I wrote an article recently about why so many singers are just yelling. This was not a rant about performers who are just bellowing on-stage instead of actual singing, but a frank and honest discussion about the various reasons for why this occurs and is a growing trend in modern vocalism.
I hinted in one passage that there’s also cultural reasons for this, and I wanted to dive a little deeper into this today.
Who do we look up to?
Once upon a time, high male singers did not sing high notes with great power. Above chest voice, they would switch to a much lighter headier tonality, not entirely dissimilar to the sound of falsetto. This was after/alongside the period where castrati were also important for much of high male vocal work, but not within the scope of this article.
Then, in the early 1800s, an opera singer (Gilbert-Louis Duprez) sang a C5 (tenor high C) in sound not unlike full chest voice. This was in a performance of the opera Guillaume Tell (or William Tell). By all accounts his rendition was not of supreme quality, but the power he demonstrated there showed the masses that powerful male singing done up high was possible.
From there, singers tried to imitate, improve and refine that sound he inspired. If you listen to pieces as sung by (say):
– Manual Garcia II (late 1800s);
– Jussi Bjorling (early 1900s);
– Luciano Pavarotti (mid-late 1900s); and
– Jonas Kaufmann (early 2000s)…
…you will hear a clear trajectory to vocal development over the last 100-150 years worth of the recordings we have available. This illustrates the vocal sound becoming more and more masculine, progressively darkening and thickening to become the mammoth sounds you hear from the best opera singers today.
My point is, that over time, each generation of the studious singer spent time immersed in and learning from the generation before them. The generation before them had done the same, learning the ins and outs of the generation before them and what they had implemented in their addition to the progress of great singing. And so on so forth. Each generation stood on the shoulders of the generation that came before them and set the standards for the next.
Actual Study and Critical Listening
With the complexity and immense depth of the classical repertoire, each new crop of singers had to spend time immersed in actual study. This involved not just listening and imitation, but learning and understanding why things were the way they were, not simply blindly parroting based on what they heard.
This also required understanding vocal cul-de-sacs and seeing which approaches had been figured out as dead-ends, and understanding which were the right avenues for vocal development. The history of singing is littered with singers who irrecoverably damaged their voice due to the wrong approach they adopted.
NOTE: This wrecking of one’s own voice is not just a modern phenomenon. However I would say it is a far less acceptable outcome for singers now, given the centuries of knowledge that have been amassed about good singing and (more importantly) what constitutes bad or unsafe singing. Wrecking one’s voice now speaks more to ignorance and overstepping one’s ability than “just one of those things“.
If a serious singer of yesteryear wanted a lifetime of singing, rather than blowing out their voice in an era with no vocal surgery and no studio tricks, they had no choice but to get it right, and this involved deep study. Whereas today…
We’ve lost this culture of excellence
“The fundamental cause of [trouble] in the modern world [is that] the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
The following is an extract from Quote Investigator, in relation to this quote by Bertrand Russell
“In 1989 the poet Charles Bukowski was interviewed in a literary journal called “Arete”. The following excerpt begins with a question posed by the interviewer. Bukowski’s reply included an instance of the saying particularized to the domain of literature:
“Interviewer: Your poem ‘friendly advice to a lot of young men” says that one is better off living in a barrel than he is writing poetry. Would you give this same advice today?
Bukowski: I guess what I meant is that you are better off doing nothing than doing something badly. But the problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.
So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences.
These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on, to get up there and let it out in the next hour, the next week, the next month, the next sometime.”
If you read that again with the phrase “writers” or “writing” replaced with “singers” and “singing”, you’ll get the gist of why I reference this extract. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that all our modern day singers are crap, but that our current culture celebrates charisma over competence, which then sets the bar for the next crop of up-and-comers. This is done in a very different and far less rigorous way than things used to be in the world of voice.
While this is just Bukowski’s opinion, I would say this fairly accurately describes the general state of singing – and aspirations of singing – that we encounter today. The post-modern era too has ushered in this idea of “there is no right or wrong, there’s just your own truth” – so we find ourselves inundated with charismatic, confident and cocksure performers, rather than capable and competent singers. This then becomes the current standard that people rise (or arguably sink) to.
When it comes to singing, there are indeed right and wrong approaches, and in turn there is a definable spectrum of singing from good to bad. This is the reason why people have spent centuries on exploring good vocal development, and as such this should not really even up for debate. But thanks to insta-fame of social media, television, etc leading to charisma being more important than competence, even this concept of critical listening has fallen by the wayside for most.
This is another key reason why shouting masquerading as singing is on the rise, as societal knowledge and standards for good singing have ended up far lower than the amount of knowledge that is available about good singing. Our culture and philosophy of what is good/what is not in the West has changed substantially, and this had led to changes in standards of good singing.