THE PROFESSIONAL SINGER AND UNIVERSITY VOICE TEACHER: A MATTER OF BALANCE
BY JOSEPH SHORE
In the January/February 1995 issue of THE NATS JOURNAL, I interviewed the great basso, Jerome Hines, on matters pertaining to vocal pedagogy. In Mr. Hines's rapid-fire two hour conversation I had to edit many comments to trim the size of the article. My conscience has gotten the better of me, however, for editing out one particular comment. I repent. Here is that comment in full.
Shore: Jerry, do you think that we in the universities should hold up the professional singer's voice as a model for our young students?
Hines: Oh, absolutely. I'll give you an example. I went to a major university to do a series of master classes. They had a recital the first thing when I got there. The worst singer on the program was a tenor. He was just a disaster. But he had a couple of notes that really got my attention. I heard buried in there another Mario Del Monaco. I took him aside and told him to come for a voice lesson within the next day or two. He came in with "Nessun dorma", and "Ch'ella mi creda". I started working with him. I said, "Don't be afraid of it. Sing with some real guts", and I started showing how to do it, how to correct the high voice. Within an hour he was just knocking the socks off of it. So I spoke to the chairman of the department and said, "Come to this guy's next lesson. I want to get your opinion." So she did, and he just sang up a storm. At the end of the lesson she said to me, "I WOULD NEVER HAVE GUESSED THAT HE HAD THAT VOICE IN HIM, AND IF I HAD SUSPECTED IT, I WOULD HAVE BEEN AFRAID TO HAVE LET HIM SING THAT WAY FOR FEAR HE WOULD HAVE HURT HIS VOICE AND I WOULD HAVE LOST MY JOB.". Then she said, "YOU KNOW, I THINK I HAVE A CONFESSION TO MAKE. I THINK THAT WE VOICE TEACHERS IN ACADEMIA ARE DESTROYING A WHOLE GENERATION OF SINGERS. WE ARE AFRAID TO LET THEM SOUND LIKE OPERA SINGERS FOR FEAR THAT THEY MIGHT HURT THEIR VOICES AND WE MIGHT LOSE OUR JOBS." And that was her confession to me.
There are several things to notice in this story before we go much further. First, Mr. Hines did not grab every student in that recital and try to make them sing heavy literature. He chose one. Second, he chose him because he heard potential buried within him. Third, he compared that potential to a great international dramatic tenor he had sung with. And fourth, the negative appraisal of university voice teaching came not from Mr. Hines, but from the chairperson of the voice department.
Let's look at the most painful part first. Is this chairperson correct? Are many potentially fine operatic voices escaping detection in universities? Certainly many of us who teach in universities hear many students who are incapable of singing opera. Most teachers do not feel that these students should be pushed in that direction. It is always possible, however, that a student will have potential that goes undetected. This whole story speaks to the need for a more active interface between the world of professional singing and university voice teaching.
One of the first things I noticed when I moved into university voice teaching after fifteen years of professional singing was the apparent separation of these two, highly related, worlds. I am not simply referring to the obvious fact that professional singers have more vocal expertise than the students we teach in university. I sensed a much greater rift. To be sure, universities and conservatories should not exist primarily as a mill to grind out future opera singers. Besides cultivating potential talent for future professional singing, the university is involved in education in music education, vocal pedagogy, speech pathology, and general music education for the average student who might be described charitably as "less gifted".
The question of appropriate background for the university teacher was briefly addressed by Appleman in his major work. More recently, Richard Miller has written a series of wonderful articles for THE NATS JOURNAL in which he has shown that professional performance and voice teaching are two different, though highly related, disciplines. In his "sotto voce" article, "Pedagogical Clothing for the Emperor" (November/December 1993 THE NATS JOURNAL), he wrote:
"Someone should call a halt to the proliferation of so-called 'master classes' presented be performing artists who normally do not teach... It is more complex to assemble the requisite body of knowledge for solving a wide variety of vocal problems that it is to acquire individual performance skills. For this reason, there are many more fine professional singers than there are highly qualified vocal pedagogues. This situation can be remedied if those performers who wish to teach are willing to take time to acquire information that goes beyond one's own personal performance acumen."
Miller has also written appropriately concerning "McPedagogy" (March/April 1993 THE NATS JOURNAL) and the need for ALL voice teachers to learn new technology and "risk examination of private pedagogical territory".
When I moved into university voice teaching I found it essential to read many books on pedagogy I had not been aware of as a performer. I virtually apprenticed myself to willing and tolerant laryngologists and buried myself in a dense heap of books by the major voice scientists and pedagogues. It was simply necessary to communicate to the average student. I discovered that the empirical teaching I was exposed to in New York during my career was insufficient to communicate to the average university student.
What have I done here? Have I not simply shown that the rift between these two worlds is necessary? Not yet. There is more to come. I also discovered while foraging through the fields of pedagogy that I actually DID know all of this material. I knew it reflexively from having "done" it under the stringent conditions of professional performance. Resonantal balance was easy to demonstrate. Appoggio came as second nature. I had been doing it for fifteen years. Laryngeal stability was easy to demonstrate. And therefore, with my added research I found that it was easier to communicate to my students. I vocalize every day before teaching to make sure that I am capable of "performing" my demonstrations for my students. The value of having a performing artist on staff in the vocal division is not in the publicity that artist might bring, but in his/her ability to effectively communicate basic building principles of voice and show how they relate to the finished artistic product.
Sadly I relate a story to illustrate the confusion which still exists in many universities regarding hiring professional singers for voice teachers. A member of a voice search committee related to a successfully engaged candidate, "We didn't hire you because you were a great teacher. That came as a surprise to us. We hired you because your CV looked like you were going to be out there performing, getting our name in the program." Later that same committee hired a professional singer who had never taught before and whose trial master class during the interview was disastrously incompetent. When one member of the committee objected to her hiring, the chairman said, "Well, look at it this way. Most of these kids are never going to do anything any way. So what difference does it make?"
Attitudes such as these should make every dedicated teacher of voice shudder. The value of great professional singers, who have also taken time to learn the art of teaching, for the voice faculties of universities is in their ability to demonstrate in studio and in concert the high principles of vocal technique which occupy much of our teaching.
Not enough attention has been paid to that anonymous chairperson of the well-known vocal division, who has a voce finta top, at best, often a poorly disguised falsetto. He sings a recital every year that the faculty dreads. He sways from side to side on stage, his hands rigidly cupped in front of him. He shows jaw displacement, singing out of the side of his mouth. And when nature calls, he pulls out a well-used handkerchief and blows his nose on stage. And yet, he is an authority figure at the university.
The worlds of professional performance and university training must come closer together. Many professional singers need the vocal pedagogy information found in the university courses. Many universities need the greater vocal quality on staff provided by the professional singer, if he/she has taken the trouble to learn about teaching. Together we can bring the art of singing more fully to both worlds.