Untraining

I wish a had a dime for every person I have had to “untrain”. They come to NYC, graduates of some program in some school, singing like Wagnerians, badly, and can barely manage a music theater song written after 1965. The voices are HEAVY, thick, immbolized and very ponderous and they struggle with high notes. The breathing is often confused and imprecise but they are working hard to “support”.

After we get the voice re-organized, it’s not uncommon to hear, “Gee, this is so much easier.”

Then, when I listen to a piece of rep, it’s also not uncommon for me to ask, “Why are you making this sound and not some other sound?” Often, they don’t know. I have to remind them the reason they are making a certain kind of sound is because the person singing is expressing his or her feelings or intention and THAT is what guides the choice of sound. That runs counter to what they have been taught. Making sound for sound’s sake is the name of the game.

The same goes for standing still. I’ve written about this before. These students sing from the head up. Arms hanging limp like wet spaghetti, bodies drooping, feet planted as if stuck in a mudslide. “This is what I was told to do,” is the reply I get if i ask about why this should be the case.

The idea that the human voice can make all kinds of sounds in a free and healthy manner can come as quite a surprise to someone who has never been told and who has never had that particular experience while singing. The idea that the color of the sound, its texture and quality, comes from inside, reflecting the communication of the piece of music being sung is often a surprising one. Even classical singing is supposed to connect to real life, however exaggerated the vocal production might be. Stanislavsky worked with opera singers not Broadway performers.

Where does this dis-connect begin? Great artists somehow avoid it. Surely our great singers have been great communicators, in whatever style they sang. The artists who touch the hearts of the audience draw people of all ages and backgrounds, regardless of whether or not the listeners understand the language of the music being sung. There was a reason why half a million people would come to a concert in Central Park when Luciano Pavarotti sang……his voice was always totally filled with emotional communication, and of course, the sound itself was magnificent. On the other hand, Willie Nelson fills stadiums, too. He has almost no “voice” in a traditional classical sense, and no one cares. He communicates.

You cannot lose track of real life in art. Art is supposed to reflect life. There are all kinds of people, unfortunately, who are in the performing arts who should have kept their day job. If they end up in a powerful position, woe to everyone, and of course, there are many of these people in all kinds of places, unfortunately. People like Robert Wilson fit in this category. He is very famous opera director with a big international reputation. Wilson has stated publicly that he feels no obligation to honor either text or music and that his personal “stamp” on anything is enough. Nevermind that his productions regularly get booed loudly by the audiences. Nevermind, that he makes a bajillion dollars directing operas all over the world because opera companies think he is “cool” and “different”. If you have ever seen a Robert Wilson opera, you will know how dis-connected this man is from anything except his own ego, which is alive and well and the size of Chicago. But his presence makes for a good argument, to some people, that art can be anything, regardless, and that there is no such thing as “values” except those that the artist chooses to have in the moment. Well, OK, but then do we teach that — do we teach that art has no inherent value? That isn’t particularly teachable, if you ask me. And, if that’s so, why is it that the stuff that has LASTED, sometimes for hundreds of years, is that which is beyond the personal? Something which has universal relevance, beyond the present moment, beyond one person’s narrow perspective of his or her own importance.

It seems to me that what audiences want, what human beings want, is to see, hear and feel the human condition, their condition, reflected back to them. They want to know that what they are experiencing, others have also experienced. They want to know that there is hope, they want to be reminded that we all struggle, suffer and can triumph, or not. If we do not teach our students to sing in a way that allows them to delve into their own depths, and to express all that lies there, perhaps unknown to them, then we are not giving them legitimate tools. We are not preparing them to make the world a better, more illuminated place. We are not giving them a doorway to shed some light on the human condition so that we can all learn and grow.

If all we do is train students to make big fat sounds that are “impressive”, we aren’t teaching them anything at all. What they will learn is that they will have to undo this training in order to return to being in touch with the ordinary, plain, simple condition of being human.

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