Journal of Singing reviews Sane Singing book

by Debra Greschner in Journal of Singing, January 2019

Lee, D. Brian. Sane Singing: A Guide to Vocal Progress. Potomac, MD: Better Baggage Publishing, 2018. Paper, 193 pp., $19.99. ISBN 978-0-9997774–8-0

The career trajectory of each singer is singular, and the same is true for each pedagogue. In the introduction to this collection of essays about singing, D. Brian Lee shares his path, which he describes as peculiar. His experience with formal voice training was initially stifled by a brief, unenjoyable stint as a freshman in college. He earned degrees in flute, music education, and instructional design, trained as a piano tuner, taught public school, worked as a collaborative pianist, and studied a bevy of instruments ranging from double bass to oboe. It was not until later in life that he studied singing and voice pedagogy, and began his career as a voice teacher. His nontraditional route to voice pedagogy afforded him a unique perspective on the industry of training and advising singers, and he offers his views in Sane Singing.

This is not a book about how to sing, but how to study singing. From the opening line of the book, Lee characterizes the industry of voice instruction as confusing. The overriding purpose of the volume is to steer aspiring singers toward self-advocacy, and the author calls upon singers to take control of their vocal lives. It contains nearly seventy brief essays on the wide range of topics relevant to the vocal arts, from breathing to repertoire. Some of the themes have vexed voice teachers for centuries, and others are relatively recent developments. The essays, which are organized into four broad categories, grew out of responses to a survey Lee conducted in 2017, in which singers were asked what they found most difficult about voice study and how their experience could have been improved. Throughout the book, Lee’s writing is informed by his study of historical pedagogic treatises, and he attaches enough importance to Lamperti’s essay on appoggio and a discussion of messa di voce that they are included in the Appendix.

Essays gathered under the title “Training” address the means and methods of learning how to sing. Lee begins by asking singers to clarify why they want to study, and then explains how to select a teacher. The question is much broader than finding an instructor with a compatible teaching style and personality. Instead, it encompasses where to study (at a university or privately?), what to study (classical? music theater? popular music?), whether to select a teacher based upon a trademarked brand of teaching, whether to study via the Internet, and how long to continue taking lessons— to mention only a few options.

In the section entitled “The Confusions,” the author tackles pedagogic questions that have been debated among voice teachers for centuries. The first is breathing. Lee summarizes the process in this way: getting air into the body easily and efficiently phonating with enough air for the phrase, while not stiffening the throat or locking the larynx. The author cautions singers to be wary of teachers who say breathing will solve all vocal problems, or who train it separately from phonation. He defines support as reliably regulating the air pressure for optimal singing, a general explanation that accounts for an individual’s physiology and anatomy. “Support is a personal thing,” states Lee, and he goes to say that it will change with training and age. The author also addresses issues that can be confusing to singers, such as the pedagogic vocabulary in which the same word can mean different things to different people. The use of imagery versus mechanistic directives is another source of contention among teachers, and consequently a topic of concern for students. Lee asserts that singing suffers when spontaneous musical response is abandoned for mechanical control. “There is a direct connection between the brain and the larynx that allows us to make all kinds of sounds by just willing them into being.” While some singers create desired sounds through imagery, and others through physiologic control, most successful singers use an indefinable, delicate balance of both. It is where technique meets artistry.

An increased attention to voice science in recent decades raises the issue of how to use this knowledge in the studio. Lee is not the first voice teacher to express uneasiness about reliance upon voice science as a pedagogic or evaluative tool. “Singing is an aural art,” he writes, advising singers and their teachers not to overemphasize technologic feedback, but to hone their listening skills. Listening and observation are important tools in self-assessment, which Lee underlines is a critical component of studying singing. He offers a variety of methods for singers to evaluate their skills and progress, including recording oneself, making daily observations of specific vocal functions, and receiving feedback from others.

The title of the final section, “A Singer’s Life,” might lead the reader to expect a discourse on diet, exercise, and vocal health in general. Instead, Lee addresses life issues such as making a living as a singer (or singing while pursuing a career in another field), coping with vocal changes caused by aging, and how to develop a consistent sound.

Lee urges the reader to have fun and be open on many levels: “Open throat, open dialogue, open heart, open mind, open eyes, open communication, open to interpretation.” He encourages students of singing to inquire, compare, and listen in a thoughtful way, and presses pedagogues to freely share ideas and opinions.

Lee’s career path harks back to an era when singers and voice pedagogues received their training outside the walls of academia, and he embraces the pedagogic principles of the past. His collection of essays, however, is anything but anachronistic. Lee broaches topics that are à propos to singers of the twenty-first century. The amount of information and choices available to singers today is immense, and these essays present vast and varied subjects in manageable portions. With this book, Lee has helped to clear some of the obfuscation that surrounds the study of singing.

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