Marchesi Claps Back

Lest we think today’s era of voice training is replete with ‘noise,’  nothing has changed in the past one hundred years. According to Mathilde Marchesi quoted below in an article in Etude Magazine in October 1913 (one month before her death), teachers were always ready to demonstrate their intelligence and to ‘show off’ their fancy theories, personal dissertations, and idiosyncratic philosophies. In our modern age, the mind-numbing chatter has increased due to the internet and the ability for anyone to have a platform to hold forth on vocal topics. (It can’t be missed that this blog is yet another place of vocal information – apologies for the added noise).

I often contemplate her argument:

How many people can tell you all about the voice, know all the behaviors of formants, understand every scientific term and say all the right words, and yet cannot themselves teach voice to another person standing before them in a studio? 

Knowing how baseball is played and all the rules and all the nomenclature still does not make you a baseball player at the end of the day.

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Knowing HOW a game is played, and all the rules and exceptions, does not prepare one to play the game well. Accumulation of vast knowledge in this arena is great – but doesn’t translate into hitting a single ball or the skills needed to run fast. 

There can be an enormous gap between the Theorist and the Practitioner and the lines are – and have been – blurred since about 1841 or so, perhaps earlier. As Cornelius Reid stated so eloquently,

It is ONE thing to know how a system works, and another thing to know HOW TO WORK the system.

The Theorist would know how the system works, the Practitioner could work the system. We DO need both in our profession. This is not to negate that fact! But what do we make of the Theorist who cannot teach and the Practitioner (who might know nothing of theory) who turns out very good, even exceptional, voices? And most importantly: What is our aim as teachers? To be better Theorists or better Practitioners? Note that I said TEACHER and not researcher, historian, or scientist – which I would place under the term Theorist. There really is only so much time in life – what should be our priority as teachers? (I realize I may be speaking to those independent teachers who do not find themselves in an academic environment, where theoretical work is the means whereby job security is assured.)

There is nothing more disappointing to me than the teacher who, perhaps in an attempt to gain celebrity or fame in the vocal arena, demonstrates their academic grasp of all the theories of voice, or worse – media flash and pizzazz – and when faced with a living student fails to offer anything of practical – dare I say empirical – value. Nothing is more consternating to me than to sit in an excellent voice presentation followed by practical application that tells the student that they need ‘a deeper connection to their breath.’  -_-

Students and teachers are treated to mini-dissertations and lectures of all kinds but leave more confused and even less able to incorporate these diatribes into a practical vocal pedagogy. In one particular presentation on the science of the voice, a presenter demonstrated their profound knowledge with a singer hooked up to all manner of electronica, showing all manner of colorful graphics on the screen, and yet throughout never once LOOKED at the student who was singing. How dehumanizing. Is that the future of voice pedagogy? I hope not.

Coming back to the matter at hand, many fascinating voice THEORIES do not translate into PRACTICE. And yet, practice is truly the purview of the teacher in lessons with a student. In the same way, an athletic coach must get improvement in a player to win games – they must help in the acquisition of skill, not lecture on muscle development theories. So too, we must get the singer to improve in function and thereby assist in the development of a musically viable vocal instrument. We are the coaches on the field – the scientist’s domain is the laboratory, and both skills may not transfer. An acoustic chart tells you nothing of the psychological makeup of the singer and why they are resistant to vocal development. The vowel chart can’t capture the nuances of human sound as expressed in emotional coloration and the infinite ways a voice can paint sounds of joy, anguish, terror, or elation. (Pray it never does – for then we’ll have truly created singing machines.)

We’re learning now through information on skill acquisition that speaking LESS in lessons leads to greater development than a dictionary of words can provide. I’m reminded of a famous acting mantra:

An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.

I have a hypothesis: I think scientific theory is safer ground to stand on in polite vocal society. We can package our arguments around factual peer-reviewed work and avoid a too-easy bruising of egos. Knowing the theory protects us from the imposter syndrome of charlatanism of our craft. The living art of teaching is rarely discussed because it leads to trickier, more intimate and HUMAN conversations. There’s more for everyone to disagree with. Science lends a feeling of being on safe, democratic ground. Yes, it helps us weed out bad ideas about the voice – and for that, it has a role to play, but frankly, messier application/empirical discussions are the types of conversations that could bear the most fruit for a practical education of singers. It is my opinion that the weeding out of bad application and the solidification of excellent application is equally as important as learning complicated theories of how the voice works.

What application can make the greatest number of voices improve?

That is what I am drawn to as the teaching years pass.

 

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Mathilde Marchesi had strong words about the role of the voice teacher and believed that the work of the instructor was to help build and restore voices – not to hold forth in elaborate theoretical discussions. 

 

Here’s is Marchesi’s quote, taken from Etude Magazine from October of 1913. She lays out her values in voice training: produce good singers. How we do that is why I have studied the writings of the past several hundred years – how did they do it? Those teachers of days gone by seemed more interested in the development of the voice in service of a singing art – today’s climate seems more inclined to turn the singer into a lab rat.

There are people at this day who talk eloquently about breathing, training and singing to such an extent that one can not take the time to listen to all their dissertations. I would like to tell them all to remain perfectly quiet until they have produced one pupil to prove their own knowledge.

I would not demand that their pupils be very celebrated. Stars are rare. Like the planets, millions of miles apart, even the most successful teacher may hope to see but a very few during the course of a lifetime. It is only fair that the teacher should be judged by the best voices she turns out, the successes,—for unless the pupil comprehends the instructions and carries them out the teaching of the very best master may come to naught.

Consequently, find out who are the representative pupils of the teacher you contemplate studying with and make an effort to hear those singers yourself. It is a serious matter and one you can not give too much consideration to it in order to form a definite opinion. One should hear a great many of the best pupils because I have known the case of teachers who have had the good fortune to secure one star pupil, but who have been unsuccessful with most all others. One or two successful pupils mean nothing. It may be the case that these star pupils have marvelous natural gifts for self-development, or they may have studied with some worthier master early in life and concealed the fact. You should hear at least ten pupils and if they all have the one method, that is if they all sing uniformly well and are devoid of the common vocal faults,—if they have the one way of doing what they do, if they have the one voice production, the same beautiful even legato, the total absence from every indication of physical effort—then and only then can you judge the master.

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