Make Haste Slowly

Make haste slowly

“Make haste slowly”

This is what my mentor and teacher, the late Dixie Ross Neill used to repeat to me when I was studying with her, but Caesar Augustus is said to have first adopted the motto: Festina Lente. Make haste, slowly. It took me a while to understand what it meant. I think that when I was a student, I was impatient and maybe a little result-driven. Imagine, back in those days, no social media or profiling trends were pushing me to show my results to the world. Fast forward to 2020, we are the age of social media, instant fame, and being discovered on big platform talent hunts. How does a young aspiring singer get to their desired result while fighting the temptation to skip steps?

I work with singers, and a big part of my work is training young singers who are more than aware of their online content. Knowing how to brand yourself, is an important skill, but the question is, are we skipping important voice building steps in the rush to get “there” faster? Some go into the process, they lay down the base for a great technique, let the voice develop, work on their languages, musicianship skills, bodywork, all of which make someone into a complete artist. Then, there are some who lack patience and are always running after results. They put in the work, but they always try to skip steps because they want to get there faster. With the latter, you can feel an actual sense of panic, which some may confuse with ambition. Skipping steps can make them feel like they are getting there faster, but the truth is, they will inevitably have to turn back and redo the steps they have skipped.

What does it mean to make haste slowly? Let me use the following metaphor: A pianist, while learning a difficult musical passage which is at a high level of technical difficulty is tempted to just play it at tempo, just do it, get it on the first try. There may be a slight chance that they get it right on the first try, but what about every time after that? What will happen to the consistency of their playing? How will they know if it was just a fluke (which it absolutely was)? They now go back, dissect the passage, play it slowly, practice with different rhythms, build up tempo, work on the fingering, and put in the necessary amount of time to learn it from start to finish. Instead of doing it instantaneously and risking that it is just a fluke, the goal now becomes not only to do it right but most importantly, to learn it so that you never do it wrong.

Building your career as a singer is a lot like that pianist working on the difficult passage. Just because you are talented, have a beautiful voice, and sometimes you get it right on the first try, does not mean that you are ready to hit the ground running. Like the pianist working on the passage above, you will want to take the time to establish the foundation on which you build your voice, and that will, in turn help you achieve your artistic and professional goals in the long run. Even if it seems that everyone around you is posting concert photos or doing exciting things; stick to your lane, keep your eyes on your ultimate goal, and eventually you will pass them.

The thing to remember is that we are all learning a craft. Whether you are a pianist, a singer, or any other kind of professional. Knowing everything you can know about what you do is very important. As a young singer I suggest studying where your art comes from, listen to all the great recordings available, examine how the technique and the esthetic have developed over the years. It is a good idea to take note of different styles and conventions of the repertoire so that you can implement them in your singing, or respond to a coach or a conductor when they request them. As you are absorbing all this, also explore listening to all vocal repertoire, not just your voice type, but every voice type, other instruments, and orchestral works. Educate yourself on what you need to know so that once you get out there, you don’t have a lack of knowledge. All this information will most definitely influence your singing and artistry.

As you are doing all of this, be curious and insatiable when it comes to your vocal technique. Whether you are a singer, a pianist, a violinist, or any other musician, technique is the absolute foundation of artistry. Without technique, it is not possible to achieve your musical goals. Imagine doing something incredibly musical: a long phrase, a triple piano on a high note, a lightning-fast coloratura passage, and making it look effortless. Now, imagine that you had the technical knowledge to do this, every-time, without fail. That is what technique means; it is a vehicle for artistic choices. How long does it take to get the technique of a high-level singer? You will probably be working on your technique for the duration of your career, as long as your voice changes with your body. Many of my friends and colleagues with elite careers, still seak help from their voice teachers regularly. When you are a young singer, you lay down the foundation of your technique which hopefully will take you throughout your career. The foundation is the most important part, of course, just think of what happens to a house when the foundation starts failing: it crumbles.

During the spring semester, we were pushed into a different situation in all training programs and education due to Covid-19. We had to go online. It was not ideal, and nobody wanted this, however, I do feel there were good lessons to be learned if you were willing to look for them. The singers that I have heard or seen since have made remarkable vocal progress which in turn has made them much better artists. The focused and meticulous work they did during this time has given them more vocal freedom. They were also free from deadlines and pressures of getting to the result which became somewhat less important for a while. Consequently, they improved quicker than they thought they would. It has been a dreadful time for everyone, but what we can draw from these positive points is that process means progress. In the age of “get there fast”, the part where we slow down to figure things out, is something that most of us have forgotten how to do in this age of “high-speed”. It may take time to get your result, and that is OK. In the words of Caesar Augustus or the great coach and pianist Dixie Ross Neill, “Make haste slowly” and you will get to your result better, stronger, and yes, faster! The quickest way to accomplish something is to proceed deliberately.

How to Sing the French Mixed Vowels

The French language has fifteen vowel-sounds. I say this every year at the start of my French Lyric Diction class as the students’ eyes widen. I can almost hear them thinking “Fifteen? How is that possible? How can I sing fifteen different vowel sounds?” That seems like a lot and it can be quite daunting if you are a singer starting out singing in this language. The three vowel-sounds that I would like to focus on in this little French Lyric Diction post, are the three mixed vowel-sounds [œ] [ø] and [y].

When I say “vowel-sound” I don’t mean a pure vowel. The vowels we all know from when we first learn how to read are a, e, i, o, and u. Think of all the french vowel-sounds as derivatives of these. Some vowel sounds are even based on the derivatives of the derivatives. A mixed vowel is when you take two characteristics of two different vowels and as you combine them you create a whole new vowel. They are called “mixed” because their formation is dependent on the simultaneous positioning of the tongue and the lips.

In the chart above, we see the vowels in the tongue position, and the vowels in the lip position, in the middle are the mixed vowels.

The Phonetic [y] vowel-sound:

  • Phonate the [i] sound, as in the French word “midi” [miˈdi] (noon) or if you wish to come from the English language the [i] in the word “we”.
  • Now, sustain this [i] sound, as you do so, form your lips to the shape of a closed [o] as in the word “rose” [rozə] in French (or English) all the while not changing your [i] tongue position.
  • You now magically have the phonetic [y] vowel as in the French word “lune” [lynə] (moon).

The o-slash vowel:

  • Phonate an open [ɛ] as in the French word “tête” [tɛtə] (head) or from the English language, the word “feather”
  • Again, sustain this [ɛ] and as you do so, form your lips to the shape of a closed [o] while not changing your tongue position.
  • You now are making the sound of [ø] as in the word “feu” [fø] (fire).

The o-e vowel is a little different:

  • Start out in the same way you did with the o-slash: phonate on an open [ɛ].
  • While sustaining this vowel, you will form your lips into an open [ɔ] as in the French word “homme” [ɔmə] (man) or from the English you can think of the word “on”. So this is less of a closed [o] formation than we used above. (If it starts sounding like [ø], turn back you have gone to far towards a closed vowel with your lips!)
  • You now have a perfect o-e vowel, and you can now perfectly sing the word “coeur” [kœr] (heart)
  • Nota bene: the Schwa [ə] sound is equivalent to the [œ]. They have the same sound, the difference is that the schwa can never be stressed while the [œ] can be stressed. Example: émeute [eˈmøtə] (riot) while singing this word, the stress is on the o-slash and you would sing the schwa unstressed if it has a note value.

As you sing, if you think about the vowel that you are making with your tongue and just adjust your lips, you can avoid going too far between sounds, and your singing and legato will feel easier, especially depending on the tessitura in which you are singing.

Example:

Intonate these words, all the while keeping your tongue in the [i] position while forming your lips into a closed [o] when reading words with [i] or [y] sounds.

Tu dis qu’il a une fille unique. (You say that he has an only daughter.)

[ty di kil a ynə fij ynikə]

Looking at the phonetic transcription, you have only 2 vowels ([a] and [i]) and two vowel-sounds ([y] and [ə]). The [y] and [i] are the ones you want to practice here. Glide to and from these vowels, see how it feels to not change the tongue position. Try it on different pitches to practice. Do the same with the other mixed-vowels until you master singing them, it will feel easier and your voice will most definitely respond!

Singing in French can be a very scary thing. I am not going to lie to you and tell you that it is easy. But with a few tools, it can definitely be more singer-friendly and as you practice, you will really learn to enjoy singing in this beautiful language.

Choosing Your Vocal Coach-Pianist

Singers, maybe more than anyone else in the performing arts, are bombarded with people giving them their opinion on the way they sing. Everyone seems to have something to say, and they regularly voice their opinion to the singer whether or not the singers wants to hear it. Because singers are not technically able to hear themselves when they sing, it is easy for them to fall into the trap of believing all these opinions. All day long, singers are put in situations where they are set up to receive feedback. The conductor gives them comments, the stage director and/or the stage manager gives them comments, the diction coach gives them comments, the coach gives them comments, the teacher gives them comments, and when they perform, the audience and the critics give them comments. Those are a lot of COMMENTS. This is just a normal day in the life of a singer. It is important for singers to surround themselves with a team of people they trust completely to help them weed through all of the comments and all the outside “noise”. A good coach is a great help in figuring out which feedback is useful.

The coach

What is a pianist-coach? A pianist-coach is a skilled pianist who specializes in vocal coaching. Mostly we know them as coach, opera coach, vocal coach or collaborative pianist. You see your coach regularly, you trust them, you let them see you in the beginning of your process and they stay with you until you are ready to step onto the stage.

There are different types of pianists who specialize in working with singers. You can collaborate musically with a pianist by being both equal partners, you share your musical vision, prepare recitals and recordings together. This is when when the pianist plays the role of a “collaborator” or a “recital partner”. There are also “rehearsal pianists” who you call when you want to run through repertoire without much or any input. You just want to repeat things ad nauseum until you feel ready. Sometimes, a coach can play that role as well, mostly after the preparation is complete and the singer is about to start the job. A coach is not someone who will teach you your notes and rythm. There are pianists who do that, and sometimes singers do need this kind of help, but this is not a coaching, it is more like a practice session, or what is commonly called a “note-bashing” session. Most coaches do not want to do this. “Spoon-feeding” is considered a waste of resources, so don’t just show up expecting your coach to do this. If you are a singer who needs this from your session, you can kindly ask the coach first if they would agree to doing this kind of work, and if they don’t, then ask another pianist you know for a session (often younger pianists or students do this for extra earnings).

When you properly work with a true coach you can expect a more of a teacher-student type of relationship. They provide you with valuable feedback and information. You go to a coach when you want to prepare roles, work on recital repertoire in detail, work on language and text, work on your audition preparation, get to the finer points of character and the music.

Some things to consider when choosing a coach:

  • Your relationship with your coach is an intimate one, so most importantly, find a coach that you like as a person. The work you will be doing will be intense. It demands a lot of trust from both sides. You should feel comfortable making mistakes, and they should make you feel comfortable about being corrected.
  • Find a coach who meets your skill level. If you are an experienced singer, find a coach who has been working in the field for at least the same amount of time as you have, but preferably they should have more experience.
  • When you sing repertoire which is advanced, you want your coach to be able to play it (or at least sight-read it well) and make comments on what you are doing in order for you to improve. If a coach does not know your repertoire, they should not pretend to know it. When I am confronted with unfamiliar repertoire, I am honest about it, I still work on it, but the next time I see the singer, I have learned it. If you are doing something that you suspect is unknown, giving a heads-up is a good idea.
  • A coach, should have excellent pianistic skills, they should inspire you to sing and make music, and if you are singing opera, they should be able to conjure up an orchestra from the keys! My favorite compliment is always: “You play like a full orchestra!” This does not mean loud and “bangy”. Playing “like an orchestra” is about the texture of the sound and supporting the singer fully.
  • A coach should have quite advanced language skills, they should be able to speak or at least have a firm grasp of the lyric diction in a minimum of four operatic languages: French, English, Italian and German. Their ear should be developed enough to hear even very subtle language inaccuracies.
  • Find a coach who understands style and tradition, as well as current trends in performance practice. Whether you bring bel canto, baroque, romantic or contemporary music, your coach is well versed in all of the styles in order to guide you.
  • If you are preparing a role, it is of the utmost importance that your coach is able to play the score while singing all the other parts. It does not have to be beautiful singing (trust me!) but it should be audible. If your coach can’t do this, and you have a role coming up, find one who can.
  • Your coach is not your voice teacher. A coach can support your vocal technique, but please do not go to a pianist to learn how to sing, or to get vocal technique. This is what a voice teacher is for. Confused? See this previous blog post: A Voice Teacher and a Vocal Coach-Why you need both! A good coach who has years of experience working with singers will be able to point out something that needs technical attention, and then suggest that the singer address the issue with their voice teacher.
  • When you work with a coach, they can also be your collaborative partner. If you have musical chemistry with your coach on all levels, then by all means collaborate with them on stage, too!
  • It is important that a coach treats you like a person. Yes coaches teach, but you should feel comfortable in your session, not only with the singing, but with making a contribution to the session. A good coach asks questions, wants to know what the singer’s opinion is on the music, text and character, after all, you are the one who is singing it! If you feel like your coaching is a one way street, find a coach who lets you get a word in edgewise.
  • The coach you work with makes you feel respected. They are on time and they should not cancel at the last minute (unless it is an emergency…it can happen…but not regularly) and you should do the same for them.
  • Look for a coach who has worked with great conductors, organisations, opera houses and singers. They will have first-hand knowledge of what is needed in the world in which you aspire to work. That being said, do not expect that by working with someone attached to a house, that they will get you auditions, work or any kind of exposure to where they work. When singers come to a coaching with the idea that they can get a contact, audition or a job from the coach they are working with, it is very obvious. Believe me, we spot it from a mile away.
  • Finally, the coach (or coaches) you choose to work with are accessible, you should feel like you can approach them for advice and have confidence that they will be honest with you. A coach who only tells you what you want to hear is not a coach you need. There is no time to waste and honesty will help you improve, even if it doesn’t always feel great to hear the truth. A good coach will tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear!

Coaching fees-How much should you be paying?

I think every coach needs to come up with a fee that represents what they think their time is worth. Other than the points mentioned above, the following can help you along as you are considering hiring a coach:

  1. Level of education and/or experience: The longer someone has been working as a coach, the more knowledge they have to share. You are basically paying for their experience and knowledge. As you record your session (always ask first if it is permitted. If not, take tons of notes!), you will be able to refer back to the session for the rest of your life. You will, in turn, most likely use the acquired information in your own teaching and get payed for it yourself in the future!
  2. Repertoire: With experience, comes a vast knowledge of repertoire. Imagine how many hours the coach in question has spent behind the piano learning repertoire over the years. There is no way they are really breaking even financially!
  3. Supply and demand: Prices can vary depending on if they are in demand. Some coaches prefer a lower fee and work with many singers, and other coaches like a higher fee and fewer singers.
  4. The bundle: Some coaches like to bundle, meaning that if you take several sessions, they will give you a lower price. You can ask if they have something like this available where you book a certain amount of coachings ahead of time.
  5. Student prices: If you study at a school, hopefully they provide a coach, if not, ask about a student fee. Most coaches won’t charge a student the same price as someone already in the profession.
  6. Online sessions: With the corona-crisis, we are now being more open to the possibility of online coaching. This means that coaches can open up their studios world wide. It is still early days, but maybe there is a different fee depending on what is offered. As the technology develops, we will see how far this can go, but it is an exciting development. It means the planet is a little smaller and you can work with people who are on another continent!

You are paying for advice and expertise and you want the best help you can get in order to do the best you can do. If it feels too expensive, then find someone that is more affordable for you. Ask around and see what the rates are. Every country, city, region has a going rate so answers will vary depending on where you are. I don’t advise haggling on the price of a session. Everyone who offers private coaching has thought long and hard about their fee and it is not customary to try and bargain.

As you go on in your professional career, you can and will work with more than one coach, you can have a list of different coaches for different aspects of what you are working on. Some coaches have specific strenghts that stand out of their vast skill set. When you are a professional singer, you will sing everywhere and have a list of coaches for all the cities where you work-a set of ears you trust everywhere you go!

Online Auditions: Embrace the Learning Curve!

Recording

Given our present situation during this global pandemic, we are now forced to look at new ways of auditioning. We can think of this in two different ways: It is unnatural, and difficult or it is an opportunity to learn and create.

I don’t know about you all, but this new world we live in has thrown me into a huge learning curve, which I have decided to embrace. Recently, many conservatories, universities as well as companies have had to move their audition process to an online format combining video and online interviews with potential candidates. It is not how anyone really wants to do an audition, but if we believe the projections, we are all in this situation for what they say will be quite a while. How do we power through and survive?

I put together this little check-list for online auditioning from my experience being involved both in doing them and watching them:

Video and sound quality

The most important part of any audition is how you sound and how you look. Just as in a live audition, there are things which are out of your control, and things that are totally in your control-actually even more so with a video recording! While making some videos with some of my singers, these are important points that we had to consider:

  1. Set up your video camera at a good distance showing your face clearly with nice lighting. It is not so important to do a full body shot. I prefer to look at your face, and see what you are doing there, so the torso is enough. Lighting can be natural and you don’t have to have all the latest gadgets. Do a test first and see if your face is well lit, not glow in the dark, but clear and warm. You want to look your best and lighting can be a great help! If you are interested you can buy a Selfie Ring Light which is quite affordable and has different light settings, but it is not necessary.
  2. Your phone video should be good enough, or your iPad or tablet. You want to make sure the sound is as good as possible, so play around with settings. The main concern is distortion in the high notes, you will want clarity of tone but no buzzing. Some phones have these settings, but some don’t. If you can’t seem to control this, I suggest using an extra audio recording device (most singers have this). Your device should have an option to upload tracks to your computer and/or tablet.
  3. Using your video program like iMovie or Movavi (Windows), you can then add the audio to video by syncing them together. I am a low tech person, so what I found helpful is that before every take someone claps their hands once, and that will serve as a starting point to start synchronizing both video and audio, then everything just falls into place.
  4. It does not have to be fancy, but try to find a nice neutral background. You don’t want to distract the people you are singing for with a lot of bookshelves, or photos in the background. Most important is that the acoustic is as good as it can be. In these times, most of us are doing this from home. I know it may be tempting to sing in your bathroom, but maybe stick to another location.
  5. Too much video editing can be distracting to a panel. If you are doing an online performance, then you can go all out, make your own choices, but for a serious audition, keep it simple so we can focus on the beautiful tone of your voice and what you are doing artistically.
  6. Try not to stare directly into the camera, it is off-putting. Just as in a live audition, too much direct eye contact with your panel can make people feel uncomfortable, the same is true on screen. Find a neutral point by looking at your camera viewer. Do a couple of test shots to see what it looks like. Give the impression that you are looking in our direction and communicating without doing a full stare-down.
  7. As is form in a live audition, it is a good idea to introduce yourself at the beginning of your clip. It gives a personal touch. However, if you prefer not to, you can just add a title to the clip in our editing program by typing the title of your selection (watch out for tipos…oops, I mean typos!) along with your name and the names of the other musicians who feature in the clip.
  8. You should pay attention to your attire just as you would for a live audition. Do a couple of test shots, ask your teacher, coach or people you trust to give an honest opinion on the colors you are wearing. Do you look washed out? Do you need more make-up….or less? Are the colors too bright?
  9. Please make sure you include the pianist or other musicians in the shot. It is considered bad form not to do so, and it just looks odd.
  10. Finally, you will want to upload your videos for schools or theaters to view onto YouTube. It is easier this way, but do not make them public unless you absolutely want to, and only if you have the agreement of the other musicians featured in the clip. Make the video unlisted. This way the link is easy to share, you just send it via email, and only the people you send it to can see the video, again be sure to add the names of all other musicians to the post and/or video description.

You got through the first round, and now you have an online interview.

So you got through the first round with your excellent video, and the school or organisation wants to speak to you in an online interwiew. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the platform which the school is using. This could be Teams, Skype, Whatsapp or what seems to be the most popular, Zoom. You want to be sure how the platform works in order not to have any complications on your side, so a few days before the inteview, experiment with a friend or family member. There could be delays or complications on the panel’s side, and if that happens, just patiently wait.
  2. Try not to over-dress. Wear something nice, but don’t overdo it. Think buisness-casual. You want to look professional, but not over-the-top.
  3. Be in a well lit place with a very secure and strong internet connection. Needless to say, busy cafés and such places are not a good idea. Think in the same way as when you recorded your video: natural warm lighting and show your face clearly.
  4. Be early for your appointment and ready as soon as the panel is ready for you. Just as in a live audition-never make your panel wait! Some platforms have a waiting room, which is great. You just enter and wait until you are let in by the panel.
  5. Finally, try not to be nervous, act natural and be yourself. It is a weird situation for all involved so just know that everyone is doing their best. Answer the questions to the best of your ability. Have some questions of your own ready, if you get the invitation to do so, ask one or two of them. It is important at this point that the panel has a good feeling about you as a person which will make them want to work with you in the long term. Hard to believe, but this can be achieved on screen!

What happens when you have to sing with a pre recorded track?

When restricitons don’t allow you to work in person with a pianist, you have to get creative. Some people opt for a split screen video: You make a video of yourself singing and the pianist makes a video of themselves playing and you synchronise them. There are many tutorials online showing you how to do this. Another option is to use a pre-recorded audio track and sing with it. Either way, if you are lucky enough to work with someone who wants to make a recording of the piano part for you to use, it is possible to do so and acceptable to use it for an audition. I would suggest to keep the following in mind:

  1. Have in-depth discussions with the pianist about tempo, rubato, breath as well as the meaning of the text and the mood you wish to convey. You may have to do a few drafts to make sure you have enough space to breathe. You can also try different things, experiment with singing over the phone while the pianist records with your voice in their earphones. Afterwards, you can sing with the recording of the piano for your video recording. The point is, experiment! What I remember seeing were singers struggling to get a breath while singing with pre-recorded tracks, and as a collaborative pianist, that is so hard to watch!
  2. There are apps that exist like Appcompanist, it is not free and sounds a bit rigid, but you can control rubato, tempo, breaths. You can also find some resources on Youtube, again, you have to try and see what fits best for you. I have noticed that panels are more forgiving of ensemble issues, because of the situation we are in which we find ourselves at the moment.
  3. Again, as mentionned above, always include the names of your collaborative musicians even if it is a pre-recorded track. I will say from experience, that it takes me quite a lot of work to record one track. Maybe, I am too much of a perfectionnist, but quality takes time, so if you have someone on your team who will do this with you, that is just amazing!

As singers, this is a very different and difficult situation because you need someone else to play with you in order to do your job and unfortunately in this time, this is not always possible. Auditioning online is daunting, and unnatural, but it doesn’t have to feel too rigid or difficult. Be prepared, do your homework and test it out first. Remember to show yourself at your best and don’t be afraid to try new things, you never know what is waiting for you on the other side!

When Does a Nasal Vowel Lose its Nasalization?

The four French nasal vowel sounds

If you have taken any French diction course in your life, you know that in French there are 36 sounds to master and 15 of them are vowel sounds (and then you have 18 consonant sounds and 3 semi-consonant sounds). The most misunderstood of all French sounds is the “nasal” vowel sound. In the French language there are four:

  • [ɑ̃] which is based on the french “dark a” sound as in the word “âme” (which means soul)
  • [õ] which is based on a “closed o” sound like in the word “hôtel” (which means hotel)
  • [ɛ̃] which is based on an “open ɛ” sound like in the word “mais” (which means but)
  • [œ̃] which is based on the “o e” sound like in the word “chacun” (which means each)

When I say it is “based on”, I mean that the basic vowel takes up approximately 85 -90 percent of the nasal sound, depending on tessitura, and the rest is resonance which passes through the cavities that are found near the nose, in the yawn space, more or less in the center of your head, but not in your nose.

The reason a nasal vowel is called as such is because the consonants which follow the vowel in question are the nasal consonants n and m. In order to produce these consonants, you must pass through your nasal cavity. That being said, you should not pronounce the m or n in a nasal sound unless it is in a “liaison*”. The combination of a vowel plus the nasal consonant is why they are known as “nasal vowels” and not because they belong in your nose. The m or n that follows every nasalized vowel-letter is silent. A nasal vowel is just that, a vowel. It is not a vowel-plus-a-consonant, a sort of m or n, or the faint “ng” sound which is nonexistent in French.

While singing, if someone wishes to sound “as authentic as possible”, they tend to over-nasalize the French nasal sound which results in a much less resonant sound-actually it can cut your sound in half leaving you feeling stuck. Thinking of the appropriate basic vowel, and focusing your attention on it while letting the resonance take care of the rest, will be more conducive to proper singing and will sound much less stiff to the listener whereas exaggerated over nasalization sounds a bit comical.


Now that we have had a brief look at how a nasal vowel functions, when does the vowel loose it’s nasalization?

Rule: Any vowel-letter(s) followed by m or n is usually nasalized unless the m or n is followed by:

1. a vowel-letter or a vowel sound in the same word.

Example:

immense (which means immense) [imˈɑ̃sə]. The double “m” takes away the nasal.

or

2. an m, n, or h in the same word.

Example:

bonheur (happiness) [bɔˈnœr]. Although the word “bon” is most definetly nasalized, the word “bonheur” is not.

So whereas the vowel-sound of the word “sein” [sɛ̃] (meaning breast) is nasalized the name of the river flowing through Paris, the ‘Seine’ [sɛnə], is not, since the n is followed by a vowel-letter.

Denasalization usually does not occur between words or words in liaison: mon amour (my love) [mõn ͜ amur] As you can see, even if the n is pronouonced because it is in liaison, the o stays nasalized.

Exception:

In these following instances, the nasal vowel stays intact even if the m or n is followed by another m or n:

emmener (to bring) [ɑ̃məˈne]-this word has a double m, but the nasal remains.

ennui (boredom) [ɑ̃ˈnɥi]-this word has a double n, but the nasal remains.

And remember what I said about this rule does not apply in liaison? There is an exception to that too (as there are exceptions to most French diction rules):

When you wish someone “Happy Birthday” in French, you say: “Bon anniversaire!”. The correct way to pronounce this is [bɔn ͜ anivɛrˈsair(ə)], without nasalization on the o or the a, but I notice that the pronunciation of this saying confuses the orthography and it is often wrongly spelled: bonne anniversaire. This of course cannot be, because “bonne” is the feminin form of the adjective “bon” and “anniversaire” is a masulin noun. So, we speak it one way, but it is written another way.

So the next time you want to write a message on your French friend’s social media, you can write “Bon anniversaire!” and you will know why we pronounce it differently than how it looks!🎂

*liaison: A liaison may occur only between a normally silent final consonant and an following vowel-sound. Ex: les ͜ amoureux (the lovers) [lɛz͜͜ ͜ amurø]

A Voice Teacher and a Vocal Coach- Why You Need Both!

Illustration by Nathalie

I get a lot of questions from people wanting to know what the difference is between a voice teacher and vocal coach. In this article, I will explain my thoughts on the subject.

Because singers hear themselves in a totally different way than the outside world hears them, they need a team of experts around them to be their extra ears. Singers depend on others to let them know if what they are doing sounds right, if their diction is correct, if they are musically doing the things which they are trying to do. Depending on others means that everyone will have an opinion about how you are singing, and how you should be doing things. So, how do you know who you can trust? How do you assemble such a team?

First, and in my opinion, most important, is a voice teacher. As a singer, you need someone who will go on your technical journey with you. Someone with a deep knowledge of vocal technique and who knows how to communicate it in a way which you can understand. Vocal technique is explained through a language that is unique to each teacher which is why the old saying “If the shoe fits, wear it” is an appropriate one while looking for a teacher. Sometimes the technical work is great, but your personalities do not click. Can you work like this? Should you stay in this studio? Sometimes you really get along on a personal level, but the technical gains are not happening-same questions apply. Soul searching questions and hard decisions to be made, but the most important reason to be with a teacher is that you are making vocal healthy improvements, that you are problem solving and also maintaining a healthy vocal technique.

A good vocal coach who understands where you are coming from and where you are moving towards technically, is a necessity for a singer trying to have a career. It is important to note that a vocal coach is not a voice teacher. Though they may have the exact same goals for you, a vocal coach is usually a pianist, not a singer, which means there are no grounds for them to give a singer a full blown voice lesson. I have been coaching singers for many years, and I have been in thousands(not exaggerating!) of voice lessons. I know many technical concepts and I can identify what a singer is doing to produce a sound, or if the sound is right or not right, but that does not mean that I want to go into in depth with these technical concepts. My job is to support the technical work both singer and teacher are doing by understanding it, and by making musical and language adjustments which do not get in the way and often help technically in an indirect way. I may have some technical comments to make, and I do make them, but I am always careful as to not steer the singer down a wrong path and most importantly I don’t go against the technical road the singer is on with their voice teacher.

Voice teacher vs. Vocal coach

While both help you to improve your singing, there is a difference between each of the professions. Learning what they do will help you in deciding how to go about choosing the right people to be in your team.

Voice Teacher
– Individually helps you to make the correct sounds, with proper pitch and tone
– Works on voice building, and registration
– Helps you to develop your own vocal skills; vocal production, chooses appropriate repertoire and roles.
– Lays the foundation to build your voice into its full potential and helps in the maintenance of your voice.

Vocal Coach
– From the piano they individually help (in other words coach) you on singing particular repertoire
– Focuses on style and diction – proper pronunciation of words, especially foreign languages
– Helps you to interpret and perform your repertoire (works on character, meaning, sub-text – what does the song mean?)
– Along with your voice teacher helps you build your singing repertoire.

A vocal coach is a pianist who works almost exclusively with singers and who knows the repertoire. A good vocal coach won’t interfere with vocal technique and if they notice any issues, they’ll explain to the singer what the issues are and ask the singer to discuss it with their voice teacher.

More than one of each?

As you can see, the two functions at times cross over each other, but this should only be in support of each other. As you advance in your career, you may see your voice teacher less because you are traveling, and a weekly lesson is not possible anymore and you end up checking in once or twice a month or when you start working on a new role. In this time of your life, an excellent vocal coach is very important! They will be your ears and let you know if something is wrong. They can take you through your role and advise you on a multitude of issues. The best part is that you can have several trusted vocal coaches around the world, you don’t have to have just one, but with voice teachers, it can lead to confusion to have more than one-the equivalent to “too many cooks in the kitchen”- and in my years of experience, when I have seen singers try to have more than one voice teacher, it has rarely worked out if ever.

Can a Vocal coach be a Voice Teacher?

There are vocal coaches who are neither voice teachers or pianists, they are people with a great knowledge of vocal repertoire, style, convention and how to integrate some technique. They are usually singers who do not go deep into technical concepts. They may call themselves voice teachers, but what they do is more like coaching. When you have a session with such a coach, you would have to bring a pianist with you.

Though singers can be coaches, I firmly believe that a pianist cannot be a voice teacher. If a singer or violinist would offer me a piano lesson, I would be a little perplexed as they don’t have a deep enough knowledge of playing the instrument. Since most pianists have no real idea of what it is like to sing on stage, or to even sing at all (some of us can’t really produce a healthy sound) then they should refrain from teaching someone how to sing, even though They have some technical knowledge. There are pianists out there who have studied voice extensively and they have sung in their life, and then if a singer chooses to work with a singing pianist, and follow their technical advice, that is their choice to make, but these pianists are rare. Most pianists who work with singers have had some minimal voice training, but they are not voice builders which is why my advice is to get your technique from the technical experts!

The bottom line is know exactly what you need and where to find it. Work with people who support you and each other, because you don’t want your voice teacher and your vocal coach bickering all the time-Who needs that? Your number one priority is keeping your voice healthy!

It takes a village to develop great performers and a great team is crucial, so choose wisely!

What is a «tréma»?

The “tréma” and what it does

Technically, the trémaor diaeresis- is a diacritic sign made or two dots on top of a vowel. It used to be written like two accents (“), but is now written as two dots (¨).
If you know German, the tréma looks like the German umlaut and is known only as “tréma”, notaccent tréma”. The tréma can be found most often above E and I, it can appear over U and Y, but mainly in proper nouns for example: Louÿs. It is less common over O or A which would only occur in words borrowed from other languages. The tréma changes the pronunciation of French words. If you know your basic French phonetics/reading rules, you know that some letter combinations form a new sound, eg. “ai” = [ɛ], “oi” = [wa], etc. When the tréma is used, it means that you must distinctly pronounce the letter under it as well as the letter before and after it separately and you will also need to sound the last letter of the word if it follows the tréma. A tréma can also indicate that a vowel is silent as it applies to ancient spellings. For example in this famously mispronounced name of the French composer Saint-Saëns. The tréma over the E (ë)means that the letter is silent, so this name is pronounced [sɛ̃sɑ̃s] and yes, this is really how you pronounce it! The first syllable is the nasal [ɛ̃] sound as in the IN in the word matin (morning) and the second syllable is as the nasal sound [ɑ̃] as in the AN in the word maman (mother) and because it follows the tréma, the final S is pronounced!

Example of how it works:
The word “mais” (which means but) is pronounced [mɛ].
The word “maïs” (which means corn) is pronounced [ma’is] since you sound the A, the Ï and the S separately, and the stress falls on the second syllable.

For French Lyric Diction coaching send an email

What am I?

This sounds like an existential question, but it is one that bears asking!

For years now, I have been coming across social media posts or Youtube clips of singers which don’t mention the pianist who is clearly visible and audible. When I asked some of my friends who are sometimes responsible for announcing singers on radio programs, or for social media postings why this happens, some of the answers that I received were that they often try to avoid calling a pianist “accompanist” by saying “accompanied by” the reason being that they are worried to offend the pianist, but is being called “accompanist” worse than not being mentioned at all?

Let’s look at the term “accompanist” and why it has become, for some, such a derogatory term to describe the pianist who plays with a singer or instrumentalist.

The term “accompanist” is defined as the musician who plays a musical instrument while another person is singing or playing the main part. Is this what I do? Yes, all the time. The term has nevertheless been known to imply inferiority. Fairly recently, in North America, the term “collaborative pianist” has been in use to describe what I do. I believe the term was coined somewhere in the 1980’s and then gained more mainstream popularity in the 1990’s. This term has however not reached the same popularity where I am in Europe. At the Conservatory of Amsterdam, I am called “coach” and my official title is “correpetitor” this Dutch word is actually closer to the term “collaborator” (not to be confused with “repetiteur” which is strictly used for the rehearsal-pianist) as the prefix “co” implies to collaborate whereas the term “begeleider” is the equivalent to “accompanist”. Every time that I sit at the piano and perform, I am acknowledged with a variety of titles: Piano, Pianist, Accompanist…

It has been argued that the role of “accompanist” comes with a lack of appreciation, and anonymity. One of my all time favourite books, an excellent read, very witty and a book that first brought the “humble accompanist” into the light is Gerald Moore’s Unashamed Accompanist who puts this feeling of anonymity into words that I think we all (pianists) can relate to:

“We accompanists, have our minds above such mundane things as fees. But I would like people to realise what extremely important people we accompanists are. The most enchanting lady walks on to sing, and all the ladies look at her because of what she’s wearing, and all the men look at her because – well, all the men look at her. And nobody looks at me. And I can’t blame them. Nobody notices the accompanist at all. He looks so slender and shy and so modest that people think he’s there just to do what he’s told, to follow the singer through thick and thin. Well, there’s a great deal more to it than that.”

I know I have said this phrase many times myself as I am getting ready to go on stage and take a last look in the mirror: “Well nobody is looking at me anyway!” and I have often felt overlooked after the concerts thinking “Nobody is interested in the pianist”. The truth is, if no one is sitting at the piano, then all this beautiful repertoire could not be performed, and the same goes for the singer, it takes the both of us! There has been (and still is) a discrepancy in fees between the singer/instrumentalist and the pianist, and the latter is often the afterthought appearing in much smaller letters on billboards, posters, programs and/or recordings. A great article that I recommend by Tom Service Accompanists: the unsung heroes of music explores these subjects.

I hate the term accompanist,” says Iain Burnside. “You can’t deny there are connotations that it’s a secondary entity. But unfortunately I can’t think of a better one. If you insist on being called a pianist then people think that you’re comparing yourself to Sviatoslav Richter. That’s not what it’s about: you’re just asking to be taken seriously in your own right

So how do I feel about it all? I have no huge issue with being called an accompanist if that is what I am doing. I prefer to be called “pianist” because that is what I am. I don’t personally see any use for the word “collaborative” because it is obvious that I am doing just that. There are no “collaborative singers” and if we are doing a song recital together, we should just be singer and pianist. What’s in the name anyway, as long as you are an excellent player or singer? I am also a “coach” which is something quite different in my opinion, and a possible subject for a future post.

Obviously, on this matter, I only speak for myself concerning my preferences. So, how do you know what to call your recital partner? Ask them how they wish to be addressed (everyone has a preference), how they like to be presented on the program and/or recording. Always show them either in the photo or in the video and always make sure their name is published on everything alongside your own so they don’t feel like an afterthought. These pianists have spent their lives working, studying and devoting themselves to the art of making music with others, they are your colleague so honor your relationship with each other through respect.

Musings of an opera coach

Welcome to my blog, everyone!

In these unusual times, everyone is searching for an outlet, everyone misses being seen or being heard, and that goes double for people in the arts. After I have spent approximately four months of online sessions and classes, I now finally have the time to process everything that is going on. I have time to write down thoughts, and what better place to do it than here on my old blog?

My experiences these last few months have been varied; I have learned a lot about myself. In March, when all things shut down, I too, sort of shut down. I was quite emotional and worried to see what was happening around me. At the same time, I relished my time at home. I love my house, and I never spend enough time here, so that was sort of welcome. Within a few days, I started missing work as I knew it. I was working alright, but sitting in front of a screen is not the interactive work that I so thoroughly enjoy. I started longing to make music with others, a painful longing like I have never felt before. Last year, I was also bound to my home because I was recovering from a knee surgery (more about that maybe in another post), but this longing felt different-it felt permanent. Eventually, it all started to feel normal in a strange way, and I went on in my new routine and some days, I even forgot that things were different. I have since made music with a couple of people in person, and I have found the joy in my existence again. There is, however, the nagging feeling that nothing will ever be normal again. I hope I am wrong.

As I move forward, I know now that I can do online sessions with people, especially language coaching and consultations and it is not so bad because these types of sessions translate well in an online format. Musical coaching online can work if the singer is willing, although simultaneous playing is not possible, as far as I know. All this is why I finally have had time to tweak my online presence and why I am resurrecting my blog. Here, I hope to write about different topics, post tips on auditioning, on repertoire, French Lyric diction, and I will see where this leads. I hope you come around often and see what is new!

Musings of an Opera Coach

I am Nathalie Doucet, and I am an Opera Coach, Pianist and French Lyric Diction specialist. I hope you enjoy my blog and visit my website: www.nathaliedoucet.live