The Concurrent Career: On Teaching & Performing

We live in the era of the concurrent career. Many of us do it. Some out of love. Others out of necessity. The artistic landscape in Australia has certainly changed over the past few decades, and maintaining a full-time career in one artistic field is challenging at best.

Opera is the thing that got me hooked on this career and has kept me striving. Art Song has become a love, and a way to connect closely with people. Concerts are exciting and keep me busy, but passing it all on to the next generation is something that has become a passion.

Conducting the Dvořák  Stabat Mater  in concert at Monash University (2014).

Conducting the Dvořák Stabat Mater in concert at Monash University (2014).

My work at Monash University (since 2014), at the Australian Boys Choir (since 2007), and more recently at a number of Melbourne schools, has brought a continuity that is much more difficult to achieve as a singer. The industry seems to be shrinking and performance opportunities are limited, so practically speaking, it has made a lot of sense. But it's more than that.

Students are increasingly more at home in non-traditional learning environments, and crave one-on-one attention. Singing teachers can harness this, helping students grow as individuals and chart potential in areas they may not have even dreamed possible. Think about it: In whatever area we excel, we all had to start somewhere, and chances are it was one particular teacher that lit that spark. 

Notable teaching artists whose work I admire greatly include the likes of Mark Tucker (UK), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Germany) and my own colleague & mentor Merlyn Quaife (Australia). I'm proud to be working as a coach, conductor, teacher and singer concurrently, but there are a number of pitfalls.

Soundcheck with the Australian Boys Choir (2015).

Soundcheck with the Australian Boys Choir (2015).

As teachers and coaches, we very much need to be working with the student that is actually in front of us. It is tempting to simply impart exercises taught to us as developing singers, but working to diagnose any vocal issues or impediments (and designing or adapting exercises to assist with this), helps students to get the most out of their sessions. A knowledge of the repertoire is paramount, but so is judicious selection of works depending on the current capabilities of the voice in question.

At Monash, we also know that our students are tremendously inspired by coaching with industry leaders on a weekly basis. Masterclasses too are great learning environments, but afford little by way of continuity and follow-up. There is a delicate balance here.

Coaching at the Songmakers Australia studio (2016).

Coaching at the Songmakers Australia studio (2016).

As far as balancing one's own performances with studio coaching, I certainly enjoy the variety, but a certain degree of care is required. Firstly, for the professional performer, vocal maintenance is of paramount importance. Ensuring the voice is well warmed-up before any teaching, and scheduling practice - especially when preparing new or difficult works for performance - is the way I take care of my voice and stay on top of my workload. 

I also resist demonstrating in lessons unless completely necessary, and often teach non-verbally. As well as saving voice, this forces the teacher to distill the essence of the message we wish to impart.

Furthermore, becoming acquainted with Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract exercises ("straw phonation" among them) has both changed my voice and helped to rehabilitate it during periods of heavy rehearsal or teaching.

If not already familiar with SOVT exercises, students and teachers alike might do well to further investigate these elements of singing via the website Noted voice scientist Ingo Titze has also published an introduction to straw phonation here on YouTube.

Lastly, I will say that points of discussion or questions on this topic are most welcome! Feel free to comment on Facebook or on the blog below.