I'll just come out and state the obvious: conservatories and music departments are simply not doing a good enough job of teaching vocal technique. Every year, countless singers complete pricey undergraduate and graduate degrees in performance without coming anywhere near being able to sing at a professional level. They give up on any hope of a career within a year or two, often without submitting their materials for a single mainstage audition.
We are failing them. We need a new paradigm for teaching singing.
If I could build a voice department from the ground up, I would create a curriculum designed to achieve the following:
Optimal physical health and coordination. Singing requires a combination of strength, flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, excellent alignment, fluid movement, and freedom from chronic muscular tension.
Heightened kinesthetic awareness. The major components and mechanisms comprising the singing voice are internal and very difficult to see or sense. Effectively training breath coordination, phonation, articulation and resonance demands keen awareness of subtle internal movements and processes.
Heightened mental focus. The voice responds to your intention to communicate and your spontaneous creative impulses. Strong powers of concentration are essential for keeping your focus on the process of creation and communication and away from internal distractions (e.g. desire to assess your own work) and external distractions (the audition panel, audience, unexpected things happening elsewhere on stage, etc.).
Seamless mind/body integration. Singing is an all-encompassing endeavor of mind, heart, spirit and body. The most moving performances occur when the singer is able to channel feelings and ideas through their physical instrument with effortless immediacy and vulnerability.
A progressive, highly structured technique. Developing a voice of professional quality, wide range, power, stamina, agility and beauty requires a comprehensive method, with exercises designed to target individual aspects of technique and coordinate them together. There should be a basic hierarchy of skills that build one upon the other, as well as strategies for addressing specific areas of weakness or poor coordination.
An objective means of assessing progress. At all stages of development, students should work towards well-defined goals and benchmarks and understand how the processes they're engaging in will lead to the results they want.
This doesn't sound much like your typical conservatory voice curriculum. It sounds more like a school for a martial art, or a meditative artistic practice with traditions cultivated over millennia, like calligraphy or flower arranging. But developing the skill, coordination and mind/body integration needed to sing well is more akin to these practices than it is unlike them.
If you agree that the above components are crucial for becoming a world-class singer, it is clear that our existing curricula are falling far short. I am aware of no voice department that integrates fitness or meditation training in a meaningful way. Progress is assessed infrequently and subjectively through juries and auditions, for the purpose of assigning grades and roles in productions - seldom with a view to helping students improve their practice strategies and gain perspective on where they are in relation to their goals. And it is very rare to find a studio teacher who offers a technique that meets the criteria I describe.
Even access to the very finest studio teacher is no guarantee of success in the absence of all these other components. Poor fitness can place serious restrictions on breath management, stamina, and even range. Poor kinesthetic awareness severely slows and limits progress, because you can't train muscles and movements if you can't detect their locations. Poor mental focus can destroy everything, because it doesn't matter how gloriously you sing in the practice room if you freak out in front of an audition panel. Poor mind/body integration leads to two different dead ends: option one, a procedure where singers don't dare give their texts and characters any thought until they think they're singing with flawless technique, and then try to layer some manner of interpretation on top of what they've worked out; option two, singers who perform on pure passion and adrenaline without being grounded in technique at all – fun while it lasts, but it can't last very long. And most singers are entirely without an effective means of objectively assessing their progress. Without such a means, they cannot practice with any confidence that what they're doing is going to make things better. Learning technique frequently makes things sound worse and less stable long before they start sounding fabulous and rock-solid. Without the means to assess their work, how are students supposed to keep at it when everything just sounds weird and uncoordinated? How are you supposed to make sense of a situation where half the singers in your studio seem to be getting better, others seem to be getting worse, and you yourself just feel like you're treading water?
This is why even a talented, committed singer who gains admission to a prestigious studio at a top conservatory can end up adrift upon completing their degree.
If I could, I'd overhaul every voice performance curriculum in the country in accordance with these principles. As I'm in no position to do anything of the kind, I urge all of you, teachers and students alike, to brainstorm ways to supplement the curriculum you now have with the elements that are missing. Whether it's through your department or through activities you pursue on the side, train your voice in a way that makes sense, ensures swift progress, and prepares you for life beyond school.
Every generation produces singers of incredibly high artistic and technical attainment, but I have long suspected that a rigorous, martial arts approach to training singing technique could result in mad skills beyond anything we can now imagine. I'll leave you with this insane Jackie Chan compilation and invite you to imagine what the vocal equivalent would sound like!