Pattou’s quote below is loaded: What is the role of the teacher’s singing voice?
I recall my first classical voice lesson: my teacher demonstrated the action of the vocal folds using a rubber band, then promptly bent over between her spread legs and sang a glittering high C. (What an intro to classical singing!)
There are several logical fallacies that we should unpack before we dive into Pattou’s assertion.
Famous Singers Know How to Teach Singing
This statement is taken as truth by students and the public, who believe that a teacher who has sung at the Met, on Broadway, or on tours, definitely understands how to transfer that knowledge to another human being, with that student’s particular quirks and idiosyncrasies. In many corners of the classical world, this paradigm is still accepted and many students begin to study with International Mezzo, or Superstar Basso, believing that this person will help them learn to sing. In reality, the celebrated teacher often serves as no more than a career booster than an actual pedagogue of the singing voice, having never had to unravel the mysteries of teaching or training another person to do what they have done. Many celebrity teachers also continue to perform while in academic programs, but who teaches the students when they’re gone? Can this particular setup be GOOD for classical singing as a whole?
Teachers Should Be Good Musicians First
Being musical is important to the art of singing, but a voice teacher that possesses no understanding of the mechanism of the voice, an ability to diagnose the functional deficiencies before them, and remediate, coordinate, isolate, and integrate the instrument in a healthy manner, is merely serving as an interpretive guide for singing. I know many phenomenal voice teachers that are not fantastic musicians, but they are able to diagnose a voice and bring it to a state of functional balance. Are they not good voice teachers? Hardly. The inverse is also true: Great Musician Who Can’t Teach Voice. Perhaps a balanced and healthy voice is inherently musical? Vocal Coaches can often be a wonderful assist to a teacher that might lack extensive musical knowledge.
A Teacher That Sings Poorly is a Bad Teacher
Perhaps. If the teacher’s voice is not healthy and cannot effectively demonstrate, OR the teacher is not continuing to actively work on their voice, it can really slow a student’s ability to understand what the teacher wants. Here is my iron-clad belief: all voice teachers should continue to work on their own voices throughout their lives. This does not necessarily mean ‘active performing career.’ This means working and training their voice to a high degree of skill and ability. Can the teacher sing scales? Trills? Embellishments? Messa di voce? Staccati?
How would you feel if your personal trainer was overweight and out of shape? The voice teacher doesn’t have to be a ‘star singer,’ but they should in all circumstances be working CONTINUALLY on their own voice (and ear), to set an example of the discipline and work needed for the student. As Pattou says, the teacher should have ‘practical control’ of their own voice.
In general, all that any teacher can do, is to train his pupils to use their throats correctly and to develop and improve to the utmost such capacities as nature has bestowed; and this he must at least be prepared to do. And the teacher therefore must of absolute necessity possess these qualities in his own voice before he can develop them in the voice of his pupil. For how can any man even explain to another that of which he is himself practically ignorant? How can he impart clear ideas without himself possessing and illustrating them ? One may be a good teacher of singing without being a great musician in general. It is desirable indeed, that he should be a good musician, but beside that and above all, he must possess a practical control. Any teacher, therefore, who is not a first-class vocalist or singer, never can be a first-class vocal teacher; for the most valuable knowledge is never merely theoretical; experience alone teaches positively. Moreover, the teacher should be a master of the art of voice-building, for otherwise he will not only fail to benefit the throat, or to obtain other satisfactory results; but by the continuously weakening effect of reversing the muscles of the throat, he will produce positive injury. Inflammation of the throat and consequent laryngitis and other disorders often result from this cause. To become a competent voice-builder or throat-reformer requires as much patient study and intelligent investigation, as to become a competent practitioner in any department of law or medicine; and he who makes a false show of learning in this or any other profession, should be recognised as a quack and treated accordingly. It is not enough to possess, as many vocal teachers do, good ideas upon the subject of voice-building. It is necessary that all other than good and thoroughly tested scientific principles, the result of close acoustic analysis, should be systematically rejected.
Pattou, Ange Albert. The Voice as an Instrument. E. Schuberth, 1878.