Who is in charge of a singer’s learning?


This is an edited version of my posts (without other people’s responses) in a topic (Jan 2013) I started on a LinkedIn discussion group consisting of singing teachers. I wanted to explore what role / responsibility teachers felt a student has in the teacher’s studio, and in their own learning, and how should they relate to their teacher and behave in the teacher-student dynamic. This article is really a continuation of ideas that began in two other articles to be found on this blog:

  1. “I know where I’m going”, but does my student? Using cognitive maps in singing lessons
  2. How can we help students become independent of teachers?

John Barrymore and Marian Marsh, ‘Svengali’, 1931

Svengali … and My Fair Lady

It is not uncommon to find both singing teachers and students hold the view that it is ultimately the teacher’s responsibility what a singer-student does. But while teachers must do their best to be well informed and responsible, the student’s voice and the student’s experience is ultimately the student’s responsibility. Students need to be wary of developing an unquestioning dependence on teachers, undermining their sense of responsibility for their own voice, goals and development. While teachers may have an experienced and well-informed sense of what is healthy for a student’s voice, within their personal aesthetic, artistic and commercial goals, teachers need to step back from becoming a Professor Henry Higgins (Pygmalion, My Fair Lady),moulding a student who must surrender their autonomy and critical faculties. There was a famous story about this by George du Maurier (1894), who created the figure of Svengali, a master musician and hypnotist who uses his powers to make another (apparently ‘tone-deaf’) character (named ‘Trilby’) into a famous singer. It is a cautionary tale for singing teachers. Here is a short description from Wikipedia:

“Under his spell, Trilby becomes a talented singer, performing always in an amnesiac trance. At a performance in London, Svengali is stricken with a heart attack and is unable to induce the trance. Trilby is unable to sing in tune and is subjected to “laughter, hoots, hisses, cat-calls, cock-crows.” Not having been hypnotized, she is baffled and though she can remember living and traveling with Svengali, she cannot remember anything of her singing career.”

It is not enough for teachers to know why they lead a singer down a certain path, or offer a particular exercise. The student must understand from the inside out exactly what they are doing and why. A teacher is failing a student who says they always sing better in a lesson than anywhere else. Good teachers ‘hand singers back to themselves’, and help them to become independent learners, and able to trust themselves in private practice and warm-up time as well as in the performance space…. In my early years as a teacher, a wise mentor told me that our goal as teachers should be to find ways of making ourselves redundant in our students’ lives as quickly as possible.

Encouraging student autonomy is not the same as teacher abdication
  1. There is a cult of personality that builds up around some teachers. Students will become better singers and performers, who both acknowledge their teachers whilst refraining from trading on their teacher’s name to get singing work or students for themselves.
  2. Teachers can encourage students to try and find flaws in what they are teaching, and to come back with research that may extend the teacher’s knowledge as well as the student’s. (It’s a bit like Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films encouraging his valet Cato to attack him when he least expects it ….)
  3. There are some paradoxes-tensions-balances in the work of singing teachers. One of them is that they are encouraging students to become independent, and yet there are times when students need to surrender their defences, let go in order to take a risk and evolve beyond what they already know, which means sometimes trusting the teachers. Teachers might help students more by resisting demands to teach how to do high notes, or semiquaver runs, in the first couple of lessons.

Teachers can play a significant role in negotiating a student’s ‘syllabus’, and the timescale. If a student’s goals clearly deviate from what is realistic or healthy, teachers can try to help the student realise that. If the student still insists on unilaterally defining the scope of each lesson, then the teacher’s task may be to find a way to part company on good terms. The teacher can still feel that they have done a service, because they have modelled a way of honouring what they understand as principles of good voice stewardship.

Suggesting that a student cross-checks what they are being taught is a way of deepening learning; that is not endorsement for a teacher to rely on a student finding vocal technique information that the teacher does not know or not taken the trouble to research and learn themselves! The encouragement to find gaps in what the teacher has offered is to encourage an enquiring mind, and the student’s personal responsibility for their learning, and to engage in informed dialogue with the teacher.

The starting point for any teacher is that they believe they have a role to play in the student’s development; otherwise they wouldn’t be calling themselves a teacher. The ideas in this article have been an exploration of the relationship between teacher and student, and the scope of the responsibility of each. The teacher-student relationship is a learning partnership, where both have a role to play. The teacher has information, ideas and guidance to impart to their students – the students’ responsibility is to test it and make it their own. And s/they have to fit it into their bodies and psyches. Each student is unique, and will develop their own language and set of associations for their singing knowledge. They must be disciplined, observant, persistent, enquiring, and most certainly not passive. Teachers can help by reading the student as closely as possible, physically, acoustically, emotionally and psychologically. For every micro-deviation from what is most efficient and beautiful and honest in their singing, the teacher can take responsibility for helping find out why that is, and encourage the student towards excellence in their craft. 

This is not to suggest 100% self-direction by the student any more than to suggest 100% submission to the teacher’s will and (inevitably) incomplete knowledge (like in the Svengali story).

If the teacher is offering solid concepts and methods for making significant progress, that is clearly offering a good set of tools to the student. And it can help when a teacher continues their own learning, so that they constantly expand the knowledge they have, and their methods for making the singing skills transparent and achievable. The teacher is in charge of the teaching, and the student is ultimately in charge of their learning. When teachers assume responsibility as teachers, they can encourage students to explore what responsibility they may also have in their learning, singing, voice care, and performance.

Should the teacher set the rules?

On the discussion topic, one of the teachers wrote: “it’s up the teacher to fix the voice and not the student”, and also “In the end it is the teacher’s job ultimately define how the exercise should and should not be approached by the individual student”. These two statements might suggest that what happens in the teaching studio should be the unilateral responsibility of the teacher. But it is not exclusively up to the teacher to fix the student’s voice. Nor is it ultimately the teacher’s job to define how an exercise is applied; the student, logically, does that, because s/he is the one operating the muscles. Even when the student is in the teacher’s hands and sight, it is still up to the student how they operate the voice – teachers ‘can lead the horse to water, but can’t make it drink’. A teacher can define their view of what’s needed, how an exercise might be applied and so on, but the student can still take their own view of it, and apply it differently, even suggest a new perspective on what might work for them because they know how their own mind works. 

Clearly, once the student is out of the teacher’s sight and hands, it is up to them. But the student carries at least 50% of the responsibility inside the teacher’s studio as well.

Capturing knowledge

Who is responsible for making sure the student has learned what they need to? Teachers can use many methods to help anchor learning, but, of course, the student has to work out how to ‘own’ the knowledge. Some might want to make audio recordings of the lessons, and can even take responsibility for bringing the recording equipment they want to use.

Towards the end of every session, teacher and student can review and write down

  1. what they did and why
  2. what were the key principles
  3. what were the actions / techniques, and the sequencing of these
  4. what out of all that will the student will focus on before the next lesson.

From this, students can build their own resource files to refer to when they are practising, diagnosing and addressing what comes up in their practice time and performances. It also becomes a resource file for those singers who are also developing their singing teaching skills.

Note taking can be part of the discipline of the student making the information their own, finding their own words for it, and so on. If lessons are ‘high intensity’, with a lot of very precise information, it is useful to debrief towards the end. It does not need to take more than 5 minutes. For some students it could be the first time they have been guided on how to think about their learning process, and develop their learning skills – even adults who think they are highly efficient learners. Singing lessons can be a way for students to ‘up their game’ in learning methods as well as singing.

Note taking doesn’t have to happen with all the students. Some may be confident that they have registered and remembered what they need to, and the teacher may be confident of that too. But even those with good memories can anchor memory more securely by writing down what they learn. The last thing a singer wants is to end up like Trilby, like a puppet with nobody to pull their strings.

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