What is "Classical" Singing?

I talk a lot about “classical” vocal training. Singing teachers generally talk about classical vocal training, with the implied understanding that this is “one thing”, that it is in some way a known entity, an organized commodity that is readily available consistently if you seek it out.

That is simply not true. “Classical” vocal training can mean almost anything. There is no consensus about what it is, how it works, who should teach it, what it should cover, or how long it will take. There is no organizing body that agrees what classical vocal training allows one to do while singing and no clear direction regarding the singing as it combines with other things like acting, “performing”, musicianship, language or anything else.

If you study “classical” vocal training in a university or college, someone will be in charge of your school’s particular curriculum and its particular criteria for students and perhaps also criteria for teachers. Regulating bodies will provide guidelines that schools must follow in order to become or remain accredited, but they do not establish which individual teachers can help students do what things or which departments can accomplish specific vocal goals. That, typically, is left to each department or school. There are educational organizations, locally and nationally, but they do not provide specific vocal training requirements.

Classical vocal training is many different things. Recognizing that is a first step to organizing it into a coherent philosophy that has defined ingredients. If you are singing early music (Pre-Baroque), the current consensus about what is correct vocal production for those styles is different than it was 35 years ago. If you are singing contemporary classical music, written by living or recently deceased composers, almost anything could be part of making the sounds required in the various works. If you sing mainstream music from “standard” repertoire (Mozart, Schubert, Faure, Verdi, Puccini, Britten), the sounds you need to make might vary by vocal category (fach), or by venue (concert hall, opera house, church, recital stage) or by accompaniment (piano, small ensemble, orchestra, electronic amplification). Thoughts about vibrato, mouth shape, vowel sound colors, linguistic considerations (separate from but related to spoken languages), legato, accuracy of melismatic lines, and control over volume for expressive purposes, depend on the most prevalent or predominant ideas about style as accepted in the general classical musical marketplace. What the Met does makes a difference everywhere. What the Philharmonic does, ditto. What is done in venues like Carnegie and Philharmonic Hall by other groups matters. What has received attention in the media and acceptance from the music buying public matters. What agents and managers think impresarios want to hire matters. What college voice departments want does not, except within each department at each school.

What ought to be part of the discussion in classical performance would be technical problems that are audible. If a person sounds squawky, swallowed, wobbly, muffled, shrill, or just generally like they are struggling, it would good if the industry at large realized that something mechanical is off and should be adjusted. If your car has a knock in it, you know to take it to the garage because if you don’t the car might break down completely. If it applies to a car, it should also apply to a voice. But, since we still do not recognize technical problems as things that just happen, even to very highly skilled, excellent singers, and since there is “embarrassment” about such things (Stupid, really. Should you be embarrassed if your car has a knock?) many times such problems are ignored, lest it negatively effect a career. (Which it will anyway, when it gets really bad.) If functional training was the norm, instead of still being the exception, things that were “not quite right” could simply be addressed and fixed.

Before I can tolerate anyone criticizing CCM styles, I would have to know that all of the above was being addressed by my classical colleagues and worked out to the satisfaction of MOST teachers of singing and singers. I would need to know that all of these issues had been addressed and it was clear what standards applied to what vocal behavior in which music at what venue. If you think this is going to happen in our lifetime, I know a great bridge in Brooklyn that would great in your backyard and I can get it for you cheap.

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4 thoughts on “What is "Classical" Singing?”

  1. Hi Jeannette,

    I really enjoy your posts, even though some of your stances disagree with some of mine, because of the authenticity you’ve earned cutting out a living doing this in NY. It bleeds through a little in each one, giving credence to what you’re saying (even when I’m not 100% behind you) 😉

    I thought after reading this one that I would raise one discussion point: you mention “no organizing body” to agree on and presumably to have the authority to brand whatever authentic classical vocal training is or should be. I realize that the post-secondary education institution is anything but organized, but I would point to this institution as something like classical training’s “last best hope on earth.” Just because of the sheer numbers–you understand–of students who pass through it. Not all (heck, not most) succeed as professional singers after, but those who do so, owe much of it to whatever good has been retained and transmuted through this institution.

    I wrote an article sometime back in which I posit that a requisite to a trustworthy teacher is usually peer recognition, signified by advanced degrees in the field, publications, performances, etc. As with any other field. Granted, I approach voice as a scholar with a love of scholarly pursuits, as well as a performer, but I think this angle is something worth consideration. IF we can maintain a nationwide institution where only those who truly deserve by the merit of their hard work to obtain advanced degrees in voice performance and voice pedagogy, then we can trust these degrees as reliable recognition of competence to teach in an authentic “classical method,” as recognized by said peers.

    Great blog you have! Check mine out sometime–The Bel Canto Chronicle.

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