, , , , , ,

Opera singer icon

Image via Wikipedia

What happens in a vocal coaching session?

The singer arrives warmed up, with the music translated and learned. Along with possessing a beautiful voice, these are the basics.

On occasion, a singer receives a call for a last-minute audition. If the call comes after dinner and the audition is the next morning at 10, that constitutes a true emergency. In that case, it would be understandable for the singer to be less prepared.

In the great majority of coaching sessions, a coach does not expect to teach notes, rhythms, and do the translation from scratch. When the singer is prepared, there is so much more that can happen.

If all a singer (or instrumentalist or actor) brings to a performance is her/his beautiful voice, that is not enough.  Without consonants, correct vowels, many contrasting sounds in  the voice, and a dramatic interpretation, there is just one sound.  And the constant use of just one sound, no matter how beautiful, is not expressive.

A recent program

What follows is a description of my coaching sessions prior to a mid-September voice recital.

“Servasi alla mia bella/Amor commanda” (Floridante, Händel)

We made decisions about expressing the text.

  • prominent initial consonants (i.e. “caro”)
  • double consonants (which affect the rhythm)
  • using warm, expressionless (for effect), or emphatic vocal qualities
  • singing as if speaking the text, without being glued to the rhythmic notation

We practiced how much time to take between the recitative and the aria, allowing time to breathe. (An 8th note rest is indicated. We took about 3 quarter rests instead.)

  • We made a dynamic scheme to fit the text
  • We added ornaments on repeats
  • We wrote a cadenza for the end of the vocal line

We made the difference clear between Classical and Baroque ornamentation.

The ornamented sections needed to be practiced a few times under tempo. When there is more than one syllable involved, things can get a little tricky. (Where do you sing _ _ _ ?)

“E pur così in un giorno/Piangerò la sorte mia” (Giulio Cesare, Händel) was next on the program, but you get the idea, so let’s continue.

Zeffiretti lusinghieri” (Idomeneo, Mozart)

  • We explored ways to apportion the breath to express the words effectively while singing very long phrases.
  • We practiced the written-in ornaments, making sure to be expressive and not rush. Sometimes a little more time was needed. As long as the tempo returns immediately after, no one will notice. They hear expressive singing, and are not keeping track with a metronome.
  • The dynamics needed our attention. When a phrase repeats, for example, it needs to be varied.
  • We practiced how to approach a fermata and how to continue after, gracefully.
  • Endings of phrases needed care. Very often, an unaccented final syllable will be notated with the same rhythm as the accented penultimate syllable. They are not equal. Also, the final syllable may be sung on a higher note, making it sound louder (i.e. accented) if the singer is not careful.
  • We added a few ornaments and a short cadenza of our own.

“Una donna a quindici anni” (Così fan tutte, Mozart)

  • Sounding playful while singing through the phrases was something we worked on.
  • We practiced singing “finger riso, finger pianti” with the high “G’s” short and just touched with the voice. Despina is laughing and isn’t thinking about how to produce her high notes!
  • We added an ornament. You don’t need a lot, it’s where you sing them that’s important.
  • Previous considerations such as double consonants and what to do before and after fermati were present in this aria as well.

The Soldier Tir’d” (Artaxerxes, Thomas Arne)

  • The singer had this aria down pat. It was new to me, and I had my work cut out for me! The piano reduction is clearly for trumpets and orchestra. My job was to make the various changes in instrumentation clear between sections, also incorporating plenty of variety in dynamics and articulation. So I had the trumpets play some passages detached, others smoother, some louder, some softly. The strings were sometimes legato and pizzicato at other times. Sometimes I used sudden dynamic contrasts between sections. Other times, I had one group of instruments crescendo or diminuendo into the next group’s entrance.
  • Again, no repeated phrase was performed the same way as the previous one.

It took a lot of work, but in the end it was fun! Getting over the fear and just going for it made all the difference.

Arias from The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky)

The piano reduction is discussed in a previous post.

  • The singer and I worked on coordinating our parts, as these pieces are rhythmically difficult.
  • We dreamt up some imaginary staging. That made it easier to sing expressively.
  • A good example of using the text well:  the word “colder” is sung 3 times in the same phrase! Is the same word sung the same way 3 times in a row? NO… the story is conveyed so much more convincingly when the text is treated dramatically.

Gilbert & Sullivan arias and ensembles

I am going to take the liberty not to discuss this group at length. We made sure the words were clear and rehearsed one or two musical cues.

“Gualtier Maldè!/Caro nome” (Rigoletto, Verdi)

  • Verdi style! How much give and take is there, and where? I can’t explain that in writing, but that is exactly what we practiced. Listening to good Verdi recordings with the score will give you a much better idea of his wonderful writing for the voice.
  • In the aria, we worked on how to sound breathless while not letting the audience hear the breaths! (No hyperventilating allowed.)
  • We double-checked the pitches in the cadenzas. It’s so easy to slip past one and then start leaving it out. (That is why every singer needs an eagle-eyed and -eared coach!)
  • The passage at the top of the penultimate page is problematic, with its wide intervals, staccati, and accents. In order for the voice to be heard, I think this passage must be done under tempo.

Further detail would be difficult to express in writing. I hope this post provides an idea of what happens in vocal coaching sessions. Coaching and voice lessons are very different!

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


Learning a new piece? New program? Back in school? Looking for teaching ideas? Read “Goal-oriented Practice: How to Avoid Traps and Become a Confident Performer!”

Goal-oriented Practice

August 2011 review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

When You Buy a Piano

How to Maintain Your Piano

Back to top