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2003-05-16 Learning to sing can be a slow process

9.15am, and the unfortunate `chocolate soldier' was drenched! After only a few lessons with my first singing teacher I was still quaking, and though her reputation had come bounding before her.

 

I was shocked, but nonetheless amused when she threw the contents of her tea-cup (accompanied by a few choice expletives) out the window onto the unsuspecting traffic warden below. He ought to have known better than to give the lady in question a parking ticket! One moment, she is a `larger-than-life mother hen' with a heart of gold, and the next you are lying flat on the floor while her stiletto heel lances your diaphragm, and all the while she's screaming "Push luvvie, push!"

Music colleges are `people-watching Utopias', where a rich assortment of working singers, retired singers and failed singers swan around with a bag of sweets in one hand and a Stanley knife in the other. Great role models! My second teacher was the altogether more centred, affable and knowledgeable Edith Forrest. Later I moved to London to my main teacher David Harper who pretty well taught me everything I know about `the voice', with some added constructive input from Britta Sundberg from Stockholm. As singers, we entrust our larynxes to the care of these people, so it is of utmost importance that we find the right person, and there are a lot of `wrong' ones out there.

So, at the start, have consultations, but beware, some teachers start off by getting the young singers to make big, exciting, but often unsafe sounds just in order to impress. Some teachers go on to inflict irreparable damage, especially to young virginal voices.

There are the `one idea' teachers who just keep repeating the same stock lines over and over. There are teachers who just manufacture `clones' of themselves, so that in the end, their entire stable sound exactly the same. While performing at the opera house (The Liceu) in Barcelona a few years back, I was woken daily by a baritone colleague in the neighbouring room (until I moved) who woke his voice up by making monkey chattering noises and elephant roars! His teacher was an advocate of the "Hussler Technique".

Then there are the teachers who are `flavour of the month' who find themselves teaching half the singing population for a time, but who often turn out to be a bit of a fad.

There are the lazy teachers for whom it is simply a job and who quite honestly don't give a damn, but then again, "Vocation" is an entire column itself! It often happens that someone who has been badly taught or who has had vocal problems, turns out to be a fine teacher and there are inevitably those teachers who specialise in repairing damaged voices. Always tape your lessons as you can not always trust the sound you yourself are hearing.

An important point to remember is that a singing teacher is at the end of the day simply providing a service, so don't let them wreck your head. So long as you prepare for your lessons and don't waste the often exorbitant amounts of money they charge, there is no reason for them to terrorise you and fill you with tension and negativity. You have paid them for a service. There are basic ideas on breathing, posture and technique which they all ought to pass on, and the muscles which control the voice ought to be programmed according to their natural anatomical functions. After that, a good teacher should build on the natural talent and ability they have been given to nurture, to encourage interpretative skills, to eliminate bad habits, to teach basic musicianship, to confront performance anxieties, to develop memory strategies and stage presence, to expand musical horizons, and instill a love of music in their students. After that, singing can go on to even improve self-esteem and self-confidence.

Learning to sing can be a slow process. A good ear is a prerequisite and after all the digested information is sieved out, good healthy singing should become second nature. The English composer Frederic Delius said that "music is an outburst of the soul". What better way to have a `soul outburst' than with the voice? Just make sure that outburst is safe and healthy.

For more information about Frederick Delius: http://www.delius.org.uk/