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The end of one-to-one music teaching?

I suppose I’ve done five or six years of one-to-one teaching all told – early in my career when like lots of aspiring performers I was glad of the money as well as interested in it for its own sake. Like most of us, I’m sure I passed on the pearls of wisdom that had come my way from those who’d taught me (what else could you do when that’s all you know?). Mostly I taught only sporadically, except for a year at the Akademie in Bremen where I tried to do a whole day once a month. The Aka’s policy, like most conservatoires, was to employ recognised performers to teach – with the usual problem that many of them weren’t there half the time. I eventually realised I couldn’t make the kind of commitment the job really needed, so when they offered me a full professorship I turned it down and I haven’t taught one-to-one singing since.

The one-to-one is a complex relationship. There’s a social dimension and a kind of  intimacy that doesn’t happen in any other teaching context. For some students this can be very valuable, though it often leads to a kind of teacher-dependency that only benefits the teacher. It was refreshing to read that the RNCM is considering alternatives. In purely pedagogical terms – in other words if you ignore the social chemistry – there are very few advantages in one-to-one that you wouldn’t get with one-to-two (or three or four). Until the mid-twentieth century class teaching in big musical institutions was common place (and in the 19th century it was the norm). You could still get an individual lesson, but it would be in public. This has all sorts of advantages – other students can learn from your learning, and you are inevitably learning aspects of public performance at the same time. And, of course, the teacher has to behave himself. I had a plan for the Vocal Studies MA at York that would have worked in a very similar way – I’d teach all the singers in public on the course like a kind of seminar, and any one-to-one would happen on a consultancy basis as and when necessary (ie not very often). Obviously, that was a non-starter then, though one of the positives from the present scandals is that institutions might consider more enterprising teaching regimes.

Rather than teach singing (which I believe to be a simple process, most of which can be taught in a very small number of lessons) I do a lot of ensemble coaching. This is very different – dynamic, interactive, a process of creative learning where singers discover things for themselves with each other rather than have me telling them what to do. I was asked in the coaching sessions for the Cambridge verse anthems conference at the weekend why I didn’t demonstrate. Demonstrating invites imitation, and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else to do it like I do: much better to let them figure it out for themselves (and thanks to the brilliant guineapig singers, who, by and large, did).

Singing teaching could be like that too, but the drive to produce generic-sounding voices makes it all too easy for the student just to do as they’re told and absorb the magisterial wisdom on offer. There needs to be some creative thinking from students (who need to be more proactive), teachers (who need to be less possessive) and institutions (who just need to be a bit braver and less intimidated by their own past – and their singing teachers…).

Well, maybe one day…

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