coaching singers when you’re not a singer

Cartoon by Charles Hawtrey, 1920.

When I first heard that many vocalists actually received coaching from their accompanists, I thought, “Wha…? So…they have two different voice teachers?” What I’ve learned since then is that a vocal coach is not the same as a voice teacher. A vocal coach doesn’t even have to be a good singer. Ideally, an experienced vocal coach has a good grasp of vocal repertoire and styles, understands concepts of breathing and sound production, and has a working knowledge of proper diction in at least two of the major vocal languages (Italian, German, French, and oftentimes English). The vocal coach also helps the singer with phrasing and dramatic character.

If you’re a pianist looking to make money through accompanying, it’s very possible that one of these days a voice teacher will ask you, “Would you be able to take my student into a practice room and coach them for a little bit on this song?”

And of course, your answer will be: “Yes.” (You can panic inwardly as long as you smile and nod on the outside.)

If the student is young, the coaching will most likely be basic: singing the correct notes, with the correct rhythm, and then observing the dynamics properly. But here are a couple of helpful posts I’ve found by collaborative pianist Gretchen Saathoff, discussing the finer details of what a vocal coaching looks like:

Have you ever coached a vocalist before? Any tips to share for those who are starting out?

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how to fit in with the orchestra kids

If you’re a pianist, it’s likely that there’s one genre of classical music that’s still a little foreign to your fingers: orchestral works. In this completely thorough (and entertaining!) guide, pianist/composer Lo explains what pianists should know when playing in an orchestra, so that you don’t have to learn those lessons the hard way. Click the image below to view the guide!

“lose yourself”

By Hugo Boettinger, 1907 (source)

A great excerpt that emphasizes the importance of “forgetting yourself,” particularly in collaborative playing, and thinking as a group.

It is egoless listening that tunes you to the music. The same quality of listening applies when playing with a group. Fear-based listening is trying to play with others while being preoccupied with yourself. One of my students said that his self-consciousness got in the way of listening to others while he was playing. He found himself listening and trying to respond. That’s partially right. You want to listen and respond, but you can’t plan your response or you’ll lose the moment: that precious connection with true self. This same person said that once, when he was playing with a group, he kept repeating to himself like a mantra, “Don’t think, listen…Don’t think, listen…” He realized that he was so busy saying, “Don’t think, listen,” that he wasn’t listening. That is called trying not to try and it is one of the follies of an intrusive mind. In the book, The Music of Santeria, Traditional Rhythms of the Bata Drums, by John Amira and Steven Cornelius, the authors point out the nature of listening: “In the early stages of learning it is not uncommon to lose track of the very sounds that one creates on his own drum amongst the broader sounds of the ensemble. While disconcerting at first, this may also be a positive sign, for it suggests that one’s ears are experiencing and assimilating the totality of the ensemble rather than being locked onto a single musical line.”

– Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within (New Albany: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, 1996).

What is something you do personally, when playing with others, to help you tune into that group consciousness?