FRANK CAME IN FOR his lesson with an agenda. He had just booked a gig at a local cabaret, and one of the songs he wanted to sing was "The Heather on the Hill" from Brigadoon. He had the CD recording of a recent Broadway revival of the show and he said, "Listen to this. I don't like the singer-too in the masque." Frank held forth with a few nasalized "wa, wa, wa's" to make his point. "Why can't he sound, you know, fuller, more resonant?" This touched off a lively discussion of aesthetics, style, anatomy, and physiology.
Frank, a retired science teacher in his sixties, had trained exclusively as a classical vocalist. He came out of the muscular school where singing is equated with lifting a piano. Tight abdominals often equal tight phonation, and Frank could press-phonate and over-cover with the best of them. It took many months of work to retool Frank's technique and help him come to grips with his more efficient and better-sounding classical tenor voice. That said, his personal aesthetic continued to cause him to denigrate most "nonclassical" voice production.
Frank argued that the voice "should have a consistent sound like that of the flute or trombone." I reminded him that that flute and trombone, like most instruments, have fixed resonators while the vocal instrument has variable resonators. The real issue, however, was he simply believed "nonclassical" singing was inferior voice production.
I like Frank. He is a passionate and talented guy, straightforward, and always willing to discuss singing and its related topics. Unfortunately, he is a victim of the still lingering historic Western European belief that all things Western European, be they race, religion, food, clothing, art, or in this case, music, are superior. This elitist attitude produced, in its worst manifestations, the Crusades, the Holocaust, and apartheid. Other manifestations of this belief are the "non" words, such as nonwhite, non-Christian; and, germane to our topic, nonclassical. (Associate Editor's note: Thank you again, Jeannette LoVetri, for leading the charge against this pejorative word with its implications of inferiority and replacing it with the affirming term, Contemporary Commercial Music, or CCM for short.)
Though there is much to be said about the many and wonderful contributions historic Western European traditions have made, the truth is, those in charge set the rules. The bully pulpits of power and colonization strongly influence likes and dislikes. In our profession, many of us are still trying to break free of several beliefs that, in the not too distant past, were taken as gospel truths. Among the more egregious beliefs are, "If you learn to sing classically, you can sing anything"; "All styles are supported by only one voice technique"; and, "Bel canto means beautiful singing, and beautiful singing means classical singing." At issue is not someone's personal opinion; rather, it is about imposing these collective opinions on an entire system of voice pedagogy.
Just as there is a growing understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of cultures outside the Western European model, so is there within NATS the same growth with regard to the diversity of vocal music. Nowhere was this more evident than at the 2008 NATS National Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, where we studied and celebrated a large variety of music genres with little sense of one being better than the other. (Associate Editor's note: Thank you, Scott McCoy, for your leadership and vision at the aforementioned conference.)
Critical to this continued growth in the understanding and acceptance of musical diversity is the willingness of pedagogues and students to develop respect for genres other than those that fall within the boundaries of their own personal aesthetic. Simply put, we need to embrace the approach that says, " The music I like is different from the music I don't like," rather than, "The music I like is better than the music I don't like. …