Models and Maps for Singing

As students learn, they consciously or subconsciously try to fit each teaching point coherently into a bigger picture – developing their own ‘cognitive map’ of how singing works. But do we as teachers have a coherent map? Can we articulate it? Is it useful to our students if we do so? In an AOTOS article last year (Spring 2011 – ‘How can we help students become independent of teachers?’), I talked about singers’ developing autonomy in their warm-ups. But what about the longer term process of developing the voice? How do we know what to do next with a student? And how does a student navigate the learning process?

Over years, a teacher works with many different kinds of singers; we learn more about the craft from our students, our colleagues, further training, books and other resources, amassing an enormous amount of knowledge about singing and how to teach it. So usually we can respond immediately and effectively to what a student presents. We rely heavily on our ability to draw fluently on our large databank of experience, and an existing ‘map’ (at least in our subconscious mind) of how singing works and which direction the singer might need to take.

But what if the student does not share our map? Perhaps they have a different, very inaccurate map, or even no map at all? If the student doesn’t understand how a lesson fits into the teacher’s bigger picture, they can experience a number of problems: confusion, a misguided sense that the teaching point is irrelevant, loss of motivation, resistance, impatience, failure to learn the technique because they don’t connect it with other necessary parts of the map. Without a reliable map early in the work, a student can develop a scattered approach to learning and a poor and incomplete technique, and make little progress, wander off to yet another teacher, or even give up altogether. Also, leaving a student without a map can encourage an unquestioning dependence on us, undermining their sense of responsibility for their own voice, goals and development.

Student and teacher may have different goals (destinations), as well as shared ones. It’s as well to find these out early on in the work together, and to agree what places on the map we think we should visit. We can re-negotiate our itinerary at any time, of course. Having a shared map early on means that, perhaps when the going gets tough or the path seems obscure, the student can either be reassured that they are still on track, or shown how to get back on track, and why it’s important to do so.

Some students like a ‘large scale’ map with lots of detail right from the beginning. The advanced singer can use this to take responsibility for their own voice and make an informed decision on what to work on. But for the beginner singer, too much detail too soon can be daunting; it can also lure them into being too cerebral, and avoid engaging properly in the physical work or risking letting go into their body and feeling. It’s probably better to give such a student a ‘small scale’ sketch map to begin with; as the work continues over weeks and months, greater levels of detail can be added. Our aim is to help a student develop an accurate and useable cognitive map of how singing works. And while there are general features of singing that should be on all the maps, the student may well want to mark the map with reminders of what routes work best for them personally.

In Spring 2011, I quoted the statistician George Box who famously said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” In our current metaphor, we need to remember that ‘the map is not the territory’. In other words, while a map is useful, it is not the same as the lived reality, and we have to accept that every map will emphasise some information, at the expense of leaving out other elements that could be helpful. In practice, this means that a teacher might need to provide a student with a number of different maps over the course of the work – maps can reassure, motivate and empower students.

In the words of the well known folksong, “I know where I’m going”, because I already have a reasonable idea of worthwhile destinations, the territory, and possible routes. But I have found that students also like to know where I am leading them, and why.

Here are three of the main maps that I use.

(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)

2 thoughts on “Models and Maps for Singing”

  1. This thinking around how to engage with an apparently directionless student is interesting. One approach presented to me by a further education lecturer was centred on forensic listening. He likened knowledge to a rain of understanding. Some students already have disparate raindrops of knowledge that lack coherency of understanding. He believed that his role was rather like a raincloud, to release carefully targeted drops of knowledge which would connect the students’ existing raindrops together, to form first a puddle, then a stream of understanding over time. Once that basic pool of shared understanding and knowledge had been achieved, a learning map could be jointly agreed and pursued with enthusiasm.

    1. Alexander Massey

      I’m intrigued. The analogy seems to suggest that all the student’s disparate raindrops are healthy, safe water, and just need to be connected in one puddle. Unfortunately, some water is contaminated, and it might be better not to mix new, good water with it.

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