I may never write a more important blog post. I sit on my bed with my netbook on my lap, doing meditative breathing to keep my mind clear and my emotions controlled. Shakespeare wrote: “Nothing is so common as the wish to be remarkable!” I reply, nothing is more uncommon than the will-power to turn what is common into what is truly remarkable. The challenge to transform from common ability to true expert is what defines the human journey. Whether a young child who shows early scientific aptitude becomes a Nobel Prize winner or a two-year old little girl who sings the notes of a song more accurately than she speaks the words becomes an operatic diva depends far less on these early advantages than it does on how these early manifestations are fostered.
A remarkable article from the Harvard Business Review of July-August 2007 speaks uncontrovertibly about the myth of innate talent. Research has been done and confirmed that have debunked our common accepted misconceptions. Scientists as early as 1985 have proven that apparent early aptitude does not guarantee high levels of expertise, but that three factors are common among people who have achieved uncontrovertible expertise, whether in science, sports or the arts, namely 1) targeted, frequent and long-term practice 2) the presence of a dedicated and capable mentor, coach or teacher and 3) the support and encouragement of family and friends. The article also speaks of sacrifices made in terms of finances and time. Is it not obvious that these are perfectly true of singing?
1) Targeted practice for success is defined in the article as practice to develop skills that are lacking, rather than practicing skills that are already acquired. This is where many singers and teachers fail. Too often singers practice only the things they do well, they do exercises that are easier to do, exercises that yield a feeling of immediate accomplishment. How often do we hear even professional singers say: “I don’t have a High C. It’s not in my voice!” or “I have a big voice that is not made to sing softly!” or “I have a dramatic voice that is not meant to sing coloratura!” or “This is a light voice meant to move not to sustain!” If I were to find 10 clips on Youtube that disproves all of these myths, I bet that the majority of professional singers and teachers would say that those examples are exceptions to the rule. In fact, these so-called exceptions would be the remarkable people who took the time to develop the skills they did not have, thereby becoming real experts through guided and targeted practice.
The culture of classical singing teaches the singer to believe that their abilities are given not learned, and so most of the singers I meet think that a good teacher is someone who provides a magic pill that help them coordinate their gifts to the best effect, rather than that the missing skills require targeted training of muscles and the learning of analytical skills. Singers who believe they are specially gifted and who have had it easy in the beginning only begin to consider that learning to sing requires time and training when they cannot find any more immediate solutions. Truly accomplished singers are self-critical. They know what skills they want to have and work to accomplish those skills. There is another group of singers with easily developed coordination who never go beyond what seemed to have come to them naturally. Believing in natural talent or being gifted prevents a singer from believing they can develop beyond their gifts.
How many tenors are told they are baritones because they have no high notes? Is it a wonder that spinto and dramatic tenors are not in abundance in the professional world? This is a direct connection! Dramatic tenors are usually trained as baritones because they do not exhibit ease in their top ranges at an early age. Few teachers can recognize a tenor when the high notes are not easy. Fewer know how to help that tenor acquire the skill of singing high. Here is the biggest error in vocal pedagogy: to believe that a skill can be acquired immediately if the singer coordinates the voice properly. Where does the teacher go wrong?
To answer, I give the following scenario: A singer has what appears to be a natural ability to sing high notes. S/he finds a good teacher who help him or her to refine those notes through better onset, better vowel modification, better breathing, etc. The singer becomes a successful professional and later becomes a teacher. S/he encounters a student who sounds like a tenor but has no high notes. S/he tries the techniques that s/he had learned. They do not work. The student cannot sing high notes. So the teacher believing his/her technique to be proven and correct determines that the singer has a limited voice and is a small voiced baritone. S/he determines that his/her easy top notes is a gift. Furthermore she is part of a discipline that is built on the myth of given talent. What did this teacher not consider?
The teacher did not consider that high notes are not always spontaneous in a young singer. The teacher did not realize that perhaps his/her easy top range was a result of muscular training through excellent speaking habits and mimicking at an early age, that s/he had developed a coordinated modal voice early without knowing that s/he was doing so. The teacher did not realize that his/her own easy top notes had been trained unbeknownst to him/herself. So s/he never considered that the young tenor could develop those top notes with guided and targeted practice. But this would require this teacher to acquire enough knowledge about vocal anatomy to know how to target the muscles that need training. How many teachers feel secure about that knowledge? What if the tenor had found a teacher who had trained to develop his/her own top notes?
This brings us to No. 2
2) A knowledgeable and dedicated mentor: We are in a field where the authories and so-called experts are too often not competent to diagnose what is lacking in a voice. They are often limited by what they needed to complete their own training but never studied to understand how to help a singer acquire the skills they themselves take for granted.
If I believe that my ability to learn languages quickly is a gift, could I ever teach someone else to learn a language quickly? Certainly not. That I can function in 8 different languages does not mean I have a special gift. I tell people this all the time. As a Haitian-born I had one specific advantage that many saw as a disadvantage. I consider French to be my first language, my mother-tongue. But in point of fact, I grew up speaking Haitian creole, which has a different grammatical syntax but that has a largely French-based vocabulary. At home and at school I was encouraged and then required to speak French because it was considered the language of the educated elite. I grew to speak it better than Creole and considered it my mother tongue. But unlike a native French who speaks the language before they understand grammatical structure, I learned my mother-tongue grammatically and purposefully. Every time I learn a new language, I learn its grammatical structure first. Vocabulary comes later. When I began to learn Japanese, I was able to construct grammatically correct sentences very early, to the point that strangers assumed I was fluent when I was not. Since Italian grammar and vocabulary is very similar to French, with the help of a dedicated teacher who conversed with me every day, I became a fluent speaker of Italian in three months. I picked up Spanish from friends and later from a girlfriend who is a Spanish teacher and became fluent in that language. German took considerably longer because the syntax was vastly different but I had learned English growing up in the United States and could use English vocabulary as a basis for learning German since the two languages are of the same family. I learned to write Swedish in a matter of weeks taking German and English and the other languages I speak to construct an understanding. But Swedish speaking poses difficulties because consonant combinations are constructed between words and when listening I cannot decipher where a word ends and where the next begins. I am remedying this by reading Stieg Larsson novels in Swedish with the audiobook simultaneously, to hear how a native Swede pronounces what I am able to understand from reading. This suggestion I took from a Swedish student of mine who had done the same when he learned German. When you look at it as I just described, it begins to look like I developed a skill and that my so-called linguistic talent is not a gift. If I have a gift, it is simply a love for languages, which I developed traveling early in life. To call my linguistic ability a gift is to diminish the work I have done to acquire this skill. Furthermore, by treating it as some inexplicable talent is to deny someone else the possibility of acquiring the same skills.
It goes further! If I were to become a language teacher, I would not allow myself to be limited by the method I had developed, but would also consider learning languages the way that children do, by imitating. The company, Rosetta Stone, arguably among the top language skill developers in the world bases its products on this premise and it has merit. I would say to master a language, both my analytical approach and the natural approach should be used. Developing a feel for the specific student’s mode of learning would also instruct my pedagogy and would help me tailor my teaching to the specific student’s needs.
To become an expert singer or singing teacher requires the same fundamental attitude, namely developing skills that are not there to begin with.
The paradigm that Classical Singing goes by is the following:
If you have it, we can help you make it better. If you don’t we can’t do anything for you.
The paradigm undermines both the haves and the have-nots. The haves believe they are limited by what they have and the have-nots believe that they can never have. It creates a class system between those deemed talented and those not. The paradigm should be corrected to:
Whatever you have, you are not complete. We will help you complete your training, whether to develop the last 1% or the remainting 99%.
This validates everyone and builds a culture requiring work from everyone, with no illusions but a clear path to expertise. What determines if a singer becomes an expert when s/he is 99% untrained hangs totally upon that singer’s determination provided there is a teacher who is committed to the student’s journey. The third part is whether the student has the support of family to deal with the costs, the setbacks, the fears, the doubts, etc.
3) A team of good-wishers that provide encouragement, psychological and financial support. Most singers training in New York City have a day-job. They come to their lessons after eight hours of work and must find the energy to practice, and they have to pay their teachers in excess of $100 for an hour’s work. No matter how you cut it, that is an unsustainable paradigm. Personally as a teacher, I work with my student’s financially. They count on my guidance and entrust me with their dreams. I must become one of their team of good-wishers. I must invest in them. When they cannot afford a lesson, I work with them to make their lessons possible. I recognize that I am able to make a living because of my students. The social contract means they invest in me as I in them. It only works if we are of the same mind about the process. Rocky and Mickey are inseparable, Daniel and Mr. Miyagi, Luke Skywalker and Yoda, etc. The relationship when it is correct goes beyond finances, but for the relationship to work, there must be trust that both sides are responsible and dedicated. I like to meet the families of my students and feel that they are also invested. It is crucial.
All three elements are necessary. It is difficult for a singer to progress when their family believes they are wasting their time. It is impossible to succeed if the singer is not committed to his/her absolute excellence and a teacher who asks for less is no friend.
I don’t know any singer who is more dedicated to his own excellence than I am. Some may be as dedicated as I am, but none more. I had great supportive teachers who have taught me a lot and I have had a very supportive family. So what went wrong with me? I was in a long relationship who did not believe in my dreams. So there were sacrifices made to keep the relationship together. But lucky enough, my teachers gave me the means to continue my education. I also have an unusual voice. A tenor voice that was developed like a bass-baritone from childhood. I copied my father’s low-speaking voice developing an easy low range when compared to my young peers. I have had to retrain as a tenor, further slowing down my progress. Then I had to deal with acid reflux.
Still, my difficulties gave me reason to develop my expertise as a singer and teacher. I see my technique develop into a predictable cause and effect model. Of course success depends first and foremost upon the student’s staying power, which depends in great part on how they are supported by their loved ones.
So, operatic success is teamwork. My success as a teacher means little without worthy students. I have worked with students who needed 99% and those who needed 1%. What they have in common is their commitment to a process that I make clear from the beginning. They witness gradual and constant growth and they want to see their way to the end. I have helped other student’s acquire certain skills but then they could not commit to finishing the job. They thought they might get quicker answers from more famous teachers after we had made enough strides for them to access those more famous teachers. I say that not with bitterness but with sadness because I know there is no shortcut to muscular training. It is also difficult to convince a student s/he is not ready when they hear professionals who do not sing as well. It is also hard when the singer can get work by compromising their ultimate excellence, their expertise.
I teach more than 100 students worldwide, not all of them regularly. But I have a core group of about 35 students that I consider my students. I know them, I know their support groups, their families, etc. I know their dreams and their struggles. They believe as I do that there is only one thing that makes sense in this crazy business of singing. Be far better than the average in every sense. They want models on stage, we go to the gym. They want believable actors, we take acting classes if need be. They want high Cs, we work for high Ebs. The business of singing may appear to be warped. Some accomplished stars at the top are beginning to complain. But a finished singer is a money-maker to even the most jaded of impressarios and managers. As a teacher I am more interested in the student’s passion for excellence than how much voice they come with. It is that staying power that constitutes any guarantee of success.
On this Thanksgiving Weekend, I am extremely thankful for my family that has always been supportive of me, no matter what the circumstances. I am thankful for my teachers. I was lucky enough to have really dedicated ones. What they could not give me in vocal technique they gave me in the means to find my own path. I am supremely thankful for my student’s, especially those that take the process of learning to sing as seriously as I take it. We are engaged in a project bigger than ourselves, very conscious of the realities of the world but not impeded by them. They have faith in their talents and in my teaching, they have the courage to go after what they envision and the patience to see it through. They are special people and I am honored to work with them. Changing the field we love begins with holding ourselves up to high standards.
What people call talent is what we have constructed when they were not there to see us construct it. What they do not understand they think is a miracle, a gift. What the most jaded of singers and teachers will tell you is that the business will give you nothing. You must sweat for every crumb. There I agree! So stop calling people’s achievements a gift. My daughter learned to match pitch when she was less than three months old because I sang lullabies to her every night. Nice little skill. She has a nice singing voice and she loves to sing. If she ever becomes a singer, her success would not be based on that skill. It would be based on what she makes of that early advantage. I have known singers with world-class voices who never make a career. For one reason or another, they could not finish the job. Success in anything requires hard work. Period!