Team Teaching : Are Four Voices Better than One?

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the high cost of maintaining a singing career gave birth to The Washington Vocal Consortium. A decade ago, a group of professional singers began meeting regularly to coach each other, discuss vocal technique and the business of singing, trade concert gowns, and share baby-sitting. “Initially, we were just helping each other,” says founder Cate Frazier-Neely. But their networking and collaboration “and a lot of trial and error” eventually led the singers to a business partnership. Each consortium member continues to perform and teach independently, but they come together once a month or more to present full-day workshops for singers, voice teachers, and choral directors. “We’re now into our eighth year of team-taught workshops and we’re also developing vocal training materials for publication.”

How did informal discussions on the singer’s art turn into a secondary teaching career? In 1987, soprano Frazier-Neely was singing successfully as a soloist on the regional level and was also teaching at a local college. “At this stage of my career, I was frustrated by the amount of money I was still spending on voice lessons and accompanists,” says Frazier-Neely. “I thought that if I could find other performers who were teachers and pianists like myself, then we could coach each other.” She closely observed her colleagues around town–“often my competition at auditions”–and soon found an excellent group of artist/voice teachers who were open and secure enough in themselves to collaborate without feeling threatened.

“I especially appreciated the fact that openness and curiosity were not viewed as signs of weakness,” says Frazier-Neely, but, rather, as a normal response to the passions of singing and teaching.” Insecurities flared when they were all up for the same singing jobs, but they also recommended each other for singing jobs when their schedules were full. The colleagues became friends and they continue to have a deep basic respect for each other. “That trust holds us together during musical, technical, and even a few personal disagreements.” The four teachers who currently make up The Washington Vocal Consortium are mezzo-soprano Catherine [Kate] Huntress-Reeve and sopranos Elizabeth Daniels, Kathy Kessler Price, and Cathryn [Cate] Frazier-Neely.

Though collaboration among singers isn’t as unique an idea now as it was in 1990–when the Washington Post declared that a group of divas getting together to help one another must be “a historic first”–it is still rare. Renowned author and voice clinician Richard Miller recently wrote in the Journal of Singing: “Teaching voice tends to be a go-it-alone enterprise, much to the detriment of students and teachers alike.”

At first, as the Consortium members coached and critiqued each other, it was intimidating and a bit confusing. “I think that the only reason it worked was that we had all grown up totally immersed in music and had studied, performed, and taught for many years.” They approached singing from many angles–vocal technique, acting, staging, conducting–and had extensive backgrounds that included classical, musical theater, pop, and jazz, both vocal and instrumental. “We continue to bring information to each other, whether it’s an article from Scientific American, Opera News, Classical Singer, Journal of Singing, VOCALIST, or feedback from other coaches and teaching gurus,” says Frazier-Neely. “Over the years we have adopted a shared technical vocabulary. Our vocal workshops reflect a common, organic and verbal approach to singing.”

An unexpected benefit has been the mentoring of each other through the challenges of balancing careers with family and personal lives. “In our present group,” says Frazier-Neely, “we have two cancer survivors and another who has persevered through several surgeries.” As performers, they monitor each other’s progress: “Is this gig worth doing musically, financially, or for the publicity? We constantly have to tread the fine line between being helpful and being judgmental.” They know firsthand that life as a professional musician is fiercely competitive and that only a few are truly exceptional. “Not everyone will have a singing career, but we in the Consortium feel that there is a place for all singers who are merely brilliant, talented, and devoted!”

Cathryn Frazier-Neely is on the voice faculty at The Levine School of Music and currently has students working on Broadway and in national tours.

Elizabeth Daniels was recently named Rosa Ponselle Teacher of the Year and is on the adjunct voice faculty at The Catholic University of America and The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Kathy Kessler Price recently returned from a solo tour of southern Bohemia and works with singers and choirs of all levels in Vienna, VA.

Catherine Huntress-Reeve, a former Met regional finalist, is on the voice faculty of The Washington Conservatory of Music and directs opera and musical theater on the East Coast.

For information or workshop registration, see the website www.washvocal.com.

Q and A: Washington Vocal Consortium

Classical Singer: What are some advantages of the team-taught approach?

Washington Vocal Consortium: For the student, when it’s right, there’s a synergy that’s better than what any one clinician can give. Our various areas of expertise are complementary–a single idea can be expressed in many different ways. For us, as teachers, the workshops are financially rewarding and intellectually challenging. We constantly learn from each other and can try new things.

CS: What are the major challenges of team teaching?

WVC: In the beginning, there were some conflicts because we all have strong personalities and rather flamboyant teaching styles. It’s been hard to keep things simple and not step on each other’s toes in our zeal to present a topic or information. Also, we have different approaches to problem solving–Cate and Kate like to wallow in “cosmic visions,” while Liz and Kathy prefer down-to-earth specifics.

CS: How do other voice teachers react to your workshops?

WVC: We often have voice teachers attend the workshops or send students. Some teachers seem to come to snipe, go away converted, and their students attend the next one! We frequently discuss ways to help other teachers form their own groups. Locally, the teachers know that we’re not interested in padding our own private studios. (We all have waiting lists.)

CS: Do you perform together as The Washington Vocal Consortium?

WVC: No. We tried that, but it is too tiring to try to give a concert and then present a workshop. Also, our voices don’t really work together. There isn’t much repertoire appropriate for a soprano-soprano-soprano-mezzo quartet! We are a teaching consortium. We keep our performing careers separate.

CS: What advice do you have for others who want to team teach?

WVC: You must be someone who values collaborative effort. Start slowly and take some time to observe the work and personalities of potential team members. Sing for each other, clarify ideas, get to know each other before you plan classes. Successful team teachers have a solid sense of self and self-worth but are also open to new ideas.

CS: Will your approach work in a typical college or conservatory faculty setting?

WVC: Hmm….good question. We all teach at different schools. It would depend entirely on the individuals on that faculty. It’s been our experience that technical disagreements are often the result of not being able to verbalize opinions. So to team teach, you need to be willing to verbalize clearly and translate intuition into something that another teacher can understand.

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.