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!

Mindfulness and Singing

Mindfulness is a very trendy word and practice at the moment. It is a tool used for anxiety, depression and coping with the hustle of modern life. It comes from Buddhist meditation traditions and is now the subject of much research within the academic community. It is being used in such diverse areas as police training to high level sporting performance. How do I use it in my studio?

Many students arrive rushed to their lesson. Occasionally traffic has been bad, or they have had a bad day at work. A busy week at university. A stressful time dealing with their friends at school. They may be concerned about their voice, or lack of practice over the previous week. There may be problems at home in their family. I don’t need to know the details. I am not a counselor, that is not my role. But often students share what is happening in their life, and as their teacher, I am genuinely interested in them, not only their voice. Many of these stressors have an affect on their mental and physical capacity to sing with freedom and to be attentive to what we are about to do in the lesson. As a result of a week of heavy study, or intense work pressures, they may have tension in their necks and backs. This is what stretches are for, to give physical relief, but what if a student is so mentally wound up they cannot begin to sing.

Mindfulness can help adjust both my student, and my own, focus back onto the job at hand – to teach a singing lesson with a positive and specific outcome. I must admit, I sometimes forget to use this tool. But I am always amazed when I do apply this in the studio at the start of a lesson how much more focused the student is, and how much more we accomplish in the lesson.

Last year I was lucky enough to listen to Professor Mary Sandage from Auburn University discuss mindfulness at the Australian Voice Association conference. I felt like there were light bulbs flashing in my head. I use mindfulness myself, but I am not good at daily practice. I try! But like so many students and their singing practice, life gets busy and in the way. Those days when I DO start my day with some mindfulness (I use guided meditations from YouTube – I get too easily distracted with my busy mind without this!) are really productive and ENJOYABLE days. Lessons where we begin with a very short mindfulness practice (bringing attention back to the body, breath and generally noticing your thoughts and environment) are usually productive and enjoyable lessons. It doesn’t always work. But it very often does. It helps us to focus on exactly what we are doing in a non judgemental way. It helps us notice what our body is experiencing when we sing, what we are hearing when we sing, and how we feel about these things. Noticing then leads to adjustments which can have positive functional, stylistic or experiential impacts on our learning.

Here is a link to some interesting research on mindfulness and singing.

Want to study mindfulness? Check out the amazing program at the Centre for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts. This is on my wish list!