Every singer has had to deal with assertions that we’re lesser musicians. It seems like the classical music community is beginning to move past this backwards way of thinking, but today, Blogger Kurt Knecht revealed that we still have some work to do.
I was annoyed when I read the title of his blog post “Are you a Singer or a Musician?” but I really started fuming when I got to this passage:
Over the last 20 years, I have worked for 6 or 7 different University music departments. Though there have been some very notable exceptions, I would say that generally speaking, the vocal majors didn’t work as hard to learn their craft as the instrumentalists. The vocalists didn’t understand theory as well, and they often didn’t sight sing as well as the instrumental students. It is a problem that needs to be addressed in our educational institutions.
When Kurt says that vocal majors don’t work as hard to learn “their craft” as instrumentalists do, he is showing that he doesn’t actually know what a singer’s “craft” is, or how it differs from the craft of, say, a violinist.
You see he’s right. Instrumentalists are often better musicians than singers, and there’s a very real, very understandable reason for that. To illustrate, I’d like to compare the hypothetical educational timelines of an elite singer and an elite violinist:
A kid’s parents enroll their child in violin lessons, where she begins to make those first screeching sounds as she puts bow to strings, and she begins to learn the ABC’s of reading music.
Meanwhile, across town, another 5 year old who might become a singer one day is singing along with Disney movies on TV. If she’s very lucky she has a school music program where she’s learning some music fundamentals.
The young violinist is playing fairly advanced pieces with a decent tone and well-practiced technique. Maybe she plays in a school orchestra.
The 10 year old singer might be in a school or church choir, where she learns her music by rote. Maybe she’s brave enough to sing a solo once in a while. Her technique at this point is simply “do what sounds pretty.” She certainly isn’t taking formal voice lessons yet, and won’t be able to really get to work on the technical aspects of singing until after puberty.
By the time our two imaginary musicians are graduating from high school, the violinist has played a variety of well-known symphonic pieces in an orchestra, and knows most, if not all, advanced technical skills required by her instrument. She probably knows at least the basics of music theory and reads music with as much fluency as she reads words. She’s applying to conservatory and her teacher has coached her on her audition repertoire.
The singer? She’s starting to pick up some sight-reading skills in her high school choir. She’s becoming familiar with some major choral works, and maybe, if she’s taking voice lessons, is just beginning to learn the basics of classical singing technique. If she’s blessed with a nice enough voice then she might’ve had the lead in her school musical or an occasional solo in choir.
So now it’s freshman year at conservatory. The two are sitting down to take their placement exams for music theory classes. Is it any surprise that the instrumentalists fare better than the singers? They’ve had a years-long head start! And all along the way, they are able to focus solely on musicianship and technique. While singers are learning what it takes to be a capital-M Musican, they’re also learning Italian, French, and German at the very least, as well as acting, and perhaps dance, not to mention tackling the mysteries of singing technique!
Singers are the music world’s ultimate multitaskers. In a fully-staged operatic performance, a singer must be aware of her surroundings, and respond to the situation. Singers must sing with consistent, correct technique, and musicality. Often they must deal with extraordinary physical demands, like fight choreography. And, usually, do all of it in a foreign language!
This is, of course, why professional singers employ coaches to help learn and perfect operatic roles. We need that extra help because we have so many things to think about!
Before you say that I missed the point of what Kurt was trying to say, I did read this:
“I’m not suggesting that singing well is any easier than playing an instrument well. I am saying that singing well enough is easier than playing well enough. ”
And I suppose in a way he’s right. It’s not difficult to join a choir and make decent music with little experience as an amateur singer. But the next time you feel impatient with a singer who’s struggling with sight-reading or can’t tell a tritone from a triad, just remember everything that has to go into a singer’s “craft.”