Thursday, November 5, 2009

How to Get Your Singer to Sing ... But Not Too Much

I am not a voice teacher, but I have been in several voice teacher/student relationships. I think about these relationships a lot, and think about what a teacher needs to do.  Maybe someday I will become a teacher.

Today, I'm thinking about how being a voice teacher may be a bit like parenting.  I also wonder if choosing repertoire to offer the student is like the task a parent has of feeding a child.  Just like the food that a parent chooses for a child will foster the child's development and growth into their mature body, so does the repertoire chosen for the student go into the development and growth of the developed, mature classical voice.

I suffered from an eating disorder, or so the diagnosticians told me.  A binge eating disorder.  I have spent a lot of years trying to unravel the mysteries of this problem.  Because my own eating was so messed up, I was very concerned, as a parent, about how I was going to help my children learn to eat right.  I felt it as a huge responsibility, and if you look around and listen a little, you will see that there are many many approaches to feeding children, starting from their babyhood, beginning with simple foods and leading up to the teenage years, where they basically are independent eaters at this point making their own choices.

One invaluable resource for me, and which gave me insight on how to approach this giant task, was the execllent book called How To Get Your Kid To Eat ... But Not Too Much, by Ellyn Satter.  Ms. Satter is a dietician and, I believe, a therapist who helps children with eating disorders.

I memorized, and clung to, from Ms. Satter, what she calls a "golden rule" of responsibility for eating:

"Golden Rule" of parenting: parents are responsible for what is presented to eat and the manner in which it is presented. Children are responsible for how much or even whether they eat"

As I've been thinking about repertoire, I have remembered this rule and I have been playing around with the idea that some kind of version of this rule might work in the voice teacher/voice student relationship.

I believe that my first singing teacher knew what a good diet of repertoire was for a young singer whom she considered to be a dramatic soprano.  Knowing a little more now, and looking back at the collection of sheet music she had "fed" me back in the day, I can now see that her choices were very wise.

But, the other part of the equation is the child/student.  I was responsible for taking and "eating" what was presented to me, and, as I've written here before, I did not really understand what this food was, and I did not nourish myself with what was offered.

Because I didn't know anything, and had no other rep to replace it, I kind of "starved" as a singer, and this is part of why I did not develop.

In "the golden rule" above, the responsibility is divided.  When the parent crosses over and takes on what is the child's responsibility, disorder can develop in the child's eating.  When the child crosses over and takes on what is the parent's responsibility, disorder as well.  It is up to each person to make sure they have met their responsibilities for it all to work out well.

I picture a repertoire pyramid, like the food pyramid.  Then I picture boxes of sheet music.  In one box is the "protein" sources.  Another is the vegetables.  Another the fruits, a small box of fats. Full meals and snacks. Yes, and a little box with some "treats" in there too.

This brings all kinds of analogies to mind.  Does a dramatic voice need more protein?  Do some voices need to eat lightly.  Do some need robust meals?  Are some hyperglycemic and need to eat little bits throughout the day?  Just as different children within the same family are going to have different nutritional needs based on their unique bodies, the different singers in a studio will discover their unique needs in repertoire.

I also remember reading in all the parenting literature, when I was worrying about my kids eating enough vegetables, that they did some kind of experiment where they had a buffet set up in a room, and they watched a bunch of toddlers playing in the room make food choices over the course of several weeks from that buffet.  The researchers noted that, even though there were some days that no vegetables were chosen, the children did automatically choose vegetables enough during an entire week to give them what nutritionally they needed from the vegetables.  The conclusion was something of the sort that we're worrying too much, because our bodies have a wisdom, even children's bodies, and will crave the nutrients they need.

Well, today, I'm wondering if sometimes voices crave the nutrients they need somewhat.  I recently had an urge, that seemed to come out of no where, to go get all my old (and I mean 30 years old) musical theater pieces out and sing in more of a belt style.  The urge came about because while experiencing a better balance with my teacher, light bulbs went off in my head about how these old songs should be approached.  Incorporating what I have done with this now into my classical repertoire has been really wonderful and freeing.

Today, I had an "urge" to sing "Una voce poco fa."  What am I "supposed" to be singing right now?  Well, I'm supposed to be finding out if I'm a dramatic soprano, and I've been voice building.  My teacher has given me a few songs, although I have been bringing things to her as well.

However, a few years ago, when I was with another teacher, I saw my very first opera at the Met.  It was The Barber of Seville.  It is there that I first heard the famous song "Una voce poco fa?"  (For my very first hearing of this song, I heard Diane Damrau.  I think this is a recording of the very thing I heard.) For me it was new, and I was captivated by it.  I thought this was a soprano song.  When I told my then-teacher how much I had enjoyed seeing my first opera and how much I liked that song, she (who had decided she thought I was a mezzo) told me that mezzos sing it and, "let's just look at it for fun."

We looked at it for a couple of weeks, but then she wisely told me to put it away, since I still (do you hear the unending frustration in that emphasis?  From "having tried to learn to sing for so long," my avocational theme song) was not ready to work on arias, and that it would be better if we should be "digesting" some Handel right now.

Well, for whatever reason, I wanted to sing "Una voce poco fa" this morning.  It came into my head while I was driving home from dropping my daughter off at school, like a craving for a certain food.  I played around with it, and some of the growth that has been happening sat really well in the piece.

Like the child who craves a banana because his body is needing some potassium, did my voice crave this song this morning for a reason?  Maybe? Maybe not!  Maybe all these thoughts are nonsense and I should stick with the little group of songs my teacher has handed me.  But on the other hand, maybe there's something to it.  There are many mysteries surrounding the development of a voice.  Maybe this is part of it.

Just like there is a Weight Watchers program to help teach people who are all mixed up about what they are supposed to be eating, it would be great if there could be a Weight Watchers (in more ways than one) for singers who are all mixed up, or who didn't get it right the first time around, to teach them about what they are supposed to be singing.

Click here to hear some fooling around with "Una voce poco fa" in Frescamari's Practice Room


  1. Like the toddlers in the experiment, I'm kind of left to my own devices with regard to picking repertoire. Unlike them, I find it harder to figure out what constitutes a "balanced diet" for me. Sometimes I wish I had more guidance from my teacher regarding repertoire. Other times I realize that being responsible for my own rep choices forces me to do legwork and research and acquire knowledge that I otherwise wouldn't bother to do, if rep was spoon-fed to me. In the meantime, I try to choose things that will present me with a variety of technical things to master, but every so often I'll misjudge whether a piece is in my league.

  2. But you said it so well, Blue Yonder! You are getting so much from being forced to do the legwork.

    But what you said about having someone who knows which pieces will accomplish certain technical tasks can be very valuable. This is something I think a good teacher should be able to do, and which my present teacher is really good at.

    I was thinking of taking one of those repertoire classes they offer in music schools.

  3. If you figure out how to enroll in a repertoire class without having to be in a degree program, I'd like to hear how you do it. Then I might follow in your footsteps!