I’ve written before about how helpful it is, as a teacher, to be a student, but this semester I had a very different experience with that than I’ve had before. Previously I’ve learned a lot about teaching when I took tae kwon do, a martial art with which I had absolutely no previous experience, or when I participated in faculty development seminars that focused on areas that I did have experience in but wanted to develop further. They were two very different cases—either I was a rank beginner, eager to soak up whatever knowledge I could get, or I was an advanced student, ready and able to polish my skills. In the first case, almost anything the instructor said was helpful because I knew nothing at all; in the second case, I had a good grounding of knowledge and understanding, and so, again, I could make use of almost anything an instructor said—or at least put it in some kind of context and, perhaps, decide not to use it.
This semester I took voice lessons for the first time in my life. I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember—in church choirs, glee clubs, college and community choirs. Having taken piano lessons, I know how to read music reasonably well, and I can match pitch and usually keep time, although anyone who’s ever sung with me knows that’s not my greatest strength. (I also stay far, far away from percussion instruments.) But other than tidbits any choral singer picks up from being around other singers and choir directors, I’m almost completely untrained as a singer. So when I began my lessons this fall I found myself frequently frustrated simply by terminology. What did my instructor mean—really mean—by “chest voice” and “head voice”? I had heard the terms, and even thought I could reproduce the sounds, but I wasn’t sure how I was doing it. I knew there was a “break” in my range but not what to do about it. There were other words my instructor used that sounded good—“make that sound rounder,” “keep it hooked in”—that just didn’t quite signify. Sometimes I could do what she wanted, and I could even hear the difference when I did, but I wasn’t quite sure how the words and the actions matched up.
Suddenly I had sympathy for my writing students. Many of us write, or sing, without much formal training. We just do it. We have the basics down, and we can make ourselves understood, but when someone starts talking about a “passagio”—or perhaps a “thesis” (or maybe a “split infinitive”) it just doesn’t signify. And it can be hard to make it signify when what we’ve been doing seems to have worked so far. It’s hard to unlearn old habits, learn new terms, and learn new techniques, all at once.
My instructor was patient and slow with me. She could see my frustration, and she encouraged me to experiment and not to worry too much about the terminology while we were just exploring. She also, of course, encouraged me to practice, and to pay attention, as I practiced, to how I was doing what I did. I got to make sounds I didn’t know I could make, and I even started to figure out how at least some things worked. I need to carry that sense into my classes next semester, I think—a focus on experiment, on trial and error, and on practice with low stakes. There’s nothing groundbreaking in that, of course—it’s just nice (and, frankly, humbling) to be reminded of it in my own experience.