Active vs. Passive Learning in Singers


Different people have different learning styles, so it follows that singers would have different learning styles for vocal technique, as well.  Some singers are more analytical by nature, want to understand all of the ins and outs of their vocal technique and ask frequent questions during lessons.  Others are less analytical, leaving many of the mechanical aspects for the teacher to deal with and learning from the results of doing what the teacher requests.  Still other singers take even a more passive approach and simply enjoy the feeling of singing better without needing to understand what to do when practicing on their own, waiting for gradual change of their technique over time.

Voice teachers can play a big role in the type of learning style that singers develop.  If you have teacher after teacher who only has you listen and do what s/he requests of you without explaining any concepts, you will learn over time to be more passive in your voice lessons.  Many teachers have this approach.  It is a traditional way of teaching voice that allows more time for the student to sing and more flow to the lesson itself.  This has certain advantages, because the student can keep positive changes going without interruption, which can lead to more reinforcement of the concepts.

However, keeping the singer a passive learner takes away extremely important learning opportunities.  In the moment of experiencing a new feeling or technical approach, it is crucial that the singer know what is happening, so s/he can repeat the experience successfully away from the teaching studio.  If you don’t feel comfortable interrupting to ask a question, you are missing out on understanding how to utilize the new technical information to your best advantage.  And let’s face facts – the real learning process for singers takes place in the practice room.  Voice teachers are there to guide singers.  No matter how well you sing in the voice studio, you have to know how to recreate that same experience consistently on your own.  Otherwise, you are completely and utterly dependent on the teacher, which is the experience of many singers.

When a singer is passive in the voice studio, s/he does usually not learn crucial information about the vocal mechanism and how to approach working on it.  That leaves the singer with great gaps in understanding.  If all is well technically, that might not be an issue.  But if the singer runs into vocal troubles, that very lack of understanding can allow the singer make poor technical choices that can ruin a career.  Knowledge is power and knowledge of your own voice and how it works is information that every singer needs and deserves to have.

Some teachers use this teaching style of keeping students passive to cover up their own lack of technical understanding.  These teachers teach from their own felt experience of singing, but don’t truly understand what they are doing to accomplish a healthy, balanced tone.  The last thing they want to do it to attempt to explain what they don’t even understand to a curious student.  If an active learner with an analytical bent starts asking questions, they can become very defensive.  But passive learners are willing to listen without asking uncomfortable questions, taking pressure off the teacher.

In my studio, I have seen active, passive and very passive learners.  The passive learners were usually the products of other voice teachers who encouraged them to be passive.  One very talented soprano used to come to her lessons as if she was coming to a spa for a treatment.  She expected to do what was asked of her, enjoy the new sensations and feelings of ease in her own singing and to walk out again with no sense of personal responsibility for the state of her own voice.  It was quite bizarre and obviously not a helpful attitude for anyone serious about improving their technique.

As a teacher, I make a concerted effort to help all of my students to become active learners.  Questions are encouraged and when giving new vocaleses, I explain the technical concepts  and reinforce that concept in subsequent lessons.  When working on repertoire, I give examples of how the vocaleses can be applied directly to the rep to incorporate healthy habits.  I also explain how different aspects of the vocal mechanism affect each other and how my technical approach solves various issues.  By offering this information freely, my students are empowered to be curious about the mechanics of singing and are therefore able to build up a solid, comprehensive understanding of their own instrument and technical approach.  I have young voice students who have a better understanding of how the voice works and what exercises to use to address various issues than more mature singers.  They have learned everything via short explanations that did disrupt or take too much lesson time away from singing.

Yes, different singers have different styles of learning, but is your style of learning serving you?  Often, a passive learning style is a coping mechanism for dealing with teachers who taught in a traditional way or did not want to answer difficult technical questions.  It is in your best interest to get as much correct, helpful information that you can about your own vocal instrument.  An active learner has a much better chance at learning all of the helpful tips and information that s/he will need later on in his/her singing career.  So, try becoming a more active learner and expand your understanding of your own voice!


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