Teaching Tip of the Week – May 16, 2011
While teaching in Poland this week I realized I had a fairly major obstacle to overcome; I don’t speak Polish and many of the singers I worked with don’t speak English. And most of those that did speak English spoke only basic English. Teaching the voice is difficult enough even when the communication and understanding is good, let alone having language barriers.
I consider myself a fairly good communicator and quite good at explaining difficult concepts in an easy to understand way. However, a few years ago I realized how fragile communication can be, even when we both speak the same language and seem to understand one another. I had been teaching a student once a month for 9 months. At the beginning of the ninth lesson he said, “Now before we start I want to ask you about something that you said last week that I was confused about. You mentioned the “bridge” and I didn’t know what you meant. When I was in the band I remember hearing the guys say “Go to the bridge”. Is this something like what you mean? I was blown away that it was so obvious to me what I was saying yet even though he heard the words he had no idea what I was talking about. I thought about this same thing as I listened to the doctors and scientists speak at the conference this past week. I was thrilled and enlightened by what they were saying and excited that the things that I felt and taught about the voice were backed up by science, yet I wondered if anything they were saying made any sense at all to any of these singers sitting in the audience, They heard the words, but did they understand the meaning?
Because of the language barrier I spoke as little as possible. I demonstrated the exercise for the student then had them do it. If they “let go”, or their vowel went wide or they reached up, I would say “uh, uh” and shake my head. I would demonstrate what they did wrong in a somewhat exaggerated way so that I made sure they understood what they did wrong. Then I would demonstrate again doing it the right way using a hand gesture to show them what I was doing differently, like keeping my head down or keeping my vowel narrow. If they were going “airy” I would stop and say “uh, uh”. Then I would demonstrate a very airy sound, then I would demonstrate the same vowel with a hard edge on it. It was amazing how quickly the singers got into their mix when I worked this way. Normally I might spend some time explaining to them what they did wrong, why it was bad and how they should do it right, but it was impressive to me how quickly the singers got into the right place using very little if any explanation at all. The important thing for singers is that they FEEL what it should feel like. Yes, they need a basic understanding that the feeling is going to move up and down their body, that their vocal cords need to stay together with a small and consistent amount of resistance and their vowel needs to remain the same as they go up and down the scale, but other than that they really don’t need any more information.
My tip of the week is to try teaching a lesson without explaining at all. Just pick good exercises, give good demonstrations and make sure that the student does the exercise properly so that they get the full benefit. Then move on to the next exercise gradually moving them closer towards singing a song. You should probably try this out on a student that is familiar with you and you might want to explain to them briefly what you are going to try during that lesson. Chances are they will love it as they will spend more time FEELING and less time listening to you talk. I thought of a pretty good quote this week, “Teaching without understanding is only talking”. In general, I recommend we still talk and explain when we need to, but that we try to spend more time making sure that the student is feeling what they need to be feeling and not just hearing about what they should be feeling.
Teaching Tip of the Week – May 16, 2011