Singing as a viable teaching method

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Home Forums Pedagogy Teaching – General: Solutions, Question, Tips Singing as a viable teaching method

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 20 total)
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    Bret Newton

    I use singing as a teaching with all of my students, but as of today I am beginning to question this. I have had a student quit after one lesson because I asked her to sing through one of her etudes (Weisenborn #21, one of the most lyrical in the book). After me asking her to do this she promptly refused and became quite sullen. I go to the school today and I find out that she will no longer be taking lessons, and after a call to her parents I confirm that the reason is my asking her to sing through a line or two of this etude. My question is, am I wrong to ask students to do this, I know I have had to do it many times. My reasoning is that by singing I can hear if the student has the rhythm and relative pitches internalized. I would love some feed back on this issue as I’m at a loss as to why this happened.
    Bret Newton

    Darlene Vandewater

    I’ve been taught that we should try to play as much like singing as possible. It really brings the concepts of note placement, expression and phrasing into sharper focus, I believe. I have not yet asked my student to actually sing phrases, but I have told her many times that musical phrases played on wind instruments are the same as though they were sung. I’ve also used the spoken sentence as an example (she is a very young student and is struggling with playing legato)…. ie, not leaving big gaps in between each note!

    I don’t think you did anything wrong at all from a pedagogical standpoint, but she probably felt very self-conscious about singing. I sound like total crap when I try to sing, so I can sympathize. You didn’t say how old she is, but if she is a teenager or thereabouts, she was probably just embarrassed, and maybe felt put on the spot!

    Maybe you should talk to her again and explain that you weren’t trying to embarrass her, that you don’t expect her to sing like Whitney Houston, and perhaps that will clear things up. Try singing the phrases for her yourself to show her what you’re after, and that she won’t die on the spot if she tries it too! Good luck!

    Stephen Kaupiko

    Some people can’t sing or sight sing to save their lives. You probably crossed one of the girls’ greatest fears and so she did not want to study with you to avoid singing.

    Personally if I had a teacher that wanted to instill singing into my lessons. I would demonstrate my excellent sight singing skills and probably prepare to not come back if singing through lessons became a habit. I find it degrading.

    If you can sing, don’t expect your students to… even when they graduate from a music school.

    I had a couple of music teachers with performance degrees from USC and Northwestern and they couldn’t sing. :)


    I think the concept of “singing” with your instrument is a valid one, as long as it’s approached correctly.

    I say this as someone who has spent all of his adult life as a semi-pro singer–playing the oboe and bassoon being somewhat of a sideline. Now that I’m approaching 60, I’ve had to “hang it up” and concentrate on playing instead, since the vocal apparatus isn’t what it used to be.

    Granted that many people can’t produce a beautiful sound with their voices, but they should at least be able to sing in tune. And by this I mean REALLY in tune–what passes for “good” intonation in singing is often sub-standard. I believe that if you can’t sing in tune, then you don’t stand much of a chance of playing in tune. I’m speaking here of minute differences in tuning, such as a “just intonation” third, or playing in fifths or octaves with somebody else so that the intervals are beatless.

    Beyond this, being able to sight-sing is very valuable. If you can learn to hear the notes and intervals in your head before you sing them, then playing them becomes that much cleaner, especially on instruments such as the oboe and bassoon which can have rather “slippery” intonation.

    Then there is the desire to phrase “like a singer”, and in this regard I should mention the innovative masterclass given by Frank Morelli at the recent IDRS convention. Mr Morelli played several Mozart excerpts sung by the great Fritz Wunderlich as an illustration of how a singer approachs Mozart (the piece being worked on that day was, I believe, the slow movement of the Mozart bassoon concerto). Mr Morelli wanted his students to “hear” the music the same way Fritz Wunderlich did. The students were then asked to sight-read the very same aria excerpts from the recordings, and the results were interesting. I could see this teaching approach being applied to the music of other eras, such as the 19th century, or the Baroque.

    Just my $.02.

    James Jeter

    I don’t have any advice, regarding having students “sing” in lessons (guess this would have to be a case by case or individual by individual take), but I would like to put in my 2 cents for this very valuable teaching tool.

    A few years ago, after performing professionally for many years, I found myself in a bit of a “rut,” breathing-wise. I was giving a solo recital in a few months and programmed one of the Vivaldi Sonatas (edited by Luigi Dallapiccola), which had NO places basically to “breathe.” I decided to go to my partner’s singing teacher, who has quite a reputation in NYC for “reviving” and really helping singers who’d developed problems over the years (had many students singing at the Met and NYC Operas, etc.) Maria Caruso (no relation!) Farnworth turned my playing around! I went to lessons for a few months – mainly working on POSTURE and vocalizing. Nothing too dramatic, just breathing/vocalizing exercises with piano, always maintaining a no-slump chair posture, centering one’s self.

    If one can breathe properly by singing properly, this translates to the bassoon or oboe! These lessons were taken in conjunction with breathing lessons with Carmine Caruso, also here in NYC. Carmine emphaized “keep the BLOW going!” But, I must say, the singing exercises helped clarify all this, by far. Of course, these steps were taken many years after I’d studied bassoon in conservatory, and only when I found I’d developed bad habits (posture, etc.). Don’t know if I would have been amenable to vocalizing, as a young student! At any rate, good luck with incorporating this into lessons. Alles Gute – Jim

    Kent Moore

    Hi Bret:
    I don’t think asking a student to sing is a bad idea and I have done it too. Every student is different, however, and you need to be able to “read” what a student needs or is willing to do and what is helpful for that particular student and this can sometimes be difficult to determine. It might also be in the way you ask a student to do something, especially a younger student. You might need to smile, and nicely ask them to try to sing something simple to get an idea if they are willing. If not, you might sing it with them and once again smile saying that your voice isn’t very nice either (at least mine isn’t). But as I said every student is different and it can sometimes be difficult to know if you need to be gentle and back off a little or stern and unrelenting. Take care, Kent

    Sydney Rott

    Whenever a teacher told me to sing at a private lesson the same thing happened: my throat tightened up and singing became both physically painful and painful to listen to. I always found this excruciatingly embarrassing. Only the most sadistic teacher ever asked me to sing a second time. This didn’t happen if I decided to sing — for example to ask the name of a piece I remembered the tune to — or at the few voice lessons I’ve taken. While I don’t dispute the value of singing, I think teachers should be a little sensitive to their students feelings about it. I suspect, in my case, that if I had been given a choice, instead of being forced, my reaction would have been completely different.


    Neville Forsythe

    Singing has its place even in the instrumental teaching situation. It is the one sure way to ascertain what the student’s musical “hearing” is like.

    Many of us can be embarrassed about our singing voice because it is different in timbre from our speaking voice. It also may have been the source of teasing and intimidation in primary school. Or it may be changing with the onset of puberty.

    One way around that particular issue is to get the student to hum – it is still a good way to hear pitch changes.

    Also explaining the reason for the “vocal / aural” assessment can help a student to accept the activity.

    I wouldn’t necessarily make it a regular activity – esp if satisfied that the student can hear finer degrees of intonation; but I do suggest students join a choir or take voice lessons if they appear to have potential in that area. Many do (not having thought of that option themselves).

    As to the “resigning” student, I would think that the commitment to bassoon was already tenuous and this vocal activity just tipped them over the line they were already teetering on. Some kids can be very wary or “precious” and we often don’t know what else is going on in their lives. Those I tread carefully around and try to keep their commitment going almost at any cost. Music could be the only positive “feel-good” thing they may have.

    I do not condone “music teachers with performance degrees who cannot sing”. Every person with normally functioning ears and vocal chords can learn to sing. I sing along with students to model intonation and timbre (possessing a bass voice), and even convey instructions by “singing them”. (maybe note names, fingering formulae, accidentals, chord analysis, key changes, wrong notes etc). It allows the playing to flow while dealing with teaching points.

    I know teachers who also sing along – but drone awfully – it must be terribly off-putting to students who do possess functioning musical hearing.

    Regards Neville

    Claire Binkley

    I sing at my lessons when asked; I love to sing. I had to pick between voice and oboe at the onset of middle school and went with oboe.

    I say definitely keep having students sing if they will. If they won’t, they just have to understand that they’re missing out on what that can bring them.

    David Knorr

    I had a conductor once who said “if you cannot sing it, you cannot play it”. He would use the singing technique in rehearsal occasionally. The assistance was primarily for rhythym and articulation, not pitch. I have used the technique a few times in coaching kids in chamber music, when there were problems fitting the parts together. The advantage is that you can tightly focus on these aspects of playing without the complication of manipulating the instrument. I do not think that you should use singing for pitch because many people, like me, cannot sing in tune, which might have been the sensitivity of your student. You might ask for the “singing” in a monotone.

    Dave Knorr
    Clifton Park, NY

    Darlene Vandewater

    Coincidentally, I asked my student tonight to sing a passage just to see if she had the rhythym correct, and she kind of giggled like “Oh my god you must be kidding”… but she did it anyway. I had assured her that all she had to do was a monotone…. but she still thought it was weird, I guess.

    I agree with Dave about the pitch issue. I do not believe that everyone can sing in perfect tune, nor do I believe it’s a prerequisite of being a good instrumentalist. It IS important to be able to tell when something is out of tune, but you don’t have to be able to replicate it with your own voice. It’s more important, I think, to understand the phrasing, dynamics, emotion, etc. that we can learn from singing—and try to transpose that into the mechanical world of fingers, lips and air columns.

    Neville Forsythe

    While there may be musicians who cannot sing in tune but do posses a good sense of intonation, it is also probable that musicians who can sing in tune possess the necessary listening skills for playing in tune.
    I suggest it is still the desirable ideal to be able to sing in tune (we are not talking about trained opera stars or even choristers – a crooning voice is still able to demonstrate that its owner has a good ear.)

    I’ve just had a wacky idea – for those of us who don’t play free pitch instrument (like orchestral strings) the activity could be done using a “swanee whistle” or an ondes martinot (the “Dr Who” theme electronic instrument which relies on proximity of a hand to an aerial and whoops and whistles); even whistling requires a good ear! There must be suitable computer programs for pitch discrimination too.


    Bret Newton

    I should probably follow up un this. I did make it quite clear that I didn’t care in the least is she could sing in tune or even the right notes. All I wanted was to hear the relative pitches and accurate rhythm and phrasing away from any technical hardships of the actual instrument. I think that I can only chalk this one up to one of those teenage girl things that no one will ever understand.

    Darlene Vandewater

    actually, I think we understood the “teenage girl thing” pretty well! The gist of most of these messages is that singing aloud, alone, can be embarrassing. Teenagers, especially girls, tend to get embarrassed easily. If it seems like this is happening, it’s probably a good idea to back off and come at the issue from another angle.

    Neville Forsythe

    One of the surprises to me was the presumption by some girls that singing high is impossible. A relatively settled student thought she could only sing a range of about a 5th – definitley unable to sing the lower alto range (bottomed out at A) but totally unprepared to try anything above a 3rd above middle C. I bet she was at least a mezzo-soprano with at least another octave at her disposal but it wasn’t worth pushing the point that day – it was an achievement to get the notes we did – and they were nicely in tune.


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