“Are You A Singer or Are You A Musician?”

The reasoning behind the statement “Are You A Singer or Are You A Musician?” is intended to somehow bifurcate the singing world into music readers and nonreaders. It carries a veiled intellectual and elitist contempt toward those that do not read music, and assumes only those who DO earn the heralded achievement of being a – ahem – musician.

This offensive line of reasoning discounts music learning theory, ethnomusicology, and once again, moves music-making from the aural-vocal-emotional sphere into the academic-intellectual one. The irony of this? A music degree doesn’t prime facie confer singing ability or musicianship.

The other part of the argument is that reading music makes you a better singer. If that logic held, the greatest singers would be high level conductors – who possess incredible sight-reading skills. Yes, they can read music – but do they sing better because of it?

Many singers that read cannot ‘get off the page’ and so they give performances that are bloodless and devoid of vitality or interpretation but they manage to sing everything on the page.

Perhaps an uncomfortable truth of voice training is that great singing does not require reading of anything? 

 

In our modern era, opera singer Luciano Pavarotti could not read music. Richard Bonynge says as much in this interview:

Pavarotti’s inability to read music did not prevent him from becoming one of the greatest tenors of the twentieth century.

Music history is filled with legions of singers that made VERY successful careers without being able to read music. Non-classical styles do not require the ability to read, and these singers manage perfectly well.

Barbra Streisand also could not read music.

From The New York Times Article Streisand’s Fine Instrument and Classic Instinct by Anthony Tommasini:

It seemed clear from her reaction, at once intrigued and a little amused, that Barbra Streisand had never been asked by an interviewer about her diaphragm.

But as an opera devotee and a longtime admirer of Ms. Streisand’s voice, I wanted to explore the inner workings, as she understood them, of her singing. For me her ability to shape a phrase with velvety legato and find the right expressive coloring for each note and each word is the epitome of cultured vocalism.

Did Ms. Streisand, like an opera singer, think incessantly about breathing deeply from the diaphragm, about using the diaphragm as a natural support for her voice?

“Never,” she said, sitting up straight on a couch in the living room of a friend’s Upper West Side apartment, looking elegant in a dark dress and lacy shoulder wrap. Everything about singing came to her naturally, she explained, adding, a little sheepishly, that she hardly ever does vocal exercises. She was giving a rare interview, in person, apparently curious to speak with a classical music critic about vocal technique.

“I’m terrible about warming up,” she said. “That’s just too boring to me.” Years ago Tony Bennett sent her a tape with vocal exercises on it. “I listened to it once,” she said. She does keep handy one tape with solfège vocal routines that a voice coach made for her. “It’s very simple,” she said. “But I find myself doing the exercises only in the car on the way to the recording session.” That is too last-minute to do much good, she added.

Whatever vocal power, finesse and richness she has was not the product of traditional study and analysis, she said.

“I didn’t do it intellectually,” Ms. Streisand said. “I did it intuitively, unconsciously. I kind of like that.”

[…]

When asked if it was true that she essentially cannot read music, she answered in a Fanny Brice deadpan: “I don’t read music. Not even essentially. Not even nonessentially.”

Other artists unable to read music were legendary singers Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. But who could say that these two singers were NOT great musicians??

If we are voice teachers living in the twenty-first century –  which I hope we are – we must realize that not all music genres and styles require a singer to read music. If a singer is singing well and doesn’t need to read music, then why fret about it? Valuable lesson time can be spent on areas of interpretation and vocal health.

Knowledge of music and reading is pure GRAVY, and this article isn’t meant to deny its value. My argument lies with those that would denigrate other great singing artists for their inability to read music.

To infer that another is just a ‘singer’ and not a musician because of their inability to read music is insulting, pompous, and reprehensible in the extreme. It is a slap in the face to many of the great artists that have made contributions to the art of singing and music throughout history. These are artists that the world has loved and enjoyed. 

To quote the current vernacular, some of us need to “check our privilege” when it comes to looking at other musics and styles of singing. Trying to shoehorn others into our classical mold or infer these singers are not ‘musicians’ is ludicrous and grossly offensive.

(The Beatles: Couldn’t read music, but they managed just fine.)

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