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How I Teach

Introduction

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

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, Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro at the Paris Opera, and was invited to sing 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 the voice.

On the one hand, a pupil's voice inevitably depends on the state of the instrument that creates it: the body. That's why it's important first to create a good terrain, the background conditions which will allow the body to sing freely.  

On the other hand, the interlaced nature of mind and body means that building the vocal instrument is never just about acquiring specialised physical prowess. The response to any technical instruction will be coloured by the pupil's state of mental, psychological and emotional readiness, just as much as their body's condition. It is often the mental baggage people carry that most prevents progress.

As a qualified Alexander Technique teacher since 1994, I use this tool as the firm background of my work. The Technique is a sensory and neuromuscular re-education method which can teach also us a lot about our psychophysical unity, and how to optimise our potential. This Technique's contribution in the field of singing can be considerable, first and foremost because it guarantees, on the part of the teacher, a profound and practical knowledge of the workings of the human body. 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 which are difficult for the layman even to detect, let alone correct, without the necessary know-how. As the muscular conflicts steadily diminish, 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.

One of the most appreciated aspects of the AT in the musical field is its effect of expanding performers' awareness and improving their 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 allows better control, which in its turn increases self-confidence and helps to eliminate performance nerves.

Singing from Wholeness

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

  • Our whole psychophysical being is involved in anything we think or do.
  • 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 find the wholeness of our nature; when we abandon the detachment of the controlling mind and allow the heart to speak. At that point, we are fully aware in all our senses and our deepest intentions can reveal themselves.
  • All this translates fundamentally as 'not trying'. 'Singing from the real you'.
  • 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 and freely.
  • 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.
  • 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 if we don't interfere with the natural processes of the body.
  • This natural coordination, once rediscovered, allows us to no longer have to ‘do' the breath; the musculoskeletal framework sustains the necessary muscle activity without distortion or strain.
  • The use of this singing 'reflex' automatically supplies the support (appoggio) for singing.
  • The path to better singing is always to be found through a freeing from within. This mostly has to do with discarding interference with the body's natural dynamics - and never from imposing procedures from without. The physical freeing is of course dependent on mental freeing, as indicated above.
  • All this has nothing to do with the simplistic attitude that askes of the pupil to just "sing naturally".  We need sound and efficient means in order to dismantle everything, physical or mental, that is getting in the way of good singing. I have developed a system, starting from the pedagogic tradition I inherited, which aims to reveal fully the singing that is within us. I dare to say the singing that is us.
  • Finally, upstream of all the 'putting into action' lies the most vital element of all: the state of consciousness in which we sing. By this I mean specifically the need to to get out of the intellect's conceptual, detached and static world, which literally cannot handle the flowing life of the body and its singing, and into that directly sensed domain where imposed control is left behind in favour of awareness in the moment; where the heart can speak. The zone where trying doesn't happen. An act of faith, of allowance.