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!


The Generositree makes a public appearance!

I took the Generositree to the park this afternoon – I thought it would like to be with its own kind. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures as I didn’t want to worry about looking after my phone while I was in this experimental phase.

To get things moving, I hung on it things that in some way represented gifts I had been given:

  • A hairbrush with a painted handle, from the Ukraine.
  • An origami swan
  • A sprig of ivy
  • An Anubis mask
  • A bit of yellow string
  • A card

I set up, and began vocalising – found I was “singing” more than using extended technique. Kids and dogs were particularly interested in what I was doing, and were great to play with – vocally and in movement. The Generositree attracted a lot of interest – and the vocalising felt like a very natural thing to be doing.

I had a couple of noteworthy interactions. The first was with a pair of street drinkers. One of them immediately asked me if he could have the mask. This presented a sort of dilemma, as I had originally wanted to give things to people… but there was something in his manner of asking which made me reluctant to give that to him. So I played with him. I asked him what he would give me in return. Whether he would sing. He was half-hearted. I wanted real person-to-person engagement. I wanted him to get out of himself, out of his wants and his desire to manipulate, and engage with me. If he had, the mask would have been his. As it was, he got annoyed and left. His friend stuck around though, and we chatted for a while. I gave him the origami swan. He gave me a hug (and a pound – though I hadn’t asked for money).

Another guy stopped while I was having a break, and asked what it was. I told him about the project, and he said, “You’ve chosen an interesting spot to do this. You know Andre Previn used to live right over there!” Then he spent about 15 minutes telling me all sorts of local history connected to the park, to the area. I found out that there’s a river running underneath the park, that three sisters were hanged as witches from a tree over in the corner, and that the council is are talking about turning the historic bowling green into an orchard. That kind of giving knowledge and time is such a powerful form of generosity, and I feel really grateful to him for stopping to chat. I used the idea of the underground river as a way into the next improvisation.

Altogether, the experience gave me a few points for reflection about generosity, engagement, and my own practice.

  • Generosity isn’t about giving people whatever they ask for. It’s about meeting the other person with a sense of spaciousness.
  • I would like to have more things to give – it felt wonderful to be able to give the man a swan… and I would have liked to give the man who told me about history something as well… but I didn’t think he’d want a bit of yellow string.
  • I had not so much a feeling of being observed, as a feeling of observing. It’s fascinating how people react when you’re doing something unusual in public. Who engages, who looks away. You could do a whole study on it.

I’m now looking forward to the Generositree’s next outing!