Teaching From Doing

I have said on this blog many times that the best teachers of anything physical are those who have done that activity. While I can try to imagine that it is possible to teach something you have never done, in the end I can never accept that picture as being valid. I do not believe that you can teach something physical just because you have been exposed to it for a very long time.  I cannot believe that this is ever the same as doing that activity yourself, successfully, for a long time. Only then do you really know how it feels, what it’s like and what has to happen while you are in the middle of doing it.

In singing, if all you have ever done is classical repertoire and you are asked to work with students who are performing a rock song, you might intellectually understand that it’s a different thing but how would you know the exact differences? How would you know what the appropriate boundaries are? How would you judge the amount of effort required to do a sound you have never made and have no idea of how to make even if you wanted to do so?

I well remember the big blow up in which I criticized two teachers who were presenting Broadway women composers to a large assembly of teachers by singing all the songs, even the belt songs, as if they were Schubert. When I pointed out that the songs should be done the way the composers intended I was told by one of the presenters, “Well, we know the students don’t sing them this way. The students know how to sing the correct sounds”. My response should have been, “Well, you should pay the students, since they are teaching you what those sounds are.” How would these “teachers” have known whether or not the students were making sounds that were healthy? The answer is obvious — they would not.

Would you like to study with a brain surgeon who had read about brain surgery in a book, watched a bunch of brain surgeons or maybe had studied foot surgery? Would you want to work on your golf game with someone who had never actually lifted a golf club but had read a lot of books about how to have a great swing and hung out a lot on golf courses? Or maybe he had a really lousy golf game but decided to teach anyway despite having fumbled around for a long time without much personal success. Would you study dance with a teacher who had never danced? Or acting with a teacher who did not have life experience acting in a wide variety of styles and performances? I surely hope not.

Still, our profession, that of teaching singing, tolerates more than almost any other, people who do not sing or sing badly teaching singing. It tolerates them for reasons I don’t understand. Many of them are very confident and can tell you (absolutely will tell you) how gifted they are as teachers and a lot of their students drink that Kool-Aid. The question becomes, “Why?” Why should anyone accept this sales job as an answer? It’s not mathematics or music theory which can be learned from a book. It’s SINGING.

There is such a thing as a naturally talented singer. There are people in this world who can simply sing very well, without muss, fuss or bother. They learn a few things about posture or breathing or vowels, and off they go to win contests and get jobs. Those people sing in a way that is properly coordinated, working effortlessly with the body, to produce vocal sound properly. If they go off and take lessons and then get famous, the teacher takes the credit and sometimes, gets a big reputation from that alone. Doesn’t mean they had a thing to do with it. The teacher just got lucky. I know some of those teachers.

No. The real teacher is someone who can take a person who thinks she cannot sing at all and help that person learn to sing well enough that singing becomes a regular part of her life. The real teacher is someone who can turn around a voice that has been mangled by lousy training and make it work properly. The real teacher is someone who can help a vocalist find a sound that is hers authentically. The real teacher can teach all kinds of students, with all kinds of backgrounds, goals, and levels of ability in all kinds of styles. The real teacher has lived with singing in her own throat and body and knows it from the inside out but also from the outside in. Both intellectual understanding and kinesthetic and auditory life experience.

You can’t learn to sing from reading a book, buying videos or attending one weekend workshop. You can’t learn to teach if you do not yourself make the sounds and make them well. While there are exceptions to this for valid reasons, if the circumstances are not justifiable (i.e., the person may have had a vocal injury due to surgery or other life experiences but was an excellent singer prior to that), then there is no reason why the techniques being taught should not have also been effective with the teacher’s own voice in the first place. Students, if the teacher sounds bad and doesn’t make sense, and if you can’t get clear instruction or you are confused, leave.  L E A V E.


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