The Stages of Becoming a Contributory Expert

Part VI of Singing Expertise series

Collins lists 5 stages that someone must travel to become a contributory expert:

  1. Novice
  2. Advanced Beginner
  3. Competence
  4. Proficiency
  5. Expertise1

Rather than describe each stage in detail, let’s just paint a broad picture.

As someone moves from novice to expert, they move from entirely conscious operation to unconscious. The novice requires rules, because they don’t understand the tacit information required to make unconscious and intuitive choices. The expert, on the other hand, acts in such a way that rules are mostly irrelevant because the expert has internalized knowledge. The expert can act without self-consciousness.

Remember learning to drive? Rules rules rules. And once you’ve been driving awhile, the rules become unconscious impulses.

Consider singers. A novice or beginner must consciously decide to do everything, and often times this is done clumsily because it’s based entirely on rules. A true novice looks and sounds clumsy and is almost wholly self-conscious the entire time they’re singing.

That’s not meant as an insult, by the way. I was absolutely like that too.

An expert singer singing their best repertoire, on the other hand, can summon technique and voice seemingly at will in order to serve a piece of music. Dynamics, phrasing, legato and so on come more or less unconsciously from an expert singer to serve the emotional needs of a piece or whatever other artistic goal the singer has set. The expert singer moves and acts in unconscious ways that they themselves are often unaware of but are nevertheless important for the piece.

The expert can achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow”. It is goal-based rather than rule-based. He writes:

Although the flow experience appears to be effortless, it is far from being so. It often requires strenuous physical exertion, or highly disciplined mental activity. It does not happen without the application of skilled performance. Any lapse in concentration will erase it. And yet while it lasts consciousness works smoothly, action follows action seamlessly.2

This is what we’re after.


  1. Collins, Harry (2007-10-01). Rethinking Expertise (pp. 24-25). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition. ↩

  2. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.) (p. 54). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.  ↩

The Eight Types of Singing Experts

The fifth part of my Singing Experts series

This is part 5 of a series on singing expertise. I think you can read this one first and then go back and read the others later without being totally lost. Nevertheless, here they are: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

Based on the system of expertise expressed in this series, where should we place the various experts on singing? My belief is that there is no such thing as a single “singing expert”. Instead, there are eight primary categories of singing specialist with further subdivisions.

My Beta1 List of Singing Experts

I’m proposing this list of broad singing expert categories:

  1. Expert Listeners and Researchers (expert fans, reviewers and music journalists, music historians, radio hosts, etc.)
  2. Singing-related business experts (agents, managers)
  3. Singing-related technicians (sound engineers, stage managers, costume and makeup artists for singers)
  4. Performing musicians (coaches, conductors, music historians, accompanists, concert masters, other instrumentalists)
  5. Singing performers (with many subdivisions based on repertoire)
  6. Singing teachers (subdivided with rep and special knowledge on certain voice types)
  7. Medical doctors with singing emphasis (ENTs, and voice therapists who specialize in treating singers)
  8. Voice scientists (with subdivisions based on field)

None of the categories are inherently mutually exclusive (there’s nothing that would stop someone from being both a singing teacher and a singing performer, for example, other than a lack of experience). Instead, the categories are comprised of people who must consider singing as part of their expertise. That knowledge then forms someone that defines them at least somewhat as an expert and is not ubiquitous. They needn’t be able to discuss singing deeply with a singer to meet that qualifier, but often, they will have knowledge that a singer doesn’t possess. Recording engineers, for example, often have quite a set of techniques to get the best recording from singers (both technical and psychological), and these techniques are probably unknown by the singer. This list considers that a kind of singing expertise, and it is an exclusive expertise that other singing experts may not have.

The Rainbow of Singing Expertise

There’s a rainbow of singing expertise, where each specialist has some knowledge that the others don’t. Added together, they embody “singing expertise”, but no one alone embodies the whole all at once. Singing, as it turns out, is a broad term. In the same way that there’s not a single type of scientist, there is not one kind of singing expert. The list above is an expression of the rainbow’s components, like ROYGBIV.

Important: being an expert in one of the above does not automatically make you an expert in any of the others. Being a contributory expert in singing doesn’t make you a voice scientist, nor does it automatically make you or me a singing teacher, an agent, a classical DJ or reporter, a coach or any number of professionals that fall within one of the above categories.

For examples; a common understanding amongst singers and teachers is that coaches help with musicality and languages and the overall artistic impression of a piece, while a voice teacher helps with technique. Those skills aren’t immediately interchangeable.

Nor are the skills between singers and voice teachers. Professional singers who have not done much teaching are often considered not very good teachers. The negative stereotype is that they apply the primary techniques that work for them in their specific repertoire to all situations, whether it’s appropriate or not. Of course, those singers are expert singers. It’s just a different skill set. It doesn’t mean they can’t learn to teach well, but that would involve learning those skills.

To do so would require starting again as a novice and learning the ropes from experts in that field all over again. If we’re willing to give it the time, then it’s possible.

We’ll look at the process of becoming an expert in the next post of this series.


  1. I could accept some changes to the list if someone argued persuasively enough. This is a beta of sorts, and I’m happy for feedback. For example, I could potentially see that some categories could be combined or the names changed. I just didn’t make a convincing enough case to myself that some further combination is better or that some other name is better, but perhaps someone else can argue more eloquently. Additionally, the names might seem overly long, but I tried to make them broad. For example “singing performers” includes opera singers, but it also would have included actors who have to sing. They would then occupy different subdivisions below that based on their different sets of skills and values.  ↩

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.