Learning – teaching – learning – teaching

Reflecting on my fledgling practice as a singing teacher and building on my observations of other voice teachers last semester, has been a very rich experience for me, and educative in its own right. I haven’t been able to limit myself to learning and discovering about being a voice teacher in particular, and have found my reflections going deeper: what makes a teacher a good teacher (outside of effectively transmitting the skills and competencies of the discipline)? What are the conditions necessary for effective learning and how does one create them? What is it to step into the position of power and responsibility that a teacher has? This has led me to reflect on my teaching practice as it relates to a number of themes: holding spaceacknowledgement, impeccability, integritywitness, and service. For me, these themes relate to a variety of different, but similar roles: the teacher, the ritual leader, the workshop facilitator – anyone who is holding, guiding and facilitating processes of learning and change for others. This has been a very useful distinction / clarification for me that links this unit in vocal pedagogy with ritual studies, for example, and gives me plenty to ‘go on with’ as I take everything I’ve learned from MARCS into future work and life.

Holding Space: Safety, honour, ‘I’ve been there’

  • This is a quality or capacity that is intangible, and perhaps not clearly definable, but I believe essential. What does it mean?
  • In the first instance it is about creating and maintaining safe space. Without feeling safe, the (voice) student will not be able to open themselves, be vulnerable, let go of what they thought they knew, expose themselves publicly, and share their voice – ergo a deeply personal aspect of themselves…. All of which are necessary for effective learning, especially at any deeper levels than cognitive or informational learning.
  • To feel safe, I need to know that I am seen and respected for who I am, listened to and valued. So I believe that to create this as a teacher, I need to deal with myself in whatever way necessary (as well as taking care of the practical necessities) so that I can be present to my students in this way.
  • I also believe that in order to guide and facilitate processes where one must let go of certainties, and take big risks (therefore anything that relates to the voice and performance), I as teacher, need to have “gone there”… I need to have experienced the trust and vulnerability it takes to ‘go there’. This is something that is communicated tacitly to students that is intangible, but also in my experience clearly felt (if not articulable).

Acknowledgement: honesty, vulnerability, ‘returning to neutral’

  • I must be willing to acknowledge (appropriately) any breakdowns I’ve caused, to ‘fess up’ to mistakes, however difficult that might be, as this is the only way to restore trust that’s been broken.
  • Without acknowledgement of ‘what’s so’ the group dynamic will be out of kilter, undermining the trust and safety held in the group, and therefore inhibiting real learning and transmission.
  • Acknowledgement has the ability to ‘return to neutral’ the group dynamic, diffusing discordant energies and emotions.
  • My job as teacher is to acknowledge and not seek acknowledgement from my students.

Impeccability: being organised, timely, ‘on top of things,’ count-on-able.

  • I’ve realised that having a solid and dependable foundation of the ‘small things’ (ie. things relating to administration and organisation) must be in place in order for the big and important things to be built.
  • Impeccability in organisation is, in a way, the least of what’s necessary, but without it, the most important things – relationships, sharing, learning and transmission – will be hindered.
  • This is not about being rigid or holding excessively to practical necessities at the cost of spontaneity and adaptability to the contingencies of life. It’s about creating a solid and dependable container, or foundation, to safely hold the processes and dynamics of a group in flux (ie a group that is learning).

Integrity: honouring my word, holding myself to account

  • For me this is primarily about the relation I have to my word: what I say and write, ‘promise’ explicitly and implicitly. It’s primarily about holding myself accountable to my word, for without this, I cannot hold anyone else accountable to theirs. This kind of accountability is essential for the teacher / student relationship because it creates something solid, something dependable and something to stand on and create from.
  • Integrity is about having a clear yes and a clear no, communicating clearly and decisively so that the people around me know where they stand.

Witness: Really listening, really seeing. Beholding with care and without judgement.

  • This is a quality of attention one brings to a relationship that acknowledges the being and experience of another. It is about really listening; really looking, and holding another in one’s awareness without judgement or analysis (which are nevertheless important critical faculties of the teacher).
  • Part of this is being actually interested in my students. Asking them what’s important to them, wondering what’s going on for them, what makes them tick, what’s going on behind the surface.
  • The teacher – as the one who has more experience, wisdom, skill and knowing in the area being taught – also needs the capacity to witness that which the student themself is unaware of, in the sense of listening for the presence / absence then growing and development of a particular faculty or capacity.

Service: What am I in service of? Gathering and strengthening from the bottom up.

  • This for me comes from my faith in Christ, as the model of servant-leadership: the one who puts others first and above, and is of service from the lowest rung, always gathering and affirming and strengthening and uplifting the last and least. (aspirational goal!)
  • It’s about realising that it’s not about me. Teaching-as-service is about asking the question: What am I in service of?
  • It’s about love. Listening to where my students are at, what their needs are, what’s important to them, and crafting my teaching / facilitation from there. It’s about recognising and being responsive to the shifting energy of a group, and being willing to let it be different from what I thought it would be… Truly meeting the group where it is.


A perfect calibration of engagement and freedom

More like a king

I’ve just been writing a reflection on my journey so far with the Alexander Technique for which we have one group session once a week. I thought you might be interested, and you’re not getting anything else out of me this week, amidst chant transcription exercises, transcribing an interview on the practice of Kirtan chanting, learning my new chant Lilium Floruit, reading about the respiratory muscles, attending my first vocal masterclass and heavens, drinking a well-deserved pint.

The Alexander Technique (proudly Australian) “doesn’t teach you something new to do. It teaches you how to bring more practical intelligence into what you are already doing; how to eliminate stereotyped responses; how to deal with habit and change. It leaves you free to choose your own goal but gives you a better use of yourself while you work toward it.” (Frank Pierce Jones)

NB. “Semi-supine” is a relaxation posture used in the Alexander Technique where you lie on the ground with a book about three finger-widths high under your head, and your knees bent, feet flat on the ground.

* * *

Tomorrow will be our fifth class of Alexander Technique and we are in our sixth week of practice. It’s quite wonderful to look back upon my early reflections and to notice where I am now. There are a whole lot of things I’m aware of that I didn’t use to be. I’m more aware of how my head sits on my neck and what the feeling is when it is fixed, rigid, held in place, and what the feeling is when I am allowing it to be free, even to a small degree. And I’m more aware of how this pattern of control, of self-protection, this fearful and defensive reaction to life manifests in my neck, but is actually an inner attitude that plays out in my whole physicality, thoughts-actions, and in my being itself. To allow my neck to be free is such a simple directive and I watch myself and my classmates almost turn it into a joke. For me, I think this is because I’m actually profoundly confronted by the implications of this directive, my general incapacity to enact it, and the very sobering realisation that probably ever single facet of my life, my behaviour and my physicality is to some degree governed by fear – and the ‘control’ I seek to gain in reaction to that fear.

I’ve been more aware of that than usual and it’s uncomfortable.

Regular practice in semi-supine has been so deeply wonderful and such a gift to me. I have been practising about three or four days out of five and find it to be astonishingly powerful, working in ways that are completely mysterious to me. Most tangibly evident to me: I feel like it restores my body to neutral, and for that, is more restful, more relaxing, more restoring by far than doing some kind of ‘chilling out’ activity or even having a sleep. In fact often I’ll get up feeling as if I have had a sleep. I use it to begin my breathing-for-singing exercises and vocal practice and it is surprisingly potent in accomplishing what I don’t think I would know how to accomplish otherwise – that is, to do my breathing exercises from a relaxed and neutral body rather than kind of ‘on top of’ whatever I would have just been doing. It also provides a very clear break between the precious activity and my vocal practice which is no small thing. I can come off the back of an eight hour day, do my twenty minutes in semi-supine and then practice / sing for nearly an hour with fresh vital energy.

An unexpected result of this practice is that it seems to also restore my emotional body to neutral, and this is of HUGE significance and benefit to me. I am very porous to the world around me and other people’s energies and emotions can impact me to quite a high degree, let alone my own intense emotional life and deep feelings. Being here beginning this course has felt like something of a whirlwind of people, information, demands, new possibilities, new opportunities and it has been an emotional roller coaster with feelings of overwhelm. An additional factor is that I’m without most of my support structures and the main absence I feel keenly is the lack of physical touch, hugs, physical closeness with people I love. This is relevant because without this outlet for my emotional energy it just keeps building until it comes out in crying or irritation. What I’ve found with semi-supine is that somehow, magically, the emotional energy sort of drains away and leaves me relaxed, and no longer under this inner pressure. Also, and very interestingly to me, I’ll be lying there and it’s not uncommon for me to start sobbing in a strong way. The strange thing is it’s not necessarily that I feel sad or in an ‘emotional mood’ either before or after this sobbing. My best way of understanding it is that it is a emotional and physical shaking up, shaking out, shedding and releasing that happens in my musculature as well as through the emotional release.

Something else I’ve noticed in doing the semi-supine is a noticeable drop in my shoulders, and not only do they sit lower, I can also consciously draw them down which is something I did not even know was possible. This release has been accompanied by much tenderness in the muscles there, especially the trapezius muscles. For quite a while there I was almost in constant slight pain / discomfort, and they are still moderately tender, especially after I stand up from semi-supine. I take this as a good sign!

There’s so much more I could say. I’m reading Alexander’s The Use of the Self and there are so many light bulbs going off, and revelations small and large. The questions it is raising are ones such as:

What would it be to extend my awareness to the whole, to the source of my voice and not just what I think in a reductive way, my ‘voice’ is and what it is connected to? What would it be if I did not tamper or interfere with the most blessed and natural workings of the body, but soften, deepen, drop so much deeper than that, right to the inside of the inside? What would it be to place my action here right down at the roots of things, and have that action be so precise, so exactly placed that it need only be absolutely minuscule? What kind of doing is a not-doing, a refraining from doing? Is the very best we can do, to enact ‘right-conditions’ so that life will simply do what life does in us? Where indeed is our agency at all, given that Alexander found, he was completely unable to do what he wanted to do (consciously move his head forward and up) as soon as he had the impulse to speak? What is this tremendous intelligence in the human being that will enact grace in every moment if only it is allowed?

A life well-lived is not a process of error-correction, but living a dynamic posture of readiness, a perfect calibration of engagement and freedom, poise. This is what I long for.

My window has been open for days

The rowan berries are ripe

The rowan berries are ripe

My window has been open for days now, and there is a canopy of life above my bed: spiders, midges, moths, beetles. I’m at my desk drinking a finger of Green Spot whiskey from my thermos lid, listening to David Whyte and practising calligraphy with a swan quill pen.

It’s Thursday evening: the moment of relieved exhalation after another intense three-day-week is completed. Tomorrow there is the washing to be done. And a rehearsal for a service in the concert hall we’ve been asked to sing at to remember all those of the UL community who have died during its 40 years, celebrated this year. And four of “we five” will meet for tea in the Pavilion cafe to debrief, laugh, vent and write our list of things that need to be done for next week.

This afternoon we continued learning a Georgian song “Lazhghvash” from Sydney, a twenty-six year old doctoral student here with a glorious and shining love of Georgian music and people. She’s blind and has the most beautiful smile: a smile that doesn’t know what it looks like. Smile as a pure, simple expression of the inside. She tells us random details of village life in Svaneti. Did you know that the “Greek” legend of Jason and the golden fleece actually originates from here in the Caucus mountains, where they used to use fleeces to ‘pan’ for gold in the rivers? She has us pronounce the ‘v’ like half-way between a [v] and a [w] and try to make the glottal stop like a sound Gollum would make. As you can see from the song title, Georgian (well, actually, ‘Svan’ – a related language) is no stranger to stringing consonants together. Their three-part polyphony is really something. To Western ears it is threaded with ear-crunching dissonance but the amazing thing is that once it’s in your ears it becomes the most natural, effortless, sustaining, robust braid of harmony. It is such a joy to sing, the middle line an unapologetic second below the top for the first run of notes, and the men an open fifth below the sopranos. The sound sits forward right on the outside of your face, vibrating in your nose, while your throat is relaxed. Sydney’s face is a lamp, rippling with expression. You can tell she’s hearing every voice in the ensemble. Afterwards she and I walk back together to Thomond our student village, her hand resting in the crook of my elbow. It’s such welcome touch and human contact. For all the friendly interactions of my days, nothing can ever replace the warmth of bodies touching, and the nourishment of that kind of easy togetherness.

Today I did a presentation on resonance for our vocal pedagogy class. People. I had no idea of the utter miracle it is that we can speak and sing at all and I bow to the intelligence by whom we are created for we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. Of all the musical instruments that exist our own humble voice stands alone in that we can consciously control not just the power behind the sound (our breath) and the source of the sound (the vocal folds), but also the resonating chambers within our bodies that shape, filter and channel the sound. The sound of our voice doesn’t simply travel from the vocal folds up the throat and out the mouth. There is an incredibly complex play of echoes and sound reflections which amplify and enrich the sound as it passes through the vocal tract, without which our voice could never be heard at all, let alone above an orchestra in a thousand-seat concert hall (I’m not quite there yet).

The world is an amazing place.

Love, Wildgoose.

“Though your destination is not yet clear                                                                             You can trust the promise of this opening;                                                                           Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning                                                                         That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;                                                                                       Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;                                                                      Soon you will be home in a new rhythm                                                                                     For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”

From John O’Donohue ‘For a New Beginning’