“Seeing ‘what is’ takes very little talent. Seeing ‘what could be’- and helping to make it a reality- takes vision, imagination, skill, and commitment.” –John C. Maxwell
This quote perfectly describes what my job is when I listen to a new student for the first time. I must envision ‘what could be’ from ‘what is.’
I listen to them sing: vocalizes, repertoire, high, low, loud, soft, head voice, chest voice, different vowels, etc… And then, based on what I hear, I imagine, I hypothesize, what their voice could be in its most healthy, most beautiful realization. I have to keep that ideal version in my head when I’m teaching them, constantly referring back to it, adjusting it as their voice changes and develops. The sounds they make, as well as their personality, are my guides; NOT what they look like, and especially NOT what my personal aesthetic preferences are. What their voice does in response to the stimuli of the exercises tells me what to do to discover their unique instrument.
A personal example
My voice teacher, Cornelius Reid, taught me this first hand. When we first met when I was 25, he was convinced I was a Queen of the Night coloratura- he told me after our first lesson that I reminded him of Luisa Tetrazzini (an opera singer from the turn of the last century). I could not imagine this, but I also couldn’t imagine singing as well as he helped me sing, so I was willing to see what he uncovered. But not too many years in to our work together, he realized this was not the case, and he was happy to tell me so. (I could have told him it wasn’t based on my temperament, and frankly, just my innate feeling about my own voice, but one did not argue with Cornelius.) The very, very high notes either just weren’t there, or not with the ease that they would have been had my voice leaned in that direction, and my voice started to be a little weightier and warmer than that fach suggested. It was such a powerful learning and teaching moment- he explained why he had come to the first idea and why he had changed his mind. As teachers, we must be willing and able to switch gears.
There are so many factors that go into teaching voice, but listening and diagnosing, and then listening and diagnosing again, and again, and again, are the cornerstones. We must be open and flexible in our visions, with our student’s unique voices and personalities as our guides.