All You Really Need Is A Good Set Of Ears

“All You Really Need Is A Good Set Of Ears”. This is a common sentiment. If that were true, however, learning to sing would involve having your ears tested, listening to good singers, and away you go, getting jobs on Broadway or at the Met.

No. In addition to a good set of ears, you need an informed intellect and the ability to communicate, in plain simple English, what it is that you hear, and how it needs to adjust or change if you are teaching someone to sing.

Having a “good set of ears” means a lot of things. It means that you have a context in which to evaluate the sounds you are listening to. This, in itself, is a big deal. It takes a long time to understand what the criteria are in any given style. Classical singers who listen to rock belters hear an ugly screech, a pressured sound, and usually think it is awful. If you teach them to listen with a different point of view, a new context, however, they can hear the very same sound without the same judgements. They might even grow to like it. Some people hear operatic voices as being phoney and ridiculous, but if you have the “ears to hear” you can tell the difference between the wobblers and screamers and the ones who give you chills.

If you hear something you do not yourself do, you do not have a kinesthetic awareness to go along with the sound. In fact, if you tried to make the same sound yourself, you might do it in a way that felt and sounded very bad. How you feel effects how you hear.

If you do not understand what vocal pathology sounds like, you might think the person “has a husky sound”, not that the person has a “possible pathology”. If you do not know what constriction sounds like, you might think that the person has “a tight voice” instead of thinking the person has “tremendous tension in the tongue and throat”. If you do not know what good belting sounds like you might think that someone making a nasal sound is belting. And, if you hear something you like, and what you like happens to be skewed because your own voice is skewed and you don’t know that, you might be hearing something from a level of profound ignorance that is both musically and vocally far away from a professional level of acceptability.

If all you needed to do was hear something, and you did not need to analyze it, you did not need to understand how it is happening, you did not need to relate what is happening to a mental possibility of what could or should be happening, you cannot possibly have a broad enough context in how you listen to do a student much good. A teacher needs to hear from a functional point of view, with musical standards in mind, and with an awareness of the difference between what the voice is and what it is doing.

It reminds me of the people who constantly told me “MacIntosh is so INTUITIVE!” Well, not to me. What is intuitive to me is to sing. Imagine if I taught my students by saying, “Just sing. It’s easy. Just follow your intuition!” Good luck if you are to singing what I am to my iBook.

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