The Vocal Marketplace

As I have begun to work with voices for greater liberation and freedom, based solely on the actual FUNCTIONING of the vocal instrument, one of the remarks I hear from singers and teachers is “How am I going to sing with (or train) this voice for a market that wants big, heavy, and dark sound?”

The human brain loves compartments, departments and patterns. It might give us a sense of ‘control’ over our environment, and a sense of ease to ‘know where things are’ and our relationship to them.  Pareidolia is the phenomenon of ‘seeing faces’ in patterns where there are none (think: “Jesus is on my toast”).

The German Fächer system (a 20th century conceit – the bel canto tradition knew nothing of this) is a prime example of slotting singers into preconceived vocal holes (i.e. “I’m a lirico-spinto soprano with coloratura tendencies and a lower extension”). Instead of encouraging an individual vocalism, it has served to stifle vocal expression, stereotyping singers into preconceived boxes (usually on vocal limitation, not possibilities). At worst it has sterilized classical singing, and taken away emotive force and originality.  There can be no doubt in my mind that the current cultural disassociation with classical singing and falling ticket sales has more to do with a false sense of corporate vocalism than a disinterest in the music itself. The sounds of classical singing fail to ‘spark’ audiences because the general singing has a ‘been there, done that’ feeling to it. We are not surprised by the vocal emissions we hear any longer in opera or classical music. However, free vocalism and open-hearted singing will ALWAYS attract the human spirit.

The overall result is that fewer and fewer people can tell the difference between good singing and bad, or what really makes the difference between the two. Singers themselves can often be complicit in this as well. Is it really acceptable to any of the members of our community that newly-minted Masters of Music in Voice don’t know or haven’t even bothered to listen to singers like Rosa Ponselle, Tetrazzini, Schipa, Pertile?

Worse yet, for a singer NOT to recognize the voice of Callas or Sutherland? Inexcusable.

Let me be perfectly clear:

  1. The ‘market’ doesn’t depend on healthy singing. Singers take opportunities for which they are not ready, singing roles that surpass their vocal abilities in the interest of ‘being seen’. Audiences are easily thrilled by vocalism that is achieved in less than a healthy way.
  2. Markets value anything that sells, and can distract us from what is truly excellent in vocalism.
  3. Singers that go along with what is ‘marketable’ usually fall into traps of exploitation, their talents being squandered and used up before their vocal prime.
  4. Markets are fickle. What is the ‘hot item’ in one moment is yesterday’s old news. The singing roadside is littered with vocal roadkill.
  5. Markets are pretentious. They often believe that ‘they know best’, when in reality consumer taste is often swayed. They hold to a standard set by Callas or some other ‘deified’ singing star.
  6. Markets are gullible. They can often be sold a bill of goods that is all flash or ‘story’ and no substance. Several singers have been foisted into the market that do not have the longevity or ability to sustain the breadth of repertoire demanded of them. (One celebrated singer of the late 20th century made an entire career on 2-3 roles, tops.)

As a teacher of singing who strives to teach with a sense of ethics, values, and integrity, my job is to liberate and free the voice of the student that stands before me. I cannot be influenced by any external forces that move contrary to freedom, ease, and beauty of expression. And I truly cannot be influenced by UNINFORMED opinions on the singing voice from well-meaning audiences, coaches, or fellow singers.  As voice teachers and singers, we need to elevate our position and deepen our education, and not be swayed by the vagaries of ‘markets’ in whatever form they may present themselves.

A student that is taking voice lessons should discover or re-discover their true or ‘naked’ voice (to quote W. Stephen Smith), and ALL training methods and programs should acknowledge this. If we begin with an agenda that serves a ‘market’ then we are truly unlikely to ever uncover the singers true vocal ability or freedom of communication. And we as teachers are also complicit in the general falling standards of singing as well, if we only package a singer to ‘sell’ at market.

In closing I want to quote Earl Wild, the virtuoso pianist, who said “Seek the truth in Art and within, without compromise. It is not always enough to be honest and so I think not only seek the truth in what you do but seek YOUR truth.”



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