This week’s blog is meant as a challenge to all you singers out there. You might think it is pretentious twaddle or you may find that it sets you a useful challenge. Either way, I hope it provokes you to think about your singing and how competent you are as a singer.
Singing standards, audience appreciation, and competition success are all linked. So whether you sing in an amateur choir or a professional ensemble, your skills as a singer ultimately dictate the success or otherwise of your singing group. That may seem obvious, but there’s far more to it than meets the eye, and it’s all to do with competence.
Back in the 1970s, a chap called Noel Burch described the four stages in learning any new skill and illustrated his ideas by using a ‘Competence Pyramid’. No wait…don’t leave! I know it sounds like some esoteric management-gobbledygook, but it helps to explain a whole lot about how singers get good, how some audiences are more receptive than others, and how competition success can be achieved!
Still here? Great. It’s probably easier if I explain the competence pyramid thingy by using a car-driving analogy – but it applies to almost any skill.
The first stage is blissful ignorance (or ‘unconscious incompetence’). For example: you have no idea what the clutch does, how to change gear, or even why you need to. Then one day, you decide that you want to learn how to drive. Over a period of months, between nervous breakdowns, the driving instructor explains what the gears do, how to do three-point turns, and how to drive away from a junction without doing multiple ‘kangaroo’ hops like Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. It will take lots of practice until you can do it all safely, but even if you can’t do it yet, at least you now understand what is needed, and thankfully your driving instructor is on powerful medication. This is the second stage and is known as ‘conscious incompetence’ because you now realize that you have a lot to learn!
Then the big day arrives: the driving test! Hopefully you pass and you are now officially ‘competent’ at driving a car (meaning that you have learnt all the basic skills required). But there are some things you still have to work hard at: you probably need to concentrate when doing a three-point turn or parallel-parking. To start with, you still have to think very carefully about how to drive your car, even if you have passed the test without squashing any pedestrians. This is the third stage and it’s known as ‘conscious competence’. You can do it safely and competently, but you’re no ninja and it still requires conscious effort.
After a number of years, most drivers happily drive their cars around fairly safely and seldom have to consciously think about how to do it. They can even do parallel-parking without mounting the kerb or backing into a lamp-post while still talking to their passenger and listening to the radio at the same time. In other words, driving has become almost automatic. This is the final stage of learning a new skill, and it’s called ‘unconscious competence’.
So what? How does that map across to singing? Well as a complete novice, you may not realize how difficult it is to sing well. You don’t know what you don’t know. You hear people singing all time on the telly and radio, and it all seems pretty effortless. So you decide to give it a try and you join a choir. The musical director keeps wittering on about breathing, support, diction, timing, dynamic control, blending, tonality, phrasing, and loads of other things. Suddenly, you realize that there’s more to this singing malarkey than meets the eye, and you transition from ‘unconscious incompetence’ into ‘conscious incompetence’. You realize how little you really know – but at least help is on hand to get you through the tricky bits!
You start to improve, but when you concentrate on perfecting your diction, maybe your phrasing suffers or your ‘support’ is lacking. Doing everything that is required all at once is really hard and takes years of training until it all becomes second nature. Professional singers often spend years taking singing lessons before studying vocal performance for three years at college – and often then going on to post-graduate degrees in performance studies. But even after all that, most would agree that they are still learning. In fact only a select few professional singers ever truly achieve the ‘unconscious competence’ stage!
Regular practice and singing lessons is the only way you will ever move from incompetence to competence.
Members of the Wessex Male Choir appear in David Howard’s excellent book on Choral Singing. (This book would make someone a great Christmas present! Details at end of article).
Learning the techniques that make you a better singer is all well and good, and it might be tempting to approach singing very technically (e.g. making sure your larynx is in the right place, using diaphragmatic breathing, and learning how to mix chest and head voice etc.) but unless it is well-practiced and automatic, it will distract you from your main job on stage which is that of communicating with the audience: you know, those discerning folk who have paid good money to hear you sing. But if you’re standing in front of an audience worrying about your breathing (or where you left your larynx), then you have probably lost whatever rapport you were hoping for! A technically excellent performance can be boring if it lacks rapport, but similarly, an emotionally-connected performance can also be spoilt by poor technique, especially if the audience is even a little bit knowledgeable.
Of course, audiences don’t have to be ‘competent’ in order to enjoy performances, and they certainly don’t have to pass a test before they can go to concerts! But it is clear that some audiences don’t really know the first thing about singing and will quite happily applaud a really mediocre performance. You can often see that in TV talent show audiences where they go crazy just because a singer belts out an ear-splitting top note (however badly) or cunningly evades the melody by warbling around it so much that you forget what they’re meant to be singing. Ignorance really can be bliss! But if you or your choir want to perform in front of knowledgeable or discerning audiences (which might include other singers and other choirs), then you will have master at least some of the technical skills needed. The MD can’t do it all for you. Of course, competition adjudicators tend to know rather a lot about singing and are well placed to recognize whether you, as a singer, have mastered some of the skills needed for a great performance and whether your choir is run-of-the-mill or something rather special.
There’s another good reason for wanting to improve your competence as a singer. Good singing technique helps to preserve your voice, both in the short term, and so that you can enjoy your singing long into the future. Truly great singers like Placido Domingo (now 76 and still singing in world-class opera) attributes much of his longevity as a singer to his constant focus on technique – a focus that continues to this day. I think we’ve all heard choirs performing at major competitions when on ‘Day One’ the sound is beautiful, but by the end of the competition or festival, tired voices are very evident and the sound quality is poor. This is most noticeable in amateur choirs and I know of at least two otherwise very good choirs who have probably missed out on winning a ‘Choir of Choirs’ prize due to lack of individual technique – or possibly too many celebratory beers after winning the earlier stages in competitions!
The Wessex Male Choir in fine voice.
But how can any choir hope to do well in competition if the choristers don’t understand what the adjudicators are looking for? A quick internet search on choral adjudication turns up a wide range of competencies required for good choral singing. There’s an edited version of one such guide here: What Adjudicators Are Looking For. It’s clear that the good technique associated with competent singers produces the sort of high quality singing that adjudicators and well-informed audiences cherish.
Even brilliant entertainers can suffer the consequences of poor technique and it can be career-limiting. I suppose the most famous examples are Adele and Julie Andrews, both of whom had wonderful voices but suffered damage to their vocal cords almost certainly as result of their singing technique. Whilst it is less common among classically-trained singers and opera singers (the Olympic athletes of the singing world), it is certainly not unheard of. There was a great article about stars losing their voices in The Guardian in August 2017 by Bernhard Warner. The link is here, and it’s well worth a read!
So this is where it gets personal: where do you think your singing fits into the ‘Competence Pyramid’? Even if you don’t aspire to be a great soloist, surely when you sing in a choir you want to be the best you can be in order to contribute to the overall success of the choir? If so, what steps have you taken to develop as a singer? It doesn’t happen by accident. Do you know how to support your breath properly? What is ‘support’? What is head voice? How often do you work on your diction? How well do you know the words, notes, phrasing, and dynamics of the piece you are singing? If none of these things mean anything to you, then you are still floundering around at the ‘unconscious incompetence’ stage and the chances are that your choir will never be anything special.
http://www.vocalist.org.uk/index.html – a good website for singers with all sorts of technique tips and singing exercises.
‘Choral Singing and Healthy Voice Production’ – by David M Howard (complete with the photo of WMC singers on page 106!). An excellent book that covers just about everything to do with Choral Singing. Available from Amazon and all good book stores!
‘Find Your Voice’ – by Jo Thompson. A great all-round singing guide, also available from Amazon and all good book sellers!