Why I am not a “classical” singer

In my “about” section, I indicate that although I am classically trained, I take issue with the word “classical.” So I want to say a bit about that here.

First of all, I want to look at what the word “classical” actually means. Wikipedia defines it as “art music… rooted in Western traditions” before pointing out that to be more accurate, the Classical Period was from 1750-1820. For one of the kids at school (who was thrilled when I started teaching the choir gospel songs), classical music is “fusty old stuff.” In his essay “Listen to this,” Alex Ross points out that until relatively recently, we in the western canon didn’t refer to “classical” music, we just talked about “music.” He connects the notion of classical music to the rediscovery of Bach, which began a trend of looking backwards – of reifying the past as somehow higher than what we are doing today. (I unequivocally recommend this essay, by the way. It is an articulate, passionate appeal to strike the word “classical” from music – and much more, besides.)

Ultimately, the association of “classical” or “art” music with “high culture” seems to persist in enough people’s minds for it to elicit responses of: “this is for me,” or “this isn’t for me.” In fact, this is in no way the fault of the music, but results from the notion of “high culture” and “low culture,” as opposed to contextualised culture. Whereas notions of high and low culture cast a comparative judgment that is more or less rooted in our own cultural conditioning, the idea of contextualised culture is that every form of art – from Tristan und Isolde to TuPac to a tribal gathering of women singing around a fire somewhere in Morocco – is an artistic expression of the human conditions in which it exists. This doesn’t mean we don’t have preferences – that we aren’t moved more by some things than others – but it does at least create a context in which we can be interested in art and music that exists outside our immediate cultural sphere, rather than passing it by as “not my thing.” From that frame of mind, we can develop new questions and criteria: Is it honest? Is it playful? Does it show me something new?

However, to say a bit about my personal predicament: I can’t remember a time when I haven’t sung operatically. It was just how I sang. My current theory is that my parents listened to a lot of Wagner and Gilbert & Sullivan, so this is just what I imitated. I went to a high school with a strong music programme, and received a lot of encouragement. I learned to breathe, to support, to raise my soft palate, to imagine notes shooting out the back of my head, to draw lines in the air, to look for tension in my shoulders, neck and tongue. I recall teachers reminding me to enjoy myself, but I was so concerned with “getting it right” that this kindly advice more or less passed over my head a lot of the time. I enjoyed the challenge, the tinkering and the validation of winning competitions, but only sometimes enjoyed the actual singing.

On one level, I see my operatic voice as my true voice. It’s the one I’ve sung with my entire life, after all. And it is the one I best know how to use healthily. But I also feel that because of the aforementioned tendency to associate classical music with “high culture,” (a tendency embraced by much of the classical world – with some admirable exceptions – I’ll write about them sometime), it is important for me to explore other equally valid modes.

For example – the Natural Voice movement in the UK is resurrecting people’s confidence as singers in a way that choirs focussing on classical repertoire just can’t – because the level of music they sing and the audience they sing for, and the ensembles they compare themselves to necessitate that they are generally outcome, rather than process-oriented. By contrast, Natural Voice emphasises community and connection, with vocal release and song as the outcome. (See the Soundcloud clip below of Shakti Sings choir.) I went to a 3-day training for singing leaders by Susie Ro Prater last year, and was blown away by how quickly the group connected, and how quickly inhibitions were dropped. There was not one moment in the whole weekend when the song came from a place of comparison, pressure or anxiety (forces anyone who has sung in a classical choir will be familiar with). I have since worked with my own choir and in singing assemblies using some of these methods, with the effect of seeing people take ownership for their singing, become embodied in their responses, and connect as a group. (I do want to add, however, that I also love singing notated, traditional choral repertoire – and my own choir sings it too. As I said before, culturally conditioned preferences are fine, as long as they don’t translate into chauvinism.)

I’m also exploring mantra singing (the other day I trialled my most recent composition, a Ratnasambhava mantra, with some women from London Buddhist Centre, and it set the tone for some beautiful improvisations!). I’m currently looking for a teacher so I can learn some Hindustani classical techniques. I’m fascinated by Anna Maria Hefele’s overtone singing videos, and am determined to learn this. And, as part of my Generositree experiment, I am playing with the notion of what singing is… and venturing into techniques as extended as I can manage. So if I’m doing all of this, if my interests lie in pushing boundaries, rather than staying in the repertoire of a culture that identifies itself as above others, I don’t feel I can call myself “classical.’ And so, my friends, in the interest of manifesting my musical utopia, I will continue to sing – in every way possible – and to encourage others to do the same!

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2 thoughts on “Why I am not a “classical” singer

  1. I’m not sure about the issue of high vs low culture. Amber and I just got back from Russia where we saw an opera and a piano recital. Every seat was filled. During the Schubert sonata you could feel the focus of the audience. Later we talked to hotel staff that regularly go to the opera. It’s what people do over there. No one feels that it’s in any way “elitist “. Btw — audience was full of young people and some small children.

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    1. What a fantastic experience! And how wonderful that the operatic culture in Russia welcomes children, and is cheap enough for everybody to attend. Your anecdote indicates that there doesn’t have to be this class divide when it comes to music. As I said – the off-putting notion of elitism isn’t the fault of the music, but of those who insist that one genre is inherently “higher” than another. Incidentally, I wonder what your hotel staff’s thoughts on Eurovision were? 😉

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