Voice pedagogy – has teaching become more about science than singing?

A question was asked relatively recently in a voice forum by someone who had picked up on recent trends for voice teachers to dive heavily into voice research as opposed to practical vocal development.

“Has voice pedagogy become study ABOUT the voice rather than how to TEACH singing?”

This is a fascinating question, and one I think about a lot. I posted the following response in the forum, and a number of people suggested I follow it up as an article on my site. Here are my thoughts in response to the above question:

In my opinion, I think there has been an excessive shift towards pure intellectual knowledge over practical application. More importantly, there has been a drift away from a more objective and concrete understanding/appreciation of what makes good singing. Having objective science seems to matter very little if there isn’t something objective to apply it to, i.e. what does good singing ACTUALLY sound like?

All the acoustic/science theory in the world, and even the best personal psychology/personal touch in the world will only go so far if we are not seeking a solid starting point for the sound a singer should be making, and hanging everything from that. I’m not saying there is only ONE incredibly narrow/specific sound that is absolutely correct for all things, – not at all – but there has to be more objectivity to the sound we seek, in the same way we seek objectivity and agonise over the science and psychology/human element.

My point is: the sound comes first, the science and psychology must follow. However I think many do not even think about the sound we are trying to create in ourselves and in students (other than making it “better”, but what does that even mean without an objective target to hit?). Or perhaps, if they/we do think about that sound, it is not being agonised over to the same level of attention or precision we are paying to the science or psychology component. That is a grave error and misjudgment, in my opinion.

Illustration: I happen to spar and fight in a combat sport (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu). Note, I don’t say I “study” (even though I do obviously study it). I have to actually DO the sport. I HAVE to learn new things, and I have to full-contact spar multiple times in every session. We are talking half a dozen or more spars of 5-10 minutes each. This is real rubber meets the road territory.

Firstly – theory and knowing stuff simply is not enough in this situation. There’s plenty of armchair jiu jitsu teachers who say “don’t do this, don’t do that, make sure to do X”… but then they get crushed – in a spar/fight, where the rubber meets the road – by those with less theory but who have a greater level of practical application. Maybe the knowledgeable person is right, maybe they are wrong, but they have no objective ability to deliver what they know in terms of objectively good jiu jitsu.

Without the ability to directly apply your knowledge in some practical way that is objectively and measurably better, such knowledge is useless.

I would posit the same is true of a lot of knowledge bandied about in the voice pedagogy world. If it doesn’t make you or your singer objectively better (and again, without an objective sense of good singing, how can you even measure this?), it is bordering on useless.

Secondly, we are all unique bodies, minds and personalities, so jiu jitsu must be tailored to each individual and there is individual variation. Despite this, there IS an objectively right/wrong way to fight. As you progress you can literally see this in front of you when watching two people spar. At the start, you MUST build a solid base of technique to win against a bigger stronger opponent. There are a couple of gameplans that people tend to develop at the beginning that are consistently proven to work, then they deviate from there to find stuff that works better for their body.

There are variations within the right techniques, but you’ve got to develop a strong A-game that works for your body, that is both unique to you, but also correlates with what everyone else is doing. As such, there IS consistency and objectivity in what good jiu jitsu is. You can have variation across individuals, both physically and mentally, but there is (and must be) an objective sense of what good jiu jitsu is to make any progress. As you train, you acquire this sense of what good jiu jitsu feels like, and what it doesn’t, and that directs your training, both general and personal. This is what I think we lack in the pedagogy world. 

My point is, singing is a “doing” thing. But more than that, it needs a greater level of objectivity in the sound we are trying to create, and strong tools and techniques to both deliver us there, AND transfer that understanding of the sound we are seeking into the students brain. It shouldn’t just be a collection of tips/tricks/techniques, or scientific journals, or quotable chunks of text, it’s about building great singers that get what they are doing, can move towards self-teaching, and are artistically/vocally free to express themselves.

Sound and feel comes first; vocal science and psychology must follow, not lead.

Leave a Reply