Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce was arrested a number of times on charges of obscenity. Compared to what comedians get away with now, what he did was minor, but back then, it was a big deal. He broke the rules and it was because he did so that comics like Richard Pryor or George Carlin had it a little easier when they broke rules, too.

Bruce said that it was necessary for a few people to “push the envelope” and he was right. In every case whenever anyone came along to challenge the status quo, that person or group was seen as being a threat — to stability, to decorum, to standards, to security, to ……… Yet, because that person had the guts to break through the accepted barriers, those who came after had a new path to follow. In time, the renegades become the heroes, the trendsetters and the “important” influences. It’s ironic that some of them don’t live to see this happen.

In a field where there are no accepted criteria, and teaching singing is certainly one in that category, it is difficult to “push the envelope” because not many people even know there is an envelope. The world of learning to sing in a formal sense only began in the USA at Juilliard in 1938. Before that, you had to take private lessons if you wanted to be a professional singer. For a long time, there were very few places you could go to study in a school. Now, of course, all that has changed.

When Juilliard started its program, there was no discussion of training singers for other styles because (a) styles as we know them now didn’t really exist. There was jazz, folk and maybe country music, but only jazz was a national phenomenon. Music theater was still heavily influenced by opera and vaudeville. Rock, pop, gospel, rap, and their variations didn’t exist so there couldn’t have been a pedagogy in a school. Then, (b) experts who would have been needed to teach other styles would have had to have been coaxed from the musical world to become academicians and to create codified “norms” for testing and grading. None of this would have been very feasible in l938, so training stayed classical and only classical for singers who wanted to attend a college for a very long time.

Finally, in the 1980s, colleges began to realize that there was money to be made by allowing students to sing “musicals”and began asking the faculty (all classical) to teach music theater repertoire as a part of the degree programs. It took a while longer for a few colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in music theater, and now a very few offer master’s degrees in music theater, but they are not vocal performance  degrees in music theater, but general degrees in which singing plays a part.

It would have been hard to “push the envelope” of singing training in any of the prior decades because there wasn’t much to push. You can’t push beef stew. Now, however, with the many vocal degree programs at various colleges, both classical and music theater, as well as some few jazz degrees, the “envelope” seems ripe for a fracture. Why not train singers to address the many and varied technical demands of each style as if those differences were real and mattered?

First you have to recognize that there is zero agreement about what a “classical” sound is amongst those who sing it and teach it. Problem there. [Yes, we know it when we hear it, but we can’t write it down in a way garners agreement from multiple parties, so what can we really say about any of it?] Second, you have to acknowledge that there are no accepted criteria regarding training in terms of developmental parameters or functional applicability. Third, there is no way to test for teaching effectiveness except by noticing how many singers studying with any specific teacher are working in the music marketplace as vocalists. That can be misleading, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

Then, in order to “push the envelope”, you have to establish that there is an envelope, that it has certain contents and that it needs to be pushed. In other words you need to have a sense what the “big picture” (the envelope) is. In terms of classical vocal training that would mean knowing what it typically entails, where it takes place, who teaches it, what kinds of things are taught, why they are taught, and why any of the preceding matters. Not many people are familiar with all these parameters. Sometimes not even the people who are teaching in the colleges see the bigger picture. You have to go into those programs but be outside of them in order at the same time to see the whole with some degree of perspective. If you can make an assessment from this vantage point and you see that a whole lot of things are missing or just plain don’t make sense, you have to get that envelope ripped open. You have to push it until it yields.

Who are the Lenny Bruces of singing teaching? I know a few personally. They aren’t going to be arrested, but if there had been any “voice police” I’ll bet they would have been locked up a long time ago.

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