"I Know What’s Best"

I recently saw a master class in which a famous classical teacher was working with a young mezzo soprano. This man has doctoral degree and a university position.

It was clear that he wanted the student to make a specific sound in a specific way. She was expected to get this sound and was doing her best to get there. He was pulling her along very energetically.

To me, however, it seemed like he had her on a road that had no turns, swerves, upgrades or valleys. It seemed like the destination was already on the map and that he was taking her there because he takes all his students to this same base of operations. It struck me that the sound he wanted wasn’t the sound that matched up with her very pleasant speaking voice.

I asked him, “Do you have in your mind beforehand an expectation of what your student should sound like?” His reply was “Yes. Absolutely. I consider it my responsibility.”

Oh.

I don’t have that attitude at all. I have the attitude that my students’ voices should operate from a functionally free place, in balance, going towards personal expression and uniqueness, communicaton and authenticity. Typically it takes not less than two years of consistent hard work by me and the student to begin to get there. This is in concert with experts like Vennard and Brown and has strong roots in classical vocal pedagogy from the earliest pedagogues as well. Never, at any point, do I decide ahead of time how a person “should” sound. We discover as time passes how they do sound and sometimes the changes that emerge are dramatic, dynamic, exciting and very surprising. I wouldn’t dare to presume that I “knew what was best” for the student’s voice before the singer even had a change to find out what the instrument wants to do or can do.

An open-ended system, in which there is no set goal, flies in the face of Western thinking. It is process-oriented rather than goal oriented and supposes the result will emerge in good time if you have as an intention a desire for it to do so. If the intention is to “see what the voice will do” in any given set of circumstances, that is often enough. Given enough time and diligent work, the singer’s heart will lead her towards the music she wants to sing and the ability to sing it, without sacrificing anything along the way.

For a singing teacher, having in mind the requisite requirements of musical styles is important, but that is different than having in mind how the student “should” sound. If you are in a college program that makes you train students to do art songs and arias in a juried context you really are under the gun to get a student to sing “professionally” as quickly as possible, particularly  if all you have is four years or perhaps six. This might necessitate “shaping” the voice to go where you think it probably ought to go as an educated guess. It might be so that most of the time these educated guesses are good and useful, but in the cases where they are not, the teacher runs the risk of “making” a young vocalist fit into a box that she might never leave. Inside, if she feels that her real voice is struggling to get out of that box, she could end up very depressed and unhappy, even if, “on the outside” she sounds completely acceptable and musically viable in her repertoire.

Asking questions, probing, exploring, playing, experimenting and waiting for growth is vital when working with someone who has a clear idea that he or she wants to be a professional singer. Trying things, technically, that stretch both the throat and the person, allows the singing psyche to grow and develop alongside the vocal mechanism, and gives the emerging artist time to evolve. While it may occasionally be possible to coax a prodigy into a high level performance mode in very little time, the vast majority of people who sing are not prodigies. Even very talented people need time and patience to  allow the full measure of their vocal artistry to flower.

“I Know What’s Best” is a very patriarchal attitude (if you are old enough, you will remember the 50s TV show, “Father Knows Best” which pointed out every week that he did not). We are not mini-gods knowing what’s best for everyone else. “Let’s See What Happens” is a much less domineering attitude and one that gives the student room to stop and look around during the training process.

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2 thoughts on “"I Know What’s Best"”

  1. AMEN, Jeanie!!

    In the music theatre department, we accept every year several students who have limited singing experience because they are exceptional dancers and/or actors. It’s fascinating to see how rapidly they develop as singers when they’re not forced down the path that doesn’t work. I occasionally ‘inherit’ an upper year student who has been sent down a wrong path. It’s challenging, but oh so rewarding when they finally become friends with their voice!

  2. Probably the vast majority of people in the profession of Education are like this. They have lesson plans, unit plans and expected outcomes. It’s just how most of them think. To folks like this, “flying by the seat of one’s pants” is horrifying. They HAVE to have a very concrete plan, or they become nervous and crumble. Applying this to the human element (the voice, in particular here) seems however ludicrous. This man must hardly ever live, “in the moment,” as Jeanie describes.

    Jeff

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