It is not easy to learn to sing in the company of others. Yet there are great benefits of studying together with others when the social dynamics are philosophically healthy and mutually inspiring (instead of negatively competitive). In a recent post about the It-Factor, I wrote about creating a small group of singers I call my Tournament Team. One of the criteria that was important to me is that the students were able to thrive through each other’s success as opposed to being discouraged by them. This young group is showing all kinds of signs of fellowship and mutual admiration, but after 25 years of active teaching, I am able to recognize very early the seeds of competition that could turn negative if I get too comfortable.
Competition is natural and I welcome it within my studio. But I like a kind of competition that reminds me of the mutual admiration and competition I experienced with my dear colleague, Timothy Jones, whom I featured on this blog a while ago. This principle of sportsmanship, of one inspiring the other to greater heights by example is echoed in the philosophy of my Kung Fu School:
Call: As iron sharpens iron…
Response: So one man sharpens another
To honor a fellow competitor is the height of personal honor. To recognize the value in a colleague who may see the world in a different way brings true collegiality to our art form. The tendency to react from a place of jealousy, of negative criticism of others, of denying the validity of other opinions is a virus that permeates the field of music as a whole and reaches cancerous proportions in the field of classical singing. There are reasons for this and paradoxically it is an entirely different thing (not deprecating to the art form) to recognize the reasons why this cancer persists.
- Lack of a common understanding: Two pianists may disagree on technical approach based on information that is readily available to both. Many pianists suffer from tendonitis or carpotunnel syndrome and pedagogues can discuss scientifically why this occurs as the piano pedagogy community tends to make greater use of the scientific information that pertains to the longevity of its members. Vocal pedagogues on the other hand are split in all kinds of directions, including a) those who claim to teach based on so-called Bel Canto techniques (few agree on what those principles actually are) b) those who claim to teach based on science c) those who think that those who claim Bel Canto technique are charlatans who have no empirical knowledge of the instrument d) those who think that those who teach based on science are charlatans who do not know the fundamental principles of the Old School e) those who develop their own techniques and think all systems are fundamentally cultish and baseless, etc…Singers therefore grow up in an environment whereby criticizing the worth of current professional singers is a required sport. It is a preemptive activity to avoid having the spotlight on one’s personal flaws. If we spend the time talking about how terrible this or that singer is we can avoid having the conversation turn on us. WE ARE, MOST OF US, GUILTY OF THIS.
- Over-saturation of the field: There are more singers coming out of conservatories and music schools than there are possibilities for work. This has always been the case, but now the numbers are astronomical and the level of the singers is lower every year. The selection of singers is too often arbitrary and based on issues that have nothing to do with viable classical techniques. The schools cannot be sustained if they do not have enough students and so the standards, even at the very best schools, are dropped considerably to make certain that numbers are maintained. Where standards are low and arbitration is random, there will be confusion among the young people entering the field. They will follow the lead of their predecessors and join the negatively competitive behaviors of the field.
- They will put down their colleagues in order to feel viable
- They will point out faults in someone’s technique to feel that theirs is better
- They will blame others for their failures
- They will posture and pretend they are the next great thing to cover their fear of never achieving
- They will form cliques of like-minded critics so to feel less alone in their abject fear of not being talented enough
- They will blame the isms (ageism, lookism, favoritism, etc) of the field for their inability to advance
- They will talk ill of their competitors to influential people, hoping to derail their progress
- They will hold on to habits that feel secure even though they know the habits prevent their further progress, for fear of losing the little they have
- They will talk ill of a teacher who recognizes their deficiencies for fear that they are not as good as they convinced themselves they were
- They will hold on to popular dogma about technique and other things to shield themselves from having to question the undeveloped principles cemented in their formative years.
This poisonous behavior exists everywhere and by talking about it I hope it reminds me not to take part in it and hopefully instill in my students the clear reality that I will not condone such behavior in my studio.
But despite this dark state of affairs, many great singers persist and shine a light on what makes this art form great. In my travels I have had a chance to speak with some of the great singers on the stage and almost without exception, they are very friendly, down-to-earth professionals who are passionate about their work and are easily drawn into a conversation over a meal about their process, their love of great colleagues that challenge them to be better, etc.
I am not so naive to think that all of this is going to change overnight. But I feel hopeful when I meet top professionals that this period of negativity is shifting. The over-saturation of the field cannot be sustained and I predict that many schools will out of necessity drop the performance portions of their programs, giving way to another era of fewer schools, higher expectations and better quality preparation. Yes I am a dreamer, but I also believe in the natural swing of the pendulum. It is time for it to swing the other way.
I pray that one day traditional teachers will see the value of scientific knowledge and that science-based teachers will understand the absolute necessity of the Old School codes. My own success as a technician depends on understanding both and indeed they instruct each other. Singers have a difficult time with the paradoxical nature of singing. Apparent contradictions abound, there is a logic in the nature of singing that reflects nature itself. Apparent contradictions in singing can be explained spiritually in the Buddhist concept of Yin and Yang, scientifically in the coexistence of matter and anti-matter or even in terms of Relativity or the duality (physical/spiritual; matter/energy) of human beings. Indeed balance in singing, like in any discipline, is not accomplished by neat explanations but rather by constant re-evaluation of fundamental principles. Philosophy is not necessarily dogma and religion is not necessarily spirituality. The more advanced the knowledge, the more profound the questions. Our art form at its best inspire questioning on the most transcendental level. Where questioning does not exist, there is no art. Entertainment is part and parcel of what we do, but what we do should go beyond mere entertainment. Operatic singing at its best can and should be life-transforming.
But for our art to take on this transcendental nature, competition must become “noble” again. We have to wish our fellow singer to inspire us to greater heights and we must never cease to challenge ourselves. Given that the field is over-saturated, it follows that many are not willing to challenge themselves to improve. My greatest disappointment as a teacher is when I see the abject panic in a student’s eyes when they finally realize that vocal development is a lifelong process. They are shocked when they realize that even with extraordinary skills, absolute “security” does not exist. I heard Pavarotti say on more than one occasion that if a singer tells you s/he is not scared (nervous) before a performance, s/he is either lying or does not care enough (paraphrase). He also equate the opera singer’s experience to that of an athlete. One may be extremely proficient and does not have the “killer instinct” to score a goal or win a match or indeed stand in front of three thousand spectators and deliver ear-tingling top notes with athletic strength and artistic sensitivity.
As athletes we need to understand sportsmanship. As artists we need to explore the mysteries of this existence. Both require us to value our fellow colleagues, respecting them on the one hand and expecting them to live by a higher code on the other. Constructive criticism is not disrespect. Nor is polite non-commentary constructive. Engaged discussion and necessary disagreement lead to search and research. In so doing we recognize the inherent value of the positions of our staunchest opponents. Chiaro “e” scuro; Yin “and” Yang; never either/or. For that to be possible, I must be willing to wear my opponent’s shoes and s/he mine. That requires mutual curiosity at least if not mutual interest in understanding our field beyond our own personal boundaries
Call: As iron sharpens iron
Response: so my opponent sharpens me to higher levels