The Importance of Empiricism in Vocal Pedagogy

empiricismin philosophy, the view that all concepts originate in experience, that all concepts are about or applicable to things that can be experienced, or that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience. This broad definition accords with the derivation of the term empiricism from the ancient Greek word empeiria, “experience.”

My colleague Jeannette LoVetri at The Voice Workshop recently wrote a forward-looking post on her blog titled The Importance of Science in Vocal Pedagogy. After reading it, and agreeing to everything she wrote, I thought to myself, half in jest: What about the other side? What about empiricism?

There are lots of dead singing teachers represented on this blog who were considered scientists during their day, Manuel García, perhaps, being the most illustrious. I mean, after you are credited with inventing the laryngoscope, your stock kinda goes up, doesn't it? His science—as primitive as it was—has stood the test of time. Others, of course, like his friend Charles Lunn, weren't so lucky. His theory of the false folds turned out to be a crack-pot idea. And then there are those like the Lampertis, father and son, who were empiricists. Read Giovanni Battista Lamperti's book of maxims, Vocal Wisdom (1931), as divulged by his student William Earl Brown, and you'll understand what I mean. Their 'knowing' is of a different sort. It's 'procedural' rather than 'declarative' (read my post on Dr. Katherine Verdolini Abbott a few days back and listen to her talk given to NATS for more context.) And this gets to my point: It's the job of the voice teacher to know scientific stuff, not the student. And while it can be fun to explain the science of singing to the student, if they have questions and are interested in that sort of thing: the information doesn't help them sing. This is where empiricism comes in.

The teaching of singing, at least, from the student's perspective, is an empirical art. Why? They have two avenues of perception at their disposal: listening and feeling. I don't agree with those that tell the student not to listen to themselves. Rather, I believe in teaching the student how to listen and what to listen for. Of course, you have to know what you are doing to in order to teach this. You have to be able to sing for one thing: you have to know yourself. And you have to know yourself pretty darn well.

Now, of course, we get into a matter of semantics. "Don't listen to yourself" can also refer to the student who is "judging" everything that comes out of their mouth, which is kinda like never being able to get the plane off the ground. Guess what? The student who is doing this has "closed" ears. They will not be "open" to the full range of frequencies. And if you look very closely as a teacher, you will most likely observe a "closed" face. The look of concern around the eyes is a dead give-a-way. And a closed ear and face doth not a singer make. However, if the teacher can stimulate the student and give them exercises and instruction that help the ear open? Well then, that is a totally different matter. What does the student hear and feel then? That is essential knowledge: knowledge that is empirically-based.