Singers vs. The World

It’s a generally accepted attitude in conservatories that singers are looked down upon by the rest of the cohort. When a group of music students venture outside the conservatoire bubble to *shock horror* socialise with normal people, you can bet your life someone will pull out this tried-and-tested (read: unoriginal and boring) quip:

Normal person: Oh, so are you all musicians?

Instrumentalist: Yeah, we’re all musicians. Well, except B. She’s a singer.

In case you’re one of those “glass half full” outlook on life people, allow me to smash your half-full glass. This is in no way implying that singers are a distinct and separate category or better than other musicians. The implication is that singers are such bad musicians that we may as well not be even considered musicians at all.

In the eyes of many hard-working instrumentalists, singers are lazy, vain, shallow and ill-equipped with the fundamental elements of musicianship. In their eyes, the dichotomy of singers vs. instrumentalists looks something a little like this:

Instrumentalists: profundity in action.

Instrumentalists: profundity in action.

Singers: first world problems.

Singers: first world problems.


And to be fair, we don’t always do anything to discourage this view of us. For example, in the last three days, I have uttered the following sentences at least once:

I haven’t prepared anything for my lesson this week, so I think I might just turn up and start crying.

Well, we’re singing Renaissance music, so I’ve decided to re-watch The Tudors. That counts as research, right?

Oh you have an audition? What are you going to wear?

One day I will learn to count to three.

It used to be a joke amongst my singer friends in Australia that at the end of a disastrous recital or exam, one could always cock the head to the side, flutter the eyelashes and say “But…I’m pretty?” So you can imagine my mirth upon reading an Italian singing treatise from 1723 that states in the first chapter:

Having a pretty face is not enough for a career as a singer, though it might be useful in other ways.

Good old ranting Tosi also advocates literacy (both in terms of being able to read and being able to read music), learning to sight-sing and learning to play another instrument as all essential aspects of a singer’s training, and laments the existence of virtuosic vocal machines who have no awareness of the music or poetry when they sing.

He also implies that women should not sing because as inferior creatures they are governed by instinct rather than reason, and lack the dedication to study enough to overcome their natural faults. But he can take that opinion, shove it down his oesophagus and choke on it.

All this seems to indicate that singers have been behaving in a recognisably singer-ish manner for centuries. So now rather than relying “But… I’m pretty?” to get me out of a musical scolding, I can argue that by being a poor musician I’m actually being historically informed. Take that!

But all jokes aside, I do get rather alarmed when I hear a fellow student say that they learn their music only through listening to recordings. I become dismayed and confused when singers turn up to rehearsals never having once opened the score. And I get bored when a masterclass or workshop turns into a remedial session because a singer hasn’t bothered to accurately nail their rhythms, look at the harmonic structure of a piece or address the peculiarities of whatever language they’re singing in.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind mistakes. I make enough of them, it’d be a wee bit hypocritical of me to get all judgemental about it. And I know, God how I know, the peculiar challenges faced by many singers who don’t start working with their instrument (or music at all) until they’re 18 or 19. It kind of puts you at a disadvantage when you then get to a conservatory and a violinist who’s been studying since they were 6 gets all superior about augmented fourths and quintuplets.

But no amount of instinct and talent, and no number of “I’m-a-late-blooming-singer-life-is-so-hard” sob stories will compensate for not doing your job. If you only sing for the enjoyment of it, for the love of your own voice and desire for musical expression, that’s great. Go find a beautiful mountain and get your Sound of Music on. But don’t make a career out of it. If you want to be blasé about the details and minimally committed, get a job in a government department, you’ll fit right in. But don’t be a singer.

There are days when trying to figure out your instrument is like pushing water uphill with a rake. There are days when saying da-da-di-di-di-DA-di-di in time to a metronome will leave you perilously close to going bonkers. There are days when you want to take German grammar textbooks and make a bonfire. There are many days when you would happily sell your kidney rather than do another melodic dictation. And like anything, once you know you have to do it, the less appealing it becomes.

But if you choose to do this as a career rather than a fulfilling pastime, that’s your responsibility. To yourself, to your colleagues, to the work, to the composer, to the poet, to the audience. And if you can manage to do it all with a Serena van der Woodsen-esque wardrobe then you’re definitely winning.

An extra ten points if you pick up a Chuck Bass along the way.

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One thought on “Singers vs. The World

  1. petra & Jessie : “but… I’m pretty?”

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