Observing and being a lifelong learner as a singing teacher

LOVE Sheri Sanders! Her Rock the Performance classes are a must for anyone seriously into CCM Music Theatre styles!

I’ve been back to teaching and researching after my trip to  the US in January. This morning I observed an online class with New York music theatre coach, Sheri Sanders. I believe observation is an incredibly valuable learning tool, which is just as well since it is a major part of my doctoral research!

I have been so lucky to be able to observe wonderful teaching and singers in lessons in the US over the last few years. It is such an act of generosity, allowing another teacher to watch you teach. I have watched teachers work with a student in a way that is maybe the opposite way of how I might teach but get the same end result – there are MANY ways to teach singing, and it is not about right or wrong.  I find the sharing of information challenges and strengthens my teaching.

In the past you might have become a singing teacher through the master-apprentice method. You studied with one teacher for many years, watched them teach and were taught by that teacher yourself, and then went on to teach yourself. This method of training no longer really exists, we are trained in conservatoires, or through private pedagogical courses, or both. Teaching singing is of course completely unregulated, and many teachers come to the professional without any formal qualifications but with years of performance background and teach what they know through experience. Although I had an undergraduate degree, I certainly started out that way, and quickly realised I didn’t know enough to meet the needs of my students. My Masters degree in vocal pedagogy gave me a wonderful training in lots of areas relative to singing teaching, especially voice physiology and acoustics, and was a launch pad (NOT an ending) to my ongoing quest to learn about the singing voice and voice teaching. There were gaps in the degree (you don’t learn EVERYTHING in academia, right!), which meant I needed to continue seeking out the knowledge and skills to teach to the best of my abilities. The observation of other teachers has been invaluable in filling some of these gaps. I especially like it when we can have long discussions about the lessons too!

Just some of the teachers who have generously allowed me to observe their teaching over the last three years include Jeanette LoVetri, Mary Saunders-Barton, Raymond Sage, Pat Linhart, Wendy DeLeo LeBorgne, Sheri Sanders, Elizabeth Benson and Timm Adams. Sometimes I have things pop up in my brain from lessons I observed, or when I’m researching, I might recognise how a teacher applied a certain principle. Sometimes I have watched, or participated, and been a little confused, but after a period of time, an understanding of what the teacher was doing drops into my brain. It’s like things stew around up there for a bit, and then an understanding appears. Sometimes I observe and just soak in the wonderful teaching and singing. What a privilege! Knowing not just the theory of voice pedagogy, but the application of it when seeing others teach is truly valuable.

The Diva herself – the wonderful Pat Linhart!

I learn new skills, and return to my teaching humbled by the incredible number of highly skilled voice teachers out there in the big wide world. I messaged the wonderful Pat Linhart after watching her teach and being back in my studio, pinching some of her ideas. She responded “isn’t stealing the only way!” I LOVE this attitude! We all have something to learn (steal) from one another, especially if we decide to be lifelong learners. I do think it is important to recognise and acknowledge those who have so generously sown into your skills! I am excited to be presenting on mature voices this Sunday at the ANATS Building Blocks training day. I will get to observe my Queensland colleagues teaching and presenting on the different ages of the voice. Very cool!

Observing is great, but then it’s time to go apply what you observe, so I’m off to warm up and sing! Thank you to all the singing teachers I’ve been able to watch over the years. You have all contributed to who I am as a teacher!

January is not a holiday month!

Dale with Elizabeth Benson and Auburn Music Theatre students.

I have been having the most magnificent time in the United States and thought it might be update time. As I write this I am sitting in Starbucks at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music after watching a “Vocal Athlete” class with the incredible Wendy LeBorgne. I am staying with Wendy in her beautiful home for the next few days and shadowing her (lucky me – right!) at work. For those who don’t know, Wendy, along with the wonderful Marci Rosenberg, authored The Vocal Athlete, which is a fabulous pedagogical text for contemporary voice teachers. Seeing her in action with sophomores applying the principles of exercise physiology and motor learning in practical and specific ways to ensure triple threats voices are not compromised by the incredibly physical work they do onstage in music theatre was such a privilege.

I arrived in an extremely cold New York on the 28th December and proceeded to do a music theatre binge – 7 shows in 7 days. Three of those days had no performances – so it was intense! I saw Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Hello Dolly, Hamilton, Spongebob: The Musical, The Band’s Visit, and Once on This Island. A truly diverse range of productions with incredible performers. I am so fortunate. There is nothing like seeing these shows live. Every performance I attend changes me just a little bit and informs my ideas about what the marketplace is doing, what singers are sounding like.

I was hit by the massive snowstorm and was stuck in New York and extra night but managed to arrive in Orlando at Central Florida University for the magnificent Music Theatre Educators Alliance (MTEA) conference. Amazing educators, information from Broadway producers, artists, and a fantastic panel from the cruise ship industry discussing what it takes to get employed! I was lucky enough to present on the final day, after some shifting around (my presentation was originally designed for the first day), and I have made new connections and friends from this great event.

My flight to Orlando was not without drama and I arrived in Savannah with a full blown chesty cough and cold. I worked from Savannah (which had snow on the ground – a rare event) then visited family in North Carolina who promptly tucked me into bed until I was well enough to continue on!

Next to North Greenville University where I conducted a masterclass for contemporary and worship students. Voice teachers Luke Browder, Seth Killen, Mark Eshenbaugh and Cheryl Greene (Head of Department) were so welcoming, and it was great to work with their talented singers.  My next day was to include speaking with the pedagogy class and another lecture in the afternoon but a snow fall meant roads were impassable and my day was cancelled. I soldiered on, getting to Auburn in two days – allowing for ice on the roads (very scary!).

Elizabeth Benson, Mary Sandage and Dale in the Auburn voice lab!

Once in Auburn I was lucky enough to visit with Mary Sandage, amazing voice scientist working out of Auburn University. Then it was off to the music theatre department with friend and colleague Elizabeth Benson who heads up MT Voice. I lectured and masterclasses with students, as well as observing Elizabeth in the studio. It was a wonderful couple of days.

And so, here I am at CCM. For those in Australia who don’t know , this is a very big prestigious school. The graduates experience extraordinarily high placement rates upon graduation, either on Broadway or in touring productions. I’m looking forward to an afternoon observing classes, and I am very grateful to the wonderful Wendy LeBorgne, and her husband Ed, for their hospitality. Lets hope we can get Wendy in Australia someday – she is a powerhouse!

And now for the practical. I’m back in Australia early February, lessons will start either Friday 9th / Saturday 10th, depending on my recovery after the flight. I’m SO keen to get back to teaching. And study – of course – the doctoral work is never far away! Please contact me email if you need to speak before I get home – I have had some texts come through, but the time difference means that these might be coming in at awkward times! Thanks!