Becoming a singing student again

I had my first coaching in many years on Friday, and it was a great experience! Coaching is not like singing teaching – coaching deals with the artistry of the song or role, and does not normally address the mechanics of singing. Singing teaching, at its best, works on the vocal mechanics to ensure good communication of the artistic. This coaching was a combination of the two, and the conversation I shared with my coach was open and intense and respectful.

*(In classical singing, a coach is someone who can accompany you on the piano to a high standard and who can assist you with a number of artistic decisions about your singing approach, usually for a role in an opera. They may help you with language pointers and other issues, and are considered an indispensable part of the classical singer’s network. They cannot help you with the mechanics of singing as a singing teacher can, although they often have a great understanding of vocal technique.)

It was great to remind myself what it is like to be the novice in a learning scenario. My coach has the most wonderful ears, and I respect her enormously. We have previously worked together in a different forum, so working with her on my singing was a new experience for us. I confess to being quite nervous! And so was she. Quickly, however, nerves went and we began an hour of intense, rewarding work. I felt like I had alternatively not sung for many years, and yet at times felt I had had years of experience in coachings and classical singing! Quite a feeling.

It was good as a reminder of how I interact with my own students. Mostly, I hope, my students and I are involved in a dialogue about how a piece is both interpreted and sung. I like to think I involve my students in a process of discovery about how the vocal tract shapes vowel sounds, how an easy air flow controls tone and resonance, and how the articulators shape words and vocal tone. Singing is at once a very easy and very difficult art form, and it was good to chat with my own coach about how best to approach a sound quality. As I said to her, artistry, or musical expression, is directly shaped by the mechanics of how to manipulate the shape of the vocal tract, the air flow and articulators. For example, one of my many habits (and I have them, don’t worry!), is to bite off my vowels before they resonate. This makes my sound choppy and lacking what classical musicians call “vocal line”. I’ve known about this for years, but no-one has been able to help me fix the problem. It also makes musical expression and artistry very difficult to manage, and it can sound like I have none!

One of the things we talked about during my coaching session was that in playing cello, for example, I was never accused of lacking musical expressivity, or artistry. In fact, I was always known for being highly expressive in my musical approach. But in singing, adding words to the music adds a whole layer of complexity to the deal. They get in the way of the sound! How do I deal with this? Well, hearing from my coach what I was doing helped me to recognise and articulate the problem, and, in so doing, identify how to fix the problem.

Coaches and singing teachers are important ears. They are “objective” audiences, and they help us to identify and manage vocal habits we simply may not be aware of. However, having a deep personal understanding of the mechanics of singing will help me to better understand how to fix my physical issues that get in the way of artistic, vibrant singing, more than just relying on the ears of my coach. In other words, I need to know WHAT I am doing, HOW I am doing it, and WHY I am doing it, in order to change the sound quality and artistic rendering of the song.

I hope I am training my students for full awareness, understanding and application of the mechanics of singing, so that they will have independent control over the artistry of their singing, outside of the singing studio. This is my goal as a singing teacher.

About Jessica

Dr Jessica O'Bryan PhD is an educator, researcher, singer and author. Her next book on Musical Theatre Education and Training will be published in 2020 through Routledge. Her last book was Teaching Singing in the 21st Century (2014, Springer). She lives in Brisbane in a semi-renovated 20s Queenslander home with her husband, Dougal the Groodle, and all the single ladies (Poppy the Groodle, Lucy the Cat, and the chooks).
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