it wouldn’t be my poor coaching, it would be them failing to follow my instruction. Fortunately, in the case of my student, the music teacher relented. The song was transposed, and my student was rewarded with a great ovation during the performance. Also fortunately, I don’t attempt to coach sprinters!

As a teacher, I believe I have a responsibility beyond simply giving information to the student. More importantly, I need to ensure that the student has an understanding of what is needed, that they may need a little experimentation to “get it”, and that making mistakes is part of the process. No student is expected to instantly understand and be able to execute a new concept without a little trial and error. As I constantly tell my students, nobody learns to ride a bike without first wobbling and maybe falling off the bike. Equally important is for the student to understand that they are in fact actively doing the learning, rather than being told what to do. Language is often an inadequate medium for conveying the subtleties of motor learning. I could not describe in exact detail how to ride a bike in order that a new learner wouldn’t still fall off at first. Learning to sing has often been described as assisted discovery. I would add that quite a lot of learning could be beneficially viewed the same way. The teacher needs to have patience and understanding when the student doesn’t immediately “get it”, and equally the students needs to know that they must put in the inquisitive effort to make their own discoveries of how they use their voice. Teaching really becomes a two-way relationship, that depends a lot on mutual trust and respect.

Now, I believe there’s a vacancy for a coach for Emma Raducanu. “Just keep hitting the ball back in until the opponent misses!” 

I reckon I’ve got this in the bag.