Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
I was reading through the first chapter of Cornelius Reid’s “The Free Voice: A guide to natural singing” on the plane home from the APME conference and these two paragraphs really jumped out at me.
“The undeviating purpose of training is functional freedom, not, as is commonly believed, beauty of tone quality. An artist desires above all to communicate, and the benefit to be derived from a healthy coordinative response is that it provides absolute spontaneity of expression. With the attainment of functional freedom, the singer then becomes able to express what he has to say the way he wants to say it, not the way he has to. He has been released from the strictures imposed by ‘tone consciousness.’ Functional freedom alone is able to fully release sensitivity, insight, emotional and intellectual depth, and musical perception.
To make beauty of tone the direct object of study is to put the cart before the horse. In the first place, no one can know the true textural quality of a given voice until functional freedom has been attained. Therefore, without functional freedom the natural beauty of the voice is unknown. Thus, the only conclusion to be reached is that the teacher who strives for tonal beauty as a direct object of study either has prescience, or is merely imposing his own aesthetic evaluations onto his students. Success in achieving pure tone quality will only come with the release of wrong tension, which is the meaning of vocal freedom.”
For some readers, some of these sentences may be controversial. However, I think there are some really important statements to reflect on this week. Let’s take a look at a few that jumped out at me.
“The undeviating purpose of training is functional freedom, not, as is commonly believed, beauty of tone quality….In the first place, no one can know the true textural quality of a given voice until functional freedom has been attained.Therefore, without functional freedom the natural beauty of the voice is unknown.”
I cannot tell you how many voice teachers I have heard instructing students on how to create a beautiful tone. But what does that mean? I’m 6’4″, I have a loud voice (speaking and singing) with a fair amount of natural “metal” in the sound. Even when singing with my best classical technique and repertoire, my voice in no way shape or form possesses the colors of someone like Thomas Hampson. Does that mean it is less beautiful? In many situations, in my early training, I felt like the answer to that question was an absolute yes – I did not have the beauty of tone of a world class (i.e. Metropolitan Opera) baritone. That was hard to deal with as a young singer. What I didn’t understand then was that my type was unique and there was certain repertoire that my voice was a perfect fit for. Yet even when singing rep that was ideal for my type, I would not fit the typical definition of having a “beautiful voice.”
When we constantly bring up the word “beauty” or its derivatives in a voice lesson, we establish an unachievable expectation, much like the airbrushed models in magazines set up unrealistic body images for young teens. However, if we focus on “functional freedom,” there is no need to define “beauty” or to even hold it up as a standard. Instead, we can focus on getting the body to produce sound with freedom and ease and allow others to form their own opinions about the quality of the voice in conjunction with the setting (genre, character, etc.).
With the attainment of functional freedom, the singer then becomes able to express what he has to say the way he wants to say it, not the way he has to.
At Shenandoah Conservatory I work with a lot of actors. I find that they can easily find themselves locked in knots in their acting classes when they are trying to “place their voice” while committing to what the acting teacher is asking from them. Why does that happen? Because in many instances, in young singers, placement can only be replicated by muscular manipulation of the vocal tract. In order to replicate a given “place,” the singer has to consciously manipulate the structures of their voice, which takes a great deal of mental control. If they are spending that much effort to control their vocal mechanism, how can they pay any attention to their scene partner and pursue a given action as directed by their teacher? It is nearly impossible. However, when a singer has attained functional freedom, their vocal mechanism will respond to the emotional impulses created by their pursuit of an acting objective and their voice will respond accordingly.
“Success in achieving pure tone quality will only come with the release of wrong tension, which is the meaning of vocal freedom.”
I think this is what all good voice teachers want, but sometimes in the repetitive nature of our work it is easy to slip into a rut and begin saying the same things to all of our students, using easy fixes to make it through a long day. Can placement be beneficial for some students? Absolutely. But it can also cause a lot of tension in others. Can assertive methods such as introducing various laryngeal positions be useful in the studio? Yes. However, to train a functionally free singer, we should eventually try to move away from positioning and encourage students to form their own pathways to any given sound using the least manipulation possible.
If you want to “mix it up” this week, ask yourself if the exercises you are choosing for each student are working towards a specific goal and/or functional freedom, or if you have perhaps fallen into a rut. I’ll be doing the same. No matter how long we teach, how much we read, or how much we know it is easy to fall into a pattern in any job.
Thanks for reading!