Let’s talk about Core Competencies in singing teaching

Core competencies in Singing Teaching

Photo of letter blocks spelling out Let's talk. Let's talk about core competencies

At the beginning of this year I was invited by London College of Music UWL to take up a Visiting Professorship. As you might expect I’m on a pedagogical path and hoping to make more of a contribution to our profession.

It seems there is a real zeitgeist Europe-wide to put in place guidelines for training of singing teachers. In France legislation is already pending, and EVTA (European Voice Trainers Association) are holding a round table session on this topic at this year’s Eurovox conference.  Currently anybody can – and does – set themselves up as a singing teacher. The Millennials are hitting the work scene, keen to make their mark but sadly (despite boundless enthusiasm) all too often without the 10,000 hours of experience that can help make an expert teacher.


What are core competencies?

According to Wikipedia the business world identifies Core Competencies as being

The harmonisation and combination of multiple resources and skills

The big question of course, is what these might comprise in our multifaceted world of singing teaching. Bear with me as I digress in comparing our profession with that of the voice clinician.


Your client, your team

Back in November 2017 I attended a two-day conference run by the British Laryngological Society. A big take-home for me was the strong sense of collaborative team-work that goes on in a good voice clinic. Cathy Gass, lead SLT clinician at QEH Birmingham, spoke about how teamwork facilitates ongoing professional development within the team – something that we singing teachers often lack. How often do we co-coach or co-teach a client? To whom can we go to for a bit of supervision?

I am in an advantageous position working with my husband Jeremy – it means we discuss clients between us and share ideas constantly. OK, well sometimes the lesson content of the day before gets discussed over your morning tea but you learn to manage that and have switch-off time from your voice-nerd-teacher brain. Cathy Gass also emphasised that at the heart of the work in a voice clinic is the client’s case history.

Earlier in 2017 I had sat in on three days of voice clinic sessions (both general voice and singing voice) with Sue Jones and her team: I was in awe at the time spent in taking case histories and the skill with which the team were able to explore possible underlying aspects of lifestyle that might impact on voice.

I would hope that all singing teachers keep a log of client progress, however informally: it allows us to check our own progress and review the evidence base of our practice. Personally, I have kept notes on students for most of my teaching career and insist that teachers I mentor do the same. End of digression.


Vocal Function

One aspect of Core Competencies that I imagine fellow members will be agreed upon is knowledge of vocal function: anatomy and physiology of voice including the big four – respiration, phonation, resonance and articulation. A basic understanding of the neural networks involved in voice production is also helpful so that we can understand which aspects of singing voice production are likely to be under conscious control, and which are not. There is a range of courses available now for teachers seeking CPD that are externally validated (including those from Vocal Process), and I personally am extremely grateful for the many learning opportunities I have had during almost 30 year membership of the British Voice Association.

For me, the most reliable knowledge bank of vocal function resides with the clinicians, rather than with singers and singing teachers. From what I can see, all the great singing teachers have ‘hung out’ with clinicians and voice researchers at some point in their career. Our practice needs to be informed by valid and reliable information about vocal function.


The language of singing teaching

But how do we translate this knowledge of vocal function into something meaningful to our singing students? This brings me to the subject of lexicons in singing teaching. By lexicon I mean the terms we use. Examples would be ‘chest’, ‘head’, ‘twang, ‘tilt’, ‘onset’, ‘forward placement’ and so on.

Lexicons can provide a common language between student and teacher and between groups of singing voice enthusiasts. Sometimes an ‘in-house’ lexicon is devised to facilitate development and dissemination of a teaching method. The advantage is that everyone trained in that method understands what their colleagues are talking about as well as to feel part of a group.  Ours is an isolating profession and language connects – right?

That said, there are disadvantages too. I was very struck by a Ted Talk I watched recently about a remote tribe in the western edge of Cape York who use cardinal directions rather than ‘left’ and ‘right’. For example, in Kuuk Thaayorre you might talk about moving your cup in a North-Northwest direction. Apparently, this allows tribe members to be superbly oriented, in a way that we tend to think of as being only possible in the animal kingdom.

The thrust of the talk was that while language may connect groups of people, it can also limit their thinking. Suppose a new student doesn’t know your lexicon? Or perhaps another teacher wants to discuss an aspect of vocal technique with you but doesn’t use terms that you do – does that make them wrong? So the take-home of this reference is that while the language of vocal function needs to be unambiguous, a good singing teacher needs to be multi-lexical.


Teaching isn’t telling

This brings me to the issue of knowledge transfer to our students. I am rather fond of saying “teaching isn’t telling” – what Katherine Verdolini refers to as the difference between “learning how” and “learning that”. Teaching is about eliciting change in our students’ voices via meaningful exercises that can then be applied to musical patterns in songs. So, while I may be aware of an issue of subglottal pressure in a student’s voice – say pressed phonation – it won’t help her if I use either of these terms in the lesson. It will be more useful to give her a sensory instruction such as “hold your hand in front of your mouth and aim for a feeling of warm air as you sing”.

Sounds very ‘singing teacher’ I know, but it will help reset the balance of breath and vocal fold resistance. If you’re a lover of the language of vocal function then Verdolini’s Principles Of Skill Acquisition Applied To Voice Training will be an eye-opener. What your student needs from you is not ‘information’ about the voice – he needs sensory and perceptual cues, a clear point of focus for these, and a meaningful exercise to address the issue you want to tackle in the lesson. Guidance on the manner of teaching is therefore high on my list of core competencies.

Obviously, there is much more to be said about Core Competencies – whether a singing teacher needs keyboard skills for example, what level of musicianship might be required and if they should have had a performing career…and more.


LCM Conference

If this topic interests you as much as it does me, I encourage you to attend a one-day conference that we are holding at LCM on September 22:  Towards Best Practice: Teaching Singing in Higher Education – Core Competencies. Keynote speakers are Janice Chapman, Professor Johan Sundberg and myself with invited speakers Tori Burnay, Dr Denise Borland and Ali Bell, and Dr Susan Yarnell Monks.

In addition to the presentations there will be a focus group session where delegates can discuss what they feel a singing teacher needs to know. There will also be a poster session and a prize awarded by Compton Publishing. Abstract deadline is 12 noon August 17 so there’s still time.

Booking is available now http://lcme.uwl.ac.uk/events-information

And poster guidelines available here (but remember the new deadline!) https://goldenpages.jpehs.co.uk/2018/06/27/towards-best-practice-teaching-singing-in-higher-education-core-competencies/



Lera Borododitsky Does the language we speak shape the way we think? Ted Talk  http://bit.ly/2J6QI3H

Verdolini, K. Principles of Skill Acquisition Applied to Voice Training, Chapter 8, ‘The Vocal Vision: Views on Voice by 24 Leading Teachers, Coaches and Directors’; Applause Books (2000) ISBN-13: 978-1557832825

This article was first published in the Newsletter of the British Voice Association on 19.07.2018. To find out more go to https://www.britishvoiceassociation.org.uk/