Guruism - a Stain on the Teaching Profession

If you're up at 4am, you may as well be productive, right?

Teachers, of great knowledge and none, can perhaps be divided into three different types:

1) The Dictator
2) The Guide
3) The Facilitator

The dictator is a dying breed, perhaps even alien to some of us. They are the teacher who thinks "Do what I say, when I say it, and not before. Only ask the right questions. If you don't get it then you must be stupid". Sometimes they will say these things as well. These are the school teachers of our past, and in some places, our present. I remember an English teacher at school once dictating to me "You'll never amount to anything. I'm a genius: I have a degree from University which certifies me as a genius". I thought it was bullshit then, and low and behold - it was!
 The good thing about Dictators however, is that their system inevitably leads to one outcome: Revolution. Sometimes the revolution is against their pedagogy, sometimes against their knowledge, occasionally against them personally. It is no walk in the park learning under a dictator, but unless you're crushed under their heel, then your drive in acquisition of impartial knowledge going forward is often greatly increased.

The Guide in mainstream education is a relatively new phenomena , though it's routes are perhaps the oldest of all methods of teaching. They take the student by the hand and lead (sometimes drag) them through their amassed knowledge, or the doctrine to which they subscribe. They think "Do what I say because I know this shit and it will be good for you. There may be many ways of doing things, but my way is right/the best. If you don't get it then you're not ready to receive this wisdom". These teachers are everywhere, in many different forms. They think because they are leading the student, as a parent with a child, that they are nurturing them; though their love is not unconditional, and they can drop you in a heartbeat if not happy with your progression.  
 The usual indicator of someone being a Guide is that you often remember what they've said/the soundbites, but have little to no grasp of the knowledge unless you stuck with them to the end. They love having a "big reveal" at the end: this might be a secret key which unlocks the whole of your learning, it might be their approval or acceptance of you as an equal who is ready to lead others, or it may be a revealing of who they actually are "I was mean/nice/cryptic/specific/distant/close so that would would amass this wisdom the right way". 
 Often, you might think they're a complete bell-end, but you respect them for the knowledge they have and their desire to (sort of) share it.

Then we have the Facilitator, that's who many of us aspire to be or think we are already. They think "Do and say what you want, I have my own ideas but they might be wrong... I want to do this with you today, but again my ideas might be wrong... I'm not going to judge you based on your ability to embody of regurgitate the knowledge I've shared". It's a big ask to be a facilitator, and there's precious few of them around. People really have to pull some big shit to be taught by a dictator and become a facilitator, because subconsciously they're always battling against the repression they were taught under. The danger is they end up in Permanent Revolution, and whilst established power structures are eradicated, progression is largely down to chance rather than established pedagogy. 
 There is a middle ground for the Facilitator of course; one in which they can be strong enough to lead in a space where they know they might not be right, or in which they are confident that the student will find their own way if supported - that they will learn to walk on their own.

Are you thinking "Hang on, you've written three paragraphs and haven't mentioned Guruism once..."? Don't worry, we're on track!   

Guruism in teaching comes from two distinct strands:

1) Knowledge/Tradition
2) Self-assurance/ego

To address the first, this blog post is not an attack on traditions or our learning from them. Our cultural makeups are built on tradition. However, guruists (I make the definition of "guruist/ism" as I am addressing something specific in pedagogic terms, not attacking Gurus of particular faiths/ideologies - this is much more about people who think they're gurus than those who actually are), so reliant on the esoteric idea that there are universal truths only to be revealed by hidden knowledge, forget that traditions EVOLVE. Traditions keep that which is pleasurable or helpful (for whom is another matter), and replace or renege those which are not.

The second is obvious - to believe that your shit is absolute and that you have all the answers you've got to be a billy-big-bollocks or at least believe you are. The reality often of course is that this air of "master", the idea you are the keeper of hidden knowledge to impart to the faithful is often covering MASSIVE personal insecurities, and this is painfully obvious to the students, regardless of how much the teacher thinks they're hiding it.

Fundamentally, it is the Guide who is most guilty of guruism in the teaching world. They are actually the direct result of, and are extremely close to the Dictator; it's just that their methods have varied. The Dictators love Guides, because although they might seem a bit hippy-dippy, they nonetheless continue to cement knowledge and snub evolution, moreover revolution. The tragically hilarious thing is that Guides often believe they are actually Facilitators, and even publicly profess to be so. 

The main point to all this is not that guruists annoy me personally, it is that they are actively DANGEROUS. The voice world is awash with them, chiefly because there are so many (and growing) numbers of "established" practices/methods, all with their own doctrine, all with their own brand of esoteric nonsense supposedly backing it up. Don't get me wrong, these are to greater and lesser degrees, and some practices are evolving; but if the political and philosophical thinking underpinning them are only capable of bending but not changing, then it's all just still just farting in the wind. Let me give you some examples of what I've heard, seen and witnessed. I won't give names but will separate different methods by numbers...

Top Tip 1: Spending 10 minutes guffing about how amazing old master X was (don't get me wrong, I'm sure they were lovely: a good teacher, and a knowledgeable person), does little or nothing to support your teaching or my learning, especially if you make an extended point about how lucky the few of you who knew them personally to be affected by their teaching were. Principally it makes your student feel a) There is a master whose shit does not stink and whose level of understanding we can never attain b) That hero worship is helpful or necessary in order to engage with this work c) Not to question any of this because it came from a lovely old person who was your friend who has since died (i.e. how could you be so heartless as to say/ask that?). 

Top Tip(s) 2: When being an authority on where the jaw should "naturally" sit, try checking your student physiologically and cross referencing your understanding with a dentist before acting like your knowledge is gospel. When giving out instructions for massage techniques from other disciplines, check they're not only for skilled professionals as they include a risk of inducing miscarriage. Don't tell young women who you are training "You're only speaking like that because you think you're sexually attractive to men, but you're not, men don't find that attractive" - I mean, what the hell do you know, and how is that even within your remit? Don't publicly infer that laughter and/or fatigue at your ballsology is a mark against the student's commitment to engaging with your work. 

Top Tip 3: Don't define what language your student uses to define their experience. You stray back into the land of the Dictator, and serve no one but your own ego. "This is the level of language we're using at this level" is not an acceptable reasoning, it just makes you an oppressor, despite your guruistic veneer.

Top Tip 4: Never laugh off a student's experience because it doesn't conform to your methodology or world view. "Hahaha, don't be silly" would likely result in physical violence in another setting, don't believe it's ok to get away with it in a classroom because you're far less likely to get a pool cue wrapped around your head.

Top Tip 5: If you genuinely think a client or student is "unteachable" or "not worth bothering with" maybe question why you took them on? If you can't teach them something, is it their problem or yours?

All the above come from certified "Master" teachers in their different methods teaching in top institutions in the UK, and USA. And the reason all the above happened (the thinnest edge of a very large wedge)? Guruism. The belief that you know best and your method has the ultimate answers. Guess what? It doesn't. 

Ultimately the sun is going to supernova and gobble up our little planet. Eventually gravity will crush everything in the universe into dust. Nothing is forever. In 200 years, nobody will even know we were here, short of a few nerdy historians, and far less who we were. If you believe in everything making sense in the end/an afterlife/the big reveal/esoterics/hidden knowledge, then all the more reason you should stop being a complete toss-pot and let it all go and SHARE your knowledge freely whilst seeking to EXPAND the knowledge you have currently amassed. Just think: although it works for you, everything you say and how you say it MIGHT be (and probably is) COMPLETE TOSH.

I'll try and provide some solutions for combating guruism in your practise in another post.

Take Me Home To Mayo

Wow, what a roller-coaster since that weekend in Cahersiveen, which was a long and bloody brilliant weekend I have to say! I ended up going on a jolly up the west coast for a couple of weeks, handily meeting friends and seeing sights often inaccessible by public transport (I only learnt to drive earlier this year so my new found liberty of movement is all still a bit of a novelty)...

From Cahersiveen I first headed to Dingle, supposed home of some of the best trad in Ireland. The reality? One of the most over-hyped places I've ever been, the hitch-hikers I picked up en-route and when leaving being of more interest than the stay. I stayed at the Grapevine Hostel, which I'd recommend if you do go however - lovely staff, and clean/cosy beds made for some comfort at least. The main problem is that the town is wall to wall with American tourists and the whole economy apparently serves this. If you're not balling down a bar asking if you can bring X number of people in for food, you're unlikely to be served, and the music; far from the trad paradise I had been told of so often, was two or three to a bar bands through a PA. Few sessions, and the pubs are all empty by half 10 because the Americans seemingly can't handle the pace. I stayed on a Wednesday/Thursday night and only one bar was open after 11 - something distinctly unheard of in other such centres of population in Ireland.

Hey-ho, I headed up to Galway for a few days, stopping off for a bit of fishing in Listowel and taking the Tarbert ferry for a drive up through Clare. Galway is grand enough for the friends I've got there, but I find the music scene a touch pretentious - lots of people so awash with hero worship of musicians that they don't actually play anything, or they spend 20mins discussing a set to play, trying to gauge if their tunes are hip enough for whoever is sat in with them. In short, minimal craic! The great musicians of course don't give a hoot what's played, and would join anyone in any tune they play, but Irish trad breeds a selective clique of weirdos, otherwise known as "purists". I got some great tunes on the Sunday night at An Droighnean Donn in Spiddal however - definitely a friendly place worth visiting for good relaxed tunes. The herring fishing is good here in the summer too, it would seem.

From there, I connected with a family friend in Oughterard before heading up through Connemara for a few days in Westport, Co. Mayo. I lived just outside the town for a few months just over a decade ago when working with a somewhat questionable Children's Theatre company. Having loved it so much then, I've no idea why it took me so long to return. Westport is a great town, mid-sized/small but thriving - and with good independent shops too. Big enough to have everything you need, but small enough not to be overwhelmed. Community spirit is quite awesome in the town, volunteers can be seen regularly sweeping the streets or cleaning the river, and everyone has a "hello" for you. The music is great too, with sessions on every night of the week and enough variety to suit most tastes. 

After a few days I headed to meet up with a friend and talented singer/musician Paddy Shannon in Enniskillen, Fermanagh. For the first time ever, approaching the border I found myself feeling a general sense of dread and foreboding.  Coloured by my experiences in Armagh City and Belfast the previous year, and having done no research on the place, I feared the worse... My fears were allayed thankfully, the general vibe from the town and it's inhabitants being far more positive, and far less openly racist, than other areas I have visited in Northern Ireland. I also got some very tasty tunes in Blakes of the Hollow, with great lift and tremendous speed (ableit a little cramped).

I'd planned to stay in Donegal for a week or so, having only explored the northern part of it a few years ago after the fleadh in Derry when I went to Buncranna and Culdaff. After a day in Donegal Town, one in Letterkenny, and a few tunes on a back road to Glenties however, I'd had enough. "Where are you from?" is the same loaded and intrusive question (read "accusation") it is in parts of Armagh, Belfast, and elsewhere. This really saddened me, as it's the only time I've come across such behaviour in the Republic. It left a sour taste that even the welcoming of the session at Sandino's in Derry couldn't lift so I thought "ach well, what the hell, I may as well return to where the craic's 90, right"?

And so back to Westport for a few days for tunes, theatre, cinema, and new friends made. I realised what I'd been missing all these years and so have jumped with both feet and moved here. It's the best decision I've made for a long time - there's lots of work available and a commute to Dublin for the occasional client/audition/gig isn't such a burden. West Cork has been great - the first time I've lived in a village has been long enough to appreciate it, and long enough to realise it's not for me. Lovely people, and a beautiful place, but very little work (and no broadband makes it even more difficult to generate it). 

So here I am home in Mayo, and in that, somewhere I can genuinely see myself establishing a long-term base! 

Apologies for absence

Hello hive mind! This is just a quick note to say sorry I haven't been posting here, and to assure you there is much to follow. When I started this site I had grand ideas for my blog to be a pool of specific and intensive thinking, a space to demonstrate the nuanced prowess of my intellect (hah)! Clearly however, I'm either too slow or too lazy to churn out such info on a regular basis. So I've resigned myself to post things in a more free-flowing form: I'm not going to edit aside from spelling and grammar, I'm not going to shy away from the controversial for sake of appearing professional, and I'm going to allow myself to rant about voice, politics, music, and acting!

NEWS

- Everything has been ticking over nicely in West Cork. Saint Patrick's Day was extremely busy, with several gigs in local pubs and a great party at Deer Park nursing home in Bantry. I was also honoured to be asked to sing as a session musician at Ocean Studios for top music producer Wayne Sheehy recently, on a nice little project commissioned by a fella writing a song to honour his father. It's a lovely space to work in, and Wayne is not only an exceptional musician and arranger, but a thoroughly lovely man to boot. So impressed am I by his workmanship, I'm even thinking about making an album myself at long last!

- In the voice world, I've been fortunate enough to be asked to present at the VASTA conference The Art of Story Telling in Singapore this August. Being awarded a scholarship by VASTA to help me attend is the icing on the cake, and I am indebted to the organisation for their financial assistance. 

- May Day discounts! In honour of International Workers Day, I'm offering special discounts to trade unions and their members throughout the month of May on all voice and music services. Simply add your trade union affiliation and membership number to the form when messaging me in the contact section of this website :-)

 

An open letter to Prof. Gavin Henderson CBE

I wrote this a few weeks ago. As I didn't receive a direct reply, I thought I may as well share it here...

 

Dear Mr Henderson,

I graduated in December and attended the ceremony at the Southbank. It was a good event, until the end, where a particular part of your speech (or lack of it) both amazed and offended me.

You spoke at length to give your thanks to the various institutions which help RCSSD by their continued and increasing financial support and contributions. You also made a point of thanking the assembled audience (who had payed through the nose to attend the event) for their support. Why then I wonder, where one may have saved the most important thanks for last, you chose to simply ignore the several hundred students sat in front of you? Have their financial contributions in fees not registered as noteworthy enough to feature in your speech? Has their commitment to being attached to what (for the majority) is likely a lifetime of debt not a big enough sacrifice to give thanks for?

Your contemporary from the University of London talked passionately for the need for us, we academics and artists, to be a "counter-culture" to the world's problems. I wonder if either he or yourself understand the irony of championing a counter culture to the ignorance in the world today, an ignorance expedited primarily by rich white men over poor, disillusioned, debt-ridden people, when you yourself stand there and seemingly refuse to acknowledge the financial hardships endured by the students of RCSSD to fund, in part, your own six-figure salary?

From talk by guest speakers of working class people "bettering" themselves through academia, to the hypocrisy of other speeches as highlighted above, I am saddened to not be able to take pride in graduating from the institution, so much as relieved I have survived it.

I hope in the future you may more actively consider and acknowledge the financial burdens which students take on in support of their studies. Without doing so, and without seemingly recognising your own financial privilege, I fear your desire to spearhead a counter-culture will be short lived.  

Yours Sincerely,
Daniel Gott
MFA Voice Studies

Escaping London - effects on the body and voice

The last few months have been an interesting time for me...

After 12 years of London as a base I've decided to jump ship and emigrate to Ireland. Life in one of the best cities in the world through my 20's has been great fun, but I'm ready to tone things down and once again embrace the small town living which I longed to escape as a teenager. 

To that end I've been back in Yorkshire for a few months, learning to drive (essential for life in Ireland) and spending some quality time with family and friends. Yorkshire has plenty of clean air and small towns, but to add great music and craic to the list I need to get to Ireland - and with Brexit around the corner, sooner rather than later!

From being back up north, the effect on my voice and spine have been noticeable. Both are essential as a performer and teacher, so care and knowledge of these is essential to best working practise. 

Firstly, within a matter of weeks of being back, my voice dropped. This isn't the usual accent adjustment you'd find moving to a home region after being away (usually a change in tone rather than pitch), but a drop in the habitual voice level by three of four notes. Essentially, this is a result of relaxation of the laryngeal muscles - the cause? No, not the various muscle release techniques (direct and indirect) favoured by so many acting and voice teachers, but just from escaping the madness of London, "The Big Smoke". I wonder, is having the vast majority of acting conservatoires in London conducive to the most efficient models of movement and voice training? Much as I have my reservations about Linklater training (a distinct understatement), I can nonetheless appreciate why Kristin conducts her training in beautiful Scottish countryside. After so may years of cramped tube travel (the metro), striving to get through crowds, and appalling air quality; my habitual pitch had simply become that slight bit higher - both by necessity of needing to be heard, and by slight tensions in the vocal tract from the general stresses of living in the capital.

Secondly, I've noticed a big difference on my posture and spine. This has been positive in day to day use - the space in even a busy city Yorkshire shopping street being akin to a quiet day in even a suburban London high street, thus allowing a freedom in use of my full width and height. At 6' 4'' (1.93cm) I'm fairly tall so it's been a great relief to avoid the daily stooping in small underground carriages. However this has proved problematic in learning to drive! Surely a body awareness course should be available to sit alongside all driving tuition? So many vehicles, all different shapes and sizes, with different force needed by arms, legs, and feet to operate them...
 After the first lesson is was my knees which felt strange, asking them to be positioned and used in a manner I'd not done in the previous 31 years. It was almost as if my knees were twisted, like I could feel my Popliteus muscle for the first time (this connects the back of the Tibia to the outside of the Femur). Of course, this got better after only a few lessons, but until now the main issue had been driving in cars too small for me, ones where I had to hunch/crick my neck slightly to ensure that my head wasn't pressed hard against the roof of the vehicle. After a four hour lesson before my test I knew I'd pulled or knotted a muscle, likely my Iliocostalis (cervical part) or Longissimus Cervicis (these connect from between the shoulder blade and spine up to the same side of the neck) - and painful it was too! Every lesson required spinal work afterwards, and I may still even go for a deep tissue massage even now, to be sure. 

But hey-ho I passed my test first time, am now fully mobile (a strange feeling after so many years of depending on lifts/public transport), and have a vehicle with plenty of head room so am rid of the posture problems plaguing me for the past few weeks. Hooray!

I'd be interested to hear thoughts from tutors on this matter, driving position must have an enormous effect on our student's posture and use of spine, and until now wasn't something I suppose I'd considered much.

Have you posture or back pain problems from driving? Do you know you get tense in your neck when using your voice? Driving may be a cause, and a massage might be a relief, but training yourself in body awareness is undoubtedly the best full time solution. I've been fortunate to study both Alexander and Feldenkrais techniques and would recommend either. These are minimum effort (though require strong/specific focus) practises which will help many people, and certainly any performer. Search online for a practitioner or group class in your area and give it a go!

For Alexander teachers/classes look here or here.
For Feldenkrias teachers/classes try here or here (UK).

And if you want to try something without paying, have a go at these short, free, online Feldenkrais lessons here.

Thanks for reading, comments very welcome.

At last, a Website!

Many years on my to do list, but it's finally here - any comments for tweaks and improvements are very welcome! I've always known a website would be a difficult undertaking, explaining you have more than one profession is never easy, but I really couldn't handle keeping tabs on three different websites. Big thanks to Rebecca Gausnell for recommending Sqaurespace, I'm not a technophobe but design is not my forte. What a breeze then to find a website creator which does all the hard work for me. I'd certainly recommend trying it if you're in the market for one. And it's got me writing a blog of all things... can't be that bad then I suppose.

So, onwards and upwards! 

... I wonder if a "free money" tag will get anyone to read this?