John Manhandle, vigorous talker and sometimes listener, is a language coach at Classical Music Institution Plus. His job is to teach young aspiring singers the art of lyric diction, or in other words, the diction of lyrics. He is by his own admission renowned for being the most correct language coach in the world.
“I am indeed the most correct,” he explained, “but that’s not hard because every other language coach in the world is just completely wrong in every way.”
Manhandle spends much of his assigned teaching time regaling students with long critical rants about every other language coach he has ever worked with, heard about, or read. “Can you believe this,” he will say, pointing to the standard reference text used by every professional in the industry, “not one thing is right! And I would know. I am a native speaker, and everyone who speaks this language does it exactly the way I say, except all the people who do it wrong, and there are many of those. Their main problem is they haven’t met me. Yet.”
Manhandle has been teaching for many years and is exasperated with the strange way that students are often wrong, even when he has told them how to be right. “All you have to do is listen to me,” he said, before trying to demonstrate how to sing in a way that could only be described as not singing. “After all, languages are a famously fixed and permanent construct. Even if this language didn’t exist, I would have been able to teach it to you just as well.”
Max Tenor, a young student of Manhandle’s, says he enjoys the lessons but is never quite sure if he is improving or if something else is happening. “Manhandle has extremely clear ways of describing things,” Tenor said. “For example, he insists the Italian vowel ‘a’ is always transcribed as an open French schwa within closed o, but only for medium notes. Lower and high notes should be more open o within closed e, with the exception of very low notes, where only open ‘a’ within a closed ‘a’ will do. And of course, you must write the French a as an open o, even if everyone else in the world tells you to do something else. As he says, French vowels must have a rabbit’s face but a cat’s eyes. It is just a question of doing exactly all of that, then I am sure to get better at making sounds.”
When he was a student himself, Manhandle was also always correct, and describes his own educational journey as a long process of disproving everything everyone else told him. “I have triumphed against all obstacles and blazed my own path using my own intelligence,” he explained, “so now I absolutely insist that everyone else slavishly follows my every instruction. How could other people be right if I am?”
Manhandle reserves particular ire for the students who dutifully practise outside of his class and come back with very confused and wrong ideas, apparently from lessons or books or some other dark power. “Yes, I know it does say that in the dictionary, but remember, the dictionary doesn’t say what I say, and so it is wrong! Yes, I know that our own music institution employs other teachers who say different things than me. Remember, they are wrong. You should go to them and say ‘how dare you be wrong! Why are you so wrong!’ That will help your career for sure.”
Some students earnestly try to understand the complexities of what Manhandle teaches, especially as it compares to famous recording artists throughout history who have all sung in slightly different or even contradictory ways, but this too falls short of Manhandle’s standards. “I must say, it is very dangerous listening to recordings; I don’t advise that at all. How can there be an example of someone singing these things in the right way when I am the first brave pioneer to ever do it correctly? To be honest I don’t know how anyone sang anything before I was around.”