Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Mix it up Monday: Moving away from fear-based pedagogy

CCM Bannder no dates

I have a five-year-old and a ten-month-old. They are absolutely adorable 90% of the time, but the other 10% of the time it is like watching a Mogwai turn into a Gremlin.

Since the five-year-old started Kindergarten, we have been witnessing more Gremlin moments, so my wife picked up the book “Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline” by Dr. Becky A. Bailey and had me start reading it as well. The philosophies in this book guided the discipline strategies at my son’s preschool. In that setting, he thrived and made huge gains in controlling his outbursts. As we read the book, we are realizing we are falling into the trap of “fear-based discipline.” According to Dr. Bailey, fear-based discipline focuses on what was not done or what was handled the wrong way. Examples include saying “Do you call this room clean” or “Talk to each other and work it out. If I have to get involved, you will both be sorry.” According to Dr. Bailey, fear-based discipline strategies trigger physical stress responses and hamper a child’s ability to learn. The stress response includes the release of cortisol, which at high levels can damage the hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory and learning. The research shows that fear-based discipline actually fosters the behaviors that parents are trying to eliminate. In addition, children tend to become more resistant to authority and may experience permanent changes to their brain chemistry.

As a parent, this is a major wake-up call. My wife and I find ourselves resorting to fear-based strategies not because we want to be harsh parents, but rather because we do not know what else to do. There are times we ask our adorable Mogwai to do something over and over again, and when we get frustrated we end up raising our voices. Instead of listening to us, he goes into Gremlin mode and sometimes I swear his head spins around.

This book has helped us realize the problem is we are modeling fear-based resolution skills to our son. His reactions when we use that approach are a result of the stress he feels from hearing us raise our voices and the resulting cortisol release. If we do not change our approach now, he is going to grow up and use those same skills to navigate his everyday life. I’ve watched enough Dr. Phil to know we cannot let that happen.

The alternative suggested by the author, is to teach self-control to children by modeling it as adults. So, when the five-year-old yells at the ten-month-old to give him back a toy, instead of us getting upset, we teach the older child how to handle the situation. By taking the time to show him how to distract his younger brother with a more appropriate toy, while taking his own back, he is learning how to de-escalate a situation and find a peaceful solution. The book is full of great strategies and we are already seeing a difference in only two weeks.

As I read this book, I am finding myself considering the pedagogical implications. I look back at my own education and a lot of what was modeled for me was how to be harsh and cold-hearted towards students. I had some excellent teachers who were warm and caring, but others would chastise students in front of the entire class or in their lesson, just to beat them down with the philosophy that we must all be put in our place. For instance, I remember a voice teacher asking a student on the first day of her master’s program, “Do you have a degree in music? You should ask for your money back, that was horrible singing. Go sit down.” No further constructive or helpful advice, just a demeaning rebuke of the student’s talent. The rest of us sat in complete shock and had no idea how to respond. After all, this was supposedly one of the best voice teachers in the country according to Opera News magazine; he had dozens of alumni working at the Met and NYCO and some were quite famous. This man taught hundreds of people with fear-based pedagogy and as a witness to the ensuing emotional roller coaster, I can tell you the results were awful. I imagine some of his students have followed in his footsteps because we tend to teach what we know. If you have only been taught with fear, how could you know there is another way?

As I reflect on the pedagogical implications of this book, I am convinced that fear-based discipline has a similar effect in the voice studio. I have many students who are visibly upset by any critical feedback. Part of the issue is probably because they have a fixed versus a growth mindset, but I can’t help but wonder what role a history of fear-based pedagogy may play in their response. Perhaps out of my own reflex to be nothing like my own fear-based teachers, I’m realizing I am better at avoiding fear tactics with my students than I am with my sons. Something to work on for sure. Below are a few examples of ways to manage a frustrating situation without resorting to fear that I have adapted according to the principles in Dr. Bailey’s book.

  • When the student shows up without picking new songs as they were assigned, sit down with them and guide them through the process in their lesson to make sure they understand what they are supposed to be doing. Sure, you could yell at them about being unprepared, but will that really change anything for the following week? According to this book – no. Yelling at them would be fear-based pedagogy and will likely raise their stress level and inhibit their ability to make any progress in the coming week.
  • If a student shows up and has clearly not practiced, instead of scolding them, ask them if they know how to practice. The answer is likely to be “no.” If that is the case, take time to teach them what to do and how to practice like a professional. If they have never been taught effective practice strategies, they have no tools to work with and all the fear-based tactics in the world will not change that.
  • If the student says they are having difficulty with their choir director or another professor, instead of just telling them to get over it, talk with them about how they are reacting to the conflict, and discuss ways they can handle the situation to get a more desirable outcome. Today’s youth have no idea how to handle conflict because of their reliance on digital communication. Sticky situations are golden opportunities for us to teach them how to be professionals.

Do you have other methods for avoiding fear-based pedagogy? If so, please share them below. If you are not already following the blog, you can sign-up on the bottom of the page to receive an email each time there is a new post. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media as well. Finally, a huge shout-out to my wonderful wife Jackie who is always giving me great ideas for this blog. As always, thank you for reading and have a great week in the studio! ~ Matt

8 comments on “Mix it up Monday: Moving away from fear-based pedagogy

  1. Sharon Buck
    October 16, 2017

    Excellent post Matt! It takes courage to admit we, as teachers, are not perfect. We are modeling for our students all the time, and it is a good touch point for me to admit that too am constantly learning and hopefully growing. It is too easy to do what has been done to us. Much harder to break the cycle. It starts with us. Thanks for sharing this. Love versus fear is what I strive for. Some days are better than others. Awareness is the first step.


  2. Kristin Cifelli
    October 16, 2017

    Love love love this! Thank you for sharing. Definitely picking up that book to help with parenting. Re: pedagogy…also spot on. I now teach private lessons for a high school program, and I am teaching them allmofmthe things that I tend to get frustrated about with my Berklee students, such as how to practice, and how to take notes in a lesson. It seems elementary, but everyone is at their own level, and some students need that extra TLC. Thanks for another great blog posting. -Kristin


  3. victoriacole1
    October 16, 2017

    Maltt: An important subject, which I have thought much about. I did not really address what I call “poisonous pedagogy” in my own teaching (or really process my history with being on the receiving end of it) until I trained as an Alexander Technique teacher. The most important change that I’ve made is that now I almost always ask “What did you notice about that?” after a student has sung or worked a bit…ie. I do not offer anything as a teacher first. I ask the student about her experience and go from there. No overt correction or pointing out “mistakes.” This way of teaching may be a bit slower, but not really if we are really engaged in a growth process over the course of a whole career and/or lifetime. Excellent post.


    • victoriacole1
      October 16, 2017

      Wow, and there’s a mistake…I mean “Matt” of course. Love it.


  4. Chip
    October 17, 2017

    This is great.


  5. Kellie
    October 18, 2017

    Hey matt well written. What I finally learned was to literally go down to their sight and then let’s talk and figure it out!
    Fear based is so much about big and little. Your big I’m little you must know more then me. So he then passes same thought process to younger one.

    With students same can apply. Your big meaning more mature and I’m little meaning a beginner in this world.
    Teach me as you are now taught principal. Easier to equate!
    Thanks for the reminder!


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This entry was posted on October 16, 2017 by in Misc. Thoughts.

Ranked the #1 New Release in "Vocal and Singing" on (October 2014), "So You Want To Sing Rock 'N' Roll?" covers voice science, vocal health, technique, style, and how to find your artistic voice in a way that is beneficial to both singers and teachers. Order your copy today!

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