Those who can’t do, teach: an issue of inspiration

There is no phrase that has irritated me as much as the title of this issue, with the possible exception of: “This singer has no voice.” I do not believe that those who can’t sing are able to teach it. But of course none of my articles are that superficial I hope. What do we mean by “those who can’t do?” Is it that they never learned how to sing and pretend to know how it works? Is it that they have sung and do not anymore because they are older, or may have lost their voices to abuse, or an accident? It took me facing that unlikely scenario to become less judgmental.

To say that those who cannot sing cannot teach is the same as saying that those who sing well can teach and we all know that this does not necessarily follow. The key here is not to lump all teachers in one basket no matter what the criterion in question. I’ve studied with teachers who had careers and are wise. They stopped their singing activities for various reasons, one because she was such a gifted teacher. That teacher, Lorraine Nubar has the most amazing ears of any teacher I have ever met, and the knowledge to make wonderful changes in all of the students she teaches. Additionally she is one of the most amazing performers I have ever had the pleasure of hearing, and this only a year ago in a concert we did together in Japan. She has not only a flawless technique, but impeccable musicianship, bewitching musicality and a limitless dramatic imagination. This is a singer, who would command any stage she sings on, but she was inspired from very young to teach and we see why. At the other extreme there are people who are truly inept, who have never experienced what it is to perform have never produced a viable vocal tone but often have the salesman’s gift and in such a manner are able to convince the desperate farmer to buy fertile land in the open desert, or in our case, the gullible student that he or she will become a star.

The proof of a good technique is in the results that come from it and so I am beginning to ask my students for before and after recordings of themselves to place on my website. Yet my standards require more. I am first and foremost a singer and am judged by this. It does not help my students if I cannot sing at a high level. It does not matter to the critics who like to put people down just because they can. Nor does it matter that I sang as a baritone for 20 years and am in the middle of a Fach change to tenor. And so even though my students are progressing the way they wish, I feel a personal need to be the true representative of my technique.

I cannot ever forget one particularly challenging soprano I taught during my years as a university voice teacher. She was singing Marguerite’s aria from Faust and I asked her why she did not do the long trill. She answered quite firmly that in most of the recordings that she heard the soprano did not perform a trill consisting of two distinct notes the way I was asking, and furthermore she believed that some people have a trill and some do not. So unless I could prove to her otherwise, I could not expect her to comply. Needless to say, I was miffed. But she had a point. I could not sing a sustain trill then, and I decided to make her a deal. I told her that I will give her the same amount of time to sing a sustained trill that it takes me to learn to do it. She agreed. The following week I came to her lesson and performed the very trill in Marguerite’s aria that I asked her to do. When she panicked, I told her that I only expected her to try her best and I would teach her how I learned to trill. It took the next year and a half, but she learned it and became a very determined student. Her challenged taught me much and I thank her for it.

In that spirit, I challenge myself to become the singer that I always wanted to be. I sang my last baritone role (Macbeth) with the little opera company in Berlin last March. The day after, I began my tenor training in earnest. These have been the most challenging three months of my singing life. I am far from my goal; however I have been forgiving of the process enough to know when I have come to an important point on the road. Those of you who read my blog regularly have been waiting quite patiently for something. Well, today after a two-hour practice I sang “Deposuit” from Bach’s Magnificat. It is unaccompanied but uncut and not tampered with. This is what I sound like now. The voice is not consistently focused. It cannot be perfectly focused right now without me thickening the vocal folds against their nature. I cannot perform a high C yet, but I’m on the way. I believe this art form should be about something honest and profound, an expression of our inspired triumphs against our fears. As always, words are cheap. So I begin with myself.

© 07/01/2008