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


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

Eric Whitacre Singers in Koblenz

The  Rhein in Koblenz
My wife and I took the train down to Koblenz, Germany on Sunday to catch the Eric Whitacre Singers concert with Eric Whitacre conducting. My thoughts?

Totally cool. Totally totally cool.

Somehow in my choral studies at the University of Arizona I never had the chance to sing his works, even though his work was very much present in the minds of choral enthusiasts. Nevertheless, I’ve always enjoyed listening to it, and I’ve always appreciated his apparent efforts to blend concepts like dissonance with a certain amount of accessibility. You don’t need to be a theory expert to enjoy Eric Whitacre’s music, but musicians versed in theory enjoy it as well.

On Saturday, I saw this Tweet:

I asked my wife if we should go, and voilà. Off we went the next morning.

I’m not going to write a whole review of the concert, but I will call out a couple things. First, I appreciate the casual atmosphere but nevertheless meticulous nature of the concert. Besides the Eric Whitacre Singers themselves were a chorus of 200 amateurs who’d rehearsed the day before and were joining for a few numbers at the beginning and ending of the concert. They were totally solid. In addition, Mr. Whitacre always had enough interesting backstory to provide compelling illustrations for every piece and keep us entertained while the larger choir entered and exited.

Second, I love his arrangements of others’ pieces. Seriously; love is not too strong a verb. The Bach, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails arrangements manage to remain true to the sources while adding new dimensions to them. I’ve purchased and have been listening to his “Enjoy The Silence”
recording continuously since the concert. It’s haunting. Additionally, his description of the Bach sounding like a smeared painting was dead-on.

I’ll take any chance I can get to hear his “Hurt” arrangement. I’d heard bits of it online before, but it’s a special experience to hear it live. Being familiar with the NIN original and the Johnny Cash cover lends further context to this piece, which has always hit me in the gut. I’ve always loved the song, and Whitacre’s arrangement deepens that. Again: the arrangements don’t replace the originals but deepen them.

Third; what a terrific group of singers. It’s just wonderful watching such a well-oiled machine at work, especially when they’re singing music that requires such precision. Lots of colors, interesting phrasing, great dynamic range and whatever special sauce is required to make those ideas more than just musical concepts but emotional realities for an audience.

Besides the concert, Koblenz is a really cool town. Seeing two great rivers come together is humbling and inspiring and simply beautiful, and I snapped up photos greedily.

Great trip. As I’ve said, I still feel very “abroad”, and getting to visit places like this with my wife still feels lucky. Especially since we also got to see the Eric Whitacre Singers.

End of Season at Theater Dortmund

We’ve now reached the final performance of the 2013/14 season at Theater Dortmund. Tonight is Carmen, and then we’ll have about a month and a half to rest and catch up with the rest of our lives.

What was accomplished this season? Le nozze di FigaroDon CarloAnatevka, Tannhäuser, CarmenDer Graf von LuxemburgDie JahreszeitenCenerentolaAlexander Nevsky, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and several other concerts. Not to mention all of the other productions that the other departments do (theater, dance, orchestra, children’s theater). Not bad!

Many of my colleagues will travel abroad, but for this break I’m staying in Germany with my wife. After all: as an American, I still feel very much “abroad”. There are still plenty of interesting places near to us, which we haven’t yet explored.

It’s been a tremendous year, and I am so happy to have been a part of it. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Organ Mountains

Photo of Organ Mountains at sunset

Organ Mountains at sunset. Photo by Amy Bowman

The first time I drove to Las Cruces, I drove east out of Tucson on I-10. Anyone who’s made this trip knows that once you’re about an hour outside of Tucson past Texas Canyon, the ground levels out, and you are in a wide expanse of desert with very little in the way of human civilization.

Short mountain ranges speckle the horizon. The Sonoran Desert transitions into the Chihuahua Desert. The altitude gradually climbs. The empty physical space allows an empty mental space, and it can be incredibly relaxing if you’re not in a rush.

For a stressed and tired driver though, the desert between Lordsburg and Las Cruces can be maddeningly vast and repetitive. Yellow brown stretches in every direction for miles, and the distance to the various mountains masks the driver’s speed.

Nevertheless when I reached Las Cruces the first time, I knew it. The road dipped, the highway embankments rose upward, and then — boom –  there it was.

Las Cruces sits in valley caused by the Rio Grande rift, and coming from the west, a driver descends into the city. If he arrives at night, he will be treated to the city twinkling under the desert sky. There’s farmland on the west beside the river, which gives the impression of an oasis, and then the city sits beyond that.

Organ Mountains in background, with Charlotte the dog

Organ Mountains in background, with Charlotte the dog

Beyond the city are the Organ Mountains, and in that first glimpse, they shaped so much of what Las Cruces means to me. They tower over both the city and even the western side of the valley to such a degree that an approaching driver doesn’t realize the presence of the valley at all since the Organs are visible from a great distance. Their actual height is only apparent once in the valley.

The Organs are such a dominant feature, that they appear in many of my outdoor photos of Las Cruces quite by accident. The peaks rise out of the east in Las Cruces in what appear to be narrow bands as if some giant had drug its fingers through the rock at their creation. This feature makes their appearance unlike nearly any other of the so-called “sky island” mountain ranges of the American southwest and is a reason for the range’s name (resembling a pipe organ and all).

With their proximity to the city, the Organs are also a beloved recreation spot. My wife and I have been on numerous hikes within and in the vicinity of the Organs. We’ve listened to the coyotes howl in the foothills. We had some of our wedding photos taken with the Organs as the backdrop. Besides their stunning beauty, there are little bits of history tucked away against the rocks. Old settlements that have been abandoned are now places to visit and learn about the history of the area.

Soledad Canyon in Organ Mountain foothills

Soledad Canyon in Organ Mountain foothills

The Organs have recently been in the news due to President Obama’s declaration of them as a national monument. This will offer the area new protections to preserve its natural beauty and rich historical and scientific resources. Citing some of those resources:

The area is home to a high diversity of animal life, including deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, peregrine falcons and other raptors as well as rare plants, some found nowhere else in the world, such as the Organ Mountains pincushion cactus. Hundreds of  archeologically and culturally significant sites are found within the new monument, including some limited Paleo-Indian artifacts, extensive rock art sites and the ruins of a ten room pueblo, among other ancient dwellings. More recent history is memorialized with Geronimo’s Cave, Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, and sites related to early Spanish explorers. The Organ and Doña Ana Mountains are popular recreation areas, with multiple hiking trails, a popular campground, and opportunities for hunting, mountain biking, rock climbing, and other recreation.

Congratulations, Las Cruces and southern New Mexico. The Organs are a fundamental and wonderful part of the experience there, and I’m so happy that they’re getting national attention and protection they deserve.