I was at a dinner over the weekend with several people in their 70s. We were discussing how much of what we would consider “general knowledge” is simply not out there in the minds of many young (and not so young) people. We each cited having encountered a sad lack of knowledge of the history of the USA in the 20th century, in every area from politics and government to science and the arts. Some young people do not know when the Second World War was fought, who was in it and where the main battles were in even the most general terms. Many are not familiar with other areas of what used to be considered general knowledge as well.
This is true, unfortunately, about a great deal of the arts and specifically about singing. Unless students are taught basic American Music history, going back to the beginning of the 20th Century, they often know little about it. Sometimes, in music theater programs, they get information about the early days of Vaudeville and Broadway, but not always. They may get the history of jazz in a jazz degree program, but not necessarily with an emphasis on the singers. If you get a classical degree, you might learn about 20th century classical composers of both American and European origin, but it varies. Even in theater programs you may or may not learn about the great performers even though you would likely learn about the great playwrights.
Some young singers are encouraged not to listen to a recording in order to learn a song and there is merit in this idea. It’s hard not to copy what you hear, even if you don’t want to. Nevertheless, if recordings of many singers doing a particular song exist, listening to them after you are familiar with the basics would seem to be a very important step, as hearing what many different people have done with the song should be very illuminating. It can be a useless exercise, though, if you don’t know what to listen to.
In fact, I wonder sometimes if young people are taught how to listen at all. Does anyone actually take a vocal recording and dissect it for the students to hear all the many factors involved? Think about it. There are so many ingredients in a song: the lyrics, the meaning of the lyrics, the melody, the rhythm, the dynamics, the phrases, the accompaniment or orchestration, the tessitura of the line, the use of the vowels and consonants, the use of rests and syncopation. Almost endless things that can be considered, separate from the key, the tempo, the meter, and the kind of vocal quality the person has. There are vowel colors, register qualities, and tone qualities like breathiness, noisiness or nasality and vibrato including its presence, absence or intermittence. No one hears all these things automatically as a student. They have to be learned. In fact, I can’t help but think that some professionals don’t hear all that is there to be heard.
Even if you are an innovator, you need to know what has gone before so that your innovations can be different than what already exists. Those who set out to write or create “something new” have to know about the “something old” in order to move in a different direction. Clearly, this isn’t always the case. The idea that you have to create out of nothing is a deception of the ego. Unless someone is going to come up with a musical system, with different frequencies, and a different set of written notes (John Cage et al not withstanding), we only have the octaves of the human throat and the range of notes in the orchestra to draw from.
If you don’t know much about history and you are going to teach or compose, start digging. You have a responsibility to carry that information with you before you begin.