The Universe As We Want It To Be

Human beings are capable of believing some amazing things. I couldn’t begin to list the ideas that have been taken up by millions of people that are, at best, silly, and at worst, dangerous.

Singing teachers, then, are no worse off than a lot of other groups of folks. They are no less blind, pig-headed, and stuck in their thinking than any other collection of individuals. I write about them, of course, because I am part of this group, and I get to see and deal with their attitudes on an almost daily basis.

It seems to me that many singing teachers don’t know and maybe never knew that there is a difference between a “good voice” and “good singing” and between “having a good voice” and “being an artist”. Even if you stick to classical music, you can go to Maria Callas, whose instrument became flawed at an early age, as someone who didn’t sound great, but was an amazing artist. In CCM, there are dozens of people who have had major careers with awful voices or not great voices. These days, it is as if the music business seeks out people with no special vocal quality, deliberately.

What’s worse, the teachers, who are supposed to be the experts about what constitutes “good singing” often don’t know what that is either. They think that good singing is whatever they like. (How’s that as a fair basis for evaluation?) That means that the people teaching opera sometimes don’t know what good opera singing is, or what an “operatic voice” is. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I am talking here from personal experience. (I couldn’t possibly make this stuff up). A teacher I knew once told me that Leontyne Price “couldn’t sing”. (??????) Another one told me that Fredericka von Stade was “boring” (!!!!!!!) Give me a break! I would have understood either of these people saying “I don’t care for this artist’s voice or style” but to make these comments is to demonstrate enormous ignorance, not wisdom. I could only quake thinking of their students.

The people with ideas like this are sometimes in positions of great importance…..they are making rules about audition and course requirements, choosing winners of competitions, and choosing who gets work. It’s scary to think of how little fundamental agreement exists in teaching singing over even the smallest criteria, yet teachers of singing act as if we all had the same ideas about all sorts of things. Voice science has helped some in this regard, but now there are a lot of teachers who know a little science and think that’s all they need to know. We are all familiar with the adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and this couldn’t be more true than in the case of singing teachers. They throw around words like “larynx” and “vocal folds” with little connection to anything more than whatever they imagine these body parts to be in their own minds.

I read an article recently written by someone who had taken a course in introductory voice science that contained every buzz word in the course. Anyone reading it with some modicum of knowledge garnered immediately that the writer barely understood how to discuss simple vocal function, but she surely knew that if she used all the big, fancy words she would impress the folks who had never seen them before, including the editor of the publication where the article appeared.

Singing teachers who believe that classical singing is a “one size fits all” training will continue to lump all CCM voices into the same category (awful or acceptable). Since most of them wouldn’t know a “good” belt sound from a “bad” belt sound, and have to rely totally on the singers’ own perception of what works, analyzing further what is happening is pointless. Sending such people out to teach (happens every day) is a sad and sorry state of affairs, and saying so isn’t meant to be an inflammatory statement, just something truthful. The teachers of singing who find such sounds awful would love for the sounds, and the styles in the music business that generate them, to just go away and die. The ones who have found them acceptable, but won’t personally sing them, will continue to hope that what they think and what they teach are somehow in the ballpark (and the students are on their own with that). Those of us who do make the sounds, who understand what we are doing when we make them, who understand how to explain that to another person to help them make them, who know what constitutes doing them in a healthy and appropriate manner, and who can make other kinds of sounds as well, will have to just keep on keeping on with the crusade. There’s no harm in hoping that we can have a universe as we want it to be.

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