Redefining Our Profession Along Holistic Lines

Long ago, when I was a student at the Indiana University School of Music, the boundaries around voice teaching were tightly drawn.  Voice lessons consisted of solving vocal issues and studying musical interpretation, with the goal of becoming a professional classical singer.  Discussion of personal, professional, or spiritual issues was, for the most part, not included.  I can remember teachers saying, “I’m a voice teacher, not a therapist.”  Likewise, I also remember hearing “I’m a voice teacher, not a career counselor.”  Certainly any discussion of spirituality or God occurred only in the Religious Studies Department, despite the fact that much of the music we studied and performed had been directly inspired by a composer’s spiritual beliefs or response. It was this teaching modality – strictly defined and highly constrained — that I, and perhaps many of you, adopted as our teaching standard.  It is what we had known, it was how we were trained, and it was what we had come to believe was pedagogically correct.

Even at the time, though, this struck me as odd.  It felt difficult for me to create boundaries where experientially I felt none existed. For me, always, the voice was at one with the body, feelings, and spirit of the singer, and reflected the nature of that singer perfectly.  But what did I know? I was just the student! So, I struggled for years – and at great cost to myself — to address vocal issues, and to grow as a singer and artist, without addressing any of the other aspects of myself in harmony with my singer self-identity.  I was compartmentalizing, instead of integrating.

Like most of us, over the years of teaching, I learned to allow my students to teach me.  My students improved, but sometimes not because of my vocal technical interventions.  Many of them healed, changed and grew from the singing process alone.  Now here was a mystery!  As I learned to be more open and less controlling, and as I began to question the merit of the way in which I had been acculturated to teach voice, I began to see how we voice teachers had created a profession defined in opposition to our personal experience.  We did it from a good heart – we didn’t know better! But by acting in opposition to our experience, by separating ourselves into artificial pieces, by pretending that the voice exists outside of and separate from the spirit of the singer, or of the great undefined mystery we could call “Source,” we contributed to our own wounding, and to that of our student singers.  This artificial separation, along with what I call “The Great Lie,” has caused us much suffering. “The Great Lie” states that singers (or voice teachers) are only as valuable as their fame and economic worth.  Here again, it stands in opposition to our experience of singing, which is inherently and mystically spiritual.

We all silently know this wounding, for it is endemic in our vocal culture.  It is now time for it to stop, and we are the ones who hold the power of change.  Wounding must be addressed openly among us, without leveling blame.  Furthermore, it is our job to create new ways of teaching voice in which we are not part of the cycle of abuse. We must courageously move to redefine what it is we do, how we do it, and why.  Private, non-academically-affiliated voice teachers are in the ideal position to provide leadership, and very quietly and steadily, their revolution has been underway.  This revolution is called being holistic.

When we think about what it means to teach holistically, we come upon a core set of values that can lay the foundation for a radical re-definition of the profession of Voice Teacher.  These core values include:

  • A belief in the mysterious interconnectedness and interdependence of everything, all of which is conscious. This mystery can be called “Source” but need not be further defined.
  • The understanding that separation from this mystery — caused by our belief in the supremacy of our own egos — creates enormous fear, and that this fear leads us into forced and inauthentic singing practices, as well as to behaviors that are inherently wounding.
  • The conviction that singers can and do regularly experience this mystery in the act of singing, and that the foundation of our art – breathing – is the door into that ecstatic and blissful mystery, as well as the foundation of a free and authentic voice.
  • The sure knowledge, experienced, that singing is an inherently spiritual practice.  A belief that the truest and highest purpose of singing is to experience this mystery, negating the false value of The Great Lie.
  • A belief that good vocal technique is that which is aligned with — and emanates from — the physical laws, and the physiology of the body.
  • A belief that it has always been humankind’s birthright to sing, and our job as Voice Teachers is to encourage and enable everyone to do so, to the best of their ability — not just those who already can!
  • An understanding that one’s responsibility as a voice teacher is to work with the whole person (not just the voice) and to utilize vocal, psychological, and spiritual approaches to facilitate a healthy and balanced mind, body and spirit.
  • A desire to explore everything about the singing life with our students, to hold no subject as unapproachable or taboo, and to do everything in our power to help them sing their best despite the wounding and negative messages of the business and culture of music.
  • From a sure conviction that creativity, uniqueness, and originality are paramount to the birthing of an artist, a belief that the voice teacher frees the unique human spirit as well as the voice. We are to encourage singers to be their best and most unique selves, not to become carbon copies of us. While freely sharing our own views, we must resist imposing our own beliefs of what is valuable or beautiful, and resist all temptation to force conformity, which is inherently anti-art and anti-spirit.

From these core values, a new definition of the profession of Voice Teacher emerges.  It is a profession as much Minister as Teacher – a truth which springs from our experience of the work as a Calling.  By continuing to understand ourselves in accordance with our true experience, we grow beyond our own self-imposed limitations of who are, why we are here, and what we are to do in the world.  The greatest truth of all is that we Voice Teachers matter, not only for singers and the music profession, but for the world.  Whether or not we can fulfill our responsibility to facilitate growth and change depends entirely on our own courage and willingness to move beyond what we know.

Reprinted by permission from NATS Internos, March 2011