The opening to a recent post on Parterre Box has led me to long, ponderous thoughts about personal preference in the singing world. The album review starts,
First, an admission. I do not love Elina Garanca’s voice. I admire it a great deal—the fluidity of tone across her registers, the effortless technique. But I only like the basic timbre; I cannot say I love it. What makes Garanca special to me is less the quality of her voice than the way she deploys her instrument.
It’s a beautifully crafted way to create personal context, rather than sidestepping such a perspective, as too many critics are wont to do. It recognizes the impact of pure opinion tempered with rational assessment, and leads to a thoughtful, positive review of a recording that could mark a turning point in Ms. Garanca’s career. To read the full review, go to “Woman on the verge of a repertoire breakthrough“.
On an equally personal level, it reminded me strongly of a friend…
More years ago than I’d like to admit, I knew a woman whose whole identity was wrapped up in music. A singer since childhood, she continued to pursue her passion into her retirement years, and got a great deal of enjoyment out of it, although her active family’s schedule created some limitations on how much she was able to participate in the local scene. She never “went pro”, and one of the of the perennial thorns in her side had always been that her husband, under some duress, had admitted years earlier that he didn’t particularly like the sound of her singing voice. Confidence crushed, she never quite believed in herself as the mezzo she could have been, and the scheduling issues went from simple reality to cop-out, to habit, until they finally became a firmly held belief that doing more was never an option.
Let’s be clear here: this was a good man who loved his wife, and offered this admission only when pressed, repeatedly, over time. She admitted that while her persistence came from a desperate desire that he might be her biggest fan, he just wanted to be honest with her. But once spoken, that was an opinion that she was never able to shake. In the end, it was a situation that was frustrating on both sides, and shines a spotlight on the effect of individual opinion on a singer’s psyche. If we are our voices, and our ability to sing pleasingly is at the core of our self-esteem, what happens when someone doesn’t like how we sing?
The mentor’s dilemma
This is one of the greatest fears for some voice teachers: if they attempt sometimes brutal honesty with their less-developed students, will they become the voice in that young singer’s head that will keep them from developing to their full potential? Will they be stunting the growth of a future star? Worse — what if they’re later (gasp!) proven wrong?
This question of who deserves encouragement has been a battle for the ages, and a controversy that has existed for hundreds, and probably thousands, of years, and is perhaps felt especially keenly by singers, whose instruments are quite literally a part of them. There are those who believe that straightforward honesty is essential, even kinder, to those who seem to lack what it takes for success in this brutal business. There are others who would rather play it safe, nurturing everyone until they’ve had a chance to come into their own, whatever that may be.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, of course: while not everyone has the potential for a lasting and sustainable career, many people, if not most, have enough ability for a satisfying musical life on some level. And the truth is, both ability and potential are difficult to assess and predict, and can change from year to year. For myself and with my clients, we attempt to seek greater understanding of individual strengths and weaknesses, so we can all lean toward the former and find a niche somewhere., and can adapt with circumstances Some will excel, others will enjoy. There are many shades in between.
Matters of taste
But there is another aspect that is often overlooked: that of personal taste. Even at the top of the field, some singers will appeal to us more than others. Whether or not a particular tenor is viable is not something I’m able to gauge absolutely, especially since my ears have always preferred a specific timbre. A personal leaning toward warmer tone is part of the reality of my individuality as a listener. But it doesn’t mean brighter voices are less worthy or less gifted. I know that this bias is part of me, and often choose to look past it, so I can enjoy other characteristics as well.
That willingness to identify our own preferences and to set them aside when the situation merits it is what allows us to experience more, understand other perspectives and to find beauty in many places. It is not a lower of standards, but rather a recognition of multiple levels of value. This openness allows us to offer genuine support to the students and community members who deserve to be part of the music we all love. We can boldly embrace what is good in community choirs and shoestring opera, even though the details may lack professional polish. It enables the music community to live and thrive in our professional realm, but also to connect with and encourage the passionate amateur and more inclusive organizations. And on the pragmatic side, it is the only way to ensure that our overprofessionalized field does not die of its own choosiness.
My friend and her husband are both gone now. In the end, he still showed up to her concerts, watched the kids and grandkids while she was at rehearsal, and did everything he could to support her right to enjoy music, wherever it fit into her schedule. There were many things to love about her voice, and she found many ways to share it with others who loved her, and loved her singing. Their progeny are active in music today, because the two of them made a conscious, shared decision not to let that emotional hiccup get in the way of her rich singing life.
Honesty counts, we can adapt. Try to remember your own perspective the next time your opinions are center stage.
Don’t press for an opinion unless you’re really ready for it.
The second lesson is harder to apply, of course.