Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Teaching Voice with the Brain in Mind

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Teaching Voice with the Brain in Mind

Article excerpt

I AM FREQUENTLY ASKED SOME VARIANT of this question: Exactly how can we apply recent research in cognitive neuroscience to become better teachers, singers, and learners? Compelling news from the cognitive neuroscience front sparks this question, and it deserves a clear answer. But before I attempt a "how-to" list, I would like to briefly reflect upon the deeper question "how."

In my previous column, I noted that the pursuit of artistic singing is, quite simply, a calling.1 In that case, "to be or not to be" is not really the question; how to be is the issue. Thus the questions how to sing, how to teach, and how to apply recent scientific research tumble behind this overarching existential question and, in my mind anyway, stand there like expectant acolytes, silently awaiting answers. But I posit that an even larger question looms in their collective shadow: Should we attempt to apply recent research in cognitive neuroscience to the art of teaching? Is not science the province of scientific experts?

The great American psychologist, William James, largely credited as the founder of American psychology, had much to say to teachers on these related questions. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, James frequently spoke about the "new psychology" (for it was nascent at that time), at "various places to various teacher-audiences," and noted that what teachers wanted was less "analytical technicality" and more information concerning "concrete practical application." In an effort to comply with this simple request, James condensed his many lectures and published Talks to Teachers as a book in 1899.2 At the same time that James frankly admitted his book contained "a minimum of what is deemed 'scientific' in psychology, and [is] practical and popular in the extreme," he also conceded that his peers in academe would likely "shake their heads" at his effort to "satisfy the more genuine public need."3 While James's sentiments may seem disingenuous or even pretentious to us today, at the time that Talks to Teachers was published, popular science writing was practically unknown, due to the interior dynamics of professional organizations.

The hallmark of American professional organizations (the growth of which reached its zenith in the early years of the twentieth century) is occupational closure, that is, the exclusion of people whose credentials are deemed unworthy by its governors. A close cousin to occupational closure is the safeguarding of professional literature, lest it fall into the hands of amateurs.

Thus James's act-cherry-picking the ripest fruits of psychology, watering them down for distribution, and actually encouraging amateurs to apply them-was somewhat seditious. Admittedly, it is highly unlikely that he faced outright ridicule, given his stature at the top of the growing psychological establishment. Still, James's concession is instructive for us more than a century later.

First, it illustrates the evolution of expert knowledge insofar as much of it is no longer safeguarded for experts only, but is instantly accessible to anyone via the Internet. Let us rejoice and be glad that open access has allowed the democratic dissemination of information! On the other hand, James's apologia may yet resonate today. If it does so, it is both a wet blanket and a reminder that the separation between the sciences and the humanities (which C. P. Snow famously codified as the "Two Cultures" debate) still dogs us, in the general culture and within voice pedagogy itself.

James Stark identified the tiny but influential group of late nineteenth century American and European medical doctors who made a specialty of treating famous singers as "a new breed of laryngologist-voice teachers."4 Cornelius Reid opined on their reception by the traditional master teachers of the day.

Abashed by their own ignorance of scientific matters, the traditionalists remained silent in the face of what they considered irrefutable opinions and deferred to a power they felt unqualified and ill-equipped to combat. …

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