Perfection in Singing

The following is taken verbatim from Sound, Self, and Song: Essays on the Teaching of Singing by Earl William Jones, published by Scarecrow Press in 1989:

Perfection in singing is the best of an existential present.

It is apparent that if the words “in singing” are deleted the definition applies to any art, to all life. But for voice teachers it is intended to mean that perfection in singing is not to be conceived as a distant goal, an ideal to be grasped only conceptually, intellectually, not realizable as a possibility for perhaps many years. That is a concept likely to keep “perfection” forever at an unreachable distance, a denial of present joy.

“The best of the existential present” does not mean that students are to be permitted to remain in their present innocence, nor that they are to regress to earlier concepts which seemed to serve them in the past. Old concepts are to fade as new perceptions occur. Young students should know that an idea can be used to justify a fundamentalistic faith in a no longer questioned method of teaching. Our definition aims at the possible. Striving toward a conceived ideal a student swings between efforts to sing into an unknowable future, and falling back into old lines of defensive habit. Both limit awareness in the present. The frustrated thrashings about which result from these polar swings make up the student singer’s syndrome. The student’s goal should be constant, though constantly changing: the best that can be done in an existential present.

“The best of the existential present” can offer a means whereby voice study can progress in a fashion that is mindful, present-focused, free of stress, and kind to both student and teacher.

“Existential,” here, refers to the meaning of events to individual students, with a focus on their immediate experience. It means that their real nature consists of conscious, decisive actions. It means their awareness of their position and possibilities, now, an awareness of being, functioning, in present time. They are to practice in a perceivable now; their technique emerges as they study and perform with a present, relevant reference. There is no principle with a more important application to the teaching of singing, of any art.

Comparing one’s present performance with conceptualized abstract ideals can deceive and defeat, enough to stifle any art, enough to fairly strangle a struggling student singer – or to attract only the masochistic to the study. And the fact is that it is very common for students to assume that their particular interferences are proofs, confirmations, that they are indeed striving their best toward an ideal. And this prevents perception in a present; this kind of striving is a particularly pernicious form of self-deception, causing and ingraining poor vocal results.

“The best of the existential present” cautions a teacher to be very careful not to teach “outside” a student’s present, trusting sheer repetition, assigning song literature beyond a student’s present ability and understanding. Students must not only love the songs they sing – the talented always do – but they must have reasonable hopes for singing them well. The instruction is to be based on efforts to improve what they now do best. Teachers who teach from their own present may be asking students to sing toward a present impossibility. Instead, students are to be required to sing “up to” the level of their emerging technique, their emerging “perfection,” and that is challenge enough. In any case, it is or ought to be a sobering realization for all voice teachers that many of the students’ problems will be cured only by age and experience, often in spite of earlier instruction.

Idealistic comparisons have another common, negative effect: they intensify the sensitive young students’ feelings of unworthiness for the vocal masterworks. Those formidable names, held in an almost sacred awe, can almost paralyze a young performer. Our definition is a caution against presenting any vocal literature as sacred relics, either by intent or inference. Students rarely need reminding of their present unworthiness. Sometimes they need reminding that Bach liked beer, and that Brahms loved Clara Schumann.

Pursuing the art of singing is an ideal way to spend one’s efforts, if insisting on unattainable goals. Any performance might have been “better,” or “different,” or “better next time,” or “not so good as so-and-so’s.” Singers may never be certain they have achieved their full potential as artists. Whatever they do, even when they think they have done well, they fear they may not do so well next time, and what state their voice will be in on performance nights. The singers’ can be a manic-depressive life. The “best of the present” is an indicated cure.

“The best of the present” can bring a cure to the suffering so prevalent in the emerging singer’s mind.

It does not justify exhibitionism, arrogance, or artistic pretentiousness, nor any evasions into eccentricity. It justifies only authentic efforts in an actual present. It stipulates the students’ worthiness for the same sense of fulfillment as that of the mature artists, when they are doing their present best. It permits them to practice the confidence they must have for performance as they mature, for to acquire that artistic confidence the student’s “present,” whatever its state, must afford musical and artistic satisfaction. It is this satisfaction that alerts students to the need for constant improvement, for greater satisfaction. And that need is the basis for the most effective teaching; open-ended, flexible, opportunistic teaching.

Furthermore, “the best of the present” can reduce all abnormal stress. The teaching of singing ought to be done in situations as free from stress as possible; no method can justify its creation. Some may argue that it is “good for the student’s character. They will all have to face it in ‘real’ life!” But studio stress can only reinforce their inhibitions; it shields them from present reality.

Some argue that students need a symbolic representation of future attainment, that an ideal is a kind of functional goal, justifying the stress involved. But stress always results in forms of disorganized behavior, altering the student’s reality. And this alters the teacher’s reality; a teacher may find himself criticizing vocal technique when the problem, really, is one of anxiety. “The best of the present” is to be interpreted to mean that students practice the “feel” and the attitudes of artistry from the first, and as their techniques emerge, becoming more and more secure, anxiety is transformed into an artistic and professional excitement, into the exhilaration with which it all began.

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