Kashudo (歌手道): What is a voice teacher? Inspired by a wonderful post by Susan Eichorn Young

If you have not been reading the blog: Once More With Feeling, you should. Susan Eichorn Young is a fabulous teacher that I am proud to call colleague. Her recent post called What is a Voice Teacher? is a must read. It is her own manifesto of teaching and it speaks to many of the principles that we as teachers of singing aspire to. Her post certainly made me reflect on what is important to me as a teacher, and far from contradicting her I hope that this post will complement her inspirational post.

As I am in the middle of three other posts (one on Winterreise, one on the importance of the released jaw, and one on the abdominal component of breathing), this will be somewhat brief. Indeed, I remember a conversation with Susan when we practically finished each other’s thoughts. I believe as she does in the importance of challenging a student to live up to their talents, and that is a complex issue. In my opinion, the most challenging aspect of becoming a successful singer is to recognize the talent we have. In a world that is so driven by the bottom line, ageism, the fast track, entry through the backdoor or side door, I have been telling several of my students they need to slow down and wait until their package has been thoroughly prepared.
Unlike the average I do not give any worth to the obstacles that the business place before us. I firmly believe that all the isms (i.e. ageism, sexual orientation ism, religion ism, racism, height ism, size ism, you name it) are all obstacles placed there for those who need a reason to stop singing. I cannot help but be philosophical about singing. A singer will find his/her place in the firmament only by facing himself/herself. One can look at a singer and ask what is wrong. I prefer to look inside and see what is possible, and without exception, what is possible is beyond anything the singer himself/herself ever expected. But there is a catch! Is the singer willing to live up to what s/he see.
In academia, many singers were not happy with me when they were shown what they could do. I never forgot one brave, ridiculously talented young soprano who said to me: “You don’t get it Dr. LaFond! I don’t want to be a professional singer. I am waiting for my fiance to be ready so I can get married and become a mom.” Inside myself, I was thinking: “then why are you wasting my time?” but I asked her calmly, “then why are you studying singing?” She replied because she likes it and it will be good to sing beautiful lullabies to her children. My feeling remains the same: “Why are you wasting my time then?” There is nothing wrong with a prospective mom studying music, but why aim for a degree in music if she is not going to commit the energy to be the best musician she could be? An amateur singer has the luxury of not having to worry about getting hired and therefore can be thoroughly committed to achieving the highest level possible for the love of the art form. A professional should not have to give up on this ideal in order to be marketable. Inferior quality is not compatible with professionalism.
My knowledge has grown over the years, as I would hope, but one aspect of my approach is constant and that is simply this: my instinct is to expose the student to the limitless possibilities of their talents. Their valor is determined by the degree to which they are willing to live up those possibilities. In the professional arena, the principle does not change. The working singers I teach face the same question: “Do I settle for what I can safely accomplish now, or do I reach for a higher level?” Last week, I taught a very experienced singer who knows more about the state of the operatic field than most people currently working. She is already committed to achieving her best level and so I did not have to do very much beyond showing her what was possible technically, or rather confirm what she already knew. What made that experience fun was that this singer knew herself intimately. She knew what she had accomplished but was not complacent. She felt something more was possible and sought my help. She could have gotten that help from any other competent technician. I am honored that she came to me.
In the end the answer to Susan’s question, What is a Voice Teacher? might be different for every teacher and indeed every student. My answer is the following: I will show what is possible. How far you, the student go depends entirely on how far you are willing to go. Those who read my posts on the blog and on NFCS, know me superficially as a technician. But singing for me is a total journey. It is physical, it is mental, it is psychological, it is spiritual. Many would like to limit the teacher’s role to what they define. The paradoxical nature of singing permits for an apparent contradiction. I am defined by the student’s concept of his/her own needs. The student may also be redefined by my view of what they need to accomplish lasting success.
The process may be illustrated by the following difficult example:
A professional student came to me describing herself as a lyric and wonders what is missing in her technique. I tell her she is a coloratura and has to develop the rest of her top. This is the kind of difficult, challenging impasses we face as singers routinely. This is not just a technical challenge. It is an emotional, psychological and even spiritual challenge. Any opera singer knows how deeply we identify with our voice type. It is exponentially more difficult to make a Fach change after one has established a reputation in a different Fach. Few would understand this problem to the degree that I do. Many questions come to the mind of the singer in question:
1) Can I get those coloratura notes?
2) What coloratura roles are possible after age 30 in the current age-conscious atmosphere
3) Will my coaches and directors think I’m crazy?
4) Will my agent want to continue working with me?
These are all great questions. Why would I make a Fach recommendation in such a situation?
1) The soprano was not getting roles
2) The competition with true lyrics, especially of a younger ilk is tough
3) The high notes can be acquired in a short time if the singer is dedicated and patient
4) The singer is a natural coloratura who got away through her considerable charm doing light lyric roles
5) I hear often from directors and agents whether I have a ready-to-go Lucia or Konstanze in my studio
This is not the story of one coloratura who started as a lyric, but of many. Regardless of what people think, success in opera is about vocal impact first. It is also about not giving casting directors a reason to consider other superficial criteria, but it is about voice first. Thus, I have to make sure that the principle weapon of the singer is in good order. The most exciting repertoire for a coloratura soprano is coloratura repertoire. If the singer can take the time to make the difficult technical, emotional, psychological, spiritual change, I believe she will become more viable and ultimately stronger.
Some of those singers that I have taught have made the change successfully and some others have remained true to their lyric past. The path is ultimately the singer’s and that must be respected. Yet vocal philosophy cannot be ignored. I am most at peace as a teacher when the singer’s journey is in keeping with his/her vocal nature. I believe the singer would be equally peaceful.
© 07/15/2009

3 thoughts on “Kashudo (歌手道): What is a voice teacher? Inspired by a wonderful post by Susan Eichorn Young

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  1. Voice First. I could almost equate this with the life challenge we have been handed to see ourselves as first spiritual beings, then physical. We are spiritual beings having a temporary human experience, rather than the opposite!

    So, how can we consider the voice, in this context? It is something that has come with our human package. Our job is to take the responsibility, find the respect and the gratitude for the collection of human traits which we have been given, or which we have chosen (depending upon individual belief). Whether we have been given the voice we have, or chosen the voice we have, makes no difference. The bottom line is that IT IS. As WE ARE.

    The most beautiful gift in the world for a born-singer is to find a voice teacher who believes this, and has the courage to teach singing with Truth as a foundation.

    Revolution begins with contemplation. Thanks to you both for setting this conversation in motion!



  2. I don't firmly understand what my voice is but I really agree with what is said here.

    I have been hopping around my part of the world trying to find a teacher who will teach my voice which admittedly might be screwed up and has many deficits but I want them to teach that voice and not something else.

    When a teacher tells me to sing in a range that is physically painful, I am hesitant to do it. I ultimately will even if it is fried out and yuck but I will not do it without careful thought and I will not do it often unless I can be taught a comfortable way to sing there. If they tell me I should sing in an uncomfortable range without rationale, I do not want to see them again.

    I do not like it when I see a teacher and they rattle off where they think my passagios should be. I could care less where they should be but care a lot where they actually are and understand that as the voice matures and a better vocal weight is established, those notes might change. My goal is to be able to sing first and conform to some fach latter. I expect a good teacher to think they know my fach within the first five minutes. I also expect a good teacher to listen to the voice and be open to the idea that they might be wrong until they get closer to a final product.

    When I ask for lessons, the things I care about are the things that will get me to the point where I can sing the fastest. When I don't have a comfortable range large enough to sing a song even off key, I could care less about whether a song is correctly pitched. I don't care about being a professional as I might not have enough talent, etc. but I do care about being able to sing and about what will get me to the point where I can somewhat enjoy my voice the fastest. Anything done well should be done for love first and money or ambition second. At 30, I am definitely not expecting to ever be a singer of a professional calibre. If I like my voice enough and if I can sing, then great but I don't even know my instrument well enough to know if it agrees with me and if it is something I like.

    The relationship between teacher and student should be about trust. When either side is so committed to manipulating things to fit a pattern that the student can't trust the instructor not to damage the voice or the instructor can't discern the voice well enough to teach it, there can be no trust or relationship.

    If I went to an instructor and they told me I was a baritone, I would run because I don't currently have the low notes for the repertoire nor the timbre. If someone helped me explore my voice and over time showed me that I did indeed have the low notes (comfortably and not fry or breathy) and that was the natural timbre of my voice (ie I had this large baritonal sound without severe larynx depression or other painful contrivances), then I would have to concede their point.


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