Marty Heresniak, B.M., M.M
79 Hudson Heights
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THIS PROFESSION OF OURS
Carl Gutekunst [1895-1985]
This text was given as the keynote address at the 1953 National Convention of the National Association of Teachers of Singing in St. Louis and later reprinted in the newsletter of the New York Singing Teacher's Association. Carl was originally reluctant to have it published, but later gave me a copy of a copy with some pride. The ideas are too fine to be lost in time.
There is not the thought in my mind that I can bring to you any new or original ideas about our profession. Everyone of you has probably thought, said, and heard said - perhaps many times - what I am going to say. That statement may cause you to ask, "If that is so, why say it?", and to this question I can reply only that I believe it is both desirable and necessary at least once in a while publicly to take stock of our profession.
Has such an inventory any value? Feeling as I do about our profession - its scope, its responsibilities, its potentialities, and its ideals -- such stock taking always makes me realize anew that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. And so the inventory has value for me; I hope it may have some value for you.
Whenever I get into one of these exalted moods about my job, I can always bring myself back to earth -- and with something of a jolt -- by simply asking myself, "And what do others think of us?" Perhaps you, even as I, have come in contact with the person who, upon learning that you are a teacher singing, brightly and with a particularly obnoxious voice quality says, "Oh yes, I know - mi - mi - mi - mi". That is, I suppose the lowest opinion of us and, fortunately, not frequently encountered. At the other end of the scale are those -- and they are unfortunately the relatively few -- who have some understanding of the compass of our work. A few months ago the chance table companion at lunch engaged me in conversation. Of course the weather was the first topic. There followed a brief excursion into the state of world affairs, and from there we went on to become more personal. It developed that he was the chief psychiatrist in one of the largest hospitals in the City of New York; and his remark when I told them of my work was this: "I rather imagine you have to go quite deep sometimes to get to the cause for the tension that results in poor voice quality. You probably have use psychiatry at times." I was so grateful for that measure of comprehension of our profession that I wanted to say, fervently "God bless you for those kind words." And just a few days later a nationally known educator - a brilliant author and a profound thinker said this to me, "I don't know great deal about voice, but it seems to me that a voice teacher has to be just about everything to his pupils -- physiologist, physician, psychologist, clergyman, and so on."
In between is the general public, and I'm a loss to describe its opinion of us. To some we seem to be a necessary evil. To others we are something apart, bordering slightly on the esoteric. Yet others seem to think of voice teaching as being a process of putting a form of culture on our pupils. I know only that by and large there is very little understanding and appreciation of the scope and potentialities our calling. Even the dictionary lists law, medicine, and theology as the learned professions. I don't know just where that puts us.
The opinion of others is perhaps not too important: and we should not become too exercised over it, nor should we concern ourselves at too great length with ways and means of changing it. However, it may not come amiss to ask ourselves to what extent we, by the way in which we practice our profession, are responsible for these inadequate in even erroneous opinions about it. I feel that much more blame can be attached to the teachers of the past and to those of the present. Certainly not nearly so extensive as in the past is there the deliberate encouragement by the teacher of the notion that he is an Oracle, moving about in an aura of infallibility. There is much less of this kind of "window-dressing" and consequently much less of that unhealthy attitude of perpetual adolescence on the part of the pupil. Of course we shall always have with us the sweet young things who sit adoringly at the feet of the teacher and refer to him, and address him with bated breath as "maestro".
More and more are voice teachers stressing the fact that to be a better singer one has to be a better person. I begin to feel as if I were getting someplace with a pupil says, "Why, you are teaching just singing, you're teaching a way of life." Less and less we're handing out "fancy stuff" to impress the susceptible. We are being more honest and more basic. There are is a definite growth, I believe, of the idea that we touch the lives of our pupils at every point. This is an inescapable conclusion, if we believe that the voice is an expression of the entire man. When we consider its production and its purpose, there is no question that the voice act is one of the most nearly complete the human being can perform. Certainly it is a tremendously big physical act. No prize-fighter needs more vitality or needs more to have a sense of timing, coördination, and balance than a singer.
I should like to digress here and refer to an important distinction that was made yesterday in the discussion period following Mr. Ross' paper. I do not recall the exact words, but the gist of the statement was that we must distinguish between voice and the art singing. All too frequently do we lose sight of the fact that, although the end of singing is not physical, the medium through which is it is expressed, the voice, is a physical act and as such is subject to the laws of nature as much as golfing, swimming, et cetera. This is not mean that the two can be separated or that they do not interact on one another. We all know that tensions which interfere with the voice act can frequently be eliminated by a healthy mental attitude. Perhaps the teacher who was quoted yesterday as having said you must be happy when you sing (which statement was supposedly refute by the question, "What if the song is sad?") Was not too careful in his choice of words, that agree with him to this extent: that if the singer is doing a good job of singing he will, if he thinks about it, be aware of a great degree of satisfaction, a sense of well-being, no matter what the emotional content of the song.
To come back to the completeness of singing -- there are physical acts that involve more of the body and singing, but mentally and emotionally they do not compare with singing. There are human activities that are perhaps more intensive the intellectual than singing and those that are as emotional, but they do not to any comparable extent involve the physical. All of which brings me back to the statement that singing is one of the most nearly, if not the most nearly complete act the human being can perform.
And with that we come to something approaching an adequate estimate of our profession. The font fills one with a profound respect for it and a great pride in it.
And now what of the singing of today? It is the generally accepted idea that it is quite bad, true? And if so, whose fault is it, and what can we do about it?
At a recent dinner of the New York Singing Teachers Association two of our guests of honor and speakers were John Erskine and Virgil Thompson. During the course of the evening each one asked me the same questions. "What is happening in the voice teaching world? What are the trends? And what do voice teachers think of the singing of today?" These were not nearly courtesy questions. The ensuing remarks of both men showed that they were genuinely interested. Both of them deplored the quality of most of the singing of today. Mr. Thompson has at various times ascribed to one cause after another. I think that from his failure to find the one cause we may derive the fact that no one thing is to blame. He feels strongly, and I think we would all be inclined to agree with him, that radio and Hollywood with their stress on glamour, with their quick and synthetic successes, brought about largely by unprincipled publicity, must assume a large share the responsibility. Quick money and quick fame are the order of the day. Young singers with talent, personality, and looks are shamelessly forced and exploited and in many instances "play out" in a short time. So powerful are the forces which are responsible for the situation that some of us are inclined to take the defeatist attitude. We feel there's nothing we can do, that we have no weapons with which to fight them.
In this connection let me tell you of a conversation of last December with a young friend whom I was seeing for the first time since the war. He had been a bomber pilot, who, after being shot down, had for two long years been a prisoner of war. As he talked of the seemingly endless days in prison camp, and of his fellow prisoners, and of how those among them who possessed little in the way of inner resources to draw on, were the ones who "cracked" and those who had concerned themselves with other than mere externals with the ones who were able to maintain a balance -- as he talked of all these things, I began to see that in the terrible test of those days he had achieved a sense of proportion, a sense of real values.
After a bit he abruptly stopped and said, "Now tell me something about this voice teaching." That is a dangerous request to make of me, for in replying to it, I never know when to stop. However, I saw that he was interested; and so, and not too great length, I hope, I tried to give him an idea of some of the basic truths that are the foundation of our profession and what the application of these truths can mean to the whole man.
When I had finished, he said, "I couldn't help thinking of my father as you per talking. As you know he made a lot of money in his business, but he was not in the latter part of his life a happy man. He built his life around business methods and practices as they were when he was young. When they changed, he just didn't have much left. But it seems to me that in your profession, according to what you have just said, you are dealing with something fundamental. There may be surface changes, but the underlying principles remain the same."
Now I do not maintain that his reasoning was without ever, but with his final statement I am in complete accord. He made it almost shyly as if he were afraid he might be sounding bombastic. He said, "It seems to me that you in your profession are dealing with the eternal verities." And there, I believe, is the answer to the doubts we sometimes have of our ability to do anything about the cheapness and glitter all too prevalent today. I do not want to be unrealistic about the situation; I am painfully aware of the fact that progress will be heartbreakingly slow. I do not want to underestimate the tremendous wealth and power of those who foster this cheapness. But powerful though they may be, I am still naïve enough to believe in the still greater power of truths, ideas, and ideals. If these truths are the basis of our profession -- and I here use the word in the sense of our creed, our avowal of faith -- and if we somewhat approximate these ideals in the practice of our profession -- and by "profession" here I mean our calling -- then I know that eventually there has got to be a turning of the tide. It is our high privilege to be part of this work.