Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Do You Really Mean That? towards Precise, Considered and Constructive Language in Performance Teaching

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Do You Really Mean That? towards Precise, Considered and Constructive Language in Performance Teaching

Article excerpt

One of the most important things to do is to pay close attention not to what you think you said, but to what your student thinks you said.

William Conable (2000) (1)


All who teach will be familiar with that moment of choice: How can I say what I want to say with the best chance of the student hearing and understanding me? But are we taught to question our use of language when training as a teacher? How many studio teachers are taught anything about teaching at all, let alone the use of language? In my early singing lessons I was often frustrated and confused by what voice teachers and choral conductors asked me to do. They would ask me to do such things as "speak from a forward position," "support the sound," "use the diaphragm," "lift the soft palate," "open the throat," "sing with sunshine sounds," "keep still," "don't push." If I ever asked for clarification of instructions, I would be told not to "get into semantics" or to "stop analysing or stop thinking." If any of these instructions made me tighten, I would be told to "stop trying so hard" or to "relax." I turned to the Alexander Technique to help me deal with the tension, and this helped to a certain extent, but soon some of the things I was asked to do in Alexander lessons became just as confusing and ineffective as those in voice lessons. After years of assuming that I was the problem or simply not talented enough to "get it," I began to encounter the occasional teacher who communicated clearly and precisely enough for me to learn. One of these was a teacher of the Alexander Technique (AT), Cathy Madden. I started to examine what defined her communication--one of the chief aspects of a large skill set that makes her teaching remarkable.

Scientific advances in voice teaching and the growing popularity of William Conable's concept of body mapping help to make teachers' anatomical and physiological knowledge more accurate, but there are also far more subtle ways of making our instructions more achievable. Some of these involve questioning the traditions of centuries of Western art music, while others require observation of individual student's capabilities and learning what kind of language students understand. This article addresses four categories of language in which we can pay more attention to our choices. They are: body mapping and reframing; composers' language: adjectives and verbs; cliches; students' language: listening, meeting and challenging.

Methods and Background

This article draws on data collected for my PhD, which focuses on Marjorie Barstow, a twentieth century Alexander Technique teacher with whom Cathy Madden studied for many years. In the thesis I constructed a philosophical and pedagogical constellation (2) that included Marjorie Barstow, F. M. Alexander (founder of the Alexander Technique), John Dewey (American pragmatist philosopher) and Cathy Madden.

Barstow was the first graduate of F. M. Alexander's first teacher training course. From Lincoln, Nebraska, she crossed the Atlantic in the early 1930s to train as an AT teacher in London, returning home in 1933. For the next half century and more she experimented with Alexander's ideas and became a world-renowned teacher of the AT, sometimes gaining notoriety for the changes she made to Alexander teaching methods. Through the philosophical constellation depicted in my thesis, I showed not only that her methods were in line with Alexander's own principles, but also that they reflected many of the hallmarks of Dewey's pragmatic philosophy. Dewey was a pupil of both F. M. Alexander and his brother, A. R., whom Barstow assisted for many years in London. Barstow came into contact with Dewey himself in this way, and with Dewey's ideas in several ways both direct and indirect. Dewey supported the Alexander Technique publicly for many decades and believed that he owed his longevity and good health to the Alexanders' work (Dewey, 1946b). …

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