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Monday, June 4, 2012

Are Singers Musicians?

Are singers musicians? In my time as a conservatoire student (not much of a singer) the answer was, according to the community of conservatoire students - excluding the singers - a full-hearted `No'.

But that is not the direction I want to take in this blog. Neither do I want to go into the idea I expressed once, after a lot of Jenevers, that all music is essentially vocal music, and that the best vocal music is instrumental music.

No no, it's something else I want to point out.

When I ask people if there was a lot of music making going on at home, they sometimes reply that there was not. If I then ask them if they were singing at home, they sometimes say that they sang a lot at home. For them, singing is not music making. One of the amateur singers I interviewed for my research said that he explicity did not consider himself to be a musician - he did not play an instrument.

There seems to be some sort of hierarchy here. There are many forms of musical behaviour: playing the fiddle, singing, listening to an iPod, collecting Beatle lp's, throwing away a cd with Christmas songs which has been given as a present to you by the company you work for, turning pages for a piano player, volunteering in the catering crew of a wind band contest. But of all those forms of `musicking', obviously we think some sort of `musicking' is more musical than other forms. And the most musical form of musicking is playing an instrument. When in Dutch you ask people whether they `do musick' (`doen aan muziek'), this is mostly seen as a question of whether or not you play an instrument.

This may have to do with what Bruno Nettl calls our `athletic view' of music. In modern Western society, we think music is some sort of sports - higher, louder, faster; a contest in good - better - best interpretation; in who improvises the best; in writing maximal or minimal music; et cetera. Excellency is the goal, and excellency is basically some sort of dominance of man over matter, over music in our case. Man conquering the technical difficulties of music, man expressing through music the inexpressable, man reaching within inches of the aesthetic ideal. Man breaking world records (I recently learned through YouTube that the fastest peformance of The Flight of the Bumblebee is now in the hands of a German violinist, who entered the Guinness Book of Records by playing it 0,32.658 seconds faster than the previous world record holder).

And that idea of the conquering man is summarized in the man conquering the instrument. Maybe it is not for nothing that Jürgen Habermas speaks about `instrumental reason' when he talks about man subjugating nature as a means to his ends.

Maybe this als explains why, when singing has to become `real' musicking - as in conservatoires - attention often shifts from the voice to the vocal `apparatus'. The voice becomes an instrument, thus entering the core of the domain of musicking. A domain where singing is, mostly, seen as some kind of borderline activity, and need s to be turned into an instrumental business to be taken seriously.

That is maybe why I am so fond of singing. Singing still occasionally escapes the inherent competitiveness connected to the performance of music in our society, precisely because it is not within the core of musicking behaviour, but slightly aside. That allows all kinds of openings towards expressive musical behaviour without wanting to be the best (shanty choirs), without the necessity of having a teacher and undergoing formal music education (football stadium singing), to live up to your talents, et cetera. Singing has some chance to be simply what it is, apart from being an athletic specialism; and it is that athletic specialism that makes so many people decide much too soon that playing an instrument is nothing for them.

That is also the reason why I am in favour of singing as the core of music education in primary schools. Just singing, without all the connected music-pedagogic humbug we, formal music educators, put into it - when we may have a say in it, singing becomes a craft, it has to be `with correct intonaton', `with expression', `in tune', `with correct phrasing', and so on and so forth. And when we have formulated all those demands for singing in the curriculum, we think it strange that ordinary primary school teachers don't dare to sing anymore with our children. Because they have lost all appetite for it, knowing that a virtual, silent but severe topsport jury is sitting constantly at the back of the classroom, judging whether the singing is excellent enough.

Singers are mostly no musicians. And they should become very distrustful when somebody wants to make them into one.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Evert for giving me hope about Wia's and my own dubious participation in the Carmina Burana...: "That allows all kinds of openings towards expressive musical behaviour without wanting to be the best (shanty choirs), without the necessity of having a teacher and undergoing formal music education (football stadium singing), to live up to your talents, et cetera. Singing has some chance to be simply what it is, apart from being an athletic specialism"

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