The Truest Tragedy

What does one do when listening to a student sing and the student is in a master’s degree program at a university and sounds absolutely dreadful? What does one do when listening to a student who has just gotten a DOCTORATE in vocal performance and has not one but many obvious technical faults? What does one do when listening to someone who is in charge of an entire voice department at a university and that person’s speaking voice resembles that of Kermit the Frog?

The answer is: NOTHING.

There is nothing to do with these individuals, and believe me, I have had occasion to hear people in each of the above situations over and over again for years. They either don’t know they have problems, think that their voice is just “different”, know that they have problems but hope others don’t notice, know that they have problems and don’t really care, know they have problems but think they are “minor” so ignore them, have tried to solve the problems and failed and are at an impass, or maybe, all of those in combination. It is impossible to know.

What is NOT impossible to know is that the situations described above SHOULD NEVER EVER HAPPEN. What kind of training program gives a degree, be it a bachelors, a master’s, or even a doctorate, in a program of singing (and we are talking here of CLASSICAL singing, folks) to people who CANNOT, I repeat CANNOT, sing in an acceptable manner? We are not talking about musical values, or language skills, or the ability to perform, or understanding harmonic structure, as they all may be just fine. We are not talking about minor issues that every singer has and are to be expected. We are not talking about liking the voice as an instrument, as with these kinds of technical faults, you don’t have any chance to know what their instrument actually is. We are talking about producing a professional level classical sound that is fully functional, serving the needs of the music and the heart of the artist. In the case of someone who has just completed a bachelor’s degree, we are perhaps talking about a pre-professional sound, but one without huge technical flaws.

Wobbly jaws, flapping tongues, no high notes, no middle range, no low notes, no control over volume, distorted vowels, swallowed production, huge wide uneven vibratos, squeezed throats, uncoordinated breathing patterns, lack of resonance……all of these and more in people who have COMPLETED at least a four year and sometimes an 8 year degree program in classical vocal repertoire.

Could it be that those involved in the teaching do not really even know what a fully functional voice does or should do? Could it be that they cannot distinguish what is functional from what is biological? Could it be that people do not have the vaguest notion that vocal patterns can be changed and improved? Could it be that people do not have any clue about how to get those changes to happen in a comfortable and appropriate manner? The answer to each of these questions is a resounding YES.

These people, who are they, the teachers of singing? What kind of credentials do they have and where did they come from? Who hired them to teach and what were the criteria? Yes, maybe once in a while a student just doesn’t “get it” no matter who the teacher is, but then, does that mean they get a degree just because they paid money to go to school? I suppose, but that’s not good, is it?

I have heard some people who teach singing (private voice lessons — not chorus, not coaching) at the college level, holding master’s and doctoral degrees, whose own singing was just plain scary. I have also heard many of our most well-known voice scientist folks (who teach) who themselves CANNOT SING WELL. Tenors with no high notes, baritones with woofy top tones, sopranos with screetchy upper ranges, mezzos who swallow their sounds into the back of their neck…….But there they are, telling OTHER people to do things they themselves cannot do because they UNDERSTAND voice science. (They do not seem to know, however, how the science applies to the singing in order to help it be easier, better or more beautiful and expressive). Great.

Maybe it’s me, but this strikes me as being very nutty.

If you want to sing and you don’t care how you sound or how it feels, fine. That’s your choice. Maybe you don’t mind making yourself look foolish. But how, if you care at all about ethics, can you proport to teach something to someone that you could not yourself learn and master? The voice science information or the piece of paper does not a singer or a teacher of singing make. Really.

There is no greater tragedy than listening to a 21 year old struggling to sing a simple, lovely art song through a vocal instrument that has been tied in knots. There is nothing sadder than watching a distorted face, a stretched neck, a pulled down jaw that locks into position, hearing a vibrato as slow and wide and the Cowardly Lion’s and observe a breathing mechanism that cannot help because the larynx isn’t able to accept a free and full exhale. Nothing that hurts more than asking how the student feels about the performance only to get as an answer “It was OK, I liked it”. I would almost rather hear “I know it was a struggle and I really didn’t feel good about what I did, but I don’t know how to fix it”. At least I would know the singer was in touch with reality. And the blow that is the true knife-in-the-heart is that a student such as this can GET RID OF 50% OF THE TECHNICAL ISSUES within a 15 minute master-class session. Does this tell you that the problems sourced from the student or from THE TEACHING?

Yes, it might rock the boat if someone on a voice faculty spoke up and said “I don’t believe this student should get a degree in classical vocal performance, singing in this manner”, and yes, I suppose if the student were studying with the department chair, the complaining teacher could get fired for speaking forthrightly, but if NOT ONE PERSON in all of the 4 years or 6 years or 8 years could stop the train from being a wreck, what does that say about the SYSTEM? Not one teacher, one department, one school, but ALL OF THOSE, as this is not a rare or unusual occurance.

Where are the INDUSTRY STANDARDS? Why has no one set down an objective description of what a functional voice should be able to do at the level of a bachelors, a master’s, and a doctorate? This is not unknown information. Where is NATS here?

We are ALL responsible for this state of affairs. Every single person who teaches singing on a college faculty is responsible if we continue to do nothing and let these situations continue.

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4 thoughts on “The Truest Tragedy”

  1. and a student who feels this something-wrong, who goes on a search for THE teacher, is accused of just not learning what the teacher is teaching. I am really glad that I found your site long ago, and have read it for years now. I know where I will and CAN go for (real) help, hopefully, soon! Thanks!

  2. On the other side of the coin…
    I have a former student who I’m trying to get back into lessons. He is 22 and sings in a rock band. Upon hearing a performance recently, I made some suggestions and also suggested he resume study with me so we could “fix a couple things.” He took offense. He “likes the way his voice sounds” and thinks I’m wanting to turn him into something he’s not. He thinks that because I’m his father’s age, I don’t know anything about current rock. Also, “all of his favorite singers crack into a raspy falsetto,” so he thinks that’s cool. I went so far as to tell him that I have concern for his longevity. He laughed.

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