What magicians can teach us about vocal pedagogy

Rabbits live in top hats

People store coins behind their ears

You can saw people in half without hurting them.

Magicians rely on fooling us and making us, for a split second, doubt our own eyes and beliefs. They do it consciously. It’s a trick, there’s a gasp and a round of applause.

When does magic become misleading? When the viewer believes what he sees without question. The tricks become “real”, and then they become the norm. So rabbits live in hats and top hats contain rabbits. If you want a rabbit, find a top hat.

Or “I’ve watched a woman being sawn in half and that’s evidence that it exists and that is how you do it, so if you want to do it you just need a table and a large saw”

And when does magic become dangerous? When the magician believes what he sees and begins to teach other magicians to saw women in half with just a table and saw.

Ok, this is extreme, and you can see how silly it is.

Now replace magic tricks with vocal pedagogy and the lines get more blurred.

Vocal pedagogy’s aim is to explain how to recreate* certain vocal experiences. The viewer sees/hears/feels the performance and wants to create something similar (the magic trick if you like).

[*I say recreate because it’s the original performer who creates the experience, then the teacher who analyses and teaches it, then the voice scientist who analyses what a number of teachers/performers are doing.]

Now with a magic trick there is often only a handful of ways you can achieve it (trick saw or trick table or camera/audience angle or replacement dummy or contortionist assistant or two women or mirrors) and once you’re aware of those limited possibilities, you can usually suss out how it’s achieved.

What makes singing pedagogy different? Surely if you discover the 12 steps to great singing, you publish, patent, teach and you’re done?

The problem is, because of the incredible flexibility of the vocal mechanism, there are multiple possibilities for making the same sound outcome. And that’s before you include the personality/energy/physiology of that particular singer, or the requirements of their music genre.

When is pedagogy misleading? When an instruction is given that works, perhaps in a specific masterclass situation with a specific person, and the audience members believe it’s the only thing to do.

But can vocal pedagogy become dangerous. Yes, if the teacher believes their tricks are bulletproof. Or when the teacher takes an instruction that works in a particular part of the range and insists that you do it everywhere in your range, even if there’s a potential for dysphonia from misuse.

Or “I saw this on a video once and this sound came out. So everyone needs to do what I think that person did and it will work. It didn’t work for you? Well then you’re not getting it/ you’re not working hard enough, do it harder/ questioning my instructions is not on the table/ you’ll never be a true singer if you don’t follow my instructions/ perhaps you’ll never get it/ you’re not worth teaching” [delete as appropriate].

It might never even occur to the teacher that their original interpretation of the movement/magic trick they saw was wrong. Or that they’re taking an outcome (the resulting effect of a different action)and attempting to turn it into an instruction. Until it’s challenged from outside. And if the teacher’s reputation is built on that interpretation, they have too much face/money/power to lose, and they’ll fight, in the teeth of further evidence, to maintain that belief.

So you as an individual must be moulded to conform to the Brand Identity. And if it doesn’t produce what the teacher believes it should, it’s you that must be getting it wrong. So you work harder (possibly to the point of vocal injury), or you leave, or you’re ejected as a troublemaker, and the Brand remains so intact that the teacher never has to question their actions or motives again.

Smoke and mirrors.

What defence do you have against this type of smoke and mirrors?

It’s a single phrase. “What if…”

“What if…”, and its close relation “Why?”, help you to stay curious. And curiosity, rather than killing cats, helps to counter cults, belief systems, didactism and “truth certainty”.

Because ultimately, the only effective counter to curiosity is to kill it, and to dismiss either the question or the questioner: “That’s the case because I saw it and it is so” or “You’re stupid/aggressive/lying/infuriating/wrong”. And then you know what you’re dealing with. Watch out for that, you’ll see it around you in the most unexpected places.

You’ve already seen me use “What if” in a previous article “Changing your mind is human”. It’s a great phrase (and one that I’ve used for decades) that has led me to some great places, and away from some bad ones.

Gillyanne and I are both teachers, explainers, helpers, and we WANT you to get it. Everything we’ve done together since 1997, every course, every book, every free resource we’ve shared, has demonstrated that.

But more than that. We value you as an individual, and we know that you can teach us too. Because your history, your understanding, your voice and brain aren’t ours. You have experienced things in a way we haven’t.

It’s why on every online course we’ve run in the last 12 months, the chatbox remains open the whole time. So when you ask us to explain something, we listen and we ask you back. What do you already know/think/believe, what context are you asking in, and what do you want to know from us? As a couple we do that all the time with each other, and we don’t change our behaviour for you, we include you.

Magicians use “What if” to fool you, it’s part of the magician’s job description. We use it to clarify, and to help you clarify. That’s part of the teacher’s job description.

How many times do you read, hear or teach something and say “what if”?

PS We both offer coaching in separating belief from reality, and you can book a 1-1 reality session here