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The Role of the Voice Teacher in the Young Artist Program
Dr. Rebecca L. Folsom
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Original Content11/3/2009

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Author's Note: The intended audience for the following article includes young artists, company administrators and other voice teachers who teach for young artist programs. Inspired by a conversation with an administrator of the Opera Studio Nederland, I pondered the role of the voice teacher at young artist programs. My opinions, along with those of current young artists, opera company administrators and other voice teachers serve to briefly explore this issue.

For singers pursuing operatic careers, young artist programs are essential to career development. The programs vary in level and length, and play a vital role in fostering a singer's talent and potential. Professional voice teachers are an integral part of the faculty/staff/training team in the young artist programs.

The voice teacher commonly addresses such issues as breath control, registration, laryngeal function, resonance adjustment and acoustical exactness, articulation of vowels, all of which promote free, efficient vocal production. Professionals also ensure that singers have proper physiological coordination within the mechanisms that produce vocal sound. As a budding mezzo-soprano commented: "What makes voice teachers a distinct and essential part of a young artist program is their vested interest in our longevity as singers, and they generally have skills to teach ways in which we can extend our vocal life by means of warm-ups and technical adjustments." The preferred role of a voice teacher is not to change an established singer's technique, particularly in a short period of time. According to one young tenor, "the primary role of a young artist program voice teacher is to combine the skills of critical listening, technical knowledge of the voice and instructive abilities to help maintain a healthy singing voice." To achieve healthy singing, teachers must decide whether to delve into technical considerations or work in a flexible manner with the singer's established method of tonal production.

With this in mind, it is important to consider the expectations of active young artists when they embark on a lesson with a newly assigned teacher. Some may want a teacher with an impeccable ear, while others desire someone who will just tweak an already proven technique. One singer indicated that she liked being warmed up by the guest teacher, because it allowed the two to align terminology and technical philosophies, and use the time to address underlying vocal issues. Another singer who had mixed experiences in young artist programs felt confused about the exact role of the teachers. As he put it, "sometimes there is the approach that if it worked for their career, it must be the only way. I had teacher who, instead of trying to tell me technically what she wanted me to do differently, tried to demonstrate to me the style of someone she sang with at an opera house fifty years ago. Confused does not begin to explain…"

The expectations of company administrators must also be taken into consideration. According to Darren K. Woods, general director of Fort Worth Opera and artistic advisor to the Seagle Music Colony:

"The role of the voice teacher in my two programs is very different. At the Seagle Music Colony, the teacher is there to provide support and guidance over a six to eight week period. They are expected to preach the basics — breath support, vowels, etc. What I do not want is a teacher reworking a voice in the course of the summer. [Alternately,] at Fort Worth Opera, the young artists are more experienced and they have two years to work with the teacher. I expect the teacher to help them understand and accomplish more complex technical issues that will help them long term. In this instance, the assigned voice teacher becomes their teacher, while at Seagle, the teacher is a guest in their lives and careers."

To this effect, it is imperative that teachers work to enhance, rather than overhaul, technique while a singer is striving to produce positive vocal results in an assigned role.

Many singers at young artist programs are just finding their first roles outside the university or conservatory setting and are thus vulnerable and impressionable. Professional teachers hold a serious responsibility to be ethical in their criticisms and encouragements. In addition, singers need to be guided on how to best filter the multitude of opinions they will receive on tonal production, interpretation, and overall artistic approach. Singers must learn how to accept and discard suggestions, as appropriate, and decide when the advice works for them as an individual. According to one singer, "when a voice teacher says one thing, you have several other people who are related to the business who may give you a second or third opinion." Regardless of who mentors the young artist, those individuals should help identify the key issues and assist in achieving a singer's goals.

Ultimately, the role of the voice teacher in the young artist program is to provide insight and enhancement to already established thought processes regarding the vocal mechanism. The professional needs to approach these lessons with questions in mind for each student, including:
  • What are your vocal goals while singing in this program?
  • What do you want to accomplish in these lessons?
  • What do you feel are your vocal strengths and weaknesses?
  • How does your voice function and how do you produce tone?
  • How would you rate your musicianship skills?
Questioning young artists in this way allows for respectful communication and provides important information for the teacher to understand students' thought processes and learning patterns. A teacher must be able to quickly adjust to the many different answers given by singers, and introduce new concepts without completely disrupting old, proven methods. The cooperative spirit allows for teaching to co-exist alongside the singer's professional obligations.

Flexibility in technical beliefs, a collaborative attitude and encouragement are vital within the lesson environment. Teachers must be methodical and open to change in their pedagogical approach. Respecting a young singer's talent and previous training allows for the mission of the young artist program to be realized through an attitude of experimentation and discovery.
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About the Author: Rebecca Folsom currently teaches at The Boston Conservatory. For six years, she has served as the vocal consultant/voice teacher for the Fort Worth Opera Young Artist Program. Additionally, she has taught for The Dallas Opera Young Artist Program, the Seagle Music Colony and the Flagstaff in Fidenza (Italy) programs.
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