It seems that the world has not been stopped by the publication of my article in Karen Hall’s NATS Journal of Singing “Independent Studio” column wherein I stated that “there is no such thing as classical training”. I expected backlash (which is perhaps yet to come) because I haven’t yet been so bold, although I have had the idea for decades.

In a profession that has no national standards, and certainly no local standards, about what teachers of singing are supposed to know, to teach or to do in terms of conduct, it is amazing that we had any kind of “professionalism” at all. The  choices open to a student when I was young in the 60s were: go to a classical conservatory or university to study this repertoire, go to drama school, or go get a degree in Speech Language Pathology. It was also possible, of course, not to get a degree at all, or to get a specialized degree. I don’t think there were any jazz vocal programs back then either. I did not finish the program I started at Manhattan School of Music because it was an awful fit. My teacher there, Uta Graf, a Wagnerian soprano, had no use for me or my voice.

Eventually, some colleges began to offer music theater training, which was and still is a “mixed bag” (a phrase also from the 60s), in that the course materials can run the gamut and there is no “normal” in terms of how the curriculum is structured. It falls to the individuals involved either as teachers or as department chairs. The students take what they have to take and that’s that. There may or may not be “vocal technique” training, and it may or may not be with someone who has music theater experience, and it may or may not be with someone who has tried to learn what he or she did not, from their own life experience, actually encounter. There are so many other factors, but, sadly, there is little agreement about them.

If you presume that a good classical singer can generate a lot of volume and a certain specific acoustic spectrum (“resonance”) and you assume the tone sounds “beautiful” and that there is a steady, but not too obvious, vibrato, and that the consonants are minimally there, and that there is at least two octaves of usable range, then the methods that were used to acquire those skills can be assumed to have worked. What you cannot presume, of course, is that the person who has worked to attain these skills is also expressive, creative, and can understand what is necessary in order to convey the song to the audience. And all of this is separate from having a career as a singer which entails being plucky, facing failure, maintaining body and soul, and having enough money to do whatever is needed without killing yourself (or anyone else!!) getting it.

If the profession is finally willing to separate the training process out from “being an artist” and “learning art songs” to “promote” growth of both the voice and the person, and look at technical training for what it is: a physical coordination over the throat and body such that the singer has easy control over the sound while allowing it to do the job at hand of singing whatever music is being performed, then halleluia! Perhaps we are turning a corner in this respect. Think of what it could mean to students to have teachers who not only understood the mechanism, but also understood how to train it to do whatever job it is required to do in specific styles or songs.

One of the reasons there is so much contentiousness in the teaching of singing is because a lot of people who teach do not know what they are doing and they don’t want to be “found out”, else they lose their livelihoods. Another reason is that there are quite a few people who live in a world called “singing is a mystery” and each person, each lesson is unique, i.e., there is no order to the process in any aspect. Another is that teachers learn one way, and that way becomes a religion and if they find any other point of view, it becomes “blasphemy” and needs to be fought against, lest things get corrupted. Another reason is that teaching singing is regarded as teaching songs, and only songs, and people make the sounds they do and that can’t be changed.

All of these things are very unfortunate. They are out there. They are not going away quickly, no matter what happens. They are, however, GOING AWAY. I consider that a kind of progress. Believe me, I take what I can get when it comes to singing teaching. ‘

If you can help things change, I thank you for that. Keep on keeping on!

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3 thoughts on “Progress”

  1. Maybe there hasn’t been backlash because people are very slow to read their NATS’ Journal, and sometimes articles are not read until a year after publication, if at all. I encourage everyone to put their Journal in the bathroom and multitask! At least things get read that way. I must confess, I have not even read the article yet. And that is from someone who hangs on most of your words!!!

  2. I read the article the day it arrived in the post, and remember reading the line you quote in your post: “There is no such thing as classical training.” My first thought was: “Well…that’s a provocative statement!” Getting voice teachers to think about “why-do-what-they-do” is a good thing in my book.

    We live in a time when “fact-free teaching” isn’t acceptable any more. We also live in a time when a great of information about the voice is only a click away. Older vocal pedagogies exist along with current research—the García and Lamperti Schools being two which contain a body of knowledge which many consider the heart and soul of “classical training.” If little is known about their methods today, this only reveals how incurious we have become about the history of ideas/concepts which form the basis of research today.

  3. I try to live and breathe the same enthusiasm that you show and share with us in regard of voice training. When the singers “get it” and they find singing easy compared to how they were trained before meeting me (and you in extension), there just isn’t anything better than that. The pure joy, the security they feel, the artists they can become. I am grateful every day for the week at Shenandoah that changed my life and how I approach singing and teaching. Thank you!

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