Honoring the Masters. Sharing the Journey.

Patti Hay Peterson

Professor Emerita, voice and voice pedagogy

Biography

Patti Peterson is a soprano who has sung art song recitals and oratorio in the U.S. and Germany. She specializes in American music and the songs of Edvard Grieg.

Peterson received a BM degree in piano from Salem College, MM and DMA degrees in voice and pedagogy from the University of Colorado, studying with renowned vocal pedagogue Barbara Doscher. She took lessons and pedagogy classes with Berton Coffin before he retired from CU-Boulder. Peterson coached with Martin Katz, Gerhard Huesch, Dalton Baldwin, Gerard Souzay, and Martin Isepp. She studied anatomy and acoustics, modern dance, and the Feldenkrais and Alexander techniques, all of which have greatly influenced her teaching style.

She sang and taught in Germany, doing recitals and masterclasses at the Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” in Berlin and at the Herbstfest in Gelsenkirchen. In 2010, Peterson taught vocal technique and coached opera at the Piccolo Feste in the province of Friuli, Italy, where a production of La Cambiale di Matrimonio by Rossini was produced and performed by American and Italian singers. Her most recent presentations were on the aging voice and the teenage voice for the Colorado Chapter of MTNA. She has had articles published in the Journal of Voice and the Choral Journal.

Patti Peterson was on the faculty of the College of Music at the University of Colorado at Boulder for 25 years, where she served as chair of the voice area, directed the vocal pedagogy program, and supervised a vibrant Graduate Assistant teaching program. She was selected to participate in the university-wide Excellence in Leadership program and was awarded the Berton Coffin Faculty Fellowship for her work in pedagogy. She is now retired and lives in Winston-Salem, NC.

Interview with
Patti Hay Peterson

What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”?

When I started teaching, my focus, to be honest, was on my own performing, but I soon realized that the singing world badly needed honest, science-based teaching methods. I saw that my own singing would only be enhanced by my teaching well, so I set out to become the best teacher possible. My specialty was teaching teachers, helping graduate students become effective and knowledgeable teachers before they went into the work force, whether it be academia, high school, choral conductor, or a private studio. I also specialized in building voices from the ground up, especially voices that others didn’t think had potential.

How did you discover your calling for your specialty? How did it start?

As I started teaching voice pedagogy classes, I began to see that just knowing the science behind singing was not enough. Students needed specific guidance in developing the skills to solve the many vocal problems and issues specific to each voice type and vocal style –classical, music theatre, pop, jazz, etc. I began early on to develop a mentoring program for our graduate assistants that included specific voice pedagogy courses, studio observations of all the voice instructors in the department, weekly meetings with me and other voice faculty members, and my own observations of their teaching in both voice class and private lessons. Also, my voice pedagogy courses expanded from a basic science course to one that had in-class teaching and feedback opportunities and an advanced course that covered the specific issues found in young, mature, and older voices. I also offered a class voice for graduate students in choral conducting and music education who wanted to polish their own solo singing skills.

What do you love the most about your work?

The students and their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?

The ability to look and listen carefully to each singer without preconceived notions; to work on one issue at a time, so as not to overwhelm the student; to give even the most “hopeless” voice a chance to bloom and develop; to keep an open studio where all singers are allowed to observe; to never, ever assume you own a singer; to keep learning always. One of the most important qualities a teacher can have is kindness, especially in an academic setting.

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?

My first degree was in piano and my teacher in college, Hans Heidemann, was a kind and patient man who gave his students extra lessons and help. Without him, I would never have discovered my own musical abilities, grit, and perseverance. My first voice teacher was Joan Jacobowsky, who had worked with Vennard and Oren Brown. She helped unlock my tight jaw and gave me a fine basic technique, especially my agility. Barbara Doscher was my greatest mentor, a good friend, and occasionally a parent. She developed not just my voice, but also my love for pedagogy. I also worked some with Berton Coffin, first playing in his studio for some of his students, then taking his vocal pedagogy class, later taking some lessons. He encouraged curiosity and never deflected hard questions.

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?

I prefer to make breathing simple, natural, and painless. Relaxing the abdominals, especially the pelvic floor, is key to an effective inhalation. The hard part, which is 75% mental, is using the air efficiently on the exhalation–i.e., the singing part. That’s where tightness and anxiety enter into the picture, so things like walking, sitting or bouncing on a pilates ball, moving the arms will all help remove tension, at least in lessons. Later, the body remembers, we hope, the feeling of movement of air and the body, even while standing still and singing. I also encourage exercise, cardio workouts, weight lifting, hiking, dance, swimming, etc., to ensure that the cardio-pulmonary system is in top shape. Another thing to consider is that breathing will be very much affected by good or poor resonance habits.

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?

To me, the most important thing about the larynx is that it must be flexible, able to move both up and down, forward and back, and not held in a “position”. This flexibility will allow easy register transitions, the ability to color vowels (chiaroscuro) for more expressive singing, and enable fast, clean runs. A loose jaw greatly enables a flexible larynx.

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?

It’s important to remember that the vocal folds go through a lifelong growth period from childhood to old age. A good teacher will study these stages and understand what the folds can and cannot do at certain ages. We can’t expect a child’s voice to sound like an adult’s, nor can we expect an elderly singer to sound young. I also encourage women to learn about the changes menopause will cause, as the loss of estrogen greatly affects how the folds operate. Men need to understand how the loss of testosterone will affect their folds as they age. Hormones rule how well the folds operate, how lubricated they are, and how supple they are.

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?

It’s all about the vowel to me–how it’s formed by the folds and the articulators and how it travels through the resonance tube. I am tired of hearing that sound has to “placed” somehow, as if sound could come out of the top of the head or through some mysterious resonator in the chest, etc. Each singer has a particular sound because the lips, mouth space, vocal folds, nasal cavity, and pharynx are unique and that is what the teacher has to work with. Each vowel has a particular shape, which is then affected by the register used, dynamic level, and pitch sung. All of this complicates the art of teaching, because one size will not fit all. You have to look at and listen carefully to each singer in order to find solutions to resonance problems. And I haven’t even mentioned consonants yet! These non-harmonic sounds are vital to good diction and cause all kinds of problems–air loss, tight jaws and tongues–but singers with resonant vowels can find ways to make consonants work. Consonants have to be modified in the upper range because the jaw needs to be more open than most consonants require. I feel that using consonants well is a more advanced technique and that well-produced vowels have to be developed first.

When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

It’s a complicated subject, depending on what style you are discussing. I will stick to classical, since that is my love. I do lots of top-down exercises with both male and female voices, as I feel it helps with blending better than bottom-up work. I use pure falsetto as well as supported falsetto in my work with male voices, head voice and whistle voice exercises with females. I feel strongly that agility exercises help with registration issues more than legato work, at least in the early stages of training. My agility exercises always use two to three favorable vowels, rather than just one, as we go through areas of the voice that are difficult, in order to facilitate blending. I use Coffin’s exercises in his book, Overtones of Bel Canto. Flexible breathing is also part of my work on registers, since air flow changes greatly as you move from a heavier, more adducted register to a higher, less adducted register. Too much breath pressure is a common problem in passaggio transitions.

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?

The usual: don’t smoke anything, exercise, eat well, take your allergies seriously and find medications that work for you. Learn to practice intelligently with mindfulness. The things that have helped me the most have been Alexander and Feldenkrais classes, because a well-aligned body has a much better chance of staying healthy than one that is always compensating. I wish I had some solution to the problem of phlegm, but I don’t. For some it has to do with foods and drinks that cause thickened mucous, for others it’s just plain nerves, and for older singers, it’s hormones again.

When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

You have to do your research, translate your foreign language songs on your own, take dance lessons to free your body, and study. Read, read, read–and I mean read books about everything, including novels, essays, poetry, and history. Of course, listen to the great singers to hear how they interpreted songs and arias. It’s a life-long course of study.

When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

As I said above, Alexander and Feldenkrais worked best for me, as well as exercise. I took dance when I was younger, then worked with a personal trainer for years; now, at 75, I take cross-fit classes three days a week. You can’t have good posture or good body use if the body isn’t strong.

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 don’t believe in methods. Methods make teachers blind and inflexible. My “method” is education: reading everything I can find on the topic of singing, then sorting through it all to come up with effective vocalises and explanations, trying them out, then sorting through it all again. As far as communicating complex ideas, it is best to break everything down into simpler ideas, one at a time. It takes a while to digest and assemble ideas, so patience is key.

Are there any books or international organizations you would recommend we add to the VocalPedagogy.com resources page?

I still use Coffin’s vocalises and find Doscher’s book, The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice, to be relevant still.

Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Resources)?

Keep learning.

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