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.

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!