(A “Chatty Description” of The Breakthrough Research Project)
I’ve been teaching vocal pedagogy steadily over the 30 or so years that I’ve been at the University of Manitoba and it is a passion of mine to discover how voices work, and especially how voices ‘bloom’. What makes a voice open up to more freedom and joy in singing! That’s the basis of my current research project.
When you start a research project, it usually begins with a ‘hunch’ – something that suggests itself as a possibility that intrigues you. It has long been my suspicion that the voice department at the Desautels Faculty of Music in Winnipeg is ‘punching above its weight’. With a student body of around 290, it consistently supplies top-notch singers to opera houses around the world. Our Faculty populates the community with stellar teachers, conductors, cantors, directors, recitalists, broadcasters, and leaders in the arts. Our reach goes beyond provincial and national boundaries, and we regularly see applicants from British Columbia to Newfoundland, students who want to brave our winters and enter our voice programs. Chances are, Darryl Edwards of the University of Toronto is right when he said: “Whatever you’re doing out there, it seems to be working!” So if that’s true, then what is it? What are we doing that makes the difference? Is it in the water? There is definitely something special going on here vocally that merits a deeper look at the principles and practices that have shaped our vocal programs.
We are also fortunate to be situated in a city with a rich cultural life and plenty of Mennonites whose lifeblood is singing. But what else? What are the factors that have contributed to the success of singers in our programs? These questions led to the desire to search out the possibility for a systematic study.
So in August of 2013 I attended the annual conference of the research group AIRS (Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing. AIRS is directed by Psychology professor Annabel Cohen who invited me to become a collaborator in this project. One collaboration that has developed is my shared research plans with Dr. Jane Ginsborg, at the Royal Northern College of Music, in Manchester.
The study is part phenomenological and part ‘practitioner research’. ‘Phenomenology’ is the study of ‘lived experience’. “Practitioner research’ is another name for “Action Research”, and is what teachers do all the time as they adjust their teaching methods based on the results that they get. Information, or ‘data’ will be collected about our lived experience. Our stories about our successes will reflect the perceptions and lived experience of voice teachers and voice students in the Desautels Faculty of Music. I have designed a research project that provides a way for the community of singers at the Desautels Faculty of Music to create a pool of knowledge that can be shared with one another. The research design will provide a summary of results for everyone, but it will do so in a way that also protects the privacy and confidentiality of everyone. That’s part of the ethics of doing research.
The purpose of the study is to understand the lived experience of these breakthroughs through the stories of the students experiencing them, and I wondered if these factors could include some surprising or diverse things. Just to name a few by way of example, these factors could include: aspects of technique being taught, practice habits, interpersonal influences, imitation (of a live or recorded voice), voice program structure requirements or expectations, pressures, removal of pressures, the culture of learning surrounding you, values (explicit and implicit), inspiring role models, personal choices or decisions made, physical gestures utilized, outside help sought, youtube influences, skype lessons, acting classes, movement classes, yoga, books or articles read, master classes taken or observed, random ideas from unlikely sources, inspiration from fellow students, abstinence from a particular food or drink or drug, speech therapy, a change in lifestyle, or ANY stimulus or combination of stimuli believed to have influenced the change. It’s interesting to dig deep and think about what might have contributed to the breakthrough, and it is important that students feel free to explore the truth in an unpressured atmosphere.
1) How would you define a vocal breakthrough?
2) Can you describe a vocal breakthrough you experienced?
3) What were the circumstances (e.g. alone during practice, alone during performance, individual lesson with regular teacher, class with regular teacher, class with another teacher, public master class etc.)?
4) What was going on for you during the period leading up to the breakthrough, in relation to your singing?
5) In what way does the breakthrough influence your singing today?
6) On the basis of the experience you’ve described, what do you think made it possible for you to have your breakthrough?
Teachers also had an opportunity to share their expertise through describing their experiences of breakthroughs in themselves and their students.
The research also discusses what the current vocal literature and scientific studies say about vocal breakthroughs. Through reading all the research results it is hoped that you too can explore and discover the authentic reasons why you have made the progress you have. The vocal journey is an exciting one!
 Nikki Einfeld, Gregory Dahl, Phillip Ens, Adriana Chuchman, Ileana Montalbetti to name a few rising stars.