A sign hangs on the wall in many voice studios wherever people who can sing try to teach people who cannot sing how to sing. The sign reads:
“Don't try to teach a pig to sing:
It will only frustrate you,
And annoy the pig. ”
When people ask, “How do I become a great singer?” I offer something to this effect: “First, be born with a great voice, be very musical and be a natural actor. Have a knack for languages and an excellent memory. Have a veritable compulsion to sing. Then, find a great singing coach.”
If my answer astonishes the questioner, I may add this, “In my opinion, 90 percent of what it takes to make a great singer is God-given, inborn talent.” Good singers have sung as far back as their memories can recall — they were singing around the house as little kids. If their mother played the piano and had one in the living room, there was already music making in the home.
And how important is a coach to a singer? My reply is, “I think 90 from 100 leaves 10. The coach is 10 percent of the equation. The only problem is, if one's coaching is not excellent, the other 90 percent may never come to fruition. If the singer is lucky enough to find a very good coach, he had better stick with him or her. The vagaries of learning to sing may cause the impatient young singer to find fault with the coach, but changing coaches is doubly perilous: the singer must make the right choice when he leaves the first coach, and a second right choice when he hooks up with another.” As in marriage, people often divorce their mates and remarry only to find the new mate worse than the old one.
I think back through the years to my own education as a singer, after I got out of the Navy at the end of World War II. After two years of hard work, two people helped me to become good enough to make my debut as soloist with the New York Philharmonic in the leading role of Cavaradossi in “Tosca.”
My mentors were: tenor Jussi Bjorling, who helped polish my vocal art; and Maestro Renato Bellini, the legendary Italian coach who taught me 18 operas before he died.
When I was 60, I had sung for many years in 11 countries and in four languages. I came back to my hometown of Winter Park with my wife, b.w., a fine French hornist and singer, whom I had met when she sang a concert in New York.
As a distinguished professor at the University of Central Florida where I taught for 24 years, I tastefully refrained from putting a “pig” sign on the wall of my studio. Did I ever have any “pigs” in my studio? Does the sun ever shine in Florida? The biggest drawback in American kids who want to be professional singers is that they want everything now! Lots of things must wait until a professional career is successfully launched…when one is mentally, physically and spiritually mature, and financially somewhat independent.
Most American kids are not willing to wait. They put last things first, and first things last – singing-wise, that is. That's why there are so many people in the audience and so few on the stage.
In Switzerland and Germany I sang many performances of “La Boheme,” “Tosca,” “Cavalleria Rusticana,” “Pagliacci,” and “Turandot,” et al with the fine Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé. Montserrat wrote, “When a singer truly feels and experiences what the music is all about, the words will automatically ring true.”
Conductor Richard Byrd, whom I knew in Europe, said, “Singing is such a wonderful thing that I wish all people could sing.”
“The only thing better than singing, is more singing,” said Ella Fitzgerald.
“Singing has always seemed to me to be the perfect means of expression – it is so spontaneous…. Since I cannot sing, I paint,” said artist Georgia O’Keeffe.