The Problem of Infinite Potential
Dec 01, 2023
Welcome, and thank you for joining me.
Yesterday, a friend who is also a voice teacher—an outstanding, and very caring voice teacher—said something that got me thinking. I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like this: "Voice teachers always have this dilemma when we talk to prospective students: We express our conviction that they absolutely can learn to sing, and we can help them, but if we are honest about the possibility that it may take five years or more to get the results they are after, no one would sign up for lessons!"
I recognize the truth of what they were saying: in a culture that is obsessed with expedience, that evaluates products and services based in part in terms of how quickly they yield measurable results, how do you communicate the value of an open-ended endeavor like singing?
I guess you just try. For me, the fact that singing is an open-ended endeavor is a feature, and not a flaw. Not only will there always be more to explore, learn, express, and achieve, but with every breakthrough comes the ability to see what the next milestone is likely to be. So even if you stick with it for, say, five years, and in those five years you do develop the competence and confidence you envisioned for yourself when you first started, you're not going to feel like you're done. You're going to feel like you've just touched the tip of the iceberg. But having stuck with it as long as you have, you will probably agree with me, that the open-ended nature of singing is a feature, and not a flaw.
Those who stick with it come to understand that it is the journey, the practice of singing itself, that brings us the most satisfaction. The moments of great discovery and accomplishment are wonderful, but the satisfaction they bring is by definition fleeting, for the reasons I just expressed: when you achieve something new and momentous, one consequence is that the experience reveals to you how much more there is to explore and accomplish.
So I guess that would be my response to my friend: you help your students to find satisfaction in the process, in the practice of singing, with the understanding that only when they are able to embrace the practice as an end in itself will they become likely to achieve what they have set out to. I am pretty sure that this is more or less how they resolve that dilemma in their own teaching practice.
The length of time that it takes to achieve outcomes in singing, or really anything else, only becomes problematic when your practice is not satisfying in and of itself, and you do not have the sense that you are getting closer to your goal, however incrementally.
This was, unfortunately, my experience throughout my graduate studies. I did feel an inherent time pressure: by the completion of my degree, it was my outcome to be employable as an opera singer. This is a reasonable thing to expect, the implicit promise that a graduate program in voice at a conservatory would be seeming to make when they offer you admission. As reasonable an expectation as that of a medical school graduate who expects to earn their license to practice, or a law school graduate who expects to pass the bar. However, the resources and instruction I was offered did not support a practice that was satisfying in and of itself, and at no point did I have any sense that I was getting much closer to my goal of professional viability, the reason being that I actually wasn't getting much closer to it. And neither were many of my fellow voice performance majors at the time.
This experience got me very interested in vocal pedagogy. I'm by nature a problem solver, and the need for a structured means of teaching and learning singing seemed like a problem that had to have a solution. Just because singing is by nature an open-ended endeavor, doesn't mean that there cannot be a smart, structured way to codify, teach, and learn the skill set involved. One of the reasons that I love the Vipassana approach to meditation is that it involves breaking the complexity of human experience down into its basic building blocks, to make them easier to observe and work with. So I set about doing that for the skill set that is singing.
And I accomplished it! It did take a while, but after all, I was in it for the long haul. I had to learn some things that did not come at all easily to me, like anatomy and biomechanics. I had to question a number of things I thought I understood, that turned out to be inaccurate. But I did it. I codified the skill set, and devised a progressive structure for teaching it. And while I can't know how long it would take to any individual to achieve their personal goals via the structure I devised, I do feel that, given the skill set that I and most of my fellow grad students already possessed when we started our program, the success rate would have been pretty high, and the likelihood of our achieving a professional level of competence by the time we completed the program dramatically increased.
Then I encountered a new problem that I had not foreseen, which is that the problem I had spent all this time solving, was not a problem that anyone particularly wanted solved. In fact, no one even wanted to acknowledge or talk about this problem, that every year our music departments invite a fresh class of passionate, talented singers to enroll in their programs, and every year, these departments graduate a fresh class of singers, very few of whom demonstrate the high level of competence and confidence necessary for professional performance.
This problem has turned out not to be one that I can solve. But I did suffer quite a bit, before I was able to see that.
Eventually, I came to the realization that the real problem is not about schools failing to produce outcomes, but our cultural obsession with outcomes in the first place. Because at the end of the day, whatever style of music you want to sing, professionally or otherwise, it is your embrace of the journey, your embrace of singing as ultimately an open-ended endeavor, that will enable you to achieve the level of skill and artistry you desire. No school, and no voice teacher, can promise that you will be professionally competent at the end of a program of any specified length. But we can help you to develop a practice is satisfying in and of itself, and ensure you have the continuous sense of moving incrementally closer to your goals.
Wherever you are in your exploration of your own vocal powers of expression, I invite you to embrace the practice of singing as an end in itself, and think of yourself as being in it for the long haul. Because if it delivers the level of satisfaction I wish for all singers, you will be in it for the long haul. It will provide you with a means of insight and satisfaction throughout your whole life, and yield ever higher levels of satisfaction, competence, and confidence.
The practice of singing is an open-ended endeavor—the more you learn and the greater your skill, the more you are able to see the unlimited possibilities of what your voice can do. Paradoxically, the sooner you embrace the reality of this, the swifter and more enjoyable your progress will be.
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