The Learning Map (7 points)

In the ‘transmission model’ of teaching, the teacher transfers a body of information to a relatively passive receiver, the student. While there is some information on singing that can be conveyed this way, the student needs to embody the knowledge in how they think, feel, and inhabit their own skin and muscle. Learning to sing is therefore also about learning new dispositions, attitudes, and behaviours – a process that works best through a dynamic teacher-student relationship. The Learning Map for this includes the following principles:

  1. The teacher-student relationship is a partnership. The teacher is neither master nor servant, but part of the singer’s ‘cooperative’; while the teacher may hold greater knowledge and experience in some areas, the student also knows things about themselves that the teacher does not. Goals and working methods need to be continually reviewed and re-negotiated.
  1. The student is responsible for his/her learning and voice. There is a delicate balance here. The singer must be prepared to trust the teacher in many ways. But, they must not switch off their powers of discernment or self-awareness. They must test all the teaching points against their own experience and sensation, cross-question the teacher for clarification, draw their own conclusions about what works and is healthy. While abdication in favour of the teacher’s agenda and methods is an option, it is not a wise path to follow.
  1. Learning is incremental. Teachers can model powers of nuanced observation and report the tiny, incremental gains, to offset any student’s tendency to be disappointed and de-motivated by what they see as failure to be perfect, learn ‘quickly enough’, or ‘get it right’.
  1. Learning is iterative and non-linear. A skill is a well-established set of neural pathways and cell structures that a learner builds over time – these send the necessary electrical signals to the muscles of vocalisation. Repetition and deep practice, making tiny re-adjustments after each attempt, are how these new brain structures are built (see Daniel Coyle’s excellent book, ‘The Talent Code’). A student may think they are going around in circles sometimes and not progressing, but it is more likely that the circle has key points on it that we re-visit, each time at a higher level of understanding and mastery – what is called the spiral model of learning. Another way to think about this is that we may move forwards and sometimes temporarily backwards through four levels: a) unconscious incompetence (unawareness of what or how we could improve), b) conscious incompetence (awareness of what is not working), c) conscious competence (doing things well, but having to concentrate very hard to do so), d) unconscious competence (fluency in the skill, ‘in the zone’).
  1. Practice makes permanent. Learning to sing is not about in-born talent or accident. To lay down and automate the neural pathways of the new skill (singing) means giving the best messages to the muscles and mind as frequently and consistently as possible. Lessons represent a very small proportion of our total voice use. If for the rest of the time we use our singing – and speaking – voices in an undisciplined way, then the brain-muscle relationship (thinking, moving, standing, breathing, vocalising) is programmed with inefficient habits. These become the norm, and the singer will find the brain-muscle relationship resistant to more efficient patterns being taught. Outside lesson time, a singer needs to be self-disciplined in following the principles learned in the lessons – at best, it’s a 24/7 commitment to ‘practise outside practice time’.
  1. Compassion enriches discipline. There are rules of physiology and acoustics, and the neuroscience of learning, that we cannot escape, as well as musical conventions that we must learn to work with (even though we may also push the creative envelope). But self-punishment and self-talk of inadequacy, yearning for approval or fear of disapproval are not conducive to successful learning. As teachers, while encouraging the best possible self-discipline in our students, we need to model compassion, so that students also learn compassion towards themselves.

Check for student understanding. For the observant teacher, the way a student sings is evidence of what has been learned. But what if the student has not learned something that has been taught?There is a saying in the world of medical education: “See one, do one, teach one.” Students need to hear and see good singing examples up close – so we must sing for them, and show videos of great singers. Then the student has to do it, embodying the lessons. Teaching or describing something often deepens our understanding; sometimes it can be useful for the student to teach their teacher what they know. And it means that the teacher can learn something more about the reliability of the student’s cognitive map.

(This essay comes from my article ‘“I know where I’m going”, but does my student? Using cognitive maps in singing lessons’, first published in ‘Singing’ – the Journal of The Association of Teachers of Singing (UK), Issue 63, Autumn 2012, pp.10-12)

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