CW: Animal cruelty
I was recently reminded of a terrible joke I first heard as a child:
A scientist is performing research on a spider in his lab. He places the spider on a platform and commands, “Jump!”
The spider jumps. The scientist makes a note.
The scientist pulls off one of the spider’s legs, places it back on the platform, and commands, “Jump!”
The spider jumps. The scientist makes a note.
The scientist pulls off another one of the spider’s legs, places it back on the platform, commands “Jump!”… rinse and repeat, until finally the spider is completely legless.
The scientist makes a note: “When you pull off all the spider’s legs, it can no longer hear a damned thing.”
This comes to mind today because I feel that classical voice students often end up the unwitting study subjects of a psychological version of this experiment. Along the education and career paths they must navigate, they are continually exhorted to jump through an increasingly hazardous progression of hoops, and the process often leaves them hobbled.
In my early career as a voice teacher, I was an unwitting participant in their torture. A young singer would present themselves for instruction, with the goal of being admitted to a prestigious conservatory and/or launching an opera career. I would evaluate their singing, note what they were capable of doing well and where their technique and musicianship seemed wanting, and set about helping them get “good enough” to meet or exceed the admissions standards of the schools they were applying to, or the expectations of the opera companies they wanted to work for.
On the face of it, there is nothing at all wrong with this. At the time, I thought this was the very essence of my job: applying my pedagogical skills to help singers achieve their artistic and career goals. But while that may be a big part of my job, it is not the essence of my job. The essence of my job is to help my students to become better communicators and more imaginative artists—to connect more immediately with the source of their creativity, and to facilitate its flow through their physical instruments. One outcome of this process, is that they progress swiftly towards their goals, and the goals themselves become more refined as they become more connected with their own source of creativity.
This may seem like semantics, but I can tell you that there is a very big distinction between these two paradigms. If my students and I are focused primarily on achieving technical and professional goals, we end up focusing on those goals as ends in themselves:
In other words, we focus on making things “good enough” to meet someone else’s technical standards. We end up evaluating the student’s work in terms of whether there has been progress in the direction of getting “good enough.”
For the most part, it’s not much fun, but rather an ongoing exercise in frustration. Progress yields only a diminishment of that frustration, rather than increased satisfaction. We’re always focusing on what isn’t good enough yet, and trying to get it closer to good enough.
No one I know initially took up singing because they wanted to engage in a slog like that. If your goal is to someday get good enough for someone else to permit you to sing your heart out, you are in for a really miserable ride. Seeking permission is such weak motivation. It cannot compare with the motivation to build for yourself a more versatile vocal and musical playground, to expand your own artistry, to create vivid portrayals of the roles you want to take on, to tell compelling stories when you perform in recital, and to just sing your heart out, without having to ask anyone’s permission.
This is why I say that too often, a singer’s educational experience resembles the torture of our poor spider:
Singers often become accustomed to hearing various versions of the command, “Jump!” They eventually learn to respond, “how high?”
To me, this paradigm is antithetical to the development of individual artistry, not to mention individual enjoyment of one’s own singing.
The high note that you sing because it expresses both your character’s expansive emotions and your own impeccable coordination, expresses something very different from the high note you sing (or try to sing) because you need to execute the cadenza accurately and demonstrate that you are good enough to perform the role.
The way it feels to release your breath into a long, soaring, legato phrase when you know your voice is capable of sustaining and communicating in any way you wish to, feels very different from the increasingly effortful muscular engagement of a breath support system designed to help you “make it” through long phrases.
The virtuosity to release a torrent of triplets like those characteristic of Mozart’s Fiordiligi and Sesto, to have them pour out of you rich with expressive subtext, completely tension free, is very different from performances I frequently see in auditions in which the moment the triplets begin is the moment that our view of a well-defined character vanishes and is replaced by a singer effortfully managing their technique.
You can hopefully see where I am going with all of this.
Take a moment to think about the singers you most admire, the ones whose artistry and careers you would most like to emulate. My fantasy is that they are the ones who, throughout their education and career development, somehow managed to continue prioritizing singing their hearts out over getting good enough.
I feel so strongly that essence of your job as singers is to become better communicators and more imaginative artists. When you become capable of connecting more immediately with the source of your own creativity, and of facilitating its flow through your physical instruments, that will enable you to meet any technical challenges that arise with an abundance of curiosity and creativity, fueled by a powerful source of motivation.
What makes a glorious high note possible, is when it’s the only way you could possibly communicate what you are feeling in that moment.
The visceral need to communicate that feeling is literally the motivation that will enable you to sing that high note.
Show up with that motivation, and I can help you develop the coordination.
Show up without it, and I’d just be torturing you.