The Balancing Act

Experienced singers, at some point in their careers, often consider teaching voice as a way to share their expertise and supplement their income. They worry, however, that teaching will undermine their own vocal health and career plans. In fact, in a recent Classical Singer interview, Lucine Amara stated that she couldn’t teach while she was performing because it was too hard on her own voice. Some professional singers teach only between engagements or after retirement. Conversely, many of New York’s “teachers to the pros” no longer sing professionally themselves to avoid competing with their star students.

However, many voice teachers, particularly those outside New York or teaching at universities, balance two careers as performer/teacher. Classical Singer asked: “How do you save and protect your own singing voice while you are teaching?”

Without a doubt, the most common vocal safeguard is correct use of the speaking voice. Judith Nicosia Civitano (Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University) keeps an index card on the piano rack that says, “Breathe well before you speak.” “I keep reminding myself to speak with resonance, which for me means feeling vowels at the highest arch of the hard palate. If I’m breathing well and resonating well, I don’t have any trouble at the end of the day.”

“Since I talk more than I demonstrate in lessons,” says Julie Simson, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, “the most important thing is learning how to speak correctly and efficiently, not too low.” Diane Clark of Rhodes College, Tennessee, agrees. “In lessons I try to let the student do more singing and talking, seeing my role as facilitator in the student’s process rather than as wise lecturer.”

“A lot depends on the level of the abilities of your students,” responds Beverley Rinaldi of The Cleveland Institute of Music. “Beginning students require more conversation–use of the speaking voice. Therefore it’s important that my speech habits are correct.“ Private teacher Robert Edwin also tries to speak in his optimum pitch and volume range. “Too low, too high, too loud, or too soft can wear out the voice, especially with 50-60 students.”

Beverley Rinaldi adds, “I rarely use the voice for musical illustrations, whether with exercises or a florid passage, although I am especially tempted to illustrate when it is an advanced student.” Classically trained Broadway performer/teacher Joan Barber demonstrates some vocalises and interpretation suggestions but adds, “I certainly don’t sing throughout the lesson.”

“Most of the time I’m ‘marking it’” admits Robert Edwin. “When I sing with or demonstrate for students, I am using far less than full vocal quality to conserve vocal and emotional energy. Occasionally, however, I will sing/demonstrate with a performance-level sound to either make a point or to reaffirm my own standard of singing.”

In addition to daily vocal care and caution, performer/teachers offered suggestions and routines for optimal performance days. Tenor Randall Black, who usually has one or more outside professional engagements per month in addition to his teaching/performing duties at Murray State University, tries to allow an extra day to recuperate from travel and from the “daily wear” of using his voice. “I agree that it’s impossible to sing at one’s peak WHILE teaching.” Joan Barber (who recently left Broadway’s Sound of Music to star in an off-Broadway musical version of Lizzie Borden) limits her teaching to one or two students on two-show days and four students on the days she performs only one show. “I make sure to drink lots of water and take frequent naps.”

“I tend to hibernate on performance days,” says Judith Civitano. “I don’t spend time jawing with other faculty in the hall, no lunch with friends or extra chatting on the phone. Quiet time is what the mind and body need, and sometimes that’s as good as a new instrument by nightfall.”

Finding time to practice one’s own technique and repertoire is always a challenge. Julie Simson considers herself lucky because, as she says, “I have a pretty resilient voice, no problems like allergies. I practice my singing at 8:00 in the morning before I start teaching. That’s something I never thought I could do, but at night I’m just too tired to practice.”

Judith Civitano also warms up thoroughly before the first lesson, even if that means vocalizing at 7:00 a.m. in the car on the way to work. “I do the same warm-up in virtually the same order every day so muscle ‘memory’ is maximized and surprises are minimized.” Beverley Rinaldi’s vocal study time is flexible. “I try to schedule several times a week, increasing the time as performances approach.”

One teacher does physical exercises between lessons, and another keeps a fine-mist atomizer at the piano to moisturize the vocal tract. Other tips for vocal self-preservation include keeping good “performance posture” throughout a lesson, either while standing or playing piano. Toronto private teacher, performer, and church music director Tannis Fast Vetter was inspired by Phyllis Curtin in a master class. “Miss Curtin very beautifully demonstrated voice pacing for singing and speaking. I strive to maintain a balance between my own vocal needs and those of my students.“ This balance, and the ability to see the ‘bigger picture,’ are critical for the teacher who performs. Martina Arroyo, a long-time colleague and friend of Lucine Amara, says, “I respect Lucine’s choice. I believe that you can do some performing while teaching, if you are selective. But at this point in my career, my students come first.” Miss Arroyo, currently teaching at the Indiana University School of Music, believes, “There is no way you can take on 15 young people and be responsible for them if your main interest is your own career. Each person must make that choice. I love my students, and the best way to be remembered is to have a student whose career is as good or better than your own.”

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.