In Le maître de musique, one of the rare films dealing with the operatic discipline, a master teacher played by celebrated baritone, José van Dam, talks proudly about killing his young student with scales. Later in the film, he has his young tenor swim laps in the pond of his property and has him hold his breath underwater to see if he can control his breath, stating:
“…you are a tenor!”
“But you said before I was a baritone,” the student replies.
The teacher counters: “You are a tenor. You have the voice. It is the physical stamina you lack!”
To his young female student he discussed concentration. He opens a blind while she sang and she was distracted.
“You must be the music! Nothing else exists!”
“You must never close your eyes. You sing with them as much as with your voice.”
This movie details in such wonderful precision, the nature of our art form: the politics, the sacrifices in the name of art, the daily discipline that yields great results and the charismatic influential teacher who promises careers but lacks the skills to bring his own students to professional readiness. The film should be requisite viewing for all aspiring classical singers. Yet its message is subtle. It is a Belgian film and it does not hammer the “moral of the story” home like a good Hollywood drama!
I venture to think the average young singer would miss the point entirely. A dying singer who takes on two students and “…kills them with scales” until they are whipped into shape might be considered cultish, to the blasé and jaded youth of our times. Students today find it normal to take uppers to give themselves a performance edge or downers to keep them from getting nervous. Sleeping one’s way to the top is considered good business sense in most circles now instead of the selling of the soul that it is. Learning one’s music by listening to recordings and being devoid of musical opinion, letting oneself be spoon-fed by a répétiteur is preferred to honest scholarship and intelligence. What is cultish? The teacher who aspires to old-fashion rigorous training or the one promoting doping and prostitution?
Which one of the following teacher statements is cultish and which one wise?
A. You are dumb, you have no talent and no charisma! Without me you will not amount to anything? Now I will charge your credit card for $250.00 for 45 minutes.
B. You have potential but you lack work ethic! Singing requires extreme discipline in many areas including vocal technique, physical fitness, language training, and general education in the arts as well as social skills…
The average student in a large city in the world will pay the $250.00 and equate verbal abuse to “tough love!” They might also be led to believe that anything worthwhile costs more. The teacher who charges less must not be very good.
A common conversation between an Old-School teacher and a modern student:
Teacher: When you go to the top voice, do not lose the support you feel in the low! Maintain an open throat and all the while sing clear intelligible vowels! Emit the breath freely and unimpeded, yet do not waste air by pushing it out nor hold it back and prevent its natural release.
Student: It is much easier when I just lighten up and let it go bright in the head!
Teacher: Of course it is easier. It is a one-sided experience and the tone is of poor quality!
Student: It does not sound poor to me and I can do it every time. When I attempt what you ask, it is more difficult!
Teacher: Let’s go to the park!
(At the Park)
Teacher: Please uproot one blade of grass from the ground! Make sure you bring it up entirely, root and all! (Student performs the task easily and smiles)!
Teacher: Do it again! (Student performs the task easily a second time and smiles proudly)!
Teacher: Now uproot three blades of grass at the same time! (The student tries and one out of three blades broke in the middle. He tries again and this time two blades broke and one is uprooted. He tries several times and does not succeed and stops with frustration and anger)!
Student: It’s not possible to uproot three blades at once! What does it prove? Just like trying to sing a pure vowel in throat and keeping weight in the top voice and blowing air through the vocal cords while hoping not to waste it! All impossible!
(The teacher bends down and three times in a row uproots three blades of grass).
Teacher: It only takes practice! The first time I tried it, I failed too. But I knew it was possible! And it is not “singing a pure vowel in the throat” but rather “maintaining an open throat while singing clear intelligible vowels.” That is a big difference! It is not “keeping weight in the top voice” but rather “maintaining support as you ascend toward the top” and it is not “blowing air through the vocal cords while hoping not too waste it” but rather “emitting freely the amount of air that is required, no more no less!”
Student: But what is wrong with just doing what comes easily?
Teacher: Nothing, except that there is nothing special about it. I can ask anyone here in this park to uproot one blade of grass and they would succeed. But how many do you think could successfully uproot three blades of grass consistently? Uprooting three blades of grass, like a superior vocal technique, is a learned skill that requires repetition. Concentrated repetition!
Student: Why does it have to be hard? Shouldn’t singing be fun?
Teacher: Once the superior skill is trained, it is not so hard and it becomes exponentially fun because it permits you to do so many musical things easily that your current technique will not allow. What you can do easily, hundreds of young singers your age can do. If you develop a real skill, you will be set apart from your competition.
Student: How long is that going to take? How much older will I be when I learn this? Won’t I age out of most auditions and competitions? Until now I’ve always been told I am talented. If I follow your program, I will lose all confidence in my talent.
Teacher: Or you will gain greater confidence, true confidence in a consciously learned skill that you will be able to repeat at will. And with such skill you will have a much greater chance of succeeding at auditions when you do present yourself, instead of doing auditions just to do them and accomplish nothing in the process.
Student: I don’t think so! I’m done. This whole thing is a little too “cultish” for me. I want to stay natural!
Teacher: I wish you well on your journey!
My little story only illustrates what occurs too often in studios throughout the world, particularly in big cities. In a fast-food culture of immediate but superficial gratification, art is synonymous with entertainment. The average person cannot distinguish from a beautifully painted landscape and a painting by numbers. S/he considers Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli to be operatic icons while few people outside of operatic circles know the names of Jonas Kaufmann or Stephanie Blythe. (For the uninitiated, Brightman and Bocelli are not opera singers and they could not be heard in the presence of a symphonic orchestra without microphones). Young singers in big cities tire quickly of a day job that sucks their artistic energy and they would give their bodies and souls to leave those jobs and get a shot at their dreams at whatever the cost.
In truth, we cannot totally blame them! It is often after spending four years at conservatories and music colleges, taking the easy route to a degree, that they are confronted with the savage reality of the operatic field: that there are thousands of young singers just like them coming out of schools just like theirs every year and there are not enough jobs or even training opportunities that would make them viable singers. By that point, they are only looking for a teacher with a good illusion, a magic trick of sorts, that convinces them they could turn into Cinderella at the wave of a magic wand and have a go at the Operatic ball!
To tell them there are no magic wands or quick tricks makes you the villain! They would rather hide in a cocoon of self-delusion rather than confront the reality that they are not as good as they need to be to have a real shot.
The solution is early discipline! There are two types of students: the one who gives up on a math problem after 15 minutes and the one who solves it in 45 minutes. The one who worked 30 minutes more investigated 3 times the number of possibilities until s/he arrived at a solution. S/he not only develops the confidence that s/he can solve future problems, but s/he has already learned that perseverance leads to results and has explored a number of avenues that may prove helpful in future problems.
For my part, I live by the following axiom: There are either winners or those who quit too soon!
In every discipline, there are thousands of times more quitters than there are winners!