Sunday, May 8, 2016

Vocal Learning Personalities: Duality in Voice Education

On the first day of my voice classes, I always quote from the Harry Potter series. “Like potions class at Hogwarts,” I explain, “understanding the voice is a subtle science and an exact art.” The Millennials love that.

The quote highlights the polarity inherent in much vocal training, a discipline that encompasses both the technical elements of voice science and the practical (often artful) application of those principles. This dichotomy mirrors a multigenerational debate in educational philosophy: direct instruction verses constructivism. With fairly self-evident names, direct instruction advocates explicit pedagogy with plain language and traditional delivery like lectures and demonstrations, and constructivism (an umbrella term for many theories) encourages learners to construct their own understanding for concepts with hands-on activities.

Vocal Learning Personalities

Anecdotally, I find that most voice students and most voice teachers fall into one of two categories aligning with the two educational philosophies. I playfully call the categories the nerds and the hippies. 

Professor Snape of Hogwarts.
(You guessed it!  A nerd.)
Nerds (favoring direct instruction) want absolutes and facts. They need specific learning goals with tangible concepts and language, and they cherish the exactitude of science. 
Professor Trelawney, a hippie.

Hippies (favoring constructivism) love exploration. They find specific end goals stressful and value the freedom of vocal metaphoric language and play.

This lighthearted spectrum based in education philosophy offers a unique way to evaluate ourselves as teachers, trainers, coaches, and clinicians, and the spectrum offers a way to view our personality as it relates of our clients and students. On the imaginary spectrum, a number one (1) is a full nerd, and a number ten (10) is a full hippie. I would wager that most clinicians and scientists would skew toward lower numbers, and most actors and singers would skew toward the higher numbers. While I teach actors and singers, I give myself a four (4) since I have a clear nerd tendency despite my artistic occupation.

Language and Styles within the Personalities  

Knowing my Vocal Learning Personality gives me a way to begin working with classes and private clients. Where do I fall on the spectrum, and where does my client fall?

Nerd Traits: Nerd language involves seeing and hearing in order to process. When a nerd client has accomplished a vocal target, the client may say, “I hear a change,” or they may hear the teacher and recreate the sound. Nerds also enjoy using anatomy charts and videos or watching their voice on a spectrogram. This group prefers to use a high number of anatomical concepts and words and detests ambiguous, imagistic language.  Nerds want clear objectives and assessment techniques.

Hippie Traits: Hippie language involves feeling and whole-body movement in order to process concepts. When a hippie client has accomplished a vocal target, the client may say, “I feel a change.” The hippie client may also respond to movement like dance or yoga as means to prompt vocal change. Hippies usually do not enjoy using anatomical terms, finding them overwhelming and superfluous.

Reaching the Other End of the Spectrum

Most educators instinctively teach to their own learning style—a fact true of all kinds of learning. Similarly, voice educators too often teach to their own Voice Learning Personality. I am a nerd. Even though I am a singer and actor, I did not care for hippie styles of voice training in the conservatory. I hated dancing vowel sounds; I wanted the formants explained, which frustrated my more hippie instructors. Now as a teacher, I know that I can sometimes frustrate my hippie clients and students with a barrage of Latin names and laryngoscopy videos. I cannot only teach to my Vocal Learning Personality style.

Ultimately, as teachers, coaches, and clinicians, we want to reach all kinds of learners. Our curricula must go back and forth between the personality styles. In one-on-one settings, the client and teacher personalities may differ, which will require tactics outside of a teacher’s preference.

Tips for Nerd Teachers: Only give the least amount of terminology needed at any moment. Hippie students may not be able to process large amounts of vocabulary at once.  Leonardo da Vinci advices that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” For beginning clients, nerd teachers may need to streamline core concepts to sixty seconds or less. Remember that hippie students may need to move more, play more, and do less repetitive drills than what nerd students enjoy.

Tips for Hippie Teachers: Go well beyond metaphor. Vocal imagery like “feel the breath wash over you” or “be on your voice” deeply exasperates nerd students. Give clear and accurate anatomical concepts whenever possible, or if those are not available, then offer recorded examples of the desired vocal goal. Remember that nerd students need the vocal objectives clearly stated at all times and appreciate assessment tools.

Obviously, all learners enjoy both nerd and hippie traits and styles, and certainly no person is exclusively either of these stereotyped personalities. But clinicians may have clients that need to dance vowels, and theatre teachers may have actors who need to look at laryngoscopy videos. Meeting someone’s need pedagogically is just as important as the knowledge behind the pedagogy.

PUBLICATION NOTE: This article was original published in "The Voice" from The Voice Foundation, Volume 21, Issue 1, April 2016.