Part Three: 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.
The coach must also aid the singer in recital and program building. Again, the character of the occasion must first be determined: is it a formal recital for the general public, a program for a specific organization with accordingly specific tastes, an informal living room appearance that may be an audition in disguise, etc.? Whatever the atmosphere of any appearance, the singer must be discouraged from stepping down(or up) to his audience. What is best for his voice and artistic temperament will be best for the audience — always!
Pacing and over-all variety of the recital must be tended to by the coach. Opening pieces should be vocally and emotionally untaxing, with spaces in them for physical and mental relaxation. “Knocking them dead” with the first selection may prove fatal to both singer and public! The second group, probably lieder or the like, can be more atmospheric and emotionally demanding. By then the singer has said “hello,” has settled down (hopefully), and can start probing the depths.
The first half of a program may ideally be closed with a vocal display piece with which the warmed-up singer can excite the audience to an intermission filled with “oohs!” and “ahs!”
The moment after intermission is an appropriate time for a singer to indulge in a speciality – a chamber work, nationalistic or ethnic selections, a contemporary piece, etc. A French group usually works well here. For English-speaking audiences, the second group on this half may be performed in English.
The last group on a recital should preferably be light in character, and above all vocally untaxing. Putting the piece de resistance at the end may extend both the singer and the audience beyond their limits! The best encores are short, titillating and called for! Whatever the coach’s prerequisites for a good recital may be, it is important not to tire either the singer or the audience. Pacing, variety, and appropriately spaced climaxes should be the guides to good programming.
No two coaches, like voice teachers, are alike, happily, and we all have our strengths, weaknesses, specializations and idiosyncrasies. The above tasks are those that I attempt to accomplish in my function as “vocal coach.” At all times I must be ready and willing to advise and counsel the singer on professional, vocally relevant decisions (e.g., “Which job should I accept?”, Which agent is better?”, “What hall should I use?”, “Where do I go from here?”, etc.). This should be done during scheduled sessions just as does a physician in the time allotted to an appointment. Over-dependency and mixing business with pleasure are counterproductive. Like the best therapist, the coach can only give his or her best to each singer within professional discipline and positive objectivity.
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