This was a learning challenge I completed recently, and I’ve included it here because it demonstrates how highly skilled teachers make use of a number of coaching techniques that are enabling and support skills development.
“Somebody is singing out of tune!” yelled the angry, old music teacher. Forcing her twisted body into an upright position she glared down at us, her precious school choir, and said threateningly; “and I will find out who it is.” She demanded that we sing unaccompanied as she marched up and down the rows of frightened children. To my 7 year old self this terrifying ordeal ended in the most catastrophic way; the public humiliation of being expelled from the choir.
I have not attempted to sing publicly since that day.
“And that’s why I’ve chosen singing for my learning challenge”, I explained to the young singing teacher, who was listening intently, sat at her grand piano. She paused for a moment, and then said brightly “well I believe everyone can sing, and I’ve heard a similar story from a number of my adult students. Thank goodness teaching has changed. How long ago was that?”
For my learning challenge I chose to embark on a series of singing lessons with the objective of being able to sing a couple of well-known songs in tune and with confidence by the end of week 10 of the course. Interests “never stay the same” (DiSessa 2000) “but constantly shift and rebuild themselves according to experiences and contexts.” Music has been a theme or interest throughout my life, rebuilding itself and reflecting the various stages life I have travelled through as DiSessa suggests. I now listen to an eclectic mix of music, I occasionally work with musicians and I certainly appreciate the immense pleasure that music brings to everyday life. One sadness throughout my adult life has been the inability to sing and my avoidance of all social singing. The learning challenge has provided the opportunity to address the incident from half a century ago, remembered “as no computer can” (Roszak 1994) but held in my “muscles and reflexes.” The learning challenge assignment provided the extrinsic motivation to embark on this task but the specific choice of singing was intrinsically motivated.
Reflecting on the notion that “memory is rigorously selective, always ready to focus on what matters to us” (Roszak 1994) I am conscious that it is the memory of shame that has lodged so deeply into my long-term memory and recalling the incident creates a familiar but uncomfortable emotional response. As I started this learning journey I was interested to discover whether I could create a different identity (Gee 2003) by changing the fixed view (Kolb & Kolb 2009) I had of myself of not being able to sing and in doing so set the 7 year old girl free. I hoped by diving back into this experience whilst also analysing it for this learning challenge I will reach a new relationship with and reconstruct this specific memory. (Ackermann 1996).
An immediate barrier was finding a local singing teacher. I was surprised by the distinct lack of teachers offering private lessons in my area and had resigned myself to resorting to my second choice for the learning challenge, when I received an apologetic call from a young, enthusiastic teacher. At my first lesson I was impressed by her presence, her vitality and most importantly her absolute confidence that I could achieve the objectives I had set. I immediately felt safe and at ease in the space; teacher, pupil and piano. This sense of security was evident in my willingness to follow her lead in vocalising sirens, and reaching for higher and higher notes. Within the first few minutes of the first lesson I experienced an immense feeling of liberation simply by releasing sounds. It was as if my voice was being unshackled after 50 years.
My weekly lessons reinforced three important aspects of learning that can be applied to any subject. Firstly; getting the basics right is crucial to future success, and a certain level of competence (Wenger 1998) needs to be achieved in these building blocks. Initially this is experienced as being at the outer edge of resources as in Gee’s Regime of Competence Principle; “The learner gets ample opportunity to operate within, but at the outer edge of, his or her resources, so that at those points things are felt as challenging but not ‘Undoable.’ “(Gee, 2004). Good breathing technique and regular exercises to strengthen capacity became part of my routine, followed by vocalising vowels and consonants to locate the breath, exercise the vocal muscles and create the desired sound.
Secondly; any new learning provides the opportunity to retrieve skills that have lain dormant for a long time: in this case my ability to read music and bring that skill back into my consciousness.
And thirdly, how learning cannot be viewed as a purely intellectual exercise but needs to be embodied. Or as Stolz (2015) describes it “ we ‘come to’ an understanding of something from our own point of view as a result of experiencing it.”
My teacher employed numerous strategies to support my learning, this was especially fruitful when I struggled with complex rhythms. Being offered different approaches helped me to remain positive and persevere with the music. The lessons were structured around guided practice with immediate feedback (Margolis 2004) and this provided a very clear set of achievable steps.
My teacher used my phone to record part of our lessons to aid my homework which was supplemented with listening to and singing along with YouTube videos of the songs selected. Whilst this helped me to immerse myself in the music, which became embodied, I found it hindered my ability to learn the lyrics and eventually resorted to learning them without the use of technology, from page to knowledge in my head. (Norman 2002).
In later lessons I was interested to see that my teacher restricted feedback to commenting on parts of the song that I had sang well, and where I had made mistakes we simply repeated that section, thereby increasing my motivation. (Wulf et al 2010).
Private face to face lessons was an obvious choice in terms of modality of learning as this minimised any anxiety and apprehension for me as the learner and I made good progress in developing my vocal tone, and learning and interpreting the songs chosen for me by my teacher. However the pure joy of singing was not realised until I shared what I was doing with family and friends one weekend resulting in an impromptu karaoke session. Playfulness and humour “occur in protected environments and are intrinsically motivated” (Bateson 2013) and pinpointed for me the enormous value and attraction of social singing, where participation and belonging are part of the learning experience (Wenger 1998).
As we neared the end of my final lesson my teacher announced that it was time to record me singing the songs in their entirety, accompanied by her at the piano. She asked me to listen to the recording and then assess my progress. I was astonished to hear my voice pouring out of my phone, completely in tune. When I expressed my surprise she replied with a beaming smile, “I knew you could do it!”