Put Me In, Coach : The Role of the Vocal Coach in Young Artist Programs

In reviews of operas, accolades are lavishly showered upon singers, conductors, and directors. But performers know there are many others responsible for successful productions and accomplished careers. Voice teachers, agents, and audiences all play a significant part in any singer’s progress and the opportunities that may follow. Equally important members of the team, however, are vocal coaches. Although their contributions are frequently outside of the public’s eye, coaches play a unique role in preparing singers for professional life, especially in the learning environment of a Young Artist Program.

Carol Anderson is principal coach for the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, where she has spent the last eight years, and is in her tenth summer on the music staff of the Santa Fe Opera. “My view of the coach’s job,” she says, “is to make certain, first of all, that people are singing the right notes and the right words and the right rhythms—and beyond that, then to talk about the nuances of interpretation of languages.” This is accomplished primarily through individual sessions with singers outside of their voice lessons and rehearsal schedule.

“The sheer variety of skills you need to be an opera coach is exhilarating,” says David Hanlon, first-year Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera Center. “Just as a start, you need to be able to play your own arrangement of an orchestral score, while singing with excellent diction, while following a conductor and carefully listening to the singer. And even once you can do all of that, there’s prompting, language fluency, conducting, and the entire vocal repertoire to learn.”

Those are important fundamentals, to be sure. But coaches also help singers reach beyond the mechanics of notes, rhythms, and diction to explore the communication necessary for great artistry. “Aside from nailing a tricky rhythm or policing double consonants,” Hanlon adds, “we’re also looking for the singer’s personal connection to the piece and how our musical choices will tell the story of that singer’s character.”

Mindful of being just one piece of the puzzle, Anderson stresses the importance of knowing each singer’s voice and supporting the role of the voice teacher, without necessarily delving into the more technical aspects of vocal training. “If I feel that I know their voice or if I have played with them in voice lessons, I will remind them of things their voice teacher says . . . but I choose not to overlap the voice teaching aspect,” she says.

One way that a coach can cross over into the realm of a voice teacher, according to Hanlon, is that they are each looking for “beautiful sound, diction that serves both the language and the voice, and great artistry.” He does avoid addressing specific technical issues that are better handled by a voice teacher. Still, he admits, “naturally I’ve picked up a certain amount of technical knowledge which opens up my ears and informs my advice.”

The overriding goal of the coach, as described by second-year Adler Fellow Tamara Sanikidze, is to help singers reach their peak level of preparedness and to highlight each singer’s best qualities. “This means that when I accompany them for the performances, it is my responsibility to make sure to listen to their breath and sound and from the piano musically create momentum that would allow them to soar through difficult passages with ease.” She considers the comment “I sing my best when I have you at the piano” to be the highest compliment she can receive and evidence that she has done her job well. In emphasizing the multifaceted skills necessary to be a good coach, she says, “Being a good pianist is very important and a very good beginning, but it is just a beginning.”

Anderson acknowledges that auditions for Young Artist Programs have some inherent problems. “I believe that the audition and screening process is completely flawed,” she says, “but there’s not a better system yet.” While she would prefer to see every singer perform on stage, the cost and logistics of making that happen are simply not practical and, as she says, “that’s why we have this imperfect audition. We’re supposed to get a picture of an artist in two songs. It’s not ideal at all, but it’s the best way to see a larger pool of people.”

However, coaches are in a unique position to offer advice to singers hoping to join Young Artist Programs. With much of their attention focused on diction and interpretation, coach Tom Getty’s comments are not surprising. As part of the music staff at Colorado’s Central City Opera and vocal coach of the Tyler Young Artists for Opera on the James in Virginia, Getty recommends to singers, “Know your texts and translations word for word. When you don’t know your text, it shows.” He also recommends that singers approach their texts in the same way that an actor would. “It’s amazing to discover the ‘why’ in the music based on what’s happening in the text.”

Anderson concurs, adding, “I would almost rather hear more connection to text and a little less accuracy—because I can fix accuracy, but it’s a little bit harder to teach someone to have that connection to text. I’ve written more times than not on my comment sheets, ‘A recitation of text,’ and that’s just not interesting.”

Getty advises singers to stay within the capabilities of their instruments. “Sing beautifully,” he says. “That means: don’t sing beyond your natural capacity and/or age.” He feels that many vocalists, regardless of age, have a tendency to sing too loudly and too heavily, which can adversely affect the pitch and beauty of a tone. “I guess maybe that’s another way of saying sing with your voice, the one you have now, not the one you hope to have in 10 years,” he says. “That will come in due time.”

With that understanding, Hanlon asks singers to remember that they are auditioning for a Young Artist Program and not a Young Student Program. “Auditors want to hear artists. Make sure that with whatever you sing, you have something to say.”

Beyond interpretive maturity, Anderson also expects a degree of technical stability from the singers she hears in auditions. “I want to hear a voice that is technically fairly solid, because the demands of the Young Artist Program and the scheduling mean that voice lessons can be a little sporadic.” She is hesitant to accept singers who, despite tremendous talent, have significant technical challenges to overcome. “They can have the most special voice, but if it has something major that needs to be worked out, we just don’t think that it’s healthy for them to be in our situation just because they won’t have the time to dedicate toward solving some of those problems.”

The issue of time is what Anderson sees as one of the primary adjustments for singers in Young Artist Programs. “I think one of the things that is most important, especially for a singer who has just recently been in school, is to learn to manage their own time and to discipline their practice time. You have to learn how to schedule yourself and how to treat [singing] as your job and devote a certain amount of time every day to the job.”

Sanikidze agrees: “Some young artists come directly from the school setting, so they are not used to working in a professional environment and initially are a little overwhelmed by the demands and fast tempo of the professional world.” She tries to ensure that young singers know what they are getting into and are prepared for the rigorous journey. “Make sure that this is really what you want to do for the rest of your life,” she says. “Being a young artist in the opera house can be very demanding, and it is hard to survive and to enjoy your work—you really have to love it!”

“The other big adjustment,” Anderson says, “is learning that all the stars don’t have to be aligned for you to sing well.” She remembers her own college experience when recital days included a special routine of relaxation and focus to encourage the best possible performance. “When singers come from our program and then they go into their audition season and they’ve gotten used to singing a school show healthily at 8:00 in the morning, then there’s no audition time that’s too traumatic for them. I think it raises their average level of singing quality.”

“Ultimately, the point of mastering these skills is to be helpful to others,” Hanlon suggests. He finds satisfaction in collaborating with others and has discovered that helping them progress musically has helped him to grow as a musician as well. “Even in performance,” he says, “I find that concentrating on inspiring the singer is the surest way to inspire myself.”

“I enjoy tremendously coaching singers,” says Sanikidze. She believes that the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s career and life makes her sacrifice worthwhile. “In short,” she says, “I love every side of my job, even long hours and lack of weekends, and I would not want to do anything else in the world.”

Anderson also echoes an attitude of service and asserts that improving her own skills allows her to bring more to the young artists. “I’m always learning and I’m always trying to be better. I want to make sure I’ve covered as many of the variables that they have in their life to help them have the skills to deal with these things down the road. I just want to make sure that when they leave here, we’ve given them as many tools for the next step as possible.”

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. brianmanternach.comdrbrianmanternach.blogspot.com / bmantern@gmail.com