The One True Way!

“Breakthrough method of singing”, “Certified Instructor”, “Master instructor in hypno-asian school of singing”, “My Bel Canto is Bel-er than your Bel Canto”.

We have all seen these claims, either in Google pop-up ads, or in the ever increasing business of self help books. More people want to sing, and everyone is after the book or method that will guarantee success. This seems inevitably to lead to “methods”, and to increasing claims that the advertised method is the only one that will work, and how it is unique and different from all other methods. We have vocal methods with trademarks, with certification procedures to ensure that all instructors will teach exactly the “one true method”, and not deviate from the script in any way. I sometimes wonder whether we are learning to sing, starting a political party or joining a religion.

Now, the first thing I have to say about the content of many of these methods is, it’s not all bad. In fact, many of the methods are based on fairly sound ideas of relaxation, vocalising without strain, and producing a free sound. I have no problem with any of this. It works, and we know it works, because it has been working for centuries. What I have a problem with are the claims from authors and teachers that they have made these discoveries and invented the exercises. I recently watched several “sampler” videos for voice lessons on YouTube. One involved a lady teacher demonstrating a breathing exercise where you inhale on a count of 8, hold for a count of 8 and exhale for a count of 8. This particular exercise is not harmful, although I seriously doubt it will really have much benefit on your singing (that discussion is perhaps for a different article). I was astonished though when this lady claimed that she invented this exercise herself. It is possibly one of the most widely used warm-ups in choirs across the Western World, and no-one could possibly believe that this lady was the sole inventor of it. I wonder what would have been the downside for this teacher to say “This is a very widely used exercise that has proven itself over decades of teaching. I’m going to show you how to do it properly.” It would have demonstrated research and knowledge on the part of the teacher, and a respect for the craft. And this is an important aspect. No matter how “contemporary” everyone wants their singing to be, it is necessary to realise that humans have sung for a very, very long time. It is an art that has developed over time, it has not suddenly been invented. Changes have occurred in musical styles, in the prominence of the voice and in instruments and technology to accompany and even amplify the voice. Nevertheless, the majority of the body and vocal function in singing is more or less the same as it ever was – only the detail, the periphery, has changed. It is difficult to argue with the fact that much vocal teaching originated in Italy, in the tradition of Bel Canto. I have seen around the internet discussions of the voice that Bel Canto is good for classical singing, but most singers now would run a mile rather than sing classically. It is strange, therefore, that the very teachers that say this are often using the same very principals of Bel Canto – often given English names. Others claim to properly teach Bel Canto, having learnt it from the last living survivor who taught true Bel Canto at the turn of the century (conveniently forgetting that composers such as Rossini were claiming Bel Canto was dead around 1830). Google “Bel Canto Technique” if you think I’m exaggerating this last point!

So, where does this leave the idea of methods and schools of singing? When I was studying for my PhD in Chemistry, I heard a quote from a colleague: “There is nothing worse for a scientist than a theory that he wants to be right.” It is very similar to the quote from Emile Chartier “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.” If we claim that the way we have learned to sing – or discovered how to teach – is the only true way, then we have a duty to point out how everyone else does it wrongly. However, we hear examples of good singing all the time – and there have been examples of good singing for centuries. A moments thought should tell us that there are different ways of achieving our goal of good singing. The end result is what is important, not the purity of our learning. My learning came principally from the late Howard Milner. My teaching therefore draws on many of his ideas, but I do not teach exactly the same. We are different people, with different personalities and educations, and therefore cannot reproduce exactly the same lessons. We borrow and acquire our tools and ideas from many different sources. In fact I did learn an important lesson from Howard regarding methods and schools. “There is only one true method; The Magpie Method. If something works, steal it!”

Bold Claims

I came upon an interesting piece of advertising today. As you might imagine, I quite regularly use Google to see what other voice instruction is being offered in my geographical area. I came across a website for a young teacher, “licensed” via one of the available methods of teaching singing (I may write more on my thoughts of these methods at another time). Most of the descriptions on the site, and incidentally of the linked site of the particular method, were in my opinion quite sound. There was little that I would disagree with, and in fact a description of how to choose a singing teacher that I believe would reflect very favourably on how I teach. However, one particular part of the teacher’s website caused me to react. The teacher expects that early lessons with a new student would involve an understanding of what is happening functionally with the voice, and also exercises to improve the voice. Well, nothing to argue with there. The next phrase is a bit much though “with no other teacher in the Nottingham area will you find a more thorough breakdown of what is functionally happening in your voice.” Initially I felt a little insulted by this – hopefully I am viewed as a teacher with a thorough understanding of the functionalilty of voice production (it is certainly an area of study that takes up a lot of my time). After a little reflection, I decided it was just symptomatic of many of the more exaggerated claims that one is likely to find on websites. Of course, this particular teacher has no way of validating his claim, as they have no idea what the others of us in the area may be doing in lessons. A quick search of the area will find at least two very well regarded teachers working within specialist voice units of the NHS. I suspect that their knowledge of the functionality of the voice is as good as anyone would come to expect. Furthermore, a quick search revealed that the teacher of the bold claims has been teaching for a year, and singing for around 3 years. Even my own relatively recent start in the world of teaching is now approaching 5 years, with 15 years of singing study preceding this move. Now, this might all mean nothing. Regardless of experience, this teacher cannot know what I and others teach in the way of voice physiology and function because they have never observed us working. In the same way, I cannot say if their expertise belies their inexperience. For that fact, I can only claim what I offer – not in any way compare it to what others can offer, because I simply cannot validate such claims. I will not offer to be better, different, superior, to other teachers. All I can do is give an indication of what I do, what my expertise is, and how I hope to help your long term singing and vocal health. I may miss the advertising opportunities of wild claims, but I remain with a fairly clear conscience that I am doing this for the right reasons.