I’m at the end of the first week of a wonderful two-week Summer Musical Theatre Institute at Wagner College on Staten Island, spearheaded by Susan Fenley. This is my second year as musical director and voice teacher for the program, which immerses high school students in dance, improv, musical theatre performance and scene study, all in preparation for a showcase performance the last day of the intensive. It’s a beautifully designed experience that gives the students access to New York theatre and Q&A’s with Wagner alumns who are currently performing on Broadway.
This week I was reminded of William Finn’s lyric from A NEW BRAIN. Heart and music do, indeed, make a song.
Oh, if it were only that easy, though. As a voice teacher, I would amend that to read: “Heart and music and breath support and a free, resonant tone with forward language make a song.”
But that’s a mouthful and wouldn’t work as a lyric.
With any young or beginning voice student, it’s necessary to talk about the physiology of their instrument and help them grasp the basic principles of a healthy vocal technique. But let’s face it: a concept that can be summed up in one sentence takes years to fully understand and integrate with any sort of consistency.
So, how does one approach teaching technique to the neophyte? Everyone has a different opinion, that’s for sure. And yet, I don’t know of a teacher who, on the first day of a young student’s lesson, whips out the Richard Miller and says, “Let’s start here…”.
I find what works best for my young students is striking a balance between technical information and helping them discover what I’ll call a kind of spiritual intuition. I believe it’s perfecting this balance that makes for an engaging artist.
One of the first things I tell my new students is that learning to sing is like someone handing you a blank piece of paper and saying, “Here. Now meet me in San Diego in three days.” It’s up to the singer to draw the map – to know the landscape of their voice.
It doesn’t take long for the eyes to glaze over when I start talking about intercostals or pharyngeal space. I do my best to quietly introduce this technical information with visual and allegorical concepts that give it a context. The other thing that helps is getting the student to verbalize what they’re feeling – to palpate as they sing and get used to expressing where they feel the tone or what a low inhalation feels like. These tools make the technical information come to life as they see and feel the difference this knowledge can make.
And then there are times I have to tell my students to simply let go – to trust their intuition and see what comes out. So often in lessons, I’ve watched as a student desperately tries to incorporate a particular technical tool into their singing. Sometimes they’re trying way too hard and begin to push the voice out of whack as a result. Almost always, this occurrence makes the student a singing head. They have completely left their body on a mission to find something that is already within their grasp. When this happens, I ask them to do a simple “ah” sigh to once again release the voice. Then I’ll often have them plié or sing with jazz hands just to get them back in their body so we can get them realigned.
The more I teach, the more I am convinced this balance of technical skill and a blind faith is necessary to become a successful singer. I’ve seen singers who were only technicians, and was bored with them. I’ve also seen performers who were strictly about letting go, and found their performances either technically reprehensible or self-indulgent. The singers who know how to fully integrate the two always grab my attention.
I don’t think this concept of embracing technique while also letting go is unique to singing. I feel the same is true of my work as a composer. I studied theory and counterpoint in college. Now I have to trust that foundation is there and move past it to allow room for creativity. I know the same is true for visual artists and poets I’ve spoken to.
Leonard Cohen says that love is simple. Well, I think the same could be said of singing. When I see students balance their technical knowledge with a child-like curiosity and openness, not only do I hear the best results, I am reminded of how grateful I am to be a teaching artist.
For more information about Wagner College’s Summer Musical Theatre Institute, please click here.
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