Inspirazione! : A Tale of Two Singers

Let me tell you about a young woman who came to my studio recently. Already studying with another teacher, she came in for a second (or third) opinion. She had just completed three years at one of the most highly regarded music schools in the United States. She was 21 years old. After three years of serious training, her languages were
impeccable, her sense of style nuanced, and her voice . . . nearly ruined. I asked her first to do a simple, sustained “ah.” Only a rough crackle came out. She seemed surprised and embarrassed. She took a sip of water and tried again. This time, the cords connected and a steely tone emerged. With my eyes closed, I’d have thought she was closer to 50 than her real 21.

To her credit, the young woman knew she was in trouble. Her high notes had been steadily disappearing, despite a fair amount of success and encouragement with performances. She came to me on her summer break, determined to change teachers upon her return to school. When I asked her why she had stayed with her teacher, she said that it just seemed very awkward and difficult to change. Despite this singer’s talent, dedication and investment, no one had helped her build a technique that would support or justify any kind of career.

I gave her what I call my “serious, scary speech,” the one I give when I think there may be some damage to the cords or a technique that is pointing that way. It includes a referral to an ENT and encouragement to prioritize technical development above all else. Then I sent her on her way.

Speaking with a non-singer friend about this, he was astounded. “How could this happen?” he asked. “This is one of the top schools, isn’t it?” At first it was tough to explain but my answer was, unfortunately, yes. It can happen and does—not all the time, but certainly, too often.

Here are a couple of common scenarios. You go to conservatory. All the best singers study with Teacher A, so you sign up with Teacher A. As the years go on, you notice that those great singers haven’t gotten any greater,
and you’ve actually gotten worse. As it turned out, the great singers you heard might have been great when they started with Teacher A, but they didn’t get any better under Teacher A’s tutelage, who ended up doing little, if
anything, for you.

Next scenario: You’ve heard recordings of Teacher B. You admire Teacher B as a singer and just the thought of meeting Teacher B thrills you, so you sign up with Teacher B. But, as it turns out, Teacher B does everything on instinct and doesn’t seem to know a passaggio from a hole in the ground. Or, Teacher B is a fantastic teacher but because of her active performing schedule, you see her so rarely that you can’t get into a rhythm and really don’t

Of course, you can change teachers, but as the young woman mentioned, awkwardness at doing so is common, and you have no guarantee the next teacher will be better for you. As for making the choice in the first place, it can be very diffi cult to have lessons with someone before making the life-changing choice to go to a certain school. Unfortunately, most schools provide little wiggle room for having a few lessons with various teachers to aid your choice.

It’s not a very empowering scenario for the singer.

Now, let me tell you about another young woman who came to my studio around the same time. She was just about to graduate from high school and was in town visiting one of my students. She was a coloratura with a true flute register. It was a wonderful instrument that had developed well for her age, and she had received some excellent musical training from the Canadian school system. After graduation, rather than head straight to conservatory, she planned to take a tour of various cities to audition teachers (not audition for teachers). When she felt she’d found a good one, she would give that a few months, and if it was a good fit, she would apply to a school in that city.

You may be thinking, “That’s nice if you can afford it!” The difference between these two young women was not financial, however (and the cost of such a tour is not more substantial than one year at conservatory). Both of these
women were from families of means. Both were very talented. Nor was it a difference of dedication. Both seemed to be very good students. But in the case of the woman just finishing three years of college, perhaps she was too good a student. She worked so hard within the system that it took three years to realize the system was not serving her, or at least not serving her vocal development.

Speaking from personal experience, I would say that none of my important vocal development occurred in the course of a two-year master’s program at a top conservatory. I am not saying I had a bad teacher, but I was a member of a very competitive, very performance driven opera department, and in retrospect, I just wasn’t brave enough
to take the baby steps that probably would have been best for me vocally, while simultaneously wanting to succeed as a performer and student. After conservatory, I returned to my former teacher—the person I consider my true mentor—and did the work I wish I’d done in the first place.

Jazz musicians refer to playing “in the shed.” The expression comes from instrumental players who, as they developed, wanted to practice in private, where they were free to make mistakes—so they would go out and practice in the woodshed. Vocal development is not so different. At a certain stage of development, performance pressure may be antithetical to progress.

The problem, I suppose, is the energy of the young, so anxious to prove themselves that the idea of taking a year or two “off ” to develop technique seems like an eternity. And conservatories, while technically part of the educational system, often function more like old-fashioned opera companies, with the prima donna, seconda donna, and rigorous rehearsal demands on students. That’s why, as we head into fall, with its changing leaves and the biochemical “back-to-school” feeling that accompanies the chill in the air, I thought I would tell you about these two young women, in the hopes that it would help you remember to set your own artistic and vocal priorities, whatever situation you find yourself in, whether in school or not.

If, by chance, you didn’t get in to the school of your choice, or aren’t going to conservatory at all, take heart in one more story of a young person. This young man was rejected from conservatory—perhaps because, at the age
of 18, he was four years past the age limit—but he found a good teacher and applied himself by working hard and attending lots of performances. Professionally, things worked out pretty well for him. His name was Giuseppe Verdi.

Lastly, please don’t think that I’m down on conservatories. My time at conservatory was vibrant, interesting, and helpful in many ways. I’m just encouraging you to keep your eye on the ball, or in this case, the voice, because it’s the only one you’ve got. In that spirit, I think Mark Twain said it best when he said: “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.”

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at