Taylor Swift, Music Education, and Self-Doubt – The Voice, Week 6
Welcome back to Week 6 of “Deconstructing The Voice” – my weekly attempt to unlock the secrets of Carson Daly. (Maybe it was something in the water during his TRL days.)
I interviewed The Voice contestant, Matt McAndrew. We get into the weeds about process and performance and there’s even a Charles Ives joke in there! You should go check it out here.
This week ushered in the Knockout Rounds. Basically, singers are paired up by their coaches and sing solos back-to-back. The winner moves on, while the loser can be stolen (but, each coach only gets one steal). Unfortunately, this change to solos means that we can no longer double up on the pre-taped backstory packages. Basically… we see a LOT less constructive coaching than we’ve seen the previous two weeks.
Luckily for us (and the contestants), Taylor Swift arrives to promote her new album to help the contestants in the Knockout Rounds. I am not exaggerating when I say that the producers of The Voice went out of their way to highlight how each of Taylor’s comments were used in the final performance. If she suggested a dynamic change or a specific stage movement, then camera angles were arranged and the previews at commercial breaks were edited to illustrate to us how good Taylor Swift is.
Having said all of that, I must say that I felt Taylor communicated well and that most of her suggestions were spot-on! While you can stream full episodes of The Voice here, this is really the only bit of coaching I could find on YouTube. It’s not her best, but it does display her comfort in the space. (Some of you may recall that I loved Allison’s Blind Audition performance.)
What Did Taylor Swift Have to Say?
With this week offering little to truly investigate in terms of coaches’ comments, let’s take a look at one of Taylor Swift’s most interesting comments:
“DaNica is a classic case of someone who’s insecurity fuels her talent. And, it’s nice when someone is doubtful of themself because when you’re coasting – you’re backsliding.”
This comment was made directly to the camera as Taylor talked about working with contestant DaNica Shirey. At first, I was immediately on board with the sentiment – creative-types do tend to exhibit a fair amount self-doubt and those feelings can help fuel further creation and creativity. What they’re currently making isn’t enough, so they keep pushing beyond what would be acceptable for anybody else.
On the other hand, as Sylvia Plath said, “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” That makes total sense to me, too! An artist’s lack of confidence can keep them from exploring new ideas and moving forward. The artist who no longer compares their work to others’, or even to their past work, is going to be better positioned to create work that is authentic and compelling.
So, is Taylor right or is she wrong? Is doubt a key component of being a successful artist? And, what does this have to do with music education?
Obviously, this is a much bigger question than can be answered in one simple The Voice recap. However, as music educators, I think we can begin to tackle this.
Self-Doubt in the Music Classoom
When I have taught songwriting, the number one priority for me is to remove the critical part of my students’ brain, the part that tells them “this isn’t very good”. This is a necessary step if we want our students to progress any further than being a beginner. What is, perhaps, most frustrating is that those students that demonstrate an ability to write thoughtful music often tend to be the ones with the most self-doubt.
For some, that might seem crazy, but I think it’s fairly easy to understand:
Those students who are capable of writing “good” music, often understand what makes music “good” to begin with. It’s that astute awareness of the artform that both provides them with their skills and, fortunately or unfortunately, with their doubts.
Ira Glass, host of the wonderful This American Life, said it best:
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.”
This video has the whole quote:
It’s a balancing act: We know what we like and we know that we’re making isn’t as good as what we like.
So, it’s up to us teachers to identify our students’ needs. Some need you to praise the process and to acknowledge their efforts. Others, those who might fall into “the gap” Ira discussed above, need you to acknowledge their shortcomings and provide concrete suggestions to push them through this process.
Is Music Education About Creativity?
On top of all of this, there is a larger question about “good”, “bad”, and the overall objectives of music education on a creative front. Simply put: Are we trying to provide students with skills that will allow them to reach their creative potential?
There is no universal answer to that question – each music program is different, after all. However, as mentioned back in our discussion on expression during Week 2, many music education programs seem to emphasis expression through process rather than product. The ensemble experience, which is very much about uniform playing, allows students to express themselves through effort (an ensemble performance). The songwriting class, on the other hand, could maximize a student’s ability to share their creativity through product (a composed piece of music).
Neither approach, process or product, is inherently better than the other. It is important that we recognize the difference moving forward.
For what it’s worth, self-efficacy (one’s ability to believe they can achieve) is an important tool for students in any subject – especially while studying music. Any teacher who invests time building up their students’ confidence in both their abilities and in the process of learning itself is going to receive great dividends in the end.
This is all food for thought that we might unpack further in future weeks – especially if The Voice continues to provide us with fewer opportunities to see and hear actual musical comments. Please let me know what you think in the comments or on Facebook and Twitter. I really want to hear your thoughts!
(Or, maybe, Taylor Swift’s self-doubt comment is supposed to be read through the lens of Taylor herself. After all, she has stated that her new album, 1989, is her first full pop record. She was once a young country singer and now finds herself poised to break the record for best album sales in a week for a female artist – supplanting Britney Spears. Clearly, Taylor is able to take whatever doubt she has and turn it into something powerful.. or, at least, profitable.)
Favorite Musical Solution to a Song That Fades Out – Troy Ritchie (“Hey Ya!”)
Even though Troy Ritchie lost his battle, the number of YouTube views seem to indicate that people enjoyed his performance. It was fun, frantic, and engaging. Troy is very comfortable on stage and would probably fare well in a band with the right energy.
Anyway, the original “Hey Ya!” fades out. To solve that problem, the band ends on an E Major rather than an E minor. Let’s give it up for Picardy thirds on Primetime TV!
Favorite Performance – Taylor John Williams (“Mad World”)
Taylor’s performance is strong, patient, and touching. After the performance, Gwen mentioned that she felt like she was listening to a peer, rather than just a contestant. It doesn’t have the same fireworks of other contestants, but he communicates quite a lot (and I know he’s got more voice in the tank).
- Why is Adam Levine dressed as a homeless person for the coaching sessions he does with Taylor Swift?
- Blake’s comment to Katriz Trinidad (a young contestant who would not advance) is really nice: “I don’t think we can celebrate enough how much you stepped up.” That praise of progress is fantastic and great for her moving forward.
- There should be a round of The Voice where contestants have to sing multiple styles within the same segment.
- Pharrell choosing Elyjuh Rene over Ricky Manning was a bit surprising and the YouTube counts seem to agree with me. However, Pharrell’s somewhat stern chat with Elyjuh afterwards was very interesting. He pointed at Elyjuh and said, “You understand why I chose you, right? Because I believe in you. But, we need to talk. Don’t go sing nobody else’s story. We need to sing yours.” It was really forceful and a direct challenge to Elyjuh to step it up. Again, I think we’re seeing Pharrell’s skills as a producer come out.
That’s it for week 6! I’ll make sure to get Week 7’s recap up much sooner (self-doubt gets in the way). Also, I will start livetweeting the live rounds starting next Monday, so make sure you follow us on Twitter: @Leading_Notes.
Bonus Taylor Swift Commentary
Taylor Swift gets an unfair amount of shade thrown her way by some people. I, for one, love “I Knew You Were Trouble“. In fact, I used it to teach songwriting and production techniques. This SNL sketch brings up some very interesting questions… maybe we’ll discuss those in a later post.
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