Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Children and Animals

This past week I stumbled over a musical performance that caused me to react more strongly than perhaps I expected. And not in a good way.

PBS’ “Great Performances” series at one time actually featured great performances but now seems to feature performances by people whom PBS thinks are great enough to inspire viewers to increased pledging. The towering geniuses of musical composition and performance like David Foster; John Tesh; anyone with long hair playing keyboards in the middle of a bunch of Greek temples; Titans Of Doo-Wop Long Past Their Prime … oh, wait, sorry, I was expecting Brubeck, Brahms and Bowie. Sorry. My mistake.

This particular “Great” performance lived up to the standards of epic PBS pledge-drive concert videos: an outdoor amphitheater setting, with Greek columns or the equivalent; a huge stage; an emotionally sensitive accompanist (you can tell just by looking at him) at a very expensive Steinway; a full orchestra full of professionals who play very well while hiding the fact that this is just a gig; and a conductor with technique about as subtle and nuanced as a brick to the forehead (this fellow was flailing so hugely that I expected to see a 767 take notice and land).

And the featured performer of this “Great” show was a youngster – 11 years old, to be precise – by the name of Jackie Evancho. Upon doing a little research, I discovered that Ms. Evancho is a Pittsburgh resident who looks like a fourth-grader but reputedly sings like the second coming of Renee Fleming. She was first introduced to the American pop culture world by her performance on “America’s Got Talent” … which explains why I’d not heard of her before.

Judging by the interviews of Ms. Evancho that I’ve seen, thanks to YouTube, what we seem to have here is a very polite and pleasant child. I don’t have any idea what sort of slammeroo stage mother or father she’s got; she could be doing this all on her own initiative, or she could be the ventriloquist puppet for a set of parents living out their pop culture dreams vicariously. I have no idea. All I can really comment upon is her performance, and after having researched more of that, I still have just one word for Ms. Evancho’s voice:

Creepy.

This is some PBS executive’s idea of culture gold. Little kid, cute, angelic-looking when the right spotlight hits her; opens her mouth and operatic sounds fly out. This will get the dilettantes diving for their cellphones and their checkbooks in quick succession. Who needs to beg the US Congress for funding? We’ve got Jackie.

Better vocal instructors than I could get very specific about what she’s doing with her voice which might jeopardize its future. (I remember hearing a couple of campers at the summer arts program I worked at in the late 1980s, singing with the kind of vibrato that you just knew they’d heard somewhere and therefore were very keen on faking, and I wondered how much damage they were inflicting on themselves for the sake of sounding like more mature singers than they really were at age 14-ish.) Professional singers could render a diagnosis in a heartbeat, a much faster heartbeat than mine. But I don’t get a sense of “genuine” when Ms. Evancho sings. It’s an actual voice, okay; she’s not lip-synching; that’s really her singing. But …

This kind of voice shouldn’t be coming out of an 11-year-old face. If it’s an aberration, a freak of nature, well, okay. This happens every so often. Mozart at age 4, writing grand opera, and all that.

Beyond the vocal production issues … beyond the fact that Ms. Evancho’s voice seems to have no actual power at all (any time I’ve heard her sing, it’s into a microphone connected to an amplification system with enough power to take down the Hoover Dam) … beyond the fact that her voice sounds as if someone turned the treble all the way down and the midrange all the way up (odd, for an 11-year-old – you’d think that this would leave her with no voice whatever, but the effect seems to be a lack of that slight edge that gives a voice definition) … beyond all the technical issues that singing professionals who aren’t TV reality show “talent judges” could read down like a grocery list …

Normal eleven-year-olds don’t sing like this. Quality singers who aren’t in middle school yet don’t sound like that. The human voice, I have been told, doesn’t truly mature until the human it’s attached to graduates from college, at the earliest. You can tell the difference between collegiate a cappella singing and adult a cappella singing; you can assuredly tell the difference between collegiate a cappella singing and high-school a cappella singing, and it’s no knock on any of them. When you see an 11-year-old person and hear a voice that shows even some characteristics of a much older voice, it’s like seeing one of the kids from “The Suite Life On Deck” open his mouth and hearing the voice of Darth Vader come out. Followed by a mental screech of tires.

Amazing voices have come out of unassuming faces before – child stars’, and others’.

In the 10th-anniversary concert version of “Les Miserables”, the song “Castle on a Cloud” was performed by a probably 9-year-old actress named Hannah Chick, and in spite of the fact that she was probably just as well-trained as Ms. Evancho, or more so, she sounded like what she was: a very young singer singing like a very young person. Very well, mind you; but the voice was entirely consistent with what people were looking at: a child singing the role of a child, in a voice that sounded like a very good child’s voice, singing a song that was child-like. (And had the stage presence to not look terrified at all, even while singing for a huge audience, alone on a large stage, lit by a single spotlight… even when a balloon in the rafters that was scheduled to be dropped later that evening POPPED during a very exposed portion of her song. “Crying at all is not *BANG!!* allowed…” In the video, you can see her physically jump but her voice remains rock-solid.)

For that matter, check out the 13-year-old Daisy Eagan, singing “Broadway Baby” during the 1992 Sondheim revue, “Follies”. Stage presence, comic timing, undoubtedly lots of practice, but a pretty darn good middle-school voice.

Britain’s Got Talent”, the British reality TV series upon which “America’s…” was based, revealed to the world both Susan Boyle, the English lady who looked like a Monty Python pepperpot housewife but sang the living heck out of “I Dreamed a Dream”, and Paul Potts, a UK warehouse worker who opened his mouth and tore the house down with an operatic tenor voice that reduced the judges and the audience to open weepage. But they were adult persons.

Even Leann Rimes, who was aged 13 when she sang country music in a manner that reminded lots of people of Patsy Cline, didn’t seem overly weird doing it.

Last week, I listened to Jackie Evancho sing “All I Ask of You” from “Phantom of the Opera”, which might be the most overrated song of the twentieth century. I watched her produce the accompanying hand gestures, while singing, that no 11-year-old on planet Earth naturally brings with her. I read the glowing, fawning reviews of her performance – “ethereal!” “transcendent!” “angelic!” when it may not have been any of the above – by music industry professionals who damn well ought to know better!. And I was beyond wondering what all the fuss was about.

I listened to Jackie Evancho’s performance, … and I was creeped out, plain and simple.

Which could be seen as an odd thing to say for a fellow who has just had his second children’s musical produced. I freely admit this. “You crack on Jackie Evancho for singing in a manner two decades older than her chronological age, but you write grown-up-sounding songs and dialogue for kids grades 4 through 9 to deliver? Hypocrite.”

Fair comment. One of the songs from this most recent show, “Pecking Order”, reminded one of my colleagues of the compositional style of Erik Satie. Zoiks! And my dialogue is heavily influenced by, though not nearly as good as, the snappy patter of the Marx Brothers. So, you might be forgiven for saying, “Et tu, O creator of grownup-sounding things for children to present onstage?”

But here’s at least one of the differences, or at least I hope so: Jackie Evancho sings, and the network executives, amateur music critics and PBS pledge-drive viewers gasp and whisper breathlessly, “isn’t she precious!” The Bellingham Children’s Theater cast sings, and audiences (we hope) smile and think, “those are good singing kids, and they look like they’re having a good time.” And they’re anything but precious, which is just fine, too.

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June 27, 2011 - Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, media, music

13 Comments »

  1. Were the compositions Mozart was writing at age ten or eleven “childish,” or were they superior works that gave anyone with half a brain a glimpse at the greatness to come?

    Jackie is an eleven year old child, but it seems obvious to me that there is something different about that girl’s vocal chords than the average child her age – something in her brain as well that allows her to connect with her music as well as she does. If it were “just a trick” that any kid could learn, we would have certainly have heard the likes before now.

    Comment by J. Ball | June 27, 2011 | Reply

    • Mozart’s early works were “childish,” and, from what I have read, they were also largely the reworking of music he had heard composed by others. Thus not even original to him. Although most children do not write music, and so these early works do separate him out, his works did not become “genius” until much later. The reason he was known in the courts of Europe while still a child is because of his stage father who pushed him and hyped him everywhere. He clearly had more talent than other children, but he was not “Mozart” yet.

      In just about every profession, except maybe gymnastics, true greatness does not come until later into adulthood. Even with prodigies, you cannot compare what they do as children or even teens to what they do as adults because there is no comparison. In true prodigies the adult, more mature person, is always superior. So before we get carried away, let us let Jackie’s voice mature and give us time to decide if she is the real thing or not. That does not mean we can’t appreciate what she has now, but let us also not claim she is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

      Comment by J. Nash | August 2, 2011 | Reply

  2. The real creep here sounds like this idiot. Enough said.

    Comment by S Lubin | June 27, 2011 | Reply

  3. Calling a child’s voice creepy is a bit over the top. Mr. Hammerton, being an educator would you ever say that to a child’s face? As a music educator myself I can tell you that it’s unacceptable.

    Comment by Doc | June 27, 2011 | Reply

  4. Wow…..What a review from this Hammerton dude. Clearly having a bad hair day. Perhaps his baseball cap headband is too tight to keep his head from exploding with all the self proclaimed importance he gives to this review of Jackie Evancho.

    Comment by Colin Godfrey | June 27, 2011 | Reply

  5. I am surprised that an individual who possesses a graduate degree would not be a bit more thoughtful with his writing. You make assumptions without citing proper evidence. For example, you state that Great Performances has lost its quality with performers like John Tesh or Jackie Evancho. What about the recent shows with Eric Clapton? Or do you find the re-enactment of Hamlet with Patrick Stewart less than a quality performance?

    As for calling a child’s singing creepy, coming from a middle school educator, you demean yourself and your criticisms become less valid. Another mark of academic writing is avoiding bias. But your overuse of adjectives clearly demonstrate bias against Jackie. It is your blog and you can blanket yourself in the first admendment. But the wall of text passing for critique is a disappointing read.

    Comment by Doctor Arkanoid | June 27, 2011 | Reply

  6. What I find distressing is that this .. educator .. is teaching children. Makes me shudder at the very thought.

    Comment by Edward Traxler | June 27, 2011 | Reply

  7. Looks like another pretentious critic trying to make a name for himself, by trying to topple an icon. Your just a critical cliche. Musicians always make lousy critics. Stick to what you know!!

    Comment by Aurora | June 27, 2011 | Reply

    • …an 11-year old is NOT an icon. Please check your second sentence for the proper use of “your” versus “you’re.” If one wishes to be taken seriously one should take the time required to utilize proper use of contractions.

      Comment by just an observation | June 30, 2011 | Reply

  8. This has got to be the most ridiculous review I have ever had the misfortune to read! It is such a blatant attempt to disparage the talents of a truly gifted child without any basis in fact that it is laughable!!This guy should be totally ashamed of himself for writing such a venomous bunch of drivel about a young girl when he is supposed to be an educator. Shame on him!!!!

    Comment by Charles Chenault | June 27, 2011 | Reply

  9. I have read and re-read your response and rebutal to yout preceding rantings.

    Although you have toned down your trashing of Jackie….it remains a long ways from being remotely acceptable to the milliions that accept Jackie as the phenominal talent that she continues to demonstrate.

    You seem to be an articulate and technically compentent person……but ……..you are unable to recognize and accept the possibility of a “mozart-like” talent once again appearing in this troubled world.

    It amazes me that you are able to trash so many, including David Foster, his 16 Grammies, and his 45 years of notable experience.

    I really think you should consider stepping down from your “high horse” , smell the roses, and consider help in dealing with your “negative attitude”.

    Frankly, your knowelgeable claims to education and experience impress me NOT. ‘

    Comment by Colin Godfrey | June 28, 2011 | Reply

  10. Ah, how I love comments that criticize an editorial. Editorials are OPINIONS. They are like armpits: we all have them and they all stink from time to time. But the opinions of opinions tend to stink ALL the time. The challenge that lies before each and every person is to rise to the level of maturity where we learn to “agree to disagree.”

    I, for one, do not believe Miss Evancho is the “second coming of Mozart.” She has a talent—a very strong talent for an 11-year old little girl. But that is all. Over time her voice will mature, she will mature and then, only then, will we know if her talent is more than what it appears to POTENTIALLY be right now.

    As every music educator knows (I myself am one), any child whose voice is exploited at such a young age has the HIGH potential of being faced with vocal cord nodes or other lasting and damaging problems very early on in their career. These complications can ultimately lead to a career-ending situation. Not always, but often nonetheless.

    Like everyone else, this is just my OPINION. Take it or leave it. One does not need to agree with it, just step up to the maturity plate and “agree to disagree” and be done with it.

    On another note (pun intended), my dear Mr. Hammerton, a number of years ago I complained about being harshly criticized by “the masses” to a very wise (and now retired) colleague. I heard him chuckle over the phone before saying, “Congratulations! The MOMENT people start complaining about you and what you do and what you say you have ARRIVED!” So Mr. Hammerton, CONGRATULATIONS, you have ARRIVED!

    Comment by you know who | June 30, 2011 | Reply

  11. […] the full story, go back (if you dare) to these two blog posts – one was highly caffeinated snark, and the other was an honest reappraisal of the […]

    Pingback by The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Twenty-Four: Chilling Effect « Editorial License | May 24, 2016 | Reply


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