The Singing Professor

Therí A. Pickens describes how becoming an online voice student during a pandemic helped her become a better teacher.

February 17, 2021
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"Sing out," my voice coach tells me. I thought I was loud, but she says I’m refusing to get loud. She tells me to do the exercise again.

If I feel like I’m getting nowhere, "that’s the point when you’re really learning," she says. She reminds me that I know this, based on my experience as a professor, as a writer, as a poet. The trouble was I didn’t know it as a student. And definitely not with people like my current voice coach, or my online voice teachers, one of whom coached on NBC’s The Voice and the other who was a finalist on X Factor.

When I started online singing lessons last March, it wasn’t because of COVID-19. I was on sabbatical and wanted to increase my public speaking and poetry recitation skills. I did so online, as I wanted to work with teachers who are based in Los Angeles and Atlanta, which are both far from Maine, where I live and am a professor of English. Also, I am immunocompromised and don’t drive because of a disability -- key reasons why I’m teaching remotely this year.

As it turned out, however, the fact that I became an online voice student during a pandemic significantly prepared me for -- and altered my approach to -- teaching online this past year. We’ve been helping students not just learn the material but, simultaneously, how to learn in this new way, as well.

I know we all like to think of ourselves as perennial students. That is what we say, anyhow: that we are always learning. However, putting oneself in the position of student is a deliberate act of submission. I had to acknowledge that I was not in charge of the class. Ultimately, that was freeing, as it meant less responsibility and a greater ability to ask questions. But it was terrifying at first. How do I advocate for myself when I’m not in control? Can I trust my instructor? Or my peers’ feedback, since they probably don’t know any more than I do?

I am describing the presence of hierarchy and the necessary actions of one at the bottom of the hierarchy. Some of us chafe at this, and rightfully so. Some of us know all too well the abuses of power that hierarchical systems allow and justify. Without advocating for hierarchical systems that perpetuate disenfranchisement, I want to point out that the divide between dilettante and expert is real. Being a student requires understanding where you are vis-à-vis a body of knowledge. It is a deliberate act of saying repeatedly, “I do not know.”

As a voice student, I had to regularly admit that I did not know in some very uncomfortable ways. Voice is a skill to learn, not a talent to acquire. It is also a skill that people judge with alacrity, whether they know anything technical about it or not. Singing always exists within a cultural and social context. It matters how the voice conveys and is shaped by race, ability, gender, sexuality and class, among other identities. Learning how to sing is also an embodied skill, which means that the criticism is about what the body can do, how the body performs. I had to be very careful about what I absorbed as feedback about my body. The obverse was also true: my instructors had to be very careful about what they said in relation to what my body did.

Both the courses I took were asynchronous. My first instructor, Stevie Mackey, has worked with megastars like Jennifer Lopez and Quincy Jones. The second was Tara Simon, who toured Europe as Serena Katz in Fame. My private coach, Sharmayne Thomas, is one of the coaches from her studio. When she reminded me that practice often does not feel like progress, she was teaching me that I had to keep practicing by myself and with her. Much as literature students do not understand a poem by reading it just once, I would not understand a note by singing it just once. I had to do repetitive work, often tiresome, often frustrating, often on my own. I had to watch instructional videos and complete daily exercises. My instructors had to trust that I was completing the work outside class and, based on my work, they knew if I was not.

Despite my experience, I too had to learn the lesson at the crux of being self-directed: the learning is in the doing. This is often what I assume my students know. But they, like me, need to be told explicitly.

Feedback and Feelings

As faculty members, we rely on the rhythm of the semester to help a class cohere. Some of us create assignments that facilitate that coherence, such as small group work. Many of us have been anxious about the creation of an intellectual community within an online setting. We know that welcoming people into a physical space makes an intellectual community concrete in a way that we fear online space cannot.

My students tend to respond -- rightly or wrongly -- to what they perceive is compassion in my voice, concern in my posture and focus in my gaze. Some of those things translate on Zoom, but rarely all at once. When I teach advanced materials, students rely on the “high-touch” elements of a small liberal arts education: taking advantage of one-on-one time during office hours, creating non sequiturs in class discussion or requesting extra feedback on assignments.

In that face-to-face environment, we have a great deal of scaffolding that reminds people and disciplines them into following their obligations. But the scaffolding was much sparser in my online voice classes. I spent about 30 minutes a day scrolling through a feed of my peers’ audio and video clips and commenting on their singing. My shared vulnerability kept me from being an insufferable know-it-all or a buttinsky. One of my teachers would occasionally create reaction videos to people singing. Part of the entertainment of a reaction video is to see the shock or surprise or disgust or delight from the viewer. It’s scary but, pedagogically speaking, provides a singer with a sense of their audience, a sense of the storytelling quality of their performance.

I found that I learned as much from watching people sing as I did from singing myself. As a student, I was hungry for feedback and fearful of it. I wanted to be told that I was amazing, even though I knew that I was not. I wanted to be told that I was seen as hardworking, even if the product wasn’t any good, even if no one knew where I had started and therefore had no idea how hard I had worked. My peers could answer some of these concerns. My instructors could answer others. It was up to me to answer the rest. Because I know how hard it is to wrestle with these feelings about coursework as an adult, I have more compassion for my college students, who are still learning how to be adults.

This may be the first time those students have encountered the emotional terrain of having to work through it without their instructor’s aid and physical presence. Further, during a pandemic, any given lesson can be felt more urgently because of the anxiety the pandemic creates. Clearly, this experience is not limited to learning online. But discouraging or confusing feedback becomes more anxiogenic if there is not an immediate presence of another human to reassure the student or provide explanation. In asynchronous environments, students often have to wait for answers.

Feedback requires some of the same tools that supported my learning about learning: explicit acknowledgment of the process. My private voice coach always let me know what we would focus on for that lesson. All feedback was geared toward that particular goal. For instance, at one point, we were working on taking deeper, more relaxed breaths from the diaphragm, but I kept closing my mouth to make consonants sharper. As a result, I kept going off pitch. We did a few pitch exercises that forced me to practice opening the jaw more to get more space. Although that was not the day’s lesson, the feedback she provided was targeted, which allowed me to understand that I wasn’t being picked on. It also gave me the gift of knowing how to troubleshoot on my own.

This is when being a professor became a boon. In those instances, I trusted the curriculum. I know, from years of teaching experience, that course objectives help us and our students identify and understand the end goals. When being off pitch threatened to shipwreck me, the explanations and objectives were my lighthouse.

During this pandemic, I felt more keenly the desire to learn how to sing for joy, because even joy felt more urgently needed. Our students may certainly have the same feelings about their lessons in biology given climate change, economics given the shifting financial landscape, literature given the need for imagination, quantitative work given the need to understand data and qualitative work given the need to contextualize data.

The lessons I learned as a student apply not only to me in my classrooms as an instructor, but also to me as a pedagogue. Lessons like: don’t get frustrated. The learning is in the doing. Learning communities are built over time. Feedback requires being transparent and goal-oriented.

I remember what my voice coach told me about feeling like you’re getting nowhere: that’s the point when you’re really learning. My role is to establish a lighthouse for my students and help them sing toward it.


Therí A. Pickens is a professor of English and chair of Africana at Bates College.



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