Giving an A

Recently I started re-reading ‘The Art Of Possibility‘ by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. It is one of those books I would recommend everyone to read: teachers and students, bosses and employees, leaders and members of an organization, choir conductors and singers, band leaders and musicians…

Rather than living in a world of measurement, where we know things by comparing and contrasting them, the Zanders invite us to step into a “universe of possibility”. The book presents twelve practices that will shift our view of life, and open up new possibilities and opportunities where we thought there were none.

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Photo credit: Denise Carbonell via Photopin.com

The challenge of ‘giving an A’

One of the practices in the book, and the one I would like to challenge you to try out this coming week (or month), is the practice of ‘Giving an A’.

When you give an A, you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves. Your eye is on the statue within the roughness of the uncut stone. This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.

In essence, the practice of ‘Giving an A’ means the following: when we assume that people will do well, and teach them how they can do this, they will. The Zanders remind us that practicing “giving an A” will not only transform the person receiving the figurative or literal A, it will transform the person giving the A as well.

Possibilities to live into. Reading these words made me think about how much faster people learn in a positive learning environment. And about how important it is to ‘reset’ and have a ‘clean slate’ every time we go into a teaching situation, and not to bring in any expectations or judgements based on previous experiences or on what we have read or heard about someone.

To whom could you give an A today?

10 Thoughts For Teachers

Today, I wanted to share these 10 thoughts with you.

I received them years ago, at the end of my specialization course in Music and Movement (Orff-Schulwerk) during my Music Education studies at the Sibelius Academy from our teacher Soili Perkiö.

I think these 10 thoughts are important for teachers and educators in all areas of specialization, and on all levels.

1. Your personality is your most important tool.

2. Make your views come true.

3. Always respect people.

4. Recognize your own limitations.

5. Be consistent and reliable.

6. Develop a sensitivity to experience things from the perspective of those you teach.

7. Be ready for self-criticism, yet without abandoning your Self.

8. Make sure you provide those you teach with space – and with space to make mistakes.

9. Do not break the agreements and promises that you have made.

10. Cherish your inner freedom, which is your most precious capital.

By Martti Lindqvist

 

Translated from Finnish by Katja Maria Slotte

Choosing a Vocal Method

Yesterday I gave two workshops  for the singing students of the Jazz & Pop department at ArtEZ Conservatory. The workshop was an introduction to the techniques in CVT (Complete Vocal Technique), I gave a presentation about the philosophy behind CVT, an overview of the techniques, and worked with a couple of singers individually in a masterclass. I enjoyed working with the students a lot. They were eager to try out different sounds and techniques, and asked me a lot of good questions. One of the questions that I got yesterday inspired me to write this blog post.

What made you choose to study Complete Vocal Technique instead of some other vocal method?

What a great question. Before I go ahead and answer, here is an important thing we talked about with the students yesterday:

Techniques and methods are not important, singing is!

Let’s not forget that singing technique is not a goal in itself. What is important in singing? Vocal performance is. Vocal performance is dependent on the message we deliver and the expression we use to deliver our message. Without a message and without expression, there is no vocal performance (at least no performance worth while listening to!). Tools that help us deliver our message include: interpretation, sound, rhythm, melody, and text. Vocal technique is merely a tool that helps us create the sound we want, to sing the melodies we want (or need) to sing with more ease, and so on. Vocal technique also exists to helps us keep healthy while doing this. Whenever we talk about vocal technique, it’s good to remember what its role is in the big picture.

So why all this need for vocal methods?  Why do I have to know about CVT of EVT or [singing method name here] in order to sing? I have news for you: you don’t have to!! If you want to sing, just go ahead and sing! You only need vocal technique if you are not able to sing the way you want to. Or if the way you sing brings you trouble and hoarseness and strain. Those are the only reasons you need technique. If you can produce all the sounds you want, reach all the notes you want, and you never get hoarse, you don’t have to study singing technique. You are DISMISSED!!

Different people, different approaches

Luckily there are (and have been) pedagogues and researchers who are passionate about the voice and want to find out how it works, in order to help singers solve problems that they encounter. This is a good thing. The reason there are different methods is that different researchers have been focusing on different aspects of the voice, and different pedagogues have had different philosophies about the voice and vocal pedagogy. And how great is that, because that way you can choose the approach that suits you and your personality the best. Every method also keeps developing, because research is ongoing and because teachers are all individuals that come from different backgrounds. This also means, not every teacher of a certain vocal method will be exactly the same.

Every singer and teacher has a path

After completing my Master of Music degree at the Sibelius-Academy in Helsinki, I had learned a lot about singing but still had lots of unanswered questions about the voice. This was not because my teachers were not good, but because you cannot learn everything about something during any study. I decided to go look for more answers and to keep learning. I found an approach that provided me with answers, helped me develop my own singing voice further, suited my personality and style of learning, with a pedagogy and philosophy that I liked. That approach happened to be Complete Vocal Technique, developed by Cathrine Sadolin. It is not called ‘Complete’ because of some ‘we know it all’-thought, by the way, but because it contains techniques for every style of singing and also for the speaking voice. I learned so much more than just technique in the 3-year CVT singer/teacher course at Complete Vocal Institute in Copenhagen.

But CVT is just one part of the ‘package’ that creates the teacher-me. Yes, I am an Authorized CVT Teacher, but I am most of all a vocal pedagogue. I have other things in my ‘teaching backpack’ too, some belcanto, some Estill Voice Training, music teacher training, music education approaches like Orff-Schulwerk, Kodàly and Dalcroze eurhythmics, the various music styles I have studied, my own experience as a singer, musician and performing artist, things I have learned through creativity and career coaching, from personal development courses, body-work like Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, Pilates and yoga, working in theater, etc, etc… And I keep adding new knowledge and experience to this package by working in music, staying updated on vocal pedagogy and research, communicating with teachers of other methods, working with logopedists, ENT doctors, producers, choir directors, and countless singers. I keep staying updated in the developments of CVT, and because I love to keep learning I am following workshops and courses with inspiring teachers from other methods and approaches. I don’t really see being certified in a specific method as the only defining factor in how I teach singing. It’s just one of the things that crossed my own teaching path.

Choosing a vocal method

What method should you choose then? The answer is very simple: choose what works for you. Ask questions until you get answers that you are satisfied with, and find solutions to your vocal problems. If something doesn’t work for you move on and find something that does! If you feel you want to pick and mix from different methods, go ahead and do that. And don’t waste your energy on trying to figure out (or prove) why one method is better than the other one, focus your energy on more important things such as singing!

This goes for singing teachers too. Focus on helping singers, teaching, sharing your knowledge and building bridges. Spend less time criticizing, comparing, trying to prove who is right and who is wrong, who was there first and who wasn’t. That’s waste of energy. Focus on dialogue. Share your experiences with your colleagues, communicate with teachers of other methods than the one you teach. We don’t have to agree on every detail or all the terminology. The world would be a boring place if everyone would think the same way and speak the same language. What we can agree on is that we all just want what is best for the singer. Remember that every teacher has a path, and we all share a passion for the voice and a passion for teaching. Try and share those things, instead of focusing on method names and differences. Open doors instead of closing them because of fear of the unknown or fear of competition. There is room for all of us, and we can all learn so much from each other.

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

This article was originally published on my blog katjamariamusic in February 2012. 

Singing – a love story

There is something that connects singers, regardless of level, technical skills, musical genre, or method they study. It is the love for singing, the need of expressing themselves and connecting with others, through singing and music. That love got its beginnings somewhere. Do you remember how it all began?

My own first memories of singing are from my childhood. I did not grow up in a “musical family”, but my mother did sing while she was cooking, my grandmother used to sing for me, and both my parents did their share of singing in choirs. Singing and music played a vital part of the community I grew up in. Every day, we would sing at school, I sang in choirs and played many musical instruments. At the age of 13, I saw my first opera, an experience that felt magical and deeply touching. I felt it was something that I wanted to keep experiencing for the rest of my life. I wanted to be part of creating that experience, and tell stories that could touch other people’s souls like that opera had touched mine. And so I auditioned for the youth choir that sang in the opera production. And my singing path, that I had set foot on in my childhood, took another turn. What brought me to where I am today, and to the songs I nowadays sing, is another story – a path with many turns, some obstacles and bumps. But above all, it is a path with plenty of discoveries.

 

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Photo credit: F-L-E-X via Photopin

 

Every person who loves to sing has a different path. Along that path, we all encounter obstacles. It is especially when that happens, that it is so important to connect to the love for singing that put us on that path in the first place. During my journey on my singing path, I have many times reached to connect to that “Inner Singer”(1) that I discovered in my early teens. Sometimes I lost that connection, and had to find it back. The ways of connecting back have been various, from finding meaning in my artistic work, to expanding my comfort zones vocally and musically, or even through gaining more technical knowledge and understanding of my instrument. Another aspect that has proven helpful, is learning to let go of too many expectations. It has got something to do with accepting things the way they are now, and learning to love the process instead of being fixed on an end destination. Maintaining a balance between “work” and “joy” has been equally important. Thanks to all the bumps on my own path I have learned the importance of treating that “Inner Singer” with a lot of care.

Some obstacles are related to growth. In a singing lesson, many singers tend to mostly focus on what they want to change or still need to learn. Learning new things, changing habits, building new muscle memory, and expanding your comfort zone takes time, and it can sometimes be a quite frustrating process. While working on our craft, we need to not lose sight of the joy of singing. To quote an unknown singer: “I have learned that exercises aren’t enough. Souls need to sing beautiful songs.”(2)

 

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Photo credit: Andre w Stawarz via Photopin

 

Exercises are important for building our craft, though, and if you want to grow as a singer you will need to accept – and welcome – the obstacles that go paired with expanding your comfort zone. In the lessons it is not always possible to only focus on “singing for the joy of singing”. That is why I keep encouraging the singers I teach, regardless of their level, to also seek out other opportunities to sing and have fun with their voices.

For surprisingly many people, the singing lesson is the only environment in which they sing. Though the lesson can fulfill this function, it is in my opinion not desirable – or that function should at least be questioned. If a singing lesson is the only environment for singing, it means all aspects including growth and learning, joy for singing, expression and communication, and so on, have to take place in one single environment. This puts a lot of expectations on the situation, and you can also question whether it is desirable that the teacher-student relationship would be the only environment for musical communication.

 

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Photo credit: Shavar Ross via Photopin

 

You could perhaps think that connecting to the joy of singing is not important for people who are singing professionally. They are already doing what they love, right? Sadly, many professionals risk falling out of love with singing, because of the various external and internal challenges that come with making your living from singing. Those challenges often take a big toll on creative inspiration, and at some point, many professional singers find themselves feeling uninspired. Some even stop singing all together because they have lost the sense of meaning in their work. Others give up professional careers because of personal or family reasons, finding themselves having to adjust to a new framework for their “Inner Singer” to operate within. For if you are a singer, you will always remain a singer, even though you would not earn your living from singing.

 

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Photo Credit: Armando G Alonso via Photopin

 

Finally, connecting to your own inspiration is extremely important if you are teaching singing. Without creative inspiration and a feeling of connection with their own “Inner Singer”, teachers run the risk of falling into habits and mindless repetition, starting to dislike their work, or in the worst case even become envious of their students’ progress. There are also plenty of stories of teachers, who have tried to satisfy their own need of communicating and performing within the framework of the lesson. Such situations lead to frustration not only in the teacher – who is clearly missing another output for their artistic expression – but also in the student, who payed for a lesson and not for a concert.

I will wrap up my thoughts by quoting the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin: “I would hate to think I am not an amateur. An amateur is one who loves what he is doing. Very often, I’m afraid, the professional hates what he is doing. So I’d rather be an amateur.” (3) Did you know that “amateur” comes from the Latin word “amare” (to love)? Perhaps that “Inner Singer” in us is an eternal amateur. Connecting with that amateur over and over again, is a lifelong pursuit for all singers, no matter what path they are on.

©2013 Katja Maria Slotte

 

Originally published in Vocalisten.nl

1 Marilyn McCarthy uses the term “Inner singer” to describe the core identity, or the soul of the singer in Janice L. Chapman’s book “Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice” (Chapter 10: “The Teaching and Learning Partnership Part 2. The H-Factor”), 2012.

2 Originally quoted in “Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice” by Janice L. Chapman, 2012.

3 Yehudi Menuhin: Life Class (1986)

Six Reasons Singers Should Know How Their Instrument Works

Why is (basic) understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the voice important for singers?

Knowing the names of the muscles and cartilages that we use while singing is not going to make you a better singer. It is quite possible to sing even without knowing the name of a single muscle! But some basic understanding of how the voice works can be useful for a variety of reasons. Here are six of them.

 

1.If you know how the voice works, you can work with it instead of against it.

This will speed up your learning process. The voice responds directly to what you do. If an exercise is done the right way, you will notice the effect of it immediately and you can be sure you are on the right track.

2. It makes it easier for you to understand singing technique.

This will help you become faster at recognizing and solving vocal issues and problems, like reaching high or low notes, solving unintentional vocal breaks, wobbly notes, not enough air, vocal strain, and so on.

Some singers and teachers are afraid of ‘thinking too much’ about what is happening in the body during singing. Sometimes singers looking for solutions to their vocal issues are given advise like “just let the voice do what it naturally wants to do”.

But just like we cannot learn to play the piano, flute, or any other musical instrument by “letting the instrument do what it naturally wants to do”, we cannot learn to sing just by “letting the voice do what it naturally wants to do”. And we definitely cannot solve vocal issues without looking into the functions of the instrument, our voice.

3. It will help you understand what singing in tune is and what to do about pitch problems.

When talking about singing skills, many people focus firstly on singing in tune. Unfortunately, still today a lot of singers with pitch problems are told that there is something wrong with their ears. Others are being told they are tone-deaf and should better just shut up.

Singing in tune is a coordination between hearing the pitch and being able to reproduce it. Being able to produce the right pitch has often more to do with singing technique than it has to do with our ears. If you know how the voice works, you can actually do something about not singing in tune.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

4. It ensures us that what we do is healthy.

Singing should always feel comfortable. If it itches, scratches or hurts, this is a sign you are doing something wrong.

All sounds can be produced in a healthy way. Even sounds that sound loud, sharp, metallic, rough or ‘unhealthy’. But only teachers with extensive knowledge of the voice can teach you how to produce these sounds in a healthy manner.

5. It helps you separate fact from fiction. 

Singers are bombarded with (well-meant) vague advice like “sing from your diaphragm”, “sing in the mask”, and so on. It does not mean all the advice is bad. Sometimes pictures and mental images can be wonderful tools for learning. However, some of the advice given to singers is plain fiction, and there exist a lot of myths and misconceptions about the voice.

Understanding how the voice works and how different sounds are produced in the body helps you distinguish between good, well-intended but vaguely presented, and plain bad advice.

6. It protects you from people in the industry who do not have (sufficient) knowledge of the voice.

Just because somebody is a teacher, coach, producer, or has worked with famous people, it does not automatically make them experts on the voice. These people might be good teachers and have some good advise and tools to share with you, but it does not mean they have sufficient knowledge or are updated in the developments in voice research and vocal pedagogy.

Research is constantly developing and we keep learning new things about how the voice works. Be aware that even some coaches and teachers can be “lazy” and look for the easy way out, or for quick solutions to success. And some teachers, again, think that they already know everything they should know, and are unwilling to learn about new developments or keep developing themselves. Nobody can of course know it all, and not all singing teachers need to be experts on solving all technique problems – there are plenty of other things to work on in singing besides technique! Teachers can, however, make sure they keep developing themselves, try to stay updated, and are honest about what they do know (or don’t).

Make sure you check the backgrounds of your teachers to find how they have trained and what kind of teaching experience they have, and whether they seek further (ongoing) training. Also be aware that lot of products are sold based on pseudo science or wrong information about the voice. Always make sure there has been research done to back up whatever method you might be interested in learning more about. And remember that famous people being associated with a method does not equal research.

 

©2013 Katja Maria Slotte

This article was originally posted on my blog katjamariamusic in April 2012

 

 

 

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 limitedoptions 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’ in teaching 

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.

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

Originally published in katjamariamusic in December 2012