Classical Music is Not Dead

I recently read this article on Slate.com, proclaiming Classical Music dead and irrelevant, as well as these two excellent responses, a line-by-line rebuttal from Proper Discord, and Occupy Classical Music from Head/Voice.

The misconception that classical music is dead/dying makes me angry.  This art form is something that I am passionate about, and I hate to hear ignorant people describe it as irrelevant and powerless.  I don’t have data and numbers to prove my points, all I have are my observations and opinions.  As a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I was surrounded by incredibly talented and passionate musicians who inspired me with their dedication to their craft.  As an aspiring opera singer in my early twenties, I had to explain my chosen career to countless confused individuals who didn’t even know that opera singers really still existed.  And now, as a voice and piano teacher, I want to help my students discover the same passion for music that has inspired me.

It’s true that classical music is not as popular as many other forms of entertainment, but it still has an audience.  Just because something falls outside of mainstream tastes does not mean that nobody likes it– just look at the thriving indie music scene.  I believe that in our electronic and impersonal world, live music of all genres can bring us back together, make us feel things together, and connect us with each other.

And let’s not forget the growth of new opera companies and performing ensembles started by young performers with the goal of making opera/classical music accessible to everyone.  Is this a sign of a dying art form?  No.  Opera on Tap and Classical Revolution both organize performances in informal settings like bars and cafes, to bring music to the people.  This eliminates the obstacles that sometimes stand between the average citizen and an opera performance, like expensive tickets, fancy clothes, and proper audience decorum.  Instead, audience members can sit with friends, have a drink, and enjoy the music the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

Many, many of my classmates from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music are building their own careers in new music ensembles and other exciting projects, and doing so quite successfully.  There are also new opera companies being formed by young singers who just want to make music, like San Francisco’s Waffle Opera.  These singers are hungry for opportunities to perform, so they are creating their own, and finding an eager audience.  These organizations prove that classical music and opera are, in fact, very much alive.

It all comes down to the fact that a live performance by an excellent musician is a moving and powerful thing.   This concept easily gets lost in modern pop music, with all the special effects and auto-tune and pyrotechnics.  But being in the same room as a truly great performer (in any genre of music) and really feeling the energy and passion of the performance is an amazing experience.  There is nothing else like it.

This is especially true in classical music, which generally uses no microphones or other amplification, so the wall of sound that is washing over you is PURE ACOUSTIC AWESOMENESS.  If you’ve never been to a live performance by a great orchestra or opera singer, DO IT.  Trust me.  Even if maybe you get bored after an hour or two or don’t absolutely love the whole thing, I guarantee there will be at least a few moments when you are hit by a huge wave of sound that leaves you with goosebumps and a smile on your face.

Classical music is far from dying.  It’s growing and evolving.  Some people are just to narrow-minded and lazy to look for it outside the traditional big opera houses and symphony halls.  Some people don’t realize that you can head over to an intimate cafe for a drink and watch some chamber music or opera scenes.  Some people just don’t understand the power of music and the dedication of those who have been inspired by it.  We are not giving up, and classical music is not dying.

What are Nodes?

Vocal fold nodules, commonly called nodes or singer’s nodes, are basically small blisters or calluses on the vocal cords.  They can be caused by vocal abuse, such as excessive screaming, or by singing or speaking with poor technique.

To better understand vocal fold nodules, it’s important to have basic knowledge of how the voice works.  The vocal folds (commonly called vocal cords) are a small pair of muscles inside the larynx, which are covered by a delicate membrane.  As air passes through the larynx, the vocal folds vibrate together, which produces sound.  To make a higher pitch, the vocal folds stretch to become thinner and longer.  For more information on this process, see my previous post, “How the Voice Works: An Overview.”

Nodules are generally caused by prolonged unhealthy use or overuse of the voice.  Vocal abuse can cause hemorrhaging (bleeding) in the vocal folds.  Over time, the vocal folds can develop callus-like lesions, which we call nodules.  Nodules come in many shapes and sizes, and their effect on the voice varies accordingly.

The singing voice of someone with nodules often sounds breathy or raspy.  It may be hard to hit higher pitches or feel like extra effort is needed to make sound.  In severe cases, the voice can be extremely raspy and rough sounding.  Nodules are usually not painful, since there are no nerve endings on the vocal folds.

Nodules are usually treated with speech therapy, which corrects the behavior that caused the nodes and develops healthy vocal habits.  In some cases, surgery may be necessary.  Rehabilitating the voice must be done carefully and under the guidance of a speech therapist and laryngologist.  Singers suffering from nodules should be sure to carefully follow their doctors’ instructions to ensure a full recovery.

The best way to prevent nodules is to sing and speak in a healthy way.  Many people don’t realize that speaking is just as tiring for the vocal cords as singing.  Vocal fry (speaking at the lowest part of your range, with a creaking or rattling quality) is a particularly unhealthy speaking trend, which leads to tension and fatigue in the vocal folds.  Hoarseness or a scratchy-feeling throat can indicate that your vocal folds are fatigued and maybe even slightly swollen.  When this happens it’s important to let your voice rest.

Another important (and easy!) way to keep your vocal folds healthy is to drink plenty of water.  Staying hydrated protects your vocal folds by keeping the mucous membranes moist.  Dry vocal folds are more prone to damage and fatigue.

How to Choose Songs for Auditions

Choosing the right song for an audition is important, because it shows that you know your voice and what you can do.  This article from Opera News has great tips for opera singers who are competing or auditioning at the professional level.  Here are a few more tips that I share with my students.

1.  Always sing something that you are comfortable with!  An audition is not a good time to try out a new song that you’ve never performed.

2.  Sing something that fits your voice well.  If it’s a little too high or a little too low for you, pick another song.  It’s important to show that you know your voice type and how to show off your strengths.

3.  If they ask for two songs, use this opportunity to show the full range of what you are capable of, but don’t pick songs that are so drastically different that they are not right for your voice.  Choose contrasting styles, but both pieces should still fit your voice comfortably.

4.  Know the character and subtext.  Acting is just as important as singing, and getting into character will also help settle your nerves and keep you focused.  Try practicing in front of a mirror so that you can make sure your facial expressions and gestures look the way you want them to.

5.  If you are auditioning for a specific role, sing something similar in voice type and character.  You want them to be able to see you in the role.

And a few more audition tips…

6.  Dress nicely and professionally.  Avoid revealing outfits, flashy patterns, or bright colors that will distract from your performance.  Dressing nicely shows respect for the judges and yourself.

7.  Be nice to the pianist!  This means making sure all your music is readable, with any cuts clearly marked.  The pianist wants to help you sing well, but will be unable to do this if your music is hard to read or missing important markings.  Also, knowing how to indicate your tempo to the pianist is important.

8.  If you are given specific instructions for the auditions (bring a resume and/or photo, sing something from the show, don’t sing something from the show, wear comfortable clothes for dancing), follow those instructions!  If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask.

9.  Be professional and polite while in the audition.  Clearly and confidently state your name and what you will be singing, and don’t forget to say “Thank you” at the end of your audition.  Even if they cut you off mid-song (which is not necessarily a bad thing), just smile and thank them for their time.  Manners are important.

How the Voice Works: An Overview

As a voice teacher, I often find myself explaining to students how the voice works and why it’s important to take good care of it.  While it’s not necessary for all singers to know all the tedious details (muscle names, etc), a basic knowledge of how the voice works is important because it helps singers understand their instrument.  

Sound is produced by the vocal folds (commonly called vocal cords), which are tiny muscles inside the larynx (aka “Adam’s apple”).  They are about the size of a dime in women and the size of a nickel in men.  They form a “V” shape, which can open or close, and when they are fully closed they block the airway to the lungs.  (To experience this, try to lift something very heavy while inhaling or exhaling.  It should be difficult if not impossible.)  To produce sound (for speaking or singing), the vocal folds gently come together and vibrate as air is passing through.  This process is called phonation.  

The vocal folds stretch to become longer and thinner for high pitches, and thicken and shorten for low pitches.  When the muscles of the larynx are trained to work together efficiently, the singer will be able to smoothly and evenly move throughout his or her range.  Voice breaks and cracks are signs that these muscles are not working together effectively.  

The vocal folds are covered  by a delicate mucous membrane, which is an important part of the vibration that creates sound.  This membrane moves in a wave-like rippling motion.  It is very important for singers to drink plenty of water so that this membrane stays moist and does not dry out.  A dry mucous membrane is much more susceptible to damage, including hemorrhages and nodules.  

The sound produced by the vocal folds is different from the sound we hear outside of the singer’s body.  At the source, it is a soft buzzing sound.  As this sound passes through the throat and mouth, or resonators, it is filtered and amplified into the sound that we recognize as singing.  This process is why things like jaw and tongue position and mouth shape are so important for singers: these things shape our sound, and a small adjustment can make a big difference.  

There are some really cool videos on YouTube that show the vocal folds in action.  Just search for “vocal fold stroboscopy” (this process uses a tiny camera and a strobe light to show the vibrations in slow motion).   

If you are interested in a more detailed and scientific description of the vocal folds, watch this video from Anatomy Zone.