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

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.