Jermaine Jackson, creator of the Vocal Performance Majors Anonymous: A College/Conservatory Connection Facebook group, states:
I believe that a coach is an advanced pianist who has studied language and music extensively, so therefore, they give feedback to a singer on tempi, phrasing, style, and diction. A coach IS NOT a voice teacher. Let me repeat... A COACH IS NOT A VOICE TEACHER! I have had SEVERAL coaches who try to tell singers how to actually sing, when they aren't singers themselves. Pianists, THIS IS NOT YOUR JOB! Don't tell a singer how to breathe, how to stand, how to phonate, or how to do anything that involves working the vocal mechanism.Gabriel talks about the coach's diagnostic role in vocal technique:
If you have worked with several singers and consider yourselves to be an advanced coach, you probably have a good ear for bad technique or a flaw in the tone. Point out what you are hearing to the singer and THEN ask the singer to address this problem with his/her teacher. Do not try to correct the problem yourself. (I don't care how many voice lessons you have sat in on and played. Just because you hear a teacher saying something doesn't mean you understand it if you aren't a singer!) In going back to the original question, I try to AVOID these coaches AT ALL COST!!!
About coaches, I suppose they're people who understand these things and even more, and they can check the diction (as word phrasing) but I disagree about phonetics, I mean: the coach might point "that word isn't that good, try to make it better", but never tell you how to phonate it, that's your voice teacher's work.In other words, the coach discovers and diagnoses potential problems and issues, which the singer then brings back to the voice teacher in order to solve. I agree completely.
One critical element in the development of young singers is that they need one and only one authority on how to develop the vocal mechanism. Even if coach and voice teacher are completely on the same track regarding how to build a voice, the mere act of hearing the same information from two different sources, and in two different sets of words, can potentially cause irreparable harm to a singer's developing voice. Far better for the vocal teacher to assume full responsibility for building the mechanics of the voice and have the coach work on other issues, of which there are plenty (ensemble, style, diction, poetics, etc.).
Also prominent in the responses were the needs of singers that have to be met through specific skill sets. Queen's University faculty member and fellow Eastman grad Elizabeth McDonald says:
First and foremost I have to actually LIKE the coach. After my voice teacher, this is the most personal relationship for me as a singer. Who are you and what is your mission as a musician?From an anonymous commenter:
Second, if you can't sight read or know the rep well enough to play it cold, stay home. This may seem harsh but singers get anywhere from 2-3 hours of good "full" singing in a day so it has to be productive and can't be wasted on waiting for a pianist to learn notes.
Third, I want to know what you HEAR. Can you sense the rate of vibrancy and when i'm going to breath? Do you make it easy for me to sing a long phrase? a fast phrase? Can you anticipate?
Fourth, can you articulate your ideas? I'm ok if you don't know everything. But can you articulate what you do know and hear?
Having said that, obviously an advanced level of musicianship, knowledge of language, an ability to concisely and accurately tell me what you hear (not try to diagnose just highlight things for me to address with my teacher), knowledge of style, ability to sight read (or willingness to say you can't) etc are the basics.Singers also need someone to put them on the right path of artistic development, not just from a place of practicalities, but able to put a singer in touch with their own artistic muse.
The anonymous commenter:
...first off is chemistry. The relationship between a coach or a collaborative pianist and a singer is as, no more, intimate on many levels than a marriage. This is a person who I’m going to be naked as an artist in front of so I need to feel safe. Ideally during our time together I’ll have the freedom to make ugly and perhaps unmusical sounds as I explore the boundaries of what I/we can do. I need to trust that when we leave the studio either you’ll be there to catch me or I’ll have the confidence to sing in the moment.This approach ties in with what a lot of advanced singers need, singers who are poked and prodded at auditions, treated as product, told by "authorities" to become this or that if they ever intend to work, but still need to have the comfort to be vulnerable in the process of working up new and existing repertoire, and most importantly need to recover their own identity as artists in the coaching process. Jermaine sums it up admirably:
Coaches, also be open to collaboration. Don't treat singers like they are worthless human beings. Not all singers are stereotypically "slow" at music, especially in 2008. Don't act like you are the "supreme authority" on everything musical just because you are sitting at the piano.A big thanks to Jermaine, Elizabeth, Gabriel, and Anon. for their eloquent and frank advice.
Most importantly for all future pianists/coaches, remember to be innovative. I can't stand working with a pianist who won't budge on a tempo because that is how they've played it for 35 years, or they first played this aria slower or faster. Have new ideas and always be willing to compromise.
Any further thoughts from singers or pianists? Please leave a comment below and let's continue the discussion.
Update 8/22: Recommended reading: a new discussion thread on Coaching vs. Playing Dumb (Facebook ID req.) has appeared on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Accompanists Facebook group that looks at the difficult choices facing many about whether or not it is wise to offer advice in the rehearsal room.