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!

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.