Star for a Night or Star for a Lifetime?

As a voice teacher I am starting to wonder what the singing profession is about. I am constantly telling my own students that to be successful and hopefully have a longstanding career, they need to be more than just a good singer – in fact, they need to be a fantastic one! However, at every turn I am being made to look a fool.

Or am I?

Voice training has become a very popular activity and one of the biggest businesses today. I don’t need to tell you about the so-called stars of today, as many will have seen their CDs in the shops and will have probably helped them to win a popular television competition by voting for them. While I am very grateful for the rise in people wanting to know more about singing and to undertake lessons to improve, I am sick of the young singers that come to me wanting “to be as good as… [insert name of latest pop star]”.

It must be pointed out that these types of competition are not the only reason for the rise in number of people wanting to train as singers. The increase in the general interest for musical theatre has also played its part. There are many more opportunities for being trained in this form of singing than there were twenty years ago. The Government, too, is responsible for part of it. A £40m campaign was launched by Howard Goodall to make singing part of every primary school curriculum by 2011.

I would like so many more people to understand just how bad the situation is in the industry today. I am sure that most people would agree that while a ‘happy meal’ may fill one’s immediate needs, it is no culinary experience. Nor does it hold much nutritional value.

I found myself watching a charity concert on the television. Amongst the line-up were Leona Lewis and Dame Shirley Bassey. I must confess that the success of Miss Lewis is a total mystery to me; anyone with any knowledge and ear can hear that Miss Lewis has two distinct, unconnected voices (head voice and chest voice). It is ‘popular’ singing, but even here when looking more closely at the songs she has released, it is clear that she is not in control. Being a master of changing between these two voices does not cover the fact that she is unable to apply one sound throughout her range.  It is every good voice teacher’s main focus to get a voice to work as one throughout the whole range. What Miss Lewis does is a very good performance, with the make-up, sexy-looking dress and seductive appeal. She has so much confidence that one wonders if she could indeed sell tea to China.

Dame Shirley Bassey however, is a different matter. Still classed as a ‘popular’ singer, Dame Shirley sings with a powerful voice which sounds the same from one end of her vocal range to the other. At 72 Dame Shirley has a unique sound that is instantly recognizable, for her power and also wonderful responsivity to the text. She had her ‘training’ backstage watching others performing and learning from them. She’s also had some vocal help, with retraining and assistance. She has been through some extremely traumatic events in her life: after the death of her daughter she found herself voiceless and sought vocal and personal therapy, and the same problem recurred in the years leading up to her 60th birthday.

While ‘popular’ singers are at fault they are not the only ones I find misleading our uneducated listeners. In the same television performance I was horrified to see Katherine Jenkins singing with a poor sound quality. A young mezzo-soprano can be forgiven for not being fully vocally mature, as too could a baritone or bass; these voices tend only to flourish in the singers’ early thirties. Ms Jenkins has only just reached her thirties, it is true, but her sound is unfocused and placed much far back. Although her awards and training (Royal Academy of Music, London) give her credibility, she has little real experience of classical singing. She has yet to undertake any major roles in an opera house or even a lighter form in operetta. She has made her name on a number of ‘crossover’ CDs, which is no small achievement, but it’s not live singing in a large venue. Only in an opera house or large theatre can you really find a good classical singer, making a nice sound that also projects over an orchestra without the aid of amplification. Ms Jenkins has done many performances but all with amplification – some in venues in which true classical singers perform unaided with few problems. Ms Jenkins’ success has been made possible by the record industry and the sound engineer that makes her voice sound focused and well placed. This really is not the kind of example that young singers should be made to believe is what it takes to be a classical singer.

It is with a sad heart that I return to my teaching. But I do urge everyone with any kind of interest in music and in particular singing to seek out high-quality performers. Ask a professional for advice and recommendations; a top-selling CD is not always the best place to look. Please use any Christmas holiday that you might have to seek out a new singer and get listening with your ears!