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Vocal Department

CONDUCTED BY H.W. GREENE
 
I have told you of the Spaniard who always put on his spectacles when about to eat cherries, that they might look bigger and more tempting. In like manner I make the most of my enjoyments; and, though I do not cast my eyes away from my troubles, I pack them in as little compass as I can for myself, and never let them annoy others.—Robert Southey.
 
The essential point in competition lies not so much in the fact of success as in the value of the thing for which the strife is made. The spirit of competition is so much a thing of nature, that life would be but a faltering existence without it. It enters, though often unconsciously, into every field of effort. Children compete in running and leaping, and later for their honors and standing in school; out from which they go to enter upon a life bristling with competition. So entirely does it permeate the practical life, that it might justly be called the ruling passion. A clergyman was heard to say, "I have made thirty new converts who will join the church next communion, more than Brother Robes did in the two last years of his pastorate." Competition in the saving of souls, so to speak; a laudable effort and unquestionably actuated by the highest motives, but the instinct of competition could not be suppressed; hence the comparison.
 
We hear of eating contests, the "Beauty Congress," and thus on up the scale to the business world where it is welcomed as the "life of trade." It is to be found in the art world, when knights of the brush vie with their fellow artists in efforts to gain honors in the Academy. Musicians are not free of this most natural desire to excel, and strive to outclass their fellow-musicians.
 
One of the best illustrations of this is the annual meetings of the German singing societies, where large bodies of singers meet and sing the same choruses for prizes.
 
It was the outcome of one of these meetings that furnished the present writer with his suggestion for this theme. An event occurred which was commented upon as unusual, by the press, which in a sense is quite true. The merits of two young men of different nationalities, both tenors and members of the societies which had been competing at a Sängerfest,   were being discussed by some of their admirers at a club one evening. The party was about evenly divided in the claim as to which of the two is the better singer; and since a discussion of their merits brought them no nearer to a decision it was proposed to hold a miniature Sängerfest, provided the two principals could be persuaded to yield to the wishes of their friends, and submit to the test. A committee was appointed to develop the plan, with the result that the unusual occurred. The parlor of the hotel was selected as the arena, and the vocal gladiators met and agreed upon their weapons, in other words, their program. They were each to sing the same numbers, or groups, in succession; judges were selected who were supposed to be without bias; the guests of the hotel afforded an audience as additional inspiration, and the affair was carried forward to a successful issue. To some this is a thought- provoking episode, and, barring the difficulty of securing judges both competent and unprejudiced, could be adopted to clear the atmosphere of many of the doubts which now exist as to the justice of singers' claims that they can sing. The difficulty of finding competent judges could be overcome in time by training a selection. Of course, some singers would feel that their "top note" should be the deciding feature, and would strive to produce a tone as near the top as possible; others are sure to place an undue value on mere stress, and would claim distinction because they could sing louder than their competitors; others who have devoted themselves to the cultivation of their breath at the expense of its control and effect, would point with confidence at the number of notes they had been able to sing in a single breath; and then still another group would claim honors because they could sing the fastest. Some might even boast that there was virtue in being able to sing the longest time without stopping: and then the variety and length of the repertory would be claimed as a basis for preferment. The girl who could sing the longest list of songs, or in the most languages, or the greatest number from memory, would feel that these accomplishments entitled her to the highest rating.
 
Of course, judges would readily be found who could decide upon merits of this sort, if merits they were, for all they would require would be a stop watch, a pitch pipe, and a pad and pencil. But since modern art does not take at all into account the above-mentioned features, they may be swept aside as irrelevant to the real question as to what is a legitimate basis of competition between singers. The difficulty of finding an answer explains even the greater difficulty of finding persons capable of deciding the question of superiority. It is purely an esthetic problem. It relates as closely to gift as to attainment, and since attainment is the only thing that can justly be considered in competition, the judge must be endowed with the highest type of psychologic instinct.
 
It would be of little value or satisfaction to know which of two persons had been most richly endowed. Of vastly greater importance would it be to be able to determine which of the two had made the most of the gifts they were endowed with. Of course, the incident of the two tenors above referred to was of a friendly nature and could not have a lasting effect or influence, but it was highly typical of the fatalism in art gifts in their relation to the world upon which they depend for approval. A fatalism which inspires some and goads others to great effort, and on the other hand discourages many who feel the vigor of its truth, for they know that an audience is but a composite judge which takes into account not their gifts or sacrifices, or both, which brought them there, but their art as a manifestation; not how they worked, or what they worked with, but the result of it. Such is the stern fact confronting the student of music; he cannot escape it, and his is the error if it is not taken into account when the choice of a profession is made.
 
The best singer should win in competition. Competition should serve to stimulate the artist to noble effort; but the difficulty lies, as was hinted above, in the fallibility of judges, be they composite or individual. Prejudice and preference enter so largely into the critic's character that the singer to a great extent is a victim of a something that is to be found in every activity. It is called chance, and it has its value. Chance confronts the singer as a formidable if not worthy adversary. To meet and conquer chance is possible, but requires the perfection, in combination, of art and technic. To confront a judge who will have no patience with Verdi, because Wagner is a god, and win him to you, not Verdi, because what you do is so exquisitely done, is a victory in an unequal combat; hence all the more creditable. To fight chance with chance is a mistake. The singer should take no chances; there are plenty of them to be met apart from himself; his weapons are certainty and perfection. There are many critics who judge well. To judge justly requires more and a higher degree of culture than is demanded of the singer, hence it is not remarkable that competition is so often a failure.
 
Hold to your purpose to have a perfect character, as a helmsman holds to his course along a rocky coast. There is danger in every deviation.—Success.

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You are reading Vocal Department from the March, 1904 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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