by Alyssa Cowell,
Catoctin School of Music
Every once in awhile, a student will ask me a question that seems like it should be easy to answer but isn’t. Recently, I had a young vocalist ask me who my favorite singer is. The follow-up question: “Why are they the best?” got me thinking a little bit more.
The student in question is young, and while it is flattering to think that she considers my opinion to be authoritative, I’m not looking to dictate the listening habits of my students. This doesn’t mean that I don’t encourage students to listen to artists of technical merit. It doesn’t mean that I don’t require the study of songs that will improve a student’s vocal ability through classical technique. Both things are integral to building a better singer. Additionally, a student’s ability to identify good singing when they hear it is just as important as learning an Italian aria. When I want students to identify the qualities of good singing, I start asking them the following questions:
How’s the singer’s pitch accuracy?
This one should be obvious to even the most casual listener. If the notes are not in tune, the singer you’re listening to should practice some more. Out-of-tune singing is difficult to listen to, and it’s unlikely that a student will want to listen to this type of singing very often.
Is the tone beautiful?
As anyone will tell you “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” A student’s music background is going to be the driving force behind their perception of beautiful tone – which makes it very difficult to change. When a student shares a recording of a singer whose tone makes me want to crawl under my desk, a quick internet search will usually yield other artists interpreting the same song. By doing a little extra listening, students start identifying which tones are more/less appealing on their own.
Does the singing sound effortless?
In my personal teaching experience, I have found that students are ultimately more impressed by singers who make singing sound easy. Effort-full singing is sometimes the mark of a character in distress and used to add drama to a song. There should however, be a distinction between singing that sounds emotional and singing that sounds as though the singer might hurt themselves at any moment. If it sounds painful, it probably is painful. Painful singing indicates a need for adjusted technique.
What kind of phrasing do you hear?
How often does the singer breathe? Do they ever breathe in the middle of a sentence? How about in the middle of a word? Sometimes punctuated or non-traditional breathing techniques are used to create interesting sound effects. That said, long smooth phrases with silent breaths are a mark of controlled and mature interpretation. In a lesson, I will often have a student mark how often a singer breathes on a lyric sheet or in the sheet music and we’ll discuss whether the number of breaths used are necessary.
Is it real?
Advances in music technology have allowed today’s musicians to create sounds and styles that are singularly creative, interesting to listen to, and inspiring to young listeners. I think any song that gets students talking about music is worth at least a listen or two. More and more often, observant students will comment that the sounds they’re hearing don’t seem quite real. “How do they sing like that?” To put it bluntly: they’re not singing like that. An expert sound engineer made that sound happen. This isn’t to beat up recording studios or shout a curmudgeonly “Get off my lawn!” at the music industry. Studio recordings and music videos are art in their own right. This is a gentle suggestion that listening to live recordings and attending live concerts might be a better gauge of vocal excellence than the latest offering on youtube. When a student is especially attached to a specific artist’s rendition, I suggest they try to find a live version of the singer performing. I’ll admit that it is occasionally disappointing for a student to discover their favorite singer is not as wonderful as the originally thought. More often, it gives them the confidence to try songs they thought they couldn’t sing before. Realizing original artists don’t sound like the recording gives students the freedom to sing a popular song using their natural voice instead of trying to imitate a style that may not fit their abilities.
I think fostering an atmosphere in which students can exchange ideas with the instructor is important for the development of music appreciation. When you allow students to share the music they enjoy with you and help them articulate what they enjoy about a specific singer, they are much more likely to give the music you recommend to them a chance as well. Requiring students to give you specific examples outlining their likes and dislikes results in a student that can better communicate their musical preferences. By giving them criteria to consider, students can start listening with a more critical ear, allowing them to identify good singing on their own.