The Forest for the Trees

“Years ago I was invited by my teacher to attend a regional meeting of a newly forming professional association of singing teachers. The organizational meeting was to be followed by an afternoon recital and an early evening banquet. Two things have kept me the events of that day memorable: first, the flattery felt as a young student to have been asked to accompany my teacher, a man whose integrity and musicianship had earned him the respect of all in attendance as the de facto elder statesman; second, an unforgettable lesson in vocal pedagogy.

At dinner I sat at my teacher’s right, sharing the table with two other voice teachers. Soon the conversation turned from organizational matters to a critique of the song recital. And at some point the teacher on my right spoke about the pianissimo with which the young tenor had ended the final song, remarking that it had been a perfect example of “pharyngeal falsetto.” But the teacher opposite immediately protested that it had been “labial falsetto,” not “pharyngeal.”

A heated discussion ensued on vocal technique and physiology from which, with characteristic dignity, my teacher refrained as it degenerated from debate into argument. And soon the argument escalated into an increasingly vehement exchange of doubts about each other’s educational background, vocal training, and teaching methods, climaxing when one declared, con brio, “What an ear! You couldn’t hear a door slam!” To which the other responded with a two-word negative inference about paternity.

There was an exciting likelihood that we were to be treated to a bare-knuckle exhibition between the two fairly well matched voice teachers. But just then one of the near-combatants appealed for arbitration appealed for arbitration, turning to my teacher with, “Well, sir, what did you think it was?”

There was a brief and intense silence, reputations resting on the definitive judgment of the respected master. Then, without disturbing the rhythm of his knife and fork, he said, “I thought it was beautiful.””

Jones, Earl William. Sound, self, and song: essays on the teaching of singing. Scarecrow Pr, 1989.

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