Soprano Nicole Cabell Continues to Shine On and Off Stage

Nicole Cabell shares her experiences as a singer vaulted to international fame through competition success. Now, as a voice teacher, she encourages her students to find the most fulfilling path forward for their musical career while balancing performing work.

 

California soprano Nicole Cabell won the Cardiff Singer of the World opera competition at just 27 years old. From then on, several things could have followed: a few intense years proceeded by burnout, a quick decline after the competition opportunities were fulfilled, and so on. 

Fortunately, Cabell was able to develop and maintain a stellar career with continued high-profile engagements worldwide. Now at age 44 and at the peak of her artistic powers, Cabell is also a voice professor at Eastman. I caught up with her recently to discuss her amazing career and her newfound calling as a voice teacher.

 

Can you talk a little about your life since the big win in 2005? Would you say it helped to propel your career? 

I consider myself pretty lucky to have had the career I’ve had, which was launched at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. At the time, I was about to graduate from the Ryan Opera Center at the Chicago Lyric Opera and had some prospects, but not much lined up. I’ve come to believe that visibility and word of mouth are two of the biggest pillars in this career, and my Cardiff win provided that for me.  

I’ve truly been working nonstop since. What a young singer often needs is a catalyst to propel them into the spotlight—but after this happens, you must continually offer up the goods. That’s the hardest part, and I feel proud that I’ve been able to maintain this career at this level. 

 

Would you comment on vocal competitions and their role in vocal training and career building? 

Vocal competitions provide a slew of benefits. Not just visibility, regardless of whether you snag a prize, but also the experience of singing live in high-pressure situations. This career isn’t easy, and doing competitions from a young age helped build my armor. The losses have been especially educational for me. In fact, setbacks, difficulty, and negativity have actually been the things that have helped me grow the most as a person and performer. Learning how to take rejection with grace is a mark of character. 

 

You have recently been offered a tenure track position at your alma mater, Eastman School of Music.

It’s been such an honor to return to the Eastman School of Music as an educator, though it can feel surreal at times. Having walked these gorgeous halls a generation ago, I’m often confronted with the reality of just how much I’ve grown. I’m often in awe of my students and what they’re able to accomplish.

What is your teaching philosophy and vision for your students? 

We obviously want the best for our students regarding their career, but this can be narrow minded when we attempt to define success as only one thing. Often this means becoming a freelance “famous” opera singer performing at prestigious opera houses around the world. Sounds glamorous, right? 

There are many aspects to this career that are indeed glamorous, but the career requires a specific personality type. Someone who can be alone for long stretches of time, extremely disciplined, physically and psychologically hearty, personable…the list goes on. While my students can all muster these traits, my main concern for them is whether or not they want to. My vision for my students is seeing them do whatever is the most fulfilling thing for them personally. 

This may very well mean a traditional career, but sometimes it can mean arts administration, teaching, or something completely different. I want them to leave Eastman with a good technical foundation and a myriad of life skills, most importantly the maturity to choose how they’d like to use their degree in the most authentic way.  

 

Has the industry and vocal education system changed since you were a student? If so, how does it inform your approach to teaching vocal students in your studio? 

The industry has definitely changed since I was a student. There have been several major events that have contributed to this change. The first was the advent of social media. The availability of layman option became a source of anxiety that has increased exponentially through the years. Every mistake can be recorded and commented on. Amateur blogs aren’t distinguishable from educated reviews. 

My colleagues and I saw some changes in fee structure, as well as the closing of some major opera houses. Artists weren’t often booked as far in advance, and opera houses seemed to take fewer chances on who they hired, opting for a smaller group of elite singers who were guaranteed to bring in money. The bottom line became more important. Now we have the world-altering effects of Covid.   

All of this has led to a dramatic increase in student anxiety and pressure. I can’t imagine trying to develop as an artist while at the same time being suffocated under the pressure of social media perfection and fear of industry collapse. As a teacher I very much take this into account. 

While we would like to dispense information with the same hard-edged intensity my generation and older experience, this can quickly overwhelm students. I try to give them a concentrated dose of information in collaborative and supportive manner. They can grow as artists but avoid psychological injury this way. 

I actually consider myself a demanding teacher, as I am detail oriented, but I have no interest in playing head trips with them. I’ve seen this approach destroy a student’s love of singing. Not only that, when a student receives kindness, they are more apt to give kindness. Not only is this a small way to make the world a better place, but gossip and tearing down others is a behavior pattern that always gets around, thus decreasing any chance of a career.  

How does teaching and performing during the pandemic era inform your approach? 

We have to be more flexible and creative than ever these days. Artists are suffering psychologically and butting up against demanding organizations and managers that want them to do even more. In the end, we’re all human, and it’s been pretty scary to push forward. We have to be understanding and engage in conversations that are more personal than they used to be.   

 

What do you feel is the most important job of a voice teacher? 

A voice teacher has to be a guide, not a guru. I don’t believe in being possessive of a student, and I am always encouraging them to take coaching and lessons with other teachers in order to learn from all angles. I believe the approach of “filling up their tool box” is really important. I’m very good at certain things, and some teachers are better at other things. I’d be suspicious of any teacher who claims to know everything. 

A teacher should know as much as they can about the singing voice and should be able to answer many questions their student asks. They should be able to provide a lot of information and simply make their student sing better. Importantly, a teacher should know when to let their student move on. 

 

You have a fascinatingly diverse background of African-American, Korean, and Caucasian ancestry. Have you struggled with your identity?

Sure, I’ve struggled with my identity, but I’ve learned early on to be proud of who I am. I think the confusion for me has always lain with other people’s perception of what I was. I live in duality. For instance, I identify as Black but it’s also a fact that I am of mixed race, so I also identify as mixed race. It comes down to in what context I’m asked to find identity. In other words, culture vs race vs personal identity. 

I have no interest in making other people feel comfortable with my self-identification. I used to, of course. I used to feel so much pressure to make everyone happy, and all this did was narrow the box I was putting myself into. With age and the shifting zeitgeist of the world, I feel more freedom now than ever to simply be myself.  

 

How does your teaching experience compare to performance and how do they inform each other?

Teaching requires a lot of talking, and this can tire the voice. Alternatively, teaching is a wonderful way to continue learning, and I’ve felt I’ve become a better singer by teaching. The problem is when you try to do too much of either. 

This year was particularly challenging to me because my teaching job is demanding, and I was practically singing full time on top of it. This had an effect on my health, and I try to tell my colleagues (many singers who are taking on teaching jobs and intend to keep singing) to not do too much.  

Do you need to have been a prolific singer in order to be a great teacher? Of course not. Has it helped me? I don’t know if I could teach half as well had I not established a career. There are so many details that you can hand down to your students. An important element is knowing what your successful colleagues sound like singing next to you on stage. That is something that, unless you’ve been onstage, you can only conceptualize. 

 

Can you give a snapshot of your current professional life? What does a regular week look like? 

My week can be anything from teaching for 20 hours and attending concerts several nights a week at Eastman, to hopping on several planes within the span of a week to perform with an orchestra or opera house. Right now, it’s a tricky balance between singing and teaching, and fortunately Eastman has been wonderful helping me provide substitute teachers for my students when I’m gone. This last spring was a challenge because I did not have substitutes for several jobs and had to make up lessons on every one of my free days. 

 

Are there still things you struggle with and work on improving? 

I still have lessons when I can get them, but they are less frequent. I coach more often than take lessons. As my voice continues to develop, it’s taken on darker tones and the range is slightly different, so I seek out lessons for older roles that feel different in my voice now. I find the most annoying thing about getting older is simply energy. It used to be easier to use my body strength to get through a role. Singing itself is easier than it’s ever been, but my body gets tired more often. I still struggle with tension, and diction has always been tricky for me for several reasons, one of which is biological. We must accept and love ourselves exactly as we are, even as we continue to improve. That’s a wonderful sentiment that has also come with age!

 

If you met your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give her?

I’d tell her to relax a little bit, that anxiety and perfectionism were not going to make her develop any faster. I’d also tell her to love and embrace herself just as she was, instead of always trying to be better or be like someone else. 

Uniqueness was not a valued trait when I was young. Conformity was still the name of the game, and I realize now how toxic that was.

Dr. Maria Briggs

Dr. Maria Briggs, is a Russian – born, Australian soprano. Dr. Briggs holds Bachelor degree in piano performance, Masters in vocal performance and DMA in opera performance (Sydney University and Northern College of Music, UK). Dr. Briggs has sung with Opera Australia, Pacific Opera, Lyric Opera Weimar and Glyndebourne Opera Festival, UK. Maria is Associate Professor of Voice at Fresno State and now lives in Fresno with her husband Matthew and two sons. Dr Briggs’ recent album “Winter Evening” explores romantic Russian art song and can be streamed on all platforms. Dr. Briggs is a regular contributor to the CS Magazine www.mariabriggssoprano.com