Deciding Too Soon

I am a believer in leaving things alone and letting them develop on their own wherever possible. I don’t think that singing teachers should decide what high school students (or worse, middle school students) are, vocally.

“You have a big voice”. I have heard this pronouncement about a 12 year old.

“You are a lyric soprano.” This, from the same person, about another student, also about 13.

“I know where your voice has to go even if you don’t”, said by another very famous teacher about a college student.

“Your voice is…………….” by any number of teachers about countless students who have little life experience and few years of training.

This is not a good attitude on the part of the teacher. Truly, anything could emerge in a young person as they study singing over a period of years. A big voice can develop very late, a small voice can become more substantial. A high voice can fill out on low notes and a low voice can rise. And a pop singer could learn to love classical music and vocal production, while the reverse is also possible. Who are we, as teachers of singing, to know ahead of time where someone is “supposed to go” or how they are “supposed to sound”.

I don’t own the voices of my students and I don’t think it’s my prerogative  to commandeer them before they have a chance to explore, experiment and settle themselves on their own vocal identity.

What would happen if we allowed college students to spend the first two years of study investigating vocal production without a musical goal? What if they could study anatomy and physiology of the vocal mechanism and of the muscles used in breathing? What if they could listen to classical vocalists of all kinds, singing music from all composers from the earliest to present day? What if they could listen to music theater, jazz, rock, gospel, folk, country, R&B, bluegrass, rap and whatever else they like before they are given repertoire to learn and upon which they will be vocally judged? What if they understood vocal health and hygiene and they studied professional speech before they studied any kind of singing? Wouldn’t the world of singing be different?

What if every composition degree in the country required all composers to study singers and singing and to investigate vocal repertoire under the guidance of an experienced vocalist (not an instrumentalist)?

What if we acted as if we really cared about all things vocal? What if voice in its myriad wonders was valued equally, regardless of the style? What if every person who wanted to sing seriously (regardless of whether or not that’s on a stage in New York or London or in a small church in some village in the mid-West) was allowed to investigate all vocal and musical parameters under the guidance of an actual expert and then decide what path to pursue?

I know, I know. This isn’t likely to happen any time soon. Nevertheless, one of my self-designated jobs is to question the profession and to question its standards or lack thereof. It is to look at what is given to us in academia and in science and query it’s usefulness and connection to common sense.

Therefore, I question the validity of deciding about anyone else’s voice, from a position of authority, early on in the process of exploring it. Regardless of your level of expertise, if you are a teacher, don’t make decisions or pronouncements about someone else’s capacities. Leave things alone and let them show up on their own in their own good time.

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8 thoughts on “Deciding Too Soon”

  1. Love this. Super important for us as vocalists to fight for the best education for ourselves and future vocalists. As a recent music grad I have experience some of the “oh you sound like a….” at 15 years old and thinking to myself….”there is NO WAY that things are going to stay the same for the next 30 years.” Love the idea of studying mechanism and function and then digesting all different voice types to really get a strong handle on what it means before trying to produce our own. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Often students ask “what am I?”, or they tell me “I am an ____”. I always explain that we can’t know that yet. In my experience most women are some sort of garden variety lyric soprano and most men are some sort of bari-tenor combination. Great blog, why do we have to pigeon hole singers anyway. What is Bobby McFerrin? How about ‘vocal athlete’ or ‘vocal acrobat’.

  3. I SO appreciate your viewpoint, here! And my perspective is from that of a (non-musical) parent. When a spectacular singing bird is put into our family nest, we naturally seek out the “best” teacher to help nurture this voice. But if the teacher comes from a didactic position, we parents could be conspiring to crush the natural musicality of the child! My child has a “big” voice. Does that mean she has to sing opera? jazz? rock or pop standards? only her own compositions? What ever happened to the JOY of music?

    1. These are valid questions for a parent that wants to support a child with talent. There are kids with naturally “big” voices but you need an experienced teacher to know how to nurture this talent without pushing it or squashing it. Plus, there are “big” belters and “big” fledging opera singers (meaning long in the future with a good teacher, but in that direction). Thanks for your post.

  4. My first year college students all want to know what voice type they are. My standard answer: “You are a young female (or male) singer. As the voice develops it will gradually reveal its identity. Let’s work on building a functionally free voice before we apply any labels.”


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