"’I’ve Studied Singing For X Years"

It’s not uncommon for me to have a new student come into my studio and tell me they have studied singing previously with one or more teachers. I always ask how long they studied and what that study entailed. Sometimes I get reasonably good answers, but often I don’t get much more than general answers with flimsy information. Sometimes I get answers that are scarily wrong.

If you know you know, then you can say what you know. If you think you know, you might make things up to explain. If you are guessing, you have no choice but to make up explanations and if you are clueless, you don’t know that you don’t know. Singers come in all these flavors and singing training does, too.

You cannot learn a physical process generally. You cannot “sort of” sing with good technique. You cannot expect to get better at something because someone has pointed out that you do it poorly, incorrectly or without skill. (Happens all the time). You cannot “fix” something that you don’t know is broken unless someone who is knowledgeable tells you what about it is broken and how it got that way and what, exactly, you have to do to fix it and how you will know when it is back to normal or meets certain criteria. And all that has to make sense in plain English, not voice teacher jargon.

There is a difference between knowing that something could be better or done in a more efficient manner and saying that it is WRONG. And, if the person has acquired a skill that has worked professionally for quite a while, saying that the skill set is automatically faulty is simply ignorant.

I recently spoke to someone who had sung successfully in the CCM community for 20 years. He decided to go back to school to pursue a doctoral degree. Right now, the only doctoral degrees available to someone who sings are found in classical singing, so he immersed himself in that repertoire. During his 5 years of study, he was told that his previous training was “all wrong” and that the new way, the classical way, was correct. This pronouncement was made by his teachers. In order to draw this conclusion you would have to discount 20 years of professional success in CCM yet the likelihood that this young man could have maintained a professional career with really faulty vocal or musical skills flies in the face of common sense (see recent blog post here). It did not occur to the teacher(s) that the skill set of a CCM singer, doing R&B, Latin, and other styles, might need to be different because, to the singing teachers, that possibility simply does not exist. I was able to explain to the singer that his style, prior to his doctoral studies, was probably based on decent vocal function and that his classical chops were no better, and maybe not even as good, as his previously accessible technical capacities.

Most teachers of classical singing have been brainwashed. They were told that classical training was “one size fits all” and that being “classically trained” would allow them to sing anything well. As I have said here many times, that is ridiculous. Since classical training is hardly organized and no one could agree on what, exactly, it has to contain or teach, assuming that it will give you skills to sing styles of music that weren’t even in the realm of science fiction 200 plus years ago is just preposterous. Yet that belief is perpetuated every day.

At one time we believed that African Americans were inferior people. We thought that women’s bodies were not capable of doing vigorous sports. We believed the world was flat. We believed the sun rotated around the earth. We (that is, most of the human race) believed these things were “true” and we had arguments to back them up, sometimes even “scientific” arguments. In good time, all of these strongly held beliefs were shown to be false. Yet, there was resistance, sometimes very strong resistance, to the truth, even when it should have been obvious. The idea that “classical training” (whatever that might be) is not going to help you sing rock, pop, gospel or anything else unless you are a very talented person who can morph the training process into something that fits your particular needs is widespread. That people manage to learn to use classical training to help them sing any style is real, but that is a testament to the genius of the singers, not to the applicability or usefulness of their training method.

I have seen people in my studio who claim to have “studied singing” with a “very good” teacher for 5, 7, 9 and even 12 years, who show no evidence whatsoever of training. They are often devastated to be told they have few skills, and some are angry (at me), even though I say this as gently and carefully as I possibly can. They don’t believe me. It’s tough to watch.

Singing training should produce specific results. If you don’t know what they are, you can find out, but you might have to do a little digging. If you want to train your voice to sing repertoire that is not “classical” you do not need to “study classically” to gain skills, but if that is the only training available to you, it can help as long as you understand that it can only go so far and it has to stick to certain functional parameters. If you don’t know what those are, be very careful. You could end up being one of those people who has wasted a lot of time studying singing for X years and learning zip.

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2 thoughts on “"’I’ve Studied Singing For X Years"”

  1. It amazes me that some people with classical training DO manage to figure it out – often, I think, in spite of their training. How devastating for the ones who don’t and haven’t found the right teachers.

  2. I studied classically for six years, while also performing CCM styles. Then, for about ten years, sang mostly CCM with a little Classical occasionally, at church. I was doing wonderfully with both. Then, I went to grad school and studied a semester with a classical teacher. I have not been the same since. I cannot say that the classical training is what tied me into knots or if it was the stress of an incredibly busy life, or a combination of the two. But… Bad teaching and bad technique in any style is just that. Bad.
    Jeff Costello

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