A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Don't judge a book by its last page

Recently someone said to me that the problem with vocal pedagogy these days is that the teaching of singing is too sound-based, meaning that teachers and coaches are trying to get their students to create a certain quality of sound, and judging the effects of their teaching on what they hear the student produce. This makes sense, as in most lessons or coachings here in the UK the person teaching you is doing so while playing the piano, so their attention is divided between their performance and what they can hear of yours. It may not seem like a big deal, after all they have been doing this for years, and certainly coaches can play most standard repertoire almost on auto-pilot. Singing teachers though - not so much, and it's them we turn to for help with our technique. Still, maybe it's not as big a deal as the person in question was making it out to be. After all, making a good sound (as in impressive, consistent, pleasant, agile, etc) implies that there is good technique behind it...

Or does it? And even if there is good technique behind it, is it the best possible technique? We see children on talent shows presenting an adequate or even impressive facsimile of an operatic sound, but as opera singers we know that it's not a healthy thing for these kids to be doing, even if the sound is ok. We watch crossover artists and wince every time they pull a face or their shoulders go up, so we know there are flaws in how they are using their voice, but for the most part the noise they make is actually quite pleasant (if it wasn't, they wouldn't be where they are), even if we purists will never admit it. So a bad technique doesn't necessarily mean you can't make a decent sound, even though in the long run such 'cheating' will wreck your instrument.

These are extreme examples, of course, and actually for us singers it's the more subtle cases that are actually the most dangerous. Where is the line between vibrato and a wobble and how can you tell whether you're on the right side of it? I've heard all manner of pedagogues advocating vibrato as a great thing - it protects the voice, vibrating is clear evidence that you have good air flow and 'support', it means you are achieving optimum resonance... But what if the sound you're making only sounds like a healthy vibrato, but the mechanics behind it are beginnings of a wobble that will soon become habitual and increase in amplitude? Who is going to catch you in time and help you readjust your technique? It sounds fine and the people you trust (your teacher and coaches) are all basing their advice on your sound.

Audition panels may spot it, if there's someone who knows enough about singing on them (and that's hardly a given I'm afraid), but will they give you feedback? Will you trust their feedback over the words of your vocal training team? How many times will you have to hear the same thing before you think there might be a grain of truth in it? Let's say 3 (once is one person's opinion, twice could still be statistically insignificant). Assuming you get feedback from half the auditions you do (and that's a generous proportion only ever achieved by singers who have agents asking for feedback on their behalf), half of it is probably well-informed, and half of that is honest rather than polite. That's 24 auditions you've done before you start thinking there may be a problem (call it 6-12 months of your life gone?). Worse still, you're probably getting work, because you sound fine and there's plenty of opportunities out there for fine-sounding singers, which means you think you're on the right track, when actually you may have plateaued in your development, or are letting a bad habit get worse.

There are teachers out there who don't play piano in lessons. They watch you like a hawk, devoting 100% of their attention to what you're doing, all aspects of it. When I was studying in Poland we always had pianists in singing lessons, so that teachers could focus on teaching and students didn't feel so harshly exposed and vulnerable (because the first couple of times you have an a cappella lesson it is horrible!). Even if your teacher does play, it may be worth asking them not to and to have a look at you. The clues pertaining to your technical flaws (and we all have those) aren't necessarily in your sound YET, but may be in your jaw, tongue, ribcage, shoulders, left pinky, etc.

As you can tell, I haven't been able to stop thinking about this point for a few days now, almost to the point of paranoia. I'm not looking to freak out the singers reading this though, it's just something which may be worth considering if you want to get the most out of your teachers (and who doesn't? we don't go to them to be complimented, after all). There's more to singing technique than doing whatever makes you sounds good. It's a bit like a whodunit - the point of such books isn't flicking to the last page and finding out who did it, it's everything that leads you there. And with that clumsy analogy I think it's high time I stopped writing ;)

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