What is Vocal Pedagogy For?

Reprinted from the essay, “Modern Pedagogy” by Edward Foreman.

It seems to me, in looking over a large amount of published material on vocal pedagogy, both past and present, that it is difficult to discover the goals of the modern teacher. There is no consensus about the way in which specific technical problems are to be successfully addressed, and after 150 years of investigation, science has provided only some descriptions of the problems, and those are limited almost exclusively to what is now known as “classical vocal training.”

The larger question of the rationale behind vocal pedagogy is rarely acknowledged, nor does there seem to be a great concern for developing a simple approach to the voice based on the healthy use of the instrument, intelligible verbal communication in song, and the personal needs of the student singer.

The present aim of vocal pedagogy seems to be to produce ill-prepared young singers who can be used up in great numbers by being pushed into overly ambitious career decisions which ultimately destroy their voices, or render them unfit for anything but loud singing.

Teachers continue to proceed as though “classical singing” were the only viable opportunity for a career, a situation fostered by the presence of many frustrated performers on teaching faculties of colleges and universities, and a generally elitist attitude toward any music but classical.

The result of this is generations of singers trained to sing in foreign languages for audiences who do not grasp those languages, but who can bask in the false light of “culture,” as though culture was required to be incomprehensible.

A large part of the problem is the lack of much English language repertoire which is both pleasing to sing and enjoyable to listen to. There is no denying the qualities of the music of the 19th century, which still seems to speak to the modern sensibilities of the audience and singer alike. “Opera” really still means the core repertoire of the past, and nothing has come along in the 20th century to change that perception. As for “art song,” this repertoire exhibits genuine poverty of invention despite generous outpourings from talented composers who are firmly anchored in the past or in a kind of academic musical language that makes all songs sound the same. Most composers don’t study voice, and it shows.

Classical music remains an elitist diversion, divorced from American culture because it has been and continues to be imported. The problem does not lie, as some suggest, with lack of support for the arts; imported arts are well-enough subsidized that they continue to dominate the repertoire. This has a stifling effect on young native-born composers who watch the opera houses mount yet another Italian version of Traviata or Bohême because they are guaranteed box office draws, there is no risk involved. The downside is that it is increasingly difficult to offer audiences an adequate performance of even these standard works, because the singers are simply not there.

What is the voice teacher’s role in all this? On the one hand, the voice teacher is a paid servant of the student, preparing him for whatever career he thinks he wants to pursue. On the other hand, if the voice teachers—who presumably have more experience, good sense and taste than their students—don’t establish and maintain standards of vocal emission and performance, who will?

3 thoughts on “What is Vocal Pedagogy For?

  1. The problems stated in this article also result from a century of composition in which too many “classical” composers ventured further away from musical “languages” what are sufficiently accessible to a larger public. If the public must be highly educated in music, and acculturated to increasingly abstract harmonic usage, we should have expected that they would eventually be as frustrated and disinterested as one might be if dropped in a foreign country and language with little background in that language. Worse yet, if too many new composers are creating completely new, unique languages, each new piece then requires the same effort before appreciation is possible. One eventually asks if it’s worth the trouble. This was not such a problem in the so-called common practice period–the basic vocabulary was in common, and furthermore–I would argue–was more inherent and shared in more of the musics of the world (folk, world music, popular music), arguably even more inherent in nature itself (being grounded in the lower end of the harmonic series and its inherent sense of a tonal home or generating pitch). This is not an argument for seeking the lowest common denominator, but some awareness of the fact that in order to communicate, there must be some intelligible common language. Fortunately I see an increasing number of composers abandoning the elitist modus operandi for one that can actually find and speak to an audience, at least in vocal music. Excellently crafted music is coming from music theater composers, and more accessible yet artistically credible music is coming from “classical” composers. Pop composers never left the audience behind. Even experimental sounds are being used in ways that fascinate and delight rather than alienate (think Roomfull of Teeth). Also the greatly increasing emphasis within voice pedagogy to embrace, understand, and be able to effectively teach singing styles other than the Western classical ideal is evidence of positive change. Sounds that once were assumed to be inherently unhealthy we are learning can be healthily done with proper training. So, I hope this article is describing what is at least a waning if not a dying phenomenon, and that positive change is in the air, including more of the musics that move us, while preserving the best of the Western classical vocal tradition as well.

    1. Thank you so much for your insightful commentary, Ken. I think you’ve extrapolated much of how I feel, especially with regard to our collective duties as teachers. I appreciate immensely the time you took to post!

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