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N.A.T.S. and Gnashing

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The last time I participated in the National Association of Teachers of Singing MD/DC Chapter Auditions was in March of 2005.

That day I returned from four hours of adjudicating and writing comments, as all teachers who enter students are required to do, an hour helping out in the tally room, lunch and brief, friendly encounters with colleagues, reading the announcements of the winners and then sitting in on the winners recital a full-day affair. When I got home my husband asked how it had gone.

I spewed venom. Well, for the first time in eight years, I had no winners. as if that was the primary reason I participated. All the way home I had been complaining about the comments my students received from other teachers and questioning the relevance of a project which takes so much time from everyone, with major loss of income for the teachers who work Saturdays. Liz drove. She is my colleague, friend and mentor, and had had a long day herself, including selflessly making lunches for the entire N.A.T.S chapter membership and tending her numerous winners though the final concert. She listened sympathetically, but I am pretty sure she was enormously relieved to drop me at home and speed away from the black cloud that is a voice teacher on a self-righteous rant.

I told myself over and over that the important thing was that the chapter provided for students of singing the much needed experience of singing in a supportive atmosphere. For us, the teachers, it was also fun seeing old friends and meeting new people and the chance to join the group process of learning and making music. Why then, was my ego so ruffled? Was it because THEY didnt know what THEY were hearing from the products of MY most brilliant teaching and musicianship MY students? (Notice the huge investment of prideful ego in that statement) There was a huge disconnect between what I was feeling and my awareness of the wonderful validity of the whole N.A.T.S chapter auditions experience and the importance of the service each voice teacher selflessly gave that day.

I have pondered this over time. I have learned over many years that if I ignore my feelings, they eventually wreck havoc with my health, like a child having a long-winded tantrum by dismantling the living room. I eventually realized that the key to my discontent lay in what colleagues continually tell me: Cate, your comments for my students were so right on and helpful. Really insightful. But the comments my students received from their judges were so vague, conflicting and canned that I realized the problem was not that I didn't have a winner. I was angry that the teachers judging my students did not have the verbal skills to communicate anything that was of help to me or the singers. Even if I had disagreed with them, if their comments had been written intelligently I would listen to and benefit from another's way of hearing. Here is a sampling of the comments my individual students received that year:

Category: High School Beginning Women/Classical Category

1. Adjudicator's Comment: Pay attention to vowels!

Cate FN's view: What do you want them to pay attention TO? Is the soft palate inactivated? Is the back of the tongue moving too much? Is the vowel distorted because the middle of the tongue is stiff? Do they not have the sound of the language in general?

2. Adjudicator's Comment: Watch those vowels!

Cate FN's view: This is such a defensive comment, as in, look out for those vowels! Beware! Is it all vowels or is it just 'ah' or 'ee'? Is she riding on the wrong part of the diphthong What, specifically are you hearing? This is a very beginning student for Pete's sake! And if you cannot explain it you do not belong in this profession!

High School Advanced Women/Classical Category

1. Adjudicator's Comment: "Keep breath support

Cate FN's view: Where? How, specifically? Or do you mean you like the way she is managing her breath and want her to keep doing it just that way?

2. Adjudicator's Comment: Release for the top notes

Cate FN's view: Release what? Jaw? Tongue, and if so, which part of the tongue? Shoulders? Bowels????

High School Musical Theater/Women

1. Adjudicator's Comment: keep vowel sounds tall and slim (this in the musical theater selections Meadowlark and The Lady is a Tramp)

Cate FN's view: Now, did the judge want to hear a classical aesthetic in musical theater by the way, whoever you are, please listen to Patti Lupone singing Meadowlark before you judge this category again.Or was the general shape of the student's throat just closed?

2. Adjudicator's Comment: You need more air and spin through your top

Cate FN's view:"I find this a lazy comment, although the meaning behind is was probably correct. What about how she attempted to express the music to the best of her ability at the time, and how this is related to her use of breath? Did she show any connection to the spirit of the text? Is that the best you can write about her? Please take the pole out of your butt and become a human being!"

Subjectivity of judges subjective comments made for the same student:

  1. Use text for more energy and expression vs. Diction excellent and well directed
  2. Make sure lower middle stays round (another lazy comment as far I am concerned) vs. the middle is great! (What is great? The coordination of middle voice registration with other registers? Freedom of tone and expression? What?)

    3. You understand the basics of breathing vs your breathing needs a lot of work (I am sure this last comment came from a proponent of abdominal breathing only.)

What irked me was not the general validity of these comments, most of which were probably correct observations, or the fact that we all hear things differently, as we should. What irked me was the blatant inability for these teachers to demonstrate verbally what they heard. These are the kinds of comments that Richard Miller spent his lifetime trying to help teachers to avoid. And in our MD/DC chapter, until recently, we had teachers who knew nothing about musical theater and the myriad of sounds, techniques and styles required for this art form, judging the musical theater categories.

(As a side note, my son, a recent graduate from Berklee College of Music, was reading a N.A.T.S Journal article about musical theater singing, and he said to me, "My God, mom, this is so elementary and vague. Are you people THAT far behind general knowledge in musical theater singing??") Ok, so I remember when I had graduated from college and knew everything, too, but his point was made.

But, time has given me perspective. I feel things are much better now. More of us are growing out of the vagaries of general mediocre voice teaching. We are more curious, more open and more eager to learn about things we know nothing about, without feeling that it reflects on our abilities or talents. As a matter of fact, I feel it shows we are smart and willing to step up to the plate in order to learn what singers today need to practice their craft.

It is why I started The Washington Vocal Consortium 23 years ago, and it is why I am ready to participate with my N.A.T.S chapter again. I have experienced the extreme frustration of hearing something I had to learn to express, so I am sympathetic to all voice teachers who are trying to do the same. All we can do is keep trying.

This essay was first published March 5, 2010 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.

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