Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Dr. Carla LeFevre (UNCG) wrote an article in the March/April 2015 “Journal of Singing” about teaching a lower laryngeal position and open throat singing. In the article, she identifies three categories of vocal exercises: indirect, tactical, and assertive. I love these categories because I think they clearly and respectfully define different but valid approaches. For example, when working with a student who has tongue tension, an indirect approach would be to say “feel as if your tongue is Jell-O,” a tactical approach would be to stick a straw under the student’s tongue, and an assertive approach would be to massage the muscles underneath the jaw while vocalizing. All of these approaches could work and achieve the same desired outcome as long as you know what you are specifically trying to accomplish in terms of vocal function.
All of our students have different learning styles and personality types as do we their teachers. Some students will respond more to visual cues and others to aural cues. Some will appreciate explanations of how the mechanism works while others will prefer to take in the experience and sense their voice within their body. Over the past few decades, numerous teaching methods have emerged – Speech Level Singing, Estill Training, Jeanie LoVetri’s Somatic Voicework™, Bel Canto Can Belto, Lisa Popeil’s Voiceworks™, The Four Pillars of Singing, and many others. All of these methods present different combinations of indirect, tactical, and assertive approaches that the creators have found to be effective in the training of singers. Obviously these various methods work and produce great results or otherwise they wouldn’t have a following.
So how can we as a profession embrace these contrasting yet similar methodologies instead of engaging in growth-stifling debate? By evaluating their approach within the three categories that Dr. LeFevre has identified rather than competitively comparing them against each other. If a student is already singing on Broadway and has no major complaints, an assertive approach is probably not indicated and could potentially cause problems. In this situation, a more indirect approach will probably yield better results and client satisfaction. However, if the teacher is presented with a student who comes from a low laryngeal classical background and wants to sing rock, a more assertive approach may be warranted. A student who has never felt their larynx rise may benefit from being exposed to those sensations and sounds and the easiest way to get there would be through one of the more assertive techniques.
There are also compelling reasons to include personality type in your evaluation of pedagogical methodologies. If your, or your student’s, Meyers-Briggs personality type includes “thinker” versus “feeler,” you or they may naturally be more attracted to an analytical approach. Some of the Estill and Four Pillars of Singing techniques that focus on laryngeal and other physiological positions may really benefit your teaching and/or singing. However, if you are a “feeler,” you may do better with Somatic Voicework™, which encourages students to experience their voice in their own way and to make adjustments primarily based on registration, vowel, and volume.
Of course you will want to evaluate whether or not a technique will give you the functional result you are seeking. You may also want to consider how the technique aligns with modern scientific understanding of the vocal mechanism. However, by thinking in this manner, you are less likely to throw out potentially useful exercises just because they do not align with your personality or learning type.
Having multiple approaches in your toolbox can only benefit you and your students. My hope is that we as teachers will become more respectful and receptive to approaches that are outside of our comfort zone and begin to encourage growth and change instead of stagnation.