I have master’s degrees in both voice and clarinet from Peabody Conservatory. By the time I auditioned for Peabody, I was already performing professionally as an orchestral, chamber and solo clarinetist. As a singer, I had been studying privately for all of two years and had yet to perform in an opera. I was unknowingly faking my vibrato. I incorrectly believed myself to be a mezzo because my voice had a dark color and I lacked a soprano’s high notes. Looking back, I would characterize my clarinet audition as virtuosic, versatile and nuanced. By contrast, my voice audition must have been an appalling display with regard to technique, dynamic range and diction. But I was a good musician and a stage animal, and my voice possessed power and flexibility. Peabody offered me a substantial scholarship as a singer, while my clarinet acceptance came without funding.
Where graduate school is concerned, it may be necessary for all but the most elite institutions to hold instrumentalists and singers to different admission standards. The majority of instrumentalist candidates already hold undergraduate degrees in performance and have studied since childhood, whereas singers often delay study until their voices have matured. Instrumentalists entering a master’s program are expected to demonstrate a high degree of technical proficiency, musicianship and performance practice understanding. But like me, singers are often accepted on the basis of demonstrated potential and find that they have a lot of catching up to do, not only in technique and musicianship but also in foreign language diction and acting.
Thus, the problem is not that graduate programs hold instrumentalists and singers to different acceptance standards – it’s that they fail to hold them to identical high standards, and ensure that they meet them, before granting them a degree.
This is Étude #35 from the second volume of Cyrille Rose’s classic 40 Studies for Clarinet.
I began wrestling with these études as a high school student. The Rose études are superb for dexterity, stamina, articulation, registration and dynamics, and clarinet teachers continue to give their students weekly assignments from either these volumes or a similar collection. Such étude books are valuable for a young instrumentalist contemplating a performance career not only because they facilitate progress but also because they exemplify what it takes to achieve comprehensive mastery of their instrument.
For a professional instrumentalist, comprehensive mastery is expected. You must be able to do pretty much everything that it is possible to do on your instrument, and very well. An oboist who lacks the flexibility to perform the melismas and ornaments characteristic of Baroque music, a french horn player who cannot access the range required for Strauss tone poems, or a cellist who cannot execute the harmonics in the Saint-Saëns concerto, will not enjoy a very successful career. They probably won’t even be admitted to grad school.
For a professional singer, comprehensive mastery is also essential. But while even a high-school-aged clarinetist has a reasonably clear idea of what it means to reach for mastery, I fear that we do not as yet have a clear, widely accepted model of what mastery ought to mean for a singer. If we are going to accept singers into graduate programs based on demonstrated potential, we must provide them with such a model and the means to achieve what it defines.
How does one define comprehensive mastery in singing? Instrumentalists must be able to skillfully do everything that it is possible to do on their instrument, and I would argue that the same is true for singers. While each singer possesses a voice with unique qualities and a personality with particular proclivities, the essential instrument is the same for all, governed by universal biomechanical and physiological principles.
A professional classical singer should be able to:
- Access the fullest range possible and appropriate for their particular voice
- Produce a focused, consistent sound throughout their range
- Create balanced resonance on all vowels throughout their range
- Sing with organic vibrancy
- Sing with accurate intonation
- Access a reasonable spectrum of dynamics throughout their range
- Perform with consistent legato
- Demonstrate flexibility on scales, arpeggios, and portamenti at a variety of tempi
- Seamlessly navigate registration
- Possess stamina adequate to sustain long phrases
Accessing Full Range
Singers should be able to vocalize well at least a little higher and lower than the range they access in performance. If they appear to have settled into a Fach but cannot skillfully access the top or bottom notes required for the roles commonly associated with it, then they have either misjudged their ideal repertoire or have some technical issues to address.
Focused, Consistent Sound
For the acoustic voice to project well in a recital hall or opera house, the vocal folds must come together cleanly with each vibratory cycle, at all pitches and dynamic levels. Otherwise, some air escapes, resulting in a diffuse tone of diminished quality that will not carry.
Balanced Resonance & Clear Vowel Definition
One’s default sound should demonstrate a balance of brightness and bloom throughout their range. As vowels are internal resonating shapes, singers must learn to shape their resonance to create refined vowel sounds on all pitches rather than render text unintelligible through vowel modification.
A free voice is characterized by an organic, consistent vibrancy that does not draw attention to itself. A distortion such as a wobble or a bleat is symptomatic of a technical issue that needs to be addressed.
Unless a singer is deaf or has a serious neurological impairment, it has thus far been my experience that any intonation problems they may exhibit are due to faulty technique and can be resolved with targeted instruction and practice.
While not all singers will be capable of singing as loud or as soft as others, all must cultivate the ability to produce a consistent sound at a range of dynamic levels and vary their volume without diminished quality.
Singers must be able to produce a smooth vocal line unimpeded by rhythmic, interval or diction events.
All singers must cultivate the ability to perform fiuratura, portamenti and trills. Even if their repertoire seldom calls for any of these, the flexibility necessary to perform them well is fundamental for free sustained singing.
Singers must be able to modulate their registration so that they can move seamlessly from any one part of their range to any other. Audible or felt “breaks” must be resolved.
Singers must be able to sustain and shape long phrases in order to serve the requirements of both grammar and musicality.
My concern is not that these traits are not considered desirable but rather that many teachers and singers appear to be resigned to the idea that they are not universally attainable. Here are three examples of this resignation:
- I was recently asked by a young man with a beautiful and powerful voice whether it would be possible for him to be a successful lyric tenor if he didn’t “have” a high C and how he might pursue a career that accommodated his “naturally” shortened range. When I pointed out to him the specific technical imbalances that were inhibiting his high range, he dismissed what I was saying and tried to get the answer he wanted from someone else.
- When a singer finds that they can only produce a professional quality sound at a certain dynamic level or has to choose between projection and artful phrasing, they often assume that it’s due to volume limitations that are built into their instrument. While some singers may be predisposed to float and others to make your ears bleed, all singers can cultivate adequate volume control to create perceived fortes and pianos and to shape phrases beautifully and effectively.
- I have had several talented, accomplished lyric mezzos show up to my studio without any Rossini in their audition packages and, when I asked them about it, sigh and say something like, “My previous teacher told me that my voice isn’t well-suited to coloratura and that some voices just don’t move.” It’s a common enough misconception that larger voices can’t perform coloratura, but these were all Rossini mezzos who were told they’d never sing Rossini by teachers who accepted the idea that a deficiency like that was hard-wired into their instruments.
I assert that singers do not come with built-in deficiencies that will prevent them from mastering any of these crucial aspects of technique. A teacher who is having little success instructing a student in a given skill must seek further resources to help them rather than suggest that the student is chronically incapable of performing high notes, dynamics or fiuratura.
The classical vocal community must start believing that mastery is attainable. We should have the expectation that if someone has what it takes to be accepted into a performance degree program that they will master singing and emerge with a professionally viable sound, technique, and arsenal of musical skills.
Instrumentalists universally bring such beliefs and expectations to their studies. This is because:
- They are surrounded by evidence that mastery is possible. All professional oboists can manage Baroque ornaments; most professional french horn players keep those Strauss tone poem excerpts at the ready; all professional cellists know how to play harmonics.
- They began their education with the understanding that they would have to master all aspects of their instrument if they wished to pursue a career.
- Longer experience has given them an understanding of the value of consistent practice, and they have long-ingrained good practice habits.
- The instrument they’re playing is nearly identical to all others of its kind, making it easier for them to compare themselves to peers and role-model their superiors. Therefore, when they find themselves limited in some way, they assume that it must be their abilities rather than an inherent problem with their instrument.
- They are expected to play all types of repertoire, not just those to which they seem best suited; they therefore expect to be able to do everything they would need to do to play all types of repertoire.
While singers may have less abundant evidence that mastery is possible, we must understand that the mastery demonstrated by such icons as Leontyne Price and Luciano Pavarotti is as much evidence of skills that can be attained as it is a manifestation of their individual passion and artistry.
We must approach our education with the expectation that we can and will master all aspects of technique, understanding that the idiosyncracies of our individual instruments provide us with unique assets rather than inherent limitations.
We must develop excellent practice habits and the faith that perseverance will yield the results we desire.
We must achieve a better understanding of how our instruments work so that when a problem arises, we are able to discern whether it is an issue of skill or physiology and remain confident that either way, it is resolvable.
We also must approach the study of technique with the goal of mastery rather than what I would call the goal of “good enough for [… ]”. Singers often pick out a song, aria, or role that excites them, sing through it, note what worked and what didn’t, and then spot-woodshed the rough parts: a high note on a particular vowel approached by an awkward interval, a low note that elicited a spectacular register break, a couple of notes in the passaggio that went flat, etc. Repertoire challenges can be great motivators for improving technique if you rise to those challenges comprehensively. Instead of just tweaking the high note in that particular passage, figure out what the larger issue is that caused the problem – is it the vowel? the interval? the length of the phrase? something that happened a few phrases ago that caused you to tighten up? – and create a practice regimen to resolve it globally.
Graduate performance degree programs treat the needs of instrumentalists and singers as though they are more or less identical. They are not. Instrumentalists generally come in with a high degree of mastery and a strong concept of what they must achieve to become capable of meeting their professional goals. Singers come in with demonstrated potential and an array of strengths and weaknesses that cannot be adequately assessed from an entrance audition.
Once accepted, we must provide these singers with a thorough assessment of what it will take for them to achieve comprehensive mastery and design a program of study that will create the greatest possible likelihood of their achieving it.