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The Disciplines of Vocal Pedagogy: Towards an Holistic Approach
Ashgate Publishing, ISBN 07546511169X
Review by Liz McNaughton, April 2006
Karen Sell's book really is an excellent resource. Although there are one or two comments on which I would welcome the opportunity for discussion with, or clarification from the author, overall this is an extremely open and honest discourse on the issues germane to creating and maintaining an holistic approach to vocal pedagogy. It does all it sets out to do.
It may at first seem daunting with its densely packed pages but it is in fact a 'good read' with all sorts of anecdotal touches to lighten the heavier academic text. I particularly liked the picture of esteemed and venerable singing masters sitting 'familiarly' on their pupils' chests in order to fix the ribs and compel abdominal breathing! Also the suggestion that singers with weak chests (probably after having been sat on by their teachers) and susceptible to colds should bathe the chest and throat with vinegar, brown for men, white for women, letting it dry (very important!). There are many such gems peppering the book.
There is some repetition of matter which can seem a little disconcerting as it gives the reader a feeling of déjà vu but on the other hand acts as a refresher for possibly otherwise forgotten points. Perhaps in a further revision for the next edition, however, these repetitions could be ironed out.
It is thoroughly researched and copiously referenced and demonstrates a huge commitment on the part of the author to achieving her goal of presenting a multi-disciplinary approach to her subject and thereby promoting an inter-professional collaboration between all individual disciplines. Although much of the material will be familiar, here it is all brought together between the covers of one book. There is scrupulous attention to detail and it seems almost no stone is left unturned in covering every aspect of teaching singing, from practical advice as to how to handle the business side and set up a studio to the historical conflicts regarding singing methods and current thinking among voice professionals.
The book is a revised version of Dr Sell's doctoral dissertation based on her experience as a singer and vocal pedagogue and at the outset she contends that there is more to training a singer than training a voice and her hope is to foster reflective practice in vocal pedagogy. She makes clear her parameters, which are to focus on Western classical singing only, although she is well aware of all the other possibilities in terms of singing genres and what may influence singers in their musical experience.
The chapters range over a history of vocal pedagogy from the ancient world to the present day, the ethics and psychology of teaching singing, the science and vocal health issues to be aware of, and in Chapter 4, which the author describes as pivotal, a discussion of aspects of voice classification, tonal ideals and singing technique. The final chapter is devoted to an exhaustive analysis of what needs to be addressed in performance where every specific detail, no matter how small, contributes to the outcome' even down to having the correct money for the meter when parking the car prior to your performance!
There are additional appendices to supplement the history, to set the scene in a first singing lesson looking at it from both student and teacher perspectives and to give even more consideration to performance issues. There are very clear anatomical illustrations in a further appendix.
I was taken by the plethora of references in the controversial area of breathing for singing, that being a subject particularly dear to me, and could not help noticing the lack of mention of Accent Method breathing. That has made such a contribution to clarity in this semantically challenged arena, so may be that surprisingly unturned stone will find its way into the second edition as well?
I applaud the author's views on singing with the very young and the very old and that more attention should be paid to training singing teachers, especially where anatomy, physiology, developmental psychology, ethics, diagnosis and evaluation shaped by a background in aesthetics is concerned.
In conclusion Karen Sell emphasises her starting point: that of broadening the teaching and learning base for singers and singing teachers so that all the disciplines mutually inform one another. She espouses a view long held by me that we should have some kind of endorsement of professional competence by bodies concerned with vocal health and education, namely the British Voice Association and the Association of Teachers of Singing. Although some strides have recently been taken in this direction, it is still very patchy and in an unregulated profession formal training and recognition would enable singing teachers to make a more significant and complementary contribution to medical teams concerned with the successful rehabilitation of singers just as the Singing Voice Specialist does in America.
All in all, this is a very comprehensive journey through the world of teaching singing and one that should be of great interest to well-established teachers and a great aid to anyone starting out as a teacher. It gives an enormous amount of information for everyone else associated with vocal education and it will also help singers themselves to understand what it is they are getting themselves into, should they wish a very useful addition to their professional armamentarium.
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