Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t know much about wine, but I know what I like.” That can be said about many things.
Experts are supposed to be people with highly cultivated tastes, developed over long years of immersion and study, exposure and experimentation, such that they end up knowing a great deal about a topic. Since we only have so much time in a day or a lifetime, the focus of such expertise is often confined to one area — like wine — and can become both broad-based and deep. An expert could tell by smelling and tasting wine its vintage, its bottler, its age, its components and its complexity.
I wonder, then, when I am in the world of voice, why so many people who teach do not have any such breadth or depth. They display blatant ignorance by their attitudes and actions and see fit to teach in public or write in various publications. Surely, they do not know that they do not know, or why would they expose themselves as being so lacking in expertise? Sadly, this can also be said about other voice disciplines. I have repeatedly seen doctors assume they know about singing because they have gone to a few classical master classes, or speech language pathologists who assume they know about singing because they have worked on speech with singers, or singing teachers who teach belting even though they have never made a belt sound or even attempted to make one.
If science does not recognize the artistic value of singing (and I do not think it does) and if people only look at objective data (formants, harmonics, sub-glottic pressure, vocal fold vibration patterns, sound pressure level, etc.) and disregard the quality of the singing as artistic expression, how is that helpful? It’s like judging a car only by the engine without looking at the interior and exterior design. Is a Mercedes the same as a Land Rover? They are both expensive cars.
Recently, a specific method of singing has had “research” published in a science journal. The “research” was bought and paid for by the teacher whose method it was. She participated in the study while it took place, she paid two scientists to do the measurements, she choose the students herself, and she decided that the words she has made up meant something to others who have not worked with her. Of course, that is nonsense. They are meaningful only to her and her students. Nevertheless, she can now claim that her method is “scientifically proven” and that’s a sad thing for all of us. That this article was published as “science” was, in my mind, disgraceful, as it proves only that what she says she teaches, she teaches. There is absolutely no consideration by the peer reviewers as to the market validity of the sounds the singers in the study made nor the use of those sounds in the marketplace, nor of the usefulness of the premises she has “researched” to others who do not study with her. The study was clearly meant to serve as a marketing tool for her own work. If that’s science, then science is in trouble.
In a wrong-headed attempt to be “fair” sometimes people refuse to commit to something they know to be true because they don’t want to compromise their (seemingly) unbiased stance. If, however, you are an expert and you know what’s good and what’s bad, and you refuse to endorse what’s good in public, in order to (supposedly) protect your own reputation, you are a fraud. You have no courage or integrity and you do not add to the well-being of the people who seek knowledge in order to protect themselves from harm. If you stay silent, knowing full well that one person, approach or direction is a better one, then by that silence you tacitly endorse all who are less well-qualified. You empower the weaker choice. If you know and do not say you know, you are part of the problem.
In the 1980s, the saying here in NYC was “silence = death” — a slogan created by Act Up during the AIDS epidemic to remind citizens to protest until scientists took AIDS very seriously. They did, and finally, after much protesting, science took notice and did something. That’s why now a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS is not an automatic death sentence.
If you are an expert in voice, if you know what is helpful and what is not, or even what is potentially harmful and you do not say anything either in person or in writing, you are complicit in keeping innocent people in a position where they can be victimized by those with the slickest marketing and the weakest real skills. That’s not ethical.
Sometimes people who profess to be experts aren’t. They really cannot tell the difference between one way and another or they can tell but they do not trust their own perceptions. That’s sad. If you know someone is advocating doing something in the throat that is unnecessary, like retracting the false folds (which I find a stunningly useless concept), and you think that’s not much different than working to make a more accurate sound while leaving the throat to its own devices, then you are not actually an expert. If all you can say is “I don’t know much about voice but I know what I like,” then please do not call yourself an expert at all.
The professions of teaching singing, and that of speech science or voice medicine cannot and will not be raised to a higher general level if those who are in a position as experts to stand for something of real quality refuse to do so. If you refuse to endorse a method you know to be good, one that you have thoroughly investigated, in order to appear “unbiased,” and if seeming to be “objective” is more important than the needs and goals of your patients, clients and students, ask yourself why that should be so. Take a stand. Speak up. Share your knowledge. Have some courage! Question everything until you have an answer you can stand behind. Then, share that answer boldly and without apology. Anything less is beneath us all.