- a level of quality or attainment
- an idea or thing used as a measure, norm, or model in comparative evaluations
I’ve lost track of the number of times a member of my studio has expressed a fear that they’re on their way to becoming the next Florence Foster Jenkins.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a passionate and fearless avocational singer who became notorious for the woeful lack of skill she displayed in her frequent performances. Her career, such as it was, is already the subject of several plays, and she will be portrayed by Meryl Streep in an upcoming film.
In my previous post, I asserted that most anyone can learn to sing competently, and most anyone with passion and tenacity can learn to sing brilliantly. But knowing whether you’re singing competently, brilliantly, or wretchedly requires a reliable means of assessment. Singers – aspiring professional and avocational alike – would greatly benefit from the development of such means.
Honest, informed feedback can be hard to come by, and like Florence Foster Jenkins, people are generally quite poor at evaluating their own level of competence in a given skill. In their 1999 paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” research psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger demonstrated how the unskilled are unable to accurately assess their own abilities, while those with considerable skill often fail to appreciate their own competence due to their assumption that things they find easy must also be easy for everyone else. Florence Foster Jenkins’s obliviousness to her deficits is a good example of the Dunning-Kruger effect; my students’ concerns that they may be following in her footsteps are also due to inaccurate self-evaluation.
Given how difficult it is to evaluate your own skills, I would argue that if you want to learn to do something or get better at it, you would benefit from an objective set of standards to establish what is considered good, assess whether you’re getting better, and evaluate your strengths and weaknesses along the way.
Some endeavors are easier to assign objective standards to than others. For example, there is widespread agreement about what makes for an exceptional marathon runner. A runner wishing to qualify for the U.S. 2016 Olympic team trials need only submit certified proof that they have finished a marathon in under 2:18 (men) or 2:43 (women).
But how could one create objective criteria to evaluate something that seems so inherently subjective as singing?
There have been some fascinating studies published in recent years that focus on evaluating vocal quality in opera singers. Of note is “Development of an Auditory-Perceptual Rating Instrument for the Operatic Singing Voice,” by Jennifer M. Oates, Belinda Bain, Pamela Davis, Janice Chapman and Dianna Kenny. Observing that “Opera singers, their teachers, and their audiences are primarily interested in how the voice sounds,” the team chose seven factors that determine vocal quality – vibrato, resonance balance, ring, pitch accuracy, breath management, evenness of tone, and strain – and invited nine voice teachers to evaluate recorded samples from 31 classical singers based on these factors. They found that the nine judges’ opinions correlated closely and that, with a bit of tweaking (they decided to take breath management and resonance out of the equation), the auditory-perceptual rating instrument they had proposed was therefore a useful means of evaluating the classical singing voice.
Oates and her colleagues successfully created a set of standards for rating how the voice sounds. So let us now consider: is it helpful for a singer to know how they are faring, on a scale of 1-10, with respect to vibrato, ring, pitch, evenness, and strain?
In one sense, my answer is a hearty Yes. If a singer falls short in any of these areas, it will prevent them from producing a professional quality sound. Knowing where they are lacking and getting an idea of how far they are from ideal will motivate them to improve.
In another sense, though, my answer is It Depends. It depends on whether they can sort out what is causing suboptimal vibrato, ring, pitch and evenness and/or creating strain. It depends on whether they have the means to resolve their deficiencies.
Each of these components of a singer’s sound – vibrato, ring, pitch, evenness, and strain – is the effect of things that they are doing either well or poorly, and there are multiple possible causes for each one. Evaluating the effect avails us little without a means of evaluating the cause.
A marathon runner wishing to improve their time would be ill-served by just trying to run faster. Knowing how their finish time ranks in comparison with their peers can provide perspective and motivation, but not a strategy. If they want to improve their time, they need to evaluate their gait and their pacing and adjust their training in accordance with the information they’ve obtained from this evaluation.
A singer wishing to improve their sound is in a similar position. If they try to make a better sound without identifying the underlying issues that are negatively impacting their vibrato, intonation, evenness of tone, etc., they’re more likely to cover up or compensate for a problem than they are to resolve it.
For centuries, we have evaluated singers based on how they sound, without fully understanding how to evoke desirable changes in their sound. We have had an incomplete picture of the vocal instrument and how it works. The tools at our disposal have often served to help singers develop enough skill to continue hoping for mastery but not enough to get all the way there.
I’m writing this series of posts because I believe we may now have access to tools that can be used to assess where these talented, dedicated singers fall short and to get them the rest of the way there. We may now know enough about anatomy, psychology, biomechanics, neurolinguistics, and other fields related to the voice and verbal communication, to work towards a robust model for how to optimize the mind and body for singing.
As a singer, you are simultaneously artist and instrument. I feel that we currently do a great job of helping singers cultivate artistry but very little to help them cultivate their instruments.
When considering any instrument other than the voice, it is possible to describe the qualities and dimensions that define state-of-the-art. You can research which makers or brands professionals prefer. You can select a fine instrument for yourself and maintain it in excellent condition. You may even be able to customize and improve it.
As a singer, you must play the instrument you were born with, but I can see no downside to this, as it gives you two key advantages over your instrumentalist colleagues. First, your instrument is perfectly customized to respond to your impulses and fully integrated with your imagination. Second, your instrument is infinitely malleable and upgradeable.
If, like me, you believe that the vocal instrument comprises the entire body, you will find it as promising as I do to learn that my sports scientist colleagues have already developed outstanding means for optimizing essential components of this instrument. We can use their standards to assess things like alignment and apply their tools to improve them.
Consider the impact that alignment can potentially have on the criteria that Oates et al deemed vital to one’s sound. In this post I wrote for the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s blog, I detailed how postural distortions can potentially have a negative impact on aspects of vocal function. Poor posture can limit movement and stability for the diaphragm, rib cage, and larynx. Compromised movement of the diaphragm and rib cage impacts breath management, which can yield problems with vibrato and intonation. Compromised range of motion for the larynx can impact evenness of tone and cause strain. But because we do not routinely assess singers’ alignment and help them take steps to resolve postural distortions, these imperfections will prevent their sound from being as beautiful as it could be. No matter how skillful their teacher or how diligently they practice, if the source of the problem rests with their alignment, it can only be resolved through improving their alignment. And if their posture looks fine to everyone around them, they may well never realize it.
This is just one example of how our present tools can be enough to help a singer approach excellence but never quite achieve it – and how there are tools available through other disciplines that could possibly help them get all the way there. I'll discuss other examples in subsequent posts.
Sports science offers standards for assessing not only physical alignment but also the stamina and stability that define an optimal body, and thus, an optimal vocal instrument. Speech language pathologists have much to teach us about assessing and improving articulatory function. Any discipline relating to the body, the mind, communication or expression may also be an untapped potential resource.
It is not enough to evaluate the quality of sound a singer produces. We must also evaluate the quality of the instrument, the quality of a singer’s coordination, and the quality of mind/body integration that enables them to simultaneously be artist and instrument.
Rather than attempting to teach beautiful sound production, we must help singers develop state-of-the-art instruments, learn to coordinate their instruments’ various components with athletic precision, and train their bodies to respond reflexively to their creative and expressive impulses.
I believe that, armed with a comprehensive approach to develop not only the artist but also the instrument, anyone can learn to sing. I fantasize that had I been able to get Florence Foster Jenkins into my studio, I would have been able to coax out of her body the glorious sound that she must have been hearing in her mind as she performed.
I’m going to be talking a lot about things like motor learning and biomechanics in subsequent posts, but the finest instrument is nothing without the mind and heart of an artist who can play it skillfully. We must never forget the primacy of creative intent for successful singing. Florence Foster Jenkins’s story is legendary because she had something to say and was very committed to saying it. A life that earns you a portrayal by Meryl Streep is a life formidably lived.