What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”?
Singing teacher. Although I have done a lot of work in writing and research, I am first and foremost a singing teacher.
How did you discover your calling for your speciality? How did it start?
When I was a college undergraduate, I helped pay for my classes by working as an accompanist in voice lessons. This meant I spent a lot of time in other people’s lessons watching their teachers work with them, and I spent a lot of time in the practice room helping my fellow classmates learn their music. I think that’s where I caught the bug!
What do you love the most about your work?
The problem solving. I enjoy assessing the strengths and concerns of each singer and devising technical and musical interventions, strategies, and exercises to help them sing with greater ease and expression. There’s also the thrill of working on some of the greatest music ever written for the human voice!
In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?
An excellent pedagogue needs to be curious. By that I mean they need to constantly seek to learn more about voice science, voice pedagogy, voice diction, musical style, vocal literature, performance psychology, cognitive science, voice health, etc. An excellent pedagogue needs to keep his/her/their voice in shape in order to model concepts for students. It also keeps one honest – that the pedagogue is daily engaged in problem solving and trouble shooting with their own instrument. An excellent pedagogue is active in professional organizations, meeting and learning from colleagues and sharing ideas. The rising tide lifts all ships. An excellent pedagogue works within a professional code of ethical behavior.
Can you speak to the importance of having mentors? How have mentors influenced your life/career? Can you tell us about some of your mentors?
Mentors are so important. I owe so much to Barbara Doscher and Ingo Titze, my most important mentors, for helping me learn about singing, teaching singing, and researching singing and voice. I try to follow their example and mentor the people I teach. As my career has moved along, I also get mentoring from some of my peers/colleagues. I see how they organize their lives and balance work with play and academic work with personal work, and try to learn from them.
Building Blocks –
Questions About Ten Key Areas of Voice
When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Doscher helped me get unlocked from some very strong tension habits, exposing me to working on a balance board, encouraging me to take Alexander lessons, urging me to embrace movement as a means to freedom. She was specific in what not to do, but perhaps less so about what to do. That I learned from doing lots of reading and experimentation/trial and error. Sundberg’s “Breathing Behavior in Singing” article in the Journal of Singing and subsequent reading and classes with Titze helped me understand elastic recoil and tracheal pull. And, certainly reading Richard Miller’s Structure of Singing and National Schools books was influential.
When it comes to the larynx, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I have had the good fortune to have studied with a legendary science-informed pedagogue (Doscher) and a legendary scientist (Titze); I have been colleagues with researchers like Jan Svec and Eric Hunter, with wonderful laryngologists like Mona Abaza, Blake Simpson, Mike Yang, Rob Eller, and Jennifer Bergeron, and SLPs like Kate Emerich, Lorraine Ramig, Jill Green, Rachelle Speer, and Leda Scearce. I think learning about how to understand endoscopic exam videos, learning about various therapy techniques, and learning how physiology impacts acoustic qualities has been essential to my development. Certainly Titze’s Principles of Voice Production class and book have had a major impact on my understanding. Being engaged as a member of the research team doing occupational voice research with dosimeters was also very formative for me.
When it comes to the vocal folds, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I again have to credit all the people and experiences I mentioned in the previous question, as my understanding of the larynx includes my understanding of the vocal folds.
When it comes to acoustics/resonance, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Well, I worked with Doscher, who was probably Coffin’s leading student who became a teacher herself. It was through working with her that I learned about vowel modification and was introduced to voice acoustics. Then, working with Titze, I came to understand acoustics even more. Through the job at the NCVS, I came to meet Don Miller, whose writing and one-on-one mentoring were very important. So I first approached things from the practical application side with Doscher and then from the scientific side with Titze and Miller. I like to think these two lenses of exploration compliment each other and inform each other.
When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Again, I’d have to say Doscher, Titze, and Don Miller were fundamental in guiding my current understanding and teaching. Don Miller’s dissertation and subsequent book, Registers in Singing, play a very important role in my thinking. I also recently went through archives at the University of Colorado on Berton Coffin, and I came away with awe and respect for just how forward thinking he was.
When it comes to vocal health, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I have to point to the medical people who have mentored me (mentioned above in the question about the larynx). I owe them so much. Later, through working on the occupational voice research team I learned a great deal about vocal doses and how to manage voice use in different occupations. Some people are more vocally resilient than others, given the same vocal load. Why that is is probably genetic in origin to some extent and also voice technique to some extent. We can’t change the genetics, but we can change function to optimize what a person can do. I have also learned through study and through working with colleagues a lot about scope of practice.
When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
Gosh – so many people come to mind. Working as a pianist accompanying my wife in master classes with Martin Isepp; watching great performers up close, like Leontyne Price and Kiri Te Kanawa; studying recordings and watching videos; attending master classes. You just have to be a sponge, and read, watch, study all the time. And, being open to other ways of looking at a piece. If a student has a fresh idea and can support their choices based on their study of the piece, I am open to it!
When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience
Alexander Technique is the core of my understanding of body use in singing. I have studied with three people who worked with Marjorie Barstow, the first American Alexander approved to teach his methods – James Brody, Jane Clanton Bick, and Barbara Conable. I’ve also studied Tai Chi and yoga and Somatics and Body Mapping. It’s all about finding ease and balance and poise. The more whole body my orientation is as a singer and as a teacher, the easier the breathing, phonation, and resonation become. That seed was planted by Doscher, and I have made sure to water it daily.
When it comes to teaching methods or communicating complex ideas about singing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?
I think the motor learning literature has been very valuable for me – I was first exposed to it at the NCVS with Kittie Verdolini and Lori Ramig. That combined with my work with Doscher, who was so savvy about what to say when in a lesson, Lynn Helding’s great articles in the JOS and her excellent book, plus my work on the Oxford Handbook of Singing, have informed how I think about structure of practice, scaffolding of concepts, reinforcement, types of feedback, etc.
Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Resources)?
Stay curious. Remain a student. Love working with people and treat each one you teach as a unique individual, or find another field to work in!
Please note that John Nix is not affiliated with VocalPedagogy.com and we do not disclose contact information. We hope you enjoy the interview!