Common Sense and Singing

It often strikes me that there is very little by way of common sense in the singing teaching community. So much has been handed down through word of mouth experience, one to one, that the general expectations of the community are largely resting on hearsay. Common sense says to question things that are not proven, but we lose common sense when we get to singing and that’s a shame.

Without common sense, there’s bound to be a disconnect between what people say about singing and what people do when they sing that goes unquestioned, especially in the academic community.

If we accept that “classical singing” is not anything real, and that is absolutely so, then the first and most widely accepted premise about it, which says that being “classically trained” is necessary in order to sing well, is a bogus assumption. In order for it to be real, it would have to be codified, organized and accepted with a set of general specifications agreed upon by an objective organizing body of some kind, and it would have to be verifiable within a large group of individuals displaying the specifications consistently and broadly under a wide range of singing circumstances. Tennis is real. It has rules, the international community agrees upon those rules. The players abide by those rules. The audience knows what the rules are. Both professionals and amateurs have criteria upon which to base their evaluations of who is a good tennis player and who is not.

Any conversation with a group of singing teachers will reveal within minutes that even those who are deemed “very successful” teachers who have had great careers in opera and who have produced many students who in turn have gone on to become working professional singers, do not agree on even the smallest point about what “classical training” is or is not. The ideas about breathing (“support”) and resonance (“placement”) run through as wide a range of possibilities as can be imagined. Skill acquisition comes along “as it does” with no special order or sequence to be expected in anyone. There are no rules, there are no uniform guidelines, there are no completely accepted goals. In fact, the idea that anyone actually manages to end up singing classical repertoire well at all is something of a miracle. In the end, people who are smart and talented somehow figure it out on their own, perhaps with the assistance of others who are also smart and talented, and garner enough group recognition to know that what they do is considered acceptable to others who do something similar. Somehow or other.

If you doubt this, listen to a Met broadcast sometime. Many times, you will hear sublime singing and dreadful singing in the same cast. Same with Broadway.


If you send a student to study with a teacher who may or may not know what she is doing, and who may or may not have had a high level career as a classical singer, and who may or may not be capable of  communicating the ideas that she has learned (whatever they are) to another human being in a meaningful way, and you also don’t have a criteria for what the training is supposed to help the student learn to do as a mechanical skill, wouldn’t you think that someone along the way would have noticed this pattern and brought it up for discussion in the community at large? Nope. This is the syndrome called “The Emperor Has No Clothes”.

And, if you further assume that this mystical thing called “classical training” has magic qualities such that it allows you to also sing the sounds found in rock, gospel, blues, country and rap styles, simply by singing the sounds you’ve been taught in your lesson regardless of what they are, you would also be drawing conclusions where there is no evidence that they should be drawn. Oops.

Finally, if you were to observe many professional singers who have had long lasting careers in any style and draw up a chart of their vocal and musical abilities to see if there are any universal behaviors or characteristics that they share, you could perhaps come up with a large grid to show where each style of singing falls and where each individual singer fits into the grid of each style. We are far away from anything that resembles this in even the tiniest way.

I recently heard of someone who has written a book discussing the pros and cons of allowing boys to sing through voice change. She believes that all young men should stop singing while the voice changes because it will cause damage, because that has been her experience as a choral teacher. Since there are clearly men who sang through voice change without issue and could continue to sing after the voice had stopped changing, this would seem to be a shaky assumption upon which to write a book. There isn’t any way to stop her from writing whatever she thinks. There isn’t any empowered authority or organization to stand up and say, “this is only one possibility of many.” This information will join all the rest of the books, articles and videos already in existence that are based only on one individual’s personal experience. Why question a woman writing a book about boys’ voice changes? Because, typically, we don’t challenge even the most unsubstantiated notions as there isn’t as yet any scientific data upon which to base those challenges. I know someone else who wrote a biography of Ethel Merman in which it says she was not a belter. He knows this because he works within the opera world as a writer (doesn’t sing himself) — a great way to understand belting, right? He has decided (and he isn’t alone) that Merman wasn’t belting. Too bad nobody told her.

The thought process is this: If you experienced it personally yourself, either in your singing or in your training, then it must be true, and if it’s true for you then you can extrapolate that it must also be true for all others and if it’s true for all others, then it must be real. Carried further, if you decide something, and you find at least one other person who has also decided the same thing, your opinion must be real.

Cyclical thinking here, people. Defining a word by itself isn’t allowed in the dictionary.

Yes, I exaggerate. There is research and there is some consensus about what happens in classical singing, but it’s still a very small amount of data and there isn’t anyone verifying it. That is left up to those who read the articles and the books that quote them. There is next to no information on children’s singing, on CCM styles and on the marketplace and it’s demands. You are on your own with all of it. People kinda sorta know what good classical singing sounds like, but maybe not. See above.

I never ask anyone who works with me to “trust” me, believe me, or accept what I say. I always tell them to go out, read, research, study, experiment and stay away from making up rules. There are no rules.

In the meanwhile, if someone offers you a course of training for singing and provides you with a series of syllables on a series of pitch patterns and tells you that, by singing these syllables and patterns, you will learn to sing well, question that. If they also tell you that “if you know how to breathe, you can sing anything”, question that, too. If they tell you that you have to sing in X way or place because that’s how all good singing happens, question that as well. If they tell you to constrict something or move something you’ve never heard of and can’t feel, ask lots of questions. Never give away your common sense!!!!

You might end up being a pain in the neck, but you won’t get sold a bill of goods. Cavaet emptor — let the buyer beware!!!!!!

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One thought on “Common Sense and Singing”

  1. Wow, Jeanie!

    You may need to stop asking such intelligent questions.

    Perhaps the classical word is beginning to codify their ideas, because there are so many emerging singers who sound like all of the others. Cynical, yes.

    This is a great call to arms post…

    Ed Reisert

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