Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Can Singing Be Taught?

It is the most common question parents/students have for voice teachers. You may have even searched this phrase in Google or Bing in order to find out what has been said on the subject, and who could blame you? After all, we have all heard over the course of our lives those individuals who (in our humble opinions) sounded downright awful. Perhaps they stood next to us in church during opening hymns or we heard them one night during a karaoke outing, or even viewing reruns of American Idol. We think to ourselves; “if singing can be taught, why can't these people learn to do it?” “did they not have the proper teacher?” “what method did they study?” “if it didn't work for them, how could that method work for me (or my child)?” - All of these are totally valid queries, in fact, it is largely because of questions like these that a veritable pantheon of singing methods have been created (especially in the last 20-30 years), and isn't it interesting that each school of thought claims to have the “silver bullet” to overcoming the nagging doubts we have all had about the original question of whether or not singing can be taught?  

It is no secret that we hold singing in a far different esteem than any other skill in existence. In the western world; no one expects you to be born knowing how to ride a bicycle, spell your name, read a book or do math. These are all things taught to you during your early education, children are taught these skills every day spending extensive amounts of time learning to do small tasks which eventually add to their overall skill-set. Yet, most schools devote only one to two days a week to music, in which there is very little regular singing. Imagine if a school devoted one day a week to math or writing, it seems implausible at best that any child would develop a proficiency in these subjects beyond the very remedial.

This leads me to my answer of the original question: Yes, singing can be taught, but it takes time. It takes as much time as it took to learn to read. You didn't go immediately from Bernstein Bears to The Great Gatsby, it took you about 10 years to build up the vocabulary, grammar and syntax - from roughly Kindergarten to 9th grade, to be able to digest such a novel and it took you more time than that to move onto Shakespeare and Montaigne.

Sadly, however; we don't view music in the same light.

It has been speculated (from the best-selling book: Outliers by Malcom Gladwell) that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to master any task. In musical terms; this means that if you practice for three hours a day six days a week it would take about 11 years to achieve a mastery of whatever endeavor you set out to accomplish. I hope this sheds some perspective on the process. I should add that I am not advocating students practice singing for three hours a day, every day. The amount of practice time will vary depending on what the student knows already and their vocal stamina (there is such a thing as too much practice for the voice).

Of course, it isn't as though you are awful for hours 1- 9,999 and then magically on hour 10,000 you sound like a professional. There is quantifiable progress along the way. Students might notice their range improving, or having a greater control over pitch, they may hear their tone becoming more warm, and their diction more clear. Often, these observations become apparent even between one lesson to another (so long as the practice is there).

One of the greatest singers in western history; Enrico Caruso
 did not start out perfectly hitting those high notes, it was
 something on which he worked his entire life

Now, on to the subject of methods. Bel Canto, Speech Level Singing, Alexander Technique and Vocal Release just to name a few. Which one is the best? Which one will work? The answer might surprise you but, in short, they ALL work. The truth is;  it is the matter of time spent working through the method that really matters here. It should be noted though that each method has its strengths and weaknesses and some methods will work better than others for students, this is based on what that student's goals are, not to mention their physical makeup and personality.

In the next few blogs I intend to take you through a strategy for plotting out your voice study and hopefully give you a few pointers for help along the way. This will include reviews of singing methods based on my success of using it with myself and students. I will also be recommending videos, practice schedules, song-literature and books with detailed descriptions of why I feel it is useful.

You have decided on a very exciting journey. It is an incredibly satisfying thing to be able to sing and be confident in your own voice and I hope I can be some help along the way.  

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