Over the last year I have had a handful of conversations with colleagues on the subject of “technical” content in vocal instruction. Some are strong proponents of in-depth technical instruction. Many find great success with their students teaching largely through sensory imagery. And there is certainly no shortage of strong opinion on which is more effective with students, especially as regards different learning “styles” and a corresponding teaching “style”. This is a longstanding debate, of course. There are, however, some underlying issues and points which I feel could use clarification and addressing-
The 4 Major Issues
Is physiological and mechanical knowledge entirely necessary in order to begin to sing in a beautiful and healthy way? No, certainly not. Manuel Garcia Jr. observed this in his book Hints On Singing over an hundred years ago. Kirsten Flagstad’s teacher, Dr. Gillis Bratt, indicated the same. He did, however, ask her very directly if she ever intended to teach. When she assured him that she had no intention of ever teaching, he said that her development might be able to take a little less time. Even so, she was restricted to rigorous training (eg. only speech exercises for the first 6 months!) the likes of which would give contemporary teachers and students pause.
So here, perhaps, is the first issue identified: It is possible to develop your vocalism, but I'm not sure how far I would then stretch the word "learning" to include that. When pressed, many perfectly lovely vocalists actually find that they struggle to give even a simple explanation of how they do what they do.
What Is "Technical", Exactly?
I think one big issue is defining exactly what we mean by a teacher being "technical" or "too technical". It seems to me that this varies a great deal. For instance, rather than telling a student to “let the balloon float higher on that pitch”, a teacher might say, “on F# all tones must be placed securely in the mask…..” This latter statement sounds very technical, but for the tricky problem of none of it being physiologically true or even possible. It is sensory (having a feeling in a “mask” region), it is image-based (the vague act of “placing” a tone). So why does this smack of technical instruction when it is decidedly not technical? Because it is specific.
Certainly, people can feel overwhelmed with too many specific directives insistently given. But let’s not damn technical knowledge as being one and the same.
The Unwilling Student
Similarly, much sway is given to the question of the “learning style” of the student. This is a fair question to be asked, and requires flexibility in a gifted teacher (more on that later). However, let’s not let the student entirely off the hook. We all have our hangups and our points of interest. But the learning of a skill or a field of study can’t always cater to such whims; not if we want to attain proficiency.
Frankly, I have found it astonishing that this is even a question. In no other field would that kind of willful ignorance be acceptable. Imagine a cellist who couldn’t identify the bridge on their instrument, or didn’t want to be bothered with the tedium of learning the pitch names of each open string. Imagine if a piano student felt pedagogically oppressed by the teacher insisting that they call it the “sustain pedal” rather than “ the one on the right”.
As I have become fond of saying recently, “Even James Bond had to fill out paperwork.” (It’s true! Read the books. He even has a shared office and a secretary!) And it may well be that the development of a pupil’s vocalism will be attained by means of metaphor and sensory imagery, but how is it not a blatant contradiction to purport to teach a skill while leaving out the entire matter of how it works? I struggle to call that education.
Moreover, omitting the mechanics only leaves a student unprepared should something goes wrong in the future. In my experience, yes, many lovely vocalists have sung for years without such knowledge, but only those who have been lucky enough to never encounter an issue. The people who find themselves rushing to learn this information are those who’ve hit a stumbling block and those who find themselves teaching and having to explain something to others that they never learned themselves. They typically come away wondering how they ever fared without it.
Now, it’s true and it happens all the time - how many people hate a particular subject because of a poor teacher in their past? Bad, awkward, insistent, and ill-informed teachers will be bad teachers no matter what. We shouldn't vilify the information on their account. I think that a good teacher will know how to helpfully pass along information technical or otherwise. That, in essence, is pedagogy: the study of instruction. But rather than finding accessible ways to include the information, and to instead assume it is best to leave out the parts that a student doesn’t immediately enjoy is to assume that the student knows best and not the teacher. Which, I must say, is a very strange way to approach instruction.
The Financial Obligation
In my opinion a teacher's job is, in principle, simple- to pass along their knowledge and skill to a pupil in a manner that helps the student to develop and retain that knowledge and develop that skill. To my mind that means all related knowledge.
With all the recent talk about tuition rates, and the rather high rates of some private voice teachers, I can’t help feeling that there is a certain professional obligation. The idea that young people can indebt themselves many thousands of dollars, and come out the other end with only a scant or passing knowledge of the very subject which they intended to master….. is astonishing to me. Certainly, if there is a division of labor (between a teacher/coach/pedagogy class, for example) such as in some schools, one needn’t expect it all from a single studio. Doctors, no doubt, study different aspects of medicine under different tutors. But if a future surgeon escaped med school with an admitted weakness and annoyance with the basics of the vascular system…. well, bad things…..very bad things.
Simply put, teachers, for that kind of money, you owe them.
Personally, I think the "technical" should be sensible, simple, and accessible. In my research, at least 75% of most treatises on vocal technique (even the most scientific ones) repeat the same handful of things. I don't find the relevant* mechanics to really be that complicated, and frankly, it is the teacher's job to help the student simplify it, order it, prioritize it, and execute it in the most natural way possible. And if the student balks at learning it, they should be gently reminded that knowledge is power, and that they can focus on their metaphors, etc. for development and practice, but that here and there they must also be taught the physiology. It can be handled in tandem rather than simultaneous. And this is where the talent of the teacher comes into question.
A good teacher must be armed with many different means of helping students, both technical and sensorially descriptive. The truly talented teacher can bounce comfortably back and forth, even being inventive and creating new paths to understanding. If a student doesn’t immediately engage with mechanical explanation, they needn't dwell on it’s physical application if it isn't the most immediately helpful to them in the moment. But one never knows, down the road, where all of it will come together and finally make all the sense in the world.
*By "relevant" I mean that almost no student, even if they know what they are, will ever be able to feel their corniculate cartilages. So, there is some serious degree of utilitarian difference between being able to identify those and being able to identify your soft palate or thyroid cartilage. But again, knowledge is power.