Marty Heresniak, B.M., M.M

voice teacher

79 Hudson Heights
Ithaca, NY 14850


member National Association of Teachers of Singing

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Carl Gutekunst


CARL GUTEKUNST (1895-1985)

This text was delivered before the Boston Chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing on May 3, 1952. I long had a dog-eared copy Carl had given me and recently confirmed it to be the same address later published in the NATS Bulletin, Volume 9, November 1952. More than fifty years later, it still holds power.

That there is not much really first-rate singing to be heard today, even in quarters where it could justifiably be expected, is an opinion one hears not widely, but frequently expressed - primarily by the members of our profession and sometimes by discriminating listeners outside the profession. In passing one might note that the same estimate is also at times advanced - but emotionally, rather than critically - by overly nostalgic souls who are constitutionally addicted to harking back to a past age (always a Golden Age) which, in the field of singing is for such persons among our contemporaries, the age of Caruso, Nordica, et al.

If we grant the correctness of this opinion - and many of us, probably most of us, would without hesitation do so - then we find confronting us the question: What can be done about this matter and who is to do it? It should be obvious that the answer to the second part of that question is: the teachers of singing. Unquestionably there are many among us who. well aware of this, have been and are concerning ourselves with this situation and attempting to the utmost of our ability to remedy it. Nevertheless it may not come amiss to restudy this ever-present problem and to restate our beliefs as to its nature and causes, and to face squarely our responsibility in its solution.

When we deplore much of the singing of today, which of the elements that go to make up the art of singing are we thinking of as being conspicuously absent? Are the singers lacking in artistry or in vocalism? Or perhaps, in both?

In the realm of artistry there come to mind such terms as temperament, imagination, personality, style, musicianship, phrasing, interpretation. There are before the public many singers richly endowed with some of the foregoing attributes and superbly trained in the others. True, there are still too many whose understanding of the text is not on as high a level as their grasp of the music and who therefore fall short of a complete realization of the song. But all things considered it is perhaps safe to state that there is not a conspicuous deficiency in artistry.

And so we turn to a consideration of vocalism in terms of quantity and quality. As for quantity, or - to subdivide - range and volume, there is no dearth of either. The singers "can sing both high and low"; there is a plenty of high yelling and low growling. Loudness? There's an overabundance of that. We do not lack for quantity. Thus by a process of elimination we come to quality, and it would seem to be the consensus that it is quality that is most wanting in present-day singing. It should be made clear that the term "quality" is here used in its sense of "excellence" and not in that of "grade" or "class" and that as applied to singing it means that beauty of tone which is present when tone is freely and completely produced.

Why does this situation exist? The answer lies in the fact that if singers possess all or even some of the elements of artistry and an adequacy of volume and range, they can "get by in a big way" money-wise and fame-wise without having that high degree of technical perfection that will insure the utmost in beauty of tone of which they are capable. This is made possible, to a considerable extent, by the overstress in our day on those ingredients of artistry that are grouped under the heading of personality. A premium has been set on glamour and sex appeal, and these have been exploited ad nauseam by the movies, radio, television, and the publicity business - or racket, if you prefer. The world of today with its sense of urgency and immediacy and its tempo of headlong speed provides a fertile soil for the growth of this sort of exploitation. One must "arrive" while young. and examples of early success are not lacking - success, that is, measured in terms of big incomes and big names.

So that there may be no misunderstanding, it should perhaps be stated that artistry is not to be thought of as being other than of the utmost importance. Without it the singer, no matter how beautiful his tone, says nothing.

Also to avoid what might possibly be another misunderstanding, let it be said that probably there is only a small percentage of those singers, who are "getting by" with something considerably below their possible best, who are knowingly and somewhat cynically doing so. The majority who are succeeding because of their virtues and in spite of their faults have more than likely lost the faculty of critical self examination, and, since they have outgrown their teachers - or so they think - have no one around with sufficient knowledge and honesty to set them to rights.

It would be wonderful were audiences to rise up and demand more of the singers in the way of quality, but such action is not to be expected. It has been said that if one sings loud enough, high enough. and long enough he can make an impression. Be that as it may, it is too much to hope for from the majority of listeners that they shall miss, and missing, demand this relatively subtle thing called quality, when, so much more sensitive to the obvious as they are, they are being overwhelmed by an amplitude of volume and range and being tremendously impressed by those externals to which they have been so thoroughly conditioned through the above mentioned media of mass communication. To put it somewhat slangily, with all this, they don't know what they're missing.

It would seem reasonable to expect the critics to do battle for quality. but comprehensive perusal of their reports reveals only isolated instances of discerning comments in this regard. Given an abundance of the other elements in the art of singing, (and again it should be stressed that these too are most essential) they treat the matter of quality in a relatively unimportant manner or ignore it. Let us confess here that although teachers of singing cannot justly, by and large, be accused of this disregard for quality. there are not many of us who have not at some time or other found ourselves saying something like the following: "I heard X sing last night. His singing certainly couldn't be described as beautiful, but, do you know, he had just about everything else and I couldn't help being moved even though I knew it could have been much better."

But to continue with the critics. One prominent critic for whom finish, style, and elegance seemingly take precedence over all else in music has time after time given almost unqualified approval to singers rich in these attributes and mediocre or poor as regards the other components. That vocalism of a high order has distressingly not been in evidence has disturbed him little or not at all. Perhaps his sins have been only those of omission. Bad as this is, much worse is what we encounter from time to time in the criticisms of numerous critics. lt is shocking and dismaying to find in these reports glowing praise of voices long on quantity and short on quality. One can only conclude that the v writers simply do not have a sense of the ultimate in tonal beauty.

No. we cannot count to any great extent on the critics and much less on the audiences. That leaves it up to us, the teachers of singing - not only because there is no one else capable of performing the task, but also because by training and experience we are best equipped for it. It belongs to us.

This granted, we return to the first part of the question asked in the beginning: What can be done about this matter or, more personally and specifically, what can and must we, the teachers of singing, do? An offhand and yet proper answer is - just more emphatically and unflinchingly what we are already doing. We must permit no compromise of ideals on either our or the student's part. We must strive to develop in him a passion for perfection, a "divine discontent," a dissatisfaction with anything less than the best that he can achieve. If he grows restive on observing the "quick success" of other young singers, we must make him see the perils of such success and early exploitation. There is plenty of material available to prove our point. Further, we must point out that comparison with others has little value, that the only truly valid comparison is that which is made between his present and his best possible achievement. One point that cannot be too strongly stressed is the fact that quantity (and how out of all proportion volume and range have been rated!) can be come by through wrong methods; quality, never.

We must make clear to the student It the outset that, as is the case with anything worthwhile, a high degree of skill and coordination will be his only after long and intensive application; that in essaying the acquisition of an effectively functioning technique he is attempting something which calls for balance in all phases of living. Lest this prove discouraging. bold out to him as reward for his labors the tremendous satisfaction to be derived from an act performed with something approaching perfection and from the knowledge that in the act thus performed, and only therein, he will possess a medium for the full expression of the richness of his artistry and of himself.

We thus present an ideal, difficult. but not impossible of realization and a challenge of magnitude. It is not being unrealistic to believe that there is in the young people of today sufficient quality of character to respond to this challenge and to be inspired by it.

To return for a moment to the audience. There is the possibility of our beginning a virtuous circle (if that is the opposite of a vicious circle) if we succeed in putting more singers of quality before the public. Above, it was somewhat discouragingly implied that the majority of listeners are unaware of the absence of quality, but - and this we must believe in as an encouraging corollary to the foregoing - they are aware of its presence. It can and will become a case of the more they have the more they want. Singers will realize that they must meet this demand in order to survive, and thus our task will become easier.

Let us not underestimate the difficulty of the job. It is a painfully slow, uphill job, entailing resistance to powerful pressures and an aggressive insistence on the highest standards. Doubtless for much of the time we shall seem to be getting nowhere, but during such periods we can at least have the satisfaction and sustaining assurance to be derived from the knowledge that we are "fighting the good fight" and remaining true to the ideals of what in its best practice is a noble profession.