When you come right down to it, what do we really know about making vocal sound? We have gathered a lot of information over the last few decades about vocal function but very very little of it has made its way into the hands of singers or even of singing teachers.
Of the many thousands of people who teach singing in the USA alone, only a handful belong to an organization of singing teachers. The main one, NATS, has about 7,000 members from all areas of teaching, but it is now very easy to join the organization, so there is no screening process. Just about anyone who wants to join, can join. The decision was made to go this way, I think, because having more members brings in more dues and pays for the few staff members who run things. As an organization, it has problems but it is the only one we have, so it is a good thing to join if you teach. The activities they do are useful and the conferences can be, too, depending on who is organizing them and what they feature. No one knows if these teachers have vocal function information or if they even want it. Those that have gotten it through formal vocal pedagogy programs in colleges have received information aimed directly at classical singing, and no other styles.
We could hope that the people who are the “leaders” of NATS are particularly dedicated to the profession and to its betterment, and we might assume that they are all on the same page about what that means, but we would probably find that is not true. I haven’t interviewed them, so it’s just my opinion here, but I do read the Journal of Singing. Most of the articles are for a very limited audience even with NATS. Are we all very interested in the art songs of an obscure composer we have never heard about? Hm. Should we argue about the finer points of French diction when most Americans in the audience who listen to classical music do not understand French well enough to notice? I don’t have the answer, but I know this kind of article doesn’t interest me because it doesn’t serve my professional needs. One column, and only one, addresses CCM styles, and that is the one edited by Robert Edwin, my colleague in the American Academy of Teachers of Singing. He has been holding the fort for almost 30 years. You would think by now that there would be room for more than this one column, good as it is, but no, that wouldn’t be the case.
Functional information is CRUCIAL for singing teachers but you still have to be very personally motivated to go out and find it and understand it well enough to make use of it. For the most part, the organizations of teachers of singing don’t do much to help with that task. The New York Singing Teachers’ Association’s Professional Development Program is very good and the Vocology courses at the National Center for Voice and Speech are excellent. The Symposium: Care of the Professional Voice is very valuable, and the other conferences held outside the USA are very good too.
Now while these courses are very helpful you have to exert some considerable effort to find them and take them. All of them cost money to attend and, if they are not local to you, must include travel costs and hotel/meals as well. They do provide basic vocal function information that helps people understand what the voice does and how it does it, but it should be very easily available, not just something you have to attend a conference to get. Instead, what is easily available is all those videos sold online by everybody and his grandmother, many of which are less than useless. (see the post from a few days ago). It makes you shudder to think that there are still lots of people out there teaching that singers have to “sing from the diaphragm” and “open up the back of the head”, or “make a sound like a big creamy chocolate pudding”, but that kind of teaching is far from gone.
The real weakness in a profession that wants to take itself seriously as a profession is the lack of ability to put good solid, scientifically grounded vocal function information into as many young vocalists hands and minds as possible. The absolute lack of outreach into the community of CCM singers, particularly, leaves them stranded. They are at the mercy of the internet snake oil salesmen who ply their wares with great marketing spin. Perhaps not all of them are bad teachers but learning to sing from a CD or tape, without anyone monitoring the process personally, is just a bad idea. As a young vocalist, if I am looking for help, the first place I would go would be to the internet, but the profession’s presence there is the size of a pin. There is little vocal function information for various CCM styles, so the vocalist is left to sort out what will be useful on his or her own.
What do we really know about making vocal sound? A lot more than we used to know, but who actually knows it and how did those people get the information? Anyone’s guess.
We still have a very long way to go.