The YAP-less Path

I have found myself in conversation more times than I can count with young singers who are at their wit’s end over the issue of YAPs (Young Artist Programs). Auditioning for them, the expense for fees and travel, the rejection in the form of the charmingly termed PFOs (Please F*** Off), the wondering what went wrong, and what on earth to focus on in the interim until next year’s round of auditions. And finally, there is the lingering question of, “what if I am getting too old to be accepted into a young artist program…..”

YAPs truly are a wonderful development. To read stories about older generation singers striving to get an audience, being lucky enough to be a select student of a highly respected and connected voice teacher, succeeding in open call auditions, or just gaining the ear of various connected people, almost by chance; one comes away grateful that an organized system to help foster (and filter) has become such a mainstay in our musical community.

However, the degree to which the YAP has become viewed as the sole avenue to a career is perhaps not so helpful. Even if it is not actually  true, it often is tacitly accepted to be so. And though YAPs are, on the whole, wonderful opportunities for young singers,  it is because these programs are associated with companies which have their own business interests in mind that there are a host of potential pitfalls which come along with that, about which I have written elsewhere (link).

But one of the issues is to do with this underlying conception that the path toward a career is through a YAP, effectively putting the career start after the YAP. The YAP acts as a career launching pad. And if a singer fails to get a YAP, an understandable funk descends, despairing at maybe never having a career as a result. So perhaps it’s time for a new mentality; a new way of concieving of the career path.

So, here is a new rule: Your career begins precisely when you graduate, if not sooner –

Now what are you doing about it?

Creativity isn’t what you do once you have been hired for a job. Your career is itself an act of creativity.

You are constantly carving and designing the path that it will take and what it will look like and how it will resemble your goals and ambitions as they change and grow. The YAP process is as often about how you’ve been advised at school, and how you are advised at auditions, and how you are advised if you get into one. And much of that advice may prove indispensable, to be sure. But there are lots of hours in the day, and lots of days and weeks in the year to fill with your musical goals – especially if you don’t get a YAP. So begin it now.

So what are some other avenues? Well, this is not an exhaustive list, but a few thoughts come to mind.

Schools and the direction they give often fall prey to this same mode of thinking about the centrality of the YAP and the opera-centered career, so they have often neglected to teach some more practical things, such as concert repertoire.

With or without a YAP, we all often have the holidays free, and the odd break here and there where a Messiah, or a Faure or Brahms Requiem could be squeezed in to make some extra cash. Far too many young singers are coming to this concert rep way too late when they should be graduating with it comfortably in their back pockets to pull out every time some church, local ensemble, etc. needs a soloist. One year I was invited to 4 separate Messiahs in a single week! 1 in a college town, and 3 in Chicago. Any 20-something singer who had spent months and months polishing 5 arias and zero time on “O Thou That Tellest” was simply out of luck. There goes an hundred bucks or more!

And you know who else performs on these concerts? Conductors. Conductors who advise and even hire for other gigs, operatic and otherwise.

Another option is the recital. Put on your own. Now, I can see where people might not see how this could possibly create visibility in anything other than the local audience in attendance. But don’t forget – you aren’t the only working musician on that stage.

There are different reasons to work with different people. Sometimes it is to be frugal, sometimes to work with friends. But if you reach out to a respected accompanist in the area, someone who works a lot with other conductors and companies, and hire them – yes, hire them – extend your finances to pay an artist for their collaboration… then do your due diligence, be a pleasure to work with, put on a good recital, and they too will be circling the community with your name on their lips.

Another possibility is the specialist ensemble. Dame Emma Kirkby became the artist she is by being a member of period ensembles, and by refining her art in and through these, she became increasingly relied on in soloist capacity and carved a career and reputation for herself which then extended beyond those ensembles.

All of these and more are opportunities that could be taken and too often are thought of as last resorts or only supplemental at best. But that poses another problem, as when these opportunities do present themselves in one form or another, the work is often shoddy. And I don’t mind saying that when I or my wife recommend singers for gigs, nothing comes with a higher recommendation than reliability, preparation, and collegiality. No amount of talent or vocal goods can makeup for a lack of those three.

So start today. Don’t ask when your next YAP audition is. Ask when your next gig is. Because that is the definition of a working singer.

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Art & French Fries

Why can’t people just like things anymore? Why is there always some elaborate justification? 

I won’t go into what I think are the implications of this in the field of Vocal Pedagogy, as I have done that elsewhere (Link). I will stick to the abstract question-
Whether it is in the realm of the Arts, social philosophies, or activities, I feel like we live in an era when every time people encounter a criticism, instead of saying, “Yeah, I know. Even so, I kinda like it.”, they always launch into tireless defense of the obviously indefensible, apparently unable to (as G. K. Chesterton would put it) “understand things that we DO understand.”

Maybe this is not new to this generation. Maybe I’m just growing to observe it in my own, as everyone must. But I find this everywhere. Ignorance proclaimed to be just as noble as education. Elementary music proclaimed to be “just as good” as truly impressive compositions. Impassioned exclamation deemed to be on par with carefully considered, specifically chosen prose or verse. Ill-formulated ideas and wishes identified as almost certainly as reasonable and valid as highly reasoned and researched points of view. A constant lowering of the bar, a consequence of an inability to distinguish qualitative difference. 

And it is all hugely connected to emotional response. I think that Nietzsche was not far from the mark when he observed a tendency in his time that many regarded “…beautiful sentiments adequate arguments….and conviction a criterion of truth…”

So again, what is this need to have all our faves be on the same level as everything more obviously, qualitatively better? Is it a hangover from our more sociologically stratified past? Is it a fear of a vulgar taste in one matter labeling us common in all other arenas? Do we somehow lessen ourselves by association, and so we must elevate everything to avoid it? Is the obliteration of objective quality the true aesthetic route to egalitarianism or is Quality the victim of belligerent ignorance?

I encounter this in the studio a lot. A student will say, “What do you think of [insert singer]?”, hoping I will justify their appreciation of their current idol. If I happen to suggest that I think little of their vocalism, but that they are a fine enough performer, I am almost always met with, “But how can he/she not be good? They make pretty sounds/are popular/are making music professionally, etc…..” And I think a similar response is common in many areas, but it has taken a strong pedagogical and even scientific bent in musical circles. But why can’t we just be more honest?

I, for example, enjoy Bonnie Tyler. I think she is an obviously terrible vocalist. But I don’t defend her glottal ineptitude. I just like her anyway. And that’s just fine. 

I always feel a little as though someone is desperately trying to convince me that McDonald’s is just a different KIND of healthy cuisine, just as nutritious as any other, instead of just plainly stating, “Mmmm, salty fries. YUM! Me likey.” And then putting them in their mouths, shutting up, and leaving it at that.



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Crossover: The mostly one-way street

Following on the heels of my last post, regarding the nature of “classical training” and defending it as merely the development of skill with one’s instrument, I feel compelled to share some examples of wonderful things that I have seen recently. I briefly mentioned crossover in my previous blog, and it is here that I believe I find a potent illustration of the points from my previous write-up.Recently a handful of operatic artists have taken a (sometimes literal) break from challenging operatic performances to casually toss out a popular tune. 

And I cannot stress enough just how significant this is when discussing the skill, discipline, and abilities of performing artists. When training is downgraded in conversation to the merely stylistic, it ignores certain practical realities. And here, demonstrated, is one reality:

These artists, with ease, can toss out a popular tune. And you will never see crossover done with such facility in the other direction.

So, if I may be allowed what is perhaps an oversimplification in some measure; The “classically” trained are really only those who know how to play their instrument.* Whereas the stylistically trained are one- or two-trick ponies who have learned a part of their instrument only.

And this does not apply only to vocalists. 

Notice the comfortable swagger of the intrumentalists in the “All About The Bass” clip while they break from challenging operatic orchestral music to jam a simpler tune backstage. And if someone takes issue with the question of whether or not the classically trained soprano “sounds right” in the pop song, that is a discussion that will involve interesting factors like – appropriate keys, amplification options, and articulation choices. But the fact remains that she can sing it. And odds are, Meghan Trainor couldn’t jump in for Angela Brown any ol’ time. Not without risking injury, anyway. 

So, while the question of style, and the vocal investigations, observations, scientific inquiry and resulting pedagogical insight on the subject are all fascinating and offer wonderful input for the broader discussion…… let’s not miss the forest for the trees and start to ignore things that are right in front of our face. It leads to bad thinking, and ultimately to bad singing.

*(disregarding the issue of good/bad training)

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When “Classical” Means Skill

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At various times in my teaching career I have had a reputation as someone who

1) can “teach you to belt”

2)thinks that “classical technique” is the best technique

This is admittedly bizarre, firstly because the two seem opposed to one another, and also because neither is anything I actually think nor ever claimed.

The former is probably because some degree of strengthening is usually called for first in young singers and beginners, and the latter probably because of my expressed disdain for approaches to the vocal instruction in some Musical Theater/CCM corners. I’m not bothered by the former (though as I said, it’s not something I ever claim), but I take some exception to the latter, specifically as regards the defining of “Classical Technique.” If someone were to ask me if I indeed maintain that preference my answer would be, “That depends what you mean by “Classical technique.”

The Problem Of Troublesome Terminology
If you took a poll, no doubt you would find that there are a quite few people out there who would hold that “classical” singers have a “classical sound” because of “classical training” to achieve a “classical technique”. I find this to be a gross oversimplification. It is also unfortunately terribly common. In fact, I think it is at the root of a few great mistakes that are floating around the pedagogy world right now, splitting vocal music along unnecessary lines and working terrible habits into countless voices down different stylistic aisles.

Much like the term “classical education”, vs. a non-standard education, the point is still the same: education. The point of classical vocal training is actually to sing, not to “sing classically.”

Clearly part of the issue is that the use of the term “classical” has taken on some undue connotations of style*, and I suppose I might take less exception to the use of the term “trained singer”. That is all “classically trained” should mean: trained. This reality becomes all the more pronounced when we realize that the primary CCM specialty, the belt, has its origins in someone trying to sound “untrained”. (Bourne, Garnier, Kenny; Journal of Singing, March/April 2011)

I’ve often said that I think our language frequently betrays us, giving insight into our actual thought. And I find it interesting that, no matter how much we may try to substantiate or validate CCM approaches, it is always the traditional vocalism we call legit. What, then, is the subtle illegitimacy of the CCM pedagogy, I wonder? Another blog for another time perhaps, but as a teacher, I find it more than slightly ill-advised and contradictory to propose to instruct in the art of the untaught, the method of the unskilled, and to encourage habits that many spend years trying to undo.

When Classical Sorta Sucks….

But wait… Don’t read me to mean that “Classical is better”. Remember, I just said that classical has often come to mean more than it should. And it’s not just those outside the “classical” fold that misattribute. Hardly!

Everyone likes to feel special. And when the classical vocal community gets even a whiff of rejection, they double down on difference. They too buy into this false differentiation. There is a subtle(?) adoption of this same meaning of “classical” by the community, perhaps to define itself over and against (lesser?) arts. This truly is a snobbishness. Classical vocalists become an exaggerated version of themselves, making all sorts of attempts at finding just-the-right-placement, just the right resonance, the perfect sound, for their incredibly specific (and often incorrect) voice type. And in looking for a perfect “classical” technique and sound, even things like intonation and intelligible text go out the window. Some of my favorite moments from young, aspiring classical vocalists haven’t been on the concert or opera stage, but have been on evenings of socializing and karaoke, where I have heard wonderful things from voices once a “classical” pretense has been dropped.

So no, neither am I a snob for a “classical” sort of sound. I do love classical vocal music, but it pains me to hear it become a parody of itself, as much as it pains me that the popular singers of today are almost purposefully poor vocalists. The end result of this instituted dichotomy is that both the non-classical and the classical communities begin to sing with something that is more an imitation than not, crossover starts to sound super-weird, and unfortunately, the teaching follows suit and the pedagogs scramble to redefine (eg. legit, mix, etc.)

Nevertheless, I think that the truth of this is evidenced by the recent (though still rarer) successes of teachers and methods with concepts of authenticity, for example The Naked Voice. Here and there, people are gravitating towards finding their own native sound in a steady and methodical way. Not only do I agree with this, but I find it sad and unnerving that this should be a novel concept. To my mind, Classical training should mean something like this – discipline, along some lines of recognized efficacy. The goals should be based on the parameters of human sound production first, recognized common or standard musical demands second, and stylistic demands third. When stylistic demands supersede the other two, bad things happen in voices. Challenging musical material always poses a threat, but the failure to prioritize in this way carries inherent dangers, and odds tip heavily in the favor of poor vocal health.

I’d like to think that once upon a time, “Classical training” meant learning to sing in tune, with clear text, ample volume, steadiness of phrasing, some appropriate measure of legato**, and sufficient movement of breath so as not to strain the larynx. In short- skill. I can’t imagine how that should be any different or less necessary for a “non-classical” singer. So now I leave it to you the listener to begin to assess where and why the sound divide……

*Clearly the term “classical” is associated with at least one specific era of music with an identifiable style, but this blog entry is more about sound production than musical attributes.
** I have heard it said, with some merit, that Legato is a thing both specialized in and stylistically notable in Classical vocal music. I would add though, that Legato, as a goal, has many benefits, such as I combatting wasted breath, continuity of physical/muscular motion, and further, is based on two musical principles common to most styles: 1) that we sing on the vowel and not on the consonant, and 2) that singing in phrases rather than syllabically is better for continuity of melody. This relegates staccato, marcato, and other more detached phrasings to an effect, rather than a norm, where perhaps they are more effective.

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Oh, Blow It Out Your Sing-Hole….

Cornell MacNeil: “Let us take a word commonly used by singers – support. What does it mean? To some people it means absolute rigidity, which will destroy them!”

Jerome Hines: “Support is usually equated with you Italian word appoggio.”

C. MacNeil:Appoggio… Which means setting upon… something completely different from support. We think of support as propping something underneath, which immediately suggests rigidity and tension…. I don’t think in terms of support… If you have a boat and you set it on a block of concrete, it’s held up… But it’s not galleggiando (floating)…”

                                                                              Great Singers On Great Singing, Jerome Hines

I have never been overly fond of the use of the word “support”, and for much of the same reason as Cornell MacNeil expresses in his interview with Jerome Hines. I have even heard this misconception manifest in some corners as the espousal of abdominal tensing for “support” purposes. I rankle slightly less at the use of the term “breath support”, which gets at the heart of the matter a bit more in my view. Francesco Lamperti, in his book The Art of Singing, quotes the famous 18th century castrato and teacher Gasparo Pacchiarotti, “He who knows how to breathe and pronounce well, knows how to sing well.” Pauline Viardot, highly admired 19th century singer, pianist, composer, and teacher (as well as daughter of famed tenor and teacher Manuel Garcia), said in her treatise An Hour of Study, “Respiration, being the foundation of vocal art, cannot be too carefully and conscientiously attended to…… Without a profound study of respiration we can never become complete masters of our voice and our singing.” But if there is anything to be surmised from what we have so far, it is that this breathing is an active thing, not a passive one.

This is a significant point because most exhalation throughout our daily lives is passive. The primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm, is fundamentally an inhalation-only muscle (despite some antagonistic capacity). With most exhalation being merely a release of the air that has been drawn in, we are left with the need for this “profound study” because, even in acknowledging the breath, one is still left to work out how the muscles are involved in the breathing mechanism and what that feels like to develop and coordinate them in an athletic, flexible, efficient, and even elegant manner.

It is not uncommon, therefore, to run across different espoused methods, and different descriptions of this “support”, many of which claim to be correct to the exclusion of others. I believe that I understand at least part of the reason for this variety now. Now, I am not a relativist by any means, so first let me clarify – I firmly believe that singing is action of expulsion. With our amazing propensity for muscular tension, I believe it to be very rare indeed that a person ever need to be trained to slow, or measure the exhale (breath loss is far more frequently an adduction issue), and typically require reminding to maintain steady outward breath flow. That said, there is still considerable diversity of approach. And this brings me to the two things that I believe with great confidence today-

1) No matter how common the function, or how similar the effect, there is good reason that everyone might feel the focus differently- Some people are tall, some short, some muscle-bound, some slight, some athletic, others less so, some well-coordinated, while others could manage to fall down from a seated position. As a result, people will feel things differently. And this will include their strengths and their weaknesses. For some people, focusing on a strength will prove reliable, for others, focusing on a weakness will prove necessary. For some, something is working right and they must focus on a less reliable part of their anatomy. For others, something will be hard to feel at all and may require a different focus altogether.

This is why Joan Sutherland promoted a lower abdominal tuck, why Marilyn Horne said to squeeze your butt cheeks, why Cornell MacNeil said he felt the back and the floating ribs were undervalued, but also why Placido Domingo, Jean De Reszke, and Luciano Pavarotti spoke of the strength of structural maintenance in the (upper) abdomen, (one of the more common definitions of appoggio, and also the reason for the persistent mistake of the “use of the diaphragm” during the sung phrase.) It is why many voice scientists maintain the absolute requisite of good posture with shoulders comfortable back as a primary factor in support, and why Lilli Lehmann and Luisa Tetrazzini spoke of “pressing the breath against the chest.”

In all of these cases, you will notice, the area of the upper torso, the ribcage, the shoulders, etc. is not allowed to collapse, and thereby impede breathflow. But the area of the lower torso, all the way to the buttocks and what my own teacher used to call “your most personal muscles” are strong and active, but most importantly flexible and prepared to contract. (Note: this is a gradual contraction, like moving your hand from arm’s length to touching your shoulder, not like flexing to display your bicep.) If we observe this, we are able to see that all of them describe a different part of the same puzzle. It takes this necessary stepping-back in order to not be confused into thinking that they are all doing it in their own way, but rather, they are doing it essentially the same, with a different focus based on the signals they are receiving from their bodies and how their brains process them best.

2) Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned this- You cannot afford to not start thinking about this right now. The coordination of your breath with your vocal action is the health of your singing, and just like any other physical conditioning it is a long process of both understanding and maintenance. With all the music, text, and drama to consider – Breath Support, not actively cultivated and made a top priority, will be forgotten and deteriorate. It is so easy to get absorbed in the sounds, concerned about the myriad other factors that the audience will hear, while only you will feel your body and breath. But too much rides on it to ignore it, and it will not happen on its own in any meaningful way. So, give some focused time to it, each time you practice. Breathe it in, and sing it out, and seek that balance that means you are singing with your whole body.

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The Sound Of Style – Basses Need Not Apply….

Following on the train of thought from my last posting (The Cricothyroid Rosary), I have been reflecting on the issue of style-appropriate sound. This is a common theme in pedagogical circles these days, and even in the voice sciences where observers seek to ascertain what physical changes occur when switching from style to style.

This is an interesting field of inquiry, producing many valuable observations that can clarify matters for teachers and students. But again, valid observations do not equal correct conclusions. It may be perfectly true that the observed action resulted in a particular sound, but it doesn’t always address the health, advisability, or even the sensibility of the thing done. More on this in a moment.

First let me say – it is true that not all types of singing have an authentic, individual sound as among their top priorities. Certain Eastern types of song that use a sort of growl, any impression or mimicry-based vocalism, and some single-voiced polyphonic singing come to mind. Nevertheless, the vast majority of singing in (at least Western) society makes a point of highlighting the value of the individual’s sound – at least in word if not in deed.

In fact it doesn’t always turn out that way at all. While one hand feeds praise for uniqueness, the other hand heaps criticism for lack of a correct sound. This needs to be pulled apart a little bit. It is true that A) certain aspects ought to be subject to critique; ie. accuracy of the musical content, etc. and B) society will always have a say in critiquing what they hear as they are, after all, the patrons. But at what point do we begin to draw the line between the singer’s unique sound, and the “sound” we have come to expect in a certain “style” of music? More importantly, just how much vocal contortion should a singer be expected to endure in order to be suitably “style-appropriate”?

We hear things like this all the time – “If they were singing a classical song, it would be done more this way….if in a Musical Theater style, it would be more this way…..”, You are singing it too operatically/not operatically enough”, or “Your voice is really better suited to […..]”

But are we asking the right questions?

Firstly, are we delineating very clearly where we draw the stylistic lines? Is the style of the music determined primarily by musical factors or by the vocalists’ sound? Are we assessing style based on things like range/tessitura, rhythmic patterns, more or less portamento/rubato/etc., use of dynamics, accent and articulation of the sung text, etc. or are we assessing primarily by timbre and other strictly vocal considerations (vocal qualities that are thinner, fuller, deeper, higher, lighter, brassy, resonant, etc.)? Where are we putting our emphases in the question of style? And if the latter is given as much emphasis as the former, how are these things to be achieved from voice to voice?

One example of this issue is found in how, in article after article on the subject of CCM, it has been remarked that much popular music and modern musical theater is observed to use a “high-larynx” technique. This sounds very specific and appears to draw a distinction between an ostensibly “classical” approach and does something to explain, in part, the acoustic difference between the two styles. However, maybe not every factor has been considered here.

Addressing only male voices for the moment- are we asking if this high larynx is a starting ingredient, or a result? This “technical” observation seems to ignore that popular music, with the exception of Country-Western and some R&B, has been dominated by tenors since the late 60s. Obviously, not all men are tenors. But for any voice not natively a tenor, to attempt to achieve the “right sound” (ie. the tenor sound they are used to hearing), you can be certain that their larynxes will raise considerably, shortening the vocal tract, resulting in a higher, narrower sound. But is that okay? Is that just the correct technique for this music?

Let’s be clear – Though they may not have a great degree of laryngeal discipline, most pop tenors don’t need a high larynx or sing with a purposely high-larynx technique when performing their music, as they are already tenors. Certainly a tenor’s larynx need not be half so raised as a baritone or bass would require to achieve an appropriately tenorial sound when singing the same music. If, God forbid, the baritone in question were to achieve some laryngeal relaxation, the sound would deepen, warm, and he would be immediately decried as being “too operatic” or “not stylistically appropriate”.

Even if I thought (which I don’t) that people who sing this music actually regularly give any considerable thought to laryngeal position, I don’t think it advisable that a person actively seek to sing with a larynx that is purposely raised. In a 2007 NATS Journal article, voice scientist and researcher Ingo Titze stated, “All of this acoustic advantage of a raised larynx needs to be balanced, however, against some biomechanical disadvantages. A raised larynx crowds the hyoid bone, the tongue, and the jaw.” And this doesn’t even address difficulties with higher pitches from lessened ability to lengthen the vocal folds in this crowded position and additional tensions resulting from trying to maintain steady phonation in spite of these factors.

So, when we say things like “a high-larynx technique” (in reference to males), are we not really saying that rather than acknowledge that most recent popular music is actually written for tenors, we will just teach non-tenors to become a sort of false tenor and label it “style”? And in promoting the observed mechanical results of this, are we not trying to legitimate the adoption of a “style-specific” technique of questionable efficacy and health? That’s like if I unwisely equate hard work with sweating profusely, and rather than considering the work output itself, I should adopt a “wear a parka to work technique”. It’s neither advisable, nor native to my person.

Different but related issues are present for women who look to sing CCM music, dominated by low female voices. Any high soprano who has wished she had the low Fs to sing “Let It Go” knows what I am talking about. It is an easy thing to simply suggest that the person sing it in a different key, which would seem the obvious and advisable thing to do. But at every half-step change, up or down, we run greater risk of no longer sounding “like the right style” – and we again begin to run the risk of catering our vocal concept to the aural demands of “style”.

As a teacher, I have a health-first policy in my approach to vocalism. Stylistic considerations come later. I generally think that, in a broad sense, style-specific vocal instruction is inadvisable, at least at the outset. And I recommend that a student of voice be extremely discerning when it comes to any advice resulting in dramatic alteration of their vocalism to suit supposed stylistic requirements. And when the voice scientist shows a video or gives demonstrations, remember, observing that a thing happened doesn’t immediately answer the question of whether it should happen.

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The Cricothyroid Rosary

Dear Maestro Garcia, who art otherwise Italianate, forgive me la voce this day. Grant to me ease of Can Belto as it is in Bel Canto. Deliver me from nodules and help me to nail this audition.

In the name of Garcia Sr., Garcia Jr., and Seth Riggs, for pop stuff…..Amen.

Perhaps I am just pathologically not a joiner- but it seems to me that a great deal of the world of vocal study is comparable to the world of religion, another field that endlessly fascinates me, but to which I cannot seem to commit in any denominational sense.

I find that in both fields there are groups of traditionalists (Classical vocal music; Roman Catholic/Orthodox), and then groups of reformers (CCM; Protestant/Reform), and both have their particular sciences (Voice science;Theology/Doctrinal studies), only occasionally demonstrating some ecumenism. Classicists inevitably get accused of elitist hollowness found in the stylistic pomp and circumstance that can develop over many years of establishment, liberal progressives invariably are accused of having values corrupted by betrayal of the knowledge and wisdom of Tradition.

Both fields also suffer from being profoundly and validly experiential, yet are often vague, esoteric, and diverse in explanation. Now, on the one hand, the voice sciences have made marvelous advances in information gathering. Theologians and historians and linguists have made deep, interesting discoveries that shed great light on religious text and tradition. But sometimes, the interested and invested majority get tangled in the puzzling explications of the academic minority, in waves of information and language that can hide mistakes, bad ideas, poor logic, and unspoken motives.

The other day I was reading a lengthy piece about the “Mutational Chink” in adolescent female voices. This phenomenon, now given a proper name, to substantiate its thing-ness, was described by the writer in agonizing detail, all but begging the reader to accept the veracity of the findings. Personally, I don’t require much convincing that gawky, teenage girls with no vocal training and afraid of their own sounds tend to vocally retreat, under-adduct their cords and develop a habit of breathiness……. Do any of us not know that?

I felt as though I had just finished an encyclical about papal infallibility, heaping dogma upon dogma to defend Peter’s authority, when it could simply be said, “We tend to see the wisdom in top-down, episcopal authority by election the wisest structural choice for the worldwide church.”

Over this last year I have been routinely struck by what I see as great problems in the otherwise fascinating field of vocal science, and I would summarize it by saying- the observations in the field are certainly valid, but many of the conclusions are not. Many important questions are not asked, and many operating assumptions are false, but they are all frequently presented as conclusive. 

In coming posts I will be highlighting a few of these sorts of pedagogical discrepancies, because as much as I am encouraged by the wonderful research and developments in the field of vocal science and pedagogy- (just like religious belief and practice) Music, stylistic preference, and especially our voices and related physicality are things which have many strong feelings attached. Consequently, maintaining a critical eye on the information stream is necessary for healthy, balanced vocal development. Finding and trusting authority figures is all well and good, and ultimately, necessary- but in the end, each must work out his own (vocal) salvation.

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Good Golly Miss Molly, You Sure Talk Purty!

“That’s all poetry is, in a sense. It slows you down rather beautifully. And you just enjoy the bounce and heft and glory of one word following another.”                                                        -Stephen Fry, being interviewed on the subject of poetry.

As if you needed one more person to tell you how important diction is…..

I love this quote, not only because is so wonderfully exemplifying the very thing it describes, but because it reminds me of something I had the joy of experiencing in the recent past during a lesson – something which perhaps hadn’t truly occurred to me before.

I had the good fortune to briefly work with a young lady for the period of her regular teacher’s maternity leave. It was evident that she had a pleasant enough voice, and we set to work using exercises and looking to improve where we could. It is an easy thing to get very used to your regular exercises, and easier still to focus on what you are looking for- evenness of line, legato, intonation, etc. But when we turned to a song, I was struck by a certain inexplicable prettiness of sound that hadn’t immediately been apparent to me. It was beautiful, really. It wasn’t that her diction was so great that it rivaled Julie Andrews. It wasn’t even that it was completely correct throughout. But there was something distinct that the introduction of words had done to her sound…..

Now, all singers are usually taught about two things, at least: Beauty of tone, and good diction. Beauty of tone for obvious reasons, and diction for the purposes of clear communication. But what about good diction for the purposes of beauty? If I may clarify further, I don’t mean beauty of consonants themselves, trying to make Fat Beautiful Bs, Ts, and Ks into something very present and even elegant. We sometimes hear that too (thought not nearly enough.)

No, I mean what can our diction do for beauty of tone? They are usually considered separately. And as regards legato, they are often sometimes considered at odds with one another, text being the great interrupter of your carefully practiced tone.

It was after this lesson that I began to think that perhaps diction is very much like what Stephen Fry describes regarding poetic word choice. Every mixture is different and can highlight different relationships of sounds. In the case of diction in song, we first shape the sounds into vowels, and then the words cut, slice, carve, nudge, bump, kick, trip, push and pull the various vocalized vowels as they are emitted. It became apparent to me that enunciation of text, much like the cuts in a jewel or precious stone, are able to display facets of our voices and sounds. And it takes these cuts to highlight these unique qualities. Without them you are left with, well, just a stone, no matter how polished.

I am not entirely sure the degree to which such a thing can be identified and honed as a skill. Good diction? Sure. Elegant diction? Certainly. Identifying and exploiting the natural qualities diction can highlight in your native sound?…… Well, singing is challenging enough already, but I am still investigating. It may simply be that this is just one of the wonderful little elements that makes this art so magical. At the very least, though, it seems a good place to start to recognize this possibility, and to make text and diction a chief priority on the off chance that while you are absorbed in telling your story, the words themselves might bring a little unexpected shimmer or glimmer to your otherwise lovely sound.

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The Time Before The Time Before….Yes, Those Were The Days…..

Recently, an article by Will Crutchfield from the 80s has been making the rounds on Facebook. It is a thinly veiled restatement of a common theme: The lament for an age now gone.

While the article purports to be about the tendency toward burnout and not about any lack of talent; it nevertheless seems to sing the same old song of praising a previous Golden Age and acknowledging a lack of “the right stuff” in our present singers.

I don’t want to suggest that this isn’t a valid line of inquiry. Is it wrong, after all, to assess the talent pool? To be attentive to the state of things? No. And any profession is naturally subject to the numbers of people interested balanced against talent. Suppose Medicine as a field became very unpopular, low-paying as a result, and had fewer takers. Over time, it might find it had fewer bright and brilliant minds attracted to it. Such things are subject to the whims of societal mood. Even so….

Crutchfield seems to think that the generations prior to this one demonstrated generally greater discipline, and greater proficiency than those at present. And yet, Francesco Lamperti, writing an hundred years (give or take) before Crutchfield said much the same thing about the very singers that Crutchfield is holding up as beacons of technical supremacy. Are we to believe that if we go back in time each century’s singers will just be exponentially better than the one later?

He even suggests giving a listen back to the older recordings. Well, perhaps we should. But what we find is that for every lovely Caruso “Com’e gentil”, you will find a Battistini “Largo” where he and his pianist can’t seem to find each other, for every charming lied by Lilli Lehmann, the occasional straight-toned and effortful (albeit clarion) note from Giovanni Martinelli. And no, Mr. Crutchfield, they do not all sing in tune.

Overall, I think the true insight of Crutchfield’s article is that regarding such valid factors as general trending toward impatience in society and young singers, the increase in travel, flights, busier schedules, long-advance contracts, etc. and the potential effects of these on singers. But the suggestion that our present generation has so far proven more negatively effected, or is somehow less up to combatting these factors, is simply not borne out in my opinion.

It is my sense that in each generation one is able to see the many singers who simply drop out of the game for various reasons. But those who went by the wayside in previous generations are not well known about in those generations that follow. So we are left only with the memory of those who lasted, those who thrived, those who made an indelible mark. This gives the false impression of a “Golden Age”. But here is another reality- Today’s vocal world would actually be hard pressed to provide fewer capable vocalists. After all, the generations to which Crutchfield refers are primarily culled from the Western world. Today, the field is full of wonderful artists from East Asia, India, South Africa, the Latin American countries, and many other places besides. There are so many singers that the sheer numbers suggest that we have vastly outnumbered the population of any previous “Golden Age”. And still, the cream always rises to the top, and we have a wonderful generation with us and coming. Someone would be hard pressed to convince me, for example, that Matthew Polenzani doesn’t sing as well or better than Ferruccio Tagliavini. One or more of Mozart’s sopranos, and Jenny Lind as well, had to take time off to retool their famous vocalism. I’ve never heard the same said of the reliable and lovely Hei-Kyung Hong.

All told, I am firmly of the opinion that each generation is subject to the same bad days, bouts with illness, bad choices and repercussions that have been the challenge of singers always. And nothing has shown me yet that this present generation somehow demonstrates less consistency or discipline. Not yet anyway. Frankly, I’d say that there are at least a handful out there that may be treating this music to the best vocalism it has ever enjoyed. The amazing Rossini of Lawrence Brownlee, the sweeping Strauss of Christine Brewer, the spectacular longevity and career rebirth of Gregory Kunde all come to mind. So to all you active singers- I, for one, thank you. Happy singing, and keep up the good work!!

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Funny You Should Ask….. I Have No Idea

Over the last year I have had a handful of conversations with colleagues on the subject of “technical” content in vocal instruction. Some are strong proponents of in-depth technical instruction. Many find great success with their students teaching largely through sensory imagery. And there is certainly no shortage of strong opinion on which is more effective with students, especially as regards different learning “styles” and a corresponding teaching “style”. This is a longstanding debate, of course. There are, however, some underlying issues and points which I feel could use clarification and addressing-

The 4 Major Issues


Is physiological and mechanical knowledge entirely necessary in order to begin to sing in a beautiful and healthy way? No, certainly not. Manuel Garcia Jr. observed this in his book Hints On Singing over an hundred years ago. Kirsten Flagstad’s teacher, Dr. Gillis Bratt, indicated the same. He did, however, ask her very directly if she ever intended to teach. When she assured him that she had no intention of ever teaching, he said that her development might be able to take a little less time. Even so, she was restricted to rigorous training (eg. only speech exercises for the first 6 months!) the likes of which would give contemporary teachers and students pause.

So here, perhaps, is the first issue identified: It is possible to develop your vocalism, but I’m not sure how far I would then stretch the word “learning” to include that. When pressed, many perfectly lovely vocalists actually find that they struggle to give even a simple explanation of how they do what they do.

What Is “Technical”, Exactly?

I think one big issue is defining exactly what we mean by a teacher being “technical” or “too technical”. It seems to me that this varies a great deal. For instance, rather than telling a student to “let the balloon float higher on that pitch”, a teacher might say, “on F# all tones must be placed securely in the mask…..”  This latter statement sounds very technical, but for the tricky problem of none of it being physiologically true or even possible. It is sensory (having a feeling in a “mask” region), it is image-based (the vague act of “placing” a tone). So why does this smack of technical instruction when it is decidedly not technical? Because it is specific.

Certainly, people can feel overwhelmed with too many specific directives insistently given. But let’s not damn technical knowledge as being one and the same.

The Unwilling Student

Similarly, much sway is given to the question of the “learning style” of the student. This is a fair question to be asked, and requires flexibility in a gifted teacher (more on that later). However, let’s not let the student entirely off the hook. We all have our hangups and our points of interest. But the learning of a skill or a field of study can’t always cater to such whims; not if we want to attain proficiency.

Frankly, I have found it astonishing that this is even a question. In no other field would that kind of willful ignorance be acceptable. Imagine a cellist who couldn’t identify the bridge on their instrument, or didn’t want to be bothered with the tedium of learning the pitch names of each open string. Imagine if a piano student felt pedagogically oppressed by the teacher insisting that they call it the “sustain pedal” rather than “ the one on the right”.

As I have become fond of saying recently, “Even James Bond had to fill out paperwork.” (It’s true! Read the books. He even has a shared office and a secretary!) And it may well be that the development of a pupil’s vocalism will be attained by means of metaphor and sensory imagery, but how is it not a blatant contradiction to purport to teach a skill while leaving out the entire matter of how it works? I struggle to call that education.

Moreover, omitting the mechanics only leaves a student unprepared should something goes wrong in the future. In my experience, yes, many lovely vocalists have sung for years without such knowledge, but only those who have been lucky enough to never encounter an issue. The people who find themselves rushing to learn this information are those who’ve hit a stumbling block and those who find themselves teaching and having to explain something to others that they never learned themselves. They typically come away wondering how they ever fared without it.

Now, it’s true and it happens all the time – how many people hate a particular subject because of a poor teacher in their past? Bad, awkward, insistent, and ill-informed teachers will be bad teachers no matter what. We shouldn’t vilify the information on their account. I think that a good teacher will know how to helpfully pass along information technical or otherwise. That, in essence, is pedagogy: the study of instruction. But rather than finding accessible ways to include the information, and to instead assume it is best to leave out the parts that a student doesn’t immediately enjoy is to assume that the student knows best and not the teacher. Which, I must say, is a very strange way to approach instruction.

The Financial Obligation

In my opinion a teacher’s job is, in principle, simple- to pass along their knowledge and skill to a pupil in a manner that helps the student to develop and retain that knowledge and develop that skill. To my mind that means all related knowledge.

With all the recent talk about tuition rates, and the rather high rates of some private voice teachers, I can’t help feeling that there is a certain professional obligation. The idea that young people can indebt themselves many thousands of dollars, and come out the other end with only a scant or passing knowledge of the very subject which they intended to master….. is astonishing to me. Certainly, if there is a division of labor (between a teacher/coach/pedagogy class, for example) such as in some schools, one needn’t expect it all from a single studio. Doctors, no doubt, study different aspects of medicine under different tutors. But if a future surgeon escaped med school with an admitted weakness and annoyance with the basics of the vascular system…. well, bad things…..very bad things.

Simply put, teachers, for that kind of money, you owe them.

Personally, I think the “technical” should be sensible, simple, and accessible. In my research, at least 75% of most treatises on vocal technique (even the most scientific ones) repeat the same handful of things. I don’t find the relevant* mechanics to really be that complicated, and frankly, it is the teacher’s job to help the student simplify it, order it, prioritize it, and execute it in the most natural way possible. And if the student balks at learning it, they should be gently reminded that knowledge is power, and that they can focus on their metaphors, etc. for development and practice, but that here and there they must also be taught the physiology. It can be handled in tandem rather than simultaneous. And this is where the talent of the teacher comes into question.

A good teacher must be armed with many different means of helping students, both technical and sensorially descriptive. The truly talented teacher can bounce comfortably back and forth, even being inventive and creating new paths to understanding. If a student doesn’t immediately engage with mechanical explanation, they needn’t dwell on it’s physical application if it isn’t the most immediately helpful to them in the moment. But one never knows, down the road, where all of it will come together and finally make all the sense in the world.

*By “relevant” I mean that almost no student, even if they know what they are, will ever be able to feel their corniculate cartilages. So, there is some serious degree of utilitarian difference between being able to identify those and being able to identify your soft palate or thyroid cartilage. But again, knowledge is power.

Posted in Pedagogy, Vocal Development and Mechanics | Leave a comment