On Singing: My Philosophy of Teaching Singers

On Singing: My Philosophy of Teaching Voice

by Elena Greco

Typical reading time: 4 minutes

February 5, 2016

Being a singer poses demands that no other professional has to face. With an instrument that is both organic and sentient, there are unique challenges. Also, like acting, singing is a profession fraught with rejection. And in modern times, it is very much a business, and the people who decide our fate professionally (if we choose to let them) are interested only in what sells, sometimes with no eye or concern for authentic creative expression. Maintaining ourselves as healthy vehicles for creativity – and for life – is often a challenge.

In order for your singing to be fulfilling for you, and uplifting and entertaining for your audience, your whole being must be available to your art, not just your technique. In order to perform with your whole being, you need to be healthy in mind and body, as well as technique.

I want to support singers in being supremely healthy and vibrant performers, and in bringing their whole being freely, authentically and creatively to their performing so that they can create inspiring performances. I also want them to have meaningful, powerful lives free from emotional baggage and bad vocal technique! And so I feel compelled to write about this subject, as there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about this topic out there.

When we listen to singing, we experience a direct communication of the musician’s emotions and essence. Singing is so much more than vocal technique! Addressing the body and mind as a whole is an essential part of mastering the art and science and mystery of singing.

Voice is the most difficult instrument to teach. As a vocal coach, I cannot show you what to do with your voice in the same way that I can show you what to do with your flute, for example. Instead of a flute, the whole body/mind is the instrument of the singer, and to teach that instrument, I know that I must be willing to engage fully with the body/mind. Our “personal” issues are what our lives are about, and our singing comes out of our sometimes messy lives, not out of a vacuum. We cannot separate ourselves into parts when we sing, or we will not bring all of ourselves to our singing.

There is a way of viewing our singing as part of the larger picture of our lives, so that we see ourselves as a hologram, rather than the sum of discrete parts. I wish there were more voice teachers and coaches who did that, and that there was an awareness of the value of that perspective in the vocal world.

When I was pursuing an opera career, the voice teachers I encountered had a strict policy of not allowing anything “personal” to come into the session. Why do you suppose there was such a careful avoidance of dealing with anything other than vocal technique with their students? I suspect it was because they were uncomfortable with dealing with “personal” issues and had not been trained in supporting students in that way.  But if a singer is in despair that her career is not on track and does not know what to do about it, or if she is distraught that her best friend just betrayed her, or if she is having trouble paying the bills and doesn’t know how many more lessons she can afford, or if she is sad or anxious in general, these things affect her singing and her ability to incorporate your teaching.

There is now an unending stream of internships, summer programs and workshops for young singers. There are coaches who can help singers at every level perfect their vocal technique, their acting technique, their movement skills, their artistic interpretation and their musicianship. The one thing there is not a coach for in the singing world is … life. Life affects a singer’s singing more than anything else.

All of the creative arts require involvement of the whole person in a way that other professions do not, and singing, and teaching or coaching voice in particular, really must include that perspective. Because I am also trained and experienced as a counselor and coach, I am quite comfortable in dealing with anything a singer brings into the studio. I realize that not all vocal coaches and teachers are, and some might even prefer to avoid it. In the future, I think that vocal pedagogy classes in conservatories should include a segment on working with the whole person, taught by a coach or counselor who is skilled at working with creative folks. I would love to suggest that idea to conservatories (please feel free to let me know where to write!).

You might think that, rather than voice teachers and vocal coaches including factors other than technique, the solution would be for the voice student to see a psychotherapist while also studying voice and performing. The problem there is that most therapists are not trained to work with creative people, and they do not understand the psychology or the needs of a singer. They might actually see the singer’s intense commitment to their art and craft as a negative thing! They have no idea what the performer’s life is like, and likely would see some of the things that are “normal” to a singer – going without a long-term romantic relationship, not having a comfortable or permanent place to live, not earning enough money to afford decent food or clothing – as being a sign of something pathological, rather than being the usual existence of a singer.

There was recently an article (www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/10/05/heartbreak-almost-destroyed-this-opera-singer-s-voice.html) about an opera singer who had to withdraw in the middle of his debut performance at the Metropolitan Opera. For those who are not opera devotees, debuting at the Met is the pinnacle of an opera singer’s dream; withdrawing in the middle of that performance is something you just would not ever want to do. It seems that this tenor was in the throws of a divorce, and the resultant emotion caused his throat muscles to tighten so much that he could not sing! Singers who appear at the top level of the opera world have trained themselves for years to perform in the face of obstacles. Yet this singer could not force his body not to respond to the emotion caused by a distressing situation in his life. None of us can do that, try though we might.

That is why, in my studio, physical challenges are allowed, emotions are allowed, life’s difficulties are allowed, and questions about developing goals and strategies are allowed. Although I focus first and foremost on teaching vocal technique grounded in tradition that encourages freedom of expression and longevity of the voice (things any good voice teacher should do), anything that goes on in the singer’s life that affects their singing might be addressed.

Being a singer is a difficult job, and we need to work with people who support us in being our absolute best and healthiest on all levels. I teach with an intention to support growth in the singer as a human professional who brings themselves and their art fully and freely to those who need it. Having a singing career is a wonderful and noble goal, but using our art to uplift people, give them hope and enjoyment, and give them respite from life’s challenges is just as gratifying, isn’t it? And before they can do that, singers need to have the proper support and guidance themselves. Let’s make sure they do.

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