Universal Standards for Good Singing – Is it possible?

My foray into private voice teaching has given me a lot to chew on with regard to singing, and it’s about as easy to chew as entree of squid (which is to say, not very). I thought I would make it easy for myself if I just had that ONE BOOK on my shelf that detailed EVERYTHING that was proper and standard in vocal pedagogy, and it was the one book that every good voice teacher on earth referred to and recommended above all others, and all I had to do was pull that book down whenever I had a question that was not readily answered by my own memory bank of professional experience.

Ha. What a lie.

There are some traditional standards and practices across the whole spectrum of vocal pedagogy, but even this discipline has its share of revolutionaries and iconoclasts. And of course, I’m bumping into them more frequently the more I sincerely try to educate myself on the “right” way to do things. Every second or third teacher of note I run into has his moment of saying, “You idiots are doing it all wrong–my way is the only way to do it.” Everything from breath support to vowel formation has its explanation, and you could get lost in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory just trying to learn something.

It’s especially frustrating when you’re committed to teaching music of all styles–pop as well as classical, and even within the classical sphere there are hundreds of subdivisions, from French art song to colloratura style, which is enough to leave you dizzy. And let’s not get started on popular styles! Most amateur and young singers start to learn by imitating singers they like, and of course those singers run the gamut from Axl Rose to Anita Baker, and when you’re talking to a student who is committed to this realm of singing, you will either hold the line for the bel canto technique that you were taught in school, or watch the student find another teacher.

Luckily, my Word of the Year for 2012 is SURRENDER, and in the spirit of surrender, I’m committed to simply reading everything I can and getting value from it without making anything gospel. Singing by its very nature is highly individual, and I must imagine that teaching singing is no less than that. Hence, I’ll be happy to pull some wisdom from James C. McKinney as well as Richard Miller, Anne Peckham and W. Stephen Smith, even if their teachings contradict each other. As with any art, the final authority is myself when I’m sitting there in the studio and listening to people sing–me, and not any author I’m reading.

Of course, when I say that I’m the final authority in my own teaching, what does that mean? Does that mean I’m looking for a particular sound or performance mode? I’m not sure. If you asked me what singer I idolized the most, I would tell you Björk, not because I want everyone to sound like her, but because she exhibits more freedom in her singing than anyone I’ve ever heard in my life. And I’m not just talking about freedom in vocalization, I’m talking about freedom in spirit, the utter fearlessness it takes to sound like no one but yourself. She has that more than anyone on the planet.

Ok, so many of you are looking at me cross-eyed right now because I didn’t say Sarah Brightman. But the point is this: it takes guts to sound like yourself, and to give the voice its best opportunity to sound like itself.  That doesn’t mean you don’t send the voice to boot camp–you should go to several; try things on, experiment, and discover the path that works for you. Give everything a chance to work, and if it doesn’t, throw it out the window. That’s what we’re here for. And it makes as much sense for teaching as it does for singing.

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