Teaching classical singers gets more difficult by the day. So much so that it can become downright depressing. We are living in a time that despises empirical evidence in favor of half-truths that further one’s opinions. The difference between teachers who respect science and those who reject it is that science-based teachers are able to say:
Science does not provide us all the information. As voice teachers, we have to fill in the blank spots!
Whereas, those who teach based on their opinions only, will claim they have a full-proof technique that can fix all the problems. And if they should find a student who needs precisely what they need, that student can thrive even to the highest level and then they have an example of their “full-proof” technique.
Those pedagogies are usually quite superficial and fall into two categories: 1) Bright, high and forward 2) Open throat, low and dark.
Many young students begin with one of these extremes. Unidirectional teaching gets faster albeit incomplete results and depending on voice type, the student can become very adept at this monochromatic approach until the larynx calcifies in their late 20s. That is often when they start to have obvious imbalances and must seek out lasting solutions.
Unfortunately, such students face another extra-technical problem, namely that they have come to identify with the sound that resulted from a simple but incomplete approach and mourns its loss. They often go through a phase of wanting to get that sound back as opposed to wanting to correct the imbalance that led to degradation and imminent dysfunction. This part is psychological, and as a pedagogue, it is like going through a mine-field with a student in that state. It takes enormous patience to steer them in the direction of a balanced approach while not deprecating the very imbalance that we are attempting to correct because the student so identifies with the euphoric memory of that very vocal imbalance.
A generation or two ago, we could have pointed to a general acceptance of what a balanced classical voice sounds like. Singers have always been idiosyncratic relative to their techniques, but back then, at least to a certain extent:
All Roads Lead to Rome!
How can we hope to guide students in a balance direction when the professional field too often rewards imbalance?
Opera has little left in terms of musical, technical or artistic standards! Everyone has become specialized. But too often specialized so as not to have to deal with the difficulty of the larger concept. To avoid the ills of excessive and irregular vibrato, some early music advocates suggest straight tone all the time. To avoid a depressed tongue, one pedagogue advocates a high larynx, while another will accept a depressed larynx in order to avoid nasality. The idea of chiaroscuro ( or chiaro e scuro, as my late teacher used to say) does not even enter their minds.
The original operatic aesthetic was about bright and dark, squillo and open throat (very much related to each other), power and flexibility, emotion and vocal balance, accessibility through extraordinary skill. Today there is an expectation that Wagnerians must sing pushed and ugly, leggieros must lack in depth, popular must be superficial, balance is a matter of opinion and empirical information is elitist propaganda.
The operatic art-form represents an ideal that parallels the Olympic spirit–By challenging ourselves to achieve beyond normal, we can momentarily touch the divine in ourselves. Olympic: to strive for Olympus, the dwelling of the Gods; to achieve Apotheosis (a transformation to God-like status). Some might even refer to the idea as blasphemous. The concept is not about becoming a God, but to aspire to a level of excellence, that to the Ancients could only be explained in terms of Gods.
This winter, I will watch as much of the Winter Olympic Games as I can. I am in need of inspiration and it is sorely lacking in daily life. It is very lacking in the Operatic aesthetic. However, what keeps me inspired about this calling is that despite the degradation of expectations in the Operatic artform, great singers are coming out. Therefore there must be many wonderful teachers out there doing great work. Therefore, were the Operatic business to fall apart completely, the Operatic Artform would always endure!