I’m looking forward to 2016 KTS Teacher Certification in June. Not only will I have the opportunity to discuss the intricacies of human communication and speech with exceptionally intelligent and good-looking people, but I’ll also get to visit New York for the first time in several years and decide which organs I will trade on the black market for a Hamilton ticket.
One of the foundational concepts I’m looking forward to discussing this summer is one that I’ve had to manage frequently in my career as an accent coach in Los Angeles: time. Namely, the assumptions we make about time and the expectations we build upon it. From a pedagogical and professional perspective, time is a very tricky concept to negotiate with current, previous, and would-be students/clients. I find that one of the major roots of this difficulty is the fact that much of the temporal framing of speechwork (and all learning, really) is tacitly assumed on both sides of the teacher-learner relationship without being fully elucidated on either side.
I know, as a lifelong and continually rededicating learner, that skills acquisition takes time. In my (increasingly distant) younger years, I remember thinking that my ability to learn new skills seemed somewhat miraculous and instantaneous, and it was only when I reached my early twenties that the pace of skills-learning seemed to decelerate dramatically. Of course, it wasn’t that the speed of skills-learning had decreased, but rather that I had less time available to dedicate to acquiring new skills; that didn’t stop a heavy feeling of despair settling over me as I contemplated my future (lack of) growth as an artist.
To my unfathomable gratitude, I have been blessed with teachers who guided me through periods of frustratingly slow skills acquisition. In acting, Stuart Rogers; in voicework, Phil Thompson, Cynthia Bassham, Saul Kotzubei, and Catherine Fitzmaurice; and in speechwork, once again, the direct tutelage of Phil Thompson and the spiritual presence of Dudley Knight; all of these exceptional teachers guided me toward training, specifying, and synthesizing skills that allowed me to transform my passions from a hobbyist’s enthusiasm to a cultural mission.
One of the central themes running through the work of all of these incomparable teachers was that of Time Put In. Specifically, that skills are acquired over time, through repetition, awareness, and specificity. These teachers awoke my adult consciousness to the reality that all of my previous alacritous achievements were accomplished by an accruing lifetime of experience, whether I had been conscious of that accrual or not. Through their effective and practical training, my teachers gave me two gifts that have continued to serve me well as an ambitious artist: patience, and an appreciation for Time Put In. It was serendipitous that just before I graduated from UC, Irvine, in 2008, Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers and introduced the idea of “10,000 hours” to popular discourse. The timing of this much-discussed insight provided a subtle bit of underlining on a principle that was already taking a central role in my life.
The essential importance of time was further highlighted as I continued to teach. Being a freshly graduated actor in Los Angeles, I found work as a private speech coach, as a teacher of speech at various acting studios, as a tutor, and as a private piano teacher for children. As I began to present the knowledge and teach the skills that it had taken me decades of hard work and curiosity to acquire, I noticed that my students perceived time differently than I did. MUCH differently. Whereas I saw the steady progression from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence to be a welcome journey, frustrating though it could be, my students, in everything from learning to read music to acquiring an “American” accent, wanted the journey to be instantaneous. In fact, baked into our economic relationship was the fact that, if I was being paid to help them acquire a targeted skill (be it playing piano or learning how to manipulate oral posture), then I had better be able to hand them that skill readymade. And quickly, too. While children at a piano and professional actors seeking a more non-localizable accent certainly came to me with different work ethics, expected outcomes, and long-term goals, they shared a commonality in that they didn’t see the time layered carefully throughout my pedagogy. I was at pains to help them understand how to digest this educational process that could produce lasting – but not instant – results.
Indeed, I was very frightened, as I started my own business and attempted to attract clients, to counter their expectations. When I met actors from other countries who had that ever so slight gleam of desperation in their eyes – they needed to “fix this accent” and soon! – I reassured them that progress can be made and they would be rewarded for pursuing a particular course of action with me. I viewed our future interaction as an intensive skills-training process, with unremitting practice, feedback, refinement, and honest critique. Many of my clients heard my reassurance (with no mention of a predictable timeframe) as a hope for some sort of “magic bullet” (as Dudley and Erik discuss here), something they had missed in their previous coaches or tapes or YouTube samples. And I didn’t correct them in this assumption, partly to retain a client base and partly to rise to the occasion of the Reluctant Learner. As lessons continued and it became evident that I was asking them to sustain a long-term practice of speechwork, replete with weird facial movements and bizarre sound-making, with no promise of specifically when they could expect to see results, many would fade away, discouraged or giving up on acting in the US altogether. (In a similar parallel, there are many children who feel the same way about piano lessons, yet they have an added incentive that my private clients do not: parental necessitation.)
I know the skills I teach are effective. Many of my clients return for additional sessions after long absences; my feedback on the knowledge and skillsets gained is universally positive. The complaints I hear most often are not about the pedagogy or the skills. They’re about time: “I just don’t have time to work on this” or “I didn’t practice this week – I’m so bad” or “How often should I be doing these exercises? I don’t know if I can make myself do that.” When I began to stress the primacy of Time Put In, I noticed that clients weren’t so much discouraged by me as by themselves – they were convinced that the task for which I was laying out the map was beyond their ability, that their discipline was not strong enough to navigate this plan of action, that they could not hold themselves to the standard I was modeling in my teaching and nudging them to ask of themselves. I understand now why so many students and clients move from one teacher to another, in all subjects, always hoping that the next teacher will be the one with the instafix, the one who can truly help them leapfrog the “10,000 hours” and achieve just-add-water greatness. And who can blame them? We all want what we want, when we want it, and as we age and begin to edit our former educational processes into convenient montages backed by classic rock, we forget that we can’t do much with our much-vaunted brain plasticity in our post-schooling years if we ignore the experience-intensive learning process that enables that plasticity to be effective.
My greatest successes since those earliest coaching experiences have been with those clients with whom Time Put In becomes an acknowledged presence in our work. I often compare my KTS pedagogy to being a trainer in the gym of speech actions, or of being a music instructor in the instrument of human speech. Just as perfect form at the gym is earned through sweat, repetition, and knowledgeable feedback, just as Bach is played through the steady acquisition of finger dexterity and strength combined with a sense of timing and the ability to hear harmony and dissonance, so, too, do I seek to help my students acquire the smaller skills that eventually factor into Olympian accomplishment or improvisational virtuosity. I end up doing a lot more coaching about learning and how it happens in the human being than I do about specific articulator skills and sound changes. I’m not always able to win over the speech client who shows up wanting the articulatory equivalent of playing Rachmaninoff tomorrow or winning a triathlon the following weekend. I’m still working to get better at letting go of those students whose goals are not compatible with my pedagogy – after all, my professional goal is to guide students to their own skills, not convert them to my educational paradigm (though, certainly, the cultural mission of KTS is an attractive rallying cry for the social activist in me).
Having watched children struggle to control which finger to place on which piano key, having seen clients brought to tears by the frustration of not being able to produce an alveolar trill, having felt my own angst of finding things not quite as “easy as they used to be,” I would love to see how the KTS community discusses, negotiates, and teaches the role of time and of the learning process. I can read in Dudley’s writing (and Phil’s, and Erik’s, and Andrea’s, and in many many others’) that the educators in these speech-teaching relationships understand that time and effort are required in any process of skills acquisition; after all, we’re teaching this work, and we didn’t start out as experts, so we understand just how much time it takes to achieve mastery.
What I would like to investigate further is why speech training is different (in my experience) from piano lessons and personal training. Why do so many clients and students with whom I have worked expect instantaneous results from speech coaching, yet they will gladly accept the idea a two-year regimen with a physical trainer or a decade-long study with a maestro or vocal coach? What is it about speech training and accents – in the cultural, social, ethnic, and anatomical spheres – that persuades students that the physiology of the vocal tract operates on separate principles than the physiology of the fingers or the complicated interconnectedness of the athlete’s physique? How do we, as teachers, educate our clients and students about the nature of skills-based learning, both universally and at the more specific level of speech? Is it part of our duty to expand our focus to the student’s attitude toward skills acquisition on a broader philosophical level, or, if it’s not, how do we reconcile our expectations of time with their expectations of time (if at all), should we back off from a time-based learning paradigm?
While some of the answers to these questions may be obvious – I think of the many ways I’ve responded to student variations of “Well, Hugh Jackman talks about how he just watched a lot of TV in Australia!” – I’m also curious if this fertile ground could be turned over more productively by KTS teachers as part of our discussion of core principles. Dudley’s principles in SWS are essential and beautifully expressed, with all of the wisdom, good humor, and adaptability that one could expect from such an adroit and profound guiding spirit. Those principles also respond to the particular evolutionary needs of KTS at the time of publication, namely, to establish a new paradigm in speechwork, clarify its origins, and set high goals for its future integration in the work of the actor in such a way that supersedes previous methodologies. It is noticeable to me now, however, after a considerable amount of coaching experience in KTS, that Time Put In is an implicit assumption, built into the work and doubtlessly modeled in the dozens of teachers who come to it thirsting for the challenge Dudley laid out in the structure of his teaching. In contrast, most of my students do not arrive with an understanding of Time Put In as a first principle, and often, their tacit expectations of time are in direct contradiction to my own – and remain so, even after I’ve brought the topic up. It is, no doubt, related to the exceptionalism we all feel in challenging circumstances – “I know there’s a slim-to-none likelihood of anyone learning to speak Xhosa in a one-hour session, but I’m going to be the one to do it!” – so I wonder how we, as teachers of skills-based, time-intensive work, acclimate our clients and students to the process they claim to want to undergo.
I am passionate to learn more about other teachers’ perceptions of this concept, their struggles with it, their victories in dealing with it, and their clients’/students’ process and progress with or without an awareness of Time Put In. My experience thus far has convinced me that I need to bring awareness to time in my pedagogy, but it could be that I’m missing a more empowering route or alternative teaching techniques that can still guide the learner to mastery. Though I look forward to discussing this with other KTS teachers this summer, I look forward to a fruitful discussion with the KTS community gathered here as well.