Opera Versus Functional

The new rule is: all good training for the voice is functional training. No more “classical” training, anywhere.

If you sing classical music (i.e. opera, art song, chamber music, orchestral solos, early music (renaissance, baroque) and oratorio), then you train for that. Singing Verdi is not the same, in any way, as singing John Dowland. Singing Bach will not help you sing Wagner. Let’s get that straight once and for all. There is no such thing as “classical training” — there is training for classical music repertoire which has to be adjusted, not only for the era and style, but for the individual.

And, let’s also say that there are many approaches to teaching classical singing, some of which conflict with each other. There are those who say “no chest register” and those who say “use chest register” (although they may call it something else). There are those that say, “breath support is the answer” and “those that say “correct placement is the answer” and there are those that say “keep the belly muscles in” and those that say “push the belly muscles out”. There are those that like the tone to be “forward and bright” and those that like “open in the back” or “always keep the larynx low” (which makes the sound fat but sometimes too fat) and those that want to always be in between, wherever that is — take your pick. There are those who believe that everything is in “singing on the breath”, or in “making a legato line” or “spinning out the high notes” or resonating the “masque”. There are those who tell you to “soften the consonants” or to “pronounce everything with precise clarity” or find something in between, whatever that is — take your pick. We have those who say you must not ever really feel anything emotional while you sing, least you upset your throat, and those who say that you should feel everything fully and whatever happens, happens. I could go on.

The idea that there is a kind of generic “classical” training is a myth that exists in two places: colleges and in the minds of the singing teachers who are on their voice faculties.

If we regard training for the voice (and body) as anything which makes the voice stronger, more expressive, more vital, more versatile, more able to stay healthy, more likely to reflect the human condition, then training for both speech and song would each cover everything. Speech training is often more physical than singing training in relation to the use of the body, but speech training does not include things like vibrato, or sustained pitch (in deliberate measures of length and at specific decibel levels), nor does it require precise rhythmic patterns, as does singing. It does not usually address vocal registers directly. It looks at range but not with the specificity that singing demands. It does not ask the performer to make music in any direct way. In a perfect world, singing training would supersede the need for speech training, as full out singing actually asks more from the voice in terms of complexity and demand than does speech, but that is rarely the case.

And, as I have said over and over on this blog, in universities there is a cult of schooling for schooling’s sake. This means that people go to school so that they can teach other people, essentially with only that for “experience”. Since singing outside of school constitutes real world experience, having little or no professional level real world experience does not qualify someone to be an able singer. Further, singing for a group of other people who have similar backgrounds does not break the pattern. If the entire department of a college is full of mediocre vocalists who could not work as singers in the first place, because they were not good enough, how would anyone ever know what excellent singing really was? How would someone who was a world class vocalist do in such a department? Would everyone be cowed or jealous? Would people recognize the difference in someone who was truly exceptional as being that or would they be unable to comprehend that in any way?

If you have not done surgery but go into medical college to teach it, what would happen? Is that possible? If your singing skills are honed in school and then you stay in school and teach, how do you know if you belong there as a teacher?

It’s not impossible. Some really good singers have not had careers and are great teachers and some people with really good careers teach but have no clue what they are doing. There are no pat answers here. It would, however, be a good thing if the entire subject were more open to scrutiny than it is.

Can you tell that today I taught yet another person who had “lots of years of classical training” with “several opera teachers” and exhibited multiple technical problems most of which got immediately better in just one lesson? Why are you not surprised?

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2 thoughts on “Opera Versus Functional”

  1. Nope, no surprise at all that technique can be vastly improved in a single lesson. Of course, if your student has gone to “classical teachers” who believe things like “It takes eight years to ‘place’ the voice” then we would expect that kind of attitude. After all, if those teachers knew how to correct the technical problems, then they wouldn’t think it took 8 years.

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