Learning by Doing

The only way to learn something physical in this world is through trial and error. The way to make the trial and error period shorter and less frustrating is to get a helper to guide you. There isn’t any other way. Either you do it alone or you find a useful guide.

If the person who is guiding you hasn’t been on the journey successfully first, what kind of a guide would he be? He could tell you that he read about the place you were going, he talked to some people about it, he went to some lecture about it, he had spoken to others who had been there, and maybe, in some way, this information would be better than nothing. If, however, the guide had been there, perhaps many times, he could say, “Look, when you get there, it would be easy to go to the first place you see near the hotel, but drive past that place until you get to the gas station and turn right. That’s the best hotel on the island and it’s practically unknown.” Wouldn’t that be better guidance?

If you want to teach tennis, or golf, or the rhumba, and you aren’t very good at any of them, what kind of a teacher would you be? And, if you were easily able to do any of these with little effort and very little training, how would you assist someone who had little aptitude and hardly any training? It wouldn’t be a very good match up of teacher and student.

People are sometimes very dismissive of singing. Rufus Wainwright’s mother said in his NY Times interview that because he was going towards “pop” music when he was young, he didn’t need training because you don’t in that style of music. Since she was a professional singer herself, that is an incredible amount of ignorance for her to have, but it isn’t unusual. Some of the clips of Rufus sitting at the piano singing are so dreadful it’s hard to watch or listen. If anyone needed training, it was surely him. The idea that training is going to make you “classical” is so strong, that many “popular” music vocalists have avoided it. If you avoid it and you end up sounding as bad as he typically does, you end up being someone who really needed training and should have had it. What a terrible cycle!

One of the things that singing depends upon is listening. This fact is largely unacknowledged. If you can’t hear it and don’t recognize it it is nearly impossible to replicate it. Yet listening is discouraged, lest students copy other singers instead of developing their own style or interpretation. While that may be a hazard, if we do not encourage young vocalists to listen to the great singers who have gone before, if we do not support the idea that the “palate” of the ear needs to be developed over time, we are making it much harder for them to know what it is that they are being asked to learn. They cannot accidentally fall into the correct sound without a context. Yet many approaches advocate “do not listen to yourself” or condemn a student who seems to be “listening to himself”. Very unproductive!

Doing needs a context. If I don’t have one I never really know if I am going in the expected or desired direction. If I am walking in the woods and I see nothing around me but trees, I hang on tightly to my trusty map because it is my only hope of getting to my destination. I need to know where I am going in order to know if I am on my way to getting there. Without that, having the map would only be useful if I wanted to come back out exactly the same way I went back in. With singing, that’s not possible.

Do students get a “context” course? Do they understand not only what they need at any given time in their vocal lives but also what everyone who studies singing needs? Do they know that everyone has to work on certain things or are they under the impression that such work is unique to them? Do they realize that in good time they can develop the capacity to sound like an opera singer or a folk singer or a gospel singer, but that they might not sound the way they want to right at the beginning? Are they working with the assumption that the sound should just “show up” and then it will be there all the time because they have “discovered” it?

If we want them to learn by doing, through trial and error, with proper guidance, and if we give them a context, and guide them with appropriate suggestions along the way, we are doing a good job. If we know, because we have made the sounds ourselves, what they feel like as behavior, we won’t have to guess or assume. We will KNOW we know.

If you want to teach, understand these things first.

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