Respect For All Kinds Of Music

Anthony Tommasini, the classical reviewer of the New York Times, recently reviewed 85 year old Barbara Cook and had the nerve to say [my words, paraphrasing] that she wasn’t quite up to singing really hard music, the way classical singers do, since she is so old. What nerve. The Times (another reviewer) said something similar about Streisand last week, too. At 70 she sounded great. Not like her 30 year old self, but why should she sound like that? Why should anyone? Yet, they make those comments. PLEASE.

Mr. T particularly is so unbelievably clueless. He lives in the world where classical singing is “elevated” and “great” and other styles are well, “something less”. That he gets away with this attitude is always obvious in his reviews as he manages to say something unconscious or deliberately snarky, thinking, it seems, that this is the “correct” view.

American music of all styles is not lesser than classical music, it’s just different. It is just as hard to sing “Take Me, Baby, Or Leave Me” from Rent as it is to sing Mozart’s “Non So Piu”, maybe in some ways much harder, especially if you have to sing it 8 times a week. There isn’t much difference between singing “An Die Musik” and singing “In The Still Of The Night” in terms of vocal use. What is different is the style and that matters, but the level of difficulty for the voice is low in both songs if the singers are skilled and experienced.

If it were up to me I would make the large institutions change what they think today. In the future, opera houses will have musicals running alongside operas as regular fare and it may be, if training continues along functional lines, that we could even see Rent running along side Lulu or Carmen. You never know. The point is, just because opera has been around longer, it isn’t any more valuable than other styles.

Art has caught up with this idea in every are except singing. Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder are not considered “lesser” artists than Monet or Degas, at least in terms of what they cost and how they are regarded by museums and critics. I don’t think anyone would say that Balanchine’s choreography was more valuable than that of the choreographers working in the major ballet houses and companies of this present moment. We have Twyla Tharp creating dances for ballet companies and Broadway shows. No one makes “remarks” about that. She’s not alone, either.

But, when it comes to singing, the Times major critic has only one point of view — classical is harder, classical is better. This attitude continues to feed the people who also share it all the other places of the world, most particularly, and unfortunately, in this country where all but a few CCM styles were born.

If we really respected this music there would be requirements that people who wrote about it or taught it or had to deal with it in any other public arena would understand each style, each world, on its own terms and treat it with dignity and integrity. You cannot write about music theater with a classical mindset. Yes, there are a few places where the viewpoints overlap, but they are less every day.

Classical singing requires singers to generate a “singer’s formant cluster” in order to be heard unamplified over an orchestra, (all but the very high sopranos, who can rely on the pitches) and you need to be able to generate a good amount of volume. You need consistent vibrato, consistent production, and a distinctive voice. You need to understand languages, and you need to be an OK actor. You had better have some clear way of using your breathing mechanism, too, or you won’t have enough volume or stamina to keep going. You need at least an octave and a half to two octaves of range.

Music theater is driven by lyrics and communication of their meaning. It asks for specific vocal qualities and various styles. It is concerned with clarity most of the time, both of word and of intention. A good voice is always nice but I have heard so many not so good voices over the years….some of them have actually won Tony awards. Range depends on the role.

Jazz is concerned with phrasing, intonation, musical variation and rhythmic freedom and consistency. It may or may not be concerned with the lyrics in a literal sense, because sometimes there are no lyrics, just syllables or humming. Sometimes words are “bent” on purpose. You don’t need a certain kind of vocal quality, or range, or vibrato, or power.

Each of the other styles has its own parameters. Some artists can go in and out of several styles comfortably, some not. If they were all equally easy everyone would sing everything and nothing would be its own distinct style at all.

One of these days the Times will have reason to replace Mr. T. When they do, I hope they get a reviewer who isn’t stuck in classical snobbery.

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