Monday, May 25, 2009

Technique, Expression and Teaching

Katarina has now submitted her thesis. Among the many interesting findings during the research, I'd like to highlight a few pertaining to expression, technique and teaching.

First, an observation that we thought might indicate some future research. As we were driving and listening to the Swedish radio show CD-revyn, where some notable people grade classical CDs, we started discussing how they often made the comment "very good singers, but not very interesting", as if the singers' technique was great, but they were just boring people. In our mind, good technique facilitates expression - and intent and strong expression facilitate good technique. They shouldn't be separated.

I spent some time charting recent episodes of CD-revyn, trying to estimate how they graded each singer's technique and expression, respectively. I went through 26 reviews, and then calculated the correlation factors. The results were:
  • Technique vs Overall Grade: 0.59
  • Expression vs Overall Grade: 0.48
  • Technique vs Expression: 0.13
A correlation factor of ca 0.5 indicates that there's a relationship. A factor of 0.13 indicates that there is none, or a very weak relationship. This comparison obviously has several flaws, not least that the jury didn't formally grade technique and expression separately; I tried to derive these grades from their verbal justifications. This wasn't always easy.

On the topic of technique and expression, I came across an essay by a student in voice pedagogy (Ida Johammar) in Gothenburg, titled (translated): "Technique and expression in singing". This essay moves between stating that technique and expression are one (quoting Oren Brown, among others), but also notes that vocal teachers believe that both technique and expression are important, but they will accept flawed technique if only the singing is expressive - indicating that technique and expression are somehow separate. Johammar interviews four vocal teachers, who are all fairly fuzzy on the topic of expression. I got the distinct feeling that some of the teachers were mainly talking about 'indicating expression', while one teacher, at least, talked about 'colouring the voice' according to the mood.

One of the things that Katarina tried to do for her Master's thesis was to describe how she had been trained previously, before re-training her voice into a chiaroscuro voice (which was the characterization she chose for the thesis). She found this surprisingly difficult, and most attempts came out sounding as if she hadn't really been trained at all. Obviously, that wasn't the case, as she had studied with notable teachers such as Vera Rozsa, Audrey Langford and Professor Solvig Grippe. She even has detailed notes and tape recordings from many sessions, so we'll go through them later and try to build a clearer picture of their pedagogy. However, meanwhile, we came across a PhD thesis in psychology, called "Becoming and being an opera singer" (Maria Sandgren.) She interviewed students at the Swedish Opera Academy.

This research raises questions regarding the students’ experience of learning. They described their learning process as vague and quite incidental. However, the process of skill acquisition as learning for artistic development so far has not attracted researchers, possibly due to a conservative notion about talent. This notion of emphasising the influence of talent instead of learning on skill acquisition might also be prevalent in the artistic context and among educators. In this way, this notion contributes indirectly to a student’s difficulty to grasp the learning process. (page 62-63)
Not having received any formal vocal training myself, I will refrain from drawing too many conclusions. Perhaps I should instead counter with a quote from Thomas Hemsley's excellent book, Singing and Imagination:

I am constantly disturbed by the current tendency to separate what is called 'technique' from what is called 'interpretation'. This is a concept which comes from the instrumental branch of music. In the case of singing these two things cannot be separated, for the simple reason that the only thing that stimulates the voice to action is the urge to express something; in particular, to give expression to thoughts and feelings through music. The whole object of learning to sing is to improve the connection between the emotional, poetic and musical impulses, and the body, which responds by producing appropriate sound. It is a process demanding patience and total dedication, in which a good teacher can be of the greatest help, and the wrong teacher can do untold damage. (pg 6-7)

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