Jean del Santo’s Teaching Philosophy
When Glenda first shared with me the quote written above, I thought “Well, yah. That’s pretty obvious”. It is so obvious in fact that we rarely think of it and the profound implications it has in the training of singers. In addition, no other musician incorporates language into the music making process. Instrumental music can certainly move the listener to a deep emotional experience but the text of a song, in any language, directs the listener to a more specific emotional response.
With these differences in mind, I focus on the following issues with every student who enters my vocal studio/ classroom: music literacy, development of a solid vocal technique, principles of vocal health, and techniques to enhance performance effectiveness (including mental focus, controlling performance anxiety, text preparation and communication, becoming a singing actor).
I believe that the greatest gift any voice instructor can share with a student is music literacy. We live in a time and culture where many students learn repertoire solely by listening to various recordings or U Tube performances of other students. Imagine, if you will, an aspiring actor who could not read a text. Having been cast in a show, such an individual would need to listen repeatedly to a recording of his character’s lines to memorize them. What sort of performance would result with such preparation? Mere mimicry and dependency on another to accomplish an end goal. Except for instances of physical disability where special needs should and must be met, such a scenario would be ridiculous.
Not every student of singing has been blessed with a strong musical/ instrumental background. However, all aspiring singers need to be familiar with musical notation and must learn to hear mentally what is notated in the score. Development of this skill is certainly not an instant one but definitely an essential one. Students lacking this ability rarely become independent and confident performers. I have found The Royal Conservatory Series for Voice to be an invaluable resource to teach reading and ear training skills to student singers. Use of Kodaly hand signs
(a lot of fun), are especially useful for kinesthetic learners to integrate aural and visual skills. A quick search of the internet also provides numerous apps available to teach music reading skills.
Development of a solid vocal technique
Understanding What/ How/ Why
Vocal technique can be divided into four essential elements:
- Understanding the three basic physical components of the singing voice (energy source, sound source and resonator)
- How to use each component effectively
- How to accomplish, physically and mentally, a healthy sound appropriate to the style of music being performed
- Why are the items listed above important?
In my fifty years of teaching vocal music, I have followed these guidelines with K-12 students through DMA level. They require a detailed knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and acoustics of the singing voice plus the ability explain these concepts to each student depending on his/her/their age level and repertoire interests. This approach requires time, practice, discipline and dedication. The reward is joyful, healthy singing throughout the student’s lifetime.
Principles of Vocal Health- including appropriate repertoire!!
In addition to my passion for music and singing, I have a great love of horses and horseback riding. Interestingly, the two are closely related. One area can greatly inform the other. Horses are trained with “ground work” sometimes for years before being saddled and carrying a rider. A universal principle in horse training is never expect a horse to perform any action/ activity with a rider on its back that it cannot comfortably and confidently perform “on the ground”
(without a rider, in a round pen or corral). In addition, one of the most dangerous things a rider can do is get on a horse that is beyond that rider’s ability to understand and control. The result is often disastrous- broken bones, a trip to the hospital, fear of future accidents and a severely damaged sense of confidence for both horse and rider.
The old adage “Get back on the horse” is meaningful only if it is the right horse!! The same is true of appropriately assigned repertoire for a student. Too much too soon can cause vocal strain, lack of confidence, performance anxiety issues and eventual abandonment of study altogether.
Why assign a song with a foreign language text to a student who has never studied the language and is having a difficult enough job just getting the pitches and rhythms in the right place at the right time? Instead, assign repertoire in the native language of the singer. Use technically easy/ interesting repertoire until good vocal habits are formed and the student has developed a sense of confidence in his/ her voice and musical abilities. Foreign languages can wait until later. Assigning a song with several high notes to help a singer with difficulty in the upper register makes as much sense as expecting a beginning level rider to take a horse over a four- foot fence. Good luck!
The use of vocalizes to build both the voice and the confidence of the singer is, in my opinion, of prime importance. These vocalizes should not be merely “warm up” exercises but fitted to the needs and development of the student’s voice. Viardot, Panofka Lütgen and Marchesi accompanied vocalizes are perfect for this task. Concone vocalizes aid in ear training.
Vocal exercises by David Jones are excellent for both building and reconditioning voices.
Performance technique differs from vocal technique
One of the best ways to ensure a confident performance for the singer and a pleasurable performance for the listener is teaching the student how to practice. Practice techniques and performance technique are every bit as important as vocal technique and are frequently neglected in the training of young singers. Individuals who have had good instrumental training may be far ahead of their singer colleagues in this regard. (See the Repertoire Research Sheet included with this document that can be adjusted to the needs/level of the student)
A successful strategy for accurate and confident musical performance was developed by Burton Kaplan, Professor of Violin at Manhattan School of Music. He named his strategy “Four First Tries”. When a student believes that a song they have prepared is memorized and ready for performance they must sing it, top to bottom, without stops or mistakes four times. These “tries” could be scheduled one a day on four consecutive days or twice a day on two consecutive days. What one can reasonably expect in performance is the average of these “four first tries”. One of these tries will be the best, one will be the worse and the other two will fall somewhere in the middle. If the student makes an error or stops during the performance of the song, it cannot be counted as a try. This gives the individual a realistic expectation of what to expect in performance.
Frequent performances in studio class are essential to building confidence. Group vocal instruction is also very helpful in this regard. Class members quickly realize that the struggles/anxieties they are facing are common. Performing in small groups or individually
for peers is good preparation for recital or solo work. Performances for audiences that are non-judgmental are also very helpful. Independent and assisted living facilities, church socials and K-12 classrooms provide excellent and receptive audiences for student performers.
Teacher /Student relationship
Every student, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity deserves the best instruction the teacher has to offer. In a good teacher/ student relationship, learning is a two-way street. Both explore the musical score, the text, and the emotional demands of the performance. The instructor must be sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of his/her students. Hormonal therapy in students undergoing gender transition have a huge effect on vocal fold function. Working with such students necessitates an understanding of the hormonal/ physiological changes within the individual in order to facilitate a healthy vocal transition