Young Pups and Puccini

Young Pups and Puccini

Jenna Simeonov

George Carlin said on playing the blues, “I’ll tell you a little secret about the blues: it’s not enough to know which notes to play, you have to know why they need to be played.”

Almost on par with calling Phantom of the Opera an opera is the offence in the form of pseudo-opera singers, often too young, that flood TV shows like America/Britain/Holland’s Got Talent. Little girls and boys under 10 years old stand on a big stage and warble out Puccini hits (it’s always “Nessun dorma” or “O mio babbino caro”). It’s infuriating and it makes me stress eat. For example, both Jackie Evancho, 10 (America’s Got Talent), and Amira Willighagen, 9 (Holland’s Got Talent), belted out “O mio babbino caro” to roars of applause. And on YouTube, these kids can do no wrong:

It must be true that the fans of this child singers think that in order to be a good musician, one either has “got it” or hasn’t. If you asked them to define “it,” I bet you’d hear some reference to a “natural flair” or that their child has “star quality” or is “very musical.“ You know, as a young pianist who had a natural knack for all things musical, I eventually figured out that when my teacher told me I was “very musical,” it inevitably led to a lecture about the details I’d forgotten, the time I hadn’t spent teaching my fingers to be strong and efficient and accurate. It took awareness that talent only got me to Pretty Good; I knew I had it in me to be Great, and took on the workload to do so.

That’s why I say the public assumption must be that musical talent is something you’re born with, and therefore never have to work hard at. Anyone who’s attempted music-making as an adult knows the enormous amount of dedicated hard work and active practice involved. The irony is that professional musicians work their entire lives to produce something that sounds organic, improvised and emotionally inspired. We know that some people are born with more musical intuition than others, but simple talent is useless without technique.

Speaking of being useless, Dr. Glenn Winters makes an excellent case for keeping children out of opera.  Child opera singers are a smash hit with TV talent shows, but are of utterly no value to professional musicians. “It’s apery; it’s mimicry; it’s the result of carefully imitating some adult’s interpretation, be it from the teacher or some recording.  Musical compositions which express profound insights about love, loss and life are beyond the ken of a nine year old and that’s just how it is.  Having a good ear is not the same thing as musical insight.”

And in terms of vocal technique, renowned Canadian voice teacher Wendy Nielsen puts it bluntly: “many of these kids trying to mimic an adult sound are simply depressing the larynx by holding down their tongue.”

How about you take a few minutes, bite down on a piece of leather, and judge for yourselves? Oh, and I did not purposefully try to find these two girls singing O Mio Babs. It just happened that way.

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