Singing Experts IV: The Culture of Experts

Trumpet

This is part three of a series of articles about singing expertise. I recommend you read part one here, part two here and part three here if you haven’t already.

If you’re not already nodding your head in agreement with the idea of specialist tacit knowledge, then you might be wondering what the big deal is. The big deal is this:

The essential stuff of expertise is held within the culture of experts itself rather than the facts and figures and rules presented in related literature.

For me, this is important because there are lots of consequences resulting from these ideas that can change how you perceive expertise and how to acquire it.

First, let’s think more deeply about what expertise means.

The Practical Nature of Expertise or “If you have to ask…”

First, by gaining expertise, we’re not merely becoming experts in the eyes of others. We’re learning real skills, and these skills often exist only within groups of experts who already practice them.

I believe the idea, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know” is relevant here. It’s pessimistic (“never” is too strong), but the saying contains the idea that asking someone to explain a culture to you just won’t be enough. The paraphrased quote comes from Fats Waller, who had been asked to explain jazz. How can jazz be explained when it’s cultural and the aggregation of many unconscious attributes? Beyond specific scales, improvisation and other jazz-sounding buzzwords, there is so much else in the culture of jazz.

And if you actually want to be an expert in jazz, what then? An expert in jazz would be able to play jazz with other experts (contributory) or otherwise be able to function in some other form of expertise related to it (interactional). You’d have to spend time with other jazz experts to get there.

So when we think of many professions, we’re thinking of cultures of experts. Through working with one another, these experts have created a culture of evolving skills that define expertise in that field. Expertise seen in this light is non-static. It keeps evolving with the culture. Some of these cultures, such as classical singing, have expert communities that stretch back for centuries and contain centuries’ worth of unconscious information and evolution embedded therein.

Sure enough, in Collins’ view, these skills exist for practical ends:

As has been intimated, expertise is now seen more and more as something practical—something based in what you can do rather than what you can calculate or learn.1

That’s an important idea. If we ask ourselves “What can I do?” rather than “What do I know?” we can get a stronger sense of our expertise. In fact, if we have an expertise, it might be quite narrow based on this test of practicality. That’s fine. You might be an expert of your own voice but not quite an expert of a particular repertoire.

Additionally, to do a great many things requires being able to work with other people. Can you realistically call yourself an expert in a field if you can’t work with other experts in that field? That ability is made up of the ubiquitous skills of life (manners and native language), but then there are the professional skills (both spoken and tacit) that are required to function in a specialist environment. In the case of classical singing, there are all sorts of traditions and norms we hold on to that are unspoken cultural rules.

If you walk into an opera theater, you’ll see many unconscious cultural norms that exist amongst experts. Some of the skills these experts have are conscious, but many are not. For example, watch the communication between a singer and conductor. Much of that is unconscious. Yes, there are the “rules” and patterns that we all learn in college, but there are also the small gestures that unconsciously communicate some common human idea. There are a range of physical motions that singers tend to associate with vocal qualities. The conductor shares a twitch of an eye or a wrist, and we singers just know what to do. Who explicitly taught us those things? And could a book explain it to someone who’s never lived it?

Values

I can’t speak for other disciplines, but I can imagine that this is true across many disciplines: the move from novice to expert is one that is not only full of skill acquisition, but also values acquisition. The values of classical singing are not ubiquitous. Pop music values are closer to being ubiquitous, which is why it’s pop(ular) music. I’ve met plenty of people who seemed to understand the values of pop music with little to no formal training. Nevertheless, there are still musical values that have to be learned there as well. Try explaining how important a metronome is to many beginning pop or rock musicians, and you’ll see what I mean.

Many classical values must be learned unless you grow up with lots of classical music. What types of values are these? Elegance. Consistency. Beauty. Restraint. Worldliness. Patience. Chiaroscuro. Evenness. Legato. And others.

Yuck. These words are deficient, just like “improvisation” is insufficient to explain jazz. Words alone cannot personify the ideas behind them as well as learning directly from an expert. Oftentimes, describing the values in this way can sound like an insult or a negative. Someone might hear “elegance” and put on a snobby attitude based on their interpretation of the word. But the sight of someone you admire embodying classical singing is what makes language become three-dimensional.

The values of the art become bigger than words can hold. They have to be expressed.

Amazingly, a common thing I’ve heard from voice teachers and students is that asking a true novice student to impersonate an opera singer results in immediate better singing. The teacher tries to explain several rules to the novice, which don’t work, but as soon as the novice has a model to emulate – built around traits they aren’t fully conscious of – they improve. They might feel silly when they do it, but that’s irrelevant.

Thus, we learn these values by seeing people embody them and by working directly with those people. Once the values are learned, then the necessary skills (breathing, registration, etc) make sense as goals. Without the values, it’s unclear why those things are so important. “I can hit those notes, can’t I? Hear how fast I can sing! Hear how loud I am!”

The Choice to Become an Expert

When one wishes, therefore, to become an expert in a field, it is an acknowledgement that expertise exists, that one isn’t already an expert and that one is ready to try to become part of the community of experts. It is not an acknowledgement that experts are always right, you know, but since expertise is non-static, you can try to join that rolling community of shared knowledge.

It requires turning to other people to learn the ropes, so to speak.

In piano lessons, students learn how experts have learned to move their fingers. They learn how to use their bodies and think about the music. They learn tricks of the trade and practical information that simply isn’t contained in literature, and, even if it were, it would be mostly useless because a book can’t give feedback. And they learn about being an expert pianist in unconscious ways by being around expert pianists.

Students learning a foreign language have to speak with people who already know the language. They can read grammar books and dictionaries all day, but it still won’t work because the community of language speakers do their own thing. You can’t know it until you’re a part of it. Scary.

If we don’t want to get too involved, then we might read about it, hoping to be such brilliant autodidacts that we can skip interacting with other humans and looking stupid while we learn. According to what I’m citing in this series, however, that just isn’t enough. It sets up a situation where someone can believe they are an expert and then be shot down once they are actually exposed to experts. Think about it: would you be a jazz expert if you just read about it? What if you only listened to recordings and never watched expert musicians play? What if you watched but never spoke to or played alongside those players? How much are you missing by not directly interacting with experts? Probably a lot.

Of course, none of this eliminates independent study as an activity. Nor does it eliminate the usefulness of reading, solo practice or conscious learning as important endeavors. We do need alone time to process what we’ve learned and try to incorporate it or to learn new ideas that we can test out later. But learning alone and practicing alone aren’t enough on their own if expertise is the goal. We have to dive in with people who are better than us.

With all this in mind, next time I’ll list the types of singing experts as I see them. Thanks for sticking with me this far.


  1. Collins, Harry (2007-10-01). Rethinking Expertise (p. 23). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition. ↩


Photo by Jameziecakes under a Creative Commons Attribute Generic 2.0 license.

“Can Your Friends Do This?”

Robin Williams: A Personal Reflection

When I was around 9 or 10 – maybe earlier, but I’m not sure – I began singing in my room. Ours was a singing family anyway, so it’s not surprising that I would do it as well, but back then I didn’t listen to a ton of popular music besides Michael Jackson.

Instead, I listened to and sang along mostly with tapes of Disney scores. I was one of the fortunate children who were alive, very young and impressionable during Disney’s wonderful string of animated successes The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. I enjoyed them all, but Aladdin was the absolute tops. Why?

Robin Williams was Genie.

Thinking about it now, it’s not really surprising that so much of what I love about singing was inspired by a singing actor rather than a “singer”. “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” were thrilling and hilarious. Listening now, I am still impressed by just how much variety he inserts into every word, and I still laugh and marvel. Beyond that, these songs just made me happy. I fantasized about singing them for people (my elementary school, honestly), even though I knew that I couldn’t single-handedly sing every part by myself.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wanted to be the Genie. Singing in my room, I parsed the words and tried to sing every line (why else would a ten year old learn “genuflect”?) I never thought of it as something I would do professionally, I just wanted to bring the joy that I felt to more people for its own sake. I’m sure there were plenty of other children who wanted the same.

Fast forward. On Saturday, several days before his death, my wife and I were discussing Disney, and we considered what Aladdin would have been without Robin Williams. More than any of the other famous voice actors Disney has employed (Lion King was especially full), Robin Williams thoroughly dominated Aladdin. The lyrics seemed tailored to his strengths, and it looked like a mutually reinforcing relationship existed between him and the writers. Aladdin without Robin Williams would have been something entirely different. I just can’t imagine it.

Continuing, we moved on to his standup and discussed how it was brilliant, but there was a sad and worrisome edge at times. It was like he was combatting invisible monsters with humor, and if he stopped they’d catch him. Or maybe he was afraid that everyone would stop loving him. Rebekah said she sometimes just wanted to stop him and say, “It’s ok, we like you,” but we knew that would have likely had little effect.

I’m sure the loving people in his life said just that and more, but sometimes it’s not enough. He probably knew that we all loved him and wanted the best for him, but that’s not a cure for depression and addiction. It is painful to think that someone who gave people so much joy – such immense influential profound joy – suffered so much inside, and we on the outside are so impotent in trying to help. It is one of the great unsettling ironies of life and should give us pause in many of our assumptions about the nature of success.

I was and am a fan, but I’m not going to go into the rest of his considerable work, because others can do it better. I’ll leave it at this: Robin Williams is one of the reasons I even pursued performing. If a performer could make an audience feel as good as he made me feel when I listened to Aladdin, then that’s what I wanted to do. Yes, there are valuable lessons to learn from his death, but I’d prefer that he were still here. He was such a gift to all of us, and I wish we could have returned that gift and filled him with the amount of collective joy that he gave us.

Thank you and farewell.

Singing Experts III: Specialists

This is part three of a series of articles about singing expertise. I recommend you read part one here and part two here if you haven’t already.

Last time, we discussed the idea that expertise is rooted in a social process where the chief acquisition is “tacit knowledge”. This idea comes from the books Are We All Scientific Experts Now? and Rethinking Expertise by Harry Collins. We also looked at a breakdown of types of experts into three broad groups of “ubiquitous”, “specialist” and “meta” expertise. Let’s go further and look at the “specialists” since this is what concerns us most for singing.

What is a Specialist?

Specialists have acquired expertise that is not ubiquitous. That sounds obvious, but when we remember that skills exist for which there is ubiquitous expertise (such as manners or one’s native language), then specialism itself stands in starker relief. For example, I might be a ubiquitous expert in speaking English simply because it’s my native tongue, but I’m not a specialist in it. An English teacher who teaches English speakers would be a teaching specialist because not everyone has the requisite skills, thus making it non-ubiquitous. Collins describes it:

Specialist expertise is what is possessed by a doctor, a concert violinist, a carpenter, a physicist, a mathematician, a truck driver, an engineer and so on. ‘Specialists’ are mostly what people, including professional psychologists, are thinking of when they talk of experts.[1]

He then breaks down specialists into a further five categories beneath two larger umbrella categories.

Ubiquitous Tacit Knowledge

The first three constitute a group who are not quite professional experts. He labels them as having “Ubiquitous Tacit Knowledge”. These are based on the ability to read about a subject[2], but one could easily think of these as levels of knowledge that a layperson might have:

  1. Beer-Mat Knowledge: A light understanding of a subject roughly equivalent to whatever information could fit on a beer mat. Trivia falls into this category.[3]
  2. Popular understanding is based on summaries in science magazines, TV shows, or books. Those of us who aren’t specialists in a field probably have popular understanding about a variety of scientific subjects. It is, however, nuance-less in many respects.[4]
  3. Primary source knowledge comes from reading scholarly articles directly. This might be difficult as a layperson, but it is possible. What this doesn’t do is lend any kind of context to the articles. There are a set of standards against which articles are judged by the scientific/professional community that are simply unavailable to those who aren’t directly a part of it.[5] A singing equivalent would be someone who chooses to not find a teacher but instead reads the works of Garcia, Miller and Coffin hoping that those works will teach them to sing.

The above three groups are not scientific/professional-grade experts. I don’t believe that the above types of expertise are worthless. We all have subjects about which we are mildly or deeply interested but in which we are not experts. Many of us have opinions backed by real information on medicine, astronomy, fitness and so on that help us determine how to live our lives. After all, we can’t become experts in everything, and we can’t consult experts for every choice.

But we aren’t professional-grade experts in those subjects. It’s hard and verging on impossible to judge the validity of two equally plausible theories accurately when one lacks expertise therein. Just look at public debates about conflicting weight loss strategies. Non-experts can easily become enchanted with an idea because from a distance the uncertainty of experts regarding their own ideas gets lost.[6] Additionally, we should be cautious second-guessing actual experts in these fields. If one of our opinions based on our “popular understanding” or “primary source knowledge” is refuted by a expert specialist, then we should reevaluate our opinion at the very least.

Specialist Tacit Knowledge

The final two groups have “Specialist Tacit Knowledge”:

  1. Interactional expertise comes from spending time with other experts and becoming part of a community of experts. People with this level have learned “to master the language of a specialist domain in the absence of practical knowledge.”
  2. Contributory expertise comes from those who – as the name suggests – contribute to a field directly. This is the most obvious form of expertise, and it comes from learning how things are done via formal training or apprenticeship in addition to spending time with other experts.[7]

You can think of the above two groups as having professional level expertise, and you can picture these categories in a [table] like this:

Ubiquitous Tacit KnowledgeSpecialist Tacit Knowledge
Beer-mat knowledgePopular understandingPrimary Source KnowledgeInteractional ExpertiseContributory Expertise

Synthesis

This breakdown of specialist expertise has really spoken to me. I’d always had a sense that there was a difference between someone who’d read a lot about a subject compared to someone who’d worked directly with other experts, but I couldn’t quite explain what that difference was.

Before I go further into the process of becoming an expert or go over the types of singing expertise, I want to discuss some of the ideas embedded in this concept of expertise a bit more and try and synthesize them. As I’ve been looking at this material, I’ve had to ask myself what I believe expertise is, and – at the very least – that’s been an enlightening process. However, I do have questions about the material itself as well, and I’m trying to avoid becoming too unrealistically enchanted with these ideas since I am at a great distance from the sociology world. Until next time!


All links to the books are Amazon Affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking one of them, then Amazon will pay me some small percentage of that.


  1. Collins, Harry (2014–03–28). Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (Kindle Locations 746–748). Wiley. Kindle Edition.  ↩

  2. Collins, Harry (2007–10–01). Rethinking Expertise (p. 24). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩

  3. Collins’ example is an explanation of holograms just long enough to fit on a beer-mat and the limitations of that knowledge:

    the explanation on the beer mat does not enable the naive reader to do anything such as make a hologram, or debate the nature of holograms, or to correct anyone’s mistakes about the nature of holograms, or to make a sensible decision about the long-term dangers associated with the unrestrained spread of holograms, or convey any information about holograms other than the formula itself.
    Collins, Harry (2007–10–01). Rethinking Expertise (p. 19). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩

  4. This is especially true in “disputed” science, where conclusions are not so clear.

    But sound judgments, or at least informed judgments, in disputed science must take account of many more of these uncertainties than popular understanding allows for. For this reason, in the case of disputed science, a level of understanding equivalent to popular understanding is likely to yield poor technical judgments.

    Collins, Harry (2007–10–01). Rethinking Expertise (p. 21). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩

  5. Why?

    Many of the papers in the professional literature are never read, so if one wants to gain something even approximating to a rough version of agreed scientific knowledge from published sources one has first to know what to read and what not to read; this requires social contact with the expert community. Reading the professional literature is a long way from understanding a scientific dispute.
    Collins, Harry (2007–10–01). Rethinking Expertise (p. 22). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩

  6. “Distance lends enchantment.”

    Collins, Harry (2007–10–01). Rethinking Expertise (pp. 6–7). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩

  7. Collins, Harry (2007–10–01). Rethinking Expertise (p. 14). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩

Singing Experts II: What Makes an Expert?

This is part two of a series of articles. You can find part one here.

When we think about expertise and experts, what is the primary trait we look for? Could there be degrees of expertise?

In Are We All Scientific Experts Now? and Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins argues for, yes, a strata of expertise based on the manner in which that expertise was gained. This is a finer grained approach of categorizing expertise than other techniques, such as the famous but somewhat binary “10,000 hour rule”, which, as Collins explains, has weaknesses that render it less useful than a more stratified approach:

The trouble is that insisting that every expertise must take 10,000 hours or more of self-conscious effort gives rise to a problem: under this model, what counts as an expertise will vary from place to place. I am a native English speaker and, because the 10K model is widespread, my English is not generally recognized as an expertise in England. But, if I go to a foreign country where English is not the native language, my English is recognized as an expertise![1]

Put another way, different types of expertise are accepted as expertise in different contexts. There is not a single type of “expert”.

Tacit Knowledge

Instead, the categories of expertise are related to the amount and the quality of someone’s interactions and experience with other experts. In this view, expertise is gained socially by acquisition of “tacit” knowledge:

Tacit knowledge is the deep understanding one can only gain through social immersion in groups who possess it…Humans have an ability to develop and maintain complex bodies of tacit knowledge in social groups that is not possessed by non-human entities.[2]

Consider the ways in which we interact with one another. Each of us are more or less experts in “getting along”. In fact, we are experts in any number of ways of interacting with other people. We speak the same language with our peers; we understand unspoken rules of engagement; and we move through our days making small choices that arise from our tacit knowledge of how to function with other people.

For example, one of the more jarring feelings of being in a foreign country is the immediate lack of that tacit knowledge. I can attest to this personally. The instincts gained from living in one’s home country don’t always apply in foreign lands. Rules of engagement that we take for granted are actually taught and reinforced unconsciously by groups interacting together, but outside of that group, the rules change.

Professional Tacit Knowledge

Now, imagine having this kind of tacit knowledge in some professional field. Collins creates the thought experiment of a city – he calls it Nobelskigrad – where everyone is a scientific expert and people grow up learning and speaking about science and interacting directly with scientists as part of their normal lives. They would become scientific experts through their upbringing, and this expertise would be ubiquitous amongst the people of the city much like language is now amongst native speakers.[3]

We could imagine a similar world as well for music and singing. Rather than it being a skill that one develops self-consciously and the possession of some elite few, it would simply be the reality of life, much as manners and language are now. But that world doesn’t exist, and musicians must become specialists.

Let’s Break it Down

He thus divides expertise into three main categories. Think of these as the left-most header column of a table:

  1. Ubiquitous expertise: knowledge gained simply through living and interacting with other people. This includes manners and language skills. We are all ubiquitous experts in a variety of skills.
  2. Specialist expertise: expertise gained via self-conscious learning of a craft that is not part of normal ubiquitous knowledge.
  3. Meta-Expertise: the ability to judge expertise in others.

Each of these three are further broken down into further categories.

Social Studies

The most important idea to take away is this: the process of becoming an expert is inherently social. Collins further argues that this expertise is real and not just a social construct:

Expertise is the real and substantive possession of groups of experts and…individuals acquire real and substantive expertise through their membership of those groups. Acquiring expertise is, therefore, a social process—a matter of socialization into the practices of an expert group—and expertise can be lost if time is spent away from the group.[4]

We gain real skills by interacting with one another, and if we interact with specialists, then we can gain specialist expertise, which will be the topic for the next post.


  1. Collins, Harry (2014–03–28). Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (Kindle Locations 667–670). Wiley. Kindle Edition.  ↩

  2. Collins, Harry (2007–10–01). Rethinking Expertise (pp. 6–7). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩

  3. Collins, Harry (2014–03–28). Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (Kindle Locations 705–717). Wiley. Kindle Edition.  ↩

  4. Collins, Harry (2007–10–01). Rethinking Expertise (pp. 2–3). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩


All links to the books are Amazon Affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking one of them, then Amazon will pay me some small percentage of that.

Singing Experts I: Swimming in Singing Experts

Lecture-Hall.jpg

An aspiring singing professional has to navigate a sea of singing experts and make decisions about how to interact with them. Beyond determining whether someone is a singing expert, they must determine what type of singing expert they’re working with.

That’s hard. As previously mentioned on this site, a person generally (and a beginner especially) doesn’t know what they don’t know. Expecting a beginner to accurately judge the capabilities of a self-proclaimed expert is unrealistic. But there might be a few things that the beginner can do to help him/herself.

Clash of the Singing Experts

Further, there’s a second layer of challenge, and that’s the occasional clash between types of singing experts. The singer can receive a bit of advice from one expert that is contradicted the next day by a different expert. One can see this tension between experts in a quote such as this from Michael Sylvester:

What matters more and more are academic honors and degrees… As research in vocal science—a very important subject—has ramped up in the past 30 years or so, there has been an academically driven switch in the fine points of vocal technique…To my mind, this has led to timid, careful, uneventful and measured singing…You learn how hard it is to be on a stage, a real professional stage, and deliver night after night. You hone your craft and then you learn a completely different and equally hard thing: How to hear a voice and diagnose its problems and then how to fix those problems and how to carefully and cautiously week after week train a young voice in a technique that will serve the student for a lifetime…Many of our finest singers have been awful teachers…They are lousy teachers, I think, because…they mostly were born with a heightened skill at singing and were trained very expertly how to use their own voice.

There’s a lot to unwrap in a quote like that. He’s presenting several ideas: first, credentials do not make an expert, at least not by themselves. Second, the influence of science on voice teaching hasn’t necessarily been a good thing all of the time, or even most of the time. Third, it’s important to learn how to actually produce on a professional stage on a regular basis. However, and fourth, being a professional singer is not – by itself – what makes a good voice teacher. Whew.

I’m not as pessimistic on the state of voice teaching overall, but I’ve sometimes heard similar concerns in private conversations I’ve had with other teachers. Clearly, there’s some sense that singing expertise doesn’t necessarily translate across fields: one can be an honored academic or terrific singer and still not be a great or even good teacher. Likewise, there’s a recognition that scientific influence in the voice studio or directly on singers doesn’t translate automatically to improved singing.

Defining Singing Expertise

So what is the poor learning singer to do? And what could experts do to help?

We should try to more clearly define what it means to be an expert in the singing world. It is also valuable to be aware of the different types of singing experts, and when we think of any singing expert, we should determine where exactly their and our expertise lies. In this way, we can more clearly evaluate the kind of work we do and the kind of work we see from other experts.

I will be writing a series of posts, which will be stretched out over a few weeks. In the next post, I’ll disentangle what it means to be an expert primarily using the outline of expertise (the so-called “Periodic Table of Expertise”) created by Harry Collins.

Although his outline is one view on the nature of expertise, I find that it translates well to the world of singing. Personally, though I find his outline convincing, I must acknowledge that I’m not a sociologist. I am enthusiastic about the ideas because they form a more interesting web of expertise than I’d previously considered, and it has made me more thoughtful about how I will interact with other professionals, aspiring or otherwise.

At the very least, I hope it inspires you to consider what you consider expertise, how it’s gained, and how to spot it.

Next section: Singing Experts II: What Makes an Expert?


Photo by Jiahui Huang shared under a CC 2.0 license