The Art and the Skills of Vocal Coaching: Final Thoughts from Master Coaches, Noted Accompanists, and Collaborative Pianists.
The Journal of Singings supportive and superb Editor, Richard Sjoerdsma, must set deadlines for submission of all articles four months ahead of publication dates in order to actually make his deadlines. As you are now preparing for the end of your regular academic, operatic house, or personal performance season and headed into the festivals or, perhaps, hoped for ease of summer, today, as I write, just happens to be January 1st, 2019, a day of beginnings. Being suddenly quite unsatisfied with the original article I wrote in recent days as the final in this series, and being unable to polish it into any kind of presentable shape this morning, and despite the fact that it is New Year's Day, I sent out a plea for help to honored and dear colleagues near and far. I am deeply grateful and pleased, but not a bit surprised, that they responded immediately. Their words touch me deeply as I "hear" each of their own voices and personalities in their writing. It is no small thing to know that one's colleagues, these busiest, most in demand leaders of our profession, care enough even to reach across continents and oceans to send their messages to you, yes, even on New Years Day! I have always been told, and have long seen, that collaborative pianists have some of the highest job satisfaction rates among all artists. I know that is true, for I have lived it for more than forty years. It most often feels as if we are family. These responding colleagues certainly have felt like family to me today. We are indeed fortunate to belong to such a profession. May we always try to be to others what they have been to you and me today.
My necessarily brief introductions of these eight master vocal coaches and performing pianists should only whet your appetite and send the younger among our readership, and some of the older also, straight into research. Read carefully and repeatedly the complete biographies and listen to the many noted, honored recordings available. If you, young pianists and singers, know where these artists teach, perform, travel routinely, you might at some point discover you have the opportunity to actually work with them. Go meet them! Above all, trust me when I tell you they care about you as young artists.
My questions to my colleagues were simple and two in number. Not wanting to ask too much (Dr. Sjoerdma's necessary deadline for me was almost past when I made my requests), I asked for even a sentence's response to one question only--or for whatever time my colleague could afford to give. I was bold enough, yet, to additionally invite personal messages or thoughts for young artists considering training as coaches, but that was optional to say the least.
The questions were:
(1.) What natural talents and/or learned skills do you hope most to find in any young pianist who professes a desire to spend, and wishes to train toward, a major portion of his/her life as a vocal coach?
(2.) What are the natural talents and/or learned skills you most often find missing in those who profess a desire to spend/train toward a major portion of their lives as a vocal coach?
(3.) What would be your own personal message to or further thoughts for those interested in or considering training as vocal coaches?
Whether long or short the response, I am honored, as you will be, at the amount of independent and brilliant response as well as the high degree of agreement among these world leaders in our profession! Read and continue to study carefully their comments.
STEVEN BLIER, my ever admired and always enjoyed colleague from my Juilliard years, premier vocal coach, and iconic Artistic Director of NYFOS (New York Festival of Song), that trail-blazing and cherished New York and beyond song series ("No song is safe from us!"), wrote passionately in answer to my first question that he hoped most to find in a young pianist "A fierce dedication to singing, and an urge to learn as much as possible about it. A natural capacity for language. A broad literary background, and the urge to expand her/his knowledge of poetry, theater, and prose on a daily basis. An appreciation for the coloristic possibilities of playing at a lower dynamic when need be. And the capacity to merge your musical impulses with those of a singer. I always tell young pianists, 'It's great to listen to the vocalist. But it's not enough. You have to become the singer.' And the other great skill, of course--this comes later--is when you can subtly get a singer to become you! You need strong personal boundaries, and permeable musical boundaries."
To the second question, he responded that he often missed in pianists "The ability to improvise. The ability to transpose. A creative, flexible, powerful sense of rhythm. An understanding of the dramatic aspects of song and opera."
And his personal message to you: "As collaborative pianists we are in the information business. And we are in the language business. Subtlety of metaphor and the ability to put abstract thoughts into words count for a lot in our world. So do historical background, depth of field with foreign languages and English, and a strong sense of theater. Play for as many acting classes as you can--and observe different approaches to acting, because you'll need all of them. Read one new poem every day. Listen to one new song or aria every day. It's so easy to do that now, and it doesn't take much time. Educate yourselves."
LYDIA BROWN is the new Chair of the Collaborative Piano Department of The Juilliard School and one of the most versatile collaborative pianists of her generation. She performs frequently as solo pianist, accompanist/collaborator in vocal and instrumental recitals, as an assistant conductor in leading opera houses, and spends her summers at the Marlboro Music Festival leading the song program there. She responded: "For question 1, I feel that a young pianist must have a natural and endless curiosity for all musical genres. Too often pianists are interested only in the repertoire that was written for the piano! It is also important that a pianist have an active imagination, the ability or desire to see a scene or image in the mind's eye that is being portrayed in text. Pianists must be acutely sensitive to every musical detail as well as to their partners' thoughts and emotional lives. Being able to think like a singer has so often been useful to me in my coaching. Practically, excellent sight-reading is a must and fluency in languages equally so."
For question 2: "I am continuing to see that sight-reading needs to be stressed while pianists are still in school. It is the rare student who has working knowledge of other languages other than their native tongue. In order to coach effectively, pianists must be the 'master' of the printed page so that any aspect of a singer's work can be addressed. Too often I find that young pianists are not spending enough time with the score--knowing tempi and expressive markings if in another language, considering a metronome marking if given, questioning all printed sources so as to give a singer the most comprehensive knowledge available. This is a bigger issue compounded by the availability of so many faulty editions on the Internet.
"My own personal message to young pianists would be to develop their hands technically first so that they are equipped to deal with the repertoire of our profession, which is often as difficult as the solo repertoire! I would also add that treating colleagues with respect, care, and honesty is essential. Start languages now and assume that it is a lifelong occupation. Lastly, a career is built one job/experience at a time and every person you encounter is important and could influence your career negatively or positively, so treat everyone with respect, even when it is difficult. Be the bigger person."
WARREN JONES is, as I am, a North Carolina native. He is my junior, but I have always looked up to him. Warren won all those student competitions we both entered. He now enjoys a brilliant international career as performing and recording pianist partner to many of the most illustrious singers before the international public, is also often found on the operatic podium (after his early years at the Met as an assistant conductor), and is an instrumental recital partner and principal pianist to the exciting chamber group, Camerata Pacifica. Warren is one of North America's most highly sought-after teachers of the collaborative arts, both in the Collaborative Piano program of Manhattan School of Music, as guest artist at major schools of music and professional performance programs of song and opera, as well as at many summer festivals, most notably his long relationship with Marilyn Horne and the Music Academy of the West. His generations of students are now respected, vital leaders of our field in opera houses, on international recital stages, and in departments of collaborative piano study internationally.
Mr. Jones responded to question one: "The trait that I particularly look for (and I ask about it in the most straightforward way that I can) is, does the young pianist love singers? Not singing, not Puccini, not vocal music, but singers ... This question comes from unsolicited advice that was given me by Gladys Miller, a very senior and experienced voice faculty member at New England Conservatory when I was an undergraduate there. She told me plainly and simply that if one loves singers, and has a modicum of talent, all the other aspects will flow into place. But without that love of singers, no other talent, no other aspect, no matter how formidable, will make any difference. I have always kept that advice close."
MARTIN KATZ's large numbers of international recital performances and numerous recordings with many of the world's famed operatic and recitalist singers, his years of teaching at the University of Michigan where he has long educated and then launched into our profession internationally some of the finest among us, his years on the podium as operatic conductor, his frequent participation in North America's leading international summer music festivals and too numerous to count residencies in schools of music, as well as his seminal book, The Complete Collaborator, which should be at the top of everyone's "to read and study continually" list, only hint at the large and empowering impact this man has made on our field.
To question 1: "I look for innate musicality, musicianship (which is not the same thing), and imagination. It must be assumed, mind you, that the pianism is at an acceptable level consistently."
To question 2: "I find people are not listening as intently or as passionately as is necessary. I include listening to breathing, singing, and above all, to the text. I find fairly consistently that the more challenging the piano part is technically, the less available for listening is the pianist. That cannot lead to perfect synchronization with one's partner."
MALCOLM MARTINEAU was born and raised by a pianist father and singer mother in Edinburgh, Scotland. His mother was a highly known and respected voice teacher, so perhaps his career fate was happily sealed from an early age. Trained at Cambridge and the Royal College of Music, he maintains one of the busiest international performance schedules as an accompanist (the Brits are proud accompanists just as we are proud collaborative pianists; an article about this is soon coming in "Collab Corner"), partnering large numbers of leading international singers. He spends much time in North America in concert and in master classes and residencies at leading North American schools of music and festivals.
His comment in answer to question 1: "They have to love and understand the 'singing animal."' To question 2: "Similar to my first answer."
His personal message to young pianists aspiring to accompanying and coaching careers: "They have to understand that singing and singers are different from artists who can see and touch their mode of music making because their instruments are them. This leads to a much more personal reaction to criticism and that to stand up and sing in public is a very daring act. Also because they start later than the rest of us to learn the technique of their instrument. There is a 'naturalness' (if that's a word!) about singing which sometimes leads them to attempt to be lazy!! Anyone can sing!! Yes!! BUT all professional singers need to work hard to have a secure technique and musical skills, particularly because they start later in their lives."
J. J. PENNA was one of my most honored colleagues in the Collaborative Piano Department of The Juilliard School, where, gratefully, he remains after my departure last May. I have known him since his Fellowship summers at the Tanglewood Music Center, just after his graduate work with Martin Katz at the University of Michigan. From there he taught at Yale University for some years and now is head of collaborative piano studies at Westminster Choir College. At Juilliard, he is on both vocal arts and collaborative piano faculties. Most importantly to me, he teaches The Art of Vocal Coaching Skills class there for all collaborative piano majors. He has traveled the world partnering in recital a large number of superb and internationally noted singers. Additionally, he is a published author of poetry and prose as well as a frequent guest--as pianist and speaker--at song festivals.
To question 1: "I think there is a clear distinction between collaborative pianist and vocal coach. The coach is a musical assistant to a singer, offering critical feedback that is built on years and years of study and experience. Having said this, I can't think of a single vocal coach who is not also a sensitive singer's pianist. In a sense, coaching starts from the keyboard. I want young vocal pianists to be sensitive to the vocal line as more than just a curve on the page, to desire to participate in the singer's sound and gesture with a spirit of openness and generosity. That's a good start. Then, a coach's knowledge base is built step-by-step, through experience with the vocal literature in a variety of contexts. All of us have a bit of an obsessive streak: Music, Language, Drama, Poetry, Literature--we take it all in. When one signs up for this profession, one signs onto a lifetime of studying the singer's process, of helping singers cut to the core of the material.
"Receptivity is key. I always tell my students that we're experiencing a terrific contradiction when we're playing or coaching the vocal repertoire--that of being independent and accommodating at once. This flexibility-within-structure is something that's difficult to verbalize but essential to this pursuit. One's playing/coaching should command a certain authority, a serving-up of the musical materials as a finished thing (the way a great opera conductor would), while still providing an open field of play where anything can happen at any moment.
"Happily, many student pianists I encounter, even at the undergraduate level, already possess the synthesizing gifts of being great teachers/coaches. In some ways, they arrive with certain opinions already formed, thinking critically and listening to singers with a sense of discernment. This, even on its own, will take them far. There's no clear answer to when someone is ready to start coaching. I always hope that a critical dialogue naturally emerges from a pianist's experience with the repertoire, and is not something that feels strained or forced."
To question 2: "Rubato as it emerges from the gesture of language is very difficult to teach to a pianist new to the singer's art. When students can get beyond questions of why they should 'go faster here' or 'slower there' and begin supporting the way the vocal line turns, responding to the subtle dramatic shifts within a text, responding to the nuances of language, then they're onto something, and can truly begin to experience what style means in the vocal repertoire."
ELVIA PUCCINELLI is professor and head of the Collaborative Piano Department at the University of North Texas College of Music and the master creator and director of CollabFest, a truly superb annual UNT event that draws large numbers of enthusiastic collabs--professional and student--from large distances for several days of classes and concerts. Created for collaborative pianists, singers, and even instrumentalists, it is an event many of you, our readers, should attend. Dr. Puccinelli's partnering in vocal recitals as well as chamber concerts has taken her across our country and throughout Europe. Her articulate and charismatic public speaking has made her a favorite presenter in NATS and many other national organizations. Her generations of superb students now populate staffs of major opera houses and university faculties throughout the U. S.
To question 1: "I look for someone who has great generosity of spirit, a solid desire to help, support and nurture others' growth, and patience/flexibility. In addition to having solid pianistic ability and an ear for languages--and this seems obvious--the pianist needs to like people in general, and singers in particular. Working with singers is very different than working with instrumentalists, and many pianists do not have the willingness or ability to adapt to the various needs of the coaching role, which can include helping a singer to choose and learn music (functioning more in a teacher/coach capacity), partnering in performance (where leadership is given over the singer's communication of text), and everything in between. A teacher at heart, in other words, and someone who does not need to be center stage."
To question 2: "Languages! Both spoken/grammatical and IPA, the former being arguably more important when it comes to really helping a singer express her/himself.
"There also needs to be a sense of self-awareness, particularly in the training years, that allows a pianist to 'cultivate her own garden' of technique, expression, style and self-care. Pianists in their training years who are inclined to work with singers have a tendency to overbook themselves to the point of not being able to refine technical skills enough to execute their musical ideas and to sustain long-term physical health/freedom from injury."
To question 3 and her personal message to you: "The opportunity to help someone find or refine her voice is a great honor, privilege, and responsibility--and so much fun! The work demands selflessness and intuition, both wisdom and knowledge, and a level of listening that goes beyond intonation, rhythm, and phonemes to the very soul and spirit of the person we are working with.
"I really, truly believe that we collaborative pianists have the opportunity to change the world, one phrase at a time, through our generous attention to our partner and awareness of our selves, as we seek to use music to express our shared humanity. Everyone desires to be heard; in our best, deepest work, we coaches do that! The level and quality of listening and responding that coaching requires has the potential to create transformative experiences for our partners, and for ourselves. Some of the greatest professional joys in my life have been found in the intimacy of the coaching studio, where safety and freedom to experiment have allowed both singer and myself to unabashedly, unashamedly create art from the deepest parts of ourselves without editing or judgment: as I use my playing to help guide and encourage my partner to new levels of expression, and as I open my spirit up to connecting with my partner's, I find I am brought to a new and unexpected level myself, and it is a beautiful, powerful thing."
ROGER VIGNOLES, who maintains one of the busiest performing and guest teaching schedules I know, was born in Cheltenham, educated at Cambridge and the Royal College of music, where he is now Professor of Piano Accompaniment; he resides in London. We know him best in North America for his frequent recital performances with a large roster of the world's leading singers as recitalists as well as with instrumentalists, from his large discography, and from his many master classes and residencies at our leading schools of music and music festivals. He was, in the early days of his career, a repetiteur at the Royal Opera House, has gone on to direct many famed song series in London's most important performance venues and is now artistic director of the Nagaoka Festival in Japan. His enumerated responses to my first question: "1. Good keyboard skills, i.e., good sight-reading and a serviceable piano technique, but not necessarily to a perfect standard of accuracy. It's much more important to be able to give an indication of 'how the music goes' while paying attention to what the singer is doing.
(2.) (Obviously) some understanding, and preferably first-hand experience of, vocal technique, either through having sung or had vocal lessons themselves, or having played for the vocal lessons of others.
(3.) Basic grounding in the grammar and especially pronunciation of the principle languages of art song and opera, i.e. French, German, Italian (others, such as Spanish, Russian, Czech would be a bonus).
(4.) A broad overview of the repertoire and an understanding of the essentials of musical style, for example how the French melodie differs from the German Lied, or French and German operatic styles differ from the Italian.
(5.) A good sense of rhythm and pulse--an area where singers can be notoriously lax, and often rely on the pianist to be their conscience.
(6.) A musical imagination and some idea of how to put it into practice.
"My own personal message for these young people
(1.) Don't waste time after a first run-through asking the singer for their thoughts on how it went; they're paying to hear your thoughts (!), so get on with it as quickly as possible.
(2.) Divide your comments into digestible items to deal with one by one, and above all keep the singer singing, trying out ideas as they occur to you, and keeping the momentum of the session going.
(3.) You may well feel stuck for anything to comment on (we've all had that feeling of wondering 'what on earth can I say about this?' especially when presented with a well prepared and effective performance). But rest assured, there's always some little detail to comment on, be it in the text, or the music, a question of breathing, or of vocal colouring. Once you've found somewhere to put the screwdriver in, the rest will follow.
(4.) Have fun--it's a noble profession and you can make yourself very useful."
For these important comments and challenges, large and admiring thanks to our master teachers who gave of their expertise and time to create this important article. They make us very proud, indeed, to be accompanists, "collabs," and coaches! Ours is, indeed, a noble profession!
On this day of beginnings and endings, we will conclude our series on vocal coaching, fully knowing we are simply opening the door to more beginnings. Until September, then.
ANNIVERSARY FACTOID A List of Firsts 1945 First annual meeting, with MTNA, Detroit, Feb. 13-15. 1949 First local chapter of NATS founded in Boston (Feb. 29), followed by Denver (April 29), Los Angeles (July 26), and Chicago (Nov. 20). 1951 First national meeting unaffiliated with another music association, Chicago, Dec. 26-29. 1959 First NATS workshop, Indiana University, Aug. 8-12. 1971 Jean Ludman installed as first woman President of NATS (Dec. 28).
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|Title Annotation:||COLLAB CORNER|
|Publication:||Journal of Singing|
|Date:||May 1, 2019|
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