Talent, No Lessons

Many years ago, when I was about 16, my mother attended some kind of “women’s gathering” at which she sat next to someone she did not know. Inevitably, they started to talk about their children and the topic of singing came up. My mother mentioned to the woman that her daughter was studying voice. The other woman said to her, “Oh, that’s too bad. My daughter sings too, but she is so talented she doesn’t need lessons”. Much to her credit, my mother didn’t reply with anything except a smile.

This mentality is still out there.

In August, a woman who fancies herself to be a jazz vocalist called me to have a lesson. She had been to see me three years prior, for one lesson. She informed me that she had been practicing with that lesson (for THREE YEARS!!!!) and that she had discerned that the exercises I had given her were “pretty helpful” and she thought maybe one more would be “good”. She had the session, she disappeared.

There was another woman, trained originally as a classical soprano, who also moved into singing jazz, who had been taught that “chest register” was harmful and that it should always be avoided. That’s a tough attitude to cling to when you want to sing jazz. She had three lessons with me in which we touched on her suppressed chest register and, bingo, that solved her problem! Magic! We barely scratched the surface of making significant changes in her technique, but she didn’t seem to notice or care. When I ran into her three years later she told me she was still practicing with the last lesson every day. [Hokey Smoke, Bullwinkle!]

The idea that you should practice every single day of your life with the same exercises, done in the same sequence is popular in some circles. In my former apartment building, a classical mezzo soprano who had a very viable career lived directly over me. She would always start her day with her vocal practice, which I eventually learned, unfortunately, by heart, but not by choice. She sang the same awful exercises in the same awful way, every single day, sounding covered, swallowed and loud, but consistent. By golly, she was consistent. I went to see her once in a performance of “The Creation” at Carnegie Hall and when she got up to sing the song about “frogs, frogs, frogs” in her croaky swallowed sound, I nearly imploded, keeping myself quiet.

There is a difference between rote learning and conscious awareness that facilitates transformation. Repeating anything mindlessly isn’t particularly useful but it can still produce a result, if you know how to do whatever it is correctly. Singing a pattern of notes and pitches in a certain sequence because someone told you to is better than singing nothing, especially if while you sing you are singing freely and without issue. Singing a different pattern of notes and pitches in a certain different sequence might be good, but not necessarily. Doing rote practice, however, doesn’t give you much except muscle patterns and sound making behaviors.

Actual learning must involve awareness, particularly when dealing with a highly complex physical skill. Although not much happens initially, and practice at that point can be more or less rote, it can’t stay that way for long. The person practicing needs to know why the exercises are being done, what they will do for the voice over time, how to do them, and when. The vocalist needs to learn to pay attention to the various feedback loops of sound, feeling and sensation but also to understand what to do with that gathered sensory information when it is obtained. If it can’t be used, why bother to collect it?

Absolutely no one who has reached any level of expertise has no training at all. Even if they have natural ability, they have to study with someone who will advise and guide them. Mozart and Picasso studied with their fathers, as did Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne. Joan Sutherland studied with her mother. Beverly Sills, who was a child soprano of great skill before she became an international opera sensation  as an adult began studying as a child with her one and only teacher, Estelle Liebling, herself a student of Mathilde Marchesi, who studied with Garcia. Illustrious artists and teachers in that lineage!

The idea that you can gain expertise or mastery by singing along with the same limited, specific group of CDs or a DVD every day for years is simply ridiculous. The thought that a talented person doesn’t need private lessons is equally so. The beliefs that there is one way to sing or use the voice or one pattern of exercise that “keeps you in good shape” or one approach that will never fail, are all based on very limited vision and understanding.

Even the most talented students need lessons. Sometimes the more talented you are, the more you need the lessons to help you clarify, deepen, define and own your talent. The people who manage to get by without lessons are doing just that.

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