The Doctor Is In : Back to School

This article first appeared in the September 2012 issue.

It’s September again! Back to school, and time for my annual “Dutch uncle” letter to young singers entering or re-entering a full academic schedule of classes, voice lessons, chorus, juries, and recitals.

This is an exciting time of life. You have made the decision to devote your energies to becoming a singer. It is a commitment on many levels: intuitive and rational, social, and financial. It is a time to believe in yourself and your future—but at the same time to always keep an impartial eye on your progress, your colleagues, and the marketplace. You are entering a wonderful profession, but one that is also crowded and competitive.

One thing is for sure: you need to be whole-heartedly committed to singing. All of your talent, charm, and interest is just potential energy. It must be converted to kinetic energy—performing, the real thing. Without whole-hearted effort, you will never know what you are really capable of. Hard work, open ears, and a strong heart will pay off and will never leave you wondering later in life “What if . . . ?”

The process of learning is complex, but basically has three components. According to Iain McGilchrist, an English psychiatrist (whose book The Master and His Emissary contains a wealth of relevant information), learning involves both halves of the brain. The initial input of perceptions occurs through the right (“intuitive”) brain. The data, once entered, is taken apart, analyzed, and reassembled by the left (“rational”) brain. Finally, this data is transferred back to the right side, where it is integrated with the more intuitive, nonverbal, and musical right brain. McGilchrist describes this with far greater detail and eloquence, and I would suggest that you explore his work.

What does this mean for you at your voice lesson? Your learning needs to begin with a wholesale intake of information. You need to be wide open, uncritical, watching, listening, and feeling. Three of your five senses (visual, auditory, and tactile) are involved in this process, and these are the portals of entry for everything you need to learn about singing. Most of what you learn is nonverbal (right brain), and verbal explanations (left brain) often fall short in fully conveying the skills you need to master. Once the information is in, then you should analyze, re-create (not reproduce, since you really don’t want to sound like your teacher, you want to sound like you), and then integrate that new knowledge into your artistic side.

A few years ago I was asking a patient, a successful instrumental performer and teacher, about the difference between Asian and American students. He said the difference lies not in any intrinsic ability or determination, but rather in the way learning takes place in these two cultures. In Asian countries, teachers are held in high esteem. After one’s parents, teachers are the most important people in a young student’s life. The student comes to the lesson humbly and respectfully, wide open, with a clear understanding that the teacher is about to give her something precious. The information is taken in fully, uncritically. Later, during practice, the student may assess for herself what works and what does not, but not before a long and committed effort to incorporate what the teacher has taught her.

In America, by contrast, everyone is important, everyone has rights, and everyone deserves respect. At the lesson, the student listens—but a critical filter, the filter of the ego, is often in place. Everything the teacher says is evaluated at the moment. As a result, the student may discard, or not even perceive, much that is of value.

I realize that what I just said is simplistic and there are many exceptions, but it does reflect a cultural difference that is real. The point of all this really is just to encourage you to soak in everything you can from your teachers. Later, once you gain your own experience, you can re-examine what you do, and do so based not on something you have read, but on what you yourself have done.

All of this illuminates what I have always felt to be a contradiction in how music is taught in our schools. Typically, schools involve a “curriculum” model: sitting in the classroom, reading books, writing examinations. By contrast, the acquisition of any trade, whether singing or shoemaking, is best done using the apprentice model. You spend time with your teacher, you initially copy and emulate, and later your own skills emerge. As a young pianist, Robert Schumann moved into the house of his teacher Professor Wieck. He had lessons every day, talked with his teacher several times a day, and maybe even helped to clean up the dishes after dinner. He was, in short, a piano apprentice. (He also married Wieck’s daughter Clara—but that, as they say, is a whole other story.)

As a vocal student at a college, you need to wear both hats and develop two different skill sets. Again, lectures, written notes, and exams are left brain, while learning to sing and performing are right brain. And while you clearly need to pass and do well on your written exams, nobody will stop you during your Met audition to ask you how you did on third-year counterpoint.

Keeping both sides of your brain learning requires some balancing and individual nurturing. You need to be both scribe and apprentice. Your singing brain needs rest and quiet times to think and internalize what you have heard and seen. Your exam brain needs to remember the dates for Orlando di Lasso (c. 1532-1594). Don’t feed one at the expense of the other. Make room for both sides so they can function maximally and eventually integrate your experiential knowledge and your book knowledge.

Let me finish with two points. First, regarding your voice. It is unusual for a young voice to be fully developed by the time you go to college. There are a lot of hidden treasures to be found in terms of your range, voice quality, and even your Fach. Every voice develops according to its own timetable (and not that of the school calendar). While you can encourage this development with good teaching and practice, you cannot force it. So, be a little bit patient with yourself. You don’t have to sing Amneris at age 20, and you don’t have to “sound like” anyone, but yourself. You and your teacher are fellow travelers on this voyage of exploration—enjoy the trip!

Secondly, don’t ignore the rest of you. Your body, your mind, and your spirit all need rest, stimulation, and an exciting sense of moving forward in life.

Have a great year!

Anthony Jahn, M.D.

Anthony Jahn M.D. is an otolaryngologist with a subspecialty interest in ear diseases, disorders of hearing and balance, and disorders of the voice. He is a professor of clinical otolaryngology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is the noted author of Care of the Professional Voice. For more resources, go to his website www.earandvoicedoctor.com.