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On Studying Singing
By Sergius Kagen
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1950 Sergius Kagen
All rights reserved.
The Musical Ear and the Natural Voice
Singing is essentially a very simple and normal activity. Anyone who can carry a tune and is capable of producing pleasing sounds with his voice can sing. The study of singing is often considered a formidable and exacting undertaking that requires years of unremitting toil. This attitude toward the study of singing is warranted only if it is applied to those who have no natural aptitude nor talent. For those who do possess enough natural aptitude and talent, the study of singing can be an extraordinarily simple process. The pursuit of perfection in singing and the study of all the related subjects necessary for perfection can never cease; however, the fundamentals of singing necessary for professional activity are so simple that they can sometimes be acquired in a surprisingly short time, provided, of course, one is sufficiently well endowed.
Practically every normal person can sing after a fashion. One does not even necessarily have to study singing or music to be able to do so. Nearly every person who can sing after a fashion can improve his singing by proper study to some certain limited degree. "Limited degree" is used here advisedly. It matters little how ardently one may desire to learn to sing beautifully or how long and strenuously one may be willing to study to attain this goal. If one's natural endowment hap pens to be inadequate, no amount of wishing or working will change it any more successfully than wishing or working will change the color of one's eyes. Not many people possess enough natural endowment to hope to go beyond this limited degree of improvement. Of these few, only a handful may be fortunate enough to possess, at least to some degree, most of the mental, personal and physical qualifications indispensable to those who hope to become professional singers. I should like to define a professional singer rather narrowly as one whose income is derived from singing for other people.
In my experience, I have become aware of the fact that too many young people who hope to become professional singers believe too much in and expect too much from the processes of study.
Study in the performing arts is indispensable and allimportant if its purpose is to bring under control and thus improve and put to use certain faculties which the student already possesses. Study as such, however, cannot be expected to endow the student with faculties he may not possess by nature. Study can make a gifted person use his gifts more efficiently—it cannot make an ungifted person less ungifted. In the performing arts, abundant natural endowment is the only foundation upon which any hope for future professional activity can be based. It seems reasonable to assume then that the amount, quality and intensity of study can produce results only in direct ratio to the amount of natural aptitude and talent a student may possess.
All this is not meant to imply that unless one has an extraordinary gift one should not study singing. On the contrary, I believe that any and every person will undoubtedly benefit and derive great pleasure from the study of the fundamentals of this art. However, being able to sing after a fashion offers no basis for much hope for a professional future.
It is a regrettable fact that the number of those who admit to be amateur singers is growing steadily smaller while the number of those who pretend to be professionals is growing steadily larger. It seems as though practically everyone who ever took a few lessons in singing has the hope to become a professional. These hopes are often based on the singular idea that intensive and expensive study will furnish one with the faculties nature may have denied him.
It may safely be said that in no branch of human endeavor is the lack of natural endowment more painfully apparent than it is in the arts. It may further be said that in no branch of the arts is a trained but ungifted person as pitifully inadequate as he is in music. One could add that in no branch of music is the possession of superior natural endowment more indispensable than it is in singing.
Every person who desires to study singing for the purpose of making it his profession ought to do his very utmost to discover how much natural endowment he may possess before he considers such a step seriously. Singing for one's own pleasure demands only the desire to sing; singing for other people's pleasure demands certain standards of excellence. Professional singing, however, is an entirely different undertaking. To begin with, it is a competitive activity. The standards of excellence are as high as the greatest singers of the generation may happen to set them. Nothing but an unusual natural gift plus the most exacting control of it attained through the proper study can hope to compete under such circumstances.
We have no scale of measurements which would enable us to ascertain the presence and the quality of talent. Talent seems to be the sum total of so many intangibles that it defies definition. We still know too little about ourselves even to attempt a profitable discussion of such intangibles. It has been aptly said that talent is conspicuous by its absence; but in singing, perhaps much more easily than in any other branch of the performing arts, one may describe certain natural aptitudes, the possession of which would seem indispensable to any vocal student who wishes to acquire even the very lowest form of professional competence. In discussing such aptitudes, we need not even touch on the subject of talent. The possession of such aptitudes may or may not go together with the possession of a talent. In the performing arts, however, any practical use of a talent seems unthinkable when most of such aptitudes are absent.
The terms "natural aptitude," "endowment", "ability" or "equipment" are used here to designate certain mental and physical traits necessary for singing which the individual possesses before he begins to study.
The origin of such traits is of little importance in so far as this particular discussion is concerned. We have as yet no means to establish precisely how such traits originate. They may be inherited, they may be the result of environmental conditions or they may have been developed in infancy or early childhood by the individual himself. Countless other factors are no doubt involved in producing such natural fitness for any art.
The fact, however, that some individuals seem to possess a natural fitness for singing while others do not is incontrovertible, whatever the reasons for it may be.
In my experience, I have encountered many seriousminded vocal students who seemed to lack most of the aptitudes vitally necessary for their future profession. Most of these students hoped to acquire such aptitudes by study. It would seem, therefore, helpful to discuss the nature of such aptitudes. Most people recognize the fact that not everyone can become a singer, but too many voice students seem to lose this platitudinous, common-sense point of view when it 6 is their own ability that is concerned. Interpreting the deeply spiritual maxim that faith can move mountains to mean that determination and hard work can do likewise, many students set out in quest of the impossible. Often they even taken pride in embarking upon and persevering in this quixotic undertaking. A similar confusion seems to affect, to some degree, all branches of study. The hitch-your-wagon- to-a-star attitude challenges the indispensability of natural endowment, substituting for it the splendid virtues of earnestness and diligence. "No one complains if his undersized son with awkward legs does not become a football hero. Some ... however seem to demand the intellectual equivalent of such a miracle," says Dr. James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard University, in his remarkable article, "Education for a Classless Society."
If we consider the nature of an aptitude, we could define it as a form of coordination which is apparently based upon the presence of certain physical and mental characteristics. Theoretically it may seem not impossible to acquire such coordination by guided effort or study; practically the possibility of acquiring aptitudes necessary for singing professionally must be considered in relation to the amount of time such an undertaking would require. We know that some people possess most or all of such necessary aptitudes before they begin to study. Should those who lack any or most of such aptitudes compete with those who do possess them? Should they compete in a profession which requires the continuous use of these very aptitudes? A student would not be able to accomplish anything as a singer by trying to acquire laboriously, over long periods of years, such necessary basic coordination; for the actual study of singing can only begin once this basic coordination is present.
To my knowledge, attempts to acquire forcibly any of such basic coordination which the vocal student does not naturally possess to some degree, seldom, if ever, are successful. Under such circumstances, mild neurotic counterpatterns usually set in. They seem to nullify the efficient use of all that the student may have learned. In public performance, the entire laboriously constructed edifice of such an artificially induced coordination invariably collapses revealing the natural ineptitude for singing in its pitiable nakedness. I see nothing desirable or commendable in such attempts at a violent conquest of self. There is nothing noble, self-abnegatory or heroic in attempting to disregard one's natural limitations. The contention that man is perfectible and that he should be encouraged to overcome his inadequacies has little, if any, bearing upon the study of singing for professional purposes. To work and study for years, to subject oneself to veritable torture in the hope of one day acquiring the very basic qualifications for singing professionally, qualifications which the properly endowed person possesses before he begins to study, does seem ill-advised, futile and pitiable.
The very first prerequisite which a student with professional ambition must possess is a specific variety of a very keen musical ear. The entire process of singing rests upon this. This specific variety of musical ear is the cornerstone of singing. Without it everything else is useless.
The kind of musical ear necessary for a singer can be best defined as a natural ability to imagine accurately (that is, to hear mentally) pitches or musical sounds and to reproduce the imagined pitches by whistling, humming or singing. A person may have a good ability to imagine pitches without having the complementary coordination which would enable him to reproduce them accurately with his own sound-producing apparatus. Not infrequently one encounters such a lack of complementary coordination even among musicians. Those, however, who lack this complementary coordination will, in my opinion, have too difficult a time in trying to learn how to sing to make it worth their while. The possession of this ability has nothing to do with one's sincere love for music, or with the strength of one's emotional reaction to music. One could even venture to say that it has nothing to do with musical talent. Likewise, it has nothing to do with the knowledge of musical notation, of theory of music, of vocal technic or of the technic of a musical instrument.
One must remember that, in the history of singing, one can find a great many authenticated examples of excellent singers who did not even know the elements of musical notation. Possessing naturally an excellent musical ear and an excellent coordination between the ear and the voice, such singers could learn, memorize and perform most intricate series of pitch patterns by simply listening to some one else play these pitch patterns for them on a musical instrument.
If the ability to imagine and reproduce pitches were synonymous with the knowledge of musical notation and related matters, such a phenomenon would be inexplicable and miraculous. Everyone, however, at one time or another has, no doubt, come in contact with all kinds of "non-musical" people of most diverse cultural and educational backgrounds who, knowing nothing of musical notation, are able to sing nicely on pitch. Sometimes they can also "harmonize" with others—that is, devise and sing "by ear" the alto, tenor or bass part to a tune. The fact that such people exist in rather large numbers would seem to demonstrate that a good ability to imagine and reproduce pitches is not inherently connected with any formal knowledge of music.
The ability to imagine and reproduce pitches is a coordinatory pattern which can be greatly developed once it is present, but can hardly be acquired by a more or less mature person to any serviceable degree for any practical, professional purpose. The development of this ability is a discipline called ear training. Its purpose lies in making a student more aware of the pitch and rhythm differences he already hears, even though he may not know their names or the written symbols representing them. Ear training quickens a student's reaction to pitches and rhythms through specially devised exercises. It also coordinates his natural pitch and rhythm discrimination with his eye (musical notation, reading music), and with the names of pitches, pitch relations and pitch combinations and rhythms (musical nomenclature). This type of training should ideally continue until the student's reactions to the written and verbal symbols representing pitches, pitch combinations and rhythms, as well as to pitches and rhythms he hears played or sung, become instantaneous, accurate and interchangeable. All this training, however, at least in so far as I have been able to ascertain, has little effect upon a more or less mature person who has a poor natural ear. If anything, it often tends to make him self-conscious and even less able to imagine and reproduce the most simple pitch and rhythm progressions which he might have been able to do before.
The difference between musical ear and ear training is little known and much less appreciated among vocal students than it ought to be. Natural aptitude and a system of study devised to improve efficiency of its control and operation complement each other; but ear training cannot be expected to create a musical ear, that is, in practice. Theoretically, this may not be impossible, especially if such training is begun at a very early age, practically in childhood. Vocal students with poor natural ear, however, often expect the study of ear training, theory and some musical instrument to produce a radical change in their ability to imagine and reproduce pitches. I suppose if they spent some twenty years at it at the rate of three or four hours a day with a most angelically patient teacher, they might acquire some of the basic coordination which a person with a good musical ear already has latently before he begins to study.
How is one to establish if he has or has not a good musical ear? Although the ability to read music accurately is, in a singer, a most certain indication of the possession of a musical ear, the inability to read music efficiently may not in the least indicate its absence. Reading music is a process by which symbols indicating pitches and rhythms are translated into equivalent sounds. It is unthinkable that this can be done accurately by a singer who lacks the necessary natural aptitude. However, to be able to do so requires specialized training. The contention that a singer who is unable to read music must lack a natural ear is not any more logical than the contention that an unlettered person must lack the faculty of speech.
There are many ways to test one's musical ear other than the test of reading which presupposes not only the possession of a natural ability, but the full trained control of such ability. For instance: Can you reproduce accurately, by whistling, singing or humming, a pitch or a series of pitches sung or played for you? If you cannot do this with any degree of ease, the chances are that you do not possess the necessary natural ability. If you can do this easily, can you reproduce accurately a tune or a fraction of a tune sung or played for you? If so, how intricate and how long a tune can you reproduce accurately and after how many hearings? Can you devise and sing, hum or whistle a second part to a tune you know while this tune is being sung or played? One of the most thorough and fair tests of this kind would be to study elementary musical notation (not theory) and elementary sight singing (not dictation) for a period of some six months. If by the end of such period one's ability to imagine and reproduce pitches remains unimproved it would seem reasonable to assume that one possesses little, if any, of this ability. Innumerable effective tests of this nature could be devised by anyone who wishes to face squarely the issue of whether his ear is good enough for the purposes of professional singing or not. It seems to me, however, that many vocal students decline to face this issue altogether. The reason for this may lie in the extraordinary confusion of terms and concepts which seems to affect much of our thinking where singing is concerned. The lack of differentiation between acquirable skills and natural aptitudes makes many a definition of musicianship and musicality vague and misleading.
Excerpted from On Studying Singing by Sergius Kagen. Copyright © 1950 Sergius Kagen. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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