Boundaries

Many decades ago I worked with a Broadway actress who was cast in a new show as the lead. She had had little vocal training and was singing music written by someone who had been successful but “hated” voices that were “trained”. He wrote all the music for himself (a kind of baritone, sort of), and expected the whole cast which included a little boy and this one female, to sing his songs (and his words) in his keys. The sound he had in mind was “untrained” (whatever he meant by that). Not surprisingly, she was struggling and ended up seeing me.

She was resistant to what I was asking her to do  because I was seeking to find a way to sing that allowed her to take the pressure off her throat and sound less screechy. I told her that the music was the source of the problem. She was insulted. The composer insisted that anyone could sing his music and that only “fussy” singers imagined they had problems. She believed him, not me. Sadly, this issue (vocal problems) carried over to the little boy who was also sent to me, and it was much more difficult to get him to sing easily, given that the tessitura, keys and emotional energy in his songs was just more than his 10-year-old voice was able to handle.

Both of these performers did get better and have less difficulty but it took a lot of work and neither of them ever got to singing in a way that was optimal for their throats. That was decades ago and the profession certainly hasn’t changed for the better since then.

Once upon a time composers did write well for singers, respecting what was reasonably possible for them to do without being extreme, distorted, or risking outright injury in singing music every day for months or even years. They worked with natural emotional communication that allowed voices to easily carry in certain pitch ranges and at specific volume levels. Much of that is gone and has been for so long that it isn’t any longer missed.

If everything is screamed, screaming loses its impact. If everything is shouted, everything is loud for loud’s sake and loses its impact. If everything is in the same high pitch range because it is exciting there, and words get difficult to pronounce and be understood, communication is sacrificed for the sake of sensation, and subtlety becomes impossible. If there are no melodies, if the songs go on and on and never have a recognizable shape, and if the music of one composer is unrecognizable from another, why should anyone want to hear it or sing it, over and over? Composing which relies upon these ingredients is cheap. It represents lack of serious commitment to actual communication and denies the power of authenticity that comes from the simple truth of normal human expression, even when that communication comes through music.

Whenever I hear music that does not go down that road, and that is not a frequent experience, I am so happy. When the music, the lyrics, the voice and the person combine to create true communication it is a memorable experience. It’s important to be able to sort out what’s good and what’s not, using criteria that values singers and their voices, respecting both.  Very important.

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2 thoughts on “Boundaries”

  1. hi jeanie
    Sometimes you get instrumentalist/composers who write vocal music, perhaps subconsiously, with their own instruments in mind. Think about various interval jumps, to and fro, that demand precision and clarity to stay in tune, but are more easily executed on an instrument. It takes a lot of practice, which is fine, but difficult to sing freely.

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