Elizabeth Benson’s findings in her new book about CCM Voice Teachers: “Consensus is not a path to legitimacy.”

Elizabeth Ann Benson has recently published her book Training Contemporary Commercial Singers, in which she shares her findings from interviewing 26 voice teachers who work with CCM, popular music, jazz, and musical theatre singers. She is trained in Somatic Voicework™ the LoVetri Method, Lisa Popeil’s Voiceworks® method, and Estill Voice Training™, among others. She is a 2016 graduate of the Intern Program of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) and a 2012 recipient of the NATS Emerging Leader Award. She has published research in Voice and Speech Review, American Music Teacher, and the Journal of Singing, and has presented at national conferences for The Voice Foundation, the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the Association for Popular Music Education, the Musical Theatre Educators’ Alliance, and the College Music Society. She is an associate professor and music theatre voice specialist in the department of theatre at Auburn University.

Jessica: Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Elizabeth! Tell us more about what your research is about.

Elizabeth: I’m fascinated by the tension that lies at the intersection of popular singing and classical singing, and I believe that musical theatre singing can be the bridge between these two worlds. I like to ask questions that push boundaries which may be limiting the development of the field, and to unite all styles of singing under one large canopy through education, awareness, and dialogue. I’m particularly interested in how people are teaching vocal technique for multiple styles of music, and have explored several inclusive methodologies which can provide tools to teach popular, musical theatre, and classical singing. I’m interested in moving beyond stylistic bias or preferences so that we can just talk about singing.

Jessica: Why did you decide to pursue this topic? 

Elizabeth: I was curious about how successful teachers were teaching CCM singing. When I was a new teacher, I wanted a resource like the one I created, something with a lot of points of view, with really substantive answers to specific questions. I have trained in several methodologies. Once I figured out that having tools from several different methods was very helpful in terms of finding solutions for my students, I thought others might be interested in a comprehensive look at the pedagogical resources available. But then I wanted to go one step further and analyze the responses to reveal trends. I wanted to know how many people taught x using approach y, and how many people used approach z instead.

Jessica: How did you select the teachers you observed?

Elizabeth: I actually didn’t select them. I ran an anonymous survey to gather the names of elite CCM pedagogues. I sent the survey to the 30ish colleges with popular music programs with some kind of voice concentration, a list which I found on your blog! It also went out to NATS, APME, CMS, MTEA, and several pedagogical groups on Facebook. I used the results of the survey to select the teachers for the book. I made sure to include countries outside the U.S., and I was really happy with the resulting list.

Jessica: What methods did you use to gather information from/about them and their teaching?

Elizabeth: I had a questionnaire that I went through with all 26 teachers. Every teacher answered the same questions. Some preferred to type their responses and some preferred a live interview via Skype or telephone which was recorded, dictated, and then edited by both parties.

Jessica: With CCM Vocal Pedagogy being such a new field of study in academia, a degree hasn’t been an option until just the past few years, so these teachers have had to blaze their own trail. Their work is what’s informing the academic programs. What were some of the ways they learned their craft? What methods are they using to share their findings and approaches with others?

Elizabeth: Well, each pedagogue has a unique story, but I found some interesting common threads. These pedagogues had a very strong sense of intuition. While 84% had formal classical training, they were not willing to accept the idea that only classical singing was good and all other kinds were bad. Many were performers themselves, and therefore knew first hand that people could sing rock, jazz, or musical theatre music just fine without a guaranteed vocal injury. They were curious about how the voice functioned, and they self-educated on anatomy and physiology until they started to understand how nonclassical sounds worked. 60% mentioned a significant mentor who encouraged their curiosity and continued education, and helped them build their careers as teachers. Many (48%) have conducted academic research themselves as subjects and/or co-authors. Many present regularly at conferences, which is how I was able to connect with most of them. Some offer teacher training or formal certification in a methodology which is their life’s work. However, the book includes teachers from age 40 to 80ish. The major pioneers are represented, and the next generation of teachers is there too. 

Jessica: Terminology is one of the things that seems to trigger some of the most heated debate in voice teacher forums…words like “belting,” “registers,” and “support,” for instance. What did your research show about terminology? Are we moving any closer to a more common vocabulary? Were we already more in agreement than some may believe?  

Elizabeth: That is an interesting question, and I would ask first, “Do we really want a common vocabulary or does someone just want to be “right”?” What I found was actually the opposite, so many terms are being used, that it is easiest for voice teachers to become flexible or multi-lingual in their choice of terminology. The trend is that teachers are willing to use any number of different terms until they find the term that is most useful for each student. I would say that it is probably helpful for teachers of singing to ground their preferred terms in vocal function, but the voice teacher’s preferred terms are not necessarily the most important. Being multi-lingual means that teachers can be of service to everyone. We have to contend with the lay-terms of the performance industry and those of untrained singers who may already be hugely successful professionals. We can’t ask casting directors or producers to switch to voice science terms, that just won’t work. The research showed that rather than spending time “educating” a student on the teacher’s preferred terms, most teachers are solution-focused. Voice teachers stand at the juncture of industry and practice, so if we know and understand every possible term that may be found in the industry and among singers, we can help the student in front of us create the sound that the industry is requesting. For example, if a student calls a sound “purple,” but the teacher calls it “head-dominant mix,” and the industry calls it “legit,” what would be the point of trying to change everyone’s mind on those labels? As long as the teacher can translate between industry terms and student terms, the goals of the day can be achieved.

Jessica: Part of CCM Vocal Pedagogy is understanding our role in the larger framework of skills these singers use in their careers…skills that aren’t as commonly used in classical singing careers. How did these teachers address some of the skills unique to their clientele?

Elizabeth: Yes, these skills might include acting, expression, dialect work, bodywork, dance, music theory, audio technology, improvisation, playing an instrument, mental health, ego management, and so on. Some teachers are also experts in some of these areas and can provide instruction at a high level. But more commonly, what I found is that there is a trend toward team-teaching. This means sending your student to many different experts for many different skills. Teachers want to find solutions quickly for their students, and when in doubt, they refer out. There is no sense of master-apprentice model. The pedagogues emphasized because they are “in-service” to the student, they should therefore work as efficiently as possible to help their students achieve their individual tailored goals. Students will make faster progress when supported by a team of specialists.

Jessica: What were some of the most exciting things you found?

Elizabeth: I mentioned earlier that I wanted to know how many people taught x using approach y, and how many people used approach z instead. I was really excited to see that there were often several approaches to teaching x, including approaches that were sometimes contradictory, and yet they were all getting results. I was excited to find evidence that we don’t have to all agree with each other in order to be good teachers. What a gift! For me, this affirms that consensus is not a path to legitimacy. CCM singing is already legitimate and thriving. Striving for consensus would undermine the rich tapestry of student-centered flexible approaches that are held in such high regard by the expert pedagogues in the study. The concept of diversity and inclusion extends to “diversity of approach.” If you think about how vast the spectrum of genres is in CCM, it makes sense to have a spectrum of approaches that is equally vast.

Jessica: What were some of the most surprising things you found?

Elizabeth: There were a lot of things that surprised me. Here are a few.

  1. How much overlap there was among these elite pedagogues, in that, many of them have worked with each other on singing technique or taken each other’s training courses.
  2. About half of the pedagogues in the book chose to devote themselves exclusively to teaching, rather than trying to sustain a performing career at the same time.
  3. There is a marked shift away from the master-apprentice model. The preferred model is much more flexible now. Teachers are solution-focused, student-centered, and pull tools from a variety of sources.
  4. Expression is considered to be a part of functional training. In fact, so many pedagogues insisted that expression had to be included as part of functional training that I actually moved the chapter on expression into the technique section.
  5. Authenticity is a non-negotiable component of CCM singing. This means that you have to have your own emotional house in order before you can get onstage to perform. Teachers are not therapists, but they are very sensitive to changes in their students and they will not hesitate to refer them to a qualified professional if they believe that the student needs support.

Jessica: What were some of the biggest ways in which this research personally affected your teaching in the voice studio?

Elizabeth: Each chapter includes a huge literature survey, so I have become much more aware of the published resources available. And there is so much out there to read and learn. The research has definitely expanded my tool box, which is continually-acquired from several different methodologies and pedagogical points of view, as well as my own experience as a singer and teacher. Once I saw the prevalence of flexibility, and the fact that results can be obtained from many different approaches, it really empowered my sense of play. If something isn’t working, I am happy to try something different, even if it seems like the opposite of what we just tried.

Jessica: What are your biggest hopes for our profession based on what you learned?

Elizabeth: That we move past stylistic bias, terminological debate, and methodological exclusivity into a unified field called “voice pedagogy.” Frankly, that kind of infighting is so juvenile. In fact, most other countries moved on years ago from a classical vs. CCM debate, and we need to catch up. It is my great wish that every teacher of singing remains curious, inquisitive, and open to new ideas. There are some who don’t want to learn anything new about teaching singing, and that is their prerogative. However, there are many more teachers who want to expand their pedagogical skills so that they can serve a more diverse clientele. When those teachers acquire more skills, it just means they become better teachers. It doesn’t mean that classical singing will be replaced with heavy metal scream. If you want to specialize in certain styles, that is great. However, there is no need to argue over a stylistic hierarchy. Increasing our understanding of how one sound is made doesn’t mean other sounds will disappear. It’s not pie, it’s singing. Would it be so bad if we all remained curious about how all vocal sounds are made and how we might help singers in general?

Jessica: What research needs did you uncover through your work? What questions do we need to be asking?

Elizabeth: There is a huge need for people to connect voice science and voice pedagogy. The average Journal of Singing reader is not the same as the average Journal of Voice reader. There is some overlap, of course, but concepts analyzed in a voice lab require a bit of translating to become pedagogical tools. The more that voice teachers connect with the voice science community, the more empowered we become in the teaching studio. Voice science teams need to include voice teachers as collaborators and co-authors in their research. I recently read a paper by a reputable voice scientist, but it was biased and out of touch from what voice teachers actually do. A voice teacher might have caught that bias and clarified the language being used so that the research could be useful to teachers. As voice teachers, we need to be asking if there is scientific research to support our assumptions. For example, a lot of people believe that caffeine causes vocal dehydration, but actually, there is research to the contrary! (FYI, caffeine is still a reflux trigger, as far as I know, but I should probably look that up too…)

Jessica: Wow, Elizabeth! Thanks so much for all of the amazing work you did, and for helping us be of greater service to the singers we work with. Thanks again for sharing your work and thoughts with us today!

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