Thanks to a client’s generosity, we’ve had the opportunity to talk about phrasing and pitch through the lens of issues in her teaching studio. Here, we’ll delve into how our personal preferences– and external pressure– influence how we learn.
Issue #3: Pressure and Learning Preferences
I believe the best teacher of young singers is personal discovery. Singing for pleasure– alone, with friends, and in choirs– develops the ear as well as the heart. And as love of singing is what ultimately fuels the desire to unravel the mysteries of the voice– as well as the discipline to do so– “less is more” is generally my advice when it comes to technical instruction.
In China, however, it’s common to begin vocal training at a very young age, and my client frequently coaches children and preteens. So we’ve talked at length about finding ways to incorporate joy and play into her sessions.
One of her students is a young boy who participates in a group class with singers I’ve mentioned in earlier pieces on phrasing and pitch. However, unlike those two young ladies, who are always eager to sing, he is very reserved. What’s more, when it’s his turn at the microphone, his voice is barely audible and he often mumbles the lyrics, which he says he has trouble remembering.
My client’s inclination is that the boy hasn’t learned his songs and isn’t trying his best. She noted that he is easily distracted and that his attention, and he, often wander.
She’s frustrated with him.
I’ve had the chance to watch videos of these three young singers. And this boy in particular really struck me. He was quiet and appeared a bit nervous for sure; his hands were tightly gripping the microphone.
But his eyes were bright. There was joy there.
* * *
We’ve all heard the stories, and sometimes have had the experiences ourselves. The choir director who said we were flat or too loud. Or the aunt who told us we can’t or shouldn’t sing. I hear it every day, as adults– even professionals– describe the memories that not only broke their hearts back then, but continue to impact their vocal development and freedom.
It’s incredible to think that passing comments– oftentimes meant in a constructive way– can have such a negative influence. But they can, and do.
The story of this little boy is such a critical one. As is this moment in time. He’s standing on a precipice, and so is his teacher. She’s holding his heart in her hands. And potentially, how his relationship to his voice and creativity will unfold in the years to come.
* * *
In my mind, the goal of instruction– of anything, at any age– is to encourage, in this order:
- a comfort in and trust of self
- a love of learning
- the content you want to teach
Each step is critical. For how can you learn to love to learn if you’re unsure of and constantly judging yourself, or being judged? How can you tease apart the elements of any topic if you’re trying to get things “right”—for yourself or someone else—rather than swimming in the sea of curiosity where all answers exist?
Perfectionism and control, and the fear that so often accompanies them, erode confidence and prevent the process and love of learning. Fear and doubt rush in. Joy is shunted to the side, along with results.
Fortunately, the process of inspiring comfort and confidence is the same for developing the voice: Intention, Allowing, and Observation.
A singer imagines what she wants to hear, allows the body to create that sound, and then observes the results, making any changes using the same approach. Like watching a kite dance across the sky, we witness our voices soar and sail, supporting and gently redirecting them on the journey.
The practice is the same for teachers: Share what you want to hear from your students. Allow them to find their way to the task, in their own way. Observe objectively and make suggestions, with kindness and in alignment with who they are and how they learn best.
And always, always bring open-mindedness and curiosity to the table.
Why is the boy mumbling? Why hasn’t he learned his lyrics? Why do his eyes and feet move around the room? I don’t know, and neither does his teacher. Our perception– in singing and in life– is rarely a reflection of the whole story. Quiet doesn’t always mean afraid. Just as outgoing and boisterous don’t always mean confident.
What we do know is that the boy has joy in his eyes and heart. That he is showing up to class week after week. And singing.
As I talk about in the Learning Chapter of The Art of Singing, voice instruction is ideally a partnership; a process of co-learning and discovery. We may have access to knowledge our students are looking for. But they hold the keys to accessing it. Even when they’re very young.
To develop this sense of partnership, I encouraged my client to take a few steps back from the situation with the boy. To forget what is happening in the group sessions and imagine where she– and he– want to go. And then to have the patience to walk beside him on the journey.
That includes asking him what he thinks, wants and feels. Would he like to sing in every class, or would he sometimes rather observe? Does he enjoy singing solos, or does he feel more comfortable singing in a group? What songs light him up? What does he enjoy listening to? What about music and singing does he like best?
Asking for someone’s opinion is a gift; it lets them know that their opinion– and they– matter. Which leaves them free and eager to trust and play.
* * *
My client was moved by our conversation, fully grasping the weight of this moment. And the responsibility and opportunity she now has as his partner and teacher… of far more than singing.