Turn the ears on, and the autopilot off!

Weekly Teaching Tip – July 28, 2014
by Rocio Guitard
When you have a lot of long term students it is all too easy to get into autopilot mode. You know the drill, you know what you’re trying to fix in that student’s voice, and you’re happily mum-mum-mum-ing your student away while thinking about your shopping list. Admit it, it happens to the best of us. So how do you break out of that?Â
First, let’s take a look at how to recognize you’ve fallen into autopilot mode. Are you experiencing one or more of the following?
– You feel that a lot of your students aren’t making significant progress lately.
– Your thoughts keep wandering while you do the warmup exercises.
– You don’t have the next scale ready in your head while you’re finishing up on the previous one.
– You’ve been working on the same song for too long, and nothing new is happening in the student’s voice.
– You don’t necessarily feel like calling students on your waiting list when holes happen in your schedule.
– You’re eager to finish the day and go home.
Any of this sound familiar? It happens, and you shouldn’t feel guilty when it does. Sometimes you have a lot on your mind, or you are just overworked, or have fallen into a routine too easily. As long as you realize when it’s happening and are able to do something about it, it’s totally ok! So let’s talk a bit about ways to fix this:
1. Take some time off. Really. If you’re overworked or otherwise stressed, you are out of balance, and you can’t teach balance. Even a weekend away from everything, just strolling through nature or looking at new sights can leave you quite refreshed.
2. Pretend you’ve never worked with the student, and treat it as a first lesson. You’ll be surprised at how many “new” things you hear in the student’s voice that need to be addressed. Pick one or two, maximum, and tackle those during that lesson. Maybe you want to introduce breath support for sustains, or *really* spend time on developing vibrato, or get rid of some extra tension in the n’th bridge; you get the idea.
3. Don’t let the student get away with poor execution of a scale. This is a symptom of autopilot mode as well; really do what it takes to correctly pronounce the vowel of an exercise, or add “nasty” or “cry” or whatever it is you expect the student to do. Remember, practicing wrongly only reinforces bad habits, so you have to make sure the recording you’re doing of the lesson will help the student zoom in on getting rid of those.
3. Stick a copy of the priority list on your music stand: Release-Connect-Relax-Tone-Style. Keep your eyes on it while you’re vocalizing and listening the student, and use the list to pick your next exercise. (If you’re not familiar with the priority list, come to my presentation on alternate vowels/consonants during the Denver conference, or re-read Dean’s book)
4. Speaking of books, when was the last time you read (or re-read) one on vocal pedagogy? It’s quite amazing how just one book can re-invigorate your teaching with new insights, tips, and tricks. Some of my favorites include anything by Titze (yes, the tough ones!), Herbert-Caesari, or Richard Miller, just to name a few. And always use something to highlight the passages that surprise you; there’s something to be learned from them.
5. Don’t be afraid to stop your students on mistakes during songs, even tiny ones. Especially beginner teachers seem to be afraid to do so. Trust me, you don’t need to fix the whole tune in one lesson. Maybe you want to focus on just the first verse for starters. Is the melody exactly as it should be? The rhythm? The phrasing? The registration? The vowels? If so, maybe change up the feel and/or key of the tune altogether to give the student a challenge. Is it an uptempo song? Slow it down to a ballad. Is it a ballad? Turn it into a funk. Is it a swing tune? Make it latin. Granted, you need a bit of piano skills for that, but if you don’t have them, you can get creative with “band-in-a-box” or countless other software programs. Additional things you can teach a student for songs are how to count off a tune in live situations, how to discuss the form of the song with a band, how to come up with a way to end a song live, etc. Technique is important, but there’s a lot more to be taught.Â
6. Ask the student flat out if there’s anything specific they’d like to focus on during the lesson. Maybe they have an audition coming up they forgot to mention (don’t you just hate when that’s the case and they don’t say anything). Or they’re going to sing in public for the first time. Or grandma wants them to sing at her 89th birthday party and they need to pick a song. Or they keep tripping over the first bridge on an “oo” vowel. You’ll be surprised at the multiple answers you can get to that simple question.
I hope this gets your thoughts going on how to be creative and keep lessons interesting for both you and your students. And you know how you can feel like you’re on cloud nine when you’ve had a string of “a-ha!” moments with several students on any given day! It doesn’t take much. Just be creative 🙂
And that’s all for now, I look forward to meeting a lot of you at the conference in Denver!
Greetings from Spain, where I’m working hard on point number 1 😉
Rocio Guitard


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