Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Mix it up Monday: Advice for the first lesson

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Spectrum of Voices 2nd editionI just received my copy of the second edition of “A Spectrum of Voices: Prominent American voice teachers discuss the teaching of singing,” by Dr. Elizabeth L. Blades this past weekend. Both this edition and the first edition are great references for voice teachers seeking information about how others work with students. Today I want to highlight a few thoughts on how to handle the first lesson.

The first lesson is critically important for all involved. For the private studio teacher, it is often a situation that can have a direct impact on monthly income. For university faculty, it can make a difference between a student using your school or going to a competitor. For the pedagogue interviewing for a teaching position at an institution, the first lesson is all the hiring committee will usually get to see. How that lesson is handled will have a direct impact on whether or not you get the job.

Here are a few of the statements that resonated with me from chapter eleven:

“I ask new students to bring with them to the first lesson one piece that they believe they sing extremely well and one piece that represents their worst problems. After hearing both pieces of music, I tell them what my conclusions are about their vocalism at this time. I outline a course of study that will either bring the problems under control or solve them. We attack several spots of the defective piece together to show the singer how I work. It is their right to know what it is I do, and it is necessary in order to make a decision whether to continue or not. This will either inspire confidence in me, in which case we begin a course of lessons, or it will show them that they do not wish to work my way, and a lot of time is saved for both of us.” Shirley Emmons (p. 110)

“One thing I try to do before the first lesson is to obtain some background information from the student, preferably in writing. Besides a resume and repertoire list, I ask them to write an autobiography, which can be as long or short, as personal or impersonal, as they wish. I am seeking information not normally included in a resume, such as their musical and linguistic background, their vocal study/how they began, what Fach and if that has changed, with whom they have worked, if they play another instrument, and so forth. I ask male voices what they sang before the change of voice. I would like to know about relevant health issues and any medications they might be taking – also any information about their past health that might be relevant. I ask them to tell me what they consider to be their strengths (vocal and personal) and those areas that need work. What are their long- and short-term goals, and who do they like and not like to listen to and why? Lastly, I ask for a list of their ‘top ten’ vocalizes and the new repertoire on which they want to work. Having this autobiography usually provides information that I might not ordinarily discover initially and gives a broader perspective on their needs and goals. Also, communication through the written word can be quite insightful.”
Cynthia Hoffman (p. 112)

“A first lesson varies a bit from age to age because my students include everybody from high school students to beginning freshman in college to professionals. Even so, I make a great effort not to approach the first lesson with the attitude that ‘they don’t know anything about singing.’ First, before I discuss anything, I have them sing for me. Then I talk to them and find out just where they are in their own vocal knowledge and study – what they know about singing and how well they express themselves in terms of technical facility. I address any specific problem areas that they may want to rethink. Then we get started. It’s very important to set an atmosphere right from the start that I’m not the one who has all the knowledge and that you have none. Right from the very beginning of the first lesson, I let them know we will be talking about singing a lot, discussing vocal sensations – verbalizing what things feel like and the physical sensations they have when they sing. Eventually, it helps them in their practice and in teaching themselves. If they can verbalize it, then they can teach it.” Laura Brooks Rice (p. 115-116)

“First of all, I want to know what they want. I want to know what they’d like for their voice. This is not a question that is asked a lot. I like to find out from them. Sometimes they are looking to try to please me, or give me a right answer. I have to really convince them that there is not a ‘right’ answer; it’s what they truly want for their voice. If someone heard them singing, what would they say about hearing them, or, in an ideal world, what would they say about hearing them? So I’m going to spend some time talking with the student and guiding them to some kind of intent with their voice. Why do they want to sing; what’s their purpose in singing? Without that knowledge, I am not going to have the same guidance to help them. I want to help them help themselves.” Meribeth Dayme (p. 121)

“In the first meeting with a professional performer in my NYC Studio, I need to get a feel for their background and previous training. There is usually some vocal issue that has brought them to me. I will want to get to that as soon as I can. The first lesson is exploratory. If it is a woman, I will listen to the range and expressiveness of her speaking voice, which already tells me a lot. I will listen to the coordination of her middle voice, the freedom of her lofty soprano, and the strength and range of the lower chest voice. Usually by now I have a bead on the problem and she will be open about confirming it. Professional students have no time to waste, and lessons are expensive. I ask her to sing a few of her go-to audition songs. If there is a significant problem we will need to address, we have an open conversation about it and take things from there. Whatever the issue, these lessons target specific technical issues arising from certain fears or misconceptions in their developmental training. If the student is a man, I will have a similar encounter, discussing background and training. I will listen for the core modal sound, coordination of register transitions, and falsetto, and listen to audition material. Current musicals require men and women to sing higher and higher in a chest dominant mix. Learning to balance treble and bass qualities is critical for vocal longevity.” Mary Saunders-Barton (p. 122-123)

Richard Miller provides specific advice for what he believes we should do in the first lesson:

“Rather than begin with abstract discussions on breath management, resonance balancing, and so forth, the teacher should first hear the student sing. (Incomprehensibly, that is not always the case!) This should consist of a song (or, with an advanced student, and aria) in a series of vocalizes specifically tailored to determine the level of accomplishment. The teacher should explore such aspects as onset, timbre balance, vibrancy, vowel definition, and range extension. We cannot teach someone without having an overall picture of performance achievement. Something is always better than something else, and whatever is more positive should serve as a starting point. Then teacher and student have a clear picture of where and how to begin.” (p. 120)

There are many other great thoughts detailed in chapter eleven of Blades’ book. To read the responses in their entirety, check out pages 109 through 123. If you are looking for something fun to do this summer, consider joining us at the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute where you will be exposed to even more thoughts from historical and contemporary pedagogues. If you join us for session two, you will a have to chance to talk with Mary Saunders-Barton firsthand as we award her the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute Lifetime Achievement Award.

How do you handle the first lesson? Do you have a different approach than those listed above? You can contribute to the conversation by leaving a comment below. If you are not already following the blog, you can enter your name and email address below to receive a message each time there is a new post. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media to help spread the word. As always, thank you for reading, and have a wonderful week of teaching.

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This entry was posted on April 2, 2018 by in Lesson Management, Misc. Thoughts, Mix it up Monday.

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