The Teacher’s Toolbox Series Part 1: Teaching Students How to Practice

Since starting my job at Georgia Southern University teaching voice-related coursework, I have been supremely enriched by taking advantage of programs offered by our Center for Teaching Excellence. Most recently, I have joined a faculty book group where we are discussing Dr. Saundra Y. McGuire’s book Teach Students How to Learn. Exploring the research presented in this book has been eye-opening and has changed the way I approach classroom and studio teaching.

The main premise of the book is that by using metacognitive strategies and teaching students about specific research-supported study skills students will be more successful in their courses. Students, by studying for comprehension rather than for a grade, will begin to ascend Bloom’s Taxonomy at a faster rate.

Viewing the image above, you can see that the pinnacle of learning, according to Bloom, is to create. In our case as teachers of singing, this looks like students creating ornaments for Baroque repertoire, making strong character choices, and creating unique experiences for their audiences

As much as the book group has been helpful, it has also made me keenly aware of how teaching music courses with relatively small class sizes — especially one-on-one lessons — requires some inherently divergent strategies when compared to my colleagues in the humanities and STEM.

The major take-away for for applied music teachers is that we must teach students how to learn and retain music. We must teach students how to practice in a way that solidifies vocal technique as a motor skill as well. Singers are dealing with fine coordination of laryngeal musculature. The vocal folds range from a mere 12.5 mm to 25 mm in length. To add to the the fragile equation, the larynx is only innervated by the superior laryngeal nerve and the recurrent laryngeal nerve cluster.

The myoelastic aerodynamic theory of phonation dictates that the act of adduction is only half of the job of phonation. The balanced coordination of the ratio of subglottic pressure to glottal flow can mean the difference between efficient flow phonation and less efficient pressed or airy phonation.

So what is a teacher to do? We cannot follow students to the practice room, and we have 2 hours per week at most to teach vocal technique, musical style, and diction. Perhaps, this is why singers like Caballe lived with their voice teachers, and had daily lessons.

In this first installment in my first blog series — The Teacher’s Toolbox series — I will present ideas on how knowledge regarding motor learning for voice should influence our teaching strategies, and suggest some techniques for enhancing student metacognition and motor learning. Though I will speak mostly from a vocal perspective, I think that many of the strategies are applicable to any applied studio context.

In Saundra McGuire’s book, she introduces the reader to the Study Cycle, and discusses how by previewing content prior to class, and using intense study sessions students boost their performance.

As I read and discussed the concept of the study cycle in my reading group, it occurred to me that this is similar to my own expectations of my voice students. I ask them to complete translation sheets for their foreign language pieces, and to learn notes and rhythms prior to their lesson. Requiring this type of preparation helps the students to formulate high level questions about the repertoire, and fosters a sense of musical independence early on. Voice teachers could benefit from following the study cycle, especially as it pertains to intense study (read: practice sessions).

Marci Rosenberg, speech language pathologist and co-author of The Singing Athlete, is an expert on motor learning theory as it applies to voice education. She suggests short focused practice sessions that highlight one motor skill at a time. These sessions are in 15–20 minute increments, and are marked by the strong emphasis on student internal focus (sensations of resonance, appoggio coordination of exhalatory and inhalatory muscles). Applied music teachers assist students by providing vital external focus — your trained ears help students to become aware of issues of coordination and moments where the student’s self-perception does not align with the sound they produce. This is where students recording their lessons can be so helpful. Then, students’ cognitive load for memorizing everything said in their lesson is relieved. Once that initial cognitive load is relieved, students can focus on their singing experience, and build internal focus.

I have perennially found that my voice students do not have any clue about how to practice. Initially, I was frustrated because I thought that this should have been made obvious by someone — anyone — other than myself. This frustration, of course, started to dissipate once I realized that students are not taught how to learn in their high school coursework. They show up to college and receive reading assignments that involve reading multiple chapters, and are paralyzed because no one has taught them how to read for comprehension. In my experience, a good number of voice students swear that they practice, but the quantity of practice outweighs the quality of their learning. This is why in my syllabus, I prescribe that students practice in 15-minute segments with specific goals attached. Perhaps one 15-minute session is used for reciting foreign language text resonantly. Another session could focus on vocalises to build a particular skill — agility, coordinated onset, slow and low breathing, etc. As the students attach specific goals to their practice, the pressure to be perfect can dissipate and students begin to goal-oriented skill-focused.

When we move to a teaching strategy that is student learning focused, it means giving more specific guidance for practice. For example, I do not simply tell students to practice the vocalises from the lesson. Rather, I point out spots that go awry in the repertoire and have them write in their music what skill building vocalises they should use to address those specific issues. I also keep a spreadsheet where I make a note of specific breakthroughs and areas where I prescribed a practice plan. In this model, my role is to facilitate learning and to provide external focus for the student. The student becomes responsible for their learning, for building a truer self-concept by listening back to their lesson recording, and they ascend Bloom’s Taxonomy. Students of applied music may begin with just memorizing (remembering) the music, but as they apply intense practice sessions they began to analyze and apply.

  1. Separate text learning and music learning. Text and music are processed by different parts of the brain, and the most common fallacy I find in students is “I learned by singing with the recording.” This level of learning as at the base of the Bloom’s pyramid. Using a translation sheet and dedicating a practice session to translating each foreign word one-by-one helps the student to take ownership of artistry and interpretation early on.
  2. Short, focused practice sessions. 20 minutes at most, followed by a break of at least 10 minutes. Each session should have a specific goal.
  3. Specifying the purpose and role of vocalises. The onus is on the you as the teacher to make sure students understand what an assigned vocalise is meant to accomplish. This can be as small as asking at the end of the lesson, “What are your practice goals for this week? How do you plan to get there?” If the student is not sure, it means that you should take a moment to explain which vocalises to use and why. You can also weave in your goals for the student, but always try to filter it through the student’s own self-concept and goals. We can have many goals for students, but they will never be accomplished if they cannot put it into their own words.
  4. Engage multiple learning styles for memorization. Great methods for memorizing text include using flash cards (visual), writing out the text from memory and even adding rhythmic notation above (tactile), and listening to a recording of themselves speaking the text and speaking along with it (auditory). I am a firm believer that the more ways you engage with material, the easier it is to grasp.
  5. Ask your students to record their lessons and listen to it!
  6. Be task oriented, not sound oriented. Whenever my students express frustration with their progress, I immediately encourage them and refocus our work toward voice function. Students are oftentimes so obsessed with their sound, that they skip what I call “the boring stuff.” Repetition of a proper action or task is what builds automaticity. Before I have my tenors attempt newer high pitches, I make sure they memorize the action of the jaw, tongue and lips by looking in the mirror. I then have them replicate the vowel color down the octave, before having them try it in the correct octave. 9/10 this method takes away the neuroses, and the student sings quite well.
  7. For harmonically challenging or coloratura passages, dissect and study as if you had to teach the line to a student. My favorite methods include chunking (breaking long lines into fragments, then putting them back together), using scat syllables to execute fioratura, using solfege (whichever system works best for the repertoire), identifying melodic patterns (arpeggios, scales, etc.) and singing them out of context.

I sincerely hope that some of these strategies help you in your teaching! I am indebted to my teachers Brian Horne and Christopher Arneson for instilling these principles (whether you realize it or not). If you are interested in reading more about motor learning principles, there is a wonderful chapter on that very topic in The Vocal Athlete.

Stay tuned!: Our next segment will feature my interview with soprano and opera director Dr. Briana Sosenheimer, Director of Opera Theatre at Georgia Southern University! We had a great discussion about building characterization into your studio teaching, and skills for singing actors.

Singer | Musicologist | Voice Teacher | Cultural Activist