I want to ask the folks who read this blog, how often do you get out to see and hear live vocalists? If you are in a small town, are there performances that you can attend of different kinds of singing? Do you ever hear anyone sing who is not amplified? Have you ever been to the Metropolitan Opera or a major Broadway show in New York?
I think sometimes that people who teach singing and people who sing or aspire to have only heard music from the Top 40 radio stations for most of their lives. They listen to music through headphones or in the car. If they go to church they might hear a good soloist, but not necessarily, and these days all church music is amplified, so that’s a specific kind of sound.
A few years ago a young woman came to me for lessons. She said she had a degree in music theater from a local college. She said she was thinking of applying to Juilliard for her master’s degree.
Her vocal technique was a mess. She had no real idea of how to sing traditional music theater songs nor the contemporary pop/rock ones. She did have a very nice voice and had a sort of “legit-ish” head register on her high notes. What she knew about vocal production and breathing you could write on the proverbial head of a pin.
When I asked her what classical music she had studied in college she said “Ave Maria” and that she had also once sung “My Favorite Things” from Sound of Music. She had never sung an art song and did not know what an art song was. She had no language skills and was not able to execute a consistent classical sound in any pitch range on any vowel at any volume. Nevertheless, she was going to apply to Juilliard.
I had to wonder what she did in her four years at college working on “music theater”. Was there anyone on faculty who even had a clue? The entire event reminded me of how little actual music education most people have and how the consequences of that are a complete lack of musical sophistication. The bar falls lower and lower as fewer people are taught music education in schools and as teachers are further and further away from any grounding in classical vocal repertoire. This is true also of music theater, particularly American music theater. Except for doing a “school musical” my guess is that no musicals are studied in any curriculum of K-12 school, unless it is a special one with unique programs. It makes sense then that no one really knows what’s good or bad, what should be there and what should not, what makes up certain kinds of musical and vocal criteria and what does not.
We live in a time when there are greater resources available to audiences than at any other time in history. One no longer has to go to a live performance to hear singing or to the library to borrow an LP or to the record store to purchase one. We can find any kind of singing or music on the internet and purchase most of it within minutes. We can see and hear just about anything if we look hard enough. The one thing that we can’t do is create more opportunities to attend live performances of high quality. If you almost never see a high level vocalist in live performance you can’t substitute a recorded version and think that it is the same.
It’s up to us to be sure we not only attend live performances of vocal music but that we keep up the pressure on communities to make sure that venues for live singing are available. It’s up to us to be sure that our schools have music education and that the teachers in our school have something valid to teach. If we do not do this then we must bear some responsbility for universities allowing young people to graduate with a degree in something without having any credible information to back up the piece of paper.