Teaching singing:


I have been teaching singing since 1999. Since then it has always been a passion for me to teach and transmit knowledge.


My teaching is of course based on theoretical knowledge but always in close connection with the practical aspects of the job:my occupation as an opera singer on international stages enables me to be fully aware of the current requirements of this job and to offer my students a realistic view of it in the following fields: voice types, the choice of the repertoire and the means to be implemented in order to achieve realistic aims.

 

Over the Internet you can find thousand of pages dedicated to the teaching of and theories on singing or even video teaching offers…

 

You will not find anything like this here.

 

Teaching classical singing goes requires a meeting between a student and his teacher. Nothing can replace this confrontation, even in the Internet age.

Teaching aims indeed at transmitting knowledge following a method that is tailored to each student, but not at discharging the same repeated, theoretical amount of knowledge to all students who will stumble through it and not really have a good command of it.

The student must receive the information he needs to make progress in a step-by-step approach, in a sequence and quantity that is decided by the teacher, depending on how well the student can assimilate it.

It would be wrong and dishonest to pretend that you can simply hand over a user’s guide to be followed by all in the same way. If this was actually the case, after centuries of practice, all experts would have sat around the table in order to produce a “final” handbook of vocal technique, which would be adopted and applied by all! But this is obviously not the case…

 

Of course it is essential for the teacher to have the theoretical knowledge and a good command of the subject. My experience as a teacher has been constantly improved and enriched by my knowledge of the anatomy of the vocal tract, the developments of vocal acoustics and research works on the human voice.  

 

As I explained above, my intent is not to give a vocal technique lesson, but I would like to recall here a few basics of the Atelier Musical Berlin:

First of all “Primum non nocere” – “above all never harm”. It may seem superfluous to remind the Hippocratic Oath. But it seems necessary to do so when you have to face the distress of singers whose vocal practices have worn out their instrument.

 

Singing is a natural act and must remain so.

  

Classical singing is of course an optimization of the voice as a music instrument, but nevertheless it is an act that must remain simple, natural and tailored to each individual’s physiology.

Teaching classical singing too often consists in accumulating overactive vocal practices, the negative effects of which subsequently require making a new active correction, which activates other muscles of the larynx or the pharynx in order to lessen the use of the muscles used previously. In its turn, this correction shall induce a new muscle correction, and so on.

 

This is exactly like mistaking the diagnosis for the sickness, the cause for the consequence.

 

Singing becomes hell and the singer keeps trying to correct the consequences of wrong vocal techniques by counterweighing them with other muscle actions that subsequently induce other harmful consequence, and so on.

 

This creates an alternating pattern of euphoric periods (when the singer feels he is making great progress) and times of discouragement (the muscle "combat" causes imbalances), until an insuperable deadlock is reached.

 

Teaching singing should meet the physiological and psychological qualities of the vocalist. To achieve this, the various factors that enable a smooth development of the voice as a music instrument should be balanced and coordinated in the best possible way by taking into account principles that are common to everybody and others that need to be tailored to each individual, depending on their physiology and psychology. Beyond this, this teaching method should allow a person who has overcome the technical constraints of singing to blossom and reach the expressive areas where the voice conveys pure emotion and is a medium towards musical transcendence.  

 

The voice is the mirror of the mind, but this can only be the case if the voice and the human being – the instrument and the performer - merge together.How can you be yourself and be a good performer if you cannot sing with your own voice or with a tampered and artificially built instrument?

 

Beyond this general statement, our teaching is based on simple and practical answers to simple and concrete questions: Why should you do this, how does this impact on the voice? Which vocal technique shall I implement in order to achieve this particular result? How can I master it and reproduce it?

 

Our teaching helps all students building a sounder, more resistant and homogenous voice, with a balanced timbre, no breaks and no weaknesses.

 

The first meeting at the Atelier Musical Berlin consists in an initial vocal check-up. After a discussion focused on the student’s background and expectations we will start working on the basics, regardless of his level, and even if he seems to have a good command of them: the first meeting can indeed only be a snapshot of the singer. While it is quite easy to draw a list of what is going wrong (diagnosis), since vocal faults are often the result of vocal overactivity and too many contradictory vocal techniques, it would be counterproductive to tackle the consequences without taking the causes into account. This would mean entering the vicious cycle of correction-overcorrection I described above.

 

Hence it is necessary to start all over again in order to set up a balanced development based on a sound foundation, and to speak the same language in order to avoid any misunderstanding. It may even be necessary to "deconstruct" the wrong vocal habits that have led to the current vocal faults and disorders.

 

This initial foundation-laying phase lasts more or less time, depending on the skills and level already achieved by the student: some issues may be tackled in five minutes while others shall require several weeks. The ensuing phase will consist in frequent repetitions of simple vocal practices while avoiding trendy nebulous wordings, in order for the singer to have control over the various components of his voice and to reproduce all sounds in a lasting and easy way.

A kind of personal « checklist » is progressively worked out (“a simple set of rules”, as Alan Lindquest used to put it). This checklist is simple and clear and it allows the vocalist to answer the following questions at any time:“If I do this, the following will happen; to achieve this, I need to do that.”The vocal techniques that result in a well-shaped voice are known and mastered. They can be reproduced at any time.

 

The aim is for each student to become autonomous and in full command of the functioning and evolution of his instrument.

 

The work at the Atelier Musical Berlin is based on the three components that encompass all elements that may impact on the voice:

- the body,

- the larynx,

- the pharynx.

 

These three aspects induce a work based on:

- the body posture;

- the control of the inhalation and exhalation tract, especially the control of the air flow during the phonation phase: the singer needs to know the impact of the Bernoulli principle (also called “venturi effect”) on the vocal folds’ vibration, the exhaled air being considered as a moving fluid;

- the soft onset of tone;

- the control of the larynx opening and the tipping of the thyroid into the lower part of the larynx, that is to say the use of the “thin edge” function of the vocal folds up into the tessitura without employing the thick cord mass. This allows the control of the passaggio (transition from one vocal register to another) and opens the door to the high tessitura without moving into head voice;

- the knowledge of the numerous possibilities offered by the pharynx, of its necessary flexibility and its resonator function;

- the development of consistent vocal production with a consistent tone quality.

 

According to us, the following aspects of the voice can be successfully implemented if the singer masters the essential elements mentioned above: balancing of registers, breath support, dynamic vocal production, balancing of vowels, legato, vibrato, cuperto, resonators, soft palate, hard palate, mouth, lip position and use,…

 

Let us here quote Alan Lindquest once again:

« Principle:

Voice training consists in developing a body instrument on the basis of internal relaxation, silence, patience and trust, pushed by the necessity to sing. The voice must be trained to achieve the correct shape and function on the basis of the following elements:

- the FEELING of the correct posture,

- the FEELING of the accurate breathing reflexes,

- the FEELING of the relaxation of the swallowing tract,

- the FEELING of the open resonators,

- the FEELING of the accurate movements of the articulation tract.”

(Excerpt from an article of the Journal of Singing of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, May 1955.)

 

In the end, the overall desired feeling is a freedom, a relief, a feeling of muscular non-activity (“I’m doing nothing”) that is made possible by the optimal coordination and balancing of the muscles used in phonation.

This eventually enables the vocalist to focus on his goal, his raison d'être: unveiling his personality, expressing himself, achieving a musicality freed from technical requirements – actually thanks to the command of these technical requirements.

 

Let us here quote a few “masters” whose research work and real-life experience are to me references in the field of vocal pedagogy:  Manuel Garcia, Alan Lindquest, Richard Miller and David L. Jones.


I also recommend reading:

An article published in the Journal of the CNSMDP, fall 2009, p.16

or

or the text below.

 

A few links for Internet fans and a selection of books for book fans:

 

In German:


http://www.gesanglehrer.de/index.php?lang=1&link=arti&unter=davi

Deutsche Übersetzung von Christian Haselband der Artikeln von David L. Jones


http://www.dbl-ev.de/index.php?id=231

Deutscher Bundesverband für Logopädie e.V


Atemtechnik als roter Faden, ein Weg zur Aufwertung der Gesangskunst in Theorie und Praxis, Janice Harper Smith, Ed Florian Nötzel


Stimmfehler - Stimmberatung: Erkennen und Behandlung der Sängerfehler in Frage und Antwort, Paul Lohmann (Autor), Ed Schott (Broschiert)


Lehrbuch der Phoniatrie und Pädaudiologie, Jürgen Wendler, Wolfram Seidner, Ulrich Eysholdt, Thieme Verlag


Stimmstörungen: Lehrbuch für Ärzte, Logopäden, Sprachheilpädagogen und Sprechwissenschaftler, Tadeus Nawka, Günter Wirth, Deutscher Ärzte Verlag


Phoniatrie und Pädaudiologie. Einführung in die medizinischen, psychologischen und Linguistischen Grundlagen von Stimme, Sprache und Gehör. Bigenzahn, F./Friedrich, W./Zorowka, P. (2000): Bern: Hans Huber.


Therapie funktioneller Stimmstörungen. Übungssammlungen zu Körper, Atem, Stimme. Brügge, W./Mohs, K. (2001): München: Ernst Rheinhardt.


Atem und Stimme. Anleitung zum guten Sprechen. Coblenzer, H./Muhar, F. (1999): 18. Aufl. Wien: öbv & hpt.


Die Krankheit der Stimme – die Stimme der Krankheit. Gundermann, H. (1991): Stuttgart: G. Fischer.


Die Stimme wirkungsvoll einsetzen. Das Stimmpotenzial erfolgreich nutzen. Gutzeit, Sabine (2003): 2. Aufl. Weinheim: Beltz.


Stimmstörungen bei Jugendlichen und Erwachsenen. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachheilpädagogik e. V. (Hrsg.). (1998): Emsdetten


Stimmtherapie mit Erwachsenen: Was Stimmtherapeuten wissen müssen. Hammer, S. (2003)Berlin: Springer.


Die Stimme. Romberg, J. (1998): In: GEO 12, 48-66. Hamburg: Gruner & Jahr.


In French:


http://www.mediathequemahler.org/


http://www.bnf.fr/fr/acc/x.accueil.html


http://www.medecine-des-arts.com


Traité complet de l’Art du Chant en deux partie, Manuel Garcia, 1897, Bibliothèque Nationale de France)


La pédagogie du chant classique et les techniques européennes de la voix

(Jacqueline et Bertrand Ott, Ed L’Harmattan)


La Structure du Chant, Pédagogie systématique de l’art du chant-, Richard Miller, IPMC)


Que sais-je ? La voix, Guy Cornut médecin phoniatre, Editions Puf 1983 à 2009


Précis d’audioprothèse, Production, Phonétique acoustique et perception de la parole, 2008 ed Masson


Le Guide de La voix, Dr Yves Ormezzano, Editions Odile Jacob


Mécanismes Vibratoires Laryngés et Contrôle Neuro-Musculaire de la Fréquence Fondamentale, Bernard Roubeau, (Thèse Université de Paris-Sud 1993)


À l’écoute des voix pathologiques, Martine DUPESSEY & Bruno COULOMBEAU, ED. Symétrie, coll. Voix et technique, 2003


À l'Origine du Son : le Souffle, Benoît Amy de la Bretèque (Ed Solal 2000)


In English:


http://voiceteacher.com/pastarticles.html

 

http://www.ncvs.org/

National Center for voice and speech


http://www.voicedoctor.net/

 

http://www.classicalsinger.com/


http://forum.stirpes.net/classics/8420-comparison-french-italian-singing-seventeenth-century.html

A Comparison of French and Italian Singing in the Seventeenth Century


http://www.lawrence.edu/fast/koopmajo/brief.html

A brief history of singing, by John Koopman


The Structure of Singing – Richard Miller


Great singers on great singing, Jerome Hines


On the Art of Singing, Richard Miller 1996


Bel Canto in Its Golden Age - A Study of Its Teaching Concepts, Philip A. Duey, Verlag Dodo Pr, Taschenbuch 2007

 

 

- Text published in the Journal du Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, fall 2009:

 

by Fabrice Dalis, Tenor, artistic advisor to the Opera of Bern (SUI).


"Auditions… just a formality when you graduate from the CNSMDP?"


At first sight this exercise seems quite easy to describe: you have to show up onstage, sing one or two arias (rarely more), say thank you, leave and hope you will be hired…

… and very often you cannot understand why you were not hired…

I have quite a few years of experience as a singer - including in the situation I have just depicted – and I have moved to “the other side of the fence”. Therefore, both as an “auditionnee” and an “auditioner”, I believe I have quite an accurate and comprehensive idea of this exercise, which is rarely a piece of cake, but you cannot get away from, and of the means that exist in order to improve your performance.   A young artist should be advised to look beyond his primary concern – I'm singing, I’ll be hired or not – and to become aware of the numerous factors that precisely condition the decision to hire him or not.

In a nutshell, after the end of the audition, the auditioners divide the candidates into three groups:

- the “no”,

- the “maybe-but-let’s-audition-more-people”,

- the “yes-right-now”, which is the smallest group.

Please forgive me for this cynical, brutal, poorly artistic description, but it is very close to real life!

I need not ask you which group you wish to belong to…

Here are a few classic examples:

- A general audition (the singers show up without the need to fill a specific role):

80% of the vocalists - beginners or not – sing the same extremely known arias of the classical repertoire, with all possible styles, at the maximum of their capabilities… or even over the edge!

Many – the youngest singers even more – are paralyzed by the stakes, the endless waiting time, the unknown acoustic conditions, the pianist who plays with his own tempo, the dry throat,… They just hope they can sing until the end of the aria without making any major mistake and totally forget about displaying their own personality, a consistent musicality and stylistic mastering. As a result, they only show that they have been overwhelmed by the difficulties and are far from mastering their subject.

Are you happy you have reached the end of the aria without any disaster?According to the auditioning committee, it’s not enough… thanks for coming, but no!

- An audition for a specific role in a piece of music:

The typical case is that of a young singer who shows up from one audition to the other, but either he does not master the roles well enough, or they are too ambitious for him, or he is simply not up to the other candidates’ level. For example a singer applies for the role of Mimi whereas she should sing Musetta; a tenor pretends he can sing Belmonte while he would be much better as Pedrillo; another vocalist who applies for the role of Leonor whereas she should think about singing Marzelline; and a singer applies for Philip II while he should only present secondary roles for the time being.

Do not count on the opera’s board of directors to “interpret” your performance: “We will not hire you for this part you have really made a dreadful performance of, but we would like to offer you a more modest role – would you take it?” Forget it, they will not do it and there are always enough other singers to take the part and anyhow make a better performance than the others.

The board's answer will sound snappy: no!

Beside these extreme examples (they are frequent, believe me!), you have all possible intermediary results with many auditions that are not really successful, but not a total failure, some nice voices who sing with too many vocal faults, interesting personalities with insufficient technical skills,… all these people are packed into the "maybe" category and expect answers that will never come or - if they finally arrive - are negative.


On the singer’s side, these situations are extremely discouraging and sometimes – often – hard to take since he lacks the necessary hindsight that allows self-questioning.

So how can you be among those hired?


Of course, this requires hard work day after day, like a craftsman.
But I do believe that before going onstage and singing, you need to be aware of a certain number of facts that bring you to ask a few essential questions.

 

First of all, I think it is indispensable to understand that we are not talking about an educational exercise anymore.

This means that even if you are making progress, if such or such sentence or note "comes out" better than 3 weeks or 6 months ago, if the CNSMDP thinks you are on the right track - well, this is absolutely of no importance!

Your environment is not made of teachers and fellow students among which you can assess your level, but of other career singers who sometimes have much more experience than you, and of “decision-makers” who will judge you on the five minute performance you will make onstage. They are not aware of you past and have little interest in it anyway. Of course this may change a few years later once they have seen and heard you onstage, but actually, if you need to audition, this will not make a big difference, even after ten years of career. These guys have to distribute roles and they will take the most convincing candidates – that's all.

So we need to move from a gradual evaluation system (the years of studies) within a familiar environment to another one in which the immediate performance is decisive: you are not evaluated on the progress you have made, but on your ability to be the best at that very moment.This system is much more brutal – it is a binary system: yes or no, there is no room for “currently improving”.

The first logical consequence would be to become aware of the absolute necessity to work out a specific repertoire for auditions that is tailored to this new environment.

Maybe the arias and roles studied at the CNSM are perfect to this end.

Maybe they are totally useless.

There is indeed a natural dichotomy between the educational requirements and the real professional life. During his studies the singer-to-be needs to address and study in depth various styles and repertoires. He needs to push back his own limits as far as he can by tackling arias and repertoires that actually require skills he does not have for the moment, in order to go beyond his abilities and hence improve them. In the real professional life – in the audition the vocalist attends in order to be hired – many aspects are in total contradiction with what I have just mentioned: the singer is not requested to be “able” to sing in all styles more or less successfully, but, to the opposite, to find the narrowest, consistent and credible repertoire in which he is competitive compared to career vocalists - not only other students - in order to be hired in the end.


The aim of the studies at the CNSMDP – the diploma – requires a very broad study of the possible styles and repertoires as well as many other subjects: musical education, analysis, languages, role study, ensembles, etc.
I believe this is ESSENTIAL for the future.
A vocalist’s education cannot obviously be restricted to learning a few arias before auditioning in famous opera houses. This would be extremely restrictive and put an end to most singers' careers. When a student enters the Conservatoire, it is impossible to predict his development as a singer and towards which repertoires his work and own personality – his own life – will lead him.

Therefore the students must tackle a broad range of subjects in order not to be cast from the same mould and leave them many doors open, even the most concealed ones, as well as nonconformist shortcuts and countless ways to build a career leading to each singer’s musical and human blossoming.  How can a vocalist imagine his career if he has only heard of one single track, the most common one – the mainstream – relayed by the media? We certainly do not want to put into question the richness of a general musical education.

But as far as the audition – the unavoidable performance a young opera singer-to-be needs to master – is concerned, the aim is to “reach the target” and be more convincing than the other competitors. It is almost impossible to achieve this in various repertoires and styles. To the opposite, a “rag-bag” audition (a bit of Mozart, a bit of baroque, a bit of Italian and a bit of German romanticism,...) is most often counterproductive, since the singer displays, from the auditioner's point of view, all what he cannot do – at least for the time being. The impression is always negative, even if a few positive elements show up from time to time. Unfortunately, decision-makers rarely seek to sort them out.

To take another example, the casting director will rather listen to a vocalist who sings a more targeted repertoire, even if it is restricted, provided it is consistent and displayed with a true personality, freshness and simplicity, far below the singer’s highest abilities, but without any stress – neither for him nor for those listening to him – and in full control of the difficulties, even if they are limited: that’s how the auditioning committee will say yes !

 

When an opera’s board of directors wants to allocate the roles for an opera, this means allocating all roles. When an opera’s board of directors wants to allocate the roles for an opera, this means allocating all roles. So there are actually other roles to take than only Violetta, Carmen, Rodolfo, Max, Posa and Sarastro. Of course I will never say that these arias and roles must always be set aside (there are indeed a few young artists who are already "ready" and can apply for these roles), but from a purely statistic point of view, it is impossible for everybody to be in a position to take over the leading roles at the very beginning of their career. The important thing is to end up among the selected singers, regardless of the “size” of the role, and to be able to improve and make progress step by step. And this is only possible by singing onstage. Of course it is possible to make a brilliant career with supporting roles, but top-level singers have most often started with modest parts. So the aim for the singer-to-be is to be able to build his career step by step, to shape his future and to lay the foundation for a long-lasting career, not a shooting-star kind. He must fit into a now global competition: even the smallest local opera you can find vocalists from the far end of the world. He needs to elbow his way into an already existing environment composed of career singers, not only other students and beginners. He shall neither underestimate nor overestimate himself, win self-confidence instead of feeling discouraged by his initial failures caused by a poor knowledge of the realities of this job. A good start is essential, all the more as names are circulating by word of mouth among opera directors and some singers can be stuck with a bad reputation after only a few failed auditions in well-known opera houses.

Beyond choosing the appropriate and “competitive” repertoire, I believe it is important to have in mind the following short checklist:
- Where am I auditioning and why? You do not audition the same way for the Bastille Opera as for Nordhausen, for a guest contract as for a group contract (in Germany, for example).

- Psychological preparation: you need to be aware of the specific stress of this exercise and the means to handle it.

- Behaviour during the audition: how can I draw the auditioning committee’s attention, stand apart from the other candidates and display a specific, original personality?

Besides, we could also mention that it has become more and more difficult to get these auditions without having an agent. So the singer needs to know which agent he should select on in order to reach his goals. They all have strong points and weaknesses as well as different profiles.


Actually it would be best not to have to audition and to have such a reputation - most often in a very specific topic - that it would not be necessary anymore.
This is the goal we all wish to achieve. Of course this is possible provided you have a clear artistic identity recognized by opera directors. Of course, this means making good auditions at the beginning of your career!