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Practical advice for the voice pedagogue.

Teaching applied voice is challenging: it combines the complex areas of knowledge in music, anatomy, linguistics, psychology, acoustics, and a variety of teaching philosophies. (1) In music, a voice teacher must be familiar with complex theoretical and historical styles and approaches. In anatomy, a voice teacher must understand the vocal mechanism and the mechanics of breathing. In linguistics, a teacher must be knowledgeable in several languages, at the very least English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish; a teacher must be able to teach the nuances and complexities of each. In psychology, a teacher must be able to understand and work with each individual singer's ego and have an understanding of his or her learning style. In acoustics, a teacher must understand the physics involved in producing sound and use of the harmonic series. In sum, the art of teaching applied voice is a highly complex and subjective field.

When completing research in the area of voice pedagogy, one encounters a three-fold problem: 1) historical research is often vague and sometimes contradictory; 2) contemporary research can be biased, predicated upon personal opinion or methodology; and 3) scientific research frequently is far removed from the private studio, conducted by scientists with terminology that is complex and confusing. Overall, voice pedagogues are overwhelmed by a vast amount of research, with no clear guidelines for separating good from great pedagogic advice.

On the other hand, it is recognized that some voice pedagogues are more effective teachers than others--not merely more knowledgeable, but more resourceful, engaging--and have the ability to excite students. (2) These teachers have the skill to elicit optimum vocal growth, a comprehension of personal abilities, and the realization of professional goals. Most would agree that exemplary voice teachers are those who have trained their students to perform with high levels of technical proficiency and artistry. Questions then arise: 1) Who are these exemplary teachers? 2) What are they doing differently that allows them to train aspiring singers to perform at such high levels? 3) Are there some common threads among their teaching philosophies and studio techniques? 4) Are these common threads (ideas or techniques) transferable to other voice teachers?

In her research, Blades-Zeller expresses a need for further investigative research in the area of voice pedagogy. (3) She suggests that a researcher should document one exemplary voice teacher, interview the teacher, his or her students, and observe lessons. A resulting report would provide a full, holistic model of successful teaching strategies.

The purpose of the present study was to determine how three exemplary voice teachers address specific voice pedagogy with their students and to find out what advice they have to share with other teachers and singers. The specific research questions were:

1. How do three "exemplary" voice teachers address technique, artistry, and musicianship while teaching voice lessons?

2. Do they adjust their teaching style for the needs of each individual? If they do, how are the adjustments made?

3. What are the common threads of advice that exemplary voice teachers have to share with beginning voice teachers and aspiring singers?

The first step was to identify three exemplary teachers or subjects for this research project. Many experts suggest that proof of exemplary voice teaching is found in the products or the students that are produced. (4) Such students demonstrate a complete understanding of vocal technique and an intelligent musicianship based upon sound pedagogic practices that result in optimum performance skills. These students are those who obtain professional performance careers.

The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, founded in 1954, represent one of the largest and most prestigious competitions for aspiring young singers in the United States. Because of its size, history, and prestige, teachers of winners of this competition were considered for this project. An Internet search for the Metropolitan Audition Winners' contact information took place, and winners during a fifteen year span were contacted in order to determine who their voice teachers were. The data were compiled and the teachers with the greatest number of students having won the auditions were contacted and asked to participate in this research project. Once three teachers volunteered to be part of this study, I arranged to observe them teaching five voice lessons, and I obtained permission to interview them and five of their voice students. The data generated by observation and interview developed into a case study for each of the three teachers. The rest of this article contains the results of this research, which includes a comparison of the three case studies. To maintain privacy, names of the teachers and students, along with other identifying information, have been omitted from this article. It can be revealed however, that the teachers were a baritone, tenor, and soprano; one was from the Upper East Coast, an other from the Upper Midwest, and the third was from the Southwestern United States.

Each of these teachers has achieved significant success and recognition as a voice pedagogue, having trained students who consistently win competitions and are able to obtain careers as professional singers. It needs to be recognized that these teachers vary greatly in teaching techniques from each other. They have found what works for them and their students. Nevertheless, there are some common threads among their teaching philosophies. In this article, discrepancies and similarities among the teachers' philosophies and teaching techniques are explored and some conclusions are offered.


Blades-Zeller states that voice teachers exhibit a greater degree of agreement than disagreement about fundamental vocal concepts. (5) Concepts that are more concrete and tangible (posture, diction, and tension management) are more easily articulated and produce more consensus than concepts that are less tangible, more subjective, and prone to personal preference (breath management, resonance, registration). Because of Blades-Zeller's results, I focus greater attention on the more subjective and controversial topics in my research, yielding some interesting discoveries.

Breath Management

Breath management is the cornerstone for most voice pedagogues. Teachers tend to spend a great deal of time working with students, getting them to manage their air correctly. What exactly does "correctly" mean?

Consensus. Breathing should be natural and relaxed. It is detrimental to overbreathe/overinhale. Once inhalation has occurred there should be no holding of air; the breath should be released quickly, and the air should be released in a continuous thin stream. There should be no holding of the abdominal muscles. The air must keep moving throughout the phrase and the energy level of the singer is connected to the movement of the air.

Disagreement. Teacher #1 believes breath management will improve as the coordination of the vocal mechanism improves. His pedagogy incorporates Miller's definition of appoggio: breath support includes the proper set up of the vocal mechanism on the air. (6) Because of this philosophy he addresses the anatomy of the voice during lessons in greater detail than either of the other two teachers. The others believe that by improving breath management the coordination of the vocal mechanism will also improve. By breathing naturally and not holding the air, but by releasing it, the body will relax, thus improving the coordination of the vocal mechanism.

Conclusions. The vocal mechanism must be coordinated when singing; how this is attained is based upon the teacher's personal philosophy. Tension in the upper body interferes with a coordinated mechanism. Overbreathing can create tension; breathing naturally can reduce tension. Breathing naturally literally means to breathe without any artificiality and to relate the breath for singing to a normal breath that human beings do all day long in order to live. This allows the singer's body to relax and inhale sufficiently for the phrase the singer is about to sing. One needs a quiet, low, efficient breath, and immediately release the air in a thin stream after inhalation. The singer must use the air throughout the phrase and sing to the end of the phrase. A singer must have a tremendous amount of energy when singing; this energy is connected to the breath and body relaxation.


Historically, in the context of Western art music the ideal voice quality was defined as chiaroscuro or bright-dark tone. Every note was to have a bright edge as well as a dark or round quality "in a complex texture of vocal resonances." (7) Most teachers agree that resonance is related to the vowels a singer chooses and how the voice is projected out to the audience. How to achieve the ideal vocal quality has been debated for centuries. These three teachers are no exception to this controversy. Each has his/her own teaching techniques for getting students to employ vocal resonance.

Consensus. Imagery is used when working with students: forward sound, sing into the nose, or on the bone, use a clear free tone, sing for the hall, allow the voice to come out to us, send or share your voice with the audience. All the vowels are related, the jaw should have little involvement when creating vowels, and only the tongue and lips are involved. Use the vowel that lets the air move and the vocal folds vibrate freely.

Disagreement. Teacher #1 uses vowel modification to open up and free students of tension while singing in the passaggio. He has students then use that free space, and encourages them to sing the "true" vowel while employing this space. For instance, if a student is having difficulty singing an /i/ vowel in the passaggio, he has him sing /y/ in order to open the vocal mechanism. After this felt comfortable, he would then have him sing /i/ through the open place of /y/.

Teacher #2 instructs his students not to think of "speech" when they sing, but to use acoustic sounds that could be projected. He wants his students to use "elevated" speech when they sing. Overall, Teacher #2 does not agree with vowel modification except in extremes of registration, dynamics, and sometimes in the passaggio. One of Teacher #2's students summarized his teacher's philosophy neatly. He wants "the purest, least entangled vowel that you can have, [which] allows for the best airflow, [and] creates the best resonance." He wants his students to be "more descriptive" with their vowel choices. Teacher #2 tells his students to sing the real words and not modify them.

Teacher #3 has her students employ resonance not necessarily through vowel work. She has students hum, sing "ng" and "v" throughout the lesson. In contrast to the other teachers, Teacher #3 wants her students to think of how they speak and to use those natural vowel sounds. She wants her students to hear the correct vowel or word, and allow the sound to come out using the breath energy. She believes that all vowels are related. Every vowel moves through /a/ and Americans have a very hard time singing it purely. She said, "To get an /i/ what do I do? Sing /a/ and raise the tongue to get /i/--still sing /a/ and think /i/. Just the tongue, don't change anything else! The same thing for /a/ and /o/: just round the lips and you get /o/, don't move anything else." Teacher #3 relates all the vowels in this manner, beginning with the /a/ vowel. Primarily, Teacher #3 makes funny resonant sounding noises, which students then imitate and incorporate into their singing.

Conclusions. There are many ways to work with students and get them to employ vocal resonance in order to achieve chiaroscuro. Teachers need to explore a variety of techniques and determine what works for them and the particular student in front of them. Whether or not a teacher uses the controversial terms "vowel modification" or "cover" is not the issue. In this study, each teacher is working for a vocal mechanism that is relaxed and free from tension. Each of these teachers is striving for a clear tone quality that is natural and forward. They work with their students to relate the vowels to each other and to minimize jaw involvement. There is no absolute direct path for a student to arrive at chiaroscuro; whatever works, works.


Along with resonance, registration has long been a controversial subject for voice pedagogues. The passaggio is the place in each voice where changes in registration occur; these are sometimes referred to as vocal shifts or breaks. The number of registers and how to approach these problematic passages have been debated since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Again these three teachers have their own ideas about this controversial topic and have developed individual techniques for dealing with it.

Consensus. Vocal registers are real, and it is important for teachers to know about them. Where shifts occur in the voice is one way a teacher can help a student determine voice type. A baritone's voice may shift in a lower place than a tenor's voice even if the voices have the same range. Being able to allow the shifts to happen is one key to a singer's technical success.

Disagreement. Teachers #2 and #3 both agree that it is better to not worry about register changes. They believe that if you spend too much time working on the passaggio areas of the voice, it can create problems for the students in the long run. According to Teacher #2, students then start to see the passaggio "not as a passage, but as a blockade." Teacher #3 tells students to think forward, get the breath moving, and allow the voice to go where it wants. She wants students to allow vocal shifts to occur naturally. She does not want them to dwell on anything. Both teachers do not address registration unless students demonstrate a need to do so.

Teacher #1 asserts that registers must be addressed and that poor vocal coordination will be improved through addressing registration issues. He agrees with Cornelius Reid, to some extent, that the registers should be separated, developed independently, and then reintegrated. He also believes that when a singer improves this vocal coordination, breath management will naturally improve.

Conclusions. Teachers need to become familiar with vocal registration; however, whether or not students become familiar with it, and to what extent, remains a question. Voice pedagogues need to address this issue themselves and make their own decisions about what their students need. Every voice has register shifts, and they occur in different places for different voices. How many registers exist does not seem important to these teachers. Each is working toward the same goal--a relaxed vocal mechanism that is able to produce a clear, free tone--and they work from opposite viewpoints.


In 1972, Newton wrote that the principles of communication, controlled expression, homogeneity, economy, and integrity are ideas that are rarely mentioned in the vocal studio. (8) If this in fact is true for most studios, it provides additional proof why these three teachers are exemplary. Each of them addresses several if not all of these principles within the lesson format.

All three teachers agree on the qualities a singer must possess in order to have a career as a professional singer: intelligence, honest communication, a voice that is appealing and interesting, a work ethic, perseverance, dedication, a natural affinity to learn languages, a quick musical ear, and an innate sense of rhythm.

Each exemplary teacher spoke about how difficult it is for a young performer to achieve career success in today's musical environment. Teacher #3 said that there are fewer places for singers to perform; therefore it is harder to maintain a career. Teacher #1 said that being successful is dependant upon whom they meet along the way, and the set of skills a singer brings to the table. Teacher #3 said there must be a willingness to accept criticism and the ability to be politically savvy. Both #2 and #3 agreed that more and more it is important how a singer looks; he or she must be attractive and physically fit.


As expected, each of the three pedagogues expects a high level of musicianship from students. However, in this area Teacher #3's philosophy varies dramatically from the others. Teacher #3 does not spend a great deal of time during her lessons on vocal technique. She told me that by getting students involved in the music, their interest is then piqued and they will work harder and become better musicians. Teacher #3's overall focus in her lessons is quite different than the other two teachers. Both Teacher #2 and Teacher #1 spend a great deal of time on technical issues. Teacher #3 works on breath with her students; however, primarily she works on rhythm and how the rhythm of the music propels the line forward. She chooses repertoire that is slightly beyond her student's ability, and if the student has a vocal issue singing it, she will address that issue as it occurs. She spends a great deal of time discussing the music with a student and very little time discussing the voice. She said:

I can make anybody crippled by telling them, "You walk strangely on your right foot. You twist your foot when you walk and your weight is thrown off." I talk about it and talk about it. Do you think that student can walk out that door with any kind of ease? If I do that to them, by telling them, your tongue is this, your tongue is that, you cripple them. You absolutely cripple them.

Teacher #2 did tell me that as the academic year advances, he spends more and more time on interpretation and communication with his students. He even went so far as to say that sometimes he wishes he were a vocal coach; he loves working on musical aspects with his students. During the time of year in which I observed him (September), he worked primarily on vocal technique with his students. Both he and Teacher #1 believe that proper vocal technique should be addressed first and their lessons reflect this belief: each spends about half the lesson on warm-ups and technical vocalises. Teacher #3 stated that she used to spend much more lesson time on technique, but now she has focus and believes her students sing better and are stronger musicians because of it. When technical issues arise she does address them.

Rhythm. Both Teachers #3 and #1 emphasize the importance of rhythm and the forward movement of the music. Teacher #3 has students move or dance while singing, insisting all the time that they feel the rhythmic pulse of the music. She looks for musical intelligence in a student; part of musical intelligence is good pitch and rhythm.

Teacher #1 said a singer must feel rhythm internally, with "an internal rhythmic motor." He believes that many singers have such a poor sense of rhythm, and the rhythmic pulse in their singing is poor. "There is just an innate rhythmic sense that needs to be there. Just in terms of shaping a phrase, going from one note to another." He doesn't know if that is something that can be taught.

If a student does have that problem, it's not that it can't get better; it is just that some students' innate rhythmic, or lack of rhythmic feeling awareness, is such that they are never going to progress beyond a certain point. Some, once their attention is called to it and they feel it, they can make progress, and other people just have it innately and it is such a wonderful thing when they do.

Dynamics. According to all three teachers, breath and dynamics are interrelated, that piano is related to intensity. Teacher #2 said that singing piano and the use of decrescendo are relative. "Those are colors and not intensity levels. You see piano and you need to be thinking more intensity, not less. If I see piano my air stream is dense and not thin." Teacher #3 said that there is no difference between singing forte and singing piano. The intensity level is the same:

Singing piano is the same as singing forte; your brain says not as loudly. You can explain this technically forever, but [students] just need to feel that it is the same thing. Then you say to yourself, this is a little gentler, this is a little quieter and you sing. Truly they can do it.

Teacher #1 believes messa di voce (soft-loud-soft crescendo/decrescendo on a single pitch) is an important tool for coordinating the registers and for improving vocal resonance. He feels finding the right balance of registers is an issue with almost every singer. Teacher #1 explains to a student that the soft has to have intensity; "that will then become the crescendo ... as you intensify outward, pull that crescendo into you." Teacher #1 wants his students to use crescendo to help stabilize the tone. He works very hard to have students maintain the energy level on soft sections. "Not less volume--more intensity."

Legato. When addressing legato, all three teachers speak in terms of how to move air through the line. Each wants students to begin each phrase with the end in mind. They teach students to think and know exactly where the phrase is going. Teacher #3 discussed the importance of rhythm when singing legato.

It is going to be more legato if there is rhythm in it. Travel through the notes. Singers often talk about repeating the vowels ... My background is instrumental so I just hear pulses. It's the same thing. It doesn't matter what you think as long as you think something. Legato doesn't mean absence of rhythm; it means more rhythm.


In order to answer this question completely it is important to obtain some insight into the teaching philosophies and techniques of these three teachers. A brief summary for each teacher follows.

Teacher #1.

1) Breath management comes about through good vocal coordination. Appoggio is more encompassing than just breath support; it also involves the proper set-up of the vocal mechanism on the air.

2) The breath needs to be natural, rhythmic, and moving. He uses the term "breathiness" to keep the breath moving and to take away any tendency for a student to push.

3) There are two registers that need to be coordinated.

4) Teacher #1 uses the terms vowel modification and cover with his students, but qualifies them constantly. He wants the vowel to be appropriate for the voice no matter what the pitch happens to be. The vowels need to relate to one another, and it is important to work on filling in the area of the vowel spectrum where a singer has difficulties.

5) "Since most singers push to some degree or another," they need to find a lighter sound that is free of constriction and can crescendo into a louder sound.

6) He doesn't believe in placing the sound, but the images of "forward" or "into the nose" could be helpful to some singers.

7) Every voice should be able to do coloratura; there is a technical benefit from being able to sing coloratura well.

8) He uses the imagery of anchoring the sound in order to transition into the higher registration without pushing and raising the larynx.

Teacher #1 believes that a singer must have a vocal instrument that is interesting, along with the ability to sing musically, with expression, and be able to communicate. He believes there is no guarantee of success, but it is a combination of talent, good fortune, and being in the right place at the right time. New teachers should not be too rigid in their approach, and should read a lot about voice pedagogy. Students should trust their teacher, but only to a certain degree; there are "bad" teachers out there.

Teacher #2.

1) Natural breathing includes a relaxed inhalation and singers should not overbreathe. Once the breath has been taken, keep the air moving. Concepts of legato and dynamics are connected to breath energy.

2) Physical tension must be released with the neck and shoulders, jaw and tongue, soft palate and laryngeal space, and overall body tension as the primary areas of focus. In order to release tension and to keep the breath moving through passaggio areas, Teacher #2 tells his students to "groan, moan, sob, sigh the sound."

3) He does not specifically address registration unless there are issues that require more attention.

4) When working on resonance with students, he works on vowels, telling students to "sing for the hall." He wants students not to "think of speech" when they sing; he wants them to use "acoustic sounds that can be projected."

5) Teacher #2 does not use vowel modification; he wants his students to think of the real vowel most of the time. "Only in extreme cases of range, or dynamics (loud or soft), and in the passaggio is vowel modification needed." He believes that the correct vowel is "the one that lets your air move, and your cords vibrate freely."

Teacher #2 believes that honesty is a crucial characteristic for a true artist--honesty and the ability to communicate. He said that a "vocal gift" is important, but it is not nearly so important to becoming an artist as is musical intellect. Because of frequent rejection, a singer must have determination and perseverance in order to make it in the business. When looking for a teacher, students should audition them and take several lessons from them. He feels it is very important to be able to establish trust with a student. Students and teachers need to respect the process of learning how to sing, one that is slow and that takes time.

Teacher #3.

1) Breath management should involve a natural use of breath, taking in the air sufficiently, moving the air, and accessing the lower body.

2) Too much technical information can be dangerous; a teacher should show students how to do something, not just describe technique. Focus on the music. It is not necessary to discuss registration and resonance; both are important for singing, but it is more important to have students focus on releasing air and the forward movement of the music.

3) Rhythm must propel the line forward. She has her students move or dance while singing, insisting all the time that they feel the rhythmic pulse of the music.

4) Her concept of vowel production is that all the vowels are related, and singing is learning how to sustain on vowels.

5) There must be clarity of sound. She likes a forward sound without any noise around the core.

6) She looks for musical intelligence in students. They must possess good pitch, rhythm, real work ethic, and the ability to learn languages.

7) Students should have some sort of self-esteem and self-respect for their talent and have passion.

8) In order to make it in the business singers must look attractive.

9) A singer must be politically savvy, must not harbor resentment, and accept criticism as not being personal, but as merely trying to make the performance better. Teacher #3 advises new teachers not to make quick judgments about a student's voice type. She insists that the middle voice must be solid and technical work should begin there. All teachers should take a Hippocratic oath to "Do no harm." Assess where the students are: "They literally can tell you how to teach them if you just listen. Without saying anything, they demonstrate what they can't do." One must not criticize former teachers and tell students everything they learned in the past was wrong. "Let your students develop at their own pace."

Over the years, many articles have been published in the Journal of Singing concerning the art of teaching voice. From these a list was generated that describes skills required of an exemplary voice teacher: 1) Develop critical listening and observational skills and have clear communication with their students. (9) 2) Have knowledge of psychology and be able to deal with egos. (10) 3) Have a strong knowledge of the voice mechanism and how it functions. (11) 4) Know the stylistic differences in genres of music. (12) From gaining insight into the philosophies and teaching techniques of each these authors, it becomes evident that perhaps one of the reasons the three subject teachers are exemplary is that each possesses these skills in abundance.

Diagnose Problems

One of the strengths of these teachers is their ability to assess student needs and to diagnose the cause of technical or musical problems. Their ability to understand their students' needs and their ability to guide them toward success is remarkable. Each teacher had several students comment on their ability to change their teaching strategy for the student in front of them.

Teacher #1's students commented on his ability to listen, diagnose, and explain what they needed to do in order to solve their particular problem. They respected his ability to be very precise, deliberate, and layered in his diagnosis. They commented on the fact that he was able to talk to them at their level, that he continued to keep them challenged, and yet he did not push them beyond their capabilities.

Several of Teacher #2's students commented on his ability to explain information in a manner that was unique to each student. His students agreed that he was able to communicate the same idea in multiple ways. They respected his businesslike approach, his ability to be direct and not skirt around important issues, and his use of physicality--using physical items, and using their bodies in an athletic manner--while singing.

Teacher #3's students commented on her innate intelligence and her high level of musicianship; they believe that her diagnostic skills are truly unique. They believe that she has "impeccable taste" when it comes to styles within repertoire choices. They all spoke about how comfortable they were singing around her, and they all feel very close to her. I found that Teacher #3's ability to get her students interested in the music was truly remarkable; in most instances, by talking about and working through musical concepts, her students' technical issues disappeared.

Nonverbal Communication

Although practiced among voice pedagogues for centuries, recent research has established the importance of positive nonverbal communication in the applied voice studio. (13) All three teachers appear to have excellent nonverbal communication while working with students. Each uses good eye contact and has open and relaxed posture when working with students. Each has a sense of humor and uses expressive gestures that model sensitivity. They have earned the trust of their students partially through their use of nonverbal communication.


Advice for Teachers

A composite of advice given by the exemplary teachers to new teachers has been separated into several categories.

Read. Teachers #1 and #2 both expressed that it is vital for young teachers to read about voice pedagogy. Teacher #2 said that teachers should attend workshops, master classes, and observe other teachers as often as possible. Teachers need to come to their own conclusions about things.

Repertoire. Teacher #3 suggested that teachers should not be limiting regarding repertoire choices. She advised letting students sing many different styles of repertoire, not always what might be considered appropriate for their voice type. They should be able to sing the music with their true voice. She advises teachers to keep finding things just beyond their student's abilities and challenge them. Teacher #1 warns teachers not to give repertoire that is too advanced for their vocal development.

Fach or Voice Type. Teacher #3 said, "Don't jump to conclusions about what voice type a student is." She advises teachers to take the time getting to know their students. Teachers need to realize a student's voice might go higher or lower, once they are singing with better vocal technique.

Psychology. Teacher #1 said a teacher needs to be aware that every student is different and one student might require a different approach than another, even if the vocal issue appears to be the same. He advises teachers not to be rigid in their approach. "Try not to be set in your ways and insist on a particular approach, especially if it is not working." Teachers #3 and #1 both said that sometimes things simply do not work, no matter what you try.

Listen. Teacher #3 said that students literally show you how to teach them, if you really listen to them without prejudice. For instance, she tells teachers to "Listen without prejudice and allow yourself to hear where voice shifts occur." Teacher #2 said that the only way to learn to teach is by doing it. "Your students will teach you everyday if you really listen to them ... Base your teaching on helping students get better, not whether a student will have a career." He said that teaching is one step at a time: "It is slow, and you have to respect the process. Great teachers know how to respect the process whether it takes one year or ten."

Teach Independence. Teacher #2 also advises teachers to train students to be independent, to learn for themselves, to teach themselves. "Try to get students to become independent learners so that they get thirsty for it, and then they will get better because they will want to." He also advises, "Don't try to teach a new student everything you know; it will just confuse them. Don't bombard them with too much information all at once." Teacher #3 said that she waits for the day a student comes into her studio with his or her own opinions and thoughts about the music.

Work First on the Middle Voice. All three teachers agree that the middle voice is where singers spend most of their time singing. It is important that they understand how to sing in this part of the voice. Teacher #3 said, "Acquiring super high notes early on is not all that important." Teacher #2 said he works hard getting singers to sing with a free clear production in the middle register.

Assessment. In the area of student assessment there is a bit of disagreement among the three pedagogues. Teachers #1 and #2 both believe when they first hear a student sing it is important to tell the student what they are hearing and explain to them what they think the student should do. They try to be as upfront, direct, and as honest as they can be so that the student knows what to expect from them.

Teacher #3 disagrees with this approach. She doesn't feel it is necessary to point out all of the flaws a student has. She believes it is more important to assess where they are and let them talk, rather than her doing all of the talking. She understands that students tend to be nervous in a first lesson, and she wants to help them become comfortable in this situation, in order to accurately assess them. She believes that, without saying anything, students demonstrate what they can't do. She doesn't think it is necessary to "have a dialogue about where they are or how weak they are."

Conclusion. How a teacher assesses a new student is a personal choice and there is merit to both sides of this disagreement. I believe that most teachers tend to follow the Teacher #1 and Teacher #2 approaches when assessing a new student. However, after I watched these teachers work with their students and witnessed the rapport between them, it became clear that both approaches work.

Advice for Singers

All three teachers agree that a student must choose a voice teacher with great care. Teacher #2 suggested auditioning teachers and having more than one lesson with them. He asked, "Who are the teachers with whom the weakest student gets better? Persistently. Not just for a week but over time, those students always get better. Those people know something about what they are talking about."

Teacher #3 advises students to learn to take criticism constructively. "No matter how great an artist, it is still possible to find something that will help them and make them a little better." With this in mind, students must also learn whose ears they can trust. Teacher #2 said there are many people with opinions about a particular voice or artist. Listen to these opinions wisely.

Teacher #3 warned that if someone does offer his or her opinion, a singer must learn to accept the comment graciously. Singers must learn to be political. They need to be polite. They need to "keep their mouths shut." She counseled not to offer advice unless asked, and take care even then. She also advises students to "stay off Facebook and Myspace." She says these websites may come back to haunt them later in their career.

Teacher #1 said to take care when auditioning. Make sure that you are ready, and do not sing repertoire that is beyond you. Teacher #2 said that he does not send any student to an audition for which the student is not prepared. He said that he has finally learned, "if you don't think they are ready to do San Francisco Merola Opera Auditions, don't send them." Teacher #3 warned that some teachers politically force people to take their students, to the student's own detriment. "When you put students out some place and they are not ready to do it ... they will fail."


In his speech at a NATS national convention, Bartholomew stated that one of the greatest challenges facing voice pedagogues is the use of terminology. (14) It is easy for voice teachers to disagree and create controversy in the abstract and complicated field of voice pedagogy. However, through discussion and observation, many vocal issues that appear diametrically opposite were clarified and appeared closer together than originally anticipated. For instance, Teacher #1 has a very different philosophy than either Teacher #2 or Teacher #3 regarding teaching breath management. However, after observing him teach and speak with his students, his concept of what constitutes good breath management is very similar to both of the other teachers. Bartholomew said voice teachers need to take more time in order to "reach a common understanding of terminology." He included himself when stating:

We can try to be more careful with our use of words, more willing to use a dictionary, more unwilling to jump to conclusions, more loathe to pontificate, less careless in speaking of our colleagues' work behind their backs, and more willing to take time to sit down with them and try to reach a common understanding of terminology. (15)

By witnessing these subjects teach concepts, then discussing those concepts with them and their students, it allowed me a more thorough understanding of their use of vocabulary and to make connections between their philosophies and teaching techniques; these connections would not have been made without constant comparison of the data: three teachers, three voice types, three different parts of the country. Further triangulation was made by the teacher interviews, the student interviews, and the lesson observations.

Within the three areas of greatest controversy in voice pedagogy--breath management, resonance, and registration--these teachers did have contrasting philosophies and techniques; however, there was a great deal of consensus shown among them as well. The bottom line with these teachers is that they were after forward, clear tone that was free from tension. They demonstrated that there are several ways to achieve this goal.


The theories and methods concerning the teaching of singing are nearly as abundant and diversified as the number of works written during its development. From the seventeenth century to the present, volumes have been written in the attempt to bring to this field of study a pedagogy that meets its ideals. (16) Voice pedagogues have searched for the methods that allow them to train their students to have a solid vocal technique. Is there a pedagogy that meets its ideals? In essence, the question becomes, is there a "cookie-cutter" method for teaching voice? Is there a "one-size-fits-all" approach that voice teachers should adhere to?

Obviously, the answer to these questions is no. There is no clear-cut method to which all voice teachers should adhere. However, there are some very strong similarities among these teachers observed in the present study that warrant mention. 1) These three exemplary teachers have very strong connections with their students. Their students trust and admire them, and are therefore willing to go the "extra mile" for them. 2) Each of these teachers has the ability to address the individual needs of each student and is willing to change approach based on student needs. They all teach through imagery, analogy, and if necessary, mechanistically. 3) Each teacher is extremely intelligent. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences explains that there are seven areas of intelligence: linguistic, logical/mathematical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. (17) Each teacher appears to have advanced intelligence in several of these areas, not just musical.

Blades-Zeller interviewed twelve exemplary voice teachers and gained important and useful information about their studio techniques and philosophies about vocal production. She stated that the outstanding pedagogue has:

1) The ability to diagnose vocal problems and devise solutions;

2) the ability to assess the student's needs and clearly convey information to the student; 3) the wisdom to treat each student as an individual; 4) a personal approach and individual style of teaching that is not an imitation; and 5) is vigorous, involved and still excited about teaching. (18)

The present study confirms Blades-Zeller's findings; each of these pedagogues fits this profile.

When I first started working and analyzing the data collected as a part of this research study, I thought the teachers were diametrically opposite in many ways. It appeared on the surface that Teacher #1's philosophy was the polar opposite from Teacher #3's, and that Teacher #2 was somewhere in the middle. However, after comparing and studying the data, all three philosophically are very similar; they are all after very similar results, and clearly their students sing well because of it. However, their teaching techniques--especially their use of terminology--vary tremendously from each other. It would be interesting to see how a student of Teacher #3's would react to Teacher #1's approach and vice-versa.

Probably the greatest discrepancy I found among the teachers was their approach to training students to be overall better musicians. Teachers #1 and #2 believe that vocal technique was the first priority, and once their students sang better they would innately become better musicians. Teacher #3 believed the opposite; by becoming better musicians her students would innately sing better.

What makes teaching voice interesting is that each student walking into the studio is unique and has a different set of strengths and issues that need to be addressed. How a teacher addresses those needs is based upon his or her own skills set, personal philosophies, and ability to communicate effectively with students. It is vitally important for voice teachers to communicate with each other and learn from each other. It is also vital for young teachers to observe exemplary teachers at work and to have the opportunity to ask them questions to clarify their use of terminology. There is no clearly defined way to teach voice. But with each singer who entrusts him- or herself to our care, we must recognize the enormous responsibility and--at the same time--distinct privilege.


(1.) William T. Bartholomew, "Terminology in Voice Teaching," Journal of Research in Singing 6, no. 2 (June 1983): 1-6.

(2.) Margaret Ogburn Forest, "An Analysis of the Vocal Teaching Techniques of Allan Rogers Lindquest" (PhD dissertation, University of North Texas, 1984).

(3.) Elizabeth Louise Blades-Zeller, "Vocal Pedagogy in the United States: Interviews with Exemplary Teachers of Applied Voice (Voice Teachers)" (PhD dissertation, The University of Rochester, 1993).

(4.) Forest.

(5.) Blades-Zeller.

(6.) Richard Miller, "To Admire or to Teach?" Journal of Singing 42, no 4. (March/April 1986): 24.

(7.) James Stark, Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).

(8.) George Newton, "Random Notes for a Study of Interpretation," The NATS Bulletin 28, no. 5 (May/June 1972): 22.

(9.) Robert Edwin, "Plain talk," Journal of Singing 45, no. 1 (September/October 1988): 33; John Nix, "The Vocal Method of Mathilde Marchesi: A Modern Evaluation," Journal of Singing 51, no. 5 (May/June 1995): 3; Gunvar M. Sallstrom and Jan F. Sallstrom, "On Training the Singing Voice," The NATS Bulletin 34, no. 2 (November/December 1977): 18.

(10.) William Mclver, "What Do Voice Teachers Really Do?" Journal of Singing 59, no. 5 (May/June 2003): 99.

(11.) Richard Miller, "The Tricky Teacher," The NATS Bulletin 39, no. 2 (November/December 1982): 37.

(12.) Donald Ivey, "Comparative Analysis--An Approach to Style," The NATS Bulletin 22, no. 2 (December 1965): 18.

(13.) S. Levasseur, "Nonverbal Communication in the Applied Voice Studio," Journal of Research in Singing and Applied Vocal Pedagogy 18, no. 1 (January 1995): 3-48.

(14.) Bartholomew.

(15.) Ibid., 6.

(16.) Forest.

(17.) Mark K. Smith, "Howard Gardner and Multiple Intelligences," The Encyclopedia of Informal Education; http://, (2002, 2008) (accessed February 3, 2008).

(18.) Blades-Zeller.

[Editor's Note: This article is an opinion piece predicated on a subjective definition of "exemplary" and an assumed level of pedagogic excellence that should not necessarily be construed as shared by NATS or the Journal of Singing.]

Dr. Jenny Dufault is professor of music at Minnesota State University Moorhead and has taught applied voice, voice pedagogy, song literature, opera workshop, and opera literature for the past thirteen years. She holds a PhD From the University of Minnesota and Master of Music from SUNY Potsdam--the Crane School of Music. She has also completed graduate work at both Boston University and Indiana University, and has taught at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute and at Belvoir Terrace in Lenox, MA. Dr. Dufault is an active soloist performing primarily around the Fargo/Moorhead area. She has recently released her first CD entitled Dedication with pianist Sue Nagel. Prior to her work at MSUM, she worked with children and children's voices for over fifteen years: this included teaching music in the St. Paul Public Schools and in the public schools of Maynard, MA. She lives in Fargo, ND and is a happy wife and mother of two children. Dr. Dufault would like to acknowledge Dr. Keitha Lucas Hamann from the University of Minnesota for her work on this project.
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Author:Dufault, Jenny
Publication:Journal of Singing
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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