One way to learn something is to be completely immersed in it.
Many years ago I took some jazz lessons with a pianist. Having no idea at all about what I was doing, I just sang. I tried to feel “jazzy”. Every now and then he would say, “No, you can’t do that. It’s not in the groove. It’s not jazz.” I found this confusing, because he couldn’t tell me why it wasn’t or what to do about making it better. We would just try again. Sometimes he would sing it for me and I would just copy him. I don’t think I did too well even then.
He grew up with jazz, his life was jazz, he could eat, drink and sleep jazz, and all that jazz is. It was his world and his life. He likely just taught himself (don’t know) but there were many things about singing jazz that were very clear to him and completely opaque to me. Of course, I could have gone back to school to actually study jazz. It’s not like it isn’t available. But at that time, I didn’t really have a clear path to do that and I just tried to listen to more jazz vocalists. Eventually, that helped a lot. At least it gave me a better context for the art.
Many things in life are like that. Language is one, culture is another — but, you have to want to learn. You can be in the midst of something and shut it out (although I think that takes a lot of willpower). Most of us “pick things up” if we hang out with whatever it is for a long time and we associate with others who hang out with it, too. Immersion will allow you to pick up things by osmosis, if you are open to that. Somehow or other we just “get it” and find that we are aware of something that we didn’t notice before.
It’s very hard to teach someone to sing without a context. If the person who wants to sing hasn’t really listened to singing, you can’t substitute for that in the lessons. You have to ask her to go out and listen on her own. If she wants to sing jazz, it’s better to have her listen to jazz vocalists (and instrumentalists, too) but not necessarily to listen to opera, and vice versa. While listening to all kinds of voices in all kinds of music and from all eras would give a person a very good general awareness of what a human being does while singing, it takes concentrated listening to inform the mind of the context of the style. You have to really be in it, surrounded by it and let it drench you in all directions if you intend to make it fully your own. There is also no really good substitute for live listening. Recordings are fine but these days they are so much manipulated and tinkered with, you don’t really know whether or not what you are hearing has anything to do with a real person who is really singing.
I am someone who can pick something up by just being around it for a long enough time. I notice what goes on in my surroundings, with other people (in terms of social clues) and what is part of the environment. I gather information not only from what is but from what is not, but I don’t do that all the time with everything. No one does. We all notice different things in different ways. If you are going to sing, however, you have to notice singing and singers, and you have to broaden what you notice to include as many ingredients as possible. The more you immerse yourself, the more you will “osmose” the world you are taking in.
Remind your students to listen and listen a lot.