Excerpt from “Comparison of Learning Classical Singing Between European and Chinese Singers”

Coming from the North of China, the artistic appreciation of the Chinese author of this work is based on the cultural background that prevails in a particular region in North China, Shanxi province. However, during her studies at one of the most important institutions of classical European music in China, she came into close contact with techniques and artistic ideals of Europe as well as some other regions of China. Later, as she moved far to the South of China after graduation, she got acquainted with some more South Chinese traditions as well. The cultural-geographical dimensions of her move can be equated to a European moving from the Russian traditions of St.Petersburg to the Italian traditions of Milan, or from the Spanish traditions of Madrid to the North German traditions of Berlin, while being educated according to the ideals of the Chinese Opera. The co-author and editor of this book, who has provided the English translation that suits her intentions best, is a Middle-European teacher of English and an accompanist who has spent several years in China and has also been able to explore and understand the culture of that country, but who lives in Western Europe now. Their shared and differing views profoundly inform this book.

The singer, or teacher, making cultural journeys of such magnitude is faced with various grave choices. Can she, should she try to, answer the challenges of the foreign forms of art and try to become successful living up to the foreign ideals that she feels are of higher quality, or should she adhere to the endemic ideals of her own culture? Can she suit the requirements of both traditions? Can she make a career of both, and if not, which one can she more likely make a success of? What kinds of technical adjustments must she make while she is trying to work out the best ways of success? What kinds of aesthetic, cultural, technical, linguistic demands can she or should she try to meet in one direction, while she may fall short of similar demands in the other?

As the singing instrument is born with us and is capable of similar physical changes in everybody who is gifted, provided she is trained to use this instrument well and is diligent in her training, the result depends on the cultural aspects of the training and the personal choice of the singer concerned. Once the individual has chosen one way or another, she can learn to suit the cultural requirements of the profession. These cultural requirements involve technical, aesthetic and linguistic aspects, but are influenced by the singer’s original cultural background, which may play a deep, reflex-like role in whatever she tries to add to, or would like to modify in it. We cannot effectively modify reflexes and natural instincts easily. We can only do it if we study what is required and make the new ideals and techniques second nature. It follows that we first have to know as well as possible about the ideals of both cultures so that we are aware of what we would like to reach and what our basis for the changes are so that we employ the best methods to take us along the way of changes.

From our point of view, research on the differences between Western and Chinese singing traditions is highly relevant for singers with similar backgrounds to the Chinese author of this work. The differences in the overall cultural background of singing could cause the first problems for Asian singers. The exclusive use of the head-voice in the Chinese opera genre, coupled with a lack of culture for vibrato in the European sense can serve as an introductory indication of the differences here. Besides, the European opera and song-literature is native culture for Europeans, but not so for most people born in Asia, and the degree of mastering it depends on the age of the learner and the length of time available for her studies very much.

The source of forming voice is the throat, but voice is mostly used for speech, so Asian people, speaking languages with different places and ways of sound formation in their mouths, may find it more difficult to use their throats and mouths in the way European people do while singing. We are not going to analyse the full sound systems of the respective languages but we are sure that if we map out the differences of the sound systems and the use of different parts of the throat and mouth while singing different genres of classical operas and lieder, our findings will be of immense help for Asian singers, especially those Chinese who would like to perform the European repertoire instead of, or besides, that of their own land.

Another important aspect of learning difficulties may arise from the differences in the word-formation and the grammatical structures of the various languages. An Asian learner of the European genre must also be aware of these differences even when the texts of songs and arias are available in translation, helping the general understanding of the texts, while the understanding of the linguistic expression of feelings may also be dependent on the cultural ideals. Most people can learn foreign languages well, but most people can only do it over a considerable length of time, at the expense of a considerable amount of investment and only if they have expert teaching at their disposal. In a country like China, where very few people study a foreign language other than English, where the culture of teaching almost completely excludes the use of the target language in most language classes, where second foreign language does not start in secondary education and is built on the first one, English, and where teachers of such languages can only marginally be found even in the largest cities, thus not available for most young people, learning German, French or Italian is a daunting task for singers, whose profession is not language learning in the first place, and who are, consequently, short of time to deal properly with this requirement. This Chinese author only had Italian language once a week for less than a year at her otherwise great conservatory in China, but nobody helped her or her fellow students with German, French or other languages.

These above-mentioned areas of problems are sources of strain for the singer, which may adversely influence her voice production while singing. A teacher of Asian singers has to be aware of these problems as well as how to relieve the singer of the stress during singing. While we cannot venture to try to solve all the problems for Asian singers in this book, we will make an attempt below at mapping out the more prevalent areas where those problems lie. Only after understanding the problems can anybody try and redress them.

The areas of difference are widespread. There are of course also differences among the various European cultures and traditions of singing, the discussion of which would, however, far exceed our present possibilities. Thus the area of focus of this work would be mostly limited to some important differences between Chinese as opposed to Italian, German, French and English traditions.

One main reason to discuss classical singing in relation to Chinese singers is the emergence of singers of Chinese origin on the international stage. The tendency is somewhat different from tendencies of preference in the West in that in the West people choose either to sing pop, rock, folk, or jazz in the popular vein and follow their natural instincts to fame and fortune, or decide to study singing to follow the classical traditions; whereas in China young people may start out singing in the popular and traditional genres and then switch to studying the Western opera styles to become famous in the West. Only a few people who study classical singing switch to singing rock, or other genres in Europe, as Tarja Turunen from Finland has done, and almost nobody switches from the light genres to study classical singing; whereas for Chinese people, the way to international fame is to switch to classical singing.

Another reason is that forming links with Chinese cultural institutions, bringing Chinese students for further education over to Europe and the USA, and involving highly educated Chinese professionals in European higher education is a strong tendency in Western Europe nowadays. As a result, students from China form large groups of guest students in various European countries. Teaching this group of students with the largest possible cultural distance from Europe requires some special awareness on the part of the teachers responsible for their development. In this book, we aim at catering for the needs of such students and teachers with our understanding of both cultural circles and experience both as students and teachers of singing. However, teachers and institutions in Europe and America must also be aware of the difficulties towering in front of those who would like to leave China for a few years to study in the West, although we will not pretend in this book that we can provide all information on this issue. Suffice it to say here that it is not very easy even for the very best and most talented.

Another major reason why we have chosen German, Italian, French and English is because theirs are the leading operatic and song-literatures both regarding the musical quality and prevalence, so these are the most important languages on the classical stage. We will, however, make mention of some special aspects of differences when they are relevant among these and other languages and cultures as well when relevant. We hope to provide valuable opinion for Chinese learners of European singing and teachers of Chinese learners of European singing to help them better prepare for performing the operatic, song and lied literature in major languages and shorten the time necessary to achieve their goals.

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