The Science-based Teacher’s Manifesto: I learn complexity so that you learn simplicity!

I was talking with a new student the other day, after we had a satisfying lesson and she said something along these lines: “I asked some friends about you before I came, and they said, ‘well, he writes about formants and such. Sounds complicated. He’ll probably speak over your head’.”

I had to laugh! Now the title of the post, although in the first person, is not meant to represent me alone. I hope I don’t appear that conceited. This is however the hope of many excellent science-based teachers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. It seems to me that a great many singers behave like some American voters in the current election, who claim to want a president they can have a beer with rather than one who is capable of understanding the complexity of the job and do it well. While I have had an occasional beer with some of my students, when we are in the studio, my aim is to provide them with a solid product worthy of the money these poor people shell out (especially in New York). In a fleeting hour or hour and a half, I have little desire to cram formant theory in my students’ heads, and I am certain none of them would have the patience for it either, when they are trying to learn how to deal with their passaggio or nailing that pesky top note. How deeply the student wishes to understand the principles that guide my approach (his/her ultimate technique) depends on the student. Theory is for afterwards, when the lesson is over. The lesson is about decisions that will lead to vocal balance and ability.

However, my own head is certainly accessing every bit of information I’ve ever learned to find a solution to whatever the problem is. In essence, the successful science-based voice teacher learns as much complex material as possible in order to give a concise, simple but complete approach that the singer’s consciousness can handle. That approach is essentially an awareness of what we can effect and what we cannot; what is helpful and what is interfering with the natural process.

What the successful science-based teacher learns after many years of learning the facts and after many hours each month keeping up with new information is the following: the human voice is an automatic instrument that if its health and its delicate balance have not been compromised will function with astounding flexibility and power even if the singer who possesses that voice does not know the first thing about how it functions. That is why natural singers manifest.

The science-based teacher is little different from his/her traditional counterpart. The only difference is that the science-based teacher seeks answers, not based on equivocal mysteries but rather on facts and plausible theories. Such a teacher does not teach the “open throat” simply because that is what Caruso said, or that is what his/her teacher learned from the teacher before but rather asks himself/herself: what is “open throat” really? How does it differ from a depressed larynx? How does s/he know how deep is too deep or how shallow is too shallow? What is a natural laryngeal position and how does s/he go about achieving this? And furthermore, how does s/he communicate such a result to the student? Most importantly, what information is there to back up his/her conclusions? In short, why was Manuel Garcia a great voice teacher? How do we deal with the paradox that he was correct in principle but quite wrong about the details? Such is progress. Our job is not to follow Garcia, but rather to reproduce his results with a better understanding of what he thought he knew.

The science-based teacher respects the great singers of the past and studies them. However, as a teacher s/he cannot worship them. S/he must study them objectively in order to understand why they succeeded, what were their skills and attributes and what were their flaws? And furthermore why did they succeed despite those flaws? And how does s/he steer his/her students away from those flaws and pitfalls?

The science-based teacher is keenly aware that there are unknowns about the voice. However, since the voice is an automatic instrument, we only need to know how to effect change in order to get it back to its balanced state. Once in that state of health and balanced strength, the instrument basically works itself. The more s/he knows, the more s/he is humbled by the discovery of what s/he does not know. In short, a teacher who claims to know it all is not a science-based teacher for real knowledge is accompanied by the inescapable truth that we cannot know everything.

Finally, the science-based teacher’s results are based on and depend on a keen musical sensitivity, for a technique, or better said the end-product is achieved with the goal of serving the music that it will create or recreate. A vocal product is not developed in the abstract but rather with musical expression as its raison-d’être.

© 10/14/2008

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