Thursday, August 25, 2005
Nature or Nurture
[NOTE: I think we can all acknowledge that, when talking generally about genres, styles, and techniques, there are always exceptions to the rules, and there are always extraordinary people who do extraordinary work within a specific genre, style, or technique.]
Here's a story: I was performing in a theater piece a few years ago, and there was a part where I had to run backwards from downstage to upstage, and I would get nervous because I couldn't see where I was going. Everything had gone fine for several rehearsals, but then, one of the other performers was off her mark and I tripped over her. When I fell, I fell backwards and my instinctive reaction was to try to catch myself by putting my hands out and using my hands to stop my fall. I ended up breaking *both* of my wrists.
I think most trained dancers would advise that you shouldn't try to catch yourself with your hands. Your hands are just not strong enough to support the weight of your body; that's why I broke my wrists. Apparently, I should have just landed of my back or on my butt. Trained dancers know how to fall. They use their shoulders or upper arms, or they roll onto their sides. They have all sorts of reactions to falling that come instinctively after having learned them in training. But none of the other dancers or performers told me that breaking my fall with my hands was "not natural." Everyone totally understood my instinct to do that.
Have classically-trained singers convinced the classical music world that singing with vibrato is "natural?" Do they believe, just because they have trained themselves to perform with a certain tone, that their tone is what's "natural" for everyone else? I can't imagine that very many classical singers would believe this, but it seems that some do.
Falling on your hands may be damaging to your body, but singing without vibrato is not inherently damaging to your voice.
Excessive vibrato was necessary for performing operas by Wagner, for example, because it helped the unamplified voice to be heard over Wagner's orchestration. Singing with vibrato creates a wider sound, in acoustical terms, as Alex Ross points out in his excellent piece about how (recording) technology changed acoustic performance practice - "The Record Effect."
Some classically-trained singers have a beautiful vibrato sound. Some composers prefer the bel canto sound. But now, since electronic amplification can be incorporated into live performance, vibrato is not necessary. And as several other folks have acknowledge, vibrato can obscure the text.
Singing without vibrato is an alternative technique that should be accepted and cultivated in conservatories and music schools. It is just as valid as singing with vibrato, and there is obviously a demand for it that is not being met.