Musically and academically talented, having made it through Blair’s strenuous audition process, first-year voice majors may be in for a few surprises when they arrive at Blair. The students may find themselves asked to reconsider how they do everything that got them there in the first place. That’s because their voice instructors are determined to transform the young students into well-trained musicians capable of gaining admittance to the nation’s most prestigious graduate music programs.
Jonathan Retzlaff, associate professor and department chair; Gayle Shay, associate professor and Vanderbilt Opera Theatre director; and Amy Jarman, senior lecturer in voice, begin by steeping students in the principles of the 19th century Italian or bel canto school of singing, which emphasizes principles of integrating the physiology of singing (breath, posture and vowel formation) with the development and care of one’s voice. “Our backgrounds synthesized into believing that this is really the most effective set of tools for singers,” Retzlaff says. “What the Italians were doing hundreds of years ago by ear … has been borne out by science and spectrum analysis.”
“Jonathan, Gayle and I are very technically oriented in terms of the ‘how’ of singing,” Jarman says. While Jarman and her colleagues don’t necessarily have to unteach things the students may have previously learned, they often must redirect their students’ ideas about singing. “I’m asking them to think differently about what they’re doing with their tongue or their jaw, how they are creating space inside their mouth, or what they’re thinking about when they take a breath,” Jarman says.
Jennifer McGuire, lecturer in opera and vocal coaching, works with students to address issues of language diction, performance practice, style and the art of collaborative music-making. Her work emphasizes a level of polish and preparation that is graduate level in expectation. As part of her preparation before meeting with students, McGuire practices singing their parts to make note of where they’ll need to breathe and whether they need more time to voice certain words.
An important part of Retzlaff’s instruction is teaching young singers to respect their vocal folds and how to properly prepare them for performance or practice. It’s all the more difficult given the elusive nature of some of the muscles involved in singing.
“Most of the [first-year students] don’t know where their diaphragm is, or that you can’t feel it,” Retzlaff says. “To ‘sing from your diaphragm’ is really scientifically impossible … it’s an involuntary muscle,” he explains. “We do have to learn about it and its interaction with the abdominal muscles.”
Shay uses a small skeleton and anatomical charts of the larynx to help clarify such points for students. The skeleton is also useful when talking about body awareness work, such as the Alexander Technique, and its focus on proper spinal alignment.
Named for Shakespearean actor Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), the technique is based on the idea of continuously lengthening the spine, of “never arriving at a posture,” Shay explains. She finds the concept particularly useful for students who are unaware of how to use their bodies to enhance their singing. “They think their instrument is just here,” she says, pointing to her throat, “but it’s actually their whole body.”
Still, Shay acknowledges the Alexander Technique isn’t for every person or every body, and that’s fine. Shay and her colleagues devote a lot of time to finding the best way for each student to achieve his or her personal best. This might even mean helping them to find ways of keeping music in their lives should they decide not to pursue a performing career—or even a degree in music.
Retzlaff, Shay and Jarman make no bones about the competitive, low-odds nature of a performance career, repeatedly stressing the discipline and dedication required to succeed at the undergraduate level, let alone anything beyond that. To do well at competitions, in graduate school or to maintain a professional career requires a certain amount of tunnel vision, Retzlaff’s says.
One of the biggest challenges the voice instructors face, Retzlaff says, is teaching students to be patient, an increasingly difficult task given the instant-gratification nature of our society. Google, American Idol and other aspects of popular culture have led kids to expect what they want, when they want it.
“Singing just doesn’t work that way,” Retzlaff says. “You have to be willing to learn to love that solitary time in the practice room, and it takes years. There’s no amount of technology out there that can speed up your physiological process. It just does not work.”
For Retzlaff, an essential component of lessons is what he refers to as the “Retzlaff Regimen,” a series of exercises—targeting onsets, agility and sustaining notes—that take the voice from cold to ready to perform anything from musical theater to art song to opera. The exercises also improve resonance and help singers work through their passaggi (transition areas between registers). Retzlaff requires his students to demonstrate and discuss the regimen in lessons. “The point is not what I can get your voice to do,” he says, “the point is can you get your voice to do what I can? Students must know what the exercises are, the exact order in which to practice them, which includes what the pitch boundaries are.”
The right material
Ensuring that students stick only with material appropriate for their young voices is also a major undertaking of the voice faculty, in choosing material for studio classes, competitions and performances. At the end of spring semester, for example, Jarman goes through a bookcase full of music in her office, closely examining each book and score to see what might fit incoming and current students. Shay starts searching for the next Vanderbilt Opera Theatre production immediately after that season’s show closes.
“We try to find things that will be useful for [the students], that will address their needs, that will encourage them to stretch and grow,” Shay says. “That’s why we say you’ll never see La Bohème on this stage, because it’s way too difficult for our students, but you’ll never see Rent either, because that’s not what we teach.”
Last season, the Vanderbilt Opera Theatre mounted a production of The Marriage of Figaro, a choice driven by the presence of a baritone (Preston Orr) to sing the title role and a soprano (Katie Heaton) who could handle the role of Susannah. Retzlaff and Jarman sang the mature roles of the Count and Countess Almaviva—roles not appropriate for most undergraduate voices.
“Part of our job is to know—particularly with young, big, mature voices—that it’s not appropriate for them to be singing heavy repertoire,” Retzlaff says. “It’s as important for a teacher to say ‘no’ as it is to say ‘yes’ sometimes.”
After four years at Blair, students emerge knowing how to sing in a healthy fashion, no matter what kind of music they favor.
“We try to create the best musician we possibly can in the overall sense,” Retzlaff says. One way he defines this is someone who can prepare quickly and accurately upon demand. “The musical world is very small … whether it’s in NYC or academia, word spreads very quickly. Reliable, artistic musicians get hired over and over again. If you’re not prepared, you’re not going to get called again.”
Retzlaff, Shay and Jarman all believe learning how to sing in front of panels, whether in competitions or auditions, is a crucial part of the Blair experience. Thus, auditioning is built it into every aspect of the program. Participation in Vanderbilt Opera Theatre productions, for example, is determined through preliminary and call-back auditions. For performance classes, students are required to come properly attired on their assigned singing days. They are guided in decisions about what clothes and shoes to wear, how to style their hair and makeup, how to stand, and how to announce themselves and their music.
“You think that’s easy to do … but if you’re not a native German speaker and you’re singing a Schumann song, you have to practice speaking the title of the song,” Jarman says.
Retzlaff even insists that students leave slang—the words “like” and “awesome”—at the door. It’s this kind of attention to detail since his arrival at Blair in 1997 that has helped the school gain an impressive reputation in a relatively short time. His goal has been, he says, to create a curriculum and a sense of readiness in graduates that results in music teachers around the country knowing that Blair is a contender with the top-tier music schools and that the school belongs on their audition lists.
The program’s esteem has begun to spread as its graduates take their place in the music world. Voice department graduates have been accepted into advanced degree programs at Eastman and the New England Conservatory, Indiana and Northwestern universities, the Mannheim Conservatory and Manhattan School of Music among others. They have performed with opera companies, Broadway touring companies and festivals around the country and world. Blair students routinely hold their own at competitions such as the regional National Association for Teachers of Singing and the Graz, Austria-based American Institute for Musical Studies summer program.
“On an undergraduate basis, I would put what we do here up against anybody in the country,” Retzlaff says. “All of us have said if I had had that curriculum, those teachers and that educational experience when I was that age, you’d be interviewing me from backstage at the Met.”
© 2016 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: Daniel Dubois, Mason Hensley, Zach Nadolski, Ric Cradick/Indiana University, Kenn Stigler