The Danger of Absolutes in Teaching

I’m writing this from Taipei.

That’s a sentence I never, ever thought I’d write. Oh, the places you’ll go…

AlexandraDavid-126I’m writing from Taipei, where I have the pleasure of working with some of my New York colleagues (along with wonderful new ones) on a three week musical theatre workshop for young to middle-aged performing artists. This is a program sponsored by the government of Taiwan in conjunction with Taipei Performing Arts Center, an impressive three-theatre complex, which is in the process of being completed.

On Monday, I taught a two-hour lecture and masterclass to introduce myself to the 32 students I’ll be working with in the next couple weeks. I was immediately taken by their engagement and desire to sing well. While I’ve been blessed with many students who possess these same attributes, there’s something special about their hunger to grow in their understanding the voice.

That hunger can be a great thing, but it can also be a hurdle to overcome. As I spoke to my colleagues who are more well versed in these kinds of overseas teaching experiences, and as I experienced a myself, it became clear there was a desire to make concrete in their minds “the answers” to singing correctly.

As we told them, there isn’t one answer, and the answers are different for everyone.

They were confused (understandably so, especially given the language barrier) about slight differences in terminology. My voice and speech colleague talks about the modal voice. His background is more on the voice science side. I had never really heard that term, and was taught (and in turn teach) about the head and chest voice (or register). We explained that neither of us was wrong, but rather we simply had different ways of expressing the same thing. In fact, the head and chest voice make up the modal voice.

All this brought up what I hope to address in the weeks ahead: the idea that one does not “do” singing, but remains flexible and allows the voice to freely come forth through a series of exercises, depending on what the voice (and, of course, the body) calls for on a particular day.

Interestingly, this has been on my mind a lot lately, even before I took the 15-hour flight from JFK to Taiwan. This idea of absolutism, and how dangerous it is to the student.

We all want an answer. Singing is hard, and it would so be much easier if we could follow an equation to achieve freedom of expression as a singing actor. How many different “techniques” can you count – people or groups of people who have trademarked their particular brand of singing? I have seen many over the last five years alone, and even attended one workshop that I would consider more of a cult than a vocal technique.

Here’s what I believe: a lot of these techniques favor the ideology over the student. And that’s not an equation I can live with.

I am an amalgam of my singing and teaching experiences. I’m a mutt: a collection of many different ideologies, all of which I will pick and choose from in order to help my students and clients find a way of singing with the least amount of tension.

But this conversation goes beyond being flexible in one’s teaching. It also applies to our desire as teachers to help the student get it “right.” The idea of “right” and “wrong” are, in my deeper way of thinking, very troublesome in the studio. One could argue it’s simply semantics, but can we ignore the psychological weight of a teacher telling a student, “That wasn’t right”? Even if it’s said gently, I believe it creates the same kind of absolutism.

What if, instead, we encourage our students to see their voice as an orchestra, capable of making many different kinds of sounds? Of course, there are some sounds that are not sustainable, but they’re not “right” or “wrong.”

And if I’m serious about this (and I am), this means I must constantly train and study, remaining open to new ideas. You can bet I’ll be sitting in the voice and speech teacher’s class several times in the next three weeks. I understand a lot about vocal pedagogy, but I have much more to learn. Why would I choose not to benefit from another colleague’s gifts, finding new ways to say similar things? Or even wrestling with an approach I initially might not agree with? And he, in turn, has already observed some of my lessons. How fortunate I am to have such a collaborative colleague.

Since I’ll be teaching students who are beautifully eager to please in the next several weeks, I’m going to renew my commitment to working against any kind of absolutism in our work together. I’ll continue to talk about the voice as being a rotunda with many doorways – so many different ways of achieving the same result: a released voice.

And I’ll acknowledge that any technique might have at least one thing I can (and will) use to the benefit of my student. Even the “cult” I attended had one really good tongue exercise. Oink! It’s in my and my students’ toolbox now, at the ready if needed. I’ll liberally steal (giving credit where credit is due, of course) from just about anyone if it helps my students.

There are no absolutes in singing or teaching. And no one owns the truth. Those are my only absolutes.


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One thought on “The Danger of Absolutes in Teaching

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and truthful posting David! It’s always a challenge working in a culture where students do their utmost to “please” their teachers by “getting it right”. I’ve come across this in nearly all of my students of Asian heritage from new immigrants to second and third generation. We need to be more open-ended in our work and encourage & enable our students to think and work outside of their own, personal zone of perfection. Learning is a messy business and learning to enjoy that mess is a huge challenge for many people.


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