What’s It All For?

Here in New York we have quite a few places to see and hear live performers, beyond Broadway, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. We have Off-Broadway, off-off Broadway, jazz clubs large and small, a few cabaret places, a few rock clubs, conservatories and school recital halls and “the fringe” — small theaters in private lofts or other odd places. On any given night (and some days) there are literally dozens of possibilities to hear someone sing live (miked or unamplified). And that doesn’t count the boroughs or the burbs, if we want to travel just a little bit.

We who live here forget how unusual this is. In many places attending a performance to hear singers live might be a very hard thing to accomplish. Large churches and synagogues usually have good music programs with skilled vocalists, and large towns and cities also have concerts of all kinds, as do the bigger schools. That still means, though, that a lot of people have the opportunity to see and hear live vocalists of professional caliber only rarely.

If it weren’t for TV, radio, film and now the internet, there are millions of people who might never hear singing at all. And there are probably a few people who will hear only “canned” singing in their lives. Those of us who sing know only too well that you can mess around with a recording in all kinds of ways, especially now, and that what one hears on a recording doesn’t always reflect the live sound well. If you have never had the opportunity to hear Renee Fleming live you wouldn’t know that her voice in person is much more radiant and “present” than it is on any of her recordings. In my opinion, it just doesn’t record well. You might also lose entirely the complete lack of power in Cecilia Bartoli’s voice. Expressive though it may be on recordings, at Carnegie Hall you notice how she performs and what she does with the music but not much the voice itself, as it is just plain unimpressive.

It is difficult to teach singing without live aural models. As I have said many times before, you can’t sing what you can’t hear. There have been many excellent blind singers but none that were deaf. If you grow up listening to voices that have been altered in the recording studio (and most are tweaked at least a little during the mastering of the raw sessions) you never know what the person would sound like in the room standing next to you.

A well trained classical voice of a mature adult who has a dramatic instrument is a “thing of nature and a wonder to behold”. A well trained belter can have a similar effect but not for the same reasons. Other voices may or may not have enough presence to be heard acoustically, but that would depend quite a bit on the place the singer is in while performing. If might be fine in a resonant hall but not even audible in a “dead space”.

In addition to listening to recordings, it is important that singers and teachers of singing listen to live singing of the highest quality available. It is also important that singers and teachers of singing have good models on which to base their own sounds. Just as I advocate making the sounds, I also advocate having someone who sounds good in those sounds as a guide. If you try to sing like Satchmo without understanding that his voice is not one to imitate, you would get in trouble in a few flaps of your false folds.

If you do not have such live singing available in your town, and you are teaching singing, of any kind, you MUST go to the nearest big city at least once or twice a year and hear professional vocalists of all styles live. There is no substitute for this. If you are serious in your teaching, you must come to New York at least every five years and go to a Broadway musical, a concert at Carnegie Hall, an opera at NY City Opera or the Met, and a jazz gig at one of the famous clubs — minimum! You ought to also be singing live at least once a year (if you are not doing this as a matter of course) so you don’t forget what that experience is like, for as long as you teach.

What is all of our training of singers for if not to perpetuate the vocal arts? If we don’t support live performance and study it as well, and if we rely only on recorded music to give us our criteria, we are living in a false world. Remember, the art of singing is about communication and what kind of communication goes on between you and an iPod or a boombox?

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