Behind every great voice

4 May 2012

Dr Rowena Cowley: "Voices are uniquely powerful instruments: personal, emotional because no singer is quite like another."
Dr Rowena Cowley: "Voices are uniquely powerful instruments: personal, emotional because no singer is quite like another."

Dr Rowena Cowley, a senior lecturer in voice and opera at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and President of the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing, reflects on the TV ratings phenomenon The Voice.

Some people may be surprised that The Voice has been a smash hit in Australia, but one group that isn't surprised by the show's success is singers.

Australia has a long and healthy culture of singing competitions - more so than in other countries. In fact, the number of singing competitions here is in stark contrast to the comparatively small number of work opportunities for singers.

Some of the reasons for the show's success are the same as for all singing competitions. One of the secrets of The Voice is surely that it concentrates attention on the contestants' voices. Voices are uniquely powerful instruments: personal, emotional because no singer is quite like another.

We are often instinctively aware of how a person is using their voice and body. Voices are carriers of music and lyrics as well, with all the cultural and personal history implications these can evoke. Singers are always urged to 'make the song their own': we want them to make a personal statement, to reveal some of who they are as well as what the songwriters or composers intended.

On top of that, this show also has layers of competition, much of it between the coaches themselves. The coaches indicate their interest in a performer by swiveling their chairs around to face the singer during the performance. Or not. If more than one coach makes the choice, the singer has the right to choose the coach. On the whole, the exchanges are positive and supportive, and that's an important marker for this show. It's a relief not to see anyone bullied.

And the singers? In the audition they each have 90 seconds to make their mark, and in that time they have to demonstrate an ability to take the audience to a peak of excitement (sometimes skillfully underplayed). Some are exciting because they over-exert themselves, some will never be exciting, some are exciting because they use their voices well. Choice of song to suit personality and musical style is crucial.

The current stage is called 'The Battle Phase'. Well, that's not beating around the bush. One of these 'battles' was between singers Mahalia Barnes and Prinnie Stevens, both skilled young professionals looking for the next career step. Their performances were exciting for their different strengths: commitment and heart compared with great technique and presentation. Coach choices under these circumstances are truly difficult. Self-belief in each of the performers becomes crucial, and sometimes self-belief comes at the cost of heart.

At this stage there's been interaction between the singer and the coach, and some judgment made about work ethic and adaptability. Many of the singers presented here have had voice teachers/coaches for many years and done much of the hard work: learning to use their bodies in a way physically harmonious with what they want to express. Pity those who don't have that experience. Singers need to be able to respond quickly to style and performance requirements. Voice has to be a given. Whilst this doesn't exclude singers who have relatively untrained sounds completely, it is a pleasure to hear real skill and experience in this competition.

So, what use are competitions for singers? The best are stepping stones to a career for which singers have been preparing vocally, musically and as performers for years. Individuality is great, style is good, but singers need a great technique to back their performing instincts. Without that careers can be short. Find a great vocal coach/singing teacher and do the work if you want more than 90 seconds in the spotlight. A show is a show: careers are built on talent, skill, imagination and persistence.

Coaches who work with singers on reality TV have a job to do, much of it in public, when usually it is private affair in a vocal studio. So far, the coaches on The Voice have shown care and kindness and excitement for what will come for their singers. They will, we hope, build on their strengths. Perhaps this brings us to one of the main reasons for the success of a show like this. Humans are wired for stories, as well as for music, and we can see something of what it takes to perform. We love to see singers 'make the song their own' and become their best selves on stage.

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