Teaching in Polarizing Times

AlexandraDavid-126
Photo: Roberto Araujo

Last week, I had the distinct honor to be a keynote speaker for the ANATS (Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing) Conference in Leura, New South Wales (nestled in the Blue Mountains, two and a half hours Northwest of Sydney – one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever been in my entire life).

I have been blessed to share a wonderful relationship with members of ANATS over the last six years. I gave a two-day workshop to the New South Wales Chapter of ANATS in 2016 and a webinar entitled “Teaching Contemporary Musical Theatre” in the Fall of 2017. This was my fist time speaking at their national conference, which included voice teachers from Tasmania and New Zealand. I wanted to use my two keynote addresses to speak to very important topics to me: how we teach in these contemporary, polarizing times.

The first keynote, “What Does It Mean to Teach?”, in particular, focused on this question by comparing how (not what) voice teachers have taught since the late 17th century. I did a healthy amount of research in my quest to understand how voice teachers and students have related to each other throughout history and how that relationship has necessarily changed as our culture changes.

Below is a transcript of the second half of my keynote, which was a weighty 70-minutes long. I want to share this with our community because I have articulated some points I believe are now crucial to our students’ success in the voice studio. I hope you find this informative, regardless of your background.

***

I would like to talk about some other techniques I think are essential when we consider the pedagogy of teaching in the 21st Century. But before we do, I’d like to spend just a moment highlighting some of our contemporary challenges, which make our situation as teachers particularly unique.

It’s no secret that we are living in polarizing times. According to Arthur Books, former CEO of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, this is to be expected. Here’s what he said about our current social climate on NPR’s Morning Edition (May 15, 2018):

“The current climate is rigid – it’s a little authoritarian, as a matter of fact. And it’s not just because of politics. There was a very good paper published at the beginning of 2017 in a journal called The European Economic Review. They looked at 800 elections over 120 years in 20 advanced economies. What they found was, in the decade following a financial crisis you have, on average, a 30% increase in the popularity of populist parties and politicians. This is the current era by the numbers.

“Populism is pretty allergic to the idea that we can all get along. So, one of the big moral goals I have is reengaging the idea of the competition of ideas and help Americans understand that disagreeing is a really good thing. The opposite – the shutting down of ideas – encourages stagnation and mediocrity.”

We’ve been seeing plenty of stagnation and mediocrity in America. And I think it’s fair to say that social attitudes – along with technology, and politics – have a profound effect on our work in the studio. While I would never suggest the following is true of every young singer I’ve worked with, I have noticed these trends:

  1. A nagging concern that they are way behind and must find a shortcut to fast-track their career. I have experienced a fairly uniform paranoia among young artists that they should have been on Broadway five years ago. While musical theatre does sometimes feel very much like a young person’s game, the intensity of these feelings is, I believe, unwarranted and dangerous to the young artist’s longevity.
  2. Either consciously or subconsciously interested in product over process. Having become accustomed to Siri and Alexa speaking to their every whim, I find students have more trouble taking things apart. There is a naiveté about the work that must be done in the pursuit of consistency. It’s not a malicious unwillingness, but simply an ignorance the student has to overcome. We must teach them that good vocal technique is a life-long pursuit.
  3. A fear of not being special while simultaneously trying to sound like other artists. The number of clients I have who come in sounding like other performers is pretty staggering. Many times, they don’t even realize they’re doing it. And while they may agree that finding their own voice should be the ultimate goal, their perception of what a healthy tone feels and sounds like is often way off base. 

How does this current social climate effect us as teachers? While I don’t suggest all teachers have taken up the following behaviors, here is what I have noticed:

  1. A desire to develop one’s own pedagogy into a cemented “method”. If singing is about surrendering a muscular approach in favor of healthy engagement, then it is not far-fetched to suggest that the ever-changing landscape of vocal pedagogy and teaching must remain equally flexible. Yet this desire to make something our own drives a wedge in our ability to truly hear and help the student.
  2. An inflexibility or lack of collaboration between students, faculty, and departments. I have never understood the threat one must feel to refuse collaboration within a studio, department, or between programs. This level of isolationism is the enemy of ideas. And a lack of community only hurts the student.
  3. A punitive learning environment, which hinders the transmission of ideas, and promotes a fear of failure. The number of new clients I have had with their own unique brand of post traumatic stress disorder from studying with a former teacher has gone up dramatically. Many are deeply, deeply afraid to make sound. Out of nowhere, a client said to me: “You know, you don’t have to be so nice. You can tell me I suck. I know I do.” In each of these cases, the client was told their singing voice was “bad” or they were somehow beyond help. 

In all of these examples, I perceive a rigidity that serves no one and directly relates to our current cultural situations. But I also believe this inflexibility has always existed, especially in academic institutions. With complete honesty, these are some of the reasons I decided to step down from my academic post after 10 years. I didn’t feel I could work to the benefit of the students within this structure. I sincerely hope to change that someday.

I believe this deep pendulum shift requires a renewed commitment on the part of all teachers, but especially from us as voice teachers. 

How, then, do we move beyond these contemporary challenges to become the most effective teachers we can be? Based on my research and personal experiences, I have some thoughts. 

Teaching Curiosity

This past Winter, I adjudicated a voice competition for the New York City chapter of NATS. While on a break, I nosed around the open offices at Teacher’s University, where the competition took place. There were a number of copies of a 2015 New York Times article, apparently for students, entitled “The Case for Teaching Ignorance.” I read the first paragraph, then discretely slipped the article into my attache. It reads:

“In the mid-1980’s, a University of Arizona surgery professor, Marlys H. Witte, proposed teaching a class entitled “Introduction to Medical and Other Ignorance.” Her idea was not well received; at one foundation, an official told her he would rather resign than support a class on ignorance. 

“Dr. Witte was urged to alter the name of the course, but she wouldn’t budge. Far too often, she believed, teachers fail to emphasize how much about a given topic is unknown… She wanted her students to recognize the limits of knowledge and to appreciate the questions often deserve as much attention as answers. Eventually, the American Medical Association funded the class, which students would fondly remember as “Ignorance 101.”

And later in the article….

“Michael Smithson, a social scientist at Australian National University who co-taught an online course on ignorance, uses this analogy: “The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline – where knowledge meets ignorance – extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers as much as they proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.”

For me, this article resonated with a belief I have long held, but named it in a much more erudite way: we must remain curious. And that means remaining malleable: open to new thoughts and ways of doing things. 

As a colleague of mine recently put it, “If a teacher is teaching a method, they’re not teaching the student.”

You will never hear of the “DSV” or “David Sisco Voice” technique. I do not aspire to such greatness. Instead, I hunger to survey that growing shoreline of my knowledge and ignorance, answering questions and discovering more. For me, that’s where life is. And I find that commitment to staying curious can be of critical importance to the student. Indeed, it can inspire them, encourage them to keep an open mind, and help them to recognize there’s more than one way to accomplish a technical goal.

I ask my clients to imagine vocal freedom as a rotunda with ten different doors. It is my job as their teacher to find as many of those doors as possible, whether it be through breath support, placement, resonance, or dramatic intention. 

We live in exciting times. With the advent of new technological tools like VoceVista, we have the opportunity to understand the voice better than ever before. Just as NASA recently announced it has found water on Mars, we are still discovering new worlds within the universe of the voice. There is no end to the research coming down the pike. 

There’s so much to know. If we remain curious, we remain relevant, and we better help our students do the same. 

I also want to highlight the importance of claiming our own ignorance, especially in front of our students. Look, I’ve been teaching voice for over 20 years, and I know a lot, but I certainly don’t know everything. I think I can say without fear of successful contradiction no one in here does either. So why pretend? There are times when I’m unable to get at the root of an issue using the pedagogical tools I have learned. Why should I not admit that to the student? When I don’t, I either feel as if they’re unteachable or I’m a horrible teacher – more often the latter. And how does that make them feel? Students are intuitive. They know what we’re thinking. So, after trying a couple different things, I’ve gotten comfortable enough to say, “I’m not helping you the way I would like to on this issue. Let me think about this and do some homework for our next lesson.” In the meantime, I encourage them to be curious about what they’re experiencing and be in contact with me as they practice. When I take off the onus of having to know everything, I find I have much more freedom to discover the answers and grow in my understanding with the student. It helps me model the kind of learning I want my student to do.

This is a parody, by the way, just in case someone was concerned. “Don’t question my teachings,” she says. I love that. And while we might not say it, do we think it? is the student thinking it?

Teaching Vulnerability 

Of course, being this open with our students requires us to be vulnerable in a way many of us have not had to be. Many teachers still follow the 1723 treatise: it is better for the student to have a healthy fear for their teacher. Or, at the very least, they operate under the notion that they must not show any doubt or weakness in their teaching. I find both to serve the teacher more than the student.

If we want our students to succeed, we must remain vulnerable alongside them as they work. Again, showing them that we have “skin in the game.” I’m going to talk about some research on vulnerability in a moment, but first, I want to share my personal story with you. 

I grew up in Upstate New York loving music and loving to sing. During my undergraduate degree, I was encouraged to study music in all the ways that interested me: I took voice, piano, composition, and conducting lessons. I even enrolled in courses through the theatre department, knowing somehow it would be an important part of my career. I belonged to a great community of support, which continues to influence who I am today. 

When I went to graduate school, I had the exact opposite experience. While I had a wonderful voice teacher, I was entrapped in a fiercely political climate for which I coined the phrase: “The world of No!” I was given very little opportunity to perform during my two years of study and was dismissed when I tried to address the concern. I left the program feeling as if I couldn’t or – more closely to the mark – shouldn’t sing. 

I had my first postgraduate voice lesson with a colleague of my graduate voice teacher shorty after I moved to New York. She asked me to bring a piece I was having trouble with so she could get to know my voice. I brought “Die Mainacht.” Those long lines so often made mincemeat of me. 

I sang for her. She was a lovely pianist in addition to being a fine voice teacher. When I finished, she looked at me somewhat confused and said, “Well… what was wrong with that? It was beautiful!” And I… completely fall apart. “Good Lord, what did they do to you?” she asked.

Fast forward 15 years, I’m teaching at Marymount Manhattan College while singing professionally. Singing was sometimes joy-filled, but more often than not, I heard a voice just before I opened my mouth to sing, You know what it said? “Here goes nothin’!”

Still, I wasn’t giving up. I created a cabaret duo with my colleague Alexandra Foucard. We had great success performing together in Provincetown on Cape Cod and decided to do a series of concerts with a four-piece band in New York. In all three cases, we did two shows on two separate nights, video recording the second night. In all three cases, I came down with a nasty sinus infection right before our shows. 

A chalked it up to the change of season. I was particularly prone to sinus infections during that time and didn’t think much about it. In the first two series of concerts, I was able to sing over it without anyone noticing. But before our final show, I woke up without a voice the day we were to video record. And I had five lessons to teach before that evening’s performance. 

It suddenly dawned on me: this is not a seasonal issue – I’ve made myself sick. There was a part of me that didn’t believe I was worthy of singing in public. The same message I received in graduate school almost 16 years earlier. So I sabotaged myself. 

I knew if I had any hope of singing that night, I had to admit to myself what was going on. And that meant saying it out loud, preferably more than once. So, I got brave. I sat down with each of my students that day and told them what was happening to me: that I didn’t truly believe in myself as an artist and had made myself sick. I told them they needed to know this kind of thing could happen to them. That they had to be more aware of the emotional life around their singing than I had been.

Naming the shame I felt about my voice, which I had worked so hard to develop over many years of training, released the illness. By that night, my voice was fully back.

The story doesn’t end there. I later realized those negative voices weren’t just present when I was performing.

When I talk to private clients about tension, I tell them it can be like a nest of cockroaches that, once found, will go in search of the next dark place to hide. Not the most beautiful image, but nonetheless true. Tension wishes to take root in the body and will travel from place to place, looking for a hideout. In my experience, shame does the exact same thing.  

In my case, this is what the voices were saying to me as I taught: 

You’re a hack.

Do you think people are actually going to pay you for this?

Do you even hear yourself? You sound ridiculous! 

You will never be successful! 

And, since I’m putting all this out there, more than once I have thought, “Why the hell are they flying me all the way to Australia? What could I possibly have to share? What if I’m really just an imposter?”

That was Dr. Brené Brown, who is a research professor and Huffington Foundation Endowed Chair of the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston. She has spent more than 16 years using qualitative research to understand courage, vulnerability, and shame. In addition to being a New York Times best-selling author, she is the CEO of The Daring Way, a training and certification program that helps professionals who want to facilitate conversations around these topics in the workplace. 

Vulnerability is one of those words that gets thrown around as a catch-all and usually has a negative connotation. According to Dr. Brown, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.” 

Sounds a lot like singing to me. I think we can all point to many instances where students have choked off vulnerability in favor of manipulation in their singing. Seeing this as a purely technical issue, I believe, is a mistake. It’s also an emotional one. 

In wrestling with my own worth, I have come to the conclusion that we must speak to the mental and emotional hurdles our students are facing if we truly want pedagogy to take root. If we refuse to highlight the root cause of tension, the singer is more likely to slide back into bad habits. 

To be clear: I am in no way suggesting we become our students’ therapists. It is well beyond our jurisdiction to analyze or treat our student’s mental and emotional stumbling blocks. Nor do I suggest we develop co-dependent relationships with our students, invading their privacy in the name of progress. I do think, however, we can have honest conversations with our students about how our bodies try to keep us from being vulnerable and the importance of daring to release their voice in spite of the red flags emotions vehemently wave.

In her book, Rising Strong, Dr. Brown outlines a three-step process, which can positively impact our growth as teachers and could also become a model for students wishing to become aware of their own vulnerability in singing:

The Reckoning: Recognizing that we’re feeling something and getting curious about those feelings so we can understand how they become behaviors.

The Rumble: Getting honest and stripping away any false narratives around why we wish to avoid digging into these feelings. Coming to a deeper understanding of our feelings and how we can learn from them.

The Revolution: Integrating what we have learned to become more genuine in our actions and reactions, both internally and in relationship with others.

If wholeheartedness is our goal as teaching artists, as I believe it should be, I think we must be willing to find an authentic way of being vulnerable in front of the student. This liberates them from their own fear and allows them to do their best work.

So, what does vulnerability look like for the teacher? Here are three examples:

Share personal experiences of success and failure.

Students need to be reminded they didn’t invent failure when it comes to singing. We certainly don’t need to embarrass ourselves when sharing personal stories, but I think it does make more of an impact on the student. 

American psychologist Carl Rogers reflects, “I have found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal and hence most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people. It has led me to believe that what is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others. This has helped me to understand artists and poets who have dared to express the unique in themselves.”

Maintain and active posture of learning. 

Again, embracing this sense of curiosity and ignorance. Remembering what it’s like to stand in front of others and sing. Making sure we’re learning not just through research, but through experience.

I love conferences, but they can sometimes be passive. I find experiential workshops and private lessons put us more in a place of vulnerability so we can remain empathetic with our students.

Develop collaborative experiences to the benefit of the student.

When we collaborate with other, we open ourselves up to different ways of doing things. This is no way diminishes the work we do. It simply gives others the benefit of our knowledge and broadens our own perspective. 

Does vulnerability really have an impact on the student’s success? Absolutely! 

Have you ever entered a room just after two people have had a fight? That energy is palpable, right? Well, we have to be thinking about the energy we create in our own studios. It has a huge effect on our students. I can tell you that filling my studio with shame around my work as a teaching artist did not serve my students well. To think these feelings will not transmit to our students is folly.

Vulnerability is, in essence, putting ourselves in the student’s shoes and, in each and every lesson, rediscovering the technical tools we have learned through the their eyes.

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Practicing Mindfulness

Daring to be this vulnerable demands we remain fully present. 

There’s been a lot talk about mindfulness, which has been defined in one study as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness stems from Buddhist meditation traditions and has been proven to promote changes in brain structure and improvements in cognitive processing.

We recognize the practice of mindfulness has been most highly referenced as a tool for stress reduction, which can certainly be helpful in our field, but it has many other positive results for the teacher:

The following points come to us from a compilation of research essays entitled Impacting Teaching and Learning: Contemplative Practices, Pedagogy, and Research in Education:

  • Enhances ability to foster supportive relationships with students.
    • One article states, “Teaching is an emotional practice. [Experts agree that] good teachers are not just well-oiled machines. They are emotional, passionate beings who connect with their students and fill their work and their classes with pleasure, creativity, challenge, and joy.’”
  • Minimizes the transition from self to other.
    • Researchers noted, “One of the most common and difficult transitions that teachers make is moving from concerns about the self, such as a focus on self-adequacy, to concerns about the other. When preservice teachers [or student teachers] actually confront the realities of teaching, there may be a tendency to seek basic survival skills at the expense of a deeper understanding of the complex interplay between teachers and students and teaching and learning. Indeed, during student teaching, preservice teachers tend to mimic a cooperating teacher’s often more traditional style, picking up conservative practices and focusing more on how to control students rather than on student learning.”
  • Affords an opportunity to develop reflective teaching.
    • One paper suggested that… “Mindful reflection is a skill that affords teachers the presence of mind to become aware of and respond adaptively to their unfolding external and internal environments. For example, mindful reflection may allow a teacher to notice the early somatic, cognitive, and emotional indicators of frustration and impatience.” 

These are just some of the benefits of mindfulness. Another, as outlined by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book Full Catastrophe Living, is an increased awareness of the body. This kinesthetic awareness is a benefit to both the teacher and student.

Practicing Self-Care

It is true, this work comes at a cost. One group of researchers notes that “The potential downside to the deeply emotional work of teaching is that when challenges arise, optimism, hope, and positive aspirations may transform into stress and feelings of being overwhelmed, ultimately resulting in burnout.”

As I was researching mindfulness, I came across a book entitled Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. This book was written specifically for those who experience secondary trauma on a regular basis, such as emergency personnel. 

I would never suggest that the work we do is on the level of trauma exposure experienced in those vocations, but I did find some coping mechanisms helpful for us. 

Author Laura van Dernoot Lipsky explains:

“Many of us are familiar with living in our heads, depending on our intellect, and developing enough external architecture to function and get by. But if we are to truly care for ourselves in a sustainable way, let alone anyone else – if we are to thrive – then something greater is required of us. We must discover an awareness of what allows us to live, moment by moment, from a centered place, from an awakened heart.”

Here are some ways Lipsky and those she interviewed recommend we continue to feed ourselves as we nurture others:

Continue to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Lipsky reminds us, “Amid the trails and tribulations of our work, it is possible to lose sight of why we’re doing what we’re doing. When we carve out the time to contemplate our intentions, we renew our connection to the needs and desires that have shaped our experience. We remember that we can take action to alter the course of our lives. This will help us to alleviate the sensation of being tossed around in the waves of uncontrollable and overwhelming events.”

Don’t center your entire identity around your work.

Lipsky writes, “When work becomes the center of our identity, it may be because it feeds our sense of grandiosity. This can be particularly challenging to acknowledge. Many people get hooked on being involved in others’ lives: solving their problems, becoming a powerful figure for them, getting increasingly attached to the feeling of being needed and useful… We need to acknowledge the value of what we bring without making our work be all about us.”

Find ways to enact positive change in your community. 

We must be able to have challenging conversations about vision and growth in our academic institutions. We need to engage each other and talk about what changes are necessary to create a more positive learning experience for the student. The more we engage other teachers, the faster change can happen. 

Maintain a good sense of humor. (p. 221)

Heather Anderson, who was interviewed for Lipsky’s book says, “Humor gives me physical and psychological energy.” Again, what we do is important, but… let’s not take ourselves so seriously. To that end, I offer you this clip of Jerry Lewis from the movie, The Patsy. 

We are privy to our students’ inner lives and observe some of their most vulnerable moments. There’s a psychic price tag that comes with that. As a result, we must replenish ourselves.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve found this as fascinating as I have. I look forward to answering any questions you might have to the best of my ability during a break in our next couple days.

I am aware some of you may feel I have spent much of this keynote in rather maudlin territory. I set out to talk about how teachers work with students. We have traveled a long way in this time together, from the 1695 treatise on singing to the vast shoreline of knowledge we have available to us. Now, it appears I am ending with some pretty “woo woo” theories on teaching.

I am interested in science. And science is now telling us that curiosity, vulnerability, mindfulness, and stewardship matter. We must listen. That does not mean we disregard what we know in favor of this new information. It means we expand our island of knowledge and ignorance to grow with the changing times.

In his book “The Wounded Healer,” Catholic priest and author Thomas Nouen outlines three key qualities for today’s leaders: 

  • Be able to articulate inner events
    • He states: “Those who avoid the painful encounter with the unseen are doomed to live a supercilious, boring, and superficial life.” In order to encourage others to do their work, we must, as he says, “enter into the core of our own existence and become familiar with the complexities of our own inner lives.”
  • Be compassionate
    • He says, “Compassion must become the core, and even the nature, of authority. What does that mean exactly? That we practice empathy, allow ourselves to be vulnerable where appropriate, and make it clear to our students that we also have “skin in the game.”
  • Be a contemplative critic
    • Nouen says that we must “…look critically at what is going on and make decisions based on insight into [our] vocation, not on the desire for popularity or the fear of rejection.”

While this was a call to ministers of the 1970’s, I find these three points to be wholly applicable to our profession as voice teachers.

As long as I am living – which, given my family history, might be quite a while, God willing – I will be in ardent pursuit of pedagogical knowledge to bring to my students. But I will also provide a context for that knowledge that is grounded in experience with an openness to what the student brings to our collaboration.

As Dr. Brené Brown says, “What we know is important. Who we are is more important.” Let me say that a different way: “What you know is important. Who you are is more important.”

I hope we can use this as our framing device as we learn together this weekend. Because, when we do, I believe the power extended to our students is far beyond our own.

This balance of head and heart, intellect and humanity, which is so necessary for transformative singing. Setting healthy boundaries – absolutely! – but still remaining vulnerable. Quieting our minds so we can perceive the process of another. Creating space where students can try, fail, question, and soar. 

For me, that’s what it means to teach. 


Check out our book “Mastering College Musical Theatre Auditions: Sound Advice for the Student, Teacher, and Parent” now available on Amazon.

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