More About Sequential Learning

If we deal in learning concepts, i. e., how we take in, process, organize, and use information, singing is no different than anything else. It is part physical skill, and part several other things. Good singing is a well coordinated behavior that either occurs naturally (in some people) or is cultivated through specific developmental procedures. It involves pitch accuracy (you really can’t sing until you can control pitch pretty well) and a strong desire to sing. I don’t think much else is really a requisite for some kinds of singing. The idea that you want to communicate something should be there, but how and in what form, is up to the vocalist. Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger never sounded wonderful but they certainly have had many fans. Maria Callas deteriorated quite a bit at the end of her career but she kept singing anyway and her many loyal followers didn’t let her vocal troubles diminish their enthusiasm.

Cultivated, trained singing, like cultivated, trained speech is an oddity in our culture. It belongs in a pantheon of things that the average person has no reason to seek. It could be thought of as residing in the same realm as attending a “finishing school for young ladies” or going to a fancy prep school so you can get into an Ivy League college. Not for Joe or Josephine the Plumber, by a long shot.

Cultivated singing (aimed at opera and its sister styles) is only appreciated by a few people in our society, relative to the general population. Classical music has the smallest fan base of all styles and classical singing is the smallest part of classical music. Yet, in our university system, it is still the predominant way singing students are taught. In some liberal arts or humanities programs it could be a way to impart general cultural sophistication, as is the case with any arts appreciation course, but in most cases there is some degree of application involved. Most of the singing training is aimed at teaching students to sing, not teaching them about singing in an historical or anthropological way.

Do we want students to sound trained or enhanced? Do we want them to sound natural or healthy? Do we want them to sound studied or colloquial? Has anyone ever asked you those questions?   : )

What we want is to train students to sing whatever styles they might want to sing in a way that sounds appropriate and is satisfying. We want to have them be recognizable as themselves and as human beings (not sound-making robots). We want them to understand how to sing in a way that is free, authentic and natural when that’s what’s desired and enhanced, strengthened and refined when that’s the goal. It depends, of course.

Generally speaking, we learn one thing at a time. If it is something that is very new, something which we have never encountered in any form, it will take longer to learn it. If it is something that is familiar, even if because we have only heard about it, then it won’t take quite as long. If it is something that is very familiar, it might not take long to learn at all. And, the more complex the behavioral change is, the more time it needs to become clear and accessible.

I have seen lessons where the teacher loads the student with so many corrections, one on top of the other, that the student has virtually no chance of digging out from under them. Even bright, talented students can become overwhelmed and confused and unable to sort out what is being requested. Teachers can assume, incorrectly, that an ingredient in technical training is easy because it was for them. It might not be so with the student, however, and a good teacher will recognize that when it occurs.

If a teacher is to teach sequentially, first the student’s capacities have to be evaluated fairly. What is this person capable of, what is happening when she sings? Does she have any awareness of it, and can she control it? If she is asked to vary it in some way, can she? If not, how close to the instructions can she come and how long does it take for her to get there? If you watch her coordination and listen to her sound, what catches your own awareness? Why?

You cannot even begin to come up with a reasonable sequence of learning if you do not begin with these things as the basis of your evaluation. Literally any sequence, pulled from the sky for no reason, could be useful, but it could also take three lifetimes for that random sequence to help the student and we don’t have that much time.

The sequences have to be easy things, simple things, first. Harder things second. Very challenging things last. If you do not understand what is difficult for all singers versus what was difficult for you versus what is difficult for this particular student, you aren’t going to be able to configure a reasonable sequence for your students. You will just hunt and peck and waste time — both yours and theirs.

In order to give a sequential order to vocal development through exercises, one needs to have a goal for the student’s training overall, a goal for the short term (a semester, perhaps) and a goal for the lesson, one lesson at a time, with room to adjust as time passes. The depth and breadth of your teaching cannot be limited to a rigid approach but must be adaptable in a variety of ways and that is only possible through diligent training, study and time.

There really are things that should be learned first, or early on, and things that should come later, and things that shouldn’t be addressed until the student has quite a bit of skill in a range of capacities. If you have only yourself to go by, you will easily go astray.

We have a Level I training of Somatic Voicework™ in New York in May, in Oklahoma in June, and in Virginia in July. Come join us at any of these locations or come to Michigan in October or Massachusetts in January. If you have only done Level I and it was a long time ago, it’s time to review! Go to my website for details.


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