A Rant on Aesthetics and Function

I recently became aware of a rather spirited discussion on the duality of Aesthetics and Function in training the singing voice. The argument went along the lines of “Aesthetics is INSEPARABLE from Function. A simple scale is aesthetic.”

I disagree with the entire premise.

To train someone aesthetically is to work with them in a way that end-gains someone’s (usually the TEACHER’s) sense of aesthetics.

Merriam-Webster defines aesthetics as “of or relating to art or beauty”.

The #1 problem with aesthetics is that they are TOTALLY subjective and can be highly personal. There is no rational basis upon which 2-3 people can agree on something that is beautiful. What speaks to one person as an object of beauty can fall flat on another. I’m reminded of the saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” (Think Velvet Elvis and Michelangelo.)

When I think of training a voice aesthetically, I think of teaching in a way that favors the particular artistic biases of the teacher. If the teacher is a classical voice teacher, they are going to teach in a way that makes the student’s throat accept ‘classical sounds’ (whatever that means). Usually these sounds are geared toward a market value and a homogenization of vocal utterance that will get the singer work, even if the particular ‘vocal template’ that’s been laid isn’t native to their instrument. Individualization is shunned in favor of tones that sound corporate, to borrow Daniela Bloem-Hubatka‘s expression, even if they are not healthy.

A voice teacher that loves big, dramatic vocal sound is going to teach pupils in a way that drives to that end result, even if the voice is lyric. A teacher that likes bright, ‘pingy’ forward sound is going to use resonance strategies that encourage students to all sing with a similar approach. Teachers that like warm, dark sounds are going to use lots of ‘space’ and produce voices that are homogeneously darkened. The ‘studio sound’ comes into full effect through these aesthetic preferences of tone, and all singers leave the studio as if in a factory, ready for sale on the showroom floor.

In most all cases, singers that have been trained to sing in an aesthetic fashion can usually NEVER GET OUT of the aesthetic they’ve been trained into. Their body has locked-in that particular muscular ‘specialization’ (as Husler and Rodd-Marling describe it). They sound like opera singers singing opera, even in popular musical styles. The comedic duo of French and Saunders are perfect examples of this approach in this comedy sketch. The vocal aesthetic of opera in this Kylie Minogue pop song is incongruous, hence the comedy.

FUNCTION, however, has NO aesthetic bias.

It either is, or it isn’t.

The voice is either functionally free, or it isn’t.  The singer either has an extensive range (of two-and-a-half to three octaves) or they don’t. The singer can negotiate the passaggio easily or they can’t. The vowel is ‘ah’ or it isn’t. The singer can control intensity of dynamics throughout the ENTIRE range – or they can’t. The singer can sing flexibly over patterns of agility – or they can’t.

Sounds that are NOT beautiful can be functionally correct, and sounds that are BEAUTIFUL can be functionally wrong.

The VERY interesting thing, as Richard Miller pointed out in so many of his books, is that sounds that are functionally free tend to be the most beautiful to the greatest amount of listeners.  When a voice has acquired a functional freedom, in most cases that voice will be beautiful.  To me, this is a cause and effect relationship: if FUNCTIONAL FREEDOM is the cause, then AESTHETICS will be the effect.

FUNCTION doesn’t impose on the voice from an EXTERNAL SOURCE or ‘pre-concept’, but encourages freedom and release from WITHIN the instrument itself. This is what Garcia and SO MANY great bel canto teachers are talking about when they talk about ‘observing Nature’ and ‘following Nature’.

Garcia’s VERY FIRST vocal exercise was a ‘register breaking’ exercise, which sounds akin to a yodel, between the chest and the falsetto registers. This is NOT an exercise that sounds ‘pretty’ in ANY way. Garcia then followed that with his famous coup de glotte. This ALSO is NOT an exercise for luscious tone: it’s supposed to get the vocal cords together.

Garcia’s emphasis was FIRST AND FOREMOST on FUNCTION. When the muscular coordination of chest and falsetto became harmonized, then matters of aesthetic and beauty could be explored. But NOT until the cords could come together, the registers could be joined, and the voice took on some flexibility. At no point does Garcia stress volume or size of voice as any type of goal of study.

SIDEBAR: (I should say here also that there is a trend in historical pedagogy that believes that Garcia preferred the timbre sombre (a darker singing timbre) in voices. Nothing could be farther from the truth: Garcia warned against singing too much in the timbre sombre and encouraged singers to work between both the timbre clair (bright timbre) and the timbre sombre. This is explained fully in his Treatise of 1841.)

If the voice doesn’t work properly, how are you going to sing anything (even classical music) with any success?

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