The Vocal Marketplace

When I work with singers towards greater vocal freedom, a frequent question is “How am I going to sing for a market that wants X (insert quality of sound here)?”

The human brain loves compartments and patterns. It might give us a sense of ‘control’ over our environment, and a sense of ease to ‘know where things are’ and our relationship to them.  Pareidolia is the phenomenon of ‘seeing faces’ in patterns where there are none (think: “Jesus is on my toast”).

What do YOU see? Hoc est corpus meum.

The German Fächer system (a 20th century conceit. Bel canto tradition knew nothing of this) is a prime example of slotting singers into preconceived vocal boxes (i.e. “I’m a lirico-spinto soprano with coloratura tendencies and a lower extension”). Pigeon holes are fit for pigeons, or so says Jessye Norman.

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.


Instead of encouraging individual vocalism, it’s served to stifle vocal expression, stereotyping singers into preconceived boxes (usually on vocal limitation, not possibilities). At worst it has sterilized classical singing, and taken away emotive force and originality.  There is no doubt in my mind that the current cultural disassociation with classical singing and falling ticket sales has more to do with a false sense of corporate vocalism than a disinterest in the music itself. The sounds of classical singing fail to ‘spark’ audiences because the general singing has a ‘been there, done that‘ feeling to it. We are not surprised by the vocal emissions we hear any longer in opera or classical music. However, free vocalism and open-hearted singing will ALWAYS attract the human spirit.

“Chère Delphine, I am having an intense case of dêja entendu!”

The overall result is that fewer people can tell the difference between good singing and bad. Singers can often be complicit in this as well. Is it really acceptable to any of the members of our community that newly-minted Masters of Music in Voice don’t know or haven’t even bothered to deeply and analytically listen to singers like Rosa Ponselle, Tetrazzini, Schipa, Pertile?

Worse, for a singer NOT to recognize the voice of Callas or Sutherland? Inexcusable. Quelle horreur!

Who is this mystery woman?

Let me be clear:

  1. The ‘market’ doesn’t depend on healthy singing. Singers take opportunities for which they are not ready, singing roles that surpass their vocal abilities in the interest of ‘being seen’. Audiences are easily thrilled by vocalism that is achieved in less than a healthy way.
  2. Markets value anything that sells, and can distract us from what is truly excellent in vocalism.
  3. Singers that go along with what is ‘marketable’ usually fall into traps of exploitation, their talents being squandered and used up before their vocal prime.
  4. Markets are fickle. What is the ‘hot item’ in one moment is yesterday’s old news. The singing roadside is littered with vocal roadkill.
  5. Markets are pretentious. They often believe that ‘they know best’, when in reality consumer taste is often swayed. They hold to a standard set by Callas or some other ‘deified’ singing star.
  6. Markets are gullible. They can often be sold a bill of goods that is all flash or ‘story’ and no substance. Several singers have been foisted into the market that do not have the longevity or ability to sustain the breadth of repertoire demanded of them. (One celebrated singer of the late 20th century made an entire career on 2-3 roles, tops.)

As a teacher of singing who strives to teach from ethics, values, and integrity, my job is to liberate and free the voice of the student that stands before me. I cannot be influenced by external forces that move contrary to freedom, ease, and beauty of expression. And I truly cannot be influenced by UNINFORMED opinions on the singing voice from well-meaning audiences, coaches, or fellow singers.  As voice teachers and singers, we need to elevate our position and deepen our education, and not be swayed by the vagaries of ‘markets’ in whatever form they may present themselves.

A student that is taking lessons should discover or re-discover their true or ‘naked’ voice (W. Stephen Smith), and ALL training methods and programs should acknowledge this. If we begin with an agenda that serves a ‘market’ then we are truly unlikely to ever uncover the singers true vocal ability or freedom of communication. The roadside is littered with vocal roadkill.

We teachers are complicit in the general falling standards of singing if we only package a singer to ‘sell’ at market.

In closing, I wish to quote Earl Wild, the virtuoso pianist, who said:

“Seek the truth in Art and within, without compromise. It is not always enough to be honest and so I think not only seek the truth in what you do but seek YOUR truth.”

This post was updated from a blog posted June 2, 2014.