Private Instruction the Way of the Dodo?


With the advent of informal and peer-based learning instruction within academic situations - specifically in relation to popular music and popular music education - there is an increasing interest in discontinuing one-on-one instruction within these programs. While this post focuses on the vocal realm, I welcome insight and thoughts from other disciplines, as this continues to plague my consciousness, no matter how many ways I approach the thought process. And believe me.  I’ve tried.  Seven ways to Sunday and back.  But I keep coming back to the same issues, some of which I wonder are ethical issues, which is of course where it gets sticky.  

Some of the motivations for this change is of course financial and is understandable given the rising cost of education at the tertiary level.  Some of the motivations are pedagogical - offering students more diverse ways of learning and knowing, as well as autonomy over their own learning. Informal and peer learning spaces can also provide students with more avenues to develop such skills as the ability to think objectivity, objectively and kindly critique others, learn to accept constructive feedback, creatively solve problems with others, develop autonomy over the learning process, and increase their communication skills.

However, while these modes of instruction most certainly should be employed within and alongside vocal training contexts, when it comes to the voice, I run into what I perceive as an ethical issue concerning the discontinuation of one-on-one instruction. Unlike instrumental instruction, the vocal instrument is located within a human body and cannot be seen unless one is scoped by a licensed medical otolaryngologist.  Which means, in order to see your instrument as a vocalist, you need to see a medical doctor – and they stick a very skinny tube down your nose or a straight probe into your mouth that has a camera mounted on it that takes high resolution video to see the vocal folds move and make sure a pathology (nodes, cysts, polyps, etc) does not exist. 

This presents a particularly challenging problem in regards to group vocal instruction. If a guitarist or pianist in a class is exhibiting harmful bodily posture that could potentially cause tendentious or carpal tunnel down the road, the instructor is able to perceive this with their eyes.  They can adjust this as necessary and help the student be aware and continue to observe and adjust their behavior within a group context.  Instruments can be plugged into amplifiers that utilize headphones so students can easily assess their own practice, and even when recorded, the sound the instrument makes live is able to be maintained.  Granted, there will be adjustments, but the perception of the sound is largely the same.

The voice is different.  What singers perceive as ’their’ voice is different.  What we hear coming out of our mouths is a combination of both inner and outer hearing - it’s why most people perceive they sound different when they’re recorded.  When recorded, all that we hear is the outer hearing.  So, to everyone else, a singer sounds the same, but to themselves, they sound different.  This alone invites a slew of interesting pedagogies - those that say one should find the sound they want through listening to themselves recorded - sometimes disregarding the function of the instrument altogether, those that say it’s best to learn by recording yourself, or those that say to imitate recordings by other artists.  While recording can be a valuable tool in learning to hear pitch accuracy and slight adjustments of timbre change, it must be accompanied by an awareness of how the voice actually functions in a healthy and non-damaging manner.

As a proponent and pedagogue of functional and scientifically based vocal pedagogy, teaching someone how to effectively and healthfully use their voice in a group setting is extremely challenging to achieve within a group setting. We’re dealing with a human body part here, people.  A group vocal lesson is similar to a group doctor’s appointment.  Where everyone in the room has a different and distinct challenge to overcome, many of them are embarrassed and unable to express their discomfort in front of other people, and the ability of the doctor to correctly diagnose issues is continent on the patient being honest, unembarrassed, and able to even tell the doctor what their symptoms are.  I’m not saying that people don’t do it - they do - but at what cost to the vocalist?   

First, there is the issue of the teacher being able to actually hear the students voice accurately.  Some of the changes that need occur within a voice for effective and healthy production are subtle and unable to be heard when multiple voices are singing.   In this collaborative space, how is it possible to accurately address and diagnose vocal issues?

Second, there is the issue of the student being willing to sing solo and do vocal exercises in front of others openly and honestly.  This alone can sideline the ability to learn anything effective in this setting. Are we willing as educators to subject students to possibly psychologically destructive pedagogical practices? 

Third, there is the issue of making ‘bad’ sounds in front of others.  Sometimes, when you’re learning how to coordinate the muscles within the vocal system, lots of strange sounds are elicited from the voice.  The inability or unwillingness to make these sounds can impede a student’s progress and ability to grow.  Is it ethical to allow students to make unhealthy sounds within a learning context - especially when those sounds can cause vocal pathologies such as nodes, cysts, or polyps?

Fourth, there is the issue of wanting to sound like and blend with the others around you.  As humans, it is our natural tendency to match the people around us when they are singing.  What the person next to me is doing may or may not be good for my voice. And without the ability to truly hear what I’m doing, I just end up matching the person next to me.  Is it ethical to assume students can monitor their own voices when all of human nature works against them?

Fifth, there is the issue of all of the other psychological things that come along with vocal production.  Because the voice is directly connected to the emotional processing center of the brain, any anxiety, stress, emotional changes, or things of like nature can affect the voice and the production of sound. Is it ethical to ask students to deal with their emotional issues connected to vocal production in front of others - when some of these may be deep seated and embarrassing?

Sixth, as the majority of students classes within popular music contexts are peer-learning, student-centered or informal learning spaces, a private lesson may be the only time they get the opportunity to discuss their feelings in a safe space, to work on specific skills they may be struggling with – that have sometimes nothing to do with singing, to get feedback, to develop

I don’t know.  But I’m asking these questions.  And I hope others are too.  

I’m not discounting the fact that there are many draconian and harmful one-to-one vocal instruction practices.  There are.  I’m not advocating for those either.  Where the student has no awareness of what they’re doing or why they’re doing it other than they were told to do it.  

However, I DO think that there can be a middle ground.  One where one-to-one instruction is taught with an awareness of the student in front of them. Lessons can be student centered - where the student takes control of the learning and is guided by the teacher.  Lessons can develop autonomy - requesting that the students keep practice logs, record themselves to hear pitch accuracy and start to develop an awareness and love of their recorded voice. Lessons can use recordings as references for helping more advanced students mimic and learn the function behind what it takes to make certain sounds that are out of their comfort zone.  Lessons can work alongside group instruction classes such as repertoire, pedagogy, voice science, and other ensembles so as to help the student use the knowledge they are receiving in their one-to-one lessons.   

I think there is a way to do this, but we’ve gotta keep talking about it. So, let’s talk.



Portfolio Careers and Success

*First appeared on APME blog:

About a month I found out that the way I organize my professional life and career has a name.

It’s called a Portfolio Career. A portfolio career is exactly what it sounds like – your career looks like a constantly changing, moving, and growing portfolio.  It encompasses all the things you hear about musicians doing – writing, teaching, playing, touring, putting out albums, business meetings, website design, mixing, mastering, recording, bookings…ect. – each opportunity and experience adds to the breadth and depth of the portfolio.  Pretty sweet, huh?

From the perspective of many people working traditional ‘jobs’ where they do the same thing, go to the same place and interact with mostly the same people every day, portfolio careers can look really messy and perhaps even stressful.  But for the creative (one who creates) it’s exciting, exhilarating, fun, engaging, challenging, and always changing.  Just like their art.

Yet rarely do we talk to our students about this kind of a career.  Too often, I talk to students and ask them what they are planning after graduation.  Standard responses range from: “I’m going to be a performer,” to “I’m going to work in publishing,” to “I have no idea and I’m really scared.” It’s the last one that I find brings the most sadness to my days.  While it’s great that so many schools are integrating entrepreneurial and music business courses into their curriculums, they seem to be leaving out an essential part of the puzzle.

Many schools seem to not let students know that it’s totally OK, and even wonderful, to not do ONE thing when they get out of school. To help them figure out what their version of success looks like and how they might achieve their goals.  To show them how the things they’re learning about in their courses can give them the tools they need to create a rewarding portfolio career. 

In America, and I suspect in many other countries, this is almost completely antithetical to the accepted norm of success being completely linked to the amount of money in ones’ wallet and the amount of years at a ‘job’ and how high up the ‘ladder’ one is.  But is this really the only measure of success? 

I’ve worked a portfolio career for over 20 years.  I’ve taught every age from two to eighty. I’ve booked and run two successful tours.  I’ve given masterclasses and workshops.  I’ve taught beginners and advanced students.  I’ve released three records, with a fourth and fifth on the way.  I’ve put myself through grad school – twice. I’ve sung backup vocals for famous people.  I’ve helped people learn how to find the beauty in their voice.  I’ve authored a chapter in a book.  I’ve spoken at international conferences.  I’ve never worked outside of music in the 20 years I’ve lived in NYC.  Ever. 

Yet by so many standards, I am not successful.  How sad to have this view.  How happy I do not.

Finding out that what you do has a ‘place’ in the world is extremely empowering. Let’s help our students know that having a portfolio career is a completely viable and wonderful way to move through life and that it isn’t a failure – it’s just a different way of viewing success. 

Community Music

I recently took a course in Community Music.  For some of you reading this, you are familiar with this term, but for many of you, including myself three months ago, I only had a vague idea about what community music was.  I thought it was community groups that form in some church basement and play music for fun with their friends.  And it is.  But it’s also SO much more than that. In his book on Community Music, Lee Higgins (community musician, rock guitarist, scholar, professor, and now president of ISME) explores and explains community musicianship.  He defines community music as (1) of a community, (2) communal music making, and (3) an active intervention between a music leader or facilitator and participants. 

Community musicians have at the core of their practice an ethos to engage people in the making of music, not only for its aesthetic value, but for its ability to help people.  They help people find meaning, joy, understanding, and acceptance.  They help people build relationships and explore new possibilities.  They have an attitude towards making and facilitating music that creates culture through inclusivity. Community musicians do things.  Great things.  Life-changing things.  Societal change kinds of things.  

Over the course of semester, I kept coming back to the same question - asking myself how these attitudes can be included in popular music programs.  I have this nagging thought that somehow, popular music and the people that engage in creating it can change the world.  Not like Live Aid or a similar event, which certainly made a difference – but something that could actually change the social fabric of humanity.  Could community music and its principles offer that possibility?  If we educate people in popular music classrooms and programs with an ethos towards the tenets of community music and similar philosophies such as cultural democracy, personhood, and artistic citizenship, can we help facilitate larger change?  If those same students go on to massive success and they have at the core of their artistry and practice and ethic that encapsulates these principles, could the music they make, which could reach millions, have a larger societal affect?  Especially if their music speaks to change they want to see in the world?  If those students then facilitate community music programs and activities would that change the social fabric of society?  Can they make a difference?

With the political turmoil currently occurring in my homeland, I have so many students writing songs of protest, of pain, and of love – wanting to do something.  I have students asking me ‘what’s the point?’ and ‘why should I bother?’ and I say – “because we need you - because you can be the voice of the people who don’t feel they have them.”  Maybe be can help them be that voice. 


Paper Plate Music

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a Masterclass with a venerable jazz artist.  The opening discussion was focused on what the students, most of whom were jazz majors, thought about music and jazz today.  The conversation weaved back and forth between artist and students and at one point, a student said that they loved jazz because the music that is being created today is nothing but Paper Plate Music. 

That comment sat with me, for while I understood what they meant – that it’s just something people simply listen to and then discard – that there was something deeper there to explore.  Is there a purpose to pop music?  Has there ever been?  What’s the purpose of a paper plate?  That last question was the easiest.  You use them because you don’t want to have to do dishes, because you have a lot of people to share food with, because you are outside at a picnic with other people sharing memories and no one wants to worry about breaking dishes…the list was endless, but the overriding theme that caught my attention was that paper plates aren’t useless.  They have a very specific purpose, and the things they leave behind are not the paper plate themselves, but the conversations, the memories, the feelings – and those are highly valued. 

So…I wrote a song.  This blog post is simply the lyrics to that song.  Exploring the idea of Paper Plate Music.  Perhaps, if we see it for what it is and not what it isn’t, the value can be explored all unto itself - and that is completely worthwhile. 

Paper Plate Music

music & lyrics by Kat Reinhert (c)2016ExergueMusic all rights reserved


I’ve heard the stories on the radio

They say music is dying

But when I look around this room

I say that it’s fighting


There are those who say it’s worthless

Four chords can’t make things last

I beg to differ ‘cause from what I hear

Free Bird is flying fast


Some people call it Paper Plate Music

Like discardable memories

But I hear people singing Paper Plate Music

And it sounds like family


Take all the writers and singers of old

They did with what they could

Told their stories with what they had

Their soul and a piece of wood


Where would we be without the sound

Of so many songs we know

If we didn’t have a voice to cry

Four dead in Ohio


So they may call it Paper Plate Music 

But it stays in our memories

‘Cause people been singing Paper Plate Music

All through history


They’re not disposable and it's not weak

To let the story have control 

To get inside of you and dig down deep

Soak into your soul


People been making Paper Plate Music 

For as far back as I can see

And people keep singing Paper Plate Music

In perfect harmony 


So we’ll keep on making Paper Plate Music

And we’ll keep our memories

And we’ll keep on singing Paper Plate Music

With perfect harmony