Singers and Critical Listening
When I was a child, my father would play a guessing game with me when we listened to the radio, which was an almost every day occurrence. He would make me describe what I was hearing and we would discuss it. He must have started doing this when I was very young, for I have no memory of a time when we didn't play the "game". When we listened to one of the two classical radio stations in town, my dad would wait patiently while I described what I was hearing, chiming in with his ideas, guiding me toward a discovery that he was already aware of. Over the years this game evolved into a sophisticated “name that tune”. If I didn’t know the composition, he would ask “Who do you think wrote this and why?” or “Do you recognize this voice? Which soprano is this and why?”. When I eventually found myself in college music history courses, I had to laugh; my father had been playing “drop the needle” with me the entirety of my life. And the quasi-punishing, ridiculously nerdy “ game” he and I played turned out to be deep skill development. My father helped me learn about music history and form and analysis, but even more than that, he taught me to listen for both pleasure and with a critical ear. I had no idea how important learning to do both was. Now that I spend my life working with singers, I understand that they are vital to both teaching and singing. And unfortunately, developing critical listening while not forsaking listening for pleasure is a skill that is not being taught nearly enough, if at all.
Singers are in a unique position when they enter college programs compared to instrumentalists. Whether they are pursuing Voice Performance degrees or B.F.A.’s in Musical Theater, singers can arrive at the college level with a broad range of musical training and instrumental experience. If you ask a piano or dance major in their freshman year how many years they have been studying, they will likely tell you most of their lives. Ask a freshman voice or musical theater major at most schools how long they studied voice, and the answer can be less than a year. There is no universal pro forma when it comes to having a great singing voice ripe for professional training. Some singers attend elementary and secondary schools with strong music programs (although that seems to be the exception these days), some have rudimentary to advanced piano (or other instrument) skills from private study, others may have played a band instrument or performed in choir or in school musicals. Some of the most talented, musical singers I have worked with, people with established and consequential performance careers, are people who entered college with low musical literacy because they had little exposure and discovered their voices in choir or theater their last years of high school. This range of foundational experience not only creates a unique learning environment for singers at the college level, it also places a singular burden on voice teachers. Beyond technique, artistry and professional mentoring, we often have to instruct our students on primary subjects: how to learn music well, how practice, how to discover and research repertoire and style, and how to listen.
Hearing and listening are two wholly different concepts and worthy of exploration for musicians. At their core they are different actions, for one is passive and the other active. Hearing is something that happens to us without intentional effort; sound arrives by chance. As an example, you pass a woman talking on the phone as you walk down the street, and suddenly you hear that she wants to break up with her boyfriend or that she is ordering pizza for dinner. You have no choice. Her voice entered your hearing range and now you know something about this stranger’s life. Unlike the accidental act of hearing, listening is the act of paying attention; trying to hear something, either in progress, or a specific sound or moment. For example, say you’re at a wedding reception and the D.J. plays “Hey ya!”. You sing along, gleefully waiting for the moment of “alright alright alright alright… Ok now ladies”. Or, you go to the symphony for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. You know the piece well from recordings, but have never heard it live. You immerse yourself in the experience, and are struck by a moment of instrumental detail in the 3rd movement you had never noticed before while listening to recordings. Suddenly this familiar composition sounds brand new. When we listen we engage with the known and discover the unknown. Listening is informed by our body, our mind and our spirit in any given moment, and the more we listen, the more we strengthen our ability to hear and notice both new sounds and the nuance of sounds we consider already known to us.
Listening is half of communication, and like many people, young singers are often focused on what they have to say more than taking in the world around them. Oftentimes listening critically must be cultivated, and doing so is vital to singers. Being able to listen, describe, and evaluate what we hear improves technique, builds musicianship, develops better actors and musical collaborators. The only way to learn about musical style and performance practice is by listening to recordings and performances. We advance our technique and artistry through both the act of singing and the act of listening in the voice studio, the practice room, the rehearsal space, on stage, and in the wings or in our dressing room listening to our colleagues over the intercom. Only so much can ever be described in a book. We learn what is fully possible by listening to other singers, especially to the very best singers—both in live performance and in recording, studio and live sessions. (Guided listening in the studio, or suggested listening lists, curated by teachers are wonderful ways to help young singers discover the greats, and YouTube makes listening to a wide variety of superior singers across the 20th and 21st century easy!) It doesn’t stop with singing— the only way to learn what is possible with musical expression is by listening to a wide variety of music, in all styles, across the eras. Beyond developing a sonic landscape for musical styles, listening to instrumental music in all genres teaches us about musical architecture, harmony, rhythm, pulse, rubato, phrasing and human expression in a way nothing else can. The point of all of this listening is to become fully realized musicians who are able to perform effectively and also accurately describe what we do and how we do it. It is not enough to simply use our instruments without a greater musical context, for singers are participants in a larger compositional whole.
We singers are often told not to listen to ourselves while we sing. It is true that in order to produce and release sound at the professional standard we have to stop paying attention to the sound of our voices in our heads in the way we are used to. We must learn to recognize new kinds of sounds in parts of our mouths we don't normally speak with, or new overtones as the tone resounds outside of our bodies. It is my experience that many young singers conflate the common instruction “don’t listen to yourself” with an idea that they shouldn’t be able to hear themselves while singing, which is impossible. Hearing and listening are both essential to singers.
The modern world is a noisy place. When we are outside, the sound of traffic, trains and buses, other people, animals, and technology surrounds us. When we are indoors and at home, we watch TV or stream on our computers, play video games, podcasts and music. We are conditioned as a society to live with a large amount of ambient noise. And while there is a whole list of problems with this cacophonous existence, a significant one for musicians is that we learn to tune out. It is vital that we not pay attention to every single sound that comes our way or else we would all go mad. However, we are perfecting this ability to the degree that the “not listening muscle” is stronger than the act of attentive hearing. Perhaps I am alone in this encounter, but it is my experience that young singers seem to be arriving to the studio each year with less listening ability and subsequent auditory knowledge than students ten or fifteen years ago. Because it takes years to build this sophisticated and necessary professional skill set, we have a lot of ground to lay in the foundation for these young singers. We have to teach them not only what they are listening to, but also how to listen to it. We voice teachers have to teach our students how to be sensitive to the sounds we ourselves and others make, nurturing a critical listening skill-set built on evaluation and reflection and not judgement or disapproval. This may be the most difficult challenge we teachers face: modeling that critique can coexist with enjoyment, and holding up the beauty of a performance with the human imperfections of the singer as respectable equals to be appreciated and learned from. When we assess and evaluate singing production and performances daily, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of losing touch with the wonder of singing and music-making. But if we aren't connecting with the joy, we have lost sight of the point of it all. Singing is glorious, deeply nascent human expression--even at the most polished levels of performance. We need to keep that in mind for ourselves as people who work in the minutia of instrumental refinement and for the young musicians we foster. Young singers need our help to motivate them and lead by positive example, because optimistic singers just beginning need both strong standards for excellence and encouragement to connect to the joy of song and making music; the list of goals they have to achieve is long if they want a career where singing is part of the equation and the work is difficult. In order to obtain professional success, singers need unique and beautiful voices, technical facility, discipline, physical and psychological endurance, an urge to communicate, and (usually) oodles of personal charisma. But if these kids are going to be elite singers and communicators of the human experience, or develop into fine teachers—in any musical genre—they need the super power: acute critical listening accompanied by the ever-present joy of hearing music.