Kashu-do (歌手道): Voice Teacher and Coach: Singer In the Middle

Two events occurred this week that made me write this post on a subject I have wanted to address a long time ago.  First, a student of mine who has had a successful transition to another vocal category, actually getting her first contract in that new Fach, said to me that a coach at an audition (the wonderful student would not tell me who…nor did I care to know who), looked at her resumé and Zwischenfach repertoire choices (one dramatic soprano, her new Fach and one dramatic mezzo, her old Fach) and said something along the lines that he did not understand this mixed repertoire.  She replied she was at the end of a Fach change and is still considering repertoire from both categories that still felt comfortable.  His response was something along the lines: “…Ah, you study with Jean-Ronald LaFond.  He tends to mess with people’s Fach!”

The second event, not completely surprising, I parted ways with a wonderful young singer who felt that she would be violating her coach’s approach by doing what I need her to do from a technical standpoint.

First issue:  It is important to set something straight.  Because I went through a very public Fach change and successfully, many students who suspected they might be a different voice type have approached me and consequently we have worked it out.  I have a group of tenors in my studio who are former baritones.  We have a regular “Tenor Summit” and last night at just such a gathering, we discussed this and in no case was I the instigator of the change.

Generally  as a teacher, I will have a point of view about a singer’s voice type that may or not be in agreement with some current points of view in the field.  With so many natural tenors singing lyric baritone or sopranos singing mezzo, clearly there are issues of disagreement.  I take always a philosophical view and a practical view of the issue.

1) Philosophically:  A singer’s best voice category is one that gives the voice the opportunity to bloom where the repertoire needs it to bloom.  Example:  why did I make a change to tenor?  Because when I sang as a baritone, I was lauded for my warm voice but it lacked thrust.  My coach at the time convinced me I should make the change when he heard me sing a tenor aria at a party as a joke.  He said it is the most impressive and expressive he had ever heard me.  He was correct, because people are becoming more and more impressed with my “voice” (artistry was never in question) as it settles.

Thus, at a reading of Carmen in Berlin with some of my high level professional students, the Micaela was a dramatic coloratura who can sing every day to a full-bodied Bb6 (yes almost one octave above high C) and often beyond that.  I have a recording of just such a warm-up!  The Queen of the Night is a walk in the park for her.  Yet, with a fully developed voice she sang a drop-dead gorgeous Micaela.  Truly beautiful.  Does singing Micaela make her a lyric soprano?  No.  It makes her a dramatic coloratura who’s voice is rich enough throughout to sing even a lyric role convincingly.  But her most excellent work is in Queen, Lucia, Konstanze and Zerbinetta, roles that require a higher tessitura, in which the most exciting part of her voice is featured.  As Micaela, she is memorable.  As the Queen, she is unforgettable.

2) Practically:  Am I going to tell my coloratura she cannot sing Micaela?  No.  With a fully developed voice, she should accept whatever role she can sing convincingly and within the safe limits of her instrument.  But I would not have her audition as a lyric just because she is being offered “a” lyric role.

Interesting enough, I have another dramatic coloratura, young one, in my studio who sang Micaela last year.  In her case, the coloratura side of her voice is not yet fully developed.  So the pressure on her to sing lyric roles is strong.  She has a very large voice for a coloratura.  But do you completely forego a possible Eda Moser-like talent because it is easier to train them in a repertoire in which they might get some lower level adulations?  Or do you train the student relative to her future while allowing her to take on some roles in another Fach if they are offered and if they are appropriate?


Second issue:  One of my favorite coaches sent me a student whom she had been working with for quite a while hoping I might be able to shed some light on her vocal issues.  It began quite well until the young student perceived a difference in opinion and felt herself in the middle.  I expressed to the student that the coach’s job is to get her to function the best possible within the limits of what she has currently as vocal substance.  My job is to build her voice for the long haul.  Since my philosophy is about building structure first, correct coordination as I see them are not always readily possible.  I believe in doing the correct coordination regardless the current results in a voice lesson.  It is perfectly ok to me if a singer cracks a note while attempting to sing it correctly because they lack the strength to do it.  I am not a fan of getting a note to come out respectably at all costs.

Correct technique yields results over time.  Once those results become consistent, they do not go away.  Compensatory modifications can get a momentary result, but it will not be viable in all circumstances.  Vowel modification is popular in modern vocal pedagogy because one can always find a vowel that is convenient relative to the strength of the overtones present in the source tone.  But we should have an ideology about what should be possible on a given note, meaning that the old school idea of “pure vowels” has an indispensable place in vocal pedagogy despite the fact that vowel (resonance)  modification is a scientific fact.

There is a big difference between conceiving the vowel purely relative to the singer’s personal concept of that vowel combined with a relaxed throat, whereby vowel modification is the spontaneous end result between paradoxical functions (text articulation vs. low larynx) and choosing a vowel modification relative to the poor limits of the source tone.  The source tone depends on both the depth of the folds during vibration and the medial pressure of fold closure.  Until that balance is achieved, ideal resonance postures cannot be achieved.

Am I against a coach who is trying to help a singer get the best results from their instruments in the moment?  Certainly not!  It is their job.  In an ideal world, there would be no disagreement, because the student would not be visiting a coach until her technique was finished.  But that is not the reality of the world.  I am thankful to a coach who can help the singer sing their best within their current means, because I am then free to work the singer on the other side and help him/her develop a final vocal structure.

Some students however, do not have the wherewithal to see the advantages in such a relationship.  My personal coach helps me put my technical mind aside and deal with my voice from a musical standpoint.  I have made great strides that way.  But the fact that I can do much better in my upper range than my low does not decry the fact that there are some technical issues still to be rectified in the low range.  The better I work my technique, the better the advice of my private coach work for me.  They go hand and hand and I have made substantial strides recently because of that.  This works because when I go to my coach, I walk in as an empty cup.  I try to the best of my ability with his help to put my technical know-how aside.  Only then can I really learn from him.  Yet it does not mean that I completely forget about the technique that has gotten me here and from my own estimation I have not mastered yet.


For that reason, I do not have much use for coaches who will pronounce a voice teacher summarily “wrong” because their “opinion” matters more to them than the singer’s future.  Indeed voice teachers can be just wrong occasionally.  But it takes someone with at least equal knowledge about the voice to make that determination.  And just as I will never refer to myself as a professional conductor, although I have advanced training in the field, I find it truly self-centered of coaches who do not spend the bulk of their time dealing with singer’s technical issues to assume they understand those issues better than a voice teacher.  For that reason, I defer to my student’s coaches on musical issues, regardless of my opinions on the matter.  The great coaches, many of them better voice teachers than many, will be the first to say that they are not voice teachers.  They understand that their tutelage has an effect on how the singer approaches technique, but they do not surplant themselves in the role of voice teacher.

For that reason, I am grateful for the coaches I work with regularly, even if occasionally our mutual clients could find themselves confused between what we require of them.  Thank you Steve, Mikhail, Adelle, Alessandro, Kanako and Andrej, for the humility you always show in your extraordinary knowledge of the voice and music.  I always feel safe as a singer to submit to your teaching, because of the respect you have for the complexity of this art form.  You are special and I am grateful for you.  That is why you teach so many of my students.


© 03/23/2013

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