Apples to Oranges? Sneakers to Wicker Baskets!

I would like to invite you to compare James Brown to Joan Sutherland as singers. I also invite you to compare Bruce Springsteen to Renee Fleming. I think one could look at the similarities and differences between Usher and Kristen Chenoweth, don’t you? What about Luciano Pavarotti and Faith Hill?

As to the similarities, we can start with the fact that they are all professional singers, all are well-known and have or have had a large fan base, and all have distinct vocal styles and sounds. All of them have sold lots of recordings and appeared to large audiences in live and televised performances.

Let’s decide which of them is a “serious” artist. Do you suppose we could determine which ones rely upon their vocal folds to be strong, and responsive to their artistic goals? Perhaps we could investigate which one of these singers has the most respect amongst their peers, or is more dedicated to being really excellent at what they do? Perhaps we should try to determine which ones have sung material that will have the most profound effect upon society? Maybe we could discuss the lasting value of each vocalist’s career as we imagine it as being remembered 50 or 100 years from now?

I think it might be possible to sort out which ones understand the need for a strong “singers’ formant” from the ones who don’t give a hoot. Could we say that the ones that care are smarter? Maybe just better? I bet they are richer!!!

I hope you get my point (not that I am known for being subtle). I write about the obvious because I am yet again confronting the fact that classical training is supposed to help you sing whatever you sing. We all know that opera singing sounds and works just like hip hop, R&B, country, rock and music theater singing, right?

I am currently involved in the writing of a “paper” that is supposed to be giving validity to “functional training” for singers regardless of style. This paper will come from a very august, conservative organization, if it is ever written, and will be a landmark of sorts. There is a good chance that, after three years of attempts which have included some pretty ugly arguments, the paper might actually get composed, but it also might end up being watered down so much as to be empty as a professional statement.

I continue to hear from CCM singing teachers from all over the country who are facing hostility in music/voice departments every day. These departments insist that classical vocal music is the be all and end all of voice training, and that classical vocal repertoire is the only way a young singer can learn to develop vocal skills. The questions I began with, then, are hardly irrelevant, unfortunately. Until and unless the students are allowed to learn all kinds of vocal technique, for all kinds of music, and are taught to sing all of these styles in a healthful manner, we are waging an uphill battle. Until and unless the music theater students (most of what is CCM at schools is music theater) don’t have to do classical songs as a part of juries or graduation recitals, or that classical vocal majors have to sing a few CCM songs do, things will continue to be unfair. “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls” is a very difficult song, but in a different way than “Adelaide” by Beethoven, which is also extremely hard to sing well. Which is better? Which singer is more of a skilled pro when executing either song well?

Which is better — a New Balance sneaker or a Native American wicker basket?

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2 thoughts on “Apples to Oranges? Sneakers to Wicker Baskets!”

  1. I love this post. I’ve been teaching piano a lot longer than I’ve been involved with singing, and I’m always trying to explain to people that aside from a few superficial similarities, improvising jazz by ear on the piano is a completely different skill set from being able to perform a Beethoven Sonata having learned it by reading the music. And one is only better than the other to the extent that it allows the musician to play what they want to play. And furthermore, being able to do both doesn’t make you a “better musician” than one who can do only one–it’s a matter of personal interest and choice.

    However, in almost all universities, a piano major can’t take any class or pursue anything in their applied lessons that doesn’t go in the direction of Beethoven, not if they want degree credit for it. So, for whatever it’s worth, the piano establishment is as confused and narrow-minded as the voice establishment, at least in my experience.

  2. Until and unless the students are allowed to learn all kinds of vocal technique, for all kinds of music, and are taught to sing all of these styles in a healthful manner, we are waging an uphill battle.

    Actually, until and unless teachers are taught about different vocal techniques, we are waging an uphill battle. I have a DM, and my only knowledge of non-classical singing technique and style has been obtained through personal practice and trial & error.

    Until and unless the music theater students (most of what is CCM at schools is music theater) don’t have to do classical songs as a part of juries or graduation recitals, or that classical vocal majors have to sing a few CCM songs do, things will continue to be unfair.

    I absolutely agree with you here. I imagine some attrition is due to these requirements. Theory is another major obstacle it seems.

    We’re not all hostile, though.

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