“For you there is no song”: The nature vs. nurture debate

For you there is no song

Only the shaking of the voice that meant to sing

The sound of a strong voice breaking!

Strange, in my hand, appears the pen and yours broken.

There are ink and tears on the page.

Only the tears have spoken.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Leslie Adams, an African-American composer of note set this touching poem to music. When I first sang the song back in graduate school, I felt very uneasy. Millay used the singing metaphor to express the pain of a poet who had lost the ability to write. “…There are ink and tears on the page.” That could also be music ink and the tears of a singer who cannot sing the music before him. To be told “you have no voice to have a professional career” is something I have heard and have disproved many times. Each time this was told to me, the same people took the words back later. So I do not give a lot of weight to such words. I have come to understand why people would say that, and why they believe they are helping someone to avoid the disillusions of a difficult road even for the very gifted. If I have learned anything about singing in the 25 years that I have been seriously involved in the field, it is that no one can tell anyone whether they have what it takes.

For my part, I am very clear with every student about what is required. And the list is so impressive that the average student would probably give up right there. In fact some have. However, it is a decision that a student must make for himself/herself with full knowledge of what the issues are that they face. If the student makes a decision to go forward, then I turn into Mr. Miyagi. My job is to train the student in every facet of the art, prepare him/her as best as I can for the battles ahead, and there will be battles. A student comes out a better person after a tough audition or competition when s/he feels prepared, even in the face of the unexpected. A prepared singer is always aware of what he or she could do better. He goes into an audition with confidence, and takes responsibility for himself if the outcome is not what he or she wants. When pressured to give up the path before s/he even starts, most likely the singer will get back on the path later or wonder what might have been if s/he had continued on.

Before I go into the discussion of nature vs. nurture, let us consider the definition of a singer! The late Glenn Parker, who remains the most important teacher in my life, once defined the term more appropriately than anyone: “A singer is one who sings.” Glenn was not being facetious when he responded to the query of a very concerned young singer who wanted to know whether he fit the definition. Glenn also said: “Sing only because you must!” The question therefore that begs an answer is: wherefore comes that must? Who demands that one sings, or plays or writes? And if it were God who so ordered, then why would God not give the singer the most magnificent voice with which to sing and protect that voice for eternity such that Her greater glory would be celebrated?

If that were the only question, we might be able to find an equally religious or spiritual answer along the lines that God gave us voices to sing in the church only, and that the expressions of the soul cannot be limited, etc. The problem comes when we are dealing with the real world of professional singing. What does it take to be a professional opera singer?

1) A voice with a range of between two and three octaves that can be heard easily over an orchestra of 80 instruments.

2) The ability to learn and memorize classical music from the 16th to 21st century

3) The ability to interpret and express poetic text in at least Italian, French, German and English

4) The ability to act convincingly some of the most complex roles in literature.

5) The ability to present and sell oneself as an operatic product

6) Certain physical attributes consistent with one’s voice part

7) The ability to work with people in a complex group dynamic that is based on power and influence.

These are only seven elements that come to my mind readily. There are many others of course. Operatic people agree on two things: 1) that no one has all the elements necessary for operatic perfection. Callas had technical issues, Corelli had stage fright, Nilsson was not the most attractive woman, etc. 2) that the vocal element is indispensible. Where there is the unresolved disagreement is whether an operatic voice is a gift from the divine or else a product of intense guided practice.

Every time I analyze a baby’s cry, the strong singer’s formant resonance confirms that any of us, who is not born with a disability of some type that would influence vocal production, has the ability to produce a sound to which the human ear is intensely sensitive, such that it would be heard above any non human sounds. That is the nature of the singer’s formant. It is not a powerful frequency that is louder than the instruments of the orchestra, but rather a frequency range that is meant to attract the attention of the human ear. When such a sound is present, other sounds seem relatively distanced. In that sense, we are all, each one of us, given a vocal gift by the Almighty, the way birds are given the ability to chirp beautifully and cows the ability to moo warmly and powerfully and lions to roar mightily. Furthermore, animals tend to use a limited range in their communication, by which we easily recognize them. It is however interesting that the mammals who compare to humans in intelligence (e.g. whales and dolphins) exhibit large vocal ranges comparable to humans.

If we all have this ability at birth, why then are some people easily heard above an orchestra and others not?

Unlike lions and cows and birds, we have the ability to alter the nature of our vocal mechanism. In fact we begin to do so as babies, attempting to communicate by mimicking the sounds that others around us make. The next question then is: to what degree to we alter the efficient nature of our vocal mechanism by mimicking sounds that are beyond the scope of our instrument?

The degree to which we reduce the efficiency of voice production from childhood to adulthood varies and has many influences. Did we, as children, listen to healthily produced voices or damaged voices? Did we hear singing in our homes, whether in the form of lullabies or someone singing live? Were we strongly scolded when making the loud sounds that uninhibited children make at play? And did that alter our expressive habits? These are only a few simple questions. The possible causes and influences of our ultimate vocal quality before vocal instruction are innumerable. What happens after vocal instruction brings new questions. How effective and informed was vocal instruction? Did the voice quality change for the better or simply transformed to another type of inefficiency? How does a voice teacher know what should be the natural quality of the singer’s voice or do we simply attempt to copy the sound of established singers? Do teachers assume that the basic quality that they hear from a singer at the first lesson is the true sound that needs to be refined or is there a manner to determine whether the sound that is heard is an altered, inefficient version of the singer’s true vocal balance?

While doing a bit of research today, I came across a very important paragraph on Wikipedia that explains succinctly the basic principle that guides my thoughts and obviously that of many teachers:

In the modal register the length, tension, and mass of the vocal folds are in a state of flux which causes the frequency of vibration of the vocal folds to vary. As pitch rises, the vocal folds increase in length and in tension and their edges become thinner. If a speaker or singer holds any of these three factors constant and interferes with their progressive state of change the laryngeal function of the voice becomes static and eventually breaks occur resulting in obvious changes in vocal quality . While some vocal pedagogues identify these breaks as register boundaries or transition areas between registers, other vocal pedagogues maintain that these breaks are a result of vocal problems caused by a static laryngeal adjustment that does not permit the necessary changes to take place within the modal register. McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults.

First of all, the modal register (as distinguished from the fry-register below it and the flute and whistle registers above it) is the part of the voice that sounds real, because it is based on a complex tug-o-war between all the intrinsic laryngeal muscles, and probably muscles throughout the body as support mechanism. The delicate and complex balance that must be achieved for each note happens spontaneously when the at-rest balance of the instrument is optimal. In such a case there is a clarity and fluidity in the quality of sound that we hear in the best of singers. Is this balance a gift? In the metaphysical or religious sense, we could define it as a gift when someone gets to young adulthood with the balance of the vocal mechanism intact. Given all the traps (environment influences) that one must avoid from childhood to young adulthood in order to maintain ideal phonation and resonance throughout the modal range, it is almost miraculous when someone does and it is pretty spectacular even when someone gets close. When we do not understand why someone has a facile voice and someone else does not, we can only look to the divine, as is often the case. I do not dispute the existence of the divine. I believe in a supreme being. I do not believe in the simplistic idea that God gives great voices to some and not to others, but rather in a more complex idea that life circumstances shape how the vocal instrument develops over time. This is an argument that can be logically followed.

Why is this argument important?

This argument is supremely important and probably occupies my thoughts more than anything that has to do with singing. As a teacher, I have too often disproved the opinion of colleagues who would say: “This potential student has no voice!” The statement itself is literally ludicrous since the potential student is able to express himself vocally. What my colleagues meant with that dismissive statement is that the student has poor vocal coordination, for which no remedy is understood, and so it is better not to entertain the possibility that the student could grow to become a successful professional singer. My problem is that I knew there was a solution to the problem of vocal coordination. Neither I nor my colleagues could ever guarantee the success of any student, because of the many other skills necessary for anyone to become an opera singer. The greater error that is often made is the assumption that someone will become a professional singer because he or she has excellent vocal coordination from get-go. I have seen more students with excellent vocal coordination who lacked musical aptitude and the basic intelligence to deal with the many of the educational issues that come up later. These students are usually encouraged and receive scholarships to study, and the majority of them do not go very far.

Why do I argue in favor of the singer who has poor vocal coordination?

There is data that suggests that musical, linguistic and mathematical aptitudes are more easily acquired in early childhood. Meanwhile, there is nothing that suggests that the muscular development and coordination necessary for singing could not be developed in later life. For that reason we have heard of many singers who sang poorly early on and became world-class singers later in life.

Why do others then take a chance on the singer with natural coordination rather than the reverse?

The subject of muscular rebalancing of the vocal instrument is not truly considered in vocal pedagogy. Teachers most often learn basic concepts, from their teachers, that worked for them and pass them along to students who often have different problems. When the approach is ineffective, such teachers believe that the student is not teachable.

The conclusion is that the student does not have the vocal wherewithal to follow a career in singing. It is not easy for a teacher to admit that they do not understand the problem. The easier reply, if the student does not respond to the standard protocols that the teacher applies, is that the student is not talented.

I have seen too many students grow from muffled, forced, weak sound production to resonant viable singing. Such singers deal with all kinds of self-confidence issues even after they develop better coordination. They often become more concerned with the mechanics of how they achieved better coordination rather than believing that they can allow the instrument to function since they have achieved proper balance. So there is no guarantee for them either. Those mind games persist because they were called untalented for so long. But once in a while one beats all the odds and get to a level that no one could call inferior. I was such a singer. I began with little, such that all the teachers at Westminster Choir College but one believed that I had a voice worthy of a singing career of any kind. I did not know which one it was who believed in me so much until later. I did get to study with him for one year before he retired. His name is Daniel Pratt, and I bless his name every time I remember those days. The one year I studied with him, I was awarded by those same teachers the prize for the best singer, and a prize that distinctly awarded the potential for a professional career.

I won those awards singing Leporello’s Catalogue Aria, a bass-baritone work. Now I have discovered I am a tenor. And I believe that when I have satisfied my own vocal standards, my greatest vocal days will come. Yet even with what I now consider less than optimal vocal coordination, I got paid to sing with symphony orchestras internationally, and regional opera companies and taught 11 years at the college level. That is more than some of the teachers who originally thought I had no talent. Still, that is not enough. I am not happy until my voice is back to its natural state. Now I know what that entails. It is no simple task, especially at age 42. I have made great strides in my development as a tenor and I keep promising to post clips here. Perhaps I demand too much of myself, but I will not put anything up here until I feel philosophically satisfied with it. I can give my friends fodder to criticize my shortcomings, but there is nothing to be gained in making my in-between stages public right now. But I record myself regularly and in a couple of months, I am sure I will be able to share the many stages of the process with the readers here, when the final product is thrilling.

My own story is not enough to prove any point. I am not alone in this and I know many singers who were counted out and have become great stars. But I don’t know their stories well enough to testify here. I do know the story of a young soprano who I taught a few years ago. And like many students I ended up teaching, no one wanted to teach her back then. The quality of her sound was very poor and the range was limited. I remember giving her a simple flute voice test that revealed a very clear, light sound throughout her range. It took time before that sound became anything worth hearing, but she became very viable indeed. We had two years together and by then her full three plus octaves had been accomplished. But there was refining work to be done, and she found people to help her with that. I thought this edition should be brought to an end with her beautiful voice. I asked her permission to post her clip here and she agreed. Unfortunately she did not have a recording of herself from those days when she was told she had no voice. Mary-Jean O’Doherty followed her heart and sings here in the finals of the “Mathy,” a national Australian competition specifically for classically- trained singers 25 years and younger. She sings the Bell Song from Lakme, accompanied by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Richard Bonyngue.


© 05/15/2008