My previous blog, For the Love of Music Teachers was a paean to the neighborhood piano teacher. Today’s rhapsody is on that most exotic specimen, the voice teacher. Since I am a member of both pedigrees, I can say with great generosity of heart that we voice teachers are a wobbly, eccentric bunch. We think nothing of people coming in off the street to coo, whine, make retching noises, stick out tongues and gabble in nonsense syllables. Unless you’ve actually studied voice, you have no idea what a cult it is. You may imagine you are going to get accompaniment services because you like to sing. It may work that way in the beginning but if your teacher is of one of the bel canto traditions, you may find yourself wading slowly into an alternate reality. One, I might add, that is full of magic, time travel, altered states and a profound sense of mind-body alignment.
I got my first sense of how much the body allies with the voice from a teacher at Whitman College. I had been assigned to study with a bombastic bass whose idea of teaching was to thunder along with me during scales. He had no idea what to do with me and could not understand why I wasn’t amassing vocal skills. When he went on sabbatical I worked with a husband and wife team who came in for two semesters. I chose to study with the woman as soon as I realized her husband had the annoying habit of non-ironically saying “by the by” every five minutes. She introduced me to the concept of paying attention to my body by having me sing bent over so I could feel the resonance falling into my head.
Voice training is a long process that can intersect with identity crises. The complaint I hear most often after students have managed to start singing with more of their being is, “That doesn’t sound like me.”
“Who else could it be?” I ask.
I often hear the worry that “I’m going to start sounding like an opera singer.”
Like that is a bad thing.
I try to soothe, “Oh don’t worry about that. You would need to come twice a week for ten years and actually practice at home before you’ll ever approach sounding like an opera singer.” This mollifies them, again non- ironically.
Another hard concept for students is the difference between actually singing with one’s own voice and imitating a favorite singer, complete with fantasies of being on stage, looking glamorous, and feeling adored. My high school voice teacher once said to me, “Can you try it again? And maybe this time, don’t pretend you’re Julie Andrews.” I’ve thought about that comment over the years as a parade of Christine Aguilera and Taylor Swift wannabees have whined and glottal-fried through their lessons with me.
My high school voice teacher was Pat Jacobs. I adored her. She was elegant. She wore subtle silver nail varnish at a time when everyone else wore blood red. The only remotely eccentric thing I ever saw her do was eat a single fried egg at the start of my lesson. No toast to sop it up, just a runny fried egg. The house of another teacher was such a pig sty it wasn’t unusual to find week old pieces of runny fried egg encrusted on plates next to the toilet.
I studied for a few years at what was then the Cornish Institute of Fine Arts in Seattle with Pamela who was marking time as a teacher. She wanted to sing in New York. She was a beautiful singer, a beautiful woman, and always on a diet. She assuaged her constant hunger during lessons by sucking Jolly Ranchers. There was always a little pile of candy wrappers on the eighth octave of the piano by the end of a lesson. Pamela was a soloist and a performer in her soul, so it was doubly sweet when she wanted everything to go well before my recital at Cornish.
There are those teachers who are in their souls only concerned about their reputation like He Who Shall Not Be Named but who figures in my memoir 99 Girdles on the Wall. Marge Sackett rescued me from the aforementioned He and took my entire voice apart. “I hate to have to tell you this,” she said. “But that palate is going to have to come down.” Let’s pause in respectful silence while fans of William Vennard recover their composure.
Identity crises? My singing voice has been taken apart and put back together three times. I’ve surfaced as a coloratura, a lyric soprano and a mezzo-soprano. As I approach 60, and as I continue to work with my beloved Tommie Eckert, I am finally seeing all those parts integrate. My voice is still a grand field of discovery. My wobbly trajectory is to offer my students a share of the terrain.