Beat the Clock, and Some Math


We seem never to have enough of it. Obligations, school, family, and work all make enormous demands on the limited amount of time we have in life.

In voice training teachers are constantly playing ‘beat the clock’ in their private studios – whether to learn repertoire, acquire/polish/maintain vocal skills, get juries in shape, learn foreign languages, prep for performance – there seems to NEVER be enough time to do what we need to do.

There’s also nothing worse for a student to spend lengthy TIME with a teacher who is working at cross-purposes with the natural function of the instrument (AKA ‘bad technique’). If a student spends enormous time on inefficient techniques of singing, then unloading, unlocking, and liberating that voice can add EVEN MORE to the sum of time invested. There is NOTHING more frustrating for the student experience than to learn that previous instruction has fallen on dry soil and must be ‘redone’. This is even more aggravating if the student has paid for an advanced degree to the tune of over six figures. 

I thought it would be interesting to consider some math.

The current voice lesson structure for a college student consists of about 13-15 lessons a semester. This is a ONCE a week lesson for a student MAJORING in voice. This ends up being around 26-30 lessons per academic year. Over the course of an entire undergraduate degree career the total comes in around 104-120 lessons.

Let’s contrast that with two things – one ancient the other modern.

In the Old Italian traditions, students were trained in small groups every day. Were a student to take lessons every day in this system for 48 weeks (with a month off for holidays) that would total 240 lessons in a SINGLE year. With TWO months off it would total 220. (I’m considering a 5-day week in my calculations).

Translating this to an academic setting, daily lessons would total 65-75 PER SEMESTER, or 130-150 lessons per year. Still a better number than 104-120 in the current system.

Let’s also consider a very important HISTORICAL fact: the greatest writers on singing asserted that it took SEVEN YEARS OF DAILY TRAINING TO BUILD A VOICE. Now, think about that for a second. Seven YEARS of this kind of daily work would total around 1,680 (240 daily lessons per year), or 1,540 (for 220 daily lessons a year). This training amount and daily consistency was de rigueur for voice training for HUNDREDS of years.

In the current system, a singer taking 26 ‘academic’ lessons per year would need to train for 59 years (!!!) to match the training program of the Old Italian School. A singer taking 30 lessons per year would have to study for 56 years.

At the risk of sounding like an old SNL ‘Colon Blow‘ sketch, that’s a lot of bowls of cereal.

The modern equivalent to training we can compare to is yoga. If you dismiss the idea of training every day as ‘undoable’ then I would posit the example of yoga studios EVERYWHERE, where students show up for classes on a daily basis. These students think NOTHING of showing up every day to participate in GROUP classes that take an hour of time. Some hardcore yogis will go every day. The modern gym is another arena where people will spend 1-2 hours for 3-6 days a week to get fit. No one thinks anything of it, or that the time invested was ‘wasted.’

Yet the modern day voice teacher balks at teaching this way every day, or seeing the same number of students for a protracted period of time. Today, we’re all about filling the studio with as MANY bodies as possible to fill the hours.

What does that do for the training of the voice?

For one, it requires the student to have an intensive knowledge of WHAT the teacher is DOING, and replicate that in 6 days outside of lessons. Can a yoga student grasp all the intricacies of yoga in ONE session a week and know how to do it on their own? Hardly. This is a tremendous undertaking for a student with NO IDEA of how to practice at all. The onus of progress is then placed squarely on the shoulders of the student, and NOT the teacher – which in my opinion is backwards. If the student fails, we ‘victim blame’ them and accuse them of not working hard – when they may not know HOW to work in the first place!

Another problem is that voice training only done once a week can REGRESS if the student practices in the WRONG WAY. It can be one step forward and six steps back (losing valuable TIME here again).

Is there a solution?

Yes and no. The first is to acknowledge that GOOD, CONSISTENT training is the sine qua non of the Old School. We cannot complain about the LOW standards of singing ability and in the same breath reject training systems that give us GREAT singing.

I would want a complete re-evaluation of HOW WE TRAIN voices to begin with. What could be accomplished in a human throat and body with daily, observed vocalization? I think it would be amazing.

For those in academia that would balk, why not set up “vocalization hours” instead of office hours, so students can come in every day to warm up, work through scales, check a passage for rhythmic accuracy, tonal accuracy, check diction, examine poetry? These daily investments could go a long way to helping students progress EVERY DAY. It could also accelerate technical progress and build voices FASTER in such a model.

Our profession needs to consider these options.

Yes, it’s daily work. But the Old Masters KNEW that after 7 years of this daily applied training, singers could be released onto the world’s stages to conquer any vocal or musical difficulty. They had MASTERED all the difficulties of their art, and could use the allotment of TIME after their training to actually MAKE ART, not struggle with a half-formed vocal technique.

How much time are you willing to lose in the pursuit of a fully-liberated voice? 7 years of invested daily work, or 59 years of once a week work? Should a singer STILL be struggling with building their voice for 59 years?? Or should they merely be maintaining the instrument’s freedom?

I think no choice could really be clearer. 

3 thoughts on “Beat the Clock, and Some Math

  1. Charles Burney, in his book, “The Present State of Music in France and Italy. London, 1771” reported that a few days’ holiday was permitted in August in the Neapolitan conservatories in the 1770s. Nonetheless, this comes out at an estimated 3,000+ hours of personally supervised instruction!!!

    The pedagogy which produced these prodigies of vocalism was not only thorough but lengthy; the altered boy might enter the conservatory or the private teacher’s studio as early as age 8, with the prospect of 10 years of daily lessons in vocal emission.

    Once a few fundamentals had been grasped—different teachers stressed different skills at the outset—the student was set to learning how to apply the lessons in vocal emission to the execution of solfeggi and vocalizzi of increasing difficulty, cleverly designed so that musical style was imbibed with each exercise. For at least the first several years, every note the student sang was overseen by the teacher, so in effect he did not utter an unsupervised sung pitch!!

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