Bi-Weekly Lessons? Really?

One of the main challenges I often have with English speaking singers is their tendency to sing the AH vowel with the tongue too far back in the throat, which makes the vowel radically different from the EH. I work a lot on this, especially initially with singers, and particularly in the chest voice. Once the issue is addressed in chest voice, it becomes more intuitive as you ascend.

As tenors, and as singers in general, its very easy to take an idea and run with it. This is actually, in my opinion, the most challenging aspect of teaching: stopping singers in training from running too far with ideas. For example, treating the AH vowel in a way that aligns it with the EH vowel to avoid a too far back tongue is very important, but the correct AH vowel has a very important place in vocal technique too.  You can’t just make everything approximate EH excessively and hope for the best.

Another example is singing with the idea of length in the chords. The OO type falsetto tends to get one into a low larynx/tilted larynx position. This is particularly important in the passaggio so as to not crush the sound (losing the sense of cavita’ or spacious harmonics – 2nd formant dominance). However, if you drive this idea too far, it too can cause problems as the intensity of the bright elements in the voice can become less important in the mind of the singer (see older Bergonzi), and often the first layer – the fundamental harmonic – becomes excessively dominant in the overall sound.

This is why studying to find your basic technique is not about 1 or 2 years, but more like 5-8 years; and even a life-long pursuit given that our body changes and so does the physicality of our approach, as we try to make up for aging. Today, hardly anyone wants to hear that. It is tough to hear because there is a huge sacrifice of time and resources involved. Especially if you are starting late, this can be disheartening. Many singers start singing before this process is done, but they have to remember that if they choose to do so, they have to commit even more seriously to continuing to study. I can think of many tenors, myself included, who after starting a career did not have a constant external guide. Corelli took a month a year to get himself to Spain to Lauri Volpi.

Lacking an external guide is dangerous because we cannot hear ourselves properly, and corrections need to happen in-vivo, at the moment, in order to program the mental intention. Recordings WILL NOT cut it. It’s too late. The course correction needs to happen at the moment for the mind to re-chart the mental intention of physical singing, otherwise it becomes merely an intellectual pursuit.

At times a singer will ask me if I am changing my approach with them. I guess I could answer no and be done with that, but the true answer is more complicated as it depends on how their voice is evolving in time – highly situational.

Often, as a teacher, you have to make a strategic shift toward emphasizing a specific element. A shift can be very tough for the singer in training because it could confuse them.  They need and want to understand since reality is they can’t meet with you every day as they should.  Meeting everyday would offer a very natural growth.  You could choose to emphasize low larynx today and brightness tomorrow.  Over the course of the week, the physicality of the two blends more seamlessly in the mind and body of the singer.

I am gravitating more and more toward the idea of having 15 minute lessons 4 times per week rather than 1 for an hour. I am organizing myself to start doing this perhaps in October.  Why? Because two of  my singers, Andrew E. with whom I have met 3 or 4 times per week over the Summer as he stayed in Philly for intensive studies, and Thierry who has chosen to take multiple lessons, often twice in a day (morning and evening) have shown significant progress since starting multiple weekly encounters. I have a sense that brief, while constant training is significantly more useful than a “once a week and then you are on your own” approach.

I have tried to do seemingly contrasting elements within one lesson (say seeking brightness and seeking depth) with a singer with whom I had very little time and who has an extremely important voice that I wanted at all costs to give direction to.  I hoped that by addressing these elements, he could take them home, do the exercises on his own, having understood them intellectually, and then come back. The results were bad. He was confused and discouraged.  I was throwing the kitchen sink at him.  I vowed to never do that again.  We spoke about it, and we agreed it is best to address issues  in time over a natural arch of development.

By the way, singers, NEVER forget that the most important thing you must hold on to is bright ring in your voice.  Never forsake this anchor.  As you seek depth, release, low larynx, etc., never abandon concentrated, beam-like resonance.  (My next post is going to be on Voce Chiusa along these lines)

It is very easy for the teacher to throw the kitchen sink at the singer if they have only one hour per week or maybe two hours per month. You hear a problem and you address it, but then you hear another problem and the solution may not clearly integrate with the first problem.  For example, a soprano sings loosely so you focus on getting the cords to a firm adduction. Then when singing in the higher voice she tends to lift the larynx, so you focus on the importance of the OO shape of the throat (the low larynx, etc) and this causes them to loosen a little. So confused they wonder if they should seek for firm adduction or if they should seek for the deeper larynx which causes them initially to loosen. It is no doubt a problem. The real problem is limited time. You try to give them a variety of tools to address a variety of problems, but they don’t know when one starts and the other ends. You try to help them build on principles mastered, but often that is more intellectual than real when you don’t have a constant interaction. There is no substitute for in-the-moment training.  What seems like different solutions in reality are all part of a global approach.  How can you analyze the human body when all you have is a microscope and 1 hour per week?

So you focus for a period on one aspect, and then switch to another out of necessity.  You focus on the most important elements, and then hopefully you can integrate other elements in time without a loss of skill in the other.  At times, when you switch emphasis a student may feel like you are working contrary to what they have been doing for a period. In reality, they should be taking what they have and adding on to it. The tough thing is for the trainer to be able to effectively verbalize this and cut through the fear and the confusion, and guide them into being able to accept that they are adding new aspects to what they do, rather than “changing” approach.

Much of the solution is in communicating.  It is extremely important for the singer to verbalize their thought process and not worry about offending the teacher.  If the teacher knows what they are doing, they probably have a technical chess game going on in their heads that is 3 or 4 steps ahead of what you imagine. So, if you trust them, then just go with it, or if you need to understand (I suggest this approach) then ask questions and clarifications until satisfied.  Actually,  I take that back.  The solution is meeting 4-5 times per week.  That is the real solution.  The rest is triage in the trenches. That is the truth.  Tough pill for singers… even tougher for teachers who can become utterly exhausted by meeting with 20-30 singers for 15 minutes every day.

Of course, applying technique to repertoire is then a whole different ballgame.  Io ti do una voce, ma poi devi saper cantare (Melocchi)… Getting the technique into the repertoire is the end game and it takes years of continued practice, well after mastering technical elements.  Seek for as much guidance in this as you can.  Often, technique consolidates and deepens as you find expert musicians to guide you.  Hopefully, your teacher is also deeply rooted in the art of singing and not just technique if the two can even be considered separate.


6 responses to “Bi-Weekly Lessons? Really?

  1. Thanks for another insightful post. Obviously, you’re speaking of the ideal learning environment; however, ideal is not always achievable. Would you say it would be better to work many times a week with a local, albeit less skilled, less competent teacher, or less frequently with the few exceptional teachers. As an avocational singer, I have struggled to find a satisfactory teacher, let alone a great one, in my region. Therefore, I struggle to get to NY or Philly to connect infrequently with the best. Have you given any thought how you could help a student 4 to 5 times a week who does not live in Philly? Is there some way to make skype work, so you could hear adequately? Better microphones?

    • I had my first serious Facetime lesson last week with a singer currently thousands of miles a way. I knew his voice enough to know what I was hearing but the harmonics are not as clear as I need to hear them. I need a high fidelity type set up for the audio. The only way to realistically do this is to have a high speed upload. Fios is probably the only system with upload speeds that are in the vicinity of what is needed.

  2. A thought to consider for us underpaid and overexpensed emerging singers: Transit costs in and around New York (for example) are pretty heinous. Let’s imagine somebody living on Long Island and commuting into the city for lessons. 1 way peak time ticket to Penn Station is $10. Off peak is still a whopping $7. NYC subways and buses are less expensive but still costly. Not to mention the time cost of people getting around this very big and bustling city. So, a 15 minute lesson may end up taking hours out of a person’s day, at significant expense, for only 15 minutes of work. Some of us may drive. Tolls into the city are between $7 and $12. Then there is parking etc. I can see almost daily lessons of 15-20 minutes being valuable but it would only be practicable to those who reside or work in fairly close proximity to the teacher’s studio. Just sayin! 😉

    • Of course. Often people are in the City anyway for one reason or another. So if that is the case, then I want to plan to make myself available and to have a flexible calendar that allows people to plan ahead their trips to get more than one thing done.

  3. Dear Mr. Li Vigni,

    Thank you one more time for the great blog! I have been learning a lot! I have recently taken part of Barcelona Festival of Song, organized by the Colombian soprano Patricia Caicedo. and we had it both in Barcelona, Spain, and São Paulo, Brazil, through Internet 2. I mean, there was a delay when I tried to sing along with the guitar player who was in Spain, but the sound quality was great! Have you ever thought of teaching overseas? I am sure there are quite a few singers worldwide who would just love this idea! The paypal is so easy to manage, so I do not think there would be any problem to charge.

    Warm regards from Brazil!

    Carmen Nakasu de Souza

  4. I’m one of those students of voice who has got the rare priviledge to have 2 hour lessons 7 days a week. I can easily tell that in the two and a half months I’m recieving this it feels I’ve learned more then in a year of taking constant lessons once or twice a week.

    About your comment about contrasting principles: it often leaves me confused too. My teacher describes it as peeling the layers of an onion. Each time you find out more. It’s funny how each time you think you “get” it, another deeper layer of truth reveals itsself ;>

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