Friday, December 4, 2009

The Culture of Singing

Friday evening musings...

As I have the distinct pleasure of having a foot planted fairly firmly - (well a stiletto wedged deeply into the dirt) - in the world of opera AND of music theatre, I feel I can see how these cultures differ...

And they DO differ...

This could be the title of a book I may need to write...but tonight, I will begin to observe and comment on what comes to me first - call it the word association of the culture of singing...

In opera, part of the culture seems to be the ongoing tied to the apron strings of student to teacher. Often, the culture of the singing in this arena is about how often you see your teacher, how long you've been with that teacher, are you with the "correct" teacher, are you doing EVERYTHING you are told to do? Do you have to get permission to do anything? Or everything? When are you going to be "out on your own"????

We all need our teachers, please do not misunderstand me! But we also need to be goal-oriented and be active about our development. We need to know WHY we are there. We are with different teachers through our careers for different reasons. One teacher is not all things to all singers. Nor should they be. Feeling beholden to a teacher isn't healthy; studying for years and years and never really developing isn't healthy; being held hostage in a studio isn't healthy; feeling you need to be with a certain teacher for political reasons isn't healthy;

The power/control game of singing is still very real and very present and we see it very blatantly in the classical and opera world. Many often pounce on a teacher to "fix" us - because they "fixed" somebody else; Many often feel the "name" teacher is going to make us and will by-pass a "real" teacher for a so-called "name"; Many stay with a teacher long after the relationship is useful - for either party! And many "study" when they aren't learning a thing!

We often hold the teacher accountable for some of this power/control game, and so we should! You all know I do! However, the singer is equally as responsible!! The singer has to learn, recognize and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!! If you aren't learning, and you know you aren't, why are you there?!?!?! If you don't want to invest enough in your craft and yourself to spend the time and yes, the money, to explore the possibilities of finding the BEST teacher for you for the time you need to be with that person, and have a sense of entitlement and blame then your denial and your delusion are larger than your talent, most likely!

We have ALL survived "bad" teaching, perhaps had "bad" technique, or NO technique, but it is UP TO US AS SINGERS TO FIND WHAT WE NEED TO MAKE US BETTER!!!! And if we are not, it is nobody's fault but our own!!! A teacher cannot give you a career; a teacher cannot make you practice; a teacher cannot create an instrument that does not exist - physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually; A teacher can lead, guide and help you develop what you are and what you have; However, the culture of singing in this arena should not make a student beholden, or held hostage to a "technique" or a "style" or a personality; It should not make a singer feel like a disciple of someone or something..."follow me or follow nothing" does nothing to promote the individual singer's journey!

In Music Theatre, the irony is this: the culture promotes the immediate. The singing is often not great across the board, because the dedication to the craft and the development of the instrument and the artistic musicianship is not cultivated in the arena of the "16-bar cut and here are your sides for tomorrow." Often, many feel if they can imitate it, they are singing it. Instead of really learning about style, form, physicality of instrument and true vocal development, many pretend and in actuality, know nothing.

Many dancers (not ALL!) I come into contact with will wonder why they can't learn to sing immediately - even though their OWN discipline of dance has taken them years to develop. The culture of singing in music theatre, as it is often promoted, is very deceiving and false: One lesson, or printing off the music the night before, should be enough work to nail the audition and get the job. This disgusts me. And it makes me angry. There is no knowledge in this instant falsehood. There is no craft, no voice, no responsibility taken. The entitlement of self, and the absorption of one's own delusion of grandeur reeks in this arena.

One lesson, one coaching, a couple of days of learning a cut, listening to it on youtube or on your ipod is NOT ENOUGH to call yourself an artist. Nor is it enough to call yourself a singer. It is nothing. Music theatre culture seems to falsely promote this. This is not artistry or developing vocabulary as a singer. Once in awhile studying,or once in a while learning music, learning roles, developing your voice does NOT make you a singer. It makes you a dabbler who is faking it. Fakers are not real. And fakers who fool the business and get jobs very quickly are shown that they don't have what it takes to survive, let alone thrive or grow. Vocal problems develop and the "singer" has to leave or will shorten their career quickly.

I applaud the singers who are willing to ask the hard questions - of themselves and others. Who are willing to realize that THEY develop their artistry. The business decides if and where they have a career. The two are NOT the same. I applaud the singers who say "NO, I can't do that. NO I am not ready for that. NO I need a little more time", when it is appropriate to say so.

A teacher cannot give you a career, but they can help you develop the instrument that you profess to want to have in order to develop your artistry. The business may or may not give you an opportunity to work in a venue that will give your artistry a place to show itself. YOU may need to develop that opportunity too. The business doesn't give you artistry. Only YOU can move past the culture of how the singer sings in your respect arenas and decide WHAT YOU NEED to be the best singer you can be.

If it doesn't matter to you, then I respectfully suggest you just keep working very hard not to be found out. You might fool a few people for awhile, but you can't fool everybody all of the time. And perhaps, the only one you are fooling is yourself.

If you call yourself a singer - in ANY arena, then BE ONE. Invest in the truth of that. Command it. Challenge the culture you are in to find what you NEED, and to find what IS needed to make the culture of singing true, pure, powerful and rich. Learn WHAT you need and why you need it. Don't expect it - go get it! YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE! Artistry is not lazy, entitled nor full of excuses. Artistry is active. Artistry is responsive.

Then, and only then, do we as artists truly take the reins and create our lives fully.


  1. Hi, Susan - great comments on the idea of being a singer.

    I would love to have you visit my web site and perhaps add me to your list of websites if you find value.

    Victor Herbert original materials affordable and available immediately to all. A theatre composer who wrote for singers most of the time.

    Alyce Mott

  2. Susan, I've been meaning to reply on occasion and this post struck a chord (hmmmm). I am sending to the singers in my family.

  3. It is a blog like this that makes me anxious to study with you!

    Thank you for your understanding of the craft AND the business--as well as the honesty you bring to your writing. Your voice is very rich and greatly valued.

    Looking forward to the work and the journey.

  4. This is my first read of your blog and I have to say that your honesty and truthfulness to the profession is so refreshing.

    Thanks for your encouraging words!