The official blog of Nicole Warner, mezzo-soprano
Jackie Evancho: Way Too Young
Recently I’ve been asked several times what my professional opinion is regarding 11-year-old singer Jackie Evancho.
I am more than concerned.
Ms. Evancho is singing the repertoire of a trained, professional, and physically mature adult and she is ELEVEN.
She has 30 years before her body will be ready to sing the repertoire she’s already singing because the voice is the last muscle in the body to develop. A man’s voice will mature roughly when he’s 30-35. For a woman, it’s around 40.
11-year-olds don’t have the fine muscle control to support the kind of singing she’s doing.
(Trust me, I used to teach children.) The more Ms. Evancho sings, the more she is taxing her underdeveloped muscles. She literally has to use muscle to create the sound that is coming out of her body AND USE MORE muscle because she doesn’t have the muscle control that professional singers have. The skill that professional, adult singers have takes decades to learn.*
Appropriate voice use for an 11-year-old would be in a children’s choir, in a community theater production, a solo here and there, and in choir in school. An 11-year-old could take voice lessons with a teacher who is skilled at training young voices and sing several recitals a year. That would all be perfect!
Ms. Evancho doesn’t belong on a stage with an orchestra singing tenor opera arias. (Yes, “Nessun dorma” is a TENOR aria—it is sung by a man.)
Age-appropriate material for Ms. Evancho would be songs from 36 Solos for Young Singers, for example. (Arranger Joan Frey Boytim is a widely recognized expert in age-appropriate vocal repertoire.)
It is not normal nor healthy for an 11-year-old to sound like a 40-year-old!
Let's pull it apart, because I know there are a lot of people who say "Jackie Evancho has such a beautiful voice!" First, watch her performance of “Nessun dorma” for PBS’ Great Performances. Watch carefully for the wobble in her jaw—in contrast, her jaw should be free and relaxed. Do you hear the slight “uh” sound when she finishes a note? That’s a sign of muscle tension. How loudly or quietly does she sing? Really, the volume of her voice doesn’t change much—this means she doesn’t have a lot of flexibility.
Also, do you see how her head is bent down slightly when she sings? (I must add here that this is a very common problem with singers in general, both young and mature.)
Try something—sit up straight and take a deep breath. Now tilt your head down and try to take in the same deep breath. Notice the tension in your throat, just under your jaw? If that tilt of the head causes tension when you’re breathing in, wouldn’t it also cause tension while you’re breathing out?
And aren't your vocal chords actually in your throat? Which is now tense and is supposed to be free & flexible?
Now watch this “Nessun dorma” by tenor Jose Carreras (with English subtitles even). Of course it’s recorded with microphones, but do you notice despite the advantage of the recording technology that he cuts through a full orchestra? See how far he opens his jaw to let that sound out? Hear how quietly and also how loudly he sings? The spectrum is incredible! And that high note—don’t you think that’s kind of high for a guy? That’s because IT IS! That’s what’s so incredible about it!
Healthy singing doesn’t just sound beautiful; healthy singing blows your socks off! (TIP: Go click on some more of the versions of “Nessun dorma” and find some other singers you like!) And healthy, mature voices don’t need a microphone to be heard--they cut through an entire 80-piece orchestra with ease!
Let’s put it in terms of energy.
How much energy does a professional singer need for a set of rehearsals and a performance like what led up to Carreras’ performance of “Nessun Dorma”? A lot, because we’re taxing our bodies and voices and working hard in rehearsals leading up to performances and we need to be in tip-top shape. Keyword: peak performance. Every rehearsal, every performance, every time. It can be exhausting, physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
And translated into sports: how much energy does a professional athlete need for a game? How much mental, emotional, and psychological energy goes into that game? Think of the last picture you saw of an athlete post-performance—exhausted, sweaty and gross, right? Do you get the impression that it might be a huge expenditure of energy for athletes, just like for musicians? Like running a marathon? If you do, you’re right.
Did you ever run a marathon at the age of 11? I didn’t think so.
*Professional, adult singers learn how to get rid of muscle tension and how to get out of their own way mentally and physically to allow their voices to ring true and in an optimal manner. Freeing up one’s voice is not only a physical process, but also a psychological process that takes years! And we haven't even started talking about the emotional development that effective singing requires--that's a whole other blog topic!