TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
I saw this article this morning: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2016/08/florence_foster_jenkins_and_the_history_of_bad_singing.html . It discusses the public fascination with “bad singing” and how one is to distinguish the “good” from the “bad.” It seems, as I begin a new semester where I am teaching classes in Aural Skills (sight singing and ear training) and Vocal Techniques and Materials (singing for non-singers), that this is an important topic for me to explore in greater depth.
Most non-musicians seem to suppose that singing is something that all musicians do. I am often asked, “What instrument do you play?” When I respond that I am foremost a scholar of music history and also a singer, I often get the reply, “Oh, you’re just a singer,” as if singing is somehow less of a musical expression than one might create with an instrument. False. Patently and unequivocally false.
As a matter of fact, for many instrumentalists, singing is a very foreign activity. These musicians are infinitely more self-conscious about singing than playing their instruments. I’ve even heard collegiate-level instrumentalists who claim to be unable to carry a tune or match a pitch with their voice. Typically, those claims prove to be far more a product of nerves than a lack of talent.
Why is singing so different from instrumental music-making? In some regards, this is a question that music scholars have grappled with since antiquity. In Ancient Greece, many people were wary and suspicious of instrumental music, due to its power to move one emotionally without words that one could easily point to as the source of their emotional response. Instrumental music was almost seen as a kind of witchcraft. Vocal music, on the other hand, was held in higher esteem, due to a musician’s need to express both musical beauty and convey the meaning of a text.
This debate as to the comparative value of vocal and instrumental music has flipped numerous times over the centuries, and today, I suspect, we have reached somewhat of a stalemate. While for many, vocal music may be viewed as superior, there are just as many who would say the same for instrumental music.
But, that doesn't really answer the question of why instrumentalists would be self-conscious about singing. First off, I suspect, these musicians are clearly more used to expressing themselves musically through their instruments. Further, singing is far more personal. If something sounds “off” on an instrument, it is easy to blame a faulty reed, a sticky key, or even the weather. For singers, we have nothing blame but ourselves. Singing comes from our own bodies, making any flaw or error a reflection of our own shortcomings. That can be scary… especially if a musician is used to being in complete control of his or her instrument.
All of my classes find themselves being asked to sing at one time or another (whether or not each student actually does is another story), but I firmly feel that taking the step to embody a melody creates a deeper understanding of the melody and how it function in a piece. So, they may not like it, but all of my students are expected to sing.
Singing forces a performer to think about breathing, pitch production, words, diction, and expression of text without being able to hide behind an instrument. There is an intimacy between a singer and his or her audience that isn’t possible with an instrument. Some thrive on that close connection, others find it deeply unsettling. Many of my students require a lot of coaxing before they feel comfortable singing in class. It’s kind of endearing, but also somewhat frustrating.
How do music teachers deal with that reluctance? There are plenty of things I have tried. Whether or not they are entirely effective is difficult to say. My first tactic is to inform students that everyone in the room is self-conscious about singing around other. As such, it is a safe bet that each student is so occupied thinking about their own performance and nerves that no one has time or energy to pay attention to them. If that fails, I then inform the quiet singers that if they are making sound but trying not to be heard, their sound will vastly improve if they just give it a chance and sing with proper breath control and posture. If you are making sound anyway, why not make it the best sound it can be?
How then do we judge “good singing” from “bad singing”? In many ways, that might be a subjective thing. Certainly, it is possible to prefer one singer over another, using factors like tone quality, diction, breath control, and choice of repertory as criteria. I prefer not to think terms of “good” and “bad” but rather “correct” and “incorrect.” When a singer is using his or her instrument in a healthy, natural way, the result is better, to me, at least, than a singer who belts, screams, or hisses. I cannot evaluate my students in Vocal Techniques and Aural Skills purely on the beauty of their voices, but instead, I must look to the accuracy of their sound and the degree to which they utilize proper technique.
What makes a singer “bad”? Typically speaking, one identifies poor pitch control as a marker of sub-par singing. The performers mentioned in the article that inspired this discussion typically sing out of tune. Whether or not this was intentional is often unclear (as one might purposefully perform in a way that might be seen as bad in order to gain notoriety on social media – for example, William Hung and the singer of “Chocolate Rain”.
Historically, one figure stands out as the prime example of bad singing – Florence Foster Jenkins – about whom several motions pictures have been made in recent years. Florence Foster Jenkins was a child star who fell out of fame’s graces and went on to become a wealthy New York socialite. She spent much of her later life seeking the love and adoration she received from audiences when she was young, and as such, devoted herself to singing. Unfortunately, any talent she might have possessed as a child had left her, and she was left barely able to match pitches. Nonetheless, her wealth allowed her to purchase time to present lavish recitals in venues including Carnegie Hall, and her performances were well attended by those wishing to gain the good graces of a woman of high social standing and those wishing to laugh at someone they perceived as foolish and delusional in equal measure. As she had long suffered from the effects of syphilis, which she contracted from her first husband, whether or not she could hear the inaccuracy of her singing has been debated. Nonetheless, Jenkins remains a primary figure for those who fetishize “bad singing.”
When all is said and done, singing is both a very personal and a very public thing. While most of us enjoy singing in private (in the car, in the shower, etc.) the idea of doing so outside of that intimate space is almost frightening. When we do take that step, however, we fear being judged on something that comes directly from our own bodies and the feeling of attack that comes with it. While it is surely easier said than done, I would assert that simply allowing ourselves to indulge in the joy of singing should be all anyone can ask for.
You know you want to. The mere mention of Florence Foster Jenkins inevitably inspires the question, “Can we hear it?” in every classroom in which she has come up (of mine, at least). So, here she is, in all her glory, singing the notoriously difficult Mozart aria from The Magic Flute, “Der Hölle Rache” (aka, the “Queen of the Night Aria”):
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.