When we as voice teachers are learning how to teach new-to-us (and maybe also to the student) styles of singing, we seem to focus on technique and style: what the vocal folds and vocal tract are doing, where the rhythmic emphases are, what the common note patterns are, how the words are pronounced, etc. We attend workshop after workshop to learn how to help our students sound more authentic.
But learning a style of singing is much more than just learning the sound. The “right” sounds can’t be fully known without an understanding of the human experiences through which they were born: the culture, history, and reason for existing, as well as the way they are taught, learned, and performed within the community. If we’re imitating sounds without an understanding of their lifeblood, we will not only miss the mark, but we’ll miss the point. Music is born from people and place and time, and to love it without loving and respecting its people and history cuts out its heart and soul.
I think one reason we don’t (collectively) think beyond the sounds is because many of us are blind to the fact that we have been educated and trained in a largely colonialist educational system where either we strip BBIP (Black, Brown, and Indigenous People) of their music and culture and replace it with Eurocentric music and white culture, or we teach some musics from BBIP, but we teach them in white-centric versions/settings that often leave out the humanity that created them.
Those of us who went through the academic system likely never learned how to truly meet popular musicians and BBIP on their own turf, and we start the cycle of centering whiteness and Eurocentric music all over again when we finish our degrees and go out to teach.
It will take proactive efforts from all of us to break these cycles and build an anti-racist system of learning and teaching music from kindergarten all the way through grad school. Since the voice teacher community as a whole is becoming more interested in learning and teaching popular musics, I believe we can play a part in breaking cycle, starting by stepping out of it and into other musics and their communities.
First, Refer Out
If you have a student who wants to start working on a style of music that’s not familiar to you, begin by seeing if there is already someone in the voice teacher community who already lives in that music (and not as a tourist…we’ll talk about that more later). Talk to the student about the other teacher and let them know there’s someone else who could teach them from a place of experience. If the student isn’t interested in switching teachers altogether, consider hosting coaching sessions where you could observe to learn more for yourself, or bringing the teacher in to teach a master class with multiple students. If there isn’t someone you can refer them to or collaborate with, or if you are learning a style of music that’s new to you just because you love it, here are some steps you can take to make sure you and your student are going beyond notes, style, and technique to learn as much as possible about the human experiences that create it.
Do the Homework
Do your homework. Read about its history. Seek out resources that are written by people within the community whenever possible. Read articles and interviews by people who are currently creating the music. Ask these questions as you read:
- What is the ancestry and history of this music and its people?
- How have people from my culture historically interacted with the people of this music’s culture?
- What elements of this music does this community believe should be kept sacred, i.e. only used within the community and/or the settings in which it was intended? (Some stories aren’t yours to tell.)
If you as the teacher are new to the music, but your student is not, ask them what they want you to know about it, in addition to doing your own homework. They may share stories, playlists, concerts, documentaries, resources, etc.
Do the Field Work
Watch live concerts of this music, go to gigs where this music is played, and meet and get to know the people who are creating it on their own turf.
Again, if you are new to this, but your student is not, tell them you want to learn more about the music and the community that participate in it, and ask if you could join them the next time they go to a concert. If they’re already performing, go see their gigs so you can get a fuller picture of their performance and their experience beyond the singing.
When you go, respect that this is someone else’s space and story and be respectful, humble, and observant. Let yourself be an outsider and sit with any discomfort, appreciating how others may feel when they come into your spaces. Observe the music in its fullness, complete with the setting and community and experience that make it what it is. Listen. Learn. Participate, if appropriate. Find answers to some more questions:
- What is the spirit of this musical experience?
- What purpose does this music seem to serve in the lives of the people participating? Why might they want/need music to serve this purpose?
- What elements seem to repeatedly show up in the music?
- What settings seem to be common for this music?
- What activities seem to regularly accompany the music?
- How do the musicians and audience participate and interact?
- How are each of these things helping to serve the purpose?
Keep in mind that cultural differences will probably prevent you from fully understanding what’s behind the musical experience. Many people get tripped up by individual elements of the experience and make unfair judgments before they get to the heart of it. Learning from musicians within the culture gives you the best chance to get what it’s all about.
Also keep in mind that some spaces may be specifically made to be safe from people in your culture. You may need to respect that and decide what that means in terms of using elements from that style in your singing.
As you connect with people in the community and demonstrate genuine love and respect for them, consider asking some of these questions:
- Why do you love this music?
- What things do you want me to know about this music? (Again, do your own homework first. See above.)
- Do you think it is okay for someone like me to incorporate elements of this music into my own style and singing? If so, how can I best do that in a way that honors this community and the purpose of the music?
Chances are very good that the people who created the music want you to love their music. But I can guarantee that they want you to love the people, too…not because you’re fascinated by their music or even their larger culture, but because you believe in their right to exist and to have equal access to a good quality of life.
It goes without saying that these questions also apply to your students. Learn from them. Ask them what they want you to know about their music and themselves, and how they hope to see you honor their music and their culture and their individuality.
Do the Heartwork
Once you’ve done some homework and field work, do some soul searching:
- What assumptions have I made about this culture and the people I know who are a part of it? What assumptions have I made about their music and their musicianship? Why? How have those assumptions been challenged in my homework and field work? How can I continue to challenge those assumptions and expand my understanding to include and respect the full spectrum of humanity and musicianship that lives within this culture?
- How can I better understand the complexity of my own relationship to the culture I’m borrowing from in my music? How can I be sensitive to the history and dynamics between our cultures?
- Why do I want to sing or borrow from this style? Is it out of a genuine interest? Is it something I feel called to do? Or, does it simply look appealing and/or trendy?
- As Chris Richards asks, “Am I a traveler in this music, or am I a tourist?” He says, “Travelers move through the world in order to participate. Tourists simply look around, have some fun, take what they want and bring it back home.” How can I connect with this music and culture as a traveler instead of a tourist?
- Ultimately, how can I demonstrate the fact that I believe this community is beautiful, valuable, and worthy of love, life, and respect?
Here are some ways performers can honor the people whose music they’re borrowing:
- Connect the audience with the reasons the music exists and the people who are making it.
- Incorporate elements with their original intent in mind.
- Only use elements that are okay to use outside of protected contexts.
- Help your audience show solidarity with the people whose music influenced you.
As a teacher, here are some ways you can honor diverse people and musics in your studio:
- Create performance opportunities for students that give them the opportunity to emulate the settings and elements of the styles of music they are performing. Involving the students in the creation and setup of the space and setting can be a great learning experience for everyone. Use your homework and fieldwork to make sure you’re honoring any requests to keep certain elements sacred to the original spaces and cultures.
- Allow students to share about the music they’re performing from their own experience and perspective, as well as any cultural or historical context they want to share from the homework and fieldwork they did.
- Research organizations and resources in the community that support the cultures and musics represented in your studio. Support and share them.
- Foster a Brave Space in your studio. As Decolonizing the Music Room states: ” ‘Safe spaces’ are constructs of whiteness. Brave spaces’ safety comes from collective willingness to take risks, be accountable, and do the work without letting small fissures shatter relationships.” We all misstep, but we can take responsibility, apologize, and learn from each other.
- Bring people in to speak to students about different musics and cultures. They don’t necessarily have to be musicians.
- Check out resources like Chris Emdin’s book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all, too and groups like Decolonizing the Music Room to learn more about this work.
- Racism shows up in a myriad of ways. Educate yourself about the ways you can make more anti-racist choices in your studio, your classroom, and your life.
I know this process takes time, and that you may not have time to do this for every single style of music your students are bringing into your studio. Do your best, referring out when you can, and taking care of the needs you can meet. Unless you are immersed in a particular style, you will never be able to fully know and teach all of its nuances like someone who is. But, as long as you own this, you can still help your students with the things you actually know and do your best to point them to people who can fill in the blanks.
Hopes for the Future
Our singers and future voice teachers need more options. They deserve teachers who aren’t tourists, or even travelers, but who really truly live in the music they want to sing. That change starts in our classrooms and our studios…showing our young people, and especially BBIP, that all musics deserve to be studied and taught and sung…that we respect that they know more than we do about their own music…that we need their expertise and experience in the classrooms and voice studios of the future…that they have a place in academia to train to be teachers whose musics are included and valued, and who can pass that on to the next generation of music makers.