I always wanted to be a pop star!


October 09 2017

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 Ok, well not exactly a star, but a pop singer to be sure.

You see, I have always marveled at the ability of certain pop singers to use their voice in many different ways to convey their emotions in a song. They aren’t constrained by rules, and the expectations placed upon them differ from those for “classical” musicians. Pop singers are expected to convey emotion, or rather, to deliver the song in a personal way. Us classical musicians have the emphasis in the wrong place in my opinion.

Take for example a pop singer singing some sad song about death. They would have no hesitation to use a breaking voice should the words command it. A classical singer would be more mortified at letting the voice break. But to this day I have a hard time imagining someone talking about death in their best most beautiful voice. Therein lies a limitation. It’s rather like in the classical world the expectation is something along the lines of, “give it your all and identify with the music....just make sure it’s beautiful”. Well that doesn’t ring with me.

If music is the perfect vehicle for describing the human condition (and I believe it is, especially classical music), then aren’t we doing a disservice to make sure it’s always beautiful? The human condition is certainly not always beautiful. So we leave out a huge part of the story just by that one limitation.

In my practice I spend an awful lot of time trying to find different sounds and articulations in the flute. I long for the day when I can actually find a convincing way to portray the breaking voice. The trailing off of the voice at the end of a phrase to denote uncertainty, like so many wonderful saxophonists can do. The hesitant start to a phrase denoting the beginning of an uncertain thought. The weakness in a voice whose owner is afraid. The tone and colour of a voice whose owner is “speaking under their breath”. The threatening, the ugly, the fearful, the questioning, the determined, and yes the beautiful, the love, the happy, the over the moon. The flute is our voice and we’d better find ways of using it like a good actor does.

I’ve spent time with pop singers learning a new song. The process in those instances went something like this: learn the song (all the nuances, words, melodies); find a way to make it fit into you as a person.  In my experience in the classical world it’s more like: learn the piece (all the notes, words if applicable,  rhythms, dynamics, tempi, articulations, breathing spots, rubato etc.); figure out what the composer intended by that.

This to me is a serious disconnect to music as a form of communication. Whilst the former strives to communicate directly with the listener and tell a personal story, the latter is always striving to present someone else’s story (the composer’s) which now and forever shall only be hearsay. It’s perhaps like reading a play in a language one doesn’t know and expecting an audience to understand it and moreover be moved by it.  Indeed we say to students they should identify what they feel with a piece of music, and in the next breath we can also admonish them for not presenting what someone else (the composer) intended.

I believe that music, all music, is communication. We communicate by speaking to each other with all the nuances of the voice. We don’t communicate by singing to each other in perfect voices no matter what the intention. So I try to find ways of phrasing that suit more a speaking style rather than a singing style. Of course if it’s a piece of French music I will have in mind the conversational style of French. A Spanish piece will be done with Spanish in mind and so on.

I wonder even further. We keep saying such and such people aren’t sophisticated enough to understand classical music and that’s why they stay away. Could it be that we’re just not communicating?

So yes I’ve always wanted to be a pop singer to be able to express myself in this way. I ended up a flutist! This unending quest for expression is fascinating to me. I have yet to find the answers and I don’t know that I ever will. The search though, does yield some interesting results!


The photo above shows some of the voices I love for their expressiveness. From left to right: Kd Lang, Kalan Porter, Almeta Speaks, Me (wannabe)

I'm sure you're all familiar with Kd, but Kalan Porter is a past winner of Canadian Idol and his singing of "Nature Boy" has lived on my listening list ever since. Almeta Speaks is someone very special to me and now that I think of it, that probably deserves its own blog post. Soon I promise!