Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Vocal Coach, Defined

If you're looking for a clear explanation of the difference between a voice teacher and vocal coach, look no farther than Elizabeth McDonald's recent post on the subject:
The voice coach (aka: collaborative pianist) is the person who deals with the musical, language and dramatic demands of the vocal repertoire. They are pianists who have done training in diction, repertoire, collaborative piano and opera. The goal of the vocal coach is to serve as the other half of the music (piano part or orchestra reduction) and help the singing put everything together. They expect a singer to arrive with notes learned, language translated, and an idea about how the song should be presented. From there the coach is the musical "mirror" for the singer and reflects back what they hear and makes suggestions on how to make any necessary changes.
I like the mirror comparison a lot, which I had never considered. I've also previously written about the difference between voice teacher and coach.


  1. I like to use an easy statement: A vocal coach tells you what needs to be done to best serve the music (style, interpretation, etc.) and the teacher helps you learn HOW to do it (vocal technique). The mirror IS a great image. In my studio I have my singers look into a mirror and tell them "the mirror is our friend" and lets us know to what degree we're doing something. Often, we think we've accomplished something and the mirror lets us know that the degree of accomplishment is not quite what we thought. Thanks Chris for passing on this great image for coaching!

  2. Anonymous12:51 AM

    Funny thing...I've always heard complaints about coaches overstepping this fuzzy line between coaching and teaching voice. And this is, of course, a valid complaint. But now that I'm playing in several different voice studios simultaneously for the first time (and can compare teachers), I'm starting to get a sense that voice teachers overstep this bound just as frequently. Of course, it is inevitable that voice teachers will, perhaps more than occasionally, have to comment on style, text, and musical considerations. But sometimes I walk out of a voice lesson thinking I just accompanied a coaching. Obviously, coaches can't argue with or say anything bad about voice teachers EVER if we want continued work. But I just find it interesting that the other side of the argument is so often voiced, and this side really isn't.

  3. Some of us as teachers, are also coaches, and HAVE technique! I think this is what is the dividing factor. As a teacher, I always involve the coach in stylistic factors, and always want their expertise, if I am coming at it from a teaching, technical perspective. I think it is imperative for ALL of us to know our expertise and share it - and recognize the lines in the situations we are in. This is respectful of the person, the position and our art form.

  4. This Fall I've encountered singers who have been playing chorus rehearsals. The two hats are not necessarily interchangeable.

    In addition, coaching and accompanying expertise can reside in the same person, but that is not a given.

    Very often, one skill may overshadow the other.

    Hence, we all need to be aware of where our strengths lie and promote them!

    Great post, Chris. Thank you.

  5. Anonymous12:42 AM

    some time ago, i responded to a similar blog on here by citing the underlying hypocrisy in the job market. the most esteemed coaches i know often comment on singing in just the way that singers rage against. however, they are excused from this potential pitfall possibly because these coaches are "big names," or more probably, because what they say is CORRECT, GOOD SINGING ADVICE!

    furthermore, as i have watched colleagues move up the job ladder, those who get the best jobs are often ones who comment on singing technique. i have even had conductors tell me they hire coaches on their music staff BECAUSE the coach knows about singing and can and will comment on it intelligently and correctly. i'm often told my above average singing and many years of voice study are huge pluses to "me" as a package. wouldn't you agree that, all other things being equal, a coach who makes a well-produced sung sound is more marketable that one who sounds like a dying animal or who is too timid to sing out audibly?

    of course some of this is the fact that the professional world and school are different settings which call for different operating procedures. even among these two large divisions are smaller divisions down to individual cases which can and do vary.

    in lesson type situations at school, after i have played a few sessions with a singer and voice teacher, and see the direction the teacher is headed with the voice, i will comment on the singing both in a coaching and IN THE LESSON. i speak up when i like a sound and when i don't. teachers often ask me what i think and hear, anyway. when i was younger, i just nodded agreement, but i soon developed a refinement and taste and preference for sung sounds, as anyone who is paying any attention during voice lessons will.

    i will say what i think about the quality of sound and why i hear it as better or worse. i will even go as far-- sometimes-- to suggest a remedy for a problem that the teacher and student are working on-- if it is not interrupting the flow of the lesson. 97 times out of 100, the teacher agrees, is grateful, and it helps. the voice teachers and students i work with seem to enjoy having another ear to bounce an idea off.

    i am secure enough in what i am saying to put it out there in front of all parties. why not have everyone's ideas on the table? why not let the voice teacher know how highly developed my ear is to hearing a voice? why not let them know i am a partner who will be listening up for the same sort of sounds s/he is looking for in my rehearsals with the singer?

    object, if you will, in principle. in reality, that is the opposite of my entire life experience. i have no trouble getting either business or respect from a wide variety of singers and teachers.

    answer this honestly, singers: are you really paying me to notice a problem, have the ability to describe it to you, know a possible cause and/or solution, and then just simply NOT SAY ANYTHING? take it or leave it... i'm going to give you my all--tailored expressly for you-- when we work together.

  6. Thanks Chris for your post - and to all of your readers for responding!

    Some of the best technical pointers I have ever received have come from vocal coaches who know the voice, had the experience to articulate what they heard then allowed me to figure out how to make it work on my technical terms. But that is the has to support where the singer is technically which means you need to work with a singer more than once to get the picture.

    For me as a voice teacher, it is sometimes necessary to coach the music, diction etc more than the technique. Not every singer shows up with music learned, diction perfect, etc. Without those things in hand, technical direction can only cause frustration!

    I'm sure this conversation will continue....but in the meantime, I love all you CPs out there who care and nurture the voice!