Bad and Good At the Same Time

How can something be both bad and good at the same time?

Very easy. The something has lots of the things that are valued and quite a few of the things that shouldn’t be there at the same time.

You could say that that was true of many singers over the years. Sometimes the proportion varied. If the balance tips too far, in that you get too much bad and not enough good, it spells doom. Maybe a slow doom, but doom.

The first singer who comes to mind who was in this category was Maria Callas. You can hear at the beginning of her career how fabulous she was vocally, and how much capacity she had to sing. It was as if it was exploding out of her like a volcano. But she tackled every possible role type from lyric coloratura to mezzo, from the lightest roles to the heaviest, and early on, she began to have an “odd” vocal quality (constriction in the back of her throat), that gradually caught up with her. There are many theories about what was going on and why (weight loss, divorce, heart-break, depression, temperament, health issues, maybe all of those). There is even a pretty decent theory that she had a physical illness that was causing her soft tissue to harden rapidly. The only thing we know is that, in the end, at what was still a relatively early age, her singing got so technically bad that even her enormous talent for expressiveness and musicality could not tip the balance enough to save her career. The bad got bigger than the good.

There were others who got into trouble. Even Ethel Merman became a parody of singing in her later years. I was shocked to hear a recording of her when she was young because the voice was fresh, steady, clear and penetrating. By the time I heard her sing live, in the 50s on TV, she sounded ridiculous. The bad got at least as big as the good. Perhaps Merman didn’t know she was declining or care, perhaps she knew but couldn’t do anything about it. We’ll never know.

Then there have been the people who have had to take time off from a career in full tilt because something goes wrong. I believe this is what happened to Sherrill Milnes. He reportedly had a vocal fold problem that derailed his career while his friend and colleague, Placido Domingo, had no such issues and continues to sing to this moment. Lots of bad and not much good, at least in terms of luck.

There is no “voice jury” out there in the marketplace. One person’s “awful” is someone else’s “just fine”, but the idea is that there is some kind of mental parameter each of us has in our mind, our inner ear, that guides us to evaluate and decide, is this an OK balance or is this bad getting to overwhelm the good? Sometimes the artist is unable to tell and goes on sounding less than wonderful. Sometimes sounding less than wonderful was the point. You have to have a wide and broad scope of knowledge to understand all the different styles and the parameters that are accepted and those that are not. You might also want to measure the “industry standard” against your own “personal standard”, and, if you teach or sing, by golly, you had better know the difference. Many people do not. They not only do not, they don’t know that there is anything to know. Aiee!

If you are teaching, you either uphold the standard the student has to follow or you have recordings of others that do. You teach why these standards are the ones that deserve being upheld because if you do not, your students have to guess and waste a lot of time figuring out what they need to know. You can either tolerate what’s not so good for a reason, short term, or you can explain why you accept it permanently for artistic reasons, because if you do not, you force the student to guess at what your standards are, and how you got them. You force the student to come to his or her own conclusions with limited and possibly even incorrect information, which is asking them to pay a price for your ignorance, stubbornness or arrogance.

The sound that Mick Jagger makes now and has made for 40 years is bad, but many people like it and it has held up relatively well over the years. A lot of people would say that makes it good, or good for what it was and needed to do. Decent argument, reasonable conclusion. For me, it’s bad, and there isn’t enough good in it to make me like it or want to listen to it, but I realize that this is just my opinion, and certainly the world does not agree.

I very much liked Perry Como, but a lot of people would say that he was bad. Same position as the previous paragraph, in reverse.

The bad and the good will always co-exist. Be sure that you understand them as being friend and foe, and be sure you use what you know to find the balance between them.

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