Balancing the triangle

Not every student at Monkton can sing. But every one of them knows that once they are ready to learn, all they have to do is ask, and I will help them to find their voice. As a result, I always have several students at any one time who form part of my unofficial ‘research programme’ into what it is which causes people to declare themselves unable to sing. And believe me, the supply is almost endless…. so much more fun than teaching those who already have all the answers!

Today, in less than half an hour, Ollie (year 13) found his voice. When a student has plucked up the courage to hunt me down and declare his desire to learn to sing, I am always eager to discover what exactly it is which has been holding him back. Because it is invariably one or more of the elements in this triangle:


To be honest, Ollie was an easy fix. He told me that he used to sing in church before his voice changed, so I was confident that we could immediately eliminate critical listening from our enquiries! I asked him to sing me a note; anything, but something in his ‘lazy’ range. [Strangely, even as he took a breath, I somehow knew that he was going to sing a B flat!] It sounded pretty close to the bottom of his range, so we explored a few other close-by notes, and he sang each of them back to me with ease. So far so good.

There is a wonderful description in Peak (2016) by Anders Ericsson, where he describes learning as being like adding a new step to the top of our staircase. Each new step is an exciting adventure because we’ve never been there before – and this is where the best learning takes place. I explain this to Ollie, but it’s unnecessary – he’s here this afternoon because he’s already decided that he wants to step out into the unknown. Good lad!

Ollie tells me that it’s the higher notes which worry him, and that he’s never sung them because his voice might crack. We’re going to need a little more energy to climb higher up the scale, aka support. So we use a few kinaesthetic gestures to help him find it. F is going to need an emphatic hand thrown out in front of him, whilst A is both hands, perhaps imagining shooting a jet of fire up through the ceiling, super-hero style! I can see it cross his mind – this might not work! But already I know that this is going to end well. He has been missing two elements in his triangle – support and confidence; fixing the first of these has literally taken one minute, simply to explain that he needs more energy to make things work, and the kinaesthetic games have helped him to make this connection in a matter of moments. All of this is, of course, inextricably linked with confidence; it’s going to take some courage to commit to a few notes with real energy. But his confidence is filling up very fast!

So with a few vibrant hand gestures, he’s singing tenor F, up to A, and then middle C [laser beam, looking straight down the sights of his index finger!] What’s interesting is that at the first attempt at each note, he stops himself just before committing – he’s about to sing, and then I can see him thinking again, this might not work. But just a little encouragement, and some energetic gestures, are enough to persuade him to go for it, and each time his voice then arrives loud and clear, and beautifully in tune. Job done!

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