Music Education & The Voice: Week 1
Music Education & The Voice is a weekly recap of the popular NBC singing competition, The Voice. Each Thursday, Nick Jaworski and his guests will examine the show from a variety of philosophical, pedagogical, and cultural perspectives. And, yes… we’ll make predictions as to who will win and make fun of Carson Daly.
Cards on the table: I have never watched The Voice before.
Perhaps I should’ve done that before I decided to undertake a weekly recap of the show from a music education perspective. On the other hand, maybe my unfamiliarity with the show’s format can provide readers with new insights. Either way, one thing is for sure: Four hours of The Voice each week is a lot.
Having said that, there were some wonderful musical moments during The Voice’s first two audition episodes. We’ll talk about that, for sure. We will also talk about the “coaches”:
- What is their actual role on The Voice?
- Through their interactions with the contestants, can we glean any insight into popular culture’s perception of music education?
Over the coming weeks, we’ll have a variety of musicians and music educators join me in this conversation. The goal is to provide Leading Notes readers with a fun, but slightly more intellectual recap of the popular NBC show – an approach that will allow us to examine a wide variety of topics. So, make sure you bookmark us, subscribe to our email newsletter, or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Background on The Voice*
(*Feel free to skip if you have watched the show for 10 minutes.)
Remember choosing teams for kickball in elementary school? Okay. Now, imagine you and another kid are team captains and get to choose who plays on your team. There’s a catch: you have to choose teams with your backs turned. (This means you can’t pick your best friend first!) The only way you can decide on who you want is by seeing how far your fellow classmates can kick the ball over your head. If a ball is kicked really far and you want that player, then you can turn around and see who it is. If the other team captain also turns around, then you both plead with the kicker and try to convince them to join your team. In the end, your goal is to get the best players on your team so that you can win the game. (Obviously.)
That’s The Voice. Four celebrity singers are trying to recruit a team of vocalists. The catch is that they can’t see who they are choosing because their backs are turned (in music circles, this is known as a “blind audition”). If they like what they hear, they press a button and their chair turns around (known on the show as a “chair turn”). If nobody else turns around, then the judge gets to claim that singer for their team automatically. If more than one judge turns around, then they have to plead their case to the contestant. The vocalist gets to choose which judge they think will help them the most. Ultimately, there are two winners to The Voice: the actual singing contestant and the judge who helps them make it to the end.
(Is that clear enough? Here’s the lengthy NBC explanation.)
Over the course of the season, contestants will be eliminated through a series of competitions ostensibly designed to determine who is the best performer. Obviously, like any good teacher, we will spend time pondering whether or not those assessments are actually testing what we want.
The Voice as Commentary on Our Listening Practices
The Voice, at least at the very beginning of each season, is 90% “standard singing competition” and 10% “commentary on the state of popular music tastes”. The initial conceit is, “We are distracted by too many non-musical things: looks, clothes, dancing, stage presence. Let’s just focus on the best voices!” Obviously, I fully support that idea. I also appreciate that this tiny scoop of subversiveness is playing out in front of 13 million Americans twice a week.
However, as good as it feels to focus on “The Music”, are we misunderstanding the historical experience of music performance and preference?
From Sight to Sound to Sight (Again): The Anomaly of Mid-20th Century Music Listening
Take a moment and think about it. Prior to the invention of the phonautograph and the phonograph in the mid-to-late 1800s, if you wanted to hear music, you had to physically be in the same room as the performer. Music was a social act and, unless you closed your eyes, you were going to be influenced by the appearances of the musician. While each culture and musical genre is going to have its own preferred visual aesthetic, research suggests that visuals are very important in helping us decide the quality of a performance. (Here’s the full academic paper for you scholars out there.)
There was only one brief period in history where you could hear a recorded performance of music and not have easy access to the accompanying visual. That relatively short time is nestled between the widespread adoption of radio that started in the 1920s and the emergence of television in the 1950s and 1960s. Even during that period, you could go to the movies and see Irving Berlin songs sung by Fred Astaire (dancing with Ginger Rogers), Judy Garland click her heels in The Wizard of Oz, or Bing Crosby croon “White Christmas” by the fireplace.
I’m not saying that people don’t listen to music on its own merits and enjoy it. Of course they do! I am suggesting that doing so is a relatively recent experience. Just listening to a voice with no visual isn’t inherently better than watching the performer; claiming any sort of superiority ignores the reality of the entirety of human history. That ability is a truly modern invention and it’s prominence was short-lived. So, in some ways, MTV – which famously “killed the radio star” – may have been the transition from the innovation of the purely audible musical experience and back to our visual musical roots.
The “Chair Turn”
Having said all of that, I support The Voice’s central conceit that there is something interesting about only focusing on a vocalist’s performance. However, that premise breaks down the very moment that the judges turn their chairs around. Many of the first comments from the Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani, Pharrell Williams, and Blake Shelton focus on how the vocalist looks different from what they expected. At one point on Monday night’s first audition show, Gwen, surprised at Elyjuh Rene’s gender, asked Blake if he was also surprised to find out that his feminine-sounding voice actually belonged to a man. Additionally, as the judges fight for their teams, much of their dialogue is focused on how they can uniquely present the contestant in the best possible light. (Gwen, in particular, talks a lot about her fashion lines.)
If The Voice truly wanted to commit to its premise, then the judges would NEVER see the contestants. However, that would probably make bad television.
Actual Recap Thoughts!
As this season of The Voice progresses, these recaps will deal more and more with specific musical performances. My guests and I will provide feedback, suggest pedagogical approaches to helping some of the contestants, and I will even offer my predictions as to who will win.
For now, since both watching and writing about The Voice takes a lot of time, accept these quick thoughts about Monday and Tuesdays first blind audition rounds:
Favorite Musical Moment: Allison Bray – “Merry Go Round”
From the first bars, Allison displayed that sometimes a “less-is-more” approach can help the big moments feel more important. Possessing a sweet voice, she actually auditioned for a previous season of The Voice and was told by Blake that she needed to work on her pitch. Well, she definitely addressed that issue and this particular musical choice highlighted both her vocal range and her subtlety.
Her performance was the only one I went back and listened to again. I know there are more “powerful” performances from the first two nights, but to me, I think her musical power comes from her restraint – as the band picks it up into the chorus, it feels like she lays back a bit as she says “‘round and ‘round and ‘round we go…”. Her tone is full and her voice is confident. Later, when she reaches up and sustains a note for a while (FYI: It’s B4), she takes a nice, relaxed breath and we never hear any strain in the pitch. It’s just really sweet. Go listen.
During the performance, Gwen turns to Adam and quietly says, “Wow. She has a beautiful voice,” and Adam nods in agreement. After the performance, Blake said: “Your voice is a breath of fresh air. And the way that you performed that song, the quick little breaks in your voice… your pitch was great. This is the most excited I’ve been sitting in this chair in a long time.”
Pharrell didn’t turn his chair even though you could tell he was moved by the performance. He told Allison that he felt Blake was her best choice for a coach. She ultimately chose Blake.
Favorite Coach Quote: Pharrell Williams
The best quote from a coach came during the very first audition on Monday night. Pharrell, in response to a performance from Luke Wade, says:
“I know what to do with that voice. Okay, that’s all I want to do is be your amplifier.”
It’s a small moment, but it’s a profound statement on what music teachers should strive for. The teacher/coach is a form of “technology” that simply helps the musician reach more people – through giving them opportunities to perform and through helping them amplify their own inner musical voice.
Bonus Pharrell Quote:
Later, when talking to Bianca Espinal about why he didn’t choose her, Pharrell asks her how she felt. Bianca says that she could’ve done better and Pharrell responds:
“What you didn’t feel, we didn’t feel. And I really honestly think you were singing to us, but not necessarily singing for yourself first. I want your answer to be “I felt amazing” because you will notice that we will turn our chairs around because we can tell that you’re feeling amazing. So, when you come next time you will have yourself a what? (“A good time for myself.”) That’s right.”
I think both of these quotes show how Pharrell’s ability to communicate with other musicians make him such a hot commodity. I’ve talked before about how the studio producer is very similar to the orchestra conductor and this is a great example of why.
Best two consecutive useful musical comments
None of the judges turned around during a very punk rock performance of “Celebrity Skin” by Meg on Monday night. Afterwards, while explaining why she didn’t get a chair turn, Blake and Pharrell offered these comments:
Blake: “My biggest problem was enunciation. I want to be sure I can understand every word that you’re singing so that I can get in there with you and enjoy what this song is about.”
Pharrell: “I think pitchwise you were spot-on. You are a powerhouse when you sing. But I was missing the subtlety that’s something that Gwen is really good at. At times she can belt and just like roar your face off, but at the same time when she wants to be sweet and subtle, she can do it in two seconds. Subtlety is a good thing, too.”
Calls for enunciation and subtlety on national television? Pretty sweet. Thanks, The Voice!
That’s all I’ve got time for today. I didn’t get my obligatory Carson Daly dig in, but there’s plenty of time for that in future posts. (I’m not actually sure that The Voice needs a host.) Check back next week as we discuss how this show focuses on the coaches and, with the auditions over, we provide predictions on who we think will win.
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