Many singers find it difficult to take a professional coaching and keep their healthy vocal technique in tact. The standards for musicianship in the field of the professional singer are extremely high. In our modern world, a singer can no longer sing large beautiful sound constantly and be seriously considered as a true artist. The pressure to become a sensitive musical singer accompanied by technical consistency is a real expectation that every young singer faces. Competition is stiff and the considerations in choosing the appropriate coach for each individual's needs are many.
How does a singer find the coach that is appropriate for his or her career goals? What are the singer's short and long term expectations in coaching? Who can help achieve those expectations in the most direct and professional manner? In the following segments, many aspects of coaching will be considered: many questions that might inspire a singer to think more deeply about his or her particular coaching needs while protecting the voice in the process.
Taking the Survey: As in any type of search, it is important that each individual singer find someone who is appropriate professionally and is compatible personally. Both aspects are extremely critical to creating an efficient environment in which to learn. Remember that there are a lot of oversized egos out there that are not focused on goals or process, but on power and control. Avoid ALL of these personalities at all cost. Emotional damage can take years (and lots of money) to repair and it is not appropriate for the singer to pay for a professional hour and get emotional abuse. (See article, "Emotional Abuse in the Voice Studio") The truth is that there are many positive and considerate coaches out there and it is important to seek out someone who can deliver information in a professional, kind, and considerate manner. NEVER confuse abuse with ability or power with wisdom. No one who is focused on manipulation and abuse is capable of being an artistically centered career-guide for you. Ask every singer you know with whom he or she coaches. Gather this information in a sensible and logical manner. Ask for a referral in a specific way that reflects your needs. In other words you could ask: "Do you know a good coach who is specifically excellent in languages? I really need some work in that area and I am looking for someone who is really thorough and positive in their approach." There, you have asked a lot of information about the coach in a short time and in a non-offensive way. Most singers are happy to share their knowledge with others, especially if they coach with someone whom they like personally. Remember this survey is to help you establish an information base. Even if a coach does not represent your critical need at the moment, take the information for future reference. You might need specific work at a later time and this person might be able to help you.
Types of Coaches
There are many types of coaches and most of them have their specific area expertise. Some are excellent in several areas. It is of critical importance that singers have access to these individuals who offer an important information base for singers. Whether you are preparing a recital, a concert, an audition, or an opera, it is important to know what a good professional coach can offer. Establishing the 'polish work' is what makes you look like a professional rather than an amateur. In the following segment, you will find a description of different types of coaches and characteristic credentials that fit into specific categories.
The 'Cheerleader' Coach: There are those who coach in the field of singing that do not have the credentials or experience to offer a good product. Some of these types of coaches might be well intended, but he or she may not have the experience to offer a professionally oriented coaching. Remember there is a huge difference in an accompanist and a coach and it is important that you know the difference. Having sessions with a talented accompanist is of extreme importance to any singer. Some coaches are talented in both areas. However, it is important to remember that coaching is a different area from accompanying altogether. Individuals who are talented in both areas, coaching and accompanying, are a treasure. However, there are those who are simply accompanists, yet call themselves coaches. They do not have the experience in professional settings to develop the skills an excellent coach must attain. Some of these individuals 'cheer' the singer on telling the singer that they are going to be the next Corelli or Sutherland. This is a huge red light. Encouragement is wonderful, but making such blanket statements is inappropriate for the mere reason that no one can determine the future for a singer. Life is far too unpredictable and a career can take many directions. Such fantasy-based statements do not keep the singer reality-based. It is critical that a singer work at locating someone who is extremely honest and concerned, without being overly encouraging beyond the truth. Singers need to know their strong points and then focus on improving their weaknesses. This is the only way to walk the path of professional growth. It is just inspired hard work. There is no substitute. Having someone consistently cheering the singer forward without offering much information does not serve toward career guidance.
The Language Specialist: Language is very important to the aspiring professional singer. One excellent way to get a head start is to actually go to a language institute and find a course of intense study. Languages are critically important to the career-oriented singer for many reasons including correct interpretation of the music and the possibility of working in multi-lingual settings. There are coaches who specialize in languages and they can be an excellent source for the singer. However, specifically the often-missing piece with these types of coaches is a deep understanding of how the singing voice works healthily, especially in the upper passaggio and higher register. In excellent career-level singing, vowels MUST be allowed to alter as a singer goes higher toward the upper passaggio range or even earlier in the scale. (This process can be observed on my instructional CD "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones", available on this homepage.) Many coaches do not have an understanding of this most critical aspect of healthy singing. NEVER allow any language specialist have you pronounce pure vowels to the top of your voice. Without full knowledge of altering a vowel in order for the vowel to be better understood in the high range, the singer will literally choke on the root of the tongue due to a high larynx position. Production of pure vowels with a wide mouth opening creates a situation in which the larynx cannot appropriately release. When a singer is told to sing pure vowels at the top of the staff, most of the time the result is catastrophic. I remember early in my teaching career I taught a lot of Juilliard Graduates in the field of acting. Because their tool of artistic expression was language, it was extremely difficult to get these actor/singers to understand the importance of altering the vowels in the higher range to attain an open throat. Their concept language expression was 'words', not the sounds that create the words. Acoustical efficiency in singing requires that vowels alter. This is proven scientifically through fiber optic research. If altered properly, the altered vowel will sound more like the pure vowel than the actual pure vowel itself. Language experts are wonderful, but if he or she demands pure vowel sounds in the higher range at the expense of the singer's open throat, then I would question working with that individual. A couple of years ago, I saw Shirley Verrett teach for the Marilyn Horne Foundation at the Juilliard School in New York City. Even though she was mainly coaching, at one point she demonstrated to a singer the expansion of the throat for the upper voice while keeping the integrity of the vowel. If tongue position is dictated properly in the higher range, every vowel can be understood clearly without sacrificing the open throat. Some call the open throat the shock absorber for the cords. I am sure that there are language specialists in the professional world who have achieved this kind of knowledge. Unfortunately, they are few and far between.
The Style Specialist: Some coaches are more educated in style than in language. These individuals represent an excellent source, especially if a singer is interested in specializing in a specific period of music. Be careful not to sacrifice technique in the name of style. (See Baroque article) Remember, it is important to consider that singers need to understand all styles of repertoire in order to compete in the world of the singing artist. Some coaches understand many different styles and periods of music and these are the people that represent the most important source for the professional singer.
Focus on the needs at hand. When is your next performance and are their specific coaching needs that need to be met stylistically? Is there a long-term goal, such as a concert, that presents specific needs? Search for someone who offers quality instruction in a style of presentation that reflects respect. Another consideration is that a professional can become burned out or exhausted from over-work. Try to find someone who loves the music and is inspired by the work.
The Conductor/Coach: Personally, I often suggest that a singer coach with a conductor to experience a different side of the coaching world. Find a coach/conductor that is aligned with your vocal level. In other words, I would discourage a singer from choosing a conductor who is at the Met if you have only been singing 3 years and have little or no experience. Find someone who conducts and produces local concerts or oratorios. These are valuable people who can help in your process. You do not go to someone who expects you to sound like you are ready for the grand stage if you truly are not ready for the grand stage. Be honest with your own ability and learn that being realistic serves you much more than fantasy-based thinking. My teacher, Alan Lindquest, said that he learned to become a true musician when her toured with the Minnesota Orchestra, performing 20 oratorios. Musicianship is a critical part of a singer's development. Find someone who can help inspire this kind of balanced artistic singing. If you are not naturally musical, then study conducting or a musical instrument that demands a deep understanding of musical style and phrasing. The act of conducting will connect the body with music. A conductor/coach might be willing to offer several areas of expertise. This could include the knowledge of what instruments are playing the in orchestra at a given phrase of an aria and how much sound the singer needs to give at that specific moment. Stay away from coach/conductors that have you sing loudly all the time. This is not music. If this is your tendency, then work toward learning to sing many different dynamic levels.
The Dangers of Coach as Teacher: This setting needs to be avoided at all cost. The majority of coaches know little about vocal production. However, there are those who think because they have worked with lots of singers that they have the ability to offer technical advice. RUN from this red light! This is the ego interfering with the singer's process. Usually if a singer listens to the technical advice of a coach, that singer will undoubtedly end up in vocal trouble. Some coaches have played for many master classes and for many private studios. This coach may have heard lots of vocal concepts, however most of the time the knowledge-link of 'how to apply' the concept has NOT been achieved. There is one coach in New York City who has experienced accompanying for an Italian-trained voice teacher. This coach now calls himself a voice teacher because he can charge more money and because he has simply a couple of pieces of the vocal pie. This is dangerous situation for the singer. Remember the old saying, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing"? In this case that statement is entirely true. Any person who teaches voice without technical background and years of study is not capable of offering technical advice. Kirsten Flagstad once said, "an ego-centered coach who does not respect the singer's technique can destroy a career completely". Judge for yourself but when someone of Flagstad's stature speaks, it is wise to listen.
I had an unpleasant occurrence in my New York Studio only weeks ago. I had spent almost 4 years helping a baritone realign his technique after he came to me with a vocal wobble (See article on "Vocal Wobble"). He recently sang for a professional opera coach (who also teaches voice) with a very powerful personality. Because of the insistence of this coach to produce large sound constantly, placing unrealistic vocal demands on the voice, this singer's technique was completely out of alignment after only one hour. The singer was encouraged to produce sound that was laryngeo-pharynx dominated. There was little or no nasal resonance or lift of the soft palate encouraged. Upon reaching my studio for his next lesson, this singer thought he was hoarse from allergies. In actuality, he had 'blown-out' (over-blown) his vocal cords singing heavy repertoire without a protection of the throat. There was too much heavy mechanism engaged. It took an entire hour of intense vocal work to get back to the thin edges of the vocal folds and re-awaken the light mechanism. It is important to realize that all of this damage was due to inappropriate vocal demands by ONE coach in ONE coaching session. This is not to say that there are not a lot of wonderful professional coaches that enhance and encourage healthy vocalism. However, in this case the results were extremely negative. The singer was very upset and I was extremely frustrated.
The Coach as Guru
One situation that a singer needs to avoid is the coaching/acting classes that exist where the enlarged ego of the coach sets himself up as the 'guru' of career preparation. There is one coach of my acquaintance who teaches acting (without proper credentials I might add!) and at the end of the class places a LOT of pressure on his students to join a 'self-help' group. In actuality this 'self-help group' is a cult-like organization. In my studio, I have had 2 singers so personally shaken by this organization's brutal and manipulative tactics, that they had to seek professional psychological help. RUN from this hard sell not only for your emotional survival, but also for the mere fact that this person is trying to create a diseased family that is designed to make the singer emotionally dependent. This toxic type of enmeshment is disguised as support and friendship. In actuality, it is using the singer and the singer's finances so that he/she (guru) can climb higher in the organization. Guru mentality is frightening and any singer should be frightened of being pulled into such a cult-like environment. Remember that ANY singer who is drawn into such a group is NOT mentality strong enough for a professional career. Each singer must strengthen his or her emotional independence, just as he or she strengthens the body or voice through proper exercise.
Appropriate Response to Guru Manipulation: When someone tries to control emotionally, the singer has a right to do a disappearing act. If confronted, the singer has a right to say, "No thank you, this is really not for me at the moment". Singers who succeed in the singing business are NOT weak emotionally. They have a strong sense of self and they know when they are being manipulated. They also have to learn how to protect themselves from the cult mentality. Remember that your mental health is the basis of your vocal and physical health.
The Singer in Protection Mode: Tactful Responses: How should a singer respond when faced with an uncomfortable situation in a coaching? When a coach over-steps an obvious boundary and tries to go from coach to technical problem-solver, what constitutes an appropriate response? It is important that the singer have a toolbox of strong yet respectful statements that can empower them to protect their boundaries. The following examples are designed to help singers find the strength to say 'no' to a coach who is over-stepping a boundary. Usually when this happens, the singer is uncomfortable. It is important to recognize this discomfort and move out of 'people pleasing' mode and into protection mode.
This is a technique that is deceptive in nature, but if the singer produced pure vowels with a closed throat, the result would be catastrophic. Many singers use this technique and then they usually go to another coach.
These examples encourage a dialogue and the singer is reflecting agreement with the coach. However, by saying that the teacher needs to be involved, the sub-text is that the coach is over-stepping a professional boundary. Even on a sub-conscious level, the coach will usually get the idea and become less insistent. The MOST critical lesson a singer can learn is how to protect his or her voice.
Generally speaking, many coaches offer vital information that works toward enhancing the growth of the singer. Be sure to find coaches who work diligently during the professional hour, consider boundaries, and allow you to contribute to the process by reflecting your experience. Work with someone who really listens to your experience and is willing to be flexible in order to provide a positive experience. Remember that no one will protect your voice but you. A professional coaching is a partnership.
(c) David L. Jones/2003
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The double instructional CD "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones" is available for purchase at www.voiceteacher.com.