Thoughts after a voice master class

ambivalenceMaster classes are a strange institution in the performing arts. Who is teaching and why? Who is being taught? What should the focus be? Can any “teaching” be accomplished, or is it more of a show?

I recently attended a class led by a famous opera singer. She worked with three singers from a major young artist program in a big city. I am more comfortable keeping this somewhat anonymous, so no more clues!

Ms. Teacher worked with each singer for about 25 minutes. Her work was entirely technical. This was surprising to me, since the students aspire to a career such as hers, and it seems that she could have shared insights about interpreting for the operatic stage, performance traditions on specific repertoire, or the process of building a career.

She worked with every student, using the same exercises, to determine their best “feeling of support”. She talked about compressing the upper chest, contracting the pectoral muscles, to put a “nozzle on the windpipe”. She had the students push their hands against the hands of a volunteer in various directions to see which muscles were “engaged” and then go with the ones that felt “most engaged”. This was bewildering. So you contract the muscles that feel like they’re working the hardest? So controlling the torso for singing consists of doing what feels like the most work? And when you say “squeeze there” and point to someone’s lats, what do they do with that? Lats can contract, as when trying to pull a leopard out of a tree, but they don’t “squeeze” anything. Sphincters squeeze, but I’m pretty sure she never pointed to one of those. So can the esophagus and intestines, but I don’t think she was having people put their support there either.

She had some helpful things to say about vowel formation, and she broke down “resonance” and even the fabled “singer’s formant” in a concise and helpful manner. While I felt that the “support” experiments went nowhere, her helps with with making vowels more on the inside a la GarcĂ­a lead to some noticeable boosts in vowel clarity, resonance, and evenness. That and asking the student to pay attention to legato line actually led to some better results.

All three of the students had issues at the laryngeal level to work out, which Ms. Teacher did not comment on. The young soprano, in particular, had some troubling issues to my ears. Her speaking voice was bright, youthful, and beautiful, but when she sang she was doing the typical modern “opera sound”. She was yanking her larynx too low, she was singing with too much wasted breath, and making loud, dark hooty sounds. Perhaps she identifies with this way of doing things as a “baby spinto”. “Breath management” and “support” become bigger issues than they need to be when the larynx is not phonating efficiently. As long as she is depressing it and sending so much “flow” through her throat, she will not find her way to a long and healthy career, nor will she “project” the way she would like to. But by golly, it’s a “warm” and “mature” sound. The vibrato was rather slow, and wobbles seem right around the corner. Making better shaped vowels only helped her a little. She needs to get the source of the sound working right to go further.

Ms. Teacher talked a lot about “focusing” the sound, and she felt that this was all about the pharynx and “the support”, and not laryngeal. Once again, as in so many vocal places, I find people avoiding what’s hard but essential – training the larynx itself. The actual folds need to be able to be adjust to every combination of thin-thick and stretched-relaxed, with ideal adduction at all times. That’s not a simple or short-term task. Unlocking a voice and getting it to give the most it can, easily, seems to be unthinkable as a modus operandi in vocal training. Instead, it’s all about effort – so much holding and contracting and heaving. Trying to bring a vocal quality like “focus” or “ring” to a voice with an inefficient or bound-up or weak larynx is asking for trouble.

When a student repeats a passage in a master class and people ooh and aah about it being “better”, what is going on? If it indeed sounds better, has the student “learned” something? Is it just the comfort of getting a 2nd or 3rd stab at it, which makes it better by itself? Is there a placebo effect where the student thinks a directive is helping, when it is simply distracting him from an interfering tension that will reappear tomorrow? Is it sometimes the Emperor’s new clothes, where Ms. Teacher says “much better” but it really isn’t, and the audience and student want to humor the revered teacher?

Because the process of voice training takes time, focusing 100% on technical work (as opposed to “diagnosis”) in one 25 minute public session per student seemed a little strange. However, it is interesting as a display of how Ms. Teacher, who is a wonderful singer, conceives of what she does. It could be another chapter for “Great Singers on Great Singing”, in which a couple dozen of the world’s most famous opera singers of the 1970s agreed on surprisingly little about vocal technique and training. These disagreements are fascinating in themselves.

If you enjoy this blog, consider grabbing a copy of Sane Singing: A Guide to Vocal Progress, available in print and ebook!

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One Reply to “Thoughts after a voice master class”

  1. I agree with you , Brian, Master Classes are a strange institution in the teaching of singing,
    All around the world. And also for us in Paris ! in the Great Conservatory…

    Yours cordially, Michel G-H. (I read of you in the J. Petersen blog, excellent !)

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