Learning Styles in the Voice Studio (part 1)

By Jeremy Ryan Mossman


By the time a student finds their first voice teacher they often already have a vocal history filled with emotional baggage almost as old as they are, artistic influences that are both good and not-so-good, as well as subconscious preferences for how they learn that hinder as much as help.  They also have artistic intentions that need to be clarified and refined.  Appreciating and respecting how each student’s past is a part of their present will help create a path for learning that will shape their future into one that expands them as artists.

The fit between the learning style of the student and the teaching style of the instructor is an important variable – one that is often recognized for being important, but also left to chance. An excellent way to identify a student’s internal strategies is through David Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory and Experiential Learning Wheel (1984).

Before looking into Kolb’s research, let us call to mind a few relevant traits of the hemispheres of the brain: the left is considered to be the logical thinker or analyzer, looks at parts, and is bound by time, while the right is more random, attuned to feeling, is holistic, and allows for self-observation and in-the-moment artistry without judgement or comparison.

Kolb's wheelKolb’s Wheel presents a sequential order for learning, cycling through four quadrants defined by two axes, one perception, the other processing.

The vertical axis for perception is marked with Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualization at opposing ends of the continuum. Like art and performingperception is thought to be more of a right-brain behavior. The horizontal axis represents processing, and is marked with Active Experimentation and Reflective Observation at opposing ends of the continuum.  Processing correlates with craft and practicing, and the left hemisphere.

  • Processing = left brain, craft, practicing, from reflection to experimentation
  • Perceiving = right brain, art, performing, from experience to conceptualization

Digging in a little deeper, you may notice that at one end of both axes is an element of learning that is naturally manifested internally – Abstract Conceptualization, Reflective Observation – and the other end is manifested more naturally externally – Concrete Experience and Active Experimentation.

Using all of this information, I reconstructed and adapted the wheel for use in the voice studio:

Voice studio learning wheelOnce I found more relevant labels, I started to see each student through a new filter that let me appreciate them more fully.  It also helped me see why and where they would get stuck with new challenges, as each have their own system for understanding themselves in song that would start, and likely stay in one quadrant on the wheel.

Our challenge is to identified their manner of learning – their comfort quadrant, as it were – and find creative ways to move them around the wheel from where they feel familiar through less familiar quadrants.


In general, students who prefer either end of this continuum bring artistry into the studio and need help with their process.  They may benefit from more step-by-step instruction, but also may prefer game-playing and images over a more physiology-based pedagogy – to start.

  • Outside Performers (concrete experience) tend to commit to their storytelling more than anything else, including their singing. They are in the moment, and committed to communication more than monitoring their effort numbers. If you ask them not to act, they often won’t know where to put their energy.
  • Inside Performers (abstract conceptualization) are expressive to the ears, though often their expression is limited to their voice and doesn’t seem to transmit fully into their face or body.  They are all about their sound and may have a better awareness of sensations in their singing.


In general, these students already have a process that may need refining and expanding, and will need encouragement to connect to their lyrics instead of think about vocal mechanics.  They may appreciate more space and time in their lesson to reflect or explore an idea without disruption.  They may, in fact, do most of the integrative work of learning to sing on their own in private.  If they are provided the right kind of tools, they will excel on their own.

  • Inside Practicers (reflective observation) are thinkers.  They may thrive learning their Estill figures and aren’t scared of learning about their anatomy. They are thinkers and often get lost in their heads or stuck in their technique having a harder time letting go of their analytical brain to allow feeling or expression to lead the way.
  • Outside Practicers can be really fun to observe as they wear their process externally.  They’ll make unprompted funny sounds, or use their hands, arms, and/or body energetically, physically embodying their technique.

I hope this is helping you see your students more specifically already!  Beyond learning a lot about my students, through the process of adapting Kolb’s wheel I also learned a lot about myself. Could it be that my students who seem chronically stuck might prefer a way of learning that is different than my own, possibly indicating the need to adapt my teaching style? Would that imply that the students who grow quickly are more similar to me in how they process and perceive their singing? Have I been accidentally mandating one way of learning while meaning to do the opposite?

Click here for part two, which explores using the contents found in the Estill workbooks with each style of learner.

As this is still a developing theory, your feedback is important to its development.  Please email any questions or feedback to jmossman@carthage.edu.

About the Author

Jeremy Ryan MossmanJeremy Ryan Mossman is a teacher, director, and performer of musical theatre. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Musical Theatre Performance from the University of Miami and a Master of Music in Vocal Pedagogy from Oakland University. He is an Estill Master Trainer, assistant professor of music theatre at Carthage College, and a 200-hour certified yoga teacher.
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