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Ensemble Singing, Singing Teachers and the Pavarotti syndrome

British universities (not just Oxbridge) produce a huge number of outstanding  ensemble singers, who for decades have sustained  successful professional choirs from the Monteverdi Choir (recently described on Radio 3 as the best choir in the world) to The Sixteen and a plethora of creative ensembles from the Hilliard Ensemble to Juice. Conservatories don’t really do ensemble singing (being still geared to the mass production of conventional soloists); nor do most singing teachers anywhere: they seem only to be able to think in terms of increasingly over-powered solo singing. Has your teacher ever tried to engage with a line of Ockeghem, the Berio Sinfonia, or considered tuning problems in Lassus? But then you may well have learned with one of those teachers who used the same book of arias for forty years, so maybe not.  Strange how there are colleges all over the world dedicated to churning out the same old stuff, but so many singers actually earn their living in rather creative ways that don’t have much to do with what they were taught. There are hundreds of British non-opera singers who, like me, earn their living mostly in mainland Europe (where the work is) so tend not to figure on the UK radar. We do lots of creative stuff, often with European colleagues, and in many ways we’re a great British export. One thing we tend to have in common is a sense that very little of what we were taught by our singing teachers has been of any use to us in our professional careers.

You were born to sing Bach, Mozart, Schubert…Puccini?

To over-simply only a little, our singing teachers had a very sure idea of how we should earn our living, and they were almost without exception wrong. I had some very distinguished teachers. One told me I was a Mozart singer, another said I should focus on Bach and Handel, yet another wanted me to do Lieder full time. One spectacularly misguided one even had me singing Puccini (he was also rumoured to have danced with Diaghilev).  What they all had in common was that none of them could envisage my doing anything else. None of them knew anything about the professional world that I or my more adventurous contemporaries would later work in. One didn’t let me sing any music at all – just exercises, week after tedious week. He never told me what they were for, and he was such a distinguished teacher and I was so green I didn’t dare ask him. The then principal of the Guildhall School once told me that it was his duty to ensure that I became an opera singer as within ten years nobody would be singing anything else.

Having just emerged from a decade in a university (which included three years as an eternal examiner at a major UK conservatoire) I can confirm that nothing much has changed: most singing teaching continues on its traditional path (some teachers still claiming unique links to a glorious past) oblivious to the realities of a fast-changing profession.

Generic teachers produce generic singers

Singing teachers are too often out of touch with the profession as it currently is. Some  teach because they simply don’t have enough work as performers (or are simply past it). How many are familiar with the huge amount of research that’s been done in performance and education?   The older (and generally more distinguished) ones base their pedagogy and their predictions on the world as it was when they were younger, and on skills they acquired from their own teachers. This narrowness of experience means that so much teaching is still teacher-centred (do it my way) rather than student orientated (explore your own potential).  There is also an assumption that everyone wants to be a success in the mainstream, so if you’re a tenor you aspire to be the next Pavarotti or whoever, and you always sing the repertoire that your teacher is familiar with from when he aspired to be Pavarotti’s predecessor. A very narrow skill-set is taught, in an effort to get the student to conform to generic norms – you have to sound like a TENOR: it’s no good sounding like YOU!  At its worst (in the USA, often) it narrows still further, as your teacher insists that you stick to your chosen (by him/her) Fach. Not only are you programmed only to be an opera singer, but to specialise in a tiny, fixed number of roles. How different from 200 years ago, when singers were some of the most creative performers ever known.

Educating for unemployment?

Conservatories are very successful by their own (self-justifying) criteria – and these great music factories are now so efficient that they can turn out top class soloists  just as easily as  the pop industry can create  boybands. Boybands have a limited life-span, partly because it’s so easy to create them once you know how,  and partly because there are so many of them that the market very soon becomes saturated.   The pop industry is entirely at the mercy of market forces, and is therefore genuinely self-regulating. Conservatories aren’t – as long as they can secure funding (from the state, students and private sponsors) they can continue to produce more singers than the market can actually absorb. A few years ago I was part of a big research project which aimed to discover how you create better performers. No one asked why we need to know, or what we’d do with the information if we found the answers.  It didn’t occur to anyone that if everyone could perform Beethoven Sonatas like Barenboim, you wouldn’t need to pay someone to do it for you.

A new European model?

Most British conservatoires are still in denial (though you will hear slightly embarrassed talk of portfolio careers), but on the European mainland there are signs of fresh thinking.  Some music colleges are beginning to ask themselves if they should perhaps focus on developing individual creativity rather than insisting on the time-worn standard repertoire and dooming so many to unemployment. In Oslo, for example, the conservatories produce up to 50 world-class opera singers every year. There are five professional opera companies in the country. The figures for the UK are quite similar, so both countries have, in effect , to absorb huge numbers of brilliant singers every year, or export them. Where do they export them to? Germany, the USA, and other European countries, some to the Eastern hemisphere – Japan and Australia. But all of these countries have the same problem – vast over-production of singers. The Norwegian government, though, makes a point of directly subsidising a very wide variety of creative work, which includes the many great Norwegian choirs, and ensembles such as Trio Mediaeval and Nordic Voices. That’s a start. Incidentally, if you want to know what non-generic voices can sound like, have a listen to Sweden’s Real Group or the Finnish Rajaton (or any of the winners of the contest for vocal ensembles at the Tampere Vocal Festival over the last twenty years).

Are university music departments becoming second-rate conservatoires?

You’d expect universities to be able to do rather better in all this. After all, they’re filled with clever people and students go there to think, not just to sing.  But the university world  now too often mimics elements of the conservatoire system, to the extent that many music departments sometimes look like second-rate conservatories, with their Solo Recitals and arcane assessment criteria. Such a shame there’s so much focus on product (they call it ‘outcome’ – and it has to be easily be measured, however bizarre this may seem from the outside). You’d have thought universities would have the wit to understand that music is not quite the same as  biology or physics, or doing your accounts.

There is a benign effect of all this seemingly pointless teaching though: quite lot of singers are probably a bit better than they would otherwise have been, and many of them become fine choral singers. Ironic really, as many conservatoire teachers forbid their pupils from singing in choirs and certainly wouldn’t teach them how to do it. I personally don’t think it’s either healthy or creative to lean on your teacher for ideas or inspiration, or to be told what repertoire to specialise in, but it works for some.  It’s also OK if you really are the next Pavarotti. But it’s not much use if you don’t want to sing opera or what we used to call oratorio, or you want to record for ECM or Nonclassical, start a professional  ensemble or do creative work beyond the mainstream. And that’s where you will need to work if you want to make an impact (unless you’re the next Pavarotti): the core of the profession is full to bursting, so anyone who tells you that you can make living singing Bach, Handel or Lieder is way out of touch. Yet all too often univesities are suckered into shelling out huge sums on singing teaching in response to teachers’ insistence that they need to see students once a week for three years to work on their Lieder or whatever. It’s simply not true. They wouldn’t dream of stumping up for weekly maths coaching.

It’s not surprising that many of my contemporaries who stuck to the tried and tested path now find themselves underemployed: there’s no point in a promoter paying vast sums to an established ‘star’ (unless they’re very big box office) when a newly graduated conservatoire product will do the same job for a fraction of the price. Even those who are initially successful in the mainstream are always at risk of being undercut by the next ever more brilliant generation, and unless something is done to address the problem, even quite successful singers are probably doomed to very short careers.  The ultimate logic of all this is that a generation or two down the line highly trained young singers may well have driven down the cost of  a Messiah or a Manon so far that the mainstream will be a virtually amateur ‘profession’.  But on the bright side, there should be some fantastic choirs…

The best singers invent themselves

Pavarotti would have made it whoever taught him. He was the first Pavarotti, after all. Like many of the great singers of history (Fischer-Dieskau springs to mind) he invented himself. That’s what ‘ensemble singers’ do too, with their vast repertoires, sophisticated skill sets, their ability to interact rather than compete with each other –  and not least, their creative entrepreneurship.  Sadly, many talented singers, seduced by the singing teacher sales talk, will never discover that. They’ll go on singing the Schubert and Bach they were ‘born to sing’ until it’s too late. Or, like ensemble singers of my generation, they realise that it was all a bit of a waste of time and money, and just get on with unlearning what they were taught.

6 Responses to “Ensemble Singing, Singing Teachers and the Pavarotti syndrome”

  1. Don Ryan says:

    I am not a musician but I know that what you write is insightful. I was not being glib when here in San Diego I compared the professional music scene’s preoccupation with Mozart, Carmen, etc., to a continued fixation with Guy Lombardo, (a New Year’s Eve staple here in the states). They had their time.

    I am glad that my daughter, Nora Ryan, found her way to your tutelage. Good imitation is good. It can never be great.

    I would be please if you scanned my views “On Painting” on my website. I think much is applicable to music, as well. I was honored that she used one of my paintings in her announcements for her program, “Nora Ryan and Co.”, at York.


  2. John Potter says:

    Very interesting, Don. I can see where Nora gets it from…Many musicians would understand the thoughts you express in ‘On Painting’ – and Bonnard is my wife’s favourite painter, incidentally.

    Some of my former university colleagues can’t imagine a world without Bach, Mozart or whoever, so they insist they should be studied, copied or reproduced in one form or another. It’s surprisingly easy to have a fulfilling life without either of them. There are obvious parallels in all the arts. Institutionalisation can be a terrible thing.

  3. Alex Diaz says:

    I agree that some university lecturers are so entrenched in their specialism that they cannot offer anything constructive to say to students performing in other areas. Creativity is rarely fostered by such lecturers, and the copycats flourish with nowhere to go in the long term.

    Even at school level, I know of singing teachers who use the same board for exams and the same pieces with all of their pupils, taking away any chance for creativity and independent thought. Inevitably, they also teach the pieces in the same way and almost identical performances are delivered – poor examiners!

    Students are told categorically that “Bach must be performed like this”, with no thought that new light could be shed on his music with a different approach – performance does not always have to be based on years of accepted research that has gone unquestioned for decades in order to have merit. Your impending project is a fascinating example of re-examining long accepted repertoire and showing us how it evolved over time; this is the real life of the music.

    The title of your last paragraph is very inspiring: “The best singers invent themselves” and I am motivated to stop procrastinating about expensive and potentially fruitless further study for the time being, and just do more singing. Through making music, creative people can come together with a fresh approach, and great things can happen. Cheesy but true.

  4. John Potter says:

    I was speaking to a trumpet player friend of mine yesterday – he plays in an absolutely unique way, which his teachers would never have condoned. Had he followed the usual advice he would still have been a very good trumpeter, but following his creative heart has made him one of the most original trumpet players in the world. You’re absolutely right about creative people generating a fresh approach – a good choir or ensemble is always greater than the sum of its parts.

  5. Kerry: Your article is very affirming and encouraging, JP!!! Sarah and I have read it together at Junior Trinity where I have just been getting my students to try out Balinese Monkey Chant, learnt from Damien Harron though it could have easily have come from one of your York lectures… the spirit lives on here and there!

    Sarah: I always felt that singers at college were being forced into roles that they weren’t ready for and were then spat out in to the great wild world, without any sense of how to creatively forge a career for themselves as an independent-thinking artist. As a teacher (I teach because I want to and enjoy it!), I’m still astounded by how many songs are listed on the singing exam syllabi that aren’t relevant to people any more. The reason why people end up singing the same songs are because there are so many mediocre ones…

    Kerry and Sarah xx

  6. John Potter says:

    Hmm…thanks for this! One of the weaknesses in my argument is that however antiquated the system is, it will still produce creative singers such as Juice, and it’s fantastic to see it really happening for you three. But you would have made it happen anyway – and what helped to enable that was just having the space, time and encouragement to do your thing, rather than anything specific that you were taught (most of which I suspect you’ve forgotten…).

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