The Technical Virtue

Vocal technique isn’t moral.[1]

When you first think about it, this statement probably sounds ridiculous. Of course technique isn't moral! How you sing a high note may be aesthetically pleasing or off-putting, or it might be harder for you to do than the soprano next to you, but how you make that high C come out of your mouth doesn’t impact your inherent worth as a person. And while many of us think that participation in the arts might influence our moral development, most people would agree that the method singers use to create and sustain a certain kind of tone doesn’t make them good or bad human beings.

Or does it?

If vocal technique isn’t moral—if it isn’t a part of our shared codes of behavior that we agree to follow, and that determine right and wrong or impact our inherent worth—then why do so many of us feel so profoundly bad when we face technical challenges? Beyond feeling vulnerable or emotionally invested while we work through our instrumental issues, why do so many singers express a sense of personal disappointment when they are technically frustrated? I have certainly felt this way myself and I confront it regularly in my work with singers, some of whom have broken down in tears because they couldn’t sing the way they wanted.

If instrumental technique doesn’t have a moral component (and I believe it doesn’t), then why do singers express guilt and even shame—feelings we associate with significant wrongdoing and ethical responsibility— if their technique stops working, or isn’t up to the extreme demands of outside performance pressures and they get injured? Why do singers confront feelings of personal weakness or failure when physical or mental health issues preclude good vocal health; or if they have been given bad advice from a teacher or coach; or when they have been rehearsed or directed past their physical boundaries and have gotten hurt? Why do some musicians conflate natural and inescapably common physical limitations with moral deficiencies? How did we get from 'imperfect singer' to 'disappointing person'?

The technical virtue

The first reason that jumps to mind is that while technique is not a virtue, we certainly treat it like one in the performing arts. How we use our bodies to accomplish our instrumental goals can help us realize the seemingly impossible; technique allows us to communicate with power and grace, it makes us heard clearly and brilliantly over full orchestras without microphones, and it frees us up to express our deepest and most exhilarating emotions through long legato lines and delicate phrasing. We are taught early on that technique not only strengthens and supports us in performance when we doubt ourselves, but that it also exists to liberate us and create a pathway between our imagination and the instrument, allowing us to ‘forget about ourselves’ while we are expressing a composer's and poet’s truths.

This is all pretty alluring, and it is a fun topic to geek out on. You don’t have to travel far in a performing arts school to bump into someone pontificating about or hypercriticizing someone else’s technique; talking technique is one of the great entertainments and exhaustively boring parts of arts education. Yet, while technique is a valuable tool that provides options to perform for prolonged amounts of time in a certain kind of way, it is not moral excellence. It does not make us extraordinary people, nor does it guide us to treat each other with dignity, or help us determine right from wrong. It doesn’t help us understand music, text, stories, other people, cultures, or the world better. Technique is impressive, but it only facilitates the expression of our humanity in performance; it is no substitute for it.

Technique myths 

Yet, we do need technique if we want to perform in certain ways or have specific kinds of careers. We learn early on in instrumental study that precisely how we use our bodies when we make music can hurt us, or it can protect us from injury. There is definitely truth to this. I have lost track of the number of times I have worked with singers on technique specifically to avoid harm because of how demanding the professional world is. (For all we talk about ‘freeing the voice’, there are times when artistry can seem like a far-off luxury when you are just trying to survive an excruciating tech week.)

However, this idea that technique can protect us from injury is also misleading. While it can indeed instruct us in our limits, help us do what we think we cannot do when we are tired or are heart broken, sick, or overcome with stage fright, it is not an impenetrable protective shield or a cure-all for injury. Technique is not a magic potion nor is it a superpower.

Because technique is something our physical bodies and psycho-emotional and spiritual selves do, it is therefore flawed and limited just as we are. Technique can be exciting for those who study it, and it can be cherished like an old friend by those who need to use their voices in high stakes situations, but it is not perfect, and it cannot overcome certain kinds of challenges. For example, no amount of ‘good technique’ can fully protect a young singer high belting long songs 8 times a week that were composed by folks who don’t know much about the human singing voice and think high tessitura is a sport. Technique can’t always overcome hours of rehearsals in acoustically dead and dusty rooms with loud outside traffic noise, and it is not a bulletproof vest when the ammunition is ‘no marking allowed’, ‘louder!’ or ‘no vibrato on high notes’. Technique cannot replace sleep, cure hangovers, or solve mental health crises. Technique is many things, but it is not armor against artistic teams and industry decision makers who want more than people can actually give.

Most singers know this. Yet, somehow we still continue to hold ourselves up to a standard we know we cannot always meet, and then punish ourselves when we don’t meet it. We can all too easily embrace the idea that “If our technique was only good enough, we wouldn’t get hurt.” OR “You take voice lessons, (...or took them in college years ago), so you should know better!” Unfortunately, many in the performance industry who aren’t singers but work with them or employ them buy into these harmful ideas too, When this happens, many come to believe some twisted version of artistic personal responsibility: It’s not the industry’s duty not to miscast or over-rehearse singers; it’s our responsibility to have such excellent technique that we never tire, no matter how many high notes or how loudly we have to sing, or how many days of rest and recovery we don’t get. If we can't overcome these things we are somehow not good enough. We are the problem.

Why do we continue to perpetuate these ideas? And why do we perceive common and understandable stress injuries or the physical limits of our instruments as some type of moral failure? I suspect it has something to do with control. Beyond being a system to help us know and use our instruments, technique creates the illusion that we can control more in our singing than we sometimes can. Yes, our technical skills can set us up to do things well, and they can help us gauge when something is wrong with the instrument, and when we are near some limit. But technique cannot give us the courage to speak up when we are exhausted and a job is on the line, and these skills do not provide the wisdom to tell us the best choice to make in that situation. Technique as it turns out, is not in fact a virtue.

Yet, our field values technical ability so highly that many come to regard technical mastery as the ultimate good--therefore achieving it surely must come with some kind of artistic value, professional success, and personal worth. Unfortunately, many of us in the instructional field can accidentally support this line of thinking in ways we might not be aware of. For example, the pedagogical interest in the science of singing, which these days focuses on the physiology of the voice and analyses of sound as a set of frequencies and sound waves, offers new exciting academic subjects to some who contribute important research to the field. However, it also subtly presents the idea that singing is a code that can be cracked and that doing so will guarantee some kind of outcome, ensure a career, or absolutely protect us from harm.

The cure

So, what can we do about this? I think one answer is for teachers and coaches to pay more attention to how we talk about technique. Most of us work so hard to help singers develop and understand a technique that works for them that we can understandably overlook some of its negative aspects. We should not disregard those darker implications, and instead should discuss what technique can and can't do from lived experience. We should share recordings of our favorite performances and discuss the singers we love and why we love them, even when they are technically imperfect--and they are almost always technically imperfect. We should find ways to evaluate and celebrate whole performances, despite any technical flaws. We should remind singers that technique is a tool to support and develop wonderful singing and performance, not the end goal.

I also think we in artistic leadership or any person in a position of influence with real vocal knowledge should show support for those in compromising instrumental positions and advocate for them instead of criticizing them. We should do this in private discussions and public forums. We should hold composers, directors, music staff, casting agents, and producers to greater account. Even if they are well educated about the human singing voice (and a great many are not), many of the individuals in these positions are often focused on different priorities--a bottom line, a vision for a production or creative work, or something other than the physical limits or wellbeing of the singers onstage. We should continue to raise awareness that while technique can work wonders, it also has limits, and working within those boundaries allows singers to do their best and most sustainable work, which makes whole performances better.

Finally, we should normalize talking about our shared vulnerabilities and recognize that we are human beings, not products for performance. And when we do all the 'right' things and still happen to get hurt—as can sometimes happen—we should remind ourselves that our bodies have limits even when singing with the very best technique, and how we sing does not make us more or less valuable people.

[1] If you aren’t a singer and use technique, these ideas might apply to your discipline too!

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