Listening Intelligently to Recordings : Tips and Strategies

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1878. This makes 2018 the 140th anniversary of recorded sound, and the classical recording industry, against all predictions, shows no sign of waning. Every year thousands of new recordings are released, including hundreds of new albums of previously recorded repertoire. This treasure trove of recordings is a magnificent resource, but the sheer number of recordings that are out there can be overwhelming to the undergraduate singer. For example, when one enters the word “Winterreise” into the search engine on Amazon.com, 7,409 results come up! This article provides several tips to consider when navigating this vast ocean of recorded sound.

Listening to great classical singers should be part of the daily routine of any serious voice student. In my 15 years of experience as a collegiate voice teacher, I have noticed a direct correlation between intelligent listening and vocal progress. My very best singers have also been the most voracious listeners. Most of them, however, came in with very little knowledge of repertoire and the great singers of the past. This is knowledge that must be actively sought, learned, developed, and mentored. The singer should keep the following points in mind while seeking out and listening to recordings.

Knowing Where to Begin

Rather than simply typing the name of your song or aria into YouTube or Spotify, ask your teacher if they have any recommendations for you. Perhaps they have a favorite singer in mind that will be a good role model for you vocally or a favorite video of an operatic performance. They are also likely to have knowledge of great singers of the past, ones with whom you may not yet be familiar. Trust their advice and use it as a starting point for venturing out on your own.

Vary Your Listening

One of the most common mistakes that I see undergraduate voice students make is settling on the first recording they find on Spotify and listening to only that one over and over again. With literally hundreds of recordings available of the standard repertoire, students should make an effort to listen as broadly as possible, soaking in the artistry and technical choices from singers of all eras. If possible, you should listen to at least five different professional performances of every song or aria which you are assigned. As you listen, ask yourself why you like particular choices and admire certain artists.

Begin developing opinions about performances. I remember a very educational conversation I had with my undergraduate voice teacher when I made the comment—after listening to two performances of La bohème—that I greatly preferred Pavarotti’s “Che gelida manina” to Domingo’s. She asked me why, and it was difficult to articulate back then! But after many years of listening (and learning a lot more about singing), I still hold the same opinion and now have acquired the vocabulary to better express my thoughts in a descriptive and accurate way.

Listen without Distraction (and with a Score and Pencil in Hand)

Another common mistake that I find at the undergraduate level is that too much listening occurs while walking across campus, driving, sitting in a crowded coffee shop or a university hallway, as well as other noisy environments. While it isn’t possible to create an ideal environment for listening at all times, and listening in your car is certainly not a bad thing, time should be set aside to listen intently, in a quiet environment, and with a score and pencil in hand. The score especially is extremely important, as connection to the page—memorizing the meter, correct notes and rhythms, digesting the IPA transcription and translation, absorbing the dynamic markings, etc.—is essential for learning the music thoroughly and developing musicianship.

As you listen with the score, listen carefully to the singer (and accompaniment) and make notes in your score as appropriate. While one should never imitate the voice per se (since every voice is unique) there are things—like breath markings or the nuanced diction of a native speaker—that can and should be imitated.

Another helpful exercise that I insist my students do is conduct as they listen and follow along with the score. Connecting metrically and rhythmically with the page is an absolute must and foundational to memorizing the score well. I feel strongly that one should ideally not listen without the score until much later in the process, when the music is thoroughly learned and memorized.

Study the Great Singers of the Past

Familiarize yourself with the classic recordings. Virtually all of the best performers of the past several generations have been chronicled via extensive discographies. What a gift it is to have access to such recorded legacies as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for German Lieder, Gérard Souzay and Elly Ameling for French mélodies, Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni for Puccini, Barbra Streisand and Ethel Merman for musical theatre, and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan for jazz. Don’t restrict yourself to YouTube, Spotify, or other free sources, as many of the most important recordings are not yet available via these resources (although this situation is rapidly improving). You may have to purchase some of the very best recordings or seek them out via your library.

Although they are beginning to become a bit dated, J. B. Steane’s books are still a wonderful introduction to the legacy of classical singing on record. These volumes include The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record, Voices: Singers & Critics, and the three-volume Singers of the Century. Alan Blyth’s two multivolume works—Song on Record and Opera on Record—are also a helpful resource.

Know What to Imitate (and What to Not Imitate)

One of my undergraduate professors, a choral conductor, was adamant that students should avoid listening to recordings as a first reaction and get to know a piece of music via score study first. He did not want students to become influenced by another conductor’s or performer’s interpretation before forming their own interpretive opinions first. This point is well taken, and this strategy has much to offer in terms of connecting to the score and developing creative artistry. There are, however, many benefits to listening to recordings, especially great ones by legendary performers (or excellent lesser known ones), as long as one does so carefully and intelligently.

For example, some of the best things to take away from recordings are stylistic features: understanding that the appropriate tone quality for Italian opera is very different than contemporary music theatre. Noting where singers breathe is also something very important and worth considering for your own performance. Many great artists perform songs and arias hundreds of times before recording them, and they have developed a specific breath strategy that works for them—and possibly you as well.

Perhaps most important, you should be careful to never imitate another singer’s voice. Every voice is unique, and parodying another singer always sounds derivative and never works. A light soprano who sings “-ina” and “-etta” roles should never try to imitate a spinto singing Verdi, for example, and young light lyric baritone who tries to imitate Bryn Terfel’s sound is probably setting himself up for not only technical problems but perhaps ridicule as well. Don’t be a parody of a famous singer—it never works. Always be true to yourself and your voice.

One’s vocal role models might also change over time. When I was in my 20s, I was very much a lyric baritone with a bright sound who preferred medium keys. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Hampson were (and still are) my idols! Now in my early 40s, however, there is considerably more weight in my voice, and I find that many of the keys of these two wonderful singers are a step too high for me—I simply don’t have the ease in my upper register that I used to have. My low notes, however, are much better. This has led to an adjustment with my listening patterns as I have sought out “weightier” baritones and bass-baritones to use as role models when preparing recitals, oratorios, and operatic repertoire.

Finally, remember that it is OK not to like something. The musical world is subjective, and it is not heresy to have opinions about what you are hearing. You will find that you like the artistic choices (and voices) of some singers more than others. Developing and refining your taste and artistry is another major reason to listen actively to as many recordings as possible.

Use Recordings to Discover New Repertoire

Another essential reason to listen to recordings is to learn your repertoire. To say that the singer’s repertoire is vast is a great understatement. Compare the vocal repertoire with that of other instruments. I entered college as a saxophone major, and in a relatively short period of time (several years) I felt like I knew—or at least was familiar with—most of the major works for that instrument. Contrast that with the vocal repertoire. I have now studied voice for 23 years and I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of knowing all there is to know about opera, art song, and concert works, let alone chamber and choral music! But the long journey has to begin somewhere. Once you start developing a list of your favorite classical singers, make it a personal goal to listen to everything they have recorded.

Another useful activity is to pick up a book like Carol Kimball’s Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and Literature, Retzlaff and Montgomery’s Exploring Art Song Lyrics, Johnson and Stokes’ A French Song Companion, or the Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder and start at the beginning, listening to a recording of each song while following along with the translation. When you are finished listening, place a checkmark in the book and continue until you have listened to every song. This project will take a long time—maybe years—but it will be worth it. You will emerge with a thorough knowledge of the basic vocal repertoire.

Take Advantage of Technology

As an undergraduate student at Ithaca College in the 1990s, the only way I could listen to a top-flight artist sing a certain art song was to walk up the hill to the library, take the elevator to the top floor, look up a catalog number, check out an LP or CD (if it wasn’t already borrowed), check out headphones, and hope that a listening console was open. How wonderful it is to be a student now in the age of YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music! Never take any of these resources for granted.

Conclusion

Great recordings, when approached with intelligence and maturity, have much to offer students of singing, from the raw beginner to the advanced professional. Singers should consult discographies regularly for inspiration when preparing recitals and other performances. Singers cannot be successful if they live in a bubble, and some knowledge of great singers and stylistic traits of genres is paramount for success in the art form.

Matthew Hoch

Matthew Hoch is associate professor of voice and coordinator of voice studies at Auburn University. He is the author of three books, including A Dictionary for the Modern Singer and Voice Secrets (coauthored with Linda Lister). Hoch is the 2016 winner of the Van L. Lawrence Fellowship, awarded jointly by the Voice Foundation and NATS. He holds a BM from Ithaca College with a triple major in vocal performance, music education, and music theory; an MM from the Hartt School with a double major in vocal performance and music history; a DMA in vocal performance from the New England Conservatory; and a Certificate in Vocology from the National Center for Voice and Speech.