A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Teachers - trust and loyalty, but not at all costs

One of the most important relationships in our lives as singers is the one we have with our singing teacher. In career terms it is probably the most important. Your teacher is the person you trust to guide not only in your technical development, but quite often you will need their help when making repertoire choices and choosing what roles to accept in the early stage of your career. It's an intimate relationship, what happens in lessons should stay in lessons, it should be a time you are free and safe to get things wrong without fear, in order to stretch your capabilities. More often than not no one will ever hear you singing as well as your teacher hears you in that room... Or as badly. The trust has to be incredibly strong and work both ways, which is why the first months with a new teacher are often a huge leap of faith.

And it doesn't always work. There is arguably nothing worse than being stuck with the wrong teacher. Even a universally regarded teacher may not be the best one for you. And even if you've found the right one, there is quite often a time limit on how long they will be your best option. This is because of many things.

First off, teachers while trying to impart an overall solid technique often focus on their pet likes and hates, and what they have to offer may not be what you need at any given time. You can also get used to one another and lessons just turn into minor tune-ups and ego boosts, while habits that both of you take for granted strengthen and chip away at your technique. By the time they get so bad a teacher who is used to you notices them you'll be facing a huge challenge that could in other circumstances be avoided.

Some singers reading this will be up in arms defending their teachers, saying I've just been unlucky in who I've gone to, their teachers never let them get away with anything bad, etc. Maybe they've hit the jackpot, or maybe their trust is blinding them. It's a difficult thing realising that the person you've entrusted your voice to isn't perfect... But perfection doesn't exist, it's all about finding what objectively works best for you at any given time, which often doesn't mean the most comfortable option.

I think I've been lucky with the teachers I've worked with over the years, every single one taught me something important and helped me turn a corner in my vocal development. And they've all been different, despite ostensibly teaching the same 'good technique'. But various friends have not been so lucky, or have become complacent in their relationships with their teachers, or have stopped having lessons (which to my mind is the biggest mistake a good singer can make). I have also made the decision to change teacher a fair few times, the same with coaches (although there you have more license to shop around... Teachers do not generally like to share pupils, for good reason - that would imply that the trust necessary for them to do their job isn't there).

The key is to make sure you take stock every now and again and ask yourself:
- am I getting better?
- is my career progressing?
- if not, why? what feedback am I getting from my rejections, and are there recurring themes?
- is my teacher tackling these themes with me, or dismissing them? (audition feedback is very often opinionated and not founded on any foundation of technical knowledge... but if it is consistent from multiple sources, it does mean there is a problem you have to face up to, even if it's just a problem of perception)
- watch yourself back and notice what annoys you about how you perform, is your teacher addressing these things?
- am I too comfortable in lessons? do I come out of them with ego boosting reassurances ('I think that's great'), but not actually having improved, only tweaked?
- am I being challenged every lesson, or are we going through the motions?

There are many types of teachers/coaches out there, offering different things. You need to decide what you need most now and if you're getting it from your teacher. Here are some broad categories, and various teachers may be a combination of different categories. I may also have missed a lot of types off here, these are just from my experience of music college and private teachers.

The builder:
A quick imparter of the fundamentals, sees undergrads through their first period of rapid progress as they discover what is what. Unfortunately due to the law of diminishing returns and how the learning curve of singing works, there will come a time when the fundamentals are working well enough and what is needed is more detailed work rather than just going on about 'more support' and 'more space'. Progress slows down, can even stop as you plateau, and you wait for a penny to drop that can almost teleport you to the next level. Some teachers don't deal in small change though...

The working singer:
A teacher who is usually (but not always) still enjoying a career. They have a great working technique (as opposed to perfect technique, see Iain Patterson's excellent blog post on the subject: http://ayepatz.com/2014/06/18/the-everyday-voice/ ) and they try to teach you how to do what they do. It'll be a combination of good technique, short-cuts, metaphors and habits that will get you sounding good. But it may not be the best you can sound. However it will work, be reliable for the most part, even if it is a personal technique that isn't quite calibrated to your instrument, but rather your teacher's. They also know a lot of repertoire by virtue of doing it. They know what it takes to deliver it on stage and will teach you that, give you tips on how to go about preparing a role and point out potential problems along with fixes. Unfortunately what you do on stage isn't necessarily what you need to do when auditioning, and they can't quite navigate the difference.

The stylist:
Someone who knows repertoire not just from doing, but from study, passion and interest. They know style, language, history, performance practice, etc. They will do everything they can to have you doing what the composer asks you to do on the page. Every little marking on the page and colour that could be put into the music. Technique sometimes takes a back seat. Most coaches fall into this category, which is great, bacause they set you a bar that you must try to achieve with the technique you have. But at the end of the day I think you have to prioritise healthy vocal production over artistry. Once you're secure enough, they aren't mutually exclusive, quite the opposite, but they do need to happen in the right order.

The noise-enthusiast:
In many ways the opposite to a stylist. They like tone and will want you to deliver it consistently. The music takes a back seat and the voice becomes the priority. But sometimes they don't address how you make the noise thay want (they may be busy playing the piano rather than watching your veins pop out). They will get you sounding better in a coaching room, which will translate to sounding better in auditions and small rooms, but because you may not be delivering your tone in the most optimal way, you may notice a big drop in effectiveness in large spaces or when matched with an orchestral texture.

The 'master':
Someone who mostly does masterclasses. A celebrity. My pet hate. They will take credit for improvements in your performance that are not actually down to them, but to you getting more comfortable with the masterclass environment. I mean, it's natural that the second and third time you sing something will be better, as stress subsides, so they shouldn't take credit for it. They can raise valid points though and offer 'penny-drop' thoughts. Masterclasses are a valuable way of getting a new opinion on your singing and snippets of advice, but beware if they become about the master rather than the student.

The technician:
Never mind about the music, the markings, or what noise you make. They just focus on how you make it, and how to get is as easy and optimised as possible. They often read treatises, watch videos of great singers and analyse exactly how they do what they do, they have a strong opinion of what a perfect technique should be. They don't necessarily have one themselves, or they may have a fantastic technique coupled with a less-than-fantastic voice. In any case, they will leave the style and language to coaches, and not let you get away with any sound that is not efficient in its production. The leap of faith is trusting that the tone will come as a consequence of technique, rather than you manufacturing a pleasing sound by means which are not in line with an efficient technique. 'It's a lot easier to sound like a great opera singer than to sing like one' is something you may hear, and the difference between the two is that only one of those options will last a long time. It will also be more reliable in less-than-perfect conditions (so basically 360 days a year).

The trouble-shooter:
I wrote about one once. They are a technician that can adopt very targeted strategies to deal with specific issues in vocal production. Recovering from a medical condition or procedure, dealing with a specific muscular tension, give them a problem and they will solve it. Asking them to make you sing better may be overkill and get you embroiled in a very confusing series of countless exercises each working on a different aspect of singing, but that don't readily form a coherent 'big picture' of how one should sing.

Almost everyone thinks their teacher is a technician. Certainly most teachers think they are, because they try to teach technique. But it's about how they teach it. As singers we have to strike the seemingly impossible balance of trusting our chosen teacher implicitly, but also remaining very critical as to whether we are really getting what we need from our teacher. Life would be amazing if all teachers were perfect stylist-technicians who also knew what it takes to have a successful career...

Great teachers who have been amazingly good for us for a long time may suddenly stop being the best option for various reasons. It doesn't mean they are bad teachers, or that we are fickle. We owe it to our voices to not be complacent about our choice of teachers and coaches, to not get too comfortable, to keep challenging ourselves to improve.

As ever, the author's opinions are his own and may be partially or completely wrong.

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