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.

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.