Alexa Terry looks at strategies for teaching elite singers and explains that even the most polished performer can benefit from singing lessons.
Imagine this: Kitty Kemp, a Musical Theatre pro who also performs contemporary pop, arrives for her first lesson and starts to sing – and you are floored.
Her voice presents balance, agility and strength – all things that you usually help singers to develop during lessons. You worry that you have nothing to offer her and struggle to formulate a plan of action; talented Kitty has you stumped.
So, how can you help an elite singer like Kitty Kemp?
There is always something we can do
Singers who seem to have their voice figured out could be performing trickery, covering up their instabilities with ‘cheats’.
Perhaps Kitty navigates her voice with modifications, anchoring onto certain muscles unnecessarily because she is frightened of cracking or feels her tongue dragging back at an F#4.
As you go exploring, you can choose exercises designed to expose the singer (the 5-tone AH diagnostic is a little rascal!) and encourage Kitty not to use her ‘cheat sheet’.
While singing training consists of adjustments to boost harmonics to find more space in the throat and ensure that the larynx isn’t rocketing into the brain, this exercise may help you uncover the inconsistencies in Kitty’s voice at the very foundations.
Equally, Kitty may have a well-balanced voice and could benefit from small tweaks: a vowel modification here and less of a pinch there. Remember, there is always something you can do to help.
Kitty wants singing lessons with you for a reason. Here at BAST Training, we understand that singers seek a teacher to ‘fix a pain and feed a passion’.
Knowing what Kitty hopes to achieve, and asking about her goals and desired vocal aesthetic, will help you identify the way forward.
Does it feel good, too?
It might sound like Kitty’s voice has been lathered in golden sunshine, but how does it feel? Most singing teachers aim to guide the vocalist to perform with the least effort for the maximum effect, producing something that sounds and feels good.
We could ask Kitty to describe the sensations she feels compared to the audio and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5; this will improve her self-awareness and may uncover problem areas.
When a vocalist sings for someone new, they usually select a favourite tune that they feel comfortable performing. But what happens when Kitty sings a different song in a similar style which requires a longer belt, or has wider intervals?
She may benefit from expanding her musical horizons so that she has a setlist of reliable material rather than one spectacular belter.
After discussing song choices with Kitty, you learn that she tends to gravitate towards material with a particular tessitura. You also discover that her casting type requires her to belt more often than she has hot dinners.
To improve Kitty’s versatility and flexibility, explore more classical/legit styles or singing repertoire that challenges her familiar range.
Kitty may be able to sing Adele’s back catalogue and Stephen Schwartz’s greatest hits, but what other material does she know?
Perhaps her audition folder needs a makeover to include repertoire that truly represents her abilities and enhances her knowledge of Musical Theatre outside of the commercial scene.
In the book, So You Want to Sing CCM: A Guide for Performers, voice coach David Sabella shares an insightful tip for bringing a performance to fruition (one which I can’t wait to try out with my students).
He writes: “When I give a student a new piece of music that they do not know, I forbid them to listen to it. First, they must memorise it as a monologue, doing all of the necessary ‘actors’ work for the song… The result is a very authentically thought-out interpretation of the song, as it if were written for them.”
Kitty’s pipes might knock you out of the park, but does the sentiment of her delivery match? We can use song interpretation exercises (like the one suggested by David Sabella) to elevate Kitty’s performance. (Keep your eyes peeled for our review of So You Want to Sing CCM coming soon!)
Singing is not like a computer game; there are no levels to accomplish before the vocal coach is considered redundant.
Just as professional athletes receive coaching throughout their career, elite vocal athletes can benefit from coaching to maintain vocal health, stamina and flexibility.
Perhaps Kitty needs help to soften the impact of persistent allergies or has experienced the onset of performance anxiety. Sometimes, a singer doesn’t need to do vocal exercises or sing songs at all to learn and grow.
You think that Kitty is awesome, but does she? Perhaps these singing lessons are the very thing Kitty needs to find some self-belief to achieve her goals.
A few last words
We’ll leave you with these words of wisdom from singing teacher and BAST Trainer Kaya Herstad-Carney (kayamusic.com).
“Apparently, Picasso said ‘Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.’ When you are working with a voice that is more developed and with a well-balanced technique, you might be working more creatively than correctively.
“For example, how can you shape that vowel to add higher harmonics? When do you add vibrato, and can you explore some pop tricks to make it more exciting?
“There is ALWAYS more to learn, and with your accomplished students, you sometimes learn alongside them, and it stretches you between lessons. Don’t be scared of saying ‘yes, that works, but what other options do you have?’
Share your views on teaching elite singers like Kitty Kemp on the BAST Trainers Facebook group.