I’ve had too many voice lessons and coachings by this time to give a blow by blow of each one. I’ve worked with four people: Mark Oswald and Nina Hinson, teachers; and Nico Castel and Diane Richardson, coaches. Each meeting has been full of new ideas and challenges, but the underlying thread has always been the goal of helping me find my voice. I’m going to give a general description of teaching style and what I’ve gained from each experience, rather than get too deep into specifics. **WARNING** Try as I might, I couldn’t keep a fair amount of “tech talk” from creeping in. Just skip over the stuff you don’t understand! Or, better yet, leave a comment with your questions and I’ll try to expound.
Mark Oswald: A gentle teacher with a deep soul. Several people have compared lessons with Mark to a good yoga class! His main concept, at least as far as I understand it after less than two hours with him, is vowel modicfication as a means to free up the voice. For example, if I’m trying to sing “ee” on a high C, chances are my “voice” will be spread wider than is comfortable, making everything tense. He would recommend a slight shift to an “ih” sound (more like “fish” than “free”). The general idea of the word will still come through, but the voice will be more relaxed, more beautiful, more open.
We worked on arias from Abduction (“Durch Zartlichkeit”), Ariadne auf Naxos (Zerbinetta’s showpiece), and Magic Flute (both Queen arias). He helped me get some good ring in the higher notes (I have to give up a bit of the vowel purity that I’d been trying to hard to maintain; up in the stratosphere, you can really only sing “Ah!”), but said I would probably only ever sing the Queen in smaller houses. I just don’t have enough heft to my voice. More on this.
Key Idea: Sing the vowels that free the voice.
Overall Impression: I would love to see Mark a couple of times a year, if only to have an hour one on one with the most centered person (aside from Dawn Upshaw) I’ve met in this business. I would go to him with rep that is at 90% preparation, to help tweak that last few sticky spots.
Nina Hinson: My first lesson with Nina didn’t go so well. I think it had more to do with my state of mind that day (rather fragile) than with anything she did or said, but I was nervous to go back! She had heard me sing a few days before, and while she thought I sang well, she feared that there was some “artifical” singing. Meaning, she felt that I was forcing my voice to do things it didn’t want to. She then started talking about a raised vs. lowered larynx, which is something I have never thought about! I’ve never had a teacher talk to me about the physiological aspect of singing. Her basic message to me that day was, “Once you get your larynx into a lower (and therefore more relaxed) position, you may lose your highest notes.” Now, this was not good news! Here I’d spent all year getting comfortable with the idea of being a high coloratura, and she’s saying it’s all artifically produced?! Yikes!!
I left our first lesson very upset and confused, feeling that my very identity as a singer had been questioned. I also didn’t understand what she wanted me to do with my larynx, something I’ve never seen nor paid much heed. I was scheduled to see her again the next week, and I went back, determined to figure out what she meant. Being the master teacher that she is, Nina was able to put her ideas into terms that worked for me and my understanding of my voice. “Open your ears” or “open your throat.” These ideas enable me to relax my larynx without forcing it “down.” In so doing, I was making beautiful sounds that were full, vibrant, and not artificial in any way.
We are working together on my middle and upper middle voice for a while. I don’t think I’m going to “lose my high notes,” but they may gain a new quality. She wants to me to sing something that shows my lyric line and warm tones for the house auditions in August, something like Nannetta’s aria from Falstaff. It’s important for me to sing something that I could be hired for at this moment, and Nannetta is certainly that. Not showy, not flashy, but powerful in its elegance and beauty. She won me over with this idea.
Key Idea: “You will never out-muscle anyone, you will never out-shout anyone. But you can out-beauty them.” (If “beautiful” is the defining characteristic of my voice, I think I won’t mind!)
Overall Impression: I look forward to having a lesson a week with Nina all summer. I think she can bring out the warmth that is already present in my voice. Together I think we can determine the rep that will show me off best and that will help further my development and career. And I bet those high notes stick around . . .
Nico Castel: I’ve already talked about Nico a bit, but I worked with him again yesterday. We also worked on Nannetta’s aria, and even though I felt vocally exhausted, he assured me that everything was working beautifully. (There’s that word again…) We also pulled “Deh, vieni non tardar,” Susanna’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro, one of my oldest arias. I was sure for years that this would be a “bread and butter” role for me, but in the past couple of years, several people encouraged me to put it away, saying it was too low. Both Mark and Nina mentioned it to me, however, so I decided to pull it out and see how it fit these days. After fixing several glaring diction mistakes, Nico assured me that that I would be a wonderful Susanna, and sent me off with his blessing.
Now, I know I’m trying to get to the point where I form my own opinions and take others’ with grains of salt. (I think that’s another theme for me this summer, to get to the point where I know my voice and my self enough to let dissenting opinions pass me by.) However! This isn’t just any coach. This is Nico Castel, a man with years of experience in the greatest opera houses in the world. If he says I can sing Susanna, I’d wager that he knows what he’s talking about! That, coupled with my instinct about the role, is enough. Basta.
Overall Impression: I hope to sing for Nico a few more times and then sit down and talk about rep. Both roles I can sing right now (I’m getting a pretty good idea of this) and roles to aim for in the future (this is where I get fuzzy). He is an amazing resource, and I am so lucky to have this time with him.
Diane Richardson: Diane is the head coach at the Juilliard School, so here is another coach who knows what of she speaks. I only worked with her this morning for about an hour; I hope to see her again in the next couple of weeks. We worked today on Nannetta’s aria (again!), in which Nannetta is playing with the Fairies in the woods. It is a magical piece, full of imagination and secrets. Diane helped me to realize that Santa Fe is the perfect place to keep in my mind as I sing: to hear the wind whispering through the trees; to see the dynamic sky thundering, or shining blue, or setting the sun down in a bed of brilliant clouds; to imagine the fairies that must live here to bring the place such magic. If I can bring those ideas onto the stage with me, I think this will be the piece that can make me stand out at the auditions.
Key Idea: Don’t disconnect the technique from the meaning of the piece. Use the words and the music to form the technical elements; they should all be one big idea.
So, there you have it! And I’m only halfway through the summer. With any luck, I’ll have just as much to learn and report on in the second half. Although, hopefully I won’t procrastinate and have to put it all into one enourmous post… Ha!