Empirical vs. Theoretical


“1. originating in or based on observation or experience” and “2. relying on experience or observation alone often without due regard for system and theory” – merriam-webster.com

It is sometimes written that voice instruction before the advent of “voice science” in the mid 19th century was “empirical”. Based on surviving writings, it seems that it was quite different from modern vocal instruction. “Breath management”, “flow phonation”, “singer’s formant”, “vocology”, and “Bel Canto” were unknown terms in the 19th century. The teachers of the great mid-20th century Met and La Scala stars also had no use for such terms. Instead they emphasized pure vowels, clear emission of sound, attack, agility, and a long period of study before difficult repertoire was attempted.The old master teachers and singers based their work on long traditions of things that had been tried and refined successfully.

“Breath work”, support, appoggio, and resonance are “things” but they are not the only things. The modern avoidance of the function of the larynx in solving vocal problems is baffling. It’s like trumpet players ignoring their embouchures or violinists ignoring their bow holds. As a profession, many of us are afraid to encourage the development of something that we can’t directly control. We now have multiple studies to support any point of view we choose to follow. Having multiple people/researchers/colleagues to back up a bad idea doesn’t make it a good idea. We forget what centuries of trial and error and working with Nature has successfully done in the past. It blows our minds that great singing instruction occurred with absolutely no “voice science”.

We now have voice science laboratories at many schools. We have articles coming out all the time about scholarly studies of the voice. We have speakers at meetings and conventions bringing high-tech gadgets and software to measure many aspects of “voice”. Many agree that voice science is a good thing to know about. I agree that it is interesting and enjoyable to know more about how the voice looks and behaves when observed this way.

But we don’t have better singing. We have turned away from the empirical evidence of centuries, and from cultivating each voice’s freedom and individuality. We have legions of young singers with big, dark, wobbly, vowelless vocalizations competing with each other for a place in a market that is diminishing daily because it doesn’t connect with audiences. We rush these kids through music school, ignoring the fact that a violinist has been playing a full-size instrument for 6-8 years by the time they enter the school, while the singer is learning how to sing with an instrument that hasn’t completely arrived yet. We can’t treat voice as “just another instrument”. It didn’t work that way for hundreds of years, why would it now? We have far too many talented singers coming out of colleges with compromised instruments in the rush to “get their technique together”.

The instrument has to be freed before the rest of singing can be cultivated. This was the proven way in the past. Singing is physical skill, and art, and discipline, and maturity. If mastery takes more than four academic years, then that has to be acknowledged. It is what it is. Let’s not reject the empirical evidence.

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