How not to teach

Hello everybody,

Here is an example of how one shouldn’t teach. I love it :). Later on we can speak about the nasality and how we can help the students with that problem. But first let’s read the text.

From On the Art of Singing by Richard Miller
(Oxford University Press 1996, p.41)


Several years ago it was my unhappy assignment to serve as outside consultant
on a question of teacher evaluation at an institution where such review
takes place. For the greater part of a day, I sat in a studio and tried to
sort out the strengths and weaknesses of the pedagogy that unfolded before
me. What follows is an accurate account of one of the lessons I observed.
Only the name of the student and the title of the song have been altered.
(The name of the teacher will remain secret.)

Mark, a nineteen-year-old baritone performance major, vocalizes briefly on a
nine-note scale, exhibiting extreme nasality, and then turns to Gia il sole
dal Gange. He sings through the entire composition without interruption,
with the same nasal quality that was evident in his vocalizing. Such nasal
timbre is the result, of course, of a constantly low velar position that
does not take into account the postures necessary for non-nasal vowel and
non-nasal voiced consonant definition.

Mark’s teacher says, “Well, Mark, something is really wrong with that
quality. It sounds very nasal.” Mark amicably agrees that the timbre is not
a desirable one. His teacher then makes the following series of suggestions,
with the indicated results:

Suggestion 1: “Just remain where you are standing but send your voice after
my hand.” (Teacher stretches his right arm outward, places forefinger and
thumb together, and walks slowly backward across the studio floor. Mark as
he moves his torso forward but keeps his feet in place, valiantly tries to
make his voice follow his teacher’s receding hand.)

Result 1: Gia il sole dal Gange continues to be sung with nasal timbre.

Suggestion 2: “All right, Mark,” says teacher, “let’s try to concentrate on
another kind of placement.” (Teacher puts forefinger on forehead just above
and between Mark’s eyes.)

Result 3: Gia il sole dal Gange exhibits the same degree of nasality as

After a moment’s reflection, a new suggestion is forthcoming from teacher.

Suggestion 4: “Well, perhaps the tone is actually too far forward. This
time, send the sound out this little hole right here on the top of your
head.” (Teacher indicates a spot on the dome (the calvaria) of the skull).
“Have the feeling that the tone goes right up the back of the throat wall,
into the head, and out this little chimney on the top.”

Mark tries to direct the tone up the throat wall and out the little chimney
on the top of his head, this time assisting with furrowed brow and with eyes
turned upward.

Result 4: Gia il sole dal Gange continues to show nasality as the
predominant timbre characteristic.

Suggestion 5; “It still seems too far forward to me. I think we’ll go a step
beyond now and try to imagine sending the tone out of an inverted cone, a
sort of funnel, with the large, spacious end of the cone at the nape of your
neck, the little end at your larynx. Just send the sound right out the back
or your neck.”

Result 5: Despite a courageous attempt to place the tone as directed, Mark
continues to sing Gia il sole dal Gange with extreme nasality.

Suggestion 6: “All right, we’ve really got to follow the proffered
directions, but he continues to sing Gia il sole dal Gange with a nasalized

It is clear that Mark’s teacher hears the undesirable nasality that plagues
his student’s voice, and that he very much wants to help Mark get rid of it.
For a moment he is lost in thought. However, having exhausted his
“placement” remedies, teacher now turns to the suggestion that tends to be
offered as a solution for many vocal problems when all else fails.

Suggestion 7: “Well Mark, it just has to be a question of support. What you
need is more support. Come on now! Give it more support!”

Mark is a trusting student, and one sees that he believes himself at fault
for not being able to make proper use of these inventive corrective
suggestions. So he takes heart that yet another suggestion may trigger his
recalcitrant instrument to produce the right action. However, he is unsure
as to how he must proceed. He ventures, “Just how should I do that?”

Suggestion 7a: Teacher unbuttons his jacket and places Mark’s hand on his
own ample abdominal wall and distends his abdomen. “Press down and out like
this when you breathe in and then hold your breath as you sing the phrase.”

Result 7a: Mark does so, and Gia il sole dal Gange rings forth at a slightly
higher dynamic level, a little sharp, with the same degree of nasality as
before. “It sounds almost the same to me,” says Mark apologetically, “only a
little louder.” “I know” agrees his teacher. “That doesn’t seem to be
quite the kind of support you need.”

Suggestion 7b: “So try this: This time pull in on your stomach as you sing
the phrase.”

Result 7b: Mark pulls his abdominal wall inward, and he continues to sing
Gia il sole dal Gange with a great deal of nasality.

Mark’s teacher appears to be a bit disappointed, but by no means defeated.
Indeed, he suddenly seems almost cheerful.

Suggestion 8: “Tell you what, Mark. You keep working on these ideas during
the coming week and we’ll hear you again on this piece next lesson. Now what
else do you have with you?”

As in so many cases, imaginative “placement” and “support” notions
could not be trusted to remedy functional inadequacies present in the singing
technique. Mark’s teacher has a very fine ear, is an excellent musician, and
has had an extensive career as a performer. Without specific information as
to the physiologic and acoustic causes of nasality, can he expect to know
how to eliminate nasality in singing? Will “you need more support” continue
to be his ultimate panacea for all vocal faults regardless of their origin?

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  1. I learned alot from dr. Richard Miller. I had the opportunity to see him lecture 2 times. Although I do not agree with what everything he has to say in his book I definately concur with what he says above. His book also gave me a more clear understanding of what happens muscularly as the voice “bridges.”I think I will revisit his book. Thank-you Sonja.

  2. Teri, I think the same. Richard Miller is one of the most respected singing teacher and vocal researcher in the world. I have never met him, lucky you! We have the right to disagree with him on certain issues, but, as teachers of singing. we have to know his work. So let’s revisit the book :).

  3. Unfortunately Dr. Miller died in May, 2009. How lucky we are he published his experiences and thoughts! And I do feel very lucky to have met him and dined with him!

  4. Yes, I knew that, That’s why I said: “lucky you”, but from the other hand such people never die. They are always present in their works. I wish I could meet Herbert-Caesari but I have all his books except “Alchemy of the Voice” (I tried to get, but no luck). And I think of him if he was among us. Strange and nice feeling.

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