“The i-Society”: Product vs. Process

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com

I love my i-Phone.  I readily admit it.  It is one neat gadget.  And, when it comes right down to it, it’s incredibly useful to my work as a voice teacher.  I can’t count how many times I’ve been able to schedule a last-minute voice lesson because I could access e-mail on my phone.  Need to check a tempo?  Wait – there’s an app for that.  It’s a genius invention.

And yet, as an artist, I take issue with the i-Phone and similar technologies.  There’s something very seductive and dangerous about having all this information at our finger tips.  I think it gives us a false sense of security.  I also believe it sends an incorrect message to young artists that our work is about product and not process.

I know I’m not the only voice teacher who has to tell his students that what we do takes an unbelievable amount of discipline and dedication.  And while my students are all very hard-working, I often have to remind them what it really means to practice.  Have you “intoned” the lyric in the rhythm of the song?  Have you practiced singing solely on the vowels, making sure each vowel stays in the ring of the voice?  Have you turned the high phrase at the end of the song into an exercise so you can work it into your voice?  As performing artists, we must first take things apart before we can discover how they work in our instrument.

This level of practice takes a lot of time – time I think a lot of young singers aren’t aware they need to invest.  Did “Susie Jones” do this level of work to win American Idol?  Probably not.  But the real question is: where will “Susie Jones” be in ten or twenty years?  Will she be able to sing eight shows a week?

The tedious practice of developing a healthy technique is always worthwhile when longevity is concerned.

Every semester I give my students a song assignment so they learn how to utilize our amazing Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, and get a head start on putting together their audition book.  A couple years ago, I asked them to find a pop song they would consider using for a musical theatre audition.  Nowadays, it’s very common for casting agents to request pop/rock songs at auditions, as many of today’s musicals are written in a similar style

(Side note: You MUST become familiar with Sheri Sanders’ fantastic book “Rock the Audition,” which tells you everything you need to know about auditioning for a pop/rock musical.  It’s an invaluable resource for teachers and singers alike).

Each of the students brought in their songs and performed sixteen bars for me as if it were an audition.  We talked about “the voice” they sang it in, and whether or not it was in the same voice we’ve been working on in lessons.  I asked them how they could maintain their technique while making the necessary stylistic changes for the genre.  Then I showed them these two videos, which are a perfect illustration of why process is so important:

Mariah Carey singing “I’ll Be There” on MTV Unplugged at the beginning of her career (April, 1992): 

The red flags go up when I hear there’s almost no mix in her voice.  In this video, I recognize Ms. Carey as a talented young singer who’s manipulating her instrument for the style, rather than relying on a solid technique and making stylistic choices.

Most students hear this and think, “Hey – I love this song, and she sounds great!”

Mariah Carey singing “I’ll Be There” at Michael Jackson’s Memorial Service (July, 2009): 

I will be the first to admit it’s not fair to judge a singer who’s performing at a memorial service, but beyond any emotions Ms. Carey was choking back, it’s clear her technique wasn’t there to support her.  You might have noticed the song is actually a step down from the 1992 version.  What little head voice she previously used is completely gone.  No amount of riffing can hide it.  My students are always horrified to listen to this.

What’s wonderful, however, is that Trey Lorenz – who sings with her in both performances – sounds almost exactly the same.  My students hear the healthy technical work he’s done to maintain his instrument.

This is an extreme but valuable example of how a lack of technical training and practice can ruin a voice.

I believe it’s my job to keep reminding my students to value process over product.  I’m not interested in them singing ten songs a semester kind of well.  I’d be thrilled for them to sing two songs that are fully on their voice and showcase their skills as singing actors.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to singing.  No apps for breath support or finding a healthy mix.  We either do the work, or we don’t.  If we follow through, though, the rewards are immediately apparent and have the potential to sustain us through a wonderful career.

Besides, the discipline of learning how to sing is also the perfect teacher for navigating life’s challenging journey as an artist.  If we don’t have the discipline to do our daily work as singers, how will we ever survive in a business that demands so much of us?

My i-Phone – I love it.  But it will never replace the joy of learning how to communicate with my own voice in a healthy way.  I hope I can instill the same joy and discipline in my students.


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