Top Five Things I Learned in Voice Pedagogy for the Music Educator - Winter 2016 at Northwestern University
You may be asking: Why only five? Why not a full ten? Well, this was only a half credit class, so it only gets half a list.
5) Fifty minutes is way too short a time to hold a college class in.
This doesn't relate as directly to the content of the course, but this is the first college-level course I've taken that has only met twice a week for fifty minutes, and boy did it show. Maybe it was getting bogged down in adminstrivia, or taking a little extra time to really kick the discussion and lectures into gear, but the class always seemed to be over before anyone in the room was ready for it to be. It's a testament to the depth and breadth of the content in the syllabus that the class ended up this way, but also a cautionary tale about planning. I understand that the instructor was teaching his first college class ever, and I was happy to be a "guinea pig" for him improving and tightening up the class for the future, but this course was very much a lesson in long term pacing.
4) Vocalists and instrumentalists treat warmups very differently.
While this was not the most important larger concept I picked up in this class, it was certainly the most surprisingly. The idea that even college-level voice students come into lessons and will often spend more than 25% of the length of the lesson on warmups (sometimes up to 50%, even 75% in the case of a lesson I observed) is baffling to me. In an hour piano lesson, I've never spent more than 10-12 minutes on scales and technique, devoting the rest of the time to repertoire. In oboe lessons, I would spend a bit more time on technique and tone quality, but would not refer to those exercises as warm-ups. It may be a question of nomenclature more than anything else. In the instrumental world, we don't necessarily think of technical and tonal exercises necessarily as warm-ups, even though they accomplish very similar things to singers' "warm-ups." What that distinction really says is how much more nuanced and complicated the human voice is than almost any other instrument. Instrumentalists can much more easily separate the different elements that make up their music-making. But for singers, it's all tied up into one mechanism that is often a mystery. And perhaps to help solve that mystery and more clearly understand what is inside them, they spend more time on warmups.
3) Get away from the piano!
I'm a competent pianist. Some might even say I'm pretty good. I'm a much better pianist than singer, oboist, guitarist, or any other form of music making. The experience I've had, I would think, would be a consistently enriching element to bring to the table in any musical setting. And yet, when it comes to a situation where teaching or evaluating the VOICE is the prime directive, my comfort at the piano only proved to be detrimental. Whether in warmups, choral teaching in practicums for another class, or teaching a prvate lesson, I always ended up listening too much to my own playing and losing focus on the vocal component. Going forward, as much as I can, I will use the piano for pitch reference, and make as much of the singing as possible a cappella--especially in individual voice lesson settings. I get the sense that it will not only be better for me, but better for the singers I work with.
2) The kind of music you want to sing does not make you any more or less of a musician.
This came up in nearly every interview in Joan Melton's book. It was a big theme in the talk from Timm Adams. It was an idea built right into the very fabric of the course: someone will be able to come to you asking for helping singing ANY kind of song, and you'll know how to direct and coach them. Even for ourselves, when selecting a solo to sing to the end of the class, everything from an Italian art song to Ariana Grande was permitted. The key with acknowledging this diversity is knowing how to handle it. Because the human voice and vocal mechanism is as complex and nuanced as it is, it allows us not only to succeed in so many styles of singing, but also to hurt ourselves in just as many. As such, while every kind of music and singing style is artistically valid, but it always works best when you handle it intelligently and with the right mindset and technique. And with so many different styles, genres, and songs out there, finding the right mindset and technique isn't always natural. But that brings us to number one:
1) There's always an answer.
There are a lot of books out there about singing. There are even more scholarly journal articles about singing. There are hundreds of different classes to take, lectures to attend, and teachers to follow who will all have different areas of expertise, opinions about repertoire, and values about everything from vocal health to practice habits. And while the wealth and drastic diversity of information out there about singing can be daunting, it's weirdly reassuring to know that no matter what issue I come across as a student or teacher, there's a pretty darn good chance that someone has already thought about, done the requisite research (formal, anecdotal, or otherwise) and published an answer. That answer may not always be the right one for me, but I can at least know that it exists. Having the core texts by Davids/Latour and Smith as jumping off points are great to keep on the shelves (to use, as the instructor suggested, like encyclopedias), but the ideas presented in the various lectures, other readings, and my own continued musical experience are always good to keep in the mix. Finding answers is easy, now that I know where to look. It's finding the right answers for me that may be the ongoing challenge.