Helping students to find their voice

Posted by Tori Longdon on 18 March 2019

Topic: Singing

A personalised learning environment is one that allows for learning to be matched to the students’ own musical identity. The learning is a two way experience where the teacher is able to accept and respond to information in an organic way whilst being mindful of a need to also ensure that there is also an opportunity for challenge and the inclusion of a breadth and depth of learning.

In this article, Tori Longdon, assistant conductor for the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and the conductor of the Myriad Singers, The Lea Singers and Woking Choral Society shares her experience in building a personalised musical experience for the singers she works with that grows from an openness to all the different starting points that students bring to the learning experience.

In order to move towards co-designing learning that is based on students’ own musical identity there are three areas to be aware of:

  1. A need to understand the culture of the environment in which singing is taken place.
  2. A need to balance consistent and shared expectations by establishing a 2 way relationship between student and teacher that is built through a blend of listening and teaching.
  3. A need to allow space not just for teaching but also for listening to accommodate student agency into the learning environment.

Choice of repertoire

A good place to start is with the choice of repertoire. Sometimes it is necessary to accept that it can be chaotic trying to bridge the gap between prescribed repertoire that is pedagogically suitable and carefully chosen to suit the ability and needs of students with students’ own love of music. Having a choice over repertoire is a great way for students to identify with their performances. In singing, your musical identity is very much linked with the subject matter of what you are singing. All singers have to use their own experiences to portray emotion in performance and that can make any song very personal indeed.

Make room for discussion

One strategy is to allow time for discussion that invites students to explain their opinions and contribute their thoughts about the music. For example 'I don’t like that because it doesn’t sound like the original song' can allow the opportunity to discuss why that is and to look at how it might be possible to move closer to that as a shared outcome.

A balance between singing and discussion and then more singing, enables students to feel that they are being listened to and that their opinions and prior knowledge of the music they enjoy or relate to are being taken into consideration.

In order to create a culture of respect, enjoyment, inclusivity and balance, there is also a need to develop an openness on both sides to new music and new ideas. This starts with building a safe learning space which is respectful of opinions. This openness can also help to identify any potential barriers to learning and a establishes a sharing of expectations and outcomes on both sides.

A two-way relationship between student and teacher should be grounded in routine and consistency with agreed ground rules where active listening and empathy are essential elements of the teaching and learning that takes place.

Pushing beyond the comfort zone

There is a balance to be struck between keeping progression in mind with staying within comfort zones. Here the expertise of the teacher helps them to to recognise when students are ready to move on and to be able to suggest a variety of different ways to achieve this.

Start by identifying a something that students can already do or are familiar with. Then defining a shared outcome will give you an idea of the gap that needs to be bridged in order to get there. Planning the learning journey through to the end point may take the teacher and the student away from their comfort zone and teachers may also need to be willing to look for a starting point that may not be a specific skill, but something else altogether.

For example a reluctant singer might enjoy sharing the music that they like to listen to and through this give an indication of their own personal musical tastes that can help to identify a start point to get them singing.

Group singing

With ensembles, unlike individual or small group singing lessons, there is often a formal structure to rehearsals. In large group singing situations there is less of an opportunity for individuals to express their own musical identity. In these situations it is important to start by getting a feel for the individual skills sets of singers in order to voice the choir or to assign seating. Then to look for singers who seem most confident and identify what they may be able to bring to the ensemble as a whole.

Whether your students are choosing from Trinity’s comprehensive singing syllabus or from the latest Rock & Pop Vocals song lists, if they enter for an exam then part of their assessment will be about how well they demonstrate communication and interpretation during the performance.

We know that singing is one of the most personal of art forms and that every performance is one that is unique and personal to the performer. But in order to help students to give a truly personal performance, it is therefore also important to be open to ways to tailor their learning to their own musical identity from the start.

The flexible performance options within the Trinity Singing and Rock & Pop Vocals syllabuses include improvising or an own composition, a choice of supporting tests and a huge repertoire to choose. This level of choice recognises that singing is a truly personal form of music making.

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