Really Radical

If we were really interested in teaching people to sing, we would entirely reorganize the way they are taught, from the ground up.

Most people take one weekly voice lesson lasting an hour. Of course, it’s possible to take more, but now, since they are generally expensive, many people come less than that, maybe twice a month or once a month. If the person is diligent and can practice, it’s not impossible to make progress coming that infrequently, but it is very slow. Sometimes, especially at schools, lessons are 30 or 45 minutes long. Not a lot of time for people to learn. Sometimes there are just 12 or 13 lessons in a semester. Sometimes it is in a voice class that people get vocal training, so that means even less personal time with the teacher. In a choral setting there may be only general information about singing or perhaps none at all. The rehearsals are devoted to learning music however the singers can, with no personal help at all.

If you went to the gym once a week for a half an hour, it wouldn’t do you much good. If you went for an hour a week, that would be better, but not much. If you were serious about getting into shape, I would think that at least 45 minutes of exercise three or four times a week would be a minimum requirement if you were to get any results especially if you wouldn’t be doing too much in between that was also getting you shaped up. If you were actually going to work out, it would be best if you had a personal trainer every day, at least 5 days a week, for not less than an hour, but maybe 90 minutes or even two hours. Then, you would really see results. You would also have someone making sure you weren’t doing anything wrong that might injure you, you would have someone to tell you when to make things harder or do things differently. You would have an outside observer giving you feedback about how to proceed. And, you would know what to do when not at the gym to make sure you stayed on the path to meet your goal through diet and rest, etc.

If we really want people to learn to sing, we should be giving all voice majors or serious singers lessons not less than three times a week, or ideally, every day five days a week. Then, they would have a chance to get somewhere before they were lost in the process, floundering around, wondering which way to proceed.

We should begin by giving all voice students a short course in vocal function. Where is the larynx and what does it do? How does vocal sound happen? What do you need to teach your body to do if it is going to learn to sing? What kinds of singing are there and how do they differ in demand and response? What would be a good way to know if your voice was healthy? How does a healthy voice sound and function?

Then, we would begin with physical training that would strengthen the core muscles, the postural muscles of the ribs, upper back and torso and we would work on physical flexibility and coordination. After that, we would investigate speech. Where and how do you speak? What can you do with your speaking voice? How can you get it to do things it wouldn’t do in conversational use? What should you feel or hear? Why?

Then we could begin to teach breathing beginning with postural work for alignment and then work with the action of the ribs and abs for singing, including separating rib cage position from abdominal muscle movement, until these areas work independently. Then we could begin to increase inhalation function and extend exhalation duration. Finally we could work on modulating exhalation pressure over time.

Next, we would begin to train for singing based solely on function. No music. How even is your sound on various vowels? How much range do you have? How easy is it for you to get loud or soft, high and low? Is your sound clear, nasal or noisy? How do your vowels sound? Is it easy for you to sustain slow sounds? How quickly can you go? How accurate are the pitch changes and the vowel sounds in fast singing? Can you add consonants? What does your voice sound like when it is relaxed? Where does it tense up? How does that feel? What can you do to avoid excess tension? How long should you sing? What kinds of things should you practice and how? What should you expect from the practice? How do you know if you are making reasonable progress? What criteria should you use? How do you know if what you are doing is wrong? How does that sound or feel?

Then, we could approach simple songs, applying specific approaches towards specific goals. Different music would ask for different things. What kinds of ideas apply to all songs? What kinds of ideas apply to songs from a specific style, period, composer, country, era? What kinds of things are important but not necessarily vocal, but rather musical or about the lyrics?

Then, can you read music? What are the basic ingredients of music theory? Do you need to learn everything or are there some musical ingredients you could skip or just know in a very cursory manner? If so, what are those ingredients? Do you need to be able to read music to sing well? If not, why not? If so, why? What does it do for you if you read music well when you are learning a song?

Finally, how do you sing in a way that has to do with being expressive? What does it mean to “interpret” a song? How do you convey the meaning of the lyrics, the melody line, the rhythm, the accompaniment? How can you be true to the song and true to yourself at the same time? What does it mean to remain within a style or to fall out of it? Should you alter the song? If so, in what way and how? If not, why not? How can you stay within a style without being stuck? How do you know if a song is too hard for you? How do you know if the song “fits” you? How do you know if the song should be in a different key?

It is amazing that youngsters learn to sing at all given the system we have now, and that we have had for hundreds of years. What is not amazing is that a master artist takes 10 years to attain that mastery. With this much to learn (and there is, of course, more), why do we teach only one lesson once a week and expect students to learn anything of consequence in a four year college program? Or during two or three years of graduate school?

And, if you spend years in classical vocal training and repertoire, how are you supposed to learn about the parameters of music theater or jazz or rock or gospel or country at the same time, especially when there is no guidance for that in most college (or high school or junior high school) music programs or private lessons?

We need to rethink the entire process as a profession. It really doesn’t serve well the way it is (one lesson at a time, every so often). It leaves too much to novice singers to do on their own. It makes the likelihood that only those with high aptitude ever learn to sing well. It makes the incidences of confusion, frustration and discouragement for those of modest ability much higher. It makes the process drawn out, tedious, and takes a very long time to get consistent results, both in physical coordination and in sound making. It makes singing freely, enjoyably and well, very elusive for a long time.

We can do much better by those who wish to learn to sing. Tear down the house so we can build back up on higher ground. Think about it.

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3 thoughts on “Really Radical”

  1. I think you are right about this! I have taken way too long to learn to sing.

    I joined a Kung Fu school four years ago, and there were various classes we could attend on different levels. We were told that to make progress we should come a minimum of 3x a week. The beginner classes were conditioning classes that went over the basics. After certain periods of advancement we were allowed to take the more advanced classes.

    You join the school and pay for the year — kind of like joining a gym. It sounds expensive when you pay the fee for the year, but it ended up breaking down to about $15 a class. You could additionally pay for private instruction if you wanted to go above and beyond. All the lower level instructors studied with the master sifu and knew his approach which they taught to the students.

    Something like this approach might be great for singers and incorporate the ideas you outline in your post, even for singers with busy schedules, because the majority of the students had jobs and commitments but somehow made it to the classes to learn and practice. Singers do need more individual attention, however, and these were group classes.

    Another feature of this model is that there were other teachers/instructors being bred at the same time as the students were learning, therefore being a good training model for teachers.

  2. really radical but oh so true. Love your post, like your style very much. Wish I were still in NYC. Time to make some changes in the way we learn; on all fronts!

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