Today I taught my first-ever voice lesson. My Korean English student, who is also a professional violinist and violin teacher, asked me last week if I could teach her voice as well as English…and my heart sank.
Because I really don’t want to teach voice. French, sure. English, why not? Voice? Would rather not.
But I did it, and it’s over, and I’m proud of myself, and my student.
It started out a little rocky, because I just didn’t quite know where to start. But I thought about how I started with Madame Bondi last year–at the very beginning, of course.
With breathing, though, not with solfège. (Though hilariously enough, I asked her to bring a song that she was comfortable singing so I could get a feel for her voice, and she brought “Do Re Mi.”) I taught her a breathing exercise that Madame Bondi taught me, and then we did some lip trills and scales and sirens–all of those things that make non-singers really embarrassed when they have to do them in front of other people. After that we worked on “Do Re Mi,” and talked about music vocabulary.
Some fascinating things that I noticed, for your reading pleasure.
1. I broke out some pictures of my vocal cords to help explain, er, “vocal cords.” The interesting thing about teaching voice to somebody who A. has never taken a voice lesson before and B. speaks less-than-fluent English is that you can’t just say “vocal cords.” I wanted to explain to her that she didn’t have to think about what was going on in her throat, because when she breathed in and started singing, the air would cause her vocal cords to vibrate automatically. But if you don’t know the words “vocal cords,” it doesn’t work. So a visual aid was required. (…even though those pictures are nearly four years old and totally node-tastic…maybe time to get new pictures…or not…)
2. I got to use the duck metaphor! My student has a lovely light voice, but no confidence, and I noticed that she was losing sound and energy on longer notes. I asked her to try subdividing (she knew the word “subdivision,” but not “vocal cords”–I guess that’s a violinist thing), and I played eighth notes as she sang “Sol, a needle pulling thread,” and so forth. And it worked! She had much more momentum–and I said to her, “It’s like a duck that’s floating smoothly on the water, but its feet are paddling frantically under the surface.”
Have some ducklings.
3. Something we did struck her as funny (actually, a lot of it did, because, let’s face it, singing is weird), and as she started singing “Do Re Mi,” she giggled, and I stopped playing and said “THAT. THAT IS YOUR DIAPHRAGM.” And then I made her ha-ha-ha, which made her look around as though there was somebody else in the room to judge her for making silly sounds. I told her to remember the feeling of bouncing her diaphragm when she was laughing as she started the song–and it can’t be denied, it helped hugely.
4. I remembered, out of the blue, something that Joan Dornemann from the Metropolitan Opera said in a master class at Northwestern my freshman year. I had written it down, but I hadn’t thought about it in years. The singer she was working with was running out of breath on a long high note, and Ms. Dornemann said,“If you know you’re going to hold it for two beats, you can. Three beats? You can. But if you try to hold it for as long as you can, I assure you, you can’t.” Bam. Perfect.
I still don’t know if I’m going to want to do a lot of regular voice teaching, but as long as my one student is okay with paying me to teach her by trial and error, I’ll give it a try. I’ve already got some things in mind to try with her next week.