Kari Ragan is not only an excellent performer, but a gifted teacher…

— Ellen Faull, Professor Emeritus—The Julliard School

Musical Musings

August 1st, 2017 by Kari Ragan

The Art and Science of the Performing Voice: A Bridge Too Far?

Welcome to my first blog!

The debut of Musical Musings comes as I travel home from the International Congress of Voice Teachers (ICVT) conference in Stockholm. This unique conference provides an opportunity for voice teachers from around the globe to gather and share both artistic and scientific aspects of voice-related topics on an international scale. The conference truly is a world-wide gathering of voice teachers to engage in presentations, masterclasses and performances. I was profoundly inspired by this experience.

There are commonalities amongst voice teachers around the globe including our deep joy as teachers, singers, artists, pedagogues, researchers, and colleagues. As is true in any profession, there are also challenges and down-right disagreements. The discourse at this conference, however, was extremely collegial. A common theme throughout the conference, which ironically has been on my mind a great deal lately, is the idea of the art and science of the performing voice. Throughout the ICVT conference there were several presentations addressing concerns about a gap needing to be bridged between the art and science of the voice. Some feel we have gone too far in the direction of science and are losing the connection to the artistic aspect of voice lessons. One delegate postulated that Vennard’s book Singing: The Mechanism and the Technic published in 1967 was a turning point toward the current trends in vocal pedagogy that utilize contemporary scientific research in anatomy, physiology, and acoustics to teach evidenced-based singing technique. Is it possible we’ve swung too far the other direction since this publication?

Teaching voice has changed profoundly in the past 10-20 years. This is reflected at voice conferences and in masterclasses, journals, blogs, social media, and lesson observation. Singing teachers should know the anatomy, physiology, acoustics, some degree of vocal health, motor learning principles of the voice, and a broad spectrum of styles should they teach more than classical singing, and much more. The American Academy of Teachers of Singing wrote a paper in 2014 entitled “In Support of Fact-Based Voice Pedagogy and Terminology.” The message states “that voice science does not tell us what to do as teachers of singing: it tells us what is happening during the act of singing. Science informs art, it does not create it.” The Academy paper goes on to acknowledge the value in using imagery to facilitate change in the singing voice, but encourages voice teachers to understand how the instrument functions so that singers can produce efficient and artistic performances.

Scott McCoy, both an author of the above mentioned Academy paper, and a presenter at ICVT, does not believe there to be a gap between the art and science of the performing voice. Based on his presentation “What do Singers and Teachers Really Need to Know?” the question to ask is “How much science is necessary.” His answer, “Enough to assist your process of diagnosis and instruction as you pursue beautiful, artistic singing. You still need to know the other stuff!” Ultimately, he believes there is no gap because the science and art are doing different things. The information from voice science is for teachers, which is then utilized to induce a different paradigm. The analogy of a doctor comes to mind. When you visit a surgeon, she doesn’t tell you everything in detail about her surgical process or impress you with her extensive knowledge of anatomy, but tells you enough to create understanding of the upcoming procedure and recovery that is directly related to you.

I contend that the gap does NOT lie between art and science, rather it lies within the voice teaching community because we do not have a common language and system by which we communicate. We must acknowledge that the act of teaching a lesson is different than that of teaching a course in voice pedagogy. If one accepts that the gap between art and science is one of language, we still must decide how to integrate our own continual studies and learning into an application that is useful to our singers in the process of voice lessons. I’ve long believed that evidenced-based, functional pedagogy allows singers to find their artistry by providing an instrument that can freely and efficiently express what is evoked by the music and text. Our challenge as teachers is to constantly remain on a continuum of one to the other, knowing when and how to guide that trajectory! We must continue to integrate this paradigm.