Are we here to filter for the marketplace or to bring out the best in student singers?
This provocative and rhetorical question rings in my ears almost every time I attend a diploma concert. What should be a celebration of the art of singing and of long years spent learning gets turned into an ego fest for judges and their grading. The joke is, or course, that this has no relation to the ‘marketplace’ whatsoever. Applause is not the equivalent to a ‘grade’. Nor is a review. Nor is getting the role at an audition. Often not getting the role opens the door to getting a better role later. A grade at a diploma concert, or a “Zwischenprüfung“, satisfies a teacher’s need for a sense of hierarchy and nothing more. It supports the power structure within the school, but not the development of the individual student. This is especially true for beginning students.
Voice students are different, it’s true, but generally speaking, the beginning voice student is not unlike a small child. They both have instincts, which need adequate surroundings to develop. They both have needs for acceptance and for belonging for these instincts to develop. Imagine for a moment an overly ambitious parent who wants her child to be the first to walk in its’ group. At three months this parent holds the child’s hands and forces it to walk as soon as possible. What is the likely result? Spinal injury. Underdeveloped instrinsic pelvic muscles. Diaphramatic raising and cramping and much more. And these are just organic. Psychologically a dependency is being conditioned, plus an overweening need to satisfy other’s expectations and goals. Just so for the young singer forced to perform and ‘compete’ way too early. The young singer’s unique artistic and musical instincts are being forced into conformity at such an early age that later development is thwarted.
There are exceptions, as always. There are young naturally talented singers who develop faster through performing. However, this development occurs in an environment of acceptance, belonging and approval and not by any harsh ‘grading’ procedure. One the other hand, there are singers who take a much longer time to mature. Performing, grading or evaluation for such ‘late bloomers’ is often torture; demotivating, hurtful and detrimental. Yet in later years these become the most interesting artists!
I remember an admissions test at a german university in my early days teaching here. After the first round of singers left the room, one of the more politically powerful professors puffed himself up to comment. If he’d been a peacock, his feathers would have been arrayed in full display. He spoke; “We can all tell inside of 5 seconds which of these students has what it takes. We really don’t need much discussion!” “Really”, I said, (I was definitely not all too diplomatic in my early days), “you can tell inside of 5 seconds whether or not a 17-year old can have a career in singing? I remember when I was 17, how many professionals tried to discourage me from becoming a singer. A lot of my very successful friends tell of similar experiences.” Some eyes in the room went immediately downward. Others nodded. In the pause three teachers came over and told me how glad they were that I’d said that. They’d experienced the same thing in their youth.
Of course we need to pick some students for our studios and reject others. Of course some students get accepted for teaching programs and others do not. I’d venture to say we’ve all been accepted and rejected numerous times as singers and performers. An authority figure in young years telling us, either directly or indirectly, that we lack the necessary talent is a mild form of abuse and should be regarded as such.
Even if it turns out to be true and the young student decides on another path, training in singing supports and undergirds all nature of creativity without exception. I believe it is time for us as teachers of singing to embrace this.
Evan Bortnick Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden