We are entitled to some very basic things. Here in the USA we are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even these three things can be viewed with some degree of perspective. We can all agree on what it means to be be alive. We used to think we knew what liberty was but post 9/11 I’m not so sure that we have that organized, and the pursuit of happiness is tricky. Some would say that in order to pursue happiness you have to be able to have other things handled first, like food, clothing and shelter. If you don’t have those, it’s hard to pursue anything else, especially happiness, unless you are one of the fortunate few who views happiness as a strictly internal state of affairs. Blessed souls, those.
In times of abundance, when there is a lot to be shared by all, even those at the bottom rung of the ladder can become accustomed to having various things given to them by others. That makes for a bad situation when the abundance stops. The balance here swings back and forth and societies wrestle with the ups and downs through the ages. What does not change, or seems to have thus far not changed, is that somehow there are always people who manage to do better than others at accumulating things that have material value. In a capitalist society, such as ours, the people who manage to make and keep the most money and material goods are generally highly regarded, even if they are not very “nice”. There is no rule that forces them to share their wealth (not even one cent has to be shared with others). Sometimes, due to their wealth, these individuals end up holding important positions in the public fabric of life, perhaps being in a position of power over others. When that occurs, things can be very dangerous indeed. Those that are not so good at playing the game, for whatever reason, are at the behest of those that are. If the folks in charge are hoarders of wealth AND power, then the system becomes out of balance.
How does this apply to singing? If we live in a time when those with abundant vocal gifts are recognized and rewarded with opportunities to share those gifts with the world, everyone can join in the joy of listening to those voices and be lifted up by their grace, beauty, truth and fullness. Everyone in society gains because there are so many great singers, easy to find in affordable performances, making it possible for all to share in their gifts. If, on the other hand, we live in a time when great voices go unrecognized, everyone is diminished. Without such glorious instruments to illuminate music of all kinds, many never know what a fabulous experience it is to sit in the presence of a magnificent singer with an unforgettable voice and listen to a once in a lifetime rendition of a profound song. I refer here to live performance, not recordings, because no matter how good the recording or the equipment on which it is played, it is never the same as a live rendition. I make the analogy of never seeing a sunset, never seeing the ocean, never being able to hear laughter. What a loss it is not to have one or more of these experiences.
Currently, the only kind of singing most people hear is what’s on commercial radio, nighttime TV, MTV, and what is available through the net. Certainly there are some excellent singers and voices that are celebrated at the present time, but there are also many many others that are only barely mediocre. There are also people with careers who are not musical, expressive, or even interesting. They succeed because they get lucky or work hard to be recognized. It’s harder than ever to hear real voices in more or less accurate replication (without electronic manipulation or enhancement), and nearly impossible, in some places, to hear them in person. I am sure there are millions of people who have never, even once, heard a beautiful, well trained, and expressive singer in person, singing something traditional, without any help from electronic amplification (although straight, more or less simple amplification that only helps the voice cover a bigger space wouldn’t be too terrible, as it doesn’t do anything but make the voice louder.)
Over this holiday season while out and about shopping and walking around, I have heard recordings of some of the most dreadfully hideous excuses for singing in shops, malls, and plazas. Truly awful. I have also heard some live singing, but not too much. The recordings feature singers who are out of tune, who lack of expression, have no clue whatsoever about the deeper meaning of the lyrics or ability to share them in a straightforward way with their audiences. I can only assume that neither the “artists” nor the engineers had ears to hear the intonation issues or had the musical values to care one way or the other. It’s certainly not that it’s hard to fix pitches these days, still, no one bothered. Why not? Does singing off pitch qualify as “professional” these days?
I have also had within recent weeks the opportunity to adjudicate a rather important vocal competition. Some of the submissions were not very worthy but quite a few were nothing less than spectacular. It was difficult for me and the other judges to imagine that any of these candidates would not be winners, but because there were so many, we knew this would not be the case and that some would lose. ALL of these remarkable people should have been famous, they should have had world class careers, because they had all the ingredients necessary as singers to have an impact on the world. Quite a few were not young (at least in their forties). It was both exciting to hear them and sad to know that there were still obscure. Surely, these people, if any, were “entitled” to a career, and a very successful one. If only it were so that being worthy was enough.
Those who are in arts education must do all they can to educate people about singers and singing and make sure that the truly great voices are recognized, not buried. We must do all we can to assist those who have worked to develop their natural gifts and who are primed with both experience and training to take what was given out into the world for all to enjoy. Everyone is “entitled” to hear great singers and great singing, in all kinds of music. We must not let this goal be ignored.