A Change of Heart When Reviewing Singers

This week’s pedagogical reading is quickly becoming one of my new favorites of all time. Herbert Witherspoon’s Singing has made me stop and think about my too-quick judgements of modern singers.  When I want to complain about the ‘state of modern singing,’ I need Witherspoon’s words imprinted on my memory. It seems to be a friendlier way to live with one’s art and with other human beings.

There is little use in “reviewing” all the faults of modern singers. We know they are faulty, we want only to try to make them better. But we must not forget that singers have always been faulty. There have always been singers who loved to “yell.” There have always been individual successes which seemed to refute every known law. There have always been few good singers and fewer great ones. So a tirade about present-day conditions in comparison with the glorious past is of no use. Let us take the world as we find it. Perhaps if we heard the singers of a century or two ago we should not care for them. We do not know! Our task is with to-day, not yesterday. Our mission is to improve, not to reform. We put ourselves in question if we assume a position as much needed saviors of the art of singing. Such an attitude is ridiculous. We may even never “discover” anything as important as the things already discovered, any more than a physician of the future may discover anything so vital to the cause of medicine and surgery as the circulation of the blood (Harvey).

One of the greatest singers who ever lived has recently passed from us, our dear lamented friend Enrico Caruso, and it is not long since our opera sustained most of the glories of vocal art in as difficult a form as the singers of old, even though that form was different. So why wail about degeneration, when what we want is encouragement, improvement, lack of fear, and honest endeavor!

Singers go in cycles; so do all art, religion, politics, knowledge. You cannot shine all the time. There must be periods for growth and recuperation. Changes in conditions on certain sides of life bring changes on other sides. Let us take up our task as we find it, ready with a strong love of our art to try simply and honestly to “clear the way” a little for those who are to follow.

Witherspoon, Herbert. “Singing.” New York: G Schirmer (1925).

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