Category Archives: Music Education

Teachers Hall of Fame

Today is World Teachers’ Day. I was just wondering: do you have a personal Teachers Hall of Fame – with teachers who you are grateful of having met or been able to study with? What teachers are in your personal Teachers Hall of Fame? What traits do these teachers have in common?

Here are some thoughts about some of the best teachers I have had. These teachers:

  • Mastered their content and were enthusiastic and passionate about it.
  • Provided me with guidance and tools that suited my way of learning and helped me understand the content.
  • Thought outside of the box and created new ways of explaining things.
  • Never stopped learning themselves.
  • Created successful and positive learning environments.
  • Contributed to my personal growth in a profound way.
  • Inspired me because of their contributions to the community I lived in.

There is another thing that these teachers have in common. I believe these teachers were / are in what Sir Ken Robinson calls “The Element”:

“…the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.”

Every time I have met a teacher who is in their Element they have helped me find out something about my own Element.

What do you think makes a good teacher? And if we narrow it down to the areas of specialism this blog is about: what do you think makes a good music teacher? A good singing teacher? What teachers do you think belong in a “Music Educators Hall of Fame”? Why?

By Katja Maria Slotte

Latin For Lunch and The Importance Of Showing Work In Progress

Yesterday, around lunchtime, I passed by Codarts (The Conservatory of Rotterdam) where students of two Latin music ensembles taught by Marc Bischoff were giving an informal work-in-progress presentation: Latin For Lunch. Although my purpose was only to get out of the house (in order to avoid the crazy research hermit thing), and to listen to some music, I found the presentations to be very inspiring for my research.

The first thing they made me think of was this: Music is communication, a shared experience between performer and listener. Having myself gone through a formal music education, with all its focus on skills and knowledge, I sometimes wonder if we are forgetting about the basic purpose of music – communication? Obviously, we do need a certain set of skills and a certain knowledge in order to be able to communicate what we want and need to express. These skills form an important base upon which we can express ourselves creatively. I’m just wondering, whether somewhere along the way we got so hooked on the importance of the tools of communication, that we lost sight of the importance of communication itself?

Naturally, every act of singing or music-making, every performance, comes with technical aspects. Examining work-in-progress (or “final presentations”, for that matter), provides us with a great deal of information on areas of singing and music including:

Interpretation
Presentation skills and body language
Knowing the songs and the repertoire
(Singing) technique and sound choices
Microphone technique
Musicianship skills such as ear-training and rhythm
Group dynamics, balance and interaction

…and so on, and so on.

Showing and observing work in progress gives us the opportunity to become aware of and correct habits, mistakes, technical issues and shortcomings, test interpretation ideas, try out whether we can use the skills and knowledge we have obtained in different situations, and learn to adapt to different (unexpected) circumstances. It gives us the chance to try out how the audience reacts to our ideas and expression, and is therefore also a valuable means of performance education.

Let’s play around with the idea of showing work in progress. An informal work-in-progress presentation or performance opportunity could be any of the following situations:

Record lessons on video and observe it (see the performance).
In the lesson, record songs on audio and listen to them (an audio recording is also a type of performance).
Let the lesson time of two individual students overlap a bit, so that they can perform work in progress for each other, or: combine the lessons of two individual students into a duo lesson.
Organise regular group lessons where the teaching is in masterclass-form.
Variations of the above, including students of two (or more) teachers.
Have all tuition as group lessons (I have good experiences with this form of teaching at a professional level from Complete Vocal Institute).
Once every so many weeks, have an open doors-lesson, that visitors (family members, friends, colleagues) can attend.
Look for performance opportunities within or outside of the school, in the community.
Latin For Lunch, Blues For Breakfast, Songwriters For Supper….you get the idea

I challenge you to come up with at least one more possibility!

“But it takes time off of my lesson time! And they still have SO much to learn! They are not ready for it yet!”

If you consider showing work in progress, and evaluating it, an integral part of the learning process, it does not take time off of your lesson time. These performance opportunities become just as important as learning technique, repertoire or musicianship skills. I’m not saying we need to go all wild and start putting every single step of the process on public display. What I am saying, though, is that valuable learning opportunities are everywhere, if we just think outside of the box. And regarding the last one – sometimes it might be good to check who is not “ready yet”: Is it the student? Or…is it the teacher?

“It’s so much work!”

Yes, we all have a big workload. I know all about it, I’ve taught singing and music in almost every possible setting from the private studio and shorter courses to schools and institutions. I am aware not only of the amounts of lessons and students combined with time-restraints, but also of the administrative workload and various meetings, shortcomings in payments for extra work, and other things which I won’t go into right now. What I have come to experience though, is that even the smallest things make a difference. Having two students share their lesson time now and then, or recording a lesson might require some organisation and extra effort, but we’re not talking organising a whole festival here! And regarding the effort, it’s good to keep in mind that nothing manifests by itself. Neither do performance opportunities or audiences “in real life” – they too require an effort to be made.

I’m not saying all teachers or institutions are focusing only on developing skills and presenting end products, neither is my purpose criticising anyone. What I do want to bring up, is the importance of presentations and performances at all stages of vocal and musical development. We should watch out that we don’t get too caught up in “learning the craft” and risk ending up forgetting about the important aspects of communication and performance. Also consider this: you might learn many skills and gather a lot of knowledge, but you might still end up not being able to use these skills properly because you have been trained to do so only in one fixed set of circumstances. Inability to adapt to various situations causes a lot of (performance) stress, and can even instill performance anxiety. Let’s not wait until we are / the student is “ready”. Because the fact is, we will never be “ready” for every possible situation along the way.

As an example of not being ready, this article is perhaps not “ready”. It’s just a trail of thoughts, with a beginning and an end that give it some structure. I can observe it and become aware of my grammar and spelling mistakes, learn different ways of composing my thoughts into sentences, or find out that I might have put too many thoughts into one composition. But should the risk of making those mistakes keep me from writing and showing it all together? If I would wait until I’m ready, I would never write.

©2013 Katja Maria Slotte

Originally posted in Katja’s blog

Artistic Freedom versus Rules

An album I’ve been listening to a lot this past year is Peter Gabriel’s ‘Scratch My Back’. The album consists of cover songs, in Gabriel’s words it’s “the dreaded cover album” that some artists set out to make. The album’s title comes from the idea: “if you do one of my songs, I’ll do one of yours”. I find ‘Scratch My Back’ an inspiring album, with stunning orchestral arrangements and surprising interpretations of songs including ‘The Book of Love’ (Magnetic Fields), ‘Heroes’ (David Bowie), ‘Philadelphia’ (Neil Young), ‘Boy In The Bubble’ (Paul Simon), and ‘Flume’ (Bon Iver). ’Scratch My Back’ could certainly inspire many interesting discussions about covering songs. But this time I want to focus on something else: artistic freedom versus rules.

Recently I watched the video clip ‘The Making of Scratch My Back’, in which Gabriel says something that caught my attention:

I’ve always benefited from having clear rules, because I think, giving an artist total freedom is castrating them. When you say to an artist they can’t do something, that’s firing them up because we’re sort of mischievous creatures by nature, and we’ll find an alternative route to achieve something, but we need an obstruction in a way.

Does creativity benefit from having rules? Does setting limitations create more artistic freedom and lead to more surprising creative solutions and original artistic choices than setting no limitations at all?

I used to think ‘rules’ were ‘blocking the flow of ideas’, and all that sort of stuff. But the more I learn about the creative process by doing, reflecting, adjusting and doing again, the more I start to think that some sort of ‘rules’ are actually quite a blessing. Think of it as a framework, or perhaps like focusing the lens of a camera, narrowing down the possibilities in order to be able to really zoom in on a specific thing. Ifanything is possible, the options are too many and we either don’t know where to start or we get scattered in our attention. While, if we limit the options (or, like Gabriel puts it, tell ourselves/the artist we can’t do something), we create a need to find an alternative route, focus our attention and get creative within the limited options we have.

Try for example to arrange a piece of music without knowing what kind of voicing or instrumentation you will arrange it for. Impossible.

When it comes to ‘Scratch My Back’, Gabriel explains that the starting point was “no drums, no guitars”. Finally, the ‘rule’ or ‘limitation’ that was set was to arrange all songs using orchestral instruments.

Frameworks and ‘rules’ are also necessary when it comes to teaching, for example when assigning exercises for your students or groups that you work with. In my experience, if you for example give someone the assignment to practice improvising or to alter the melody or rhythm of a song, without setting a framework or assigning ‘rules’, the assignment often fails – in other words, the student blocks and doesn’t know what to do or where to start. There are simply too many choices, too many possible directions.

Now, give the assignment a clear framework and assign some rules, and the situation changes. Rules like “never sing on the 1″ or “alter the melody by always using neighbor notes / passing notes / singing an arpeggiated melodic line” are obstructions that will make the singer look for an alternative route. It also creates a clear focus for the learning task at hand, and the assignment becomes concrete.

 

Teaching artistry

How artistry can be taught or developed, is a question that interests me greatly. This question also relates to the question of artistic freedom versus rules. So where does total freedom and limitations, respectively, stand in the context of teaching or developing artistry? If limitations might be beneficial for creativity, does this also apply for artistic development?

Let’s look at this within the framework of singing instruction and learning to make artistic choices about sound. I believe a singing teacher should assist the singer in reaching his or her artistic goals, and not superimpose their own artistic taste or sound preferences on the singer/student. So in one way, I find myself promoting artistic freedom. Yet knowing how difficult it can be to make choices if anything is possible, I do sometimes find myself needing to approach that freedom within certain limitations – or at least by presenting options and possibilities in a careful way.

Since my intention is not to tell you how artistry is to be taught, but to give you an open look inside my busy brain, allow me to present you with some questions. Perhaps you can provide me with some more thoughts on this subject!

 

Here we go:

  • How do singing teachers guide singers in making artistic choices about sound and developing their artistry?
  • How/to what degree, if at all, does the artistic development of a singer benefit from limitations when it comes to possibilities in sound?

 

Let’s wrap up all these questions (for now) in a final question:

  • Are statements like ”you choose what you want to sound like / you can sound any way you like” beneficial for the development of artistry, or is it more difficult to develop artistry if anything is possible?

 

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to comment here.

Oh, and remember Peter Gabriel and ‘Scratch My Back’? Below you can have a look at the video I mentioned at the very beginning of this trail of thoughts!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

Originally posted on Katja’s blog

 

 

Ongoing Learning

This weekend, a tweet by Gerald Marko at The Voice Gym in Australia caught my eye:

He who dares to teach must never cease to learn.

- Unknown source

Wise words, and thank you for sharing them on Twitter, Gerald! Reading them made me think a bit closely about what ‘ongoing learning’ means.

Teachers and coaches are students too. Just because someone has a degree in singing and a teaching certificate, is certified in a certain method, has been teaching for an X amount of years, has an impressive singing career, or is teaching at a prestigious school, does not mean they are done with learning.

Why is ongoing learning important?

The obvious answer that comes to my mind is: because science, research and pedagogy keep evolving – and so does the industry. In order for teaching to make any sense, teachers and coaches need to keep up to date with the major issues and trends in the industry and field in which they are specialized. But there is more to learning than just staying up to date.

Learning does not only deepen our knowledge and give us an opportunity to develop our skills, it also gives us a possibility to reflect on our own pedagogy and teaching philosophy.

Perhaps we will get confirmation on things we find important. Perhaps we will discover a new angle for approaching a certain teaching challenge. It might be that we learn a new way to explain something. It does not mean the ‘new’ things have to replace everything we did until now, neither does discovering new things automatically mean we were ‘wrong’ before.

Perhaps we will encounter theories, approaches and thoughts that we disagree with. That gives us again the opportunity to reflect on our own teaching, and why we approach certain things in a certain way. Ongoing reflection is needed in order to form our own teaching philosophies.

Ongoing learning helps us understand our strengths and weaknesses. Professional strengths and weaknesses, including knowledge and mastery of subject that is being taught, pedagogical skills, ability to adapt in teaching situations (for example one-on-one versus teaching groups), and so on. But also personal strengths and weaknesses, including listening, thinking and communication skills, empathic skills, and awareness of how our own beliefs, attitudes, and acts affect others. Because in teaching, our personal skills count as much as our professional skills.

Image courtesy of jannoon028 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of jannoon028 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

How do we keep learning?

  • By reading, attending workshops, and studying. Ongoing learning requires being interested in new ideas and approaches, and staying in dialogue with teachers of other methods and techniques than the one we teach.
  • By staying in dialogue with other singing teachers, and with other teachers and coaches in general. A singing teacher can, for example, learn a great deal about performance from a teacher in another field of music or performing arts. But we can also learn a great deal about the creative process from other creative artists, about pedagogy from teachers and educators in completely different fields, or about communication from for example an NLP coach.
  • By seeking feedback from our clients, students, colleagues and mentors. This includes feedback and evaluation on our work and services, supervision and intervision.
  • By doing, reflecting, adjusting, and doing again. Every teaching situation is a new learning situation.

 

I will wrap up my thoughts for today by returning to Gerald and his tweets. For me, communicating with other teachers, coaches and singers (on Twitter and outside of it) is one way of learning. Gerald’s tweet about ongoing learning released a whole trail of thoughts in me. Now, I am curious to hear what kind of thoughts you have on ongoing learning, and what kind of additions you have to my trail of thoughts!

 

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

Originally published in Katja’s blog