Now official: Academic stamp of approval on…. almost anything.

I recently attended an academic seminar where I heard a teacher speak at length about a variety of things to do with voice, technique, pedagogy and style. Needless to say, there were some things with which I agreed, and some things with which I disagreed. But as he addressed questions of technique as it related to style, I was struck by something…….

It is becoming alarmingly apparent to me that people have taken academic pedagogy and used it to justify whatever sound they want to hear. They will observe the physical action of whatever thing they like hearing/doing, and then call that the “technique” for it. It’s a justification game. They observe, in detail, whatever physical action is taking place in a person singing in a particular fashion and then repeat back to you verbally (rather than demonstratively) what was happening in great physiological detail. This description, carefully worded, sounds like a how-to explanation. It gradually begins to take on a life of its own as a valid “technique”. Unfortunately, very often this description is actually a physiological description of somebody who in fact sings very poorly. And yet it appears validated in some measure by such intense observation and description.

To the degree that the technique of a thing is simply the manner in which one does it, it is certainly an arguable point that technique can vary with style. However, much as with a course of study in the subject of Philosophy in which questions of relativism are forbidden except to the very advanced- so it should be with the students of singing. For the vast majority of the study of vocalism, centrality is placed on the health of the vocalism first, and the style a (perhaps close) second. And yet in this seminar I heard lengthy explanation of technical elements deemed appropriate for one style and not another. Classical-space vs. Musical Theater space, style-specific vowels, and posture, etc.

There may indeed be a technique for running, and another for jumping. And this degree of variety might seem to apply when we look at the musical world as well. But neither running nor jumping pretend to be the same as the other, whereas all of these different manners of producing vocal music claim to be singing.

Much of our notion of the appropriateness of a particular sound for a particular genre is based entirely on either personal preference or consistency of aural example. We become conditioned to expect a certain sound with a certain style, even possibly grow to like it a great deal. But this is irrelevant to the question of health.

There are a great many people who enjoy Death Metal, and take a great deal of satisfaction in the aggressive growling that happens in the vocals for that type of music. And yet despite our physical and emotional response to these sounds, no less native to humans than any other sound, it can hardly be honestly suggested that this sort of screaming or growling is anything but tiresome and potentially harmful to vocal cords. Clearly, in cases such as these, preference trumps health. And yet this is what we find happening in musical theater, pop, and other forms of vocalism less conspicuously harmful than Death Metal. But it’s all the more insidious for all that. It can slip under the radar because one can produce what might be commonly deemed beautiful sounds.

As a consequence of this many people will be resistant and, out of sentimental attachment to a particular vocal style, eagerly be swayed by one of these sorts of teacher who professes to teach a style-specific technique. But in the end, if explanation or argument doesn’t convince you….at some point your body will begin talking to you. And nodes and polyps don’t care about your sentiment.

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