Part One: What Does the “Vocal Coach” Do?
This article by Thomas Grubb was submitted by Eileen Cornett as part of our monthly focus on collaboration. Ms. Cornett is currently on faculty at Peabody Conservatory and brilliantly heads the Vocal Accompanying Department in addition to vocal coaching and accompanying. The original article was published in the NATS Journal.
by Thomas Grubb
A friend and colleague asked me to speak to his students on what a “vocal coach” does. The topic amused me, and my first reaction was candidly uncharitable: “Everything the voice teacher doesn’t do!” I knew such an attitude was unreasonable and inaccurate, so I set about deciding what it was that I had been doing day in and day out for many years with singers in the privacy of my studio.
First, the term itself, “vocal coach,” another of those belittling misnomers of the singing world like “accompanist,” hardly represents the intricate, vast and significant role played by such an influential member of the team in a singer’s formation. Why does a “voice teacher” give a lesson while a “vocal coach” gives a coaching? Is this thoughtless terminology or does it truly reflect the singing world’s unawareness of the real importance of this teacher/trainer/faithful counselor? If there is one thing about my profession I would like to change, it is both of these ill-advised terms.
With both “regulars” and others who contract our services for limited amounts of time and specific needs, “coaches” are called upon to prepare auditions and performances of all kinds. When first dealing with the selected aria or song, the coach should establish when and for what it is needed. Is the audition in a few days or next month? This will determine the extent to which the coach goes about “rearranging furniture,” if need be. It is best to run the piece through from start to finish. That way, one gets an idea of the singer’s particular approach to it, and whether it sounds at all right in the voice. Before any work can begin, I must be convinced that the singer can perform the composition effectively and appropriately by the date due. Of course, with “regulars” this preliminary stage is usually bypassed beforehand by a joint selection and maintenance of repertoire; but even with such singers, these periodic “check-ups” become necessary if the aria is an old, dormant one that needs warming up, or a relatively new one that may correspond perfectly to the requirements of the audition or performance but that is not yet settled or sufficiently shaped for presentation.
A Conductor at the Piano
Once this initial decision has been made and agreed to by both singer and coach, the real work begins. The coach must be a conductor at the piano. The first job is to correct any false pitches, faulty rhythms, and errors in diction. Call it “cleaning house.” It is especially in those “old” pieces that incorrectly learned notes, faulty rhythms, and mispronounced and/or poorly vocalized words are sung with complete candor. Singers have a way of inventing new mistakes, especially rhythmic ones, in favorite pieces. Exactly those items must constantly be re-coached, re-studied, and refreshed from all points of view.
Then, once the “house is clean,” tempi should be established, while straightening out phrasings and breathing. If the tempo is right, chances are that the phrasing and breathing will be, too. An excessively slow tempo riddles music with unnecessary gasping. A sprinting tempo makes for breathless, contracted phrasing, and for reduced expressivity. String players and pianists can best afford eccentric tempi, but then again, they don’t have to breathe like singers, although they should!
Next, in this first stage, any lapses in intonation must be cited. The root of this evil is usually technical; the problem can be referred back to the voice teacher for examination. Faulty intonation goes undetected by the voice teacher who may not get to hear the composition through with piano accompaniment. It has been my experience that most singers and voice teachers deeply appreciate this aspect of the coach’s activity if it is handled properly.
Also, in the case of songs, the coach may suggest a transposition if the notes don’t “lie well” in the voice and if the composition will not suffer in another key. Just a step up or down can sometimes make the difference between discomfort and facility, between a lackluster performance and one of sheer beauty.
Also, in this “house-cleaning” stage, there is diction, another word that should be replaced by a better one since it refers etymologically to speaking and not to the singing of words. (Perhaps “vocal” or “singing” diction would do.) The coach must possess a sound knowledge of the pronunciation and vocalization of the phonemes of English, Italian, French, and German. Since not all of us do, it behooves the individual coach to assess honestly his or her own competency in this area. If sure of a certain expertise in the respective language, the coach must set about correcting the “diction” simultaneously with the weeding out of wrong notes and faulty rhythms. Changing or adjusting a vowel sound demands the same correction of pitches and rhythms. If professional integrity tells him that he is not competent in the given language, the coach must urge the singer to consult an expert immediately before returning for subsequent sessions. At any rate, the coach must encourage the singer to learn notes and rhythms separately from the words on nonsense syllables (mi, la, ta, etc.) and to master the pronunciation and vocalization of the phonemes by intoning the text on one note in the middle-to-upper-middle range, in rhythm, a tempo, with fully supported emission. The common denominator of pitches and words is rhythm and tempo. Only in this way can all elements of preliminary study be accurately and thoroughly learned. Studying them in one fell swoop will only lead to learned mistakes, and waiting till the last minute to “polish the diction” is putting the cart before the horse. “More hurry, less speed,” as the proverb says.
**Stay tuned for Part Two and Three this week, which include, “A Guide to Interpretation,” “Preparation of Audition Repertoire,” and “Program Building.”**
Thomas Grubb is the author of SINGING IN FRENCH, A MANUAL OF FRENCH DICTION AND FRENCH VOCAL REPERTOIRE (Schirmer Books, 1979, with a Foreword by Pierre Bernac, now distributed by Thomson Learning). Since 1986 Mr. Grubb has been a member of the coaching staff of New York City Opera where he assists in the preparation of all the French productions. In the past, he has been a member of the coaching staffs of Houston Grand Opera and the Opera Society of Washington, D.C. Since 1985 Mr. Grubb has been a member of the faculty at The Juilliard School where he conducts classes in French Vocal Repertoire and Diction. From 1984 until May of 2007 he taught Advanced Vocal Performance and French Diction at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Previously he served on the faculties of Manhattan School of Music (1964‐1985), The Curtis Institute of Music (1970‐1977) and the Academy of Vocal Arts (1977‐1983), both in Philadelphia, as well as at New York University in the early 1970s. From 1970 until 1977, Thomas Grubb assisted the renowned maitre of French song, Pierre Bernac, in his master classes throughout the United States, Canada and France as both pianist and coach. Mr. Bernac eventually became his primary mentor and the inspiration for his specialization in French Vocal Repertoire. In addition, Pierre Bernac generously monitered the writing and editing of Mr. Grubb’s above‐ mentioned book Among his most influential piano teachers were Magda Tagliaferro, with whom he studied in Paris for three years, as well as Dora Zaslavsky and Artur Balsam with whom he studied at the Manhattan School of Music where he earned his Master of Music degree in Applied Piano in 1966. In 1962, Mr. Grubb received a Master of Arts degree in French Literature from Yale University Graduate School and in 1960 his Bachelor of Arts in French and Piano from the University of Rochester and the Eastman School of Music. As a performing pianist, Thomas Grubb has appeared in recital with Elly Ameling, Benita Valente, Eleanor Steber, Elizabeth Mannion and Dawn Upshaw, plus numerous others. He also made two North American concert tours with the French trumpet‐player, Maurice Andre, as both pianist and translator. Mr. Grubb has recorded for both the Orion and the Lyrachord labels with Carol Kimball, mezzo‐soprano, and Gerald Tarack, violinist. Thomas Grubb has given master classes throughout the United States, in France, Germany, Lithuania, Korea and annually in Taiwan from 1991 until 2006. In the coming year he will be giving a series of classes in Auckland, New Zealand. Mr. Grubb has participated as adjudicator for the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions, the International Voice Competition of Paris, the Fulbright Commission Auditions, the Rockefeller American Music Competition of Carnegie Hall, various NATS competitions and those of the Oratorio Society of New York. In May, 2002, Mr. Grubb was decorated as Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in Paris for his advancement of French culture throughout the world. Presently, Thomas Grubb is working on a second edition of his Singing in French as well as a companion book to Pierre Bernac’s Interpretation of French Song. While he continues to coach at New York City Opera and teach at the Juilliard School, he maintains a private studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan not far from Lincoln Center where he has resided since 1974. Thomas Grubb was born in Bridgehampton, New York and is an American citizen.