East Carolina University
The most honest way I can begin to describe my philosophy of teaching is to acknowledge that it is ever evolving as I learn from my students and my own continued growth as a voice scientist/pedagogue, singer, musician, and artist. Pursuing the mastery of a subject and breaking down its complexities into separate parts is a fascinating cycle of learning. Two of the first things I say to my graduate vocal pedagogy students is that “there is no one right way to teach something,” and “you can never know too much about your subject matter.” Even amid constant evolution, I do not foresee a future in which these two statements are not at the core of my own teaching.
Students are people and people are individuals who learn and respond differently. A most fulfilling aspect of my work at ECU is the variability of the instruction necessitated by the courses I teach. I teach lecture courses, one-on-one applied voice, and I conduct an ensemble. These are three completely different educational environments that require very different approaches to the subject matter at hand. In a one-onone lesson, it is easy to specifically craft instruction to the student in my office. However, when I am in front of an ensemble of 50-70 singers of various skillsets and vocal backgrounds, I am no less responsible for the individuality of the students in front of me. It is my job to make the information accessible and applicable to whatever students are in my charge, which often means being flexible. In my experience this is aided by two things: 1. You must pay attention to your students. If they are not responding to the material, change something! That is the job. 2. The more you know about your subject matter and the students in your charge, the more flexible (and thereby, successful!) you can be in your methodology.
The process of teaching singers, whether individually or in a group setting, is complicated and can be incredibly personal. At the base level, these students are training muscle coordination through a process not unlike that of a professional athlete. Most of the muscles involved in phonation are not visible or immediately accessible to the student and, depending on the voice type in question, it can take years of training, diligence, and patience to develop the efficient muscular coordination necessary to produce a free and balanced timbre. This task of building technique can be daunting to the young singer who is also pursuing the many other aspects of the art form (stage craft, performance anxiety, musicianship, language study, etc.). Every day, in some capacity, I find myself reassuring students with the knowledge that even when this coordination ‘feels’ vague, uncertain, and/or overwhelming, science has given us rules. There are rules of physics and acoustics. There are rules of anatomy and physiology. All of this provides us with the knowledge we need to diagnose and correct vocal function. It is my goal as a vocal pedagogue to help students gain knowledge and awareness of their anatomy and access to the muscles that control their laryngeal, respiratory, and articulatory function in the most consistent way possible. Beyond that, my job becomes about building their knowledge of physiology and guiding their understanding of the coordination they are pursuing to create confident, professional, flexible musicians.
The tools of my methodology are expansive and regularly based on student needs and response. I have found that technology can be incredibly helpful as a source of feedback for students. I regularly encourage students to record or video themselves for observation. Many, especially those who are visual learners, respond well to spectrograph technology (now available via smart phone app) which provides visual representation of sound. This can be exceptionally helpful with vowel clarity, onset/offset work, resonance, and vibrato. Some students respond well to imagery, especially in the initial stages of muscle discovery. Others respond well to a more kinesthetic approach, which is typically very effective when discussing respiratory function. Vocal modeling (i.e. I model the muscle coordination being executed by the student(s), followed by the desired coordination) is a standard, and perhaps most common, approach used in almost every course and with every student. The common denominator among almost every method, however, is that of follow up questions when the environment permits. Having students rearticulate their understanding of concepts is invaluable to both teacher and student.
It is an incredible gift to teach in a university setting. Most of my students are between the ages of 18-25, a time when they are often beginning to ask the questions and make the choices that will define the musicians, professionals, and people they ultimately become. I consider it my duty to set an incredibly high standard. It is my job to see their potential before they can, and to create the environment of knowledge, honesty, trust, and encouragement that makes that potential a reality.