Training Backwards

There is, in this world, such as thing as specialization. There are many people who are “elite” at what they do, and they got that way by being concentrated on one thing and one thing only. There are very, very few exceptions where someone might be equally good at two things, but, generally, if the whole world acknowledges that someone is “the best” at whatever it is, that is the case.

Think about it. The world class athletes who are medalists don’t do more than one thing unless doing more than one thing is what they do (decathlon, triathlon, Iron Man/Woman) but even the people who do those sports do not complete again the specialists who just do a specific one. It’s not a surprise that great baseball players are not also great tennis players (although they might be pretty decent), or that great swimmers don’t automatically do gymnastics well, (even though both sports are “whole body” developers).

Broadway asks that performers be “triple threats”. Dancers need to do ballet, tap, and jazz and sometimes other kinds of dance as well (swing, African, modern, etc.). It’s the same for acting on Broadway…..present moment, revivals, drama, music. If you include other forms of acting (TV, film, industrials) the range actors must have is enormous. Singers, too, must be very versatile. Very few can do “just one kind of singing”. You need to do rock belting and legit and formal styles, new productions, older shows. There are some few performers who have skirted the issue of having to sing “all over the place”, but not too many.

If, however, you want to specialize in singing elsewhere, you can, and often it helps to do so. If you are a “Verdi” baritone, you do that rep most of the time. If you are a true “Mozart” soprano, you don’t do much, if any, Puccini. If you are a prima ballerina (or male principal danseur), you don’t tap. If you are the Swan Queen, you don’t do Alvin Ailey’s choreography. If you sing Rose in Gypsy, well, that is a whole world in itself!

Yes, there are a few exceptions. Wynton Marsalis has played classical trumpet and done well (but has not garnered as much success for doing that as he has found in playing jazz). Eileen Farrell was successful years ago with her blues singing (but nowhere near as successful as she was in opera). Paul McCartney and Billy Joel have written classical music (but neither has been as successful in that as they had been writing/performing in their original styles). It takes so much time to be really good at one thing.  Also, in terms of acceptance from the public, often the people who are attracted to one style are not attracted to something else, so the fan base isn’t the same when an artist switches. 

Sometimes people make a transition into something else after they retire. Opera singers have gone successfully into Broadway when they no longer do opera. Actors have become directors, singers sometimes can become conductors. There isn’t anyone now, as far as I know, (and I’m willing to be wrong here) that is equally well known, successful and acknowledged by their peers as well as by the public, as being really at the top of their game in two very different disciplines or places, and I don’t think that has ever been true. If you want to develop world-class abilities you cannot compromise the time you spent on your primary choice by also spending a lot of time on something else.

All of this I expostulate to build my case for the following argument.

Over the weekend I had occasion to work with a young lady who is in her second year of college studies working toward a degree in music theater. As is typical now, in her singing lessons, she is being taught to be a classical soprano because it is “good” for her. Now, in most cases, I would agree that this would be a beneficial thing and something that makes sense, but not in this case.

This young woman is a natural high belter the likes of which I rarely see. With little assistance she has developed a powerfully strong, clear, free belt that can go to a G top of the staff in the healthiest, most correct sound one could ask for. Her training, which focused mostly upon songs and performance and not too much on technique, allowed her to go to a very good place (albeit one that is still no piece of cake to do) by essentially leaving her sound alone. What she needs is to stay where she is, specialize on gaining even more strength and stamina, understand what she cannot expect herself to do, and work to keep what she has from causing her any health issues (and this is paramount). Why? Because this kind of natural ability is unusual, and in today’s music world, it is THE sound that is most prized in pop, country, gospel and other styles of music, including Broadway. Add to this that the young lady is attractive, expressive and musical, and you are looking at someone who has the highest possible chance of being successful in having a high level professional career. What she needs is support to be better at what she already does. What she is getting instead is training that undermines the very aspects of her vocal production that need to be strengthened, taking her away from her natural gifts, and confusing her both vocally and mentally.

If you have a teenaged prodigy, who can beautifully play a concerto by Mozart on the piano at the age of 15, do you tell him or her that it would be BETTER to learn to play Duke Ellington because jazz is American and all young pianists need to understand how to play in the jazz idiom in order to be correct and musically sophisticated? Or, do you tell the youngster about Mozart’s life and work, take the child to Germany, teach the child about all of Mozart’s works and then introduce them to other composers of classical music to broaden that knowledge while they continue to train their piano technique?  Learning about Ellington might be really cool, but necessary?  I don’t think so, at least not right away.

The educational system for vocal musical training in colleges has absolutely no idea what to do with kids like this young woman. They need to not be trained in classical vocal production after they are fully grown (age 16 or so) if they have a high level of other vocal skills already. Training a voice that is happy belting, and has learned to carry that sound up high without undue effort should be aimed at SPECIALIZATION. As it is, her “classical” training is taking apart the core aspects of her vocal production, the ones that need to be attended to, because of the almost universally held belief that classical training is better. The tenet that it is necessary to study classically in order to have “healthy technique” no matter what kind of music is being sung is never challenged. The mere idea that anyone, anywhere, can sing the kinds of sounds that this young woman produces and be healthy simply doesn’t exist in the minds of singers who do not, themselves, also make this sound. If educate, which comes from the Latin, educare, or to draw out, is about continuing to call forth the unusual vocal abilities of this young woman, then she is not being educated, she is being dismantled. Even if this is being done without malice (and I assume it is), and it is being done for “all good reasons”, it is still WRONG.

I am in New York and she is not. I cannot easily help her. If I knew someone to send her to who I was SURE could take her further in her high belt/mix, I would send her there, but I don’t. If she were my kid, I would tell her to get a degree in something else, like acting, and keep on doing what she is doing on her own until she can find someone to nurture the specialized and outsized vocal gifts she possesses.

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2 thoughts on “Training Backwards”

  1. I know a bird chirp at my school that could be following in the footsteps of Minnie Ripperton. Although I wish the voice teacher we go to would give her some songs like that, because she’s so clearly suited to that kind of music!

    Still, I’m glad that he isn’t of the mindset that “If it isn’t Bel Canto, it’s crap.” He actually is broadening her musical interests, not narrowing them. (What a concept!) I don’t know of any other university instructors, including those here, that teach art song, and opera, and musical theatre (legit and belting both), and black spirituals.

    The bias, of course, still exists. His students are the “regular” voice students, while the other instructor’s students, who only learn classical, are the “gifted” voice students.

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