In Anyone Can Sing, I asserted that that most anyone can learn to sing competently, and most anyone with passion and tenacity can learn to sing brilliantly. I also proposed to reverse engineer the process whereby one can develop the skills and qualities that characterize an elite singer. In my next few posts, I will undertake to do this.
Reverse engineering means examining a desirable product in order to figure out how it is made, with a view to creating or improving upon similar products. Vocologists often examine fine singers for the purpose of discerning and measuring what they are doing successfully. While this yields information that is vital for pedagogical research and understanding, I wish it were also possible to examine and measure the processes whereby these singers attained such success. We cannot – each singer’s path is unique to their individual experiences and course of training. But we can make the assumption that there was such a path that took them from a less free, less coordinated state to the free and functional state they now enjoy, and we can form educated hypotheses about aspects of this path that are necessarily common to all.
I have a game app on my phone called Red Block Pro. It’s a progressive collection of sliding block puzzles that require between 15 and 137 moves to solve. I’m pretty good at it – at the moment, I’m #2 on the Leader Board, and I’m gradually catching up to the first-place player. The object is to remove the large square block from the board in the fewest possible moves.
For example, you want to take a configuration that starts out like this:
and make it look like this:
One further move to the right will remove the red block from the board, resulting in a 104-move solution (it’s possible to solve this one in 103 moves). Here is a solution for this particular configuration that a player proudly posted to YouTube, having solved it in 201 moves:
These puzzles are exercises in reverse engineering because you must begin with that final move in mind: the one that removes the red block from the board. While you could just push the pieces around in the hope of eventually getting the red block off, the game rewards you for solving the puzzles in as few moves as possible. In order to do so you have to master a number of algorithms – more than you might imagine for a game involving only four different shapes on a 4x5 board.
Vocal pedagogy obviously cannot be reduced to a series of algorithms and progressive moves, but I find the analogy useful. The objective is a free and well-coordinated voice (which I will define with greater specificity in a moment). In order to get there, there are numerous structures and movement patterns that must be progressively optimized and coordinated so that a singer’s alignment, breathing, vocal production, articulation and resonance all come together. Like the 600+ starting positions in my puzzle app, each singer brings a unique collection of skills and entanglements to the studio. But if you just try to push the pieces around in the hope of eventually freeing the voice, the process will take longer than necessary and there is no guarantee of success. We as teachers must strive to discover the algorithms that can most swiftly and efficiently establish the freedom and coordination needed to master singing.
As liberating a red block is easier to conceptualize than liberating a voice, I’ll describe the outcome that I wish to reverse-engineer in some detail. Even the most elite singer still has room for growth, so let’s look backwards from a definable milestone; for practical purposes, I will use as benchmarks the skills, qualities and experiences that I feel a singer should accrue by completion of a Master of Music degree.
An MM is a professional degree, as opposed to an academic degree. Professional degrees qualify one to practice a trade; for example, an MD qualifies you to practice medicine. A newly minted doctor may choose to pursue a fellowship related to their specialty before going into practice, but the degree means they are ready to go to work; similarly, a singer who earns an MM may engage in a YAP or two, but they should emerge from grad school with the requisite skill to sing professionally.
In “The Master Singer, Part 1,” I enumerated the vocal skills that I believe a singer should be able to demonstrate upon completion of their MM:
- 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
I would add the following professional skills:
- Lyric diction proficiency in English, Italian, French and German
- Musicianship adequate to prepare, rehearse and perform art songs, chamber music, and orchestral vocal works
- Acting skill adequate to create and embody fully realized opera characters
And to cap it all off, these additional attributes:
- Sustained passion for classical singing
- Confidence in their ability to succeed
- Understanding of how the music business works and the steps they must take to launch their career
- A plan for how they will survive while transitioning from student to full-time performer
- The psychological and emotional maturity to weather the early years in a field fraught with competition and rejection
As even the most dedicated singer does not have a natural aptitude for all of the diverse skills necessary for a professional career, I would add that it is important for them to have a clear picture of their own strengths and weaknesses and the ability to access whatever resources will be necessary to keep their overall presentation at the highest possible level.
This is just my own model for what a singer should be capable of upon completing a graduate degree; others might describe it differently or offer another set of criteria. Our community is seeing increased interest in articulating what makes for a solid singer. The National Association of Teachers of Singing recently developed this highly detailed rubric for evaluating singers who participate in their Student Auditions. “Development of an Auditory-Perceptual Rating Instrument for the Operatic Singing Voice,” the article that I cited in my post on the value of standards, presents the results of one of several studies that I came across conducted with a view to defining what mastery means for singers. However, NATS plays only a supportive, advisory role in the lives of its members and wields no direct influence on voice department curricula and standards, and to my knowledge the auditory-perceptual rating instrument at the heart of the study mentioned above has not been put to any practical application. To be useful, such models must be broadly adopted by the institutions who have the structure, resources, and determination to bring their students into alignment with them.
It is daunting to consider how many disparate skills a singer must master and integrate in order to qualify for a professional career. However, I believe that it is possible to design and implement a curriculum that ensures all graduates rise to the challenge, provided that their institution is willing to carefully track and evaluate their progress along the way and refuse to grant a degree when it is not merited.
The diverse and extreme demands of a classical singing career can only be reliably met by a singer who has access to a program that is designed to ensure that they meet them. Otherwise, those charged with their success are just hopefully pushing the various pieces around without recourse to the crucial algorithms that would guide them. This is unworthy of any institution that confers professional degrees.
My following posts will offer a theoretical model for how to guide a voice student to mastery, based on a six-year program of undergraduate plus graduate study; when, as often occurs, a singer undertakes graduate study without having first completed an undergraduate performance degree, there will need to be a catch-up curriculum included that may necessitate adding a semester or two to their MM, something that many schools already recommend. I will address the development of:
Instrument Quality. Alignment, stamina, balance, strength, flexibility, and overall physical health, as well as an essential understanding of how the voice functions.
Coordination. Biomechanics of breathing, phonation, articulation and resonance; how to practice technique and learn repertoire.
Intent/Artistry. Accessing and channeling expressive intent, connection to music and text, acting technique, effective collaboration.