Kashu-do (歌手道): "You have no voice!": My Biggest Pet-Peeve Part 2

One of the comments from the previous article is worth treating with greater acuity.  I thank Carlos, the commentator for a well-thought out response based obviously on some very poignant personal experiences. Having a discussion about the difficult issues of vocal pedagogy and performance is central to the purpose of this Blog.  I will put Carlos’ comments in italics and my response in normal script.

I personally think that many singers are misled to believe they can have great carreers with a mediocre voice. If even those with important, coordinated and musically gifted voices(as well as prepared musicians) are falling apart, why to think that there is space to everybody?

A very fair and logical comment. But it is not so simple in my opinion.  If we were to dismiss every singer who appears to “have no voice” some of the greatest artists of our great art would never be. Philosophically, I do not believe it is the place of a teacher to either tell a singer that s/he will have a career or that s/he will not.  Simply put, we are not in the business of telling the future.  

My personal approach is this. Knowing what the obstacles are, I will let the student know what all of them are.  

1. What does it take to build a complete voice? How much work do you have to do to get there?
2. Assuming you train the voice to its best strength throughout, what kind of musical deficiencies do you have to remedy?
3. Assuming you develop the musicianship of a first rate musician, can you speak at least French, Italian, German and English fluently and do you have a basic knowledge of Russian, Spanish and Czech?
4. Assuming you become a polyglot, what kind of acting ability do you have?
5. Assuming you become an actor of Shakespearean proportions, how is your physical appearance and conditioning?
6. Assuming you become the most athletic actor onstage and look wonderfully appropriate for your roles, what kind of literary, historical, poetic, dance, plastic arts knowledge do you have?
7. Assuming you develop and encyclopedic knowledge of things artistic, how are your people skills?
8. Assuming you become wonderfully charismatic and gregarious, how is your confidence level? Do you give up when someone says you are not talented enough?
9. Assuming you develop a tough outer skin able to handle criticism, good or bad, how much are you willing to invest in your ultimate success, monetarily and in physical and emotional effort?
10. Assuming you have committed fully, so you believe in your heart that you are meant to be a singer?

The final question is the only one that counts. I was being recruited by important schools for informatics and engineering at the end of my high school education. When my father told me he was afraid for me in the music field, I told him if it were my destiny to be poor the rest of my life, then so be it. I know I can feed myself somehow, but I am certain that I was meant to be a singer.  

First and foremost, a singer must take responsibility for his/her path.  No one can guarantee anyone a career, any more than anyone can guarantee that a doctor will become wealthy.  There is just as much competition for wanting to become a doctor as there is for operatic singing.  Yes our field has serious structural problems because many of those leading it do not understand the complexity of the issues at hand. Same can be said for many non-artistic pursuits.

It takes more than a voice to be a sucessful singer, but with the world so competitive as it is, one has to be aware of his assets and shortcomings. And the voice itself, with its natural gifts, is very important. I have friends in Germany that at 40 years-old are being dropped, fired by opera houses, and they have no choice. They don’t know what to do with their lives. They are still fine singers and travel madly around the world to audition. Intendants and directors won’t take them because they are too fat, or too old, or too small, hardly the criterium is on the voice nowadays…it’s always the same. Stupid folks are destroying opera. I decided to stop attending performances, for I can’t bear the profanation to this great art.  It’s shameful. 

You are right about everything you say here Carlos. I teach some of those singers (too often after they have exhausted the normal avenues).  I have met many singers who have done what they were told to do. Have lessons, have coachings, learn some roles, develop a great high C and show up to international auditions. That is not enough and it never was. 

As much as I would like to see more competent teachers and conductors and intendants and so on, I would like to see singers ready for what is ahead instead of saying that they do not get hired because the system is flawed.  Yes the system is flawed, but if you are a very good singer, you will not be competitive in today’s market. One has to do everything better than expected. It is a tall order, but the only guarantee for getting hired is by preparing in a way that make everyone listen and look and pay attention.  

It was never just about voice in the past. Yes it is less about voice now.  I believe a singer who shows up delivering what is expected but also has a magnificent voice will change opera.  There are many singers currently working who do not look like supermodels.  But they develop at least a part of their package to such a high level that they cannot be ignored.  Opera is multi-faceted and a singer must deliver a package that is irresistible.  It is incumbent upon the singer to know what the job description is and fulfill it.

So, I would never encourage someone to study only singing to earn a living.Do pursue your dreams, but have always a strong plan B. There are too many neurotic and frustrated people in this business because nobody gave them the healthy advice to look for something else to do.
Conservatoires today are part of an industry, tailor-made to employ teachers that didn’t have careers and are pointed by important people… and most of them are plainly incompetent.

This is great advice for any field.  One should always have a plan B or even C.  There are a lot of neurotic people in this field because many believe that talent is “given” and will take them to their desired goals.  When they discover that talent is not given but “earned” then it is often too late.

My personal advice: Singers know what you need to succeed and look for it where you can find it!  The system is flawed. Very flawed! So what do you do? If you are a singer, you figure out how to beat the system by offering it what it is looking for without compromising your own artistic value.
As long as there exist people like Damrau and Pape and Beczala and Borodina and Garanca and Blythe and my new favorite, the rising Julianna di Giacomo, then it is possible to be successful in this field for all the reasons we value: voice, musicianship, emotional depth, stagecraft, collegiality and love for the art.

The bar is higher and lower than it has ever been. An opera singer today needs to decide which door s/he is going to take. If one decides to take the low bar, the competition will be impossibly fierce.  The high bar is ridiculously difficult to go over. But it is the only one worth going over.

Finally to the point of my original post. Voice is not the reason to tell someone not to go into opera because voice is the one thing that can be trained for certain (yes finding a dedicated, competent teacher is not easy).  Tenacity, passion, a sense of personal responsibility, devotion to the art, etc are things that are much more difficult to acquire. They are character issues that singers often do not come equipped with and  are not interested in acquiring.

© 02/10/2010

3 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): "You have no voice!": My Biggest Pet-Peeve Part 2

Add yours

  1. I am printing out your list of 10 things and putting them up on my wall for inspiration. I think it will help me follow the right path to developing my potential as an artist – even though the ultimate destination of that path, for me (and by choice), is not necessarily a professional career.


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