Teaching Stripped Bare // Daniel K. Robinson

This year marks my twenty-sixth year of teaching. Granted, when I first started teaching voice in the mid-nineties, I only had a couple of students. And if memory serves, I really didn’t know what I was doing. Still, my first two gracious and willing singing students gave me a start into a career of voice instruction that I continue to enjoy and develop in to this very day.

I don’t think it is a stretch by any means to suggest that the twenty-something Daniel, the age I was in the nineties, would find it nigh on impossible to comprehend what, how and where I teach voice as we enter into the third decade of the twenty-first century.

I do remember that I had a computer running Windows 3.1, but it was too big and bulky to transport to the singing lessons that I conducted in people’s homes. Even domestic-based printing was too expensive per page, so pre-prepared lesson sheets were not an option. And never mind the thought of including the use of a microphone, backing tracks, or recording a lesson. While the technology mentioned above was in existence, much of its implementation was constrained to university studios and the like.

When I survey the equipment in my studio today, I am reminded of how humble my beginnings were. I now have five microphones in my contemporary vocal focused teaching studio, all running through a fourteen-channel analogue mixing desk. The desk, through which my keyboard also runs, sends to a floor monitor for inStudio practice-performance; and the desk with its onboard FX, also sends a digital signal via USB codec to my Windows 10 PC.

My main PC (I have a laptop that is also active during my teaching day) has four screens and three webcams. The webcams, two of which are 4K, enable me to conduct online singing lessons that aim to be as immersive (…aim to be…) as an inStudio session. If COVID-19 has taught us anything…and, as singing teachers, it has taught us many lessons, it is that teaching online can be offered as an equal-to option alongside our inStudio sessions.

Dang! I taught online for ten years before 2020, but I still carried a prejudice against online lessons. I’m pleased to say, having taught much of my 2020 teaching year online only, I no longer hold to that bias.

Of course, it’s not only in my one-to-one private lessons that my nineteen nineties self would observe a considerable change in how I conduct my teaching business. The internet, something that wasn’t even accessible to the average Australian household in the mid-nineties, has enabled the presentation of my teaching via online courses and freely viewable videos on YouTube. Twenty-something Daniel would likely respond with, “YouTube. What’s YouTube?”

I smile as I reflect on my starting practice with only two students and compare that to my active online global community, Voice Essentials, and the several thousand people who enthusiastically interact with my online learning materials every week.

I smile, not because this was my grand plan back in 1995. Far from it! I smile because it’s funny to think that a kid who grew up in regional Australia during the seventies and eighties would have the opportunity, thanks in large part to the technological advancements of the modern era we now enjoy, to share his passion for singing education to the world; all from a six by a five-metre suburban studio in Brisbane, Queensland.

Of course, it’s not all smooth sailing. Indeed, these past few weeks, I have been wrestling with a technical issue concerning my online delivery. Long story short, the software I use to deliver my multicamera online lessons has been crashing in the middle of the sessions. As I searched for solutions, the problem continued to worsen, and my anxiety escalated accordingly.

Eventually, I found a solution (fingers crossed), and my online delivery is stable once again. But this whole saga has reminded me that, while it might be advantageous to have a complex technical setup, the very same complexity can present me with a ‘sting in its tail!’ And this time, it stung me bad.

Funnily enough, amid my recent technical nightmare (‘nightmare’ might be a slight exaggeration!), we had a state-wide power outage due to a catastrophic turbine failure at one of the many Queensland power plants. When the power failed, I was in the middle of a lesson, fortunately inStudio, and once I had established that it wasn’t just me, my system, or my house that had lost power, I quickly realised that without power, I would not be able to proceed with the lesson. Even my keyboard, which runs on mains power, was useless to me.

To my shame, it was my student who graciously suggested that we simply go next door into my living room and conduct the remainder of the lesson next to my upright acoustic piano. Duh! Of course. At that moment, I realised just how reliant I have become on all of my whiz-bang toys and gadgets. So much so that I had forgotten how to offer a rudimentary singing lesson void of all the bells and whistles.

I’m pleased to report that it did not take me any time to pivot to my lounge room and, with my student standing beside me, conduct an agreeable singing lesson with nothing other than the acoustic piano and voice. It was wonderful. Not because there was anything special about the class, but simply because it was teaching stripped bare.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not about to sell all of my studio equipment and revert to the good ole days of cart and horse. I do believe there are far more pros than cons in the modern learning context. But I am caused to reflect on my recent technical challenges alongside the experience of the power outage induced unplugged singing lesson, that I need to actively seek to offer the simple within and, weaved throughout, the complex.

For me, this perhaps means that I need to remember that human beings come first. I am happy to report that this thought is never far from my thinking, but it is good to allow circumstance to reinvigorate my passion for this ideal. No matter how technically advanced our studios might become…and it is scary to think just how far we might take the technology…at the end of it all, we have the privilege of working with the most fundamental of instruments – the human voice.

The wonder of the human voice is found in what it doesn’t need to support its development more so than what it does. And even if I teach for a further twenty-six years, I hope I never forget that.

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