Summer programs can have a significant impact on singers’ development, and many have been wondering about summer 2020. Can we experience the feel and the benefits of participating in a summer program even from our individual living rooms? Respected vocal coach and faculty member of Purchase College’s Music Conservatory, Hugh Murphy, brought a great initiative to my attention: the Balance Arts Center’s Online Summer Intensives. Over the course of six weeks that began on June 1st, singers, actors, musicians, and dancers have the opportunity to hone their craft while studying Alexander Technique, via Zoom and Google Hangouts. I had the opportunity to interview both the program’s organizer, Alexander Technique teacher and Director of the Balance Arts Center, Ann Rodiger, and Hugh Murphy who are teaching in the program.
Ann, how did you get the idea for the Online Summer Intensives?
Ann Rodiger: After I had been teaching online for about two weeks I woke up one morning thinking: we have to do this. We all need to keep moving forward with learning and growing during this time and this is our current way of doing it so we have to offer something to people.
You have assembled a prestigious international faculty; what were their immediate reactions when you invited them to participate?
AR: People are so happy to be participating. Almost all of them had their summer camps and workshops cancelled so they were glad to have an opportunity to work and offer what they know. They are interested in meeting new students and getting to know people globally.
How are you finding the virtual teaching of Alexander Technique?
AR: Teaching the Alexander Technique online has been an interesting process. Of course the hands-on component is missing, however this is requiring the student to come forward with their awareness and take more ownership with their learning. I can see more on Zoom than I thought I could, and students are really making progress. They are learning to practice on their own more and dive deeper into their own areas of concern.
What do you hope that singers (along with actors, musicians, dancers) will get out of this program?
AR: I hope people will come away with a better sense and understanding of how their whole body participates in their craft. They are the instrument and can learn to set up the conditions within themselves to do their best work. They will have much more awareness and clarity of their own habits and be able to make better choices toward improving their overall presence and participation in their work. The principles of the Alexander work address the fundamentals of posture, alignment, balance and decision-making—the HOW of what they are doing. This will inform their work now and in the future.
Hugh, where were you supposed to be teaching this summer?
Hugh Murphy: For the past several summers, I’ve been going to Italy to coach in Benton Hess’ terrific “Si parla, si canta!” program, which draws young singers from all over the world—and is loads of fun! We believe that because the Italians invented opera, the better you speak Italian, the better you will sing in Italian, and in general, so the program includes three hours of Italian language with native faculty five days a week plus two hours of conversation class twice a week. Musically, we offer a non-stop schedule of scenes rehearsals, and private sessions with coaches and our amazing international voice faculty. All of the students perform in well-known venues. We’ve recently established a relationship with the Orchestra Sinfonica Carlo Coccia di Novara, which means that every student also gets the experience of performing with an actual professional Italian orchestra!
What appealed to you in Balance Arts Center’s Online Summer Intensives program?
HM: The organizer, Ann Rodiger, has never believed in walls, so when things started shutting down, she saw that as an opportunity to further her vision, and create a learning center that is literally without borders or boundaries. Students can coach within their own area, and they can even cross over and expose themselves to any of the other disciplines!
What is it like for you to coach singers virtually?
HM: I had been giving online coachings to singers who were away performing even before the current situation developed, so when my full-time college job moved onto Zoom, I actually think it was more of a shift for the students than for me. Of course, coaching this way is a different experience, but there is a lot of valuable work than can be accomplished. The biggest adjustment is that the singer has to have good equipment; I’m finding that using one device for audio, and a separate one for video allows me to both see and hear them better. When coaching in the same room, so much information is communicated directly through the act of making music together. Since we can’t do that, making music can become more of an intellectual experience, which actually empowers the singers in a different way, and requires them to take more control of their learning.
How do you think these Online Summer Intensives can help singers?
HM: In addition to good musical work, solid language information, and the exposure to other disciplines? The integration of Alexander Technique principles into what they’re already doing. No matter where a singer is in their development, this work can help them to be more aware of the principles’ physical use, and to become more efficient with them. After all, an audience wants to see a performer dig deeply into their art, not struggle with their technique!