How I Teach

Introduction

I have been teaching Opera and Concert Singing for over thirty years. I now live and work privately in Paris.

Unlike many other singers fortunate enough to have a successful career (see Biography) who turn to teaching only at the end of their careers, I began teaching, out of passion and a sense of vocation, starting in 1980. It was the period in which I sang Masetto in the Joseph Losey film of Don Giovanni, and was invited to sing Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro at the Paris Opera and Leporello for the Metropolitan Opera Company. I then continued to divide my time between singing career and teaching until 1996, since when I have been teaching full-time.

My Basic Approach

I teach according to the old Italian school. I had been extremely fortunate in my teachers, renowned guardians of the old Italian tradition of vocal technique: E. Herbert Caesari (1884-1969), Luigi Ricci (1893-1981) and Otakar Kraus, pupil of the great tenor and pedagogue Fernando Carpi (1879-1959). The pedigree of these three masters goes back by uninterrupted transmission to the early 19th century. Having been the recipient of such precious knowledge, now almost forgotten or poorly understood, I started teaching, aware of the importance of keeping alive the precepts that had sustained the great era of Italian opera.

The extraordinary fact about opera singing is that every now and then a singer appears whose exceptional qualities are not due to any training at all. The “born singer” gives us pause for thought, because the implications are that the human body possesses this potential within itself, even if it gets realised to the full very rarely indeed. This fact, coupled with my practical experience, gives me the basic premise of my teaching: that just as the sculpture is already within the stone, the voice is waiting to emerge naturally from the dynamic patterns of the body. Naturally, the stone needs a genuine sculptor to extract the sculpture; the body needs a genuine singer to liberate voice. The questions begged here, of course, are: "Are the dynamic patterns of the body, in my case, suitable for singing, able to meet all the many challenges opera demands?" And then, "What can I do about it if not?"

Owing to the psychophysical complexities of singing, very few aspiring singers possess that balance of all the elements necessary to produce a free operatic voice spontaneously. But many do have enough talent to be more than half-way there, even before training. These are the students in conservatoires and academies throughout the world who will come through with flying colours whatever teaching they receive. Others, less well prepared at the start, will be lucky to receive the kind of instruction that can let them find their natural resources and fulfil their potential.

The student's voice is inevitably limited by the condition of the instrument that creates it: the body. I therefore put the accent on getting the body to a state in which it is capable, like any other instrument, of “being played”, in other words of handling those necessary physical dynamics that lead to good singing. We wouldn't expect a violin student to make much progress on a warped and cracked fiddle, fingerboard loose on the body and so on, with a mangy bow to boot. What would be the point of demanding good tone, accurate fingering, smooth bowing, musical phrasing? In the same way, I could ask my student until I'm blue in the face for a certain specific vocal result, let's say more anchored tones in the passaggio. But what if the student's instrument (= body organisation) is incapable of giving it to me? No amount of trying or practice will get us anywhere. Or, worse still, by forcing and distorting, a "result" is achieved at terrible cost to vocal balance, and the singer’s body as it struggles against the odds.

Often, in working with a pupil, one can encounter seemingly insurmountable limitations in the body's ability to carry out the technical instructions, sometimes gross defects, sometimes very subtle. This can apply equally to very gifted students or even experienced professional singers. To handle this kind of pedagogic challenge I make use of a sensory and neuromuscular re-education method: the Alexander Technique.

This Technique's contribution in the field of singing can be considerable, first and foremost because it guarantees a profound and practical knowledge of the workings of the human body on the part of the teacher. Being qualified in AT, I can, as an expert, identify and help resolve problems of coordination, posture and unwanted tension patterns that in many cases represent serious obstacles to good vocal functioning, and that are difficult for the layman even to detect let alone correct without the necessary know-how.

Using this tool, I am able to give my pupils a more advantageous body functioning by bringing them back to the body's natural organisational patterns. As the muscular conflicts steadily diminish and finally disappear, students will be more and more able to benefit from the actual vocal technique teaching and at the same time free their inner artistic expressivity. So, for me, this process represents the shortest and most efficient route to optimise a pupil's potential.

It's important to help the pupils' mental approach both to the act of singing itself and to singing in public, giving them not just physical but also psychological control. Here again, I find the Alexander Technique very useful. One of the most appreciated aspects of the AT in the musical field is its effect of expanding the musician's awareness and improving her or his ability to handle the mental challenges of singing or playing an instrument. Pupils learn to acquire an extended field of attention that allows them to be aware of the overall patterns of their activity, including their interaction with the world around them, while engaged in the specifics of playing or singing (and acting, in the case of the opera singer). This inclusive awareness equals better control, which in its turn increases self-confidence and helps to eliminate performance nerves.

It's not by chance, then, that many of the most important music, theatre and dance institutes throughout the world have Alexander teachers on their permanent staff. At both the Royal Academy of Music, London, and at Juilliard, New York, for instance, there are five on faculty.

Singing Undivided

My teaching is based on certain fundamental principles, which form the background of the practical work. Here are the main points. I call it Singing Undivided:

  • Our nature is wholeness, a single totality with different facets and modes of expressing itself.
  • We have artificially fragmented ourselves, thinking of these facets as separate, and even opposed to each other: mind and spirit, mind and body, inner and outer, thinking and doing, emotion and reason and so on.
  • The prerequisite for singing is integration, communication through the warp and weft of a single body-mind fabric.

In order to achieve this, we have to realise that:

  • the whole psychophysical being is involved in anything we think or do.
  • the body is energy made manifest (the Word made flesh).
  • singing is not something to be “done” but to be released by the inner creative energy of the singer.
  • this energy becomes available when we are fully aware in all our senses and our intentions are very clear.
  • body awareness, the least understood or used of our senses, is essential for the singer.

As regards the training or correction of the vocal instrument itself, we have to realise that:

  • we are not made to function in isolation. We must be consciously connected to the world around us in order to complete and balance our awareness and allow the body to live fully.
  • the body works as a single whole and the overall state of our coordination will determine the efficiency and freedom or otherwise of the individual parts (in singing: breathing apparatus, back, head, neck, jaw, tongue, lips, soft palate, facial muscles and so on).
  • we have an intrinsic ‘singing reflex' – a particular synergy of muscles, breath and cords that comes with the impulse to sing – that can be discovered and utilised only if we are not interfering with the natural processes of the body.
  • this natural coordination, once reacquired, automatically releases the breathing processes, so that we no longer have to ‘do' the breath; the musculo-skeletal framework easily and spontaneously sustains the necessary muscle activity without distortion or strain (often very forceful, as any sports or athletic activity requires; mine is not a "don't use any tension, dear" approach).
  • using ourselves with natural coordination, we find that the support (appoggio) for singing also springs naturally into play as a reflex action, with no need to ‘do' it.
  • even the details of vocal emission, for example consonant production, are subject to overall coordinative processes and must be considered in the light of this integrated ensemble.
  • the path to better singing is always to be found through a freeing from within; this mostly having to do with discarding interference with the body's natural dynamics, and never from imposing procedures from without, disregarding these principles.
  • Finally, upstream of all 'putting into action' is the most vital element of all: the state of consciousness in which we sing. By this I mean specifically the need to 'be in the right brain' (see The Master and his Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, for a stunning revelation of the importance of this); the need to get out of the intellect's conceptual and static world into the flow where life happens, where control is left behind in favour of awareness in the moment. An act of faith, of allowance.