March 9, 2017
“You are very pretty and I am sure your boyfriend tells you that you sing beautifully. I just hope that your boyfriend has lots of money”.
I was in the audience, attending a masterclass when the teacher said these words to a young soprano in front of about 150 people. One could say, that this was a case of strong opinion from a highly experienced “legendary” older singer. But I would like to offer a different perspective.
It was the first day of the masterclass and the teacher was just supposed to listen to all the applicants and pick the few ones that would be active participants. Yet none of the young sopranos who sang that day made it further than a few bars into their respective aria before being interrupted by the master and receiving similar “strong opinions”. Everybody in the hall could feel that we were moving towards something that might eventually affect the UN human rights charter and after about an hour someone from the audience raised his hand and said something like: “Please, you can’t treat these young singers this way” whereupon the teacher replied: “Someone has to tell them the truth!”.
So how experienced as a teacher does one need to be to form an opinion on someone’s singing in less than 5 minutes? As we all know, the answer is very simple: You don’t need any experience or knowledge to have an “opinion” on a subject. Moreover, we often see a direct correlation between lack of knowledge and understanding and stronger opinions and convictions.
So, opinion comes quickly. Whether this opinion needs to be uttered as quickly is another question.
Whereas before Facebook one could only embarrass oneself as being judgmental and know-it-all in a discussion with friends, now, we have the tools to reveal this character trait instantly to the whole world. And since everybody seems to do it, we happily chime in and comment on fellow musicians’ performances in concert or recordings. And again, we can observe, that the more accomplished an artist is in general, the more careful she or he is to comment on other musicians’ performances. This probably stems from the fact that truly knowing how difficult musical performance on a top level is, creates sympathy and understanding rather than judgment.
But what if someone explicitly asks for our opinion? I find myself in awkward situations sometimes, when someone insists and asks “what do you really think about my voice?” A “voice” alone does not exist without the personality of the singer and predicting a brilliant future as a singer (which is usually what is expected at this moment) after listening to someone for just half an hour is simply impossible.
An opinion, or a critique, can always be filtered into what we would love to hear; we can always choose and pick the nice parts and ignore or downplay the critical observations. A comment like: “There are a few beautiful sounds, but the voice sounds weak in the low register and generally unstable in pitch”, can be read as: “apart from a few minor problems you have a beautiful voice”. I believe, that I need to work with a singer for at least a few days, about 2-3 hours a day, to form an idea about her or his responsiveness in a challenging situation, musical intelligence and level of voice control. Then, any “opinion” and its explanation can be based on these working sessions and can be communicated as an “observation”. From this observation I can move to an assumption on where the immediate focus of work on the voice should be, I can give recommendations about choice of repertoire and put a singer’s performance in perspective with other singers and what the chances of passing an entrance exam or an audition might be. I find brief auditions that presume to form a “general opinion” completely useless, if they aren’t followed by some sort of collaboration with the respective singer.
I have experienced my share of almost bizarre moments in masterclasses or auditions, where my first reflex was to look for the hidden camera in the room. Still, I preferred not to assume a responsibility that was not mine to have. To express a few observations and stress the idea of how difficult it is to make any statement under these circumstances was the only statement I made. Just like the famous teacher in the beginning of this blog, one could say: “But someone needs to tell them”. I would say that “life will tell them”. Someone’s opinion, as favorable as it might be, will not make a student sing better and no one’s negative opinion will deter someone who truly wants to sing from the bottom of his heart from still trying. In cases where the psychological element within a student in an audition takes prevalence I have to acknowledge that without proper training in that field, my responsibilities as an observer are limited.
So, back to the masterclass I talked about: After the commotion that followed the man in the audience’s defense of the young singer, there was turmoil between supporters of the teacher and those in the audience who thought they should call the UN. The masterclass was cancelled and the teacher left that very day most likely feeling misunderstood and rejected. In my opinion, the teacher assumed a responsibility for those young singers´ potential future that was not hers to assume, judging their chances for success, when the simple, true purpose of a masterclass should be to make singers sing and feel better about themselves, equipping them, if possible, with some tools to increase their chances to succeed.