Monday, August 18, 2008

Some Thoughts on How Singers Choose a Coach/Pianist

Last week, I asked the question How do you choose a coach/pianist? to the singing community. My goal was to collect some insight from classical singers as to what they need from a vocal coach and how they went about choosing one. I also wondered how singers thought about the coach/singer relationship, and how it differs from the voice teacher/singer relationship. This issue figured prominently in the comments from the post...

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.

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!!!
Gabriel talks about the coach's diagnostic role in vocal technique:
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?

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?
From an anonymous commenter:
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.

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.
A big thanks to Jermaine, Elizabeth, Gabriel, and Anon. for their eloquent and frank advice.

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.


  1. Anonymous7:46 AM

    sorry in advance for being so long winded, but this is a big issue to me. now that you've opened it up to pianists as well as singers, i hope others will take a moment to weigh in.

    i think this is a great post that raises issues for many vocalists and coaches too. any discussion i have ever had about this issue with teachers or coaches often seems to get heated. i guess people have had bad experiences, being told things by their coaches that are wrong. i always wonder what exactly was said that was deemed "out of line." what is out of line? are the same things off limit for every coach and every client? chris, i find that your response is in such one-sided agreement with the singers who responded to you, it does not account for the full depth and nuance of what we coaches do.

    a voice teacher once said to me that she felt like coaches should coach and voice teachers should voice teach. i've never understood what that meant exactly. does that mean that a voice teacher should not comment on ensemble, phrasing, tempo, diction, or style? i hardly think anyone would agree that those areas are inappropriate for a voice teacher. furthermore, adjusting any of these musical features could have an impact on vocal production as well. does that make them out of line for a coach? if so, what exactly does that leave a coach to do?

    i know of plenty of coaches who talk about a person's vowel as being too bright or dark, open or closed, for a particular language. that kind of discussion can make me very uneasy, where as many of my colleagues have no problem mentioning it. but, if the coach is fluent in italian and the sound is foreign to him/her, is it out of bounds for him or her to say so? i can think of plenty of cases where a voice teacher does not have the language training that a coach does. in this case, the coach could be the authority on whether or not the sound is idiomatic to the language, whereas the teacher can help to make sure it is produced in a healthy manner.

    i can think of other cases where i saw a famous coach work with singers on things as specific as how many vibrato oscillations they have per sixteenth note. the coach grouped it under the "style" umbrella. i would never be comfortable talking with a singer about something so personal and specific. however, i would love to have an international career like that coach.

    i also disagree with your comment that a singer needs to hear things from one and only one authority. first and foremost, i understand why you say it and exactly what you mean, especially with young singers. however, many voice teachers i work with think that having multiple viewpoints suggested to their student singers--and navigating through them-- is a regular part of the singing profession. it must be developed like any other skill. furthermore, some of my favorite voice teaching colleagues (often, those most secure in their teaching) welcome outside comments as chances for their students to hear multiple perspectives. they think having more feedback helps their students to grow even more than just one person's. now, i know not everyone agrees with that, but i just want to point out that there is a side other than what you mention.

    i understand your idea that young singers need to be protected from a whirlwind of information and mis-information about singing. but, do you know of any studies-- besides the common lore we all use for this discussion-- to support your position that it is best to have just one authority? of course, the person teaching may think it is best to have one authority simply out of desire for his or her information to be absorbed by the student. however, i can think of plenty of cases where singers have found coaches to be technically helpful, and not even always when they are talking about technique.

    it's fine to say "never talk about singing production" to your young student coach/pianists, but i haven't found that to be a realistic statement in my professional work. i have clients who ask me such detailed questions about their singing as: "do you think my top turned over enough there?" certainly not every coach would be comfortable with that question, but i think what makes it ok to answer is that the singer ask me. further, in the future, i might comment to that person about that sort of sound, once they've opened it to me. i'm always listening to the person's singing in such detail that i will say things like: "do you know your vibrato slowed down when you sang this passage (particularly high or low)? do you think your breath flow was consistent?" work like this gains me clients and respect among voice teachers, it does not cost me. and if it does cost me, i would not work well with the singers who avoid me.

    one person i played with for several years had a tendency to turn her head to the left every time she sang. one day in a coaching, i mentioned it to her and suggested that she might break the habit by actively moving her head slightly side to side while she practiced, until she became more aware of what her head was doing while she sang. (a remedy? heavens! maybe we do learn something by sitting through all those voice lessons!) she couldn't have been more glad. a few lessons later, her teacher thanked me for pointing that out to her. yet, i would say that head position is something that clearly "involves the vocal mechanism." however, my work in this case has landed me a regular client of several years, despite her change in voice teachers.

    i know a conductor who hired a pianist to play for two major US opera companies because the pianist was great with helping people be spot on with diction-- and by this i mean talking to them about how to make the sounds-- and because he knew how to talk to them about their singing. the conductor told me that these were more important issues in his hiring decision than his playing. it's fine to say that these discussions are not for people who are not comfortable with the topics and i don't mean to say that all coaches need to start talking about these sorts of things. however, we all have different backgrounds and skills. in this case, the very skills that your responses are railing against helped this coach to get two major jobs, either of which, i would love to land.

    i think one of the shortest, but best, points about your blog entry is the fact that coaches have to be mindful of the person they are working with. i have no interest in building a person's voice, but i am mindful of it. to suggest to a young singer that they make a very musical, but huge, phrase would be impractical and could potentially hamper their musical growth and confidence with a particular piece. if one only considered the poetry and grammar of the piece, completely removed from vocal considerations, one could see how such a phrasing suggestion could be made. however, a good coach would know that their breath control is not yet at that level.

    to tell a young male singer that his vowels in his top are too back and dark might be true, speaking of a final performance sound. but, if his teacher is working on having him get the sound up and over, and this sort of sound is the fledging version of what the teacher is asking for, it is counter-productive to the teacher's long range vocal plan to say those things. it's the theory of relativity, but with music. i don't really think what singers want is a pianist who is ignorant of these issues. what they really want are coaches who know what they are doing, say what they know and admit what they don't know, and know how to say things and when to say them.

    to ask only the singers who read this blog about this relationship doesn't fully engage and allow for the nuances that they don't see. these are the nuances we coaches make from client to client.

    i guess in the end for me, is the fact that there are many different coaches working different ways. just like different flavors of ice cream, a singer might not like all of us, but if we are making a living working as a coach, then at some level we are doing something right for those who hire us. we become known for what we do and how we do what we do. we attract a cliental that likes the way we work.

    there is no one way to sing, coach, play, or create any art. what makes the profession wonderful is that there is a wide variety of us working in many different ways. i'm wary of anyone who prescribes exactly how a coaching relationship should be that doesn't take into account our varied skills.

  2. Thanks for the massive and well thought-out comment!

    To fully describe the range of possibilities of what a coach can deliver would require much more space than a mere blog posting, and many more opinions than my own...

    Now, to explain my blogging process and why the posting seemed one-sided.

    I confess that I deliberately left out the other side of the question, that of the coach's own point of view, in order to generate more discussion from various points of view. This is a common technique employed by bloggers.

    My comments on having only one authority were in regards to the technical development of developing singers and are my personal opinion--if you disagree, fine. This is a contentious issue.

    With professional-level singers, they should be well equipped to deal with multiple points of view on technique and possess the technical good sense to be able to incorporate what they need and throw out the rest.

    Singers with damaged voices are another category of singer that probably require a sole authority on technique while they engage in the rebuilding process.

    I agree with the problematic vocabulary of talking about vowels as being too bright or dark, terms which are vague at best. It's far better to use more specific vocabulary about what one desires from a sound.

  3. Anonymous8:53 PM


    Your points actually illuminate what I consider to be one of the deep-seeded and egregious faults of traditional vocal pedagogy: the "Instrument" is so radically separated from the making of music.

    All musicians have to learn technique, but we (I'm a pianist) aspire to do so in the service of music making. I worked as a pianist in many conservatory voice studios. I too was told very clearly to "Never attempt to address vocal technique." and guess what--I couldn't. Even if I wanted to or knew the technique, it was never an issue because there was so much else to work on to try to bring some integrity to the score! In teaching studios, I rarely found a teacher, even some whose names you would likely know, who would integrate all their talk about palettes and vowel placement and diaphragm etc. with the actually communication of beautiful music and the myriad considerations that go into deeply communicative music making. Especially when these pedagogues wield a large personality and reputation, the young singer naturally becomes obsessive about The Instrument.

    Thus we have things like remedial Theory courses at conservatories and renowned university music schools for GRADUATE students where topics like: naming the notes on the staff, reading simple rhythms (a big one), key signatures, basic chord ID etc. are taught. The Grad Assistants (and other students) who teach these notorious classes cynically refer to them as "Singer's Section" of Theory.

    There are, of course exceptions, but my experience with many student vocalists overwhelmingly confirmed the lack of responsibility on the part of vocal pedagogues to develop the whole person into a thoughtful, communicative, and expressive musician.

    I coached out of necessity to earn a living. It was an exercise in Music Fundamentals Babysitting (and "Make Music, Not Just Sound", "What the Hell was That Word Hiding Behind Your Wobble?") and often exasperating; and we're talking about conservatory-level graduate students, many winning regional Met auditions and at the beginning of careers.

    I love the wonderful vocal repertoire, but I'm glad to now have the option to refuse to do coaching. I'm grateful to have done recitals and made recordings with some exceptional vocalists who take serious responsibility for their musicianship--this is a joy and so different than the rote work that typifies much coaching. Age and experience certainly play a part in this maturity, but I usually find there's a much richer, deeper, more diverse musical background in the vocalists of this character.

    Again, I blame the widespread traditions entrenched in vocal pedagogy that beat the life (and music) out of poor vocalists by making them obsessive Sound Machines, that fail to integrate the reason for the sound, with the reason for the music, with the reason for making music, with...