Part Two: 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
Ah, “interpretation”! What a misinterpreted word! The musical score is indeed a mere blueprint, but its requests and implications must be detected and heeded The coach must determine first of all whether the singer is responding to the text and its musical setting. Have the expressive scope and atmosphere been realized? Or have they been betrayed? A prayer must not sound like a military command, or a passionate outcry like a whisper. Within this defined area of expression, the coach must then establish and regulate the dynamic markings in the score. Dynamics are changes or contrasts in volume or color; the French call them nuances. Like everything else, dynamics are relative. A forte in one aria may be mezzo forte in another, and fortissimo in still another. Some singers reduce both volume and intensity to incommunicative mumbling when encountering a pianissimo. They must be reminded that the “stage whisper” requires greater articulation and projection than a full-voiced sigh.
Now is the time to deal with vocal color and quality. Mere contrasts of volume alone do not, of course, give a performance atmosphere and vitality. Although at times a hypnotic sameness of color is called for, several hues may be necessary at others. A coach must constantly remind the singer to make appropriate use of the entire vocal palette. Along these lines, a coach alternates between getting some singers away from their voices (or their overriding preoccupation with mere production) and getting others back into their voices, so caught up have they become with “interpretation.” The two (production and interpretation) must go hand in hand at all times, and the coach must alert the singer to any excesses that upset this delicate balance.
A complete coach, although not necessarily a performing accompanist, must be a good enough pianist to make the singer aware of the instrumental part of an aria or song. There most certainly are those singers who listen intently to every note played by the pianist and who are most helpful in their suggestions as to execution; if only they were more numerous! The other extreme is the singer who is oblivious to all but the rumble and roar of the voice inside his or her own head. These, and those in between, must be “brought to their senses” and reminded to open their ears to the instrumental context in which singing invariably transpires. It is the coach, acting both as conductor and interpretative guide, who must do this.
Of course, it is not only single songs or arias that the coach is called upon to work out with the singer, but very often complete song cycles or opera roles. In the case of the song cycle, individual songs must be discussed in relation to each other, accordingly paced, contrasted and compared, and knit together so as to make the collection a whole. Besides preparing every song individually, the coach must be ready to choreograph the cycle dramatically and psychologically as well, from both a literary and musical point of view.
Preparing an operatic role is an all-consuming job for a coach. Here the coach must act as a conductor, director, and everyone in the cast, including the role being studied by the singer. The coach must be able to discuss the character’s personality, evolution and interaction with other characters and forces in the opera, besides gargling out cues and playing the orchestral reduction on the piano, all while tending to the usual duties.
Singers should be discouraged from taking a score to a coach before a basic musical familiarity with it has been achieved. Expecting a coach to “punch out notes,” page after page, is not only insulting, but brands the singer as a self-appointed musical invalid. (Above all, singers should avoid spoon-feeding themselves with round-the-clock listening to a recording that may prove to be an inferior, inaccurate one, or an interpretation light-years away from the one to be eventually performed.) A reputable coach’s job is to shape, mold and refine the singer in his role, and the note-punching back-work should be kept to a minimum so that the coach can adequately work. Only then can the coach send the singer off to rehearsals with a clear conscience.
Preparation of Audition Repertoire
What a vast area of responsibility for the coach is this one! The requirements, desires or tastes of a given audition committee or contest must be ascertained. When provided, these must be succinctly followed to the letter always keeping in mind that the repertoire chosen must represent the singer’s very best. Sometimes a company’s casting needs may be well known (all-Italian, a contemporary, or specific operas), but whatever the demands of the audition committee, the coach must never allow the singer to present an aria or song that is not completely suitable or that is not adequately prepared or digested. The coach must advise the presentation of only what the singer sings best, and above all discourage the listing of compositions that are in any way risky in hopes that all will be ironed out in time. Very often the reverse is true. Singers tend to forget that the atmosphere of an audition is not conducive to the spontaneous inspiration and magic of a performance. I always ask, with an arched eyebrow, “Could you roll out of bed and sing this to your own satisfaction?” Hopefully, no one rolls out of bed to go to an audition, but that is just the point. The wary coach will train singers to use only time-tested “foolproof” repertoire for auditions. When new material is selected, it must be done with utmost caution and good judgement. The audition is not a performance, although it can be if properly prepared. An important audition is a chance for the singer to display vocal and artistic ability with complete poise and solid, well-prepared execution. It is not a time for experimentation!
** Stay tuned for Part Three tomorrow: “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.