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.