a little knowledge

I’ve heard this story from lots of people: “I loved to sing when I was a kid, but then Some Authority Figure told me I wasn’t any good and I shouldn’t bother.”

Mostly I hear this from people over 50 years old. I don’t know if that’s because the younger people I work with are all my singers, or if this has become a less common event (here’s hoping the latter is the case!). The Authority Figure it often an elementary school or junior high music teacher; sometimes it’s a parent. Once it was the person’s spouse!

My response every time I hear this story is “that jerk! If you like you sing, of course you should sing!” And depending on who they are and what the context is, sometimes I let them know that the research shows that only a tiny sliver of the population (1% to 5%, depending on the study and the definition of amusia) truly can’t sing. Often when I cite this, they say, “I’m in that sliver!” They never are. But they were told by someone they trusted, possibly at an impressionable age, that they are; so they believe it–sometimes for their whole lives!

Who are these people telling others that they can’t and shouldn’t sing? Who are these “music teachers” who know so much about singing that they can diagnose amusia at a thousand paces? Typically, someone who enjoys singing enjoys it because the music makes sense in their minds, because they are capable of comprehending it. Which means they are definitely capable of matching pitch, and probably capable of refining their tone.

My theory is that these Authority Figures have a little knowledge, widely known to be a dangerous thing. Say, for example, someone has a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance. and sang in choir in high school. Now that Someone is the music teacher at a middle school, in charge of band and general music and chorus–this is a real life situation that truly happens all the time. Someone has a A Little Knowledge–enough to teach pitches and rhythms to kids who pick it up easily, enough to choose good repertoire, even. But not enough to know how to teach a student who has trouble matching pitch how to do it.

BTW, if a student enjoys singing but has trouble matching pitch, instead of insisting they sing the note you want them to sing, find they note they are singing, and show them how to go up and down from that note. Once they understand how it feels to sing higher and lower rather than just the pitches that come naturally, it’s easy to train their ears and voice together. Sometimes it takes patience and time, but it will happen.

Anyway, if Someone doesn’t know how to teach them how to do it, Someone assumes it’s impossible to teach them how to do it; and Someone tells them it can’t be done. Someone is a mean, stupid jerk, and I think Someone ought to go jump in a lake.

One reason this astonishingly common story angers me so much is my own enjoyment in learning new things, and my fear that my state of A Little Knowledge in some fields will lead me to make assumptions I ought not be making, give instructions I have no business giving. I try to be so careful to acknowledge my lack of expertise when it comes to the topics about which I am merely an enthusiast, but that means I also sometimes have to be extra explicit when indicating that a particular subject is my area of expertise. “This is a time when you should be listening to me!” I have to shout from the rooftops.

Another reason this story upsets me is that it’s quite possible that the student internalized a harsher message than was intended, interpreted someone’s rolled eyes or frustrated tone of voice as instructions to stop making them work so hard. Possibly Authority Figure has no idea why Impressionable Student stopped singing when they used to love it so much. It could be that, despite my best efforts, I could unintentionally, subliminally communicate to someone that they aren’t good enough, that they shouldn’t bother trying. I fear that a lot.

And, of course, another reason I hate to hear this story is because I lived it, too. How many times was it explicit, and how many times did I impose that interpretation on well-intended criticism? I don’t know. But it sucks, and I hate it. And at some level I still fear it’s true.

FTR, if you are a music teacher, and you meet a student who wants to sing, but you’re having trouble teaching them: don’t give up. Ask a voice teacher or a choral conductor for advice, assistance. Also, enthusiastically explain, out loud, in so many words to Impressionable Student that they can do it, they they should do it. Just in case the voice in their head is telling them to give up, let your voice be the one who says “try! It’s worth it!”

Here’s my explicit encouragement for singers: I dabble in tai chi and feminism and psychology and communications science. I like learning about them and exploring how they impact conducting; but they aren’t my area of expertise by a long shot. On the other hand, here’s a thing I know more about than almost everyone: it’s possible to teach anyone to sing who enjoys it and wants to do it. If you enjoy singing and you want to do it, don’t listen to anyone who tells you to give up or not to bother. They are the ignorant ones. Find yourself a teacher with better training, and keep doing it. Keep trying. It’s worth it.

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