Entering the World of Song
by Gail Dubinbaum



Singing can be enjoyed and experienced in several ways, either in a solitary setting or with others; this is a matter of individual taste. Some people find it more rewarding to participate in chorales, opera choruses, chamber ensembles, or voice classes, while others are interested solely in the study of private voice.

As a listener, one might choose to put on a favorite CD in a comfortable environment, eyes closed, enveloped in a world of music, lost in personal thoughts, feelings, and impressions—or one may prefer to frequent the symphony hall or opera house for the excitement of live performances. The benefits of musical experience are enormous either way.

But how does one get involved in the wonderful world of voice? How does one make the best choices? What might one possibly be qualified to do? The situation for the amateur or recreational musician is freer than for the aspiring professional, but the criteria obviously overlap. Most situations require that the participant possess a vocal “instrument” to work with, be able to read music, and have a musical ear—meaning that the person is capable of repeating musical motifs, scales and exercises. Foreign languages are also an advantage.

Most people who find themselves interested in performing as adults have usually had some desire in childhood as well, and may have begun their studies at that time. Music is a language to be learned, a language that contains concepts and vocabulary that are universal and essential—such as how to read music notation, key signatures, intervals, tempi and dynamics. Most voice teachers encourage students to learn piano, and for good reason. Basic first-year piano techniques transfer easily and are extremely helpful in learning to pick out a vocal line. Fortunately, many children get this opportunity in church or school choirs, and learn some basics of sight reading and ear training then.

So, how to find the right place for one’s musical expression? There are avenues available in almost every community for students and performers, amateurs and professionals. Many performing groups such as choral societies, chamber groups, jazz ensembles and theater groups advertise and hold auditions on a regular basis. Usually they will be specific about what they are looking and listening for. On the other hand, church choirs are normally much less stringent about auditions, and apart from soloists or section leaders are glad to have anyone join—and one does not have to be religious to enjoy singing in a church choir. Most often, in a choral situation, one would need to sing a song, hymn, or popular piece, followed with a bit of sight reading. The biggest commitment is time.

Another option available is the extension course level at the community college or the university: the opera workshop, chorale union, community choir, or voice class. All of these are group oriented classes, involving less solo opportunity. The performances usually take place one or two times a semester. In many cases, the university chorales will perform seasonal concerts of large works, involving orchestra and major soloists. These groups usually are very popular and have participants who choose to re-enroll year after year. People usually find themselves making new friends who share their interests. Often these groups will tour, even to foreign countries on occasion. For those who can afford it, this is a wonderful way to travel with friends, making music in some of the great halls and churches of the world, and expanding horizons in a well planned and safe way.

Voice classes and opera workshops by nature require the most individual participation and are for the more advanced student. They also can be found at the community college or university level and require an audition. Voice classes can be a terrific way of expanding musical horizons, social circles, and personal ability, while providing the comfort of a group. The classes may involve group vocalization, song study, performance of ensembles or choral works, listening to recordings of great singers of the past, or watching videos of current performances. They may require that you also attend concerts and report on them as well, which is a great learning experience. Students in opera workshops usually study privately too, and often perform with local opera companies either as choral singers or in smaller, comprimario roles.

This leads to the most difficult challenge: finding a voice teacher who is right for private study. The relationship between teacher and student must be based on understanding and commitment. The teacher must respect the efforts of the student, and the student must trust in the knowledge of the teacher. The student must be able to understand the language the teacher uses to explain vocal technique. This is an extremely important point, because the voice cannot be directly touched or accurately heard by the person singing. The teacher must be supportive and clear in his or her instruction, yet able to make corrections or criticisms without sounding offensive. Aside from the obvious need for the instructor to be knowledgeable in language, style, and a healthy technique of singing, they must take a genuine interest in the progress and development of the student and be honest and realistic with the student concerning their ability and potential. A good voice teacher is someone of great integrity and high standards, who can and should be trusted. Unfortunately, many times this is not the case. Many instructors are neither qualified nor particularly capable. For this reason, anyone interested in private study must make the effort to search carefully for the person who is most qualified to teach them before making a choice. It is very important to speak with other singing students to get impressions of their teachers. Singers in general are rather extroverted people and willingly share their experiences. The best approach is to go to several studios, to teachers who have been recommended, and take lessons at each. This may cost more initially, but it is vital in order to judge for oneself, which in the end, one must do.

There are several questions to ask at this point. Do I feel relaxed with this person? Are they specific? Do I understand their concepts of sound and the production of sound? Most importantly, does what the instructor tells me to do make my singing easier and does it sound better? These are extremely important criteria; however, one should never expect to immediately understand or to be able to reproduce sound in the exact way instructed; this takes time and a good deal of repetition and practice, as with any other skill.

Singing should sound good and feel good. One should never experience strain or pain in the throat or tension in the tongue or jaw—although one may feel fatigue, specifically in the back, rib cage or breathing apparatus. Pain in singing does not equal gain! Sound should also be considered. Is the vocal range expanding? Is it easier to sing throughout the registers? Does the voice blend well up and down scales? These are all things that should be considered. One should remember that what one hears of one’s own voice is not what the listener hears. Using a tape recorder is a good way to hear oneself the way a listener does. Of course, the better the machine, the truer the sound.

Each teacher conducts lessons differently; no two will be exactly alike. A typical hour lesson will involve 20 to 30 minutes of vocal warmups—exercises to strengthen and expand the vocal range, develop breath control and the flexibility of the voice, and prepare the instrument for singing music. The length of the warmup will depend greatly on the vocal maturity and experience of the singer. More experienced singers will prepare themselves for their lessons prior to arrival. Novices may be instructed to warm up only in the presence of the teacher, and discouraged from practicing until the teacher is assured that they understand the technical concepts fully. This is all subject to the individual needs and level of development of the student as well as the particular teaching style of the instructor. Unless your teacher is an accomplished pianist, an accompanist (and usually an additional fee) will be involved. When practicing songs and arias, a good pianist is absolutely necessary.

Many teachers have favorite pieces of music and will recommend what the student should study. It is best to err on the side of conservatism and choose music that is within one’s ability, no matter how tempting it is to sing every aria on the latest Placido Domingo album! Professional singers work for years to make their singing sound easy. But these rather sophisticated arias, which we all know and love, are not easy and take a good deal of time to master. Patience is not only a virtue in singing, it is a requirement. It takes time for the voice to develop, for the student to understand how to “play the instrument,” to learn the languages, and develop a sense of interpretation and artistry. So one must begin slowly and carefully mastering each step.

Not everyone can be a star on the world’s greatest stages. Some music lovers must be in the chorus, others in the audience. Those who choose singing as a vocation must know themselves, their talents and their weaknesses better than anyone else. One must have several assets as a professional singer: a teacher who can and will help to produce a truly unique and usable sound; a coach who will help one learn musical scores impeccably; the ability to take a great deal of criticism, both negative and positive; the financial security to pay for years of lessons, travel, and auditions; and an overwhelming desire to perform no matter what the cost.

But it all begins with the voice . . . something we are born with, which can be nurtured and carefully developed by the right teacher or teachers. Anyone with a truly good potential (or wishing even serious personal pleasure) must judiciously search for the best instructor possible. Do not select a school of music based on the reputation of the school, but for the particular instructor with whom you wish to study. Take the time to sing for the person or persons whom you are selecting. Be honest with yourself about how well you work together and how you sound as a result of the lesson.

However far you go, to sing for yourself in your own living room or for 20,000 people in the grandest opera house—the greatest gift is being able to sing, to share your feelings and love of singing with others. No matter how frustrating the learning process for the beginner may sometimes be, or how fierce the competition for the professional, one should always keep on with it—the profound joy it provides will overcome all obstacles.

Gail Dubinbaum has performed leading roles at major opera houses such as the Metropolitan and the Vienna State Opera. Her most recent performance was at the John F. Kennedy Center in D.C. She teaches voice privately in Phoenix.

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