Sunday, August 31, 2008

The State of Classical Singing in the United States of America Part 1: Education

Like most citizens of the United States, I am more involved with the electoral process than I have ever been, since I began living here in the mid 1970s. Lately, inspired by the political discourse, I begin to ask myself whether I can make a difference in this society, and if so, how. Naturally, as a musician, a singer, I determined that I can have the greatest influence in my field. First I had to ask myself whether my discipline was even valued by my society. In classic optimistic form, I concluded that yes, my discipline is keenly important to the health of my society, even if that same society is not even aware how much it needs me and what I do.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in Europe and getting a sense of how the systems in the those countries function, I have no doubt that the United States has one of the most systematic approaches to the education of the aspiring classical singer. However, the United States also has a poor record of support for the development of the classical singer and indeed the arts.

I am judging the country of my citizenship. Why? Because classical singing is my life and I want that the society of which I am part values what it is I have to offer it back. It is crucially important to me that the subject to which I dedicate my life is not an icing on my society's cake, that it could easily do without. If that is the case, then everything I do has little or no importance to the society at large. So why then should I have committed thousands of hours in the past 25 years to this, when it does not really matter? Yet if what I do has such value, then why does the society not recognize it? Therefore, is it possible that what I do inherently has no value? Is it possible that I am involved in an exercise of time wasting? Can I continue with such an exercise at the expense of time better spent?

In the end, the superficial support of the arts comes with a great psychic cost. Most artists, the true ones, ask themselves at some point whether they are insane, since society at large neither respects nor values what it is they do. But how can society respect it when it does not understand it? We artists are troubled by a social contradiction that at once propagates the truth-- that the arts are necessary to the development of the human soul-- and yet unapologetically pronounces that in times of crisis, the foods of the soul are the ones we have to do without.

Has it not been the norm that the arts are only superficially addressed in the schools if at all? Why then should that be different in the public university system when it comes to the training of artists? The most bottom-line oriented medium, the political medium finds that it cannot do without the Arts. The Democratic Convention featured musicians like Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow, actors like Tom Hanks and Film maker Steven Spielberg. And the Republicans plan to have their own line-up. Why then do we have the classic American term: "The Starving Artist?"
The art that is valued is art geared specifically for mass consumption--Entertainment that is geared not to challenge our souls but rather to pacify our boredom. Not to be elitist, of course, there are great works of art that result in the commercial realm.

Regarding classical music, is it the government that has to do more? Not necessarily! The government has to expect more from arts organizations at all levels. In terms of Education, at least in music, we need to clean house. We need a revolution. It is too easy for musicians to get a degree. The expectations, for getting into music school as an aspiring performer, are ridiculously low and the great majority of students who get out of music schools are not prepared to work as professional performing musicians.

This post is an indictment of a system that is not based on the quality of education of performers but rather on a means of sustaining the system itself whereby students, often called "customers," are the financial fuel for an enterprise that exists more for teachers and their goals rather than the preparation of students for the field of music performance and creation (composition).

Let me be clear! This is not a judgment of every public music school in the land, but rather an indictment of the 95% that do not have the prerequisite facilities to prepare competitive professional performers. Those schools that comprise this 95% ought to exist in a reduced manner, concentrating on what they were originally designed to do, teach students who have a desire to teach music at the primary or secondary school level. In every State University System, there is obviously one dominant school that is known for its quality. That school has the facilities, teachers of experience, an earned reputation, etc. And then there are the schools that aspiring performers will settle for because they are not accepted by the viable institutions.

If there were no performance programs in those schools, the remaining schools would become fiercely competitive and the expectations for entrance would be exceptional. We would have a fraction of the singers coming out every year to compete in the real world. The quality of such talent would create a level of competitiveness that would have honed the temperament of these young artists before they even begin at the college level.

Opera at its highest quality is Pavarotti and Beczala, Nilsson and Mattila, Cossotto and Zajick, Kraus and Florez, London and Pape, Sutherland and Damrau. It is perfectly possible to train great singers today as it was in the past. Singers who understand their kraft are well-prepared and have skills honed to thrill. Superlative must be the level of expectation.

Who would not sponsor a talent like Leontyne Price or Jessye Norman? The singers exist today as they did in years past. But our educational system from kindergarten to the doctoral level has been averaged to a democratic common denominator. Standardized test have been made politically correct such that the lack of preparation of students can be explained away by cultural and racial bias. Likewise standards are loosely dictated by a so-called National Association of Schools of Music, with a language as malleable as the paper it is written on. I have taught at institutions that seek to honor the wording of such standards, conveniently explaining them away with definitions that defer to the mediocrity of the programs they offer, rather than to the spirit of what the standards require. And why would any school want its standards reduced? It is the only way to admit the high number of ill-prepared prospective students needed to justify the existence of the programs at those schools. The state requires certain numbers in order for performance tracks to be funded.

The mediocre level of preparation of graduating seniors in music in most schools dilute the talent pool and ultimately bring down the level of music in general. If there were fewer, extremely competitive, truly accredited schools for performers, admission would be based not only on raw vocal coordination, but also on musical aptitude, academic discipline, artistic curiosity and fundamental knowledge about the many subjects that are necessary to the training of a performing musical artist, whose discipline is best defined by the Wagnerian term, Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art).

© August 31, 2008

4 comments:

George said...

Of course you know I agree with you on many of these issues.

I don't know anything, though, about what the state of training for classical singers is in other countries around the world. I have studied much on the training of singers in America and Italy in the past, but know nothing about what the state of things is currently outside of the USA.

I always hear this same line that wherever people go people say that American singers are considered the best trained in the world.

I always wonder how much of this is true or spin.

What countries are churning out the best singers and how do they approach training differently than us?

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

The most impressive singers at the top include Rene Pape, Diana Damrau and Piotr Beczala, all three products of the German system (Beczala is Polish). The singers of the former Eastern block countries also produce and finally the Koreans.

In all three cases, they do better in weeding out lesser talent. Not always in a loving way.

They concentrate on voice more than we do these days I think. So they do not give much attention to potential, but rather voices that are already of a higher level of coordination.

They also emphasize musicianship much better than we do. So their singers tend to be better musicians (Korean, Eastern block and Germans).

Where we win is in histrionics. Americans have better stagecraft. We have a greater number of great teachers and schools, but we also have a huge number of mediocre ones and therefore an equal percentage of ill-prepared students, many of which are very surprised when they attempt to present themselves in the real world.

Those other countries are much more selective.

MG said...

Atually, I'd disagree regarding stagecraft - having been trained in the US and Europe, I have no doubt whatsoever that the stagecraft skills I garnered on the Eastern side of the pond were more practical and clearly taught.

HOWEVER... where the "best trained in the world" comes from is, I think, the *systematic* nature of American musical training. It's more linear. It emphasises specific do-ables which, at their worst, turn into that killer of instincts "the shoulds", but at their best provide a reliable framework for preparing and delivering the goods consistently. Translate X by doing Y; practice Q by doing Z; layout your resume thusly; etc etc. If you like, Americans are more fervently taught the rules before they are encouraged to break them; Europeans are encouraged to find their own voice (literally and metaphorically), and then decide how to use the rules that may be applicable. Superb singers can be developed in both milieus, although perhaps with different priorities.

At least that's how it seems to me... I claim no authority beyond my own experience!

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Thank you MG for your comment. At very least I hope these articles will always generate dialog. This is my blog but it does not make me omniscient in any way shape or form.

Things may be changing. When we see the kind of acting coming out of Europe these days, the US may be losing that competition too. Your experience aside, what I hear from agents over and over again is that the American singers seem to have a better sense of the stage. But again this is an ever-changing thing.

I like your analysis of the situation, and it seems Europeans who train part of the time in the US get the best of both sides. The most obvious thing to me among the many German, Eastern European and Asian singers that I know personally is that they are musically better relative to independent music learning. American interpretive training seems to be more text oriented and the results are often musically superficial. I am American trained by the way. But I think things may have changed a lot since my days in school other than places like Juilliard where musical aptitude is not a choice but an expectation.

Thank you again for your thoughts. Feel free to argue any point here vociferously.