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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The multiple intelligences of Opera

The first in a series...

"Multiple Intelligences" explained: Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor of education and psychology, created a theory of multiple intelligences. He identified these as Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Body-Kinesthetic, Spatial, Musical, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal. I believe that Prof. Gardner’s theory represents the seven aspects of training that students undertake to sing opera successfully.

I thought I'd discuss these "intelligences" on this blog, as I've been thinking a lot about what my students at McGill need to learn and work towards, operatically speaking, over the coming school year. Professor Gardner's theory has influenced my mode of thinking about opera, and particularly the training and processes that go into creating a young opera singer and an opera production. This idea of taking the various aspects of music, singing, acting, and moving in opera and focusing on them individually based on Professor Gardner's ideas, is a theory of mine that I've not read about elsewhere, but I've shared in a variety of ways (most recently last semester at McGill in a presentation that's available to see online at: (I must admit it's a long lecture captured on some crude video, but the core of what I'm talking about is there, and boy does Philippe sound terrific!)

I thought I'd discuss each one in a separate blog, here goes: #1 Intelligence -- MUSICAL!

Why of course, you need some musical intelligence to sing opera (although many are surprisingly deficient in this intelligence!). We're talking about the capacity to think in music, to be able to hear and recognize patterns and manipulate physically (as in with the voice, or with your fingers on a keyboard, etc.) or mentally (as in remembering a musical phrase, hearing music in your head, or composing music from your imagination). Sometimes this intelligence is called "talent". Mine was called, by my sainted mother, "your God given talent"! (Usually expressed after a phrase like "you're not practicing, don't you know you are wasting YOUR GOD GIVEN TALENT!") Talent is tricky -- there are those with lots of "talent" (and what does that mean exactly?!) who do not work, yet still progress, as well as lots with less "talent" who work harder than most and progress farther, etc. Musical intelligence is something more, for me, akin to cooking without a recipe -- you need to have skills and imagination to get it to turn out right.

Training this intelligence seems to be THE focus of music schools and music teachers all around the world. Musicians need to learn to speak and decipher a new language made up of black dots and lines and symbols on white paper. This is done through learning to "read" music, later in theory classes and in solfege classes (which I don't get for us English folk -- why train musicians to translate the names of the scale into "fa" and "re"? We know it's "F" and "D"... but that's another blog!), and then in other classes that start to define what "style" might be or "form".

The other training, and much more important, that singers have to do is BUILD THEIR INSTRUMENT. Outside of those terrific double-reeders (who learn to make their reeds), what musician do you know has had to physically BUILD their instrument? Do pianists? Violinists? No, only singers work on creating their instrument as well as playing their instrument. And on top of that, it's an instrument they can't really touch or see -- they can feel it and hear it only. That's a tough assignment! Many times, the musical intelligence of the singer goes hand in hand with their vocal intelligence -- what their voice can or can not do -- but sometimes it's just the opposite. This is also tricky and can pose great challenges: the "smart" singer who gets in their own way, or has a "talent" deemed less than others because their instrument sounds like a Kawai upright instead of a Steinway grand; yet the singer with the Steinway in their throat can barely read music, let alone hold onto the tune if it turns to harmony, etc. These are all issues that many of us recognize, and have seen derail young singers.

Once a singer is moving forward in their vocal and musical intelligences, it's time to crack a score and learn an opera aria or role. Now much more is at play -- how to go about learning a vast array of information that goes beyond musical (as in the text, character, etc.). Lots of singers have their problems with learning scores -- some actually find it surprising that they have to LEARN music all the time, for the rest of their natural lives. If this is a bother, or a chore, or something that you can't do, find something else to do with your life! Studying, learning, rehearsing is what the life of a musician is about -- it's not about the day of the show, y'all ! No applause greets your practice room exit or greets you in an audition or rehearsal. Applause is not the reward, neither is it the performance, at least in my book. (Yet, another idea for a blog!)

Once a singer gets to an opera score, there's TEXT and that's the 2nd multiple intelligence: Linguistic. See where this is headed?!

That one's next...