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You've Been Boondoggled: How Colleges Set Up Voice Majors for Pedagogical Failure

Updated: Feb 26, 2022

This article is reprinted from the VASTA Voice, May 2018

Many graduates of university programs in voice, notably those with degrees in vocal performance, voice and speech, and acting, become self-employed. We soldier forward into our area of interest with the intent to be professionals. We avoid the 9-to-5 so we can pursue our art. Often we cobble together a living from two or three (or more) different professional roles. Teaching is nearly always one of them.

Winging It

Typically, we come to our self-employed status with little or no training on how to be self-employed professionals. We start taking private students in singing, speech, or acting because of the flexibility it affords us. We carry with us our own experiences as students, and the models our own teachers showed us. Our teaching is, however conscious of it we are, informed strongly by the teaching we received. We create an environment in our own studios based on the way we were, or were not, treated by our teachers. We carry forward the values and emphases we learned as students because we were taught that those are correct.

Among the many subjects pertaining to being self-employed educators that are not addressed in our post-secondary education is that of the pedagogical differences between our situations as self-employed professionals and our college instructors’ situations as university employees. I believe that being conscious of those differences can make self-employed teachers more effective educators, as well as help us take full advantage of our unique position in the world of the arts.

Top Down, Outside In

Private lessons in college are created with a top-down, outside-in model. Top down, because the knowledge transfer is assumed to flow in one direction; from the teacher to the student. Outside in, because the knowledge being shared is defined and structured, and is meant to be understood within the framework presented.

The college teacher is charged with educating a student on a particular subject, and by necessity, a limited version of that subject. A tiny sliver of the knowledge pie. Though the student is technically paying the teacher for her time, it was the university that made the sale, and it’s the program that the student has the relationship with. So, to get the credits, the student studies with the teacher whether she wants to or not. Whether or not she agrees with, likes, or feels respected by the teacher is of no consequence to the grading process. It’s a top-down model, and it’s up to the student to acquire the knowledge that the teacher is presenting in order to get a good grade. That knowledge may be strongly at odds with the student’s experience, so if she’s not cognizant of the framework within which she’s working, the student may struggle with cognitive dissonance, as well as with trusting her experience, her teacher, and the institution itself.

A Typical Situation

Let’s explore Sonya’s college private voice lesson experience, for example.

Sonya sang in a band in high school. She was in the school musicals and the acapella ensemble. She’s a good singer who appreciates good singers. She loves Jesse Mueller, Sarah Bareilles, and Jennifer Hudson. She’s been accepted into a music theater degree program, and is taking private voice lessons as part of her degree requirement.

Sonya’s applied voice teacher is classically trained, and teaches classical technique. She knows it as the correct way to sing, and has been teaching according to classical tenets, which inform her own methods, for her entire university career. Her belief that classical singing is both foundational and correct, along with the security of her job and the employment structure within which she works, has kept her from actively seeking to understand the differences between classical and contemporary voice methods and aesthetics. So she’s teaching Sonya classical voice, and Sonya is freaking out.

Sonya is confused, she doesn’t like this repertoire, and for the first time in her young life she feels incompetent as a singer. Because she’s intimately familiar with the aesthetics of contemporary musical genres, she knows that much of what her voice teacher is presenting to her as absolute is not, in fact, applicable to the music she loves. Rather than growing from the experience of studying voice, she’s protecting herself against it and doing the absolute minimum that is required of her to get a passing grade. The best case is that she is wasting her time and her money; the worst that, in order to meet her teacher’s expectations and get a passing grade, she’s creating compensatory vocal habits that could hurt her in the long run.

The fact that university education is outside-in is largely inherent. The students must achieve grades to earn a degree, the teachers much present clear objectives to achieve those grades. University professors are experts in their fields. Their job as teachers is to impart that information as effectively as they can. They are neither expected nor required to alter their curricula or approaches based on differences between individual students.

Lateral Teaching

The self-employed teacher, conversely, does not enjoy the luxuries of the university instructor. Her students are not on a degree track, but are studying for their own growth and self-improvement. They’re spending their own money and valuable time, and are often studying with a self-defined objective in mind. The teacher must attract each student, and will be paid only for the number of students she sees. She must respond to the student’s objectives professionally and effectively, or that student will seek out a different teacher.

These realities create a very different teaching environment. The self-employed teacher’s relationship with her students is primarily lateral, meaning that the student’s knowledge and desires are at least as important as the teacher’s. The teacher is in a position which requires her to be aware of, and responsive to, the students’ objectives for their study.

The First Step’s a Doozy

Of the many ways in which the new college grad is unprepared to be self-employed, pedagogy is one of them.

Regardless of the objectives with which the young voice major entered college, she received classical voice training. That’s what she knows, and that’s what she thinks she’ll teach because that's what she learned in college. But once among the self-employed, she realizes that the overwhelming number of people who come to her for private voice lessons have no interest in or aspirations for classical voice. They want to learn how to sing popular styles. The teacher is unable to sell what her students want to buy. She cannot sing that way, or she's hesitant because she's been taught that popular technique is damaging to the voice, or both.

This scenario is repeated thousands of times each year, as young college grads, vocal performance degrees in hand, hang their shingle on their new voice studios. Often it's a long and rocky road. The new indy teacher will likely have a very high student turnover. Eventually they can find a way to teach what their students want to learn. Many self-employed teachers survive because they become humble. They embrace the personal growth inherent in lateral teaching, and seek out teachers of healthy popular pedagogy. They learn to appreciate and enjoy the differences between popular and classical styles and pedagogy. Or, the fail to embrace the world they now inhabit, and continue trying to manage a high student turnover.

In a Dream World

Although there’s little incentive for college and university arts departments and schools to consider the employment future of their applied voice (and music theater performance) students, it would be a boon to those students if they were to do so. Save for a minuscule percentage of those that “make it,” the truth is that those who make a living in the world of performing arts will teach. At least in part.

Colleges and universities could easily serve their students by acknowledging this reality, and helping build applied arts curricula that incorporate some of the skills necessary for artists to pay their rent. At the very least, simply being armed with an awareness of some of the realities of being self-employed can help artists make the most of the advantages, and minimize the disadvantages, offered by the freelance life.


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