Professional Disagreement

It is important for professionals to be able to disagree with each other in a courteous but straightforward manner.

Singing teachers sometimes seem unable to do just that.

While in school, medical doctors are prodded to engage in vigorous debates so that diagnoses, surgery protocols, medication recommendations and treatment plans can be investigated from many angles. Medicine encourages doctors to examine and re-examine how they work and, at least theoretically, encourages them to always be open to new ideas and pathways, especially since they are, at times, dealing with life and death.

In scientific conferences, experts readily disagree, sometimes very strongly, on various points of research or investigation, even having heated arguments — frequently followed by a cordial collegial lunch or dinner. In a recent program on the History Channel, two men who were anthropologists who had been close friends and colleagues for more than 40 years held strongly disparate viewpoints on important discoveries, and clearly were just fine with that situation. I have had occasion to vigorously argue with my scientist or voice teaching colleagues, only to go out to dinner afterwards and have a grand time.

If one can say, “I respectfully disagree with my esteemed colleague”, most especially to that colleague’s face, then everyone benefits. Those who are listening to the discourse have the opportunity to look at what is said and make their own decisions, and the profession (whatever it may be) gains the benefits of having both viewpoints to serve for further investigation by others.

In teaching singing, however, because there has been so much “mystery” (read that as “ignorance”) that was, by necessity, covered up, criticizing someone was seen as being a personal affront, even when the critique is couched in appropriate terms. This is a sad situation, as it prevents people from actually investigating a valid difference and it cloaks the process of learning to sing in intrigue that is unwarranted. It also greatly increases the possibility that people will gossip behind the backs of their colleagues, spreading unfounded rumors, and get away with it. A person being thus maligned has no chance to present an objective defense if the attack is terroristic rather than straightforward.

In order to debate the worthiness of anyone’s viewpoint or philosophy, it is necessary, ABSOLUTELY necessary, to do that in the light of day, stating whatever the criticism one has in a respectful manner, no matter how strongly the debaters disagree. It implies that both parties are experts, comfortable in their own skin, and able to handle someone else’s querying them about their chosen direction. That is, in fact, what peer review journals do, if they are well done, and what a PhD defense is about. If you are not strong enough to defend your position, you do not receive your recognition from your peers which is given as a doctoral degree. It is the reason that I publish a blog which is available to anyone to read, and to comment upon. I do not expect everyone to agree with me nor accept what I say just because I say it, even though I take care to be thoughtful and careful in everything I write upon these pages.

I believe that it is incumbent upon me as a recognized expert in my field to state clearly when I disagree with someone, with reasons for doing so, in a way that is clear and honest, without making a personal attack. That I make a public statement allows those who seek information from other recognized experts to understand that there are many roads to Rome and that no one has “the” answer. It also allows my own point of view to be counterpointed against someone else’s, which is often a way to discover interesting and diverse solutions to the same issues.

When I disagree with anyone, I often tell that individual directly, and say to them what I would say to others. “I respectfully disagree with you, my esteemed colleague,” and I accept that you disagree with me as well.

The profession of teaching singing does not much understand these dynamics.

Unfortunately, those who speak about me critically still hide, making their accusations without having the integrity to state their objections to me or at least in a forum that I can locate. Who knows, perhaps, if I heard what they had to say, I might change something about what I think or do. Behind my back, or behind anyone’s back, however, collegial criticism becomes tainted and undermines confident, trusting, and dynamic exchanges between equals. It is hurtful and small.

This profession would do well to instill in its participants the same high regard for vigorous debate that other professions have, and remind teachers of singing not to be afraid to disagree, as long as that disagreement follows respectful and collegial guidelines.

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One thought on “Professional Disagreement”

  1. What an excellent post.

    I often think that it is not a matter of what is said, but rather, how it is said. My own observation has been that disagreement often happens between empiricists (right brain) and those who speak the language of science (left brain). I like to think we need both to make the poetry called singing.

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