Learning to sing is an extremely personal and visceral experience. Unlike playing an instrument outside of ourselves, the body itself is the instrument. What we eat and drink affects the voice, sometimes creating unnecessary mucous or dryness. Lack of humidity has an enormous affect on the voice. A cold can force us to cancel a performance. Every emotion we experience affects the sound which comes from us as singers. Through singing we learn much about ourselves and about life, a process which is often exciting and sometimes painful. It is important to guide students through this process, which helps them discover their own unique tone and perhaps something about themselves they didn’t already know.
My own personal process has indeed had a painful period. When my career was climbing quickly in Europe, I experienced a physical breakdown caused by a congenital pelvic deformation. This forced me to cancel more than 45 performances and turn down two more new roles over a period of nearly two years. The journey to discover the cause and work on the correction has spanned many years with many extraordinary therapists. I feel I am a much stronger person as a result of this experience, which has also taught me how important it is analyze each student individually and to give them all the tools to pursue their own paths, no two of which are the same.
I strongly believe in a positive approach to teaching. Knowing that I myself never excelled through negativity, I treat all my students in lessons, master classes, or performances with encouragement and positive reinforcement, balanced with criticism and advice on how to improve. With positive reinforcement, we can all achieve goals which at one point seemed out of reach. The more self-confidence my students develop, the better prepared they will be to perform on stage or teach privately as well as in a classroom.
Whether my students are choral education or vocal performance majors, it is important to give them all the tools they need to succeed. It is always my goal to help each student produce the most beautiful tone in the most efficient manner. The quality of vocal material varies with each student, as do the skills. I try to instill the desire to go as far as they possibly can with the material they possess.
Because of my own experience with body work and its effect on the voice, I believe that each singing student must become in tune with his or her body to achieve maximum energy with minimum tension. Body awareness is essential to vocal production and certainly to performing expressively. Through freedom in the body, singers discover new possibilities in their voices and also in their every day lives. Incorporating Alexander Technique, Pilates, Qi Gong/Tai Chi, and other body work helps to achieve this awareness. For four years I have been practicing Tai Chi daily with weekly private lessons. This practice has intensified my own awareness of being truly grounded, releasing enormous power from within. As I continue this training, I find I am able to impart some of its life changing qualities to my students, helping them to increase their energy, reduce stress, and discover a balance between mind and body. It has already proven successful in freeing the body and therefore the tone in many of my students.
As I first ascertain the desires and goals of each individual student, I can measure these goals against what I understand to be the reality of achieving them. At this point in my career, I have taught for fourteen years at Northern Arizona University, first as an adjunct teacher, and now as a tenured Associate Professor. Besides that, I have taught privately for 15 years, as well as four summers at Seagle Colony and five summers with Flagstaff in Fidenza, both summer opera training programs. My students have varied from post graduates and young professionals, to choral education and vocal performance majors, to extremely talented youngsters of nine and ten years old and teenagers. In every case, my goal is to assess the vocal material and musicianship of the student, understand the goals of the student, and give each one the tools necessary to achieve these goals. I require my students to make a self-evaluation when they enter the studio, listing their own strengths and weaknesses. We discuss these lists in their lessons, and later I ask them to re-assess these items, noting where they themselves see improvement and what still needs work. In some cases, I might advise a student to adjust his or her goals to comply with the vocal material or musical skills involved, if I feel they are unrealistic in these goals.
My experience as a professional opera singer equips me with the practical experience to provide an example for my students, whatever level their development. The fact that my own vocal technique had to be learned and had many flaws in the beginning helps me to assess the various issues of my students, since I experienced most of the problems they face. In fact, they continue to teach me more about my own voice and about teaching. As teachers we must have a number of ways to express the same thing, as the same term can mean many different things to many different students.
We are never “there”. We are always a work in progress, and we must continue to study our entire lives. I even began studying voice nearly two years ago and am excited about new possibilities with my own voice. This in turn is making me a better teacher, as I incorporate the new ideas I am learning in my own teaching. I also keep abreast of new ideas presented by respected colleagues in the field and am always excited to try new ways to achieve our goals. This is a thrilling, never-ending journey!
Deborah Raymond ©2021 Flagstaff, Arizona