Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Musicians and vocalists

From the introduction to a 60 Minutes segment on the Kinshasa Symphony: “We were surprised to find two hundred musicians and vocalists.” I know what that means: “We were surprised to find two hundred instrumentalists and singers.”

Musician can be a tricky word. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the meanings “a person talented in the art of music” and “a person who performs music, esp. on a musical instrument; a professional performer of music.” So the word does tilt in the direction of those who play instruments. But ask someone in music the innocent question “What do you play?” and a someone who sings may be slightly offended. “My voice is my instrument” might be the chilly response.

Vocalist makes me think of a guy or gal sitting on a bandstand circa 1940. That guy or gal was a singer, probably a fine musician. Vocalist seems especially odd when applied to classical music. Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Beniamino Gigli: vocalists? No, singers. Or a soprano, a mezzo-soprano, and a tenor.

Applying the word musician to both instrumentalists and singers can be awkward: am I comfortable calling, say, Britney Spears, a musician? Yipes. But that’s where the word’s earlier meaning kicks in: “a person talented in the art of music.”

[The Kinshasa Symphony is the subject of a 2010 documentary. Its Netflix availability: “unknown.” About the “chilly response”: don’t ask me how I know that.]

comments: 4

Elaine Fine said...

Isn't it funny that the term "artist" now seems to apply to people who might not be considered musicians by a nonpop-oriented section of the public. "Talent" is another term that does not always live up to its implications.

If a group of instrumentalists and singers show up for a job they are considered "the musicians," and the ones that sing are the singers, just like the ones that play reed instruments are the reed players.

Perhaps qualifying terms help to classify singers, since everyone who has an operating voice can sing (and not everyone who owns an instrument can play it). Sometimes people introduce themselves as "opera singers," which implies that they have work with an opera company (or are seeking work with an opera company).

Elly Ameling, who did not make her career as an opera singer, would be considered a Lieder singer. Janet Baker (who did everything) would be considered a Mezzo, and Gigli, who mostly sang operas, would be identified as a Tenor.

I think that the chilly "my voice is my instrument" response to your question is a passive-aggressive one. Most singers would respond to the question "What do you play?" with the words "I sing." That implies that the musician in question takes his or her singing as seriously as a professional musician takes his or her playing.

Pete said...

I'm sure my headstrong soprano sister wouldn't appreciate the implication that she isn't a musician!

Anonymous said...

I actually used this clip months ago when I was teaching my students about Kinshasa! There may also be a tinge of elitism or racism when 60 Minutes uses "vocalist" instead of singer or musician. The orchestra is in a poverty-stricken African country, and many of the musicians are not full-time performers. If you're looking for the least flattering way of calling someone a singer, "vocalist" might be it.


Michael Leddy said...

Elaine, thank you for the Elly Ameling clarification. I can’t remember where or when I got that chilly response, but yes, it was a little hostile.

Pete, I trust that your sister is a fine musician.

Ben, I was waiting until you were back to tell you about this segment. I didn’t know that it was a repeat. I think that faulty vocabulary explains the reference to “musicians and singers.” There’s a tinge of something in the segment — wry amusement about Congolese men and women taking up European music. But I thought there was an element of genuine respect as well.