Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Reinventing the Wheel

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Reinventing the Wheel

Article excerpt

In preparing to celebrate NATS's Diamond Jubilee, I've been perusing the archives of the Journal of Singing, exploring the evolution of pedagogic thought and practice over our 75 year history. It is fascinating reading, in large part because so little has changed! As Steven Mithen posits in his wonderful book The Singing Neanderthals (2005), singing actually might predate the evolution of our species, homo sapiens, and is intertwined with the development of language in Neanderthals. So, it is clear that humans have sung for a very long time. Long enough, in fact, that one might reasonably assume we've developed complete technical mastery of our voices, based on a common set of physiologic, acoustic, and artistic principles. Or not.

Let's explore a few of specific areas, beginning with vibrato and its arch enemy: "straight tone." (As a cis gender, hetero male, it might be assumed that I always produce a straight tone-but I digress...) Based on the twenty-three Journal of Singing articles that have included the term "vibrato" in their title over the past 75 years, it clearly is a hot topic. And I'm certain that a great many more articles deal with it as a secondary or tertiary issue, which likely puts vibrato in contention with breathing and registration in the competition for column inches.

The four issues in Volume I of The Bulletin are brief (rarely more than four pages each) and deal primarily with the business of the budding association. It is worth noting, therefore, that the very first article with a pedagogic focus was "Concerning the Straight Tone," written by the Chicago Singing Teachers Guild, and published in Volume I, no. 4. They certainly did not pull their punches in letting the reader know what they really think.

They [members of the Guild] are convinced that the practice by many contemporary choral conductors of inducing their choristers to use the so-called "straight tone" (a tone repressed to eliminate the natural vibrato) is causing permanent harm to the voices involved by establishing constricting tension in muscles of the vocal organism and inhibiting spontaneous, natural vocal impulses.

They recognize that many singers have a tremolo or "wobble" in their tones which would prevent their voices from blending with others in a composite tone; but that defect is due to faulty tone production. The true vibrato does NOT prevent the desired blend. If singers with tremulous voices must be used in ensemble singing the remedy should be to correct the production of such voices rather than to repress all the singers to a "straight tone," thereby inhibiting the freedom and natural quality of all voices involved. Only men and women whose educational and teaching experience has given them a sound understanding of the human vocal mechanism and its functional responses are equipped to guide singers intelligently in choral activities. But it is a regrettable fact that many persons whose educational preparation in music has been confined to the instrumental field are entrusted with choral leadership in the schools, colleges and radio stations. To that fact may be traced most of the vocal distortions to which the young choristers are subjected -of which use of the "straight tone" is one of the most harmful.

Therefore, the Chicago Singing Teachers Guild hereby expresses its firm disapproval of the use of said "straight tone" and states its conviction that said "straight tone" is not, as claimed by its proponents, necessary to secure a perfect blend of unison voices, since that blend may be achieved through the use of uniformly pure vowel-tone and without repressing the natural vibratory pulsations of the voices.1

Our rhetoric is a bit less heated today, but the sentiments expressed in the article continue to be pervasive in some circles within the singing community. From my perspective, the article also shows an overt bias toward unamplified singing in the Western canon-I truly believe we are making progress at becoming more inclusive of diverse musical genres and styles. …

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