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What is vocal coaching?

Although the title of vocal coach is a widely used term, there still is much confusion about what the vocal coach actually does. Usually when I tell people I am a vocal coach, they assume I am either a singer or a teacher of singing. When I explain I am a pianist who works with singers, the response is often, "So what do you do?" The usual reply is that I work on all aspects of singing except vocal technique, which is the realm of the voice teacher.

The most important thing a vocal coach must do is listen. This seems almost too obvious to mention, but it is too vital not to. Intense listening is crucial, since the coach is expected not only to play along with the singer, but also provide feedback--to tell the singer what he hears: what is good, what needs improvement. Sometimes a coach may be able to work with a voice/piano duo. More often, however, a vocal coaching will include only the singer and the coach. I will use this as the norm for the sake of this article.

This brings up one key difference between a collaborative pianist and a vocal coach. Frequently, these two jobs are performed by one person, Out they are two separate roles. When performing with a singer, the collaborative pianist must, of course, listen to the singer for matters of ensemble, balance and interpretation. However, much of the collaborative pianist's attention must necessarily be focused on what she is doing at the piano, since she is one of the performers. When that same pianist serves as a vocal coach, however, she must focus her attention chiefly on the singer. This often is difficult for those of us who have been trained for many years to listen to ourselves and the sounds we make at the keyboard. However, the coach can better help the singer by listening rather than playing the piano part exquisitely. Naturally, I'm not advocating that the pianist play poorly, or that she not care about her playing; it's simply a shift in the focus of attention. In fact, it is a great advantage if the coach is an excellent pianist, since she must be able to play the piano part and sometimes sing cues (in operatic and oratorio repertoire), while still focusing her attention on what the singer is doing.

The coach must pay attention to a wide array of vocal and musical issues. The basic musical elements the coach must listen for include correct pitches, rhythms and words. Presumably, these all have been learned before the singer meets with the coach, but that does not always happen. Even if the singer has done his homework, he may have learned something inaccurately, or perhaps he has not yet had an opportunity to sing his part with the instrumental part. Then, to go a step further, are the correct, pitches in tune? Are the rhythms truly accurate, and do they give the music life, or are they only metronomic? Are the words not only correct, but also pronounced accurately and clearly, and are they inflected appropriately and expressively?

Suddenly, we have delved into deeper territory with the inclusion of language. Vocal repertoire comes in many languages, and the vocal coach is expected to be able to work with at least four: English, French, German and Italian. Linguistic areas in which the coach may be helpful to the singer include diction (the correct choice of vowel and consonant sounds, suitably produced), what is sometimes called the "lilt" of the language (how the language is inflected; how it flows; which syllables, if any, should be stressed and how they should be stressed), translation of the text (if it is in a language foreign to the singer) and interpretation of the text (figuring out what the poem--or prose--really means).

This is one of the most rewarding activities for many coaches, especially when they are working on the marvelously rich and varied art-song repertoire. As coach and singer discuss the poetry of songs, they can discover various levels of meanings in the poems. What was the poet trying to express? Judging from the music, what did the composer think the poem was about? What can the poem and the song mean to you or your audience? These can be stimulating and gratifying questions to explore together.

Does this mean the coach has to be fluent in all those major song and opera languages? It certainly would be useful if he was, but it is not necessary. What he should have is knowledge of the rules of diction; a basic understanding of grammar, since that is often a key to translating; a love of language and poetry; and good dictionaries. He also should constantly be developing an ear for the cadence and inflection of the languages. And once a coach's basic languages are in pretty good shape, he may want to add Spanish or Russian or Swedish or Czech or....

Another important role for the vocal coach is to help the singer achieve a finer grasp of musical style, which could include discussing performance practices of specific eras, such as baroque ornamentation; style characteristics of certain genres, like verismo opera; and compositional traits of specific composers.

Other things a vocal coach should listen for include the shaping of phrases, a convincing communication of the text, an efficient taking and using of breath, a smooth vocal line and an even resonance/color/placement of tone. The last few items in this list may sound very technical, and, in fact, they should be a part of the vocal technique the singer is working on with her voice teacher. Actually, the roles of voice teacher and voice coach frequently overlap. With issues of vocal technique, however, it is not necessary for the coach to be able to teach the singer how to sing a legato line or how to match vowels, but to point out when those things are not happening. If the singer cannot fix a technical problem in a coaching, a useful phrase for the coach is: "Take that to your teacher."

Singers often ask their coaches for help choosing repertoire. Therefore, the more knowledgeable the coach becomes about vocal repertoire and operatic voice classifications, the more useful she will be to her singers.

As this brief introduction to the work of a vocal coach shows, a coach's job is extremely varied, especially when one considers that each singer's voice is unique. Each singer comes with his own complex combination of strengths, weaknesses and interests, which keeps the coach's job intriguing and challenging.

Timothy Hoekman is a professor of vocal coaching and accompanying at The Florida State University. He holds a B.A. degree from Calvin College, an M.M. degree from Peabody Conservatory and a doctoral degree in piano performance from the University of Michigan. Hoekman was the 2002 MTNA-Shepherd Distinguished Composer of the Year.
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Title Annotation:Forum focus: collaborative arts
Author:Hoekman, Timothy
Publication:American Music Teacher
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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