What defines great artistry in a classical singer? For an opera lover, this is a very personal question. Some value the ability to deliver emotionally moving performances, while others praise the gift for presenting unique and insightful interpretations of beloved works. Exceptional virtuosity, a strikingly beautiful or unusual tone, and charismatic audacity are among the many qualities that can designate a singer a great vocal artist in the eyes of their colleagues and fans.
Whatever their individual strengths and virtues, great artists are admired for their uniqueness. If we want to reverse engineer what makes for great artistry, then, what we seek is not a technique or a curriculum but rather a set of conditions that will empower and motivate each singer to fully realize the most singular aspects of their personality, musicianship and imagination. This means:
- Validating the merit of each student’s original ideas and expressive impulses;
- Celebrating their unique assets and achievements;
- Encouraging expressive risk-taking;
- Valuing mastery for its own sake rather than as a means to earning good grades and completing degree requirements;
- Feeding their passion and curiosity in all possible ways.
Great artistry requires great courage, confidence, and self-awareness, as well as the abilities to validate oneself and regulate one’s emotions. In other words, we must do our utmost to help them cultivate psychological well-being.
How Classical Vocal Training Programs Can Promote Mental & Emotional Health
The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Successful relationships depend upon the ability to communicate thoughts and feelings effectively. I believe that the practice of singing can have a powerful impact on our abilities to realize our broader potential, deal with and discharge stress, work more productively, contribute to our communities, and communicate well.
That’s a pretty big claim, so I’ll break it down.
Realizing Potential, Working More Productively
The pursuit and attainment of excellence in any field teaches us to set and achieve goals in other fields. The study of singing involves setting high standards, acknowledging and transcending limitations, and systematically meeting milestones. The complex network of skills necessary for vocal mastery requires breaking down major tasks into manageable chunks, accessing a wide variety of resources, and tracking our progress. The experience of designing and implementing a course from talent to mastery develops confidence, self-esteem, discipline, and problem-solving skills that are universally applicable.
Coping with Stress
In both life and music, stress is the build-up of tension, ideally followed by the resolution of that tension. Stress becomes problematic when we build up an excess without the means to resolve it. In my opinion, our society does not encourage or facilitate the free flow and expression of big emotions, especially those considered “negative” – anger, fear, sadness, etc. When we fail to release stress in a healthy fashion, we either must internalize it, diminishing our capacity to sense and express feeling, or discharge it in ways that can be harmful to ourselves and others.
In my post on Skill at Feeling, I emphasized the importance of emotional self-regulation for the cultivation of artistry as well as for meeting the psychological challenges of a performance career. However, it actually works both ways – cultivating skill at singing can lead to a significant improvement in one’s ability to self-regulate.
In “The Development of Emotion Regulation and Dysregulation: A Clinical Perspective,” Pamela M. Cole et al define emotional regulation “as the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to permit spontaneous reactions as well as the ability to delay spontaneous reactions as needed.” The range of emotions we tap into when performing opera often goes way off the charts where social tolerability is concerned! Channeling outsized emotions into musical expression means skillfully delaying their discharge, resulting in immense release and benefit for ourselves and our audiences.
Breathing is a fundamental means of healthy self-regulation. Repressed emotion can lodge in the body as chronic muscular tension. The practice of singing incites you to breathe, move, and release tense musculature. This is among the reasons why singers will often spontaneously begin crying or laughing in the midst of a lesson or a practice session. You’re not merely making technical strides but also permanently expanding your ability to feel and self-regulate.
Joseph W. Polisi’s collection of essays, The Artist as Citizen, is rife with examples of performing artists enhancing the lives of their communities. In “The Power of Art,” his 1988 commencement speech at the Juilliard School, Polisi admonishes the graduates that “You are the artists who are going to make other people understand the power of art, and you will help define their experiences as human beings in our culture and society. You are going to ask audience members who experience your artistry to embrace beliefs that are new to them… Every time you go onstage, you must be that special individual who touches someone in the audience in a unique way.”
How has art touched your life and imbued your experiences with deeper meaning? I know that I have known moments of deep elation so far beyond words that only music could help me fully integrate them, as well as some very dark moments during which music was the only thing that pulled me through. Sharing music with your community benefits you as much as it does your audience.
Communicate More Effectively
Vocal repertoire greatly expands the depth and nuance of our emotional vocabulary. The characters we explore in opera and art song challenge us to plumb the depths of our hearts and psyches. They bring out sides of ourselves we may never have had the opportunity to explore. They require us to confront feelings and states that might seem alien and terrifying. They teach us to identify alternately as sensual, vicious, passionate, altruistic, manipulative, or just plain silly. They invite us to join them on the journey of growth and self-realization over the arcs of their stories. They teach us to explore and validate these feelings, states and inclinations so that we can communicate with ourselves about them internally, a prerequisite to communicating them with others. They teach us to relate to and empathize with others when they express sentiments or opinions we once might have judged them for.
How Classical Vocal Training Programs Risk Eroding Artistic Impulses
I’ve just enumerated the many ways that I believe the study of classical singing can promote good mental health. Unfortunately, conservatories are not widely regarded as bastions of psychological well-being.
Incoming undergrads find themselves greeted by a whirlwind of unfamiliar stressors and a bewildering state of freedom. They may be ill-equipped to contend with the responsibilities of a college level course load, the exposure to new social opportunities, the pressures of being surrounded by musical peers who are at least as gifted, experienced and ambitious as they are, the overwhelming choices of independent living, and the sudden easy access to vices that were previously much harder to come by – sex, alcohol, drugs, MMORPG’s, etc.
In my post on The Master Singer’s Instrument, I pointed out that we mistakenly regard incoming freshmen as possessing an instrument suitable for the development of technique and musicianship. We do them perhaps an even greater disservice if we assume them to arrive in optimal mental health. The transition to full-time college level study and campus life can provoke or expose myriad issues, but our students are likely to be so concerned with making a good impression and getting their studies off to a strong start that they may resist dealing with them.
In Stop Stealing Dreams, a manifesto encouraging robust educational reform, Seth Godin argues that the compulsory public education system that has been in place since the Industrial Revolution does an exceedingly poor job of promoting creativity and fostering individual incentive. Public school curricula were designed for the purpose of creating the compliant, productive factory workers needed to keep our nation running smoothly, “to train people to have a lifetime of productive labor as part of the industrialized economy.” I cannot possibly summarize his entire thesis here, but I encourage you to read it and weep, particularly if you are the parent of a school-aged child. Suffice it to say that the qualities that make for great artistry – passion, originality, individual expression, ingenuity – are not inherently supported by a system that teaches to the multiple choice standardized test and emphasizes obedience and structure. Young men and women with artistic inclinations who come through the public school system generally managed to pursue their craft and fan the flames of their passion in spite of the system, not because of it. They emerge as traumatized black sheep. When they show up to college or conservatory, they are ostensibly enrolling in a program that is designed to nurture their passion and assist them in meeting their professional artistic goals. However, the paradigm that underscores our antiquated compulsory public school curricula remains insidiously present at the college level in the form of required courses and grading systems, and the extent to which they were conditioned to be obedient students who study to pass tests will likely continue to impact the way they engage in their advanced studies if we do not help de-program them.
Let us revisit the conditions I offered as crucial for the cultivation of artistry. I invite you to consider the extent to which the vocal performance degree programs with which you are affiliated are designed to validate each student’s original ideas and expressive impulses, celebrate what makes them unique, encourage expressive risk-taking, value mastery over earning good grades and completing degree requirements, and feed their passion and curiosity.
Validating Originality & Expression
We admit students to degree programs not only for their demonstrated vocal talent but also for their expressive potential. However, once they have enrolled, it becomes all too easy to neglect fostering originality because there is so much attendant knowledge and skill for them to acquire. They instantly become immersed in researching the ideas of others, and the cultivation of their individual artistry often takes a way-back seat to the study of technique, diction, musicianship and performance practice. We may take it for granted that their expressive impulses will remain strong, but if we fail to encourage their active engagement we send a message that only after they have demonstrated mastery of all these other skills will they have earned the right to focus on self-expression.
Every voice is unique. Every singer brings to the art form a singular combination of ideas, experiences and emotional impulses. Every singer who is admitted to a performance degree program has the right to expect that the institution that accepted them did so with the full intention of helping them fulfill their potential and believes that they have a shot at bringing their unique message to light on the professional stage.
However, once things get underway, every voice student does not receive equal encouragement and attention. Departments understandably tend to showcase those students who demonstrate natural beauty of tone, inherent charisma, and/or swift achievement. While I certainly believe that hard work, swift progress, and excellence should be recognized, it is completely inappropriate and demeaning to treat those students whose progress may appear slower like second-class citizens. It’s one thing when a student demonstrably fails to apply themselves fully, but when a singer is engaging in their studies to the best of their abilities there should be an appropriate way to cheerlead, support, and showcase their accomplishments.
This problem is greatly exacerbated by the fact that most institutions have full-scholarship students studying alongside others who are paying full tuition, at both the undergraduate and graduate level. It is further exacerbated by the imbalances one often finds among members of the voice faculty, some of whom may be tenured full professors who are always available to help while others are adjuncts who can only be on campus one or two days each week. Students thus enter into these programs with a grave disparity of support. I do not know what the solution is to this problem, but it creates a sense that the full-tuition students are supporting the program while the prime resources are available only to those on scholarship.
Great artists exemplify not just willingness but enthusiasm for stepping outside their comfort zones. Great singing demands utter vulnerability. Mastering singing entails engaging in risky, vulnerable behavior, as singers can expect to feel vocally unstable when making changes to their technique and must embrace the possibility of odd and unexpected sounds emerging from their throats from time to time.
Voice departments and individual teachers face a dilemma here. Supporting singers’ processes requires that they acknowledge the necessity of these stretches of instability. However, they may have to prepare juries, sing in ear training, diction, and performance classes, and perform (for a grade) in a variety of contexts. So while they are works in progress, they either must expose their temporary vocal instabilities or mask them, a lose/lose proposition. Exposing their flaws in a context where they will be evaluated is humiliating; masking them reinforces poor habits and impedes progress.
When we require singers to air their dirty laundry in public, we are demanding that they step outside their comfort zones in a harmful way that can orient them against courageous emotional risk-taking. We must help them build confidence and inspire them to push themselves further outside their comfort zones in a healthy and empowering way.
Valuing Mastery over Grades
Classical singers must master various bodies of knowledge in order to perform at even a foundational level. Subjects like music theory and lyric diction lend themselves particularly well to an abstract, conceptual approach. You may be able to earn top marks without learning to apply these subjects to your artistry or even appreciate the point of studying them.
Students who are veterans of the compulsory public education system are conditioned to ask, “Will this be on the test?” when confronted with new material. When they feel overwhelmed by various other requirements, they may be tempted to do the bare minimum to earn a good grade, which usually depends far more on well-executed homework assignments and strong exam performance than on applying this material to their artistry.
We must find ways to emphasize the practical application of these courses for vocal artistry so that students will be inspired to delve deeply into them and become excited expanding their creative palates. I was fortunate to earn my BA at a college that provided detailed comments in lieu of letter grades, and I would love to see this model more broadly adopted. It sends a message to each student that their individual engagement and mastery is far more valuable than how they scale against their peers.
Feeding Passion & Curiosity
Everyone warns us not to become artists. We are constantly admonished that we should become singers only if we cannot fathom the idea of doing anything else. I can’t argue with the wisdom of this – it’s crucial that we be fully cognizant of the challenges and sacrifices that attend a career in the arts and that we only sign up for them if we are truly fueled by an enduring passion to express ourselves and do whatever it takes to succeed.
Passion trumps talent. Talent alone won’t provide adequate motivation for completing years of rigorous academic training, enduring the inevitable pile of rejections, and clocking the hours of non-musical employment necessary to keep you afloat while you pursue your studies and transition to a full-time performance career. You need to be able to wake up most mornings impatient to get to the practice room or the library, in spite of all the stressors that confront the aspiring artist. If instead you regularly awaken dreading the challenges and obligations before you, it’s unlikely that you will be able to muster the perseverence essential for perfecting your craft and cultivating your career.
The best way to fuel our students’ passion is to model it. We can provide them with voice teachers and faculty who are still madly in love with the craft and the pursuit of knowledge, who exude enthusiasm for bringing out the best each singer is capable of – mentors who embody the values of originality, uniqueness and passion, who continue to step enthusiastically outside their comfort zones. Mentors who exemplify great artistry.
To sum up:
- While great artistry cannot be taught, we can strive to create conditions that will facilitate its emergence in our students.
- The practice of singing is highly conducive to the development of keen self-awareness, emotional self-regulation, and the creative spontaneity essential for expressive power.
- We must examine the environment and curricular structures provided by performance degree programs to ensure that they facilitate (rather than inhibit) artistic impulses and encourage (not erode) individual motivation.
We may not be able to solve all our students’ problems or ensure that they will all become successful professionals, but we can develop a culture that promotes and sustains good mental health, confidence, and creative passion. We can cultivate awareness of the fact that authentic expression is the primary goal of musical study and acknowledge that it can all too easily be eroded by the pressures of competition and academic achievement.
I am in no way encouraging coddling our singers and shielding them from the darker realities of the business. No one makes significant progress in the voice studio (or in psychotherapy, for that matter) by being coddled or enabled. On the contrary, the development of great artistry requires that we face our demons and emerge triumphant, ready to share our journey with the world.
I recently asked a philosophical friend to give a brief definition of artistry. He responded, “It’s essentially the transference of emotions and ideas.” I often say that opera’s true value lies in its power to deliver heightened sonic representations of emotions and elicit cathartic, transformative responses from the audience. This requires singers who can access deep, genuine reserves of feeling and courageously channel them through their voices.
If we can consistently produce graduates who are capable of the radical self-acceptance, emotional self-regulation, and expressive confidence necessary for great vocal artistry, we will be preparing them not only to pursue a career in opera but also to meet whatever professional and personal challenges life may bring.
The study of singing has the potential to produce this result, and I find it a highly valuable outcome regardless of whether or not a singer ends up becoming a full-time performer.
We can help increase the likelihood that they will graduate with the passion to pursue a career on their on terms, the fortitude to weather rejection, the clarity to make wise decisions, and a commitment to being their authentic selves and realizing their artistic vision regardless of the direction their lives may take.