The Other Place With Problems

If you study classical singing you will be taught to breathe (in any of dozens of ways), you will be taught to “vibrate something” in your head (take your pick — forehead, eyebrows, eye sockets, back of the nose, cheekbones, face bones, front teeth). You might be taught to “relax” (in some vague manner), you might be taught to “make the sound (fill in any of the following – float, spin, ring, buzz, point, focus, lift, open, widen, deepen, fill out, go forward, fly across the street, or just “project”). You might be taught to never move your larynx, your jaw, your face, your head or your ribs (everyone likes the upper body to be quiet. That’s the only thing that is agreed upon by everyone). You might be told to make your consonants “soft” or to clearly pronounce all consonants. You might be told to “sing on the breath” to “create a legato line” but not to be breathy or slur the pitches (good luck). You might be told to grip your belly muscles all the time, to use them only on high notes or loud notes or to leave them alone so they stay “relaxed”. You might be told to use your back muscles when you breathe (good luck again), or to feel like you are defecating while you sing loudly. You might be told that you should “act like you don’t have a (tongue, jaw, mouth, head)” or that you should never ever pay attention to what you feel or hear, lest it distract you. Of course, you should do this while noticing the vibration in your head, which you feel but do not notice. You might be taught to speak or sing from your diaphragm or your belly (which would be easy if the vocal folds were in either location). You might be taught that “you listen too much”, “you think too much”, or “you try too hard”.

You will be taught that the music has to be learned accurately. There will be a great deal of emphasis on the pitches and rhythms so that they are sung exactly as written (most of the time). You will be taught several foreign languages in various songs and hopefully will learn to speak them at least minimally, although if you never get there, probably no one will worry about it a whole lot. You will be taught about the great European classical composers of the last 400 years and you will learn to sight sing and train your ear. You might be taught to play piano a bit, and to take musical dictation. You will probably also be taught to evaluate music in terms of harmony and theory, at least enough to analyze a score.

You may be taught some kind of acting. What kind and how much is anyone’s guess. You might be taught “stage deportment” and I would not presume for a minute to say what that would be. You might be taught some kind of dance or movement, but you might not.

What you almost certainly will not be taught is to ask yourself, “How would this person, if she were a live, breathing human being and not someone in an opera, sound if they were experiencing this situation?” You will not be asked to find a sound that is as close to that as possible, without sacrificing your own vocal production. You will not be taught how to bring together your vocal production, your emotional understanding of the communication of the song or aria and what it means to the character, and make them all become one. You might want to make that happen on your own, but you would have to have a strong desire and have a great deal of natural ability if you were to succeed.

How do I know this? Because I have been traveling all over the country (and the world) for the last 25 years doing master classes (both CCM and classical) and I RARELY find this at any level. Not undergrads, not grads, sometimes not even in young professionals (although by then, it frequently has finally arrived because if it had not, they would not be working).

Is it any wonder then that most average people do not like classical singing or music when they hear it? What is there to draw them in? Is it any surprise that those few artists who have somehow combined excellent vocal skills with a great instrument with deep emotional communication often end up with international careers?

What human beings respond to is emotion. Garcia said that in the early 1800s. Human beings are drawn in by powerful emotions in every circumstance. What we remember in life are the moments that are full of emotional power. Yes, intellectual stimulation is important and new ways to think are also fascinating, but not anywhere nearly as compelling as raw gut emotion.

If you want to succeed as a singer, no matter what you sing, find a way to get at your own emotional life and hook it to your best vocal expression. It always works.

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