Sara-Lois Cunningham

On song

8:00, 2nd December 2017

Singing teachers are in demand as the market for tuition shifts, says Sara-Lois Cunningham. But is the quality of their teaching always good enough?

In just over a decade, ABRSM alone has seen the number of UK grade exams in singing increase by 20%. Now, one in ten UK grade music exams is in singing, says Philippa Bunting, learning and qualifications director at the ABRSM, making voice the exam board’s third most popular instrument after piano and violin – and the fastest-growing. At diploma level, 22% of all candidates for the new ARSM diploma were singers, the second-most popular instrument for this assessment.

Another interesting trend is that the ABRSM is seeing the average age of a singing candidate reducing at a quicker pace than other instrument families. ‘A singing candidate in 2016 was, on average, six months younger than a singing candidate in 2010,’ says Bunting. ‘Our youngest UK singing candidate in 2016 was a four-year old girl in Edinburgh who received a pass in her Grade 5. The oldest was a 78-year-old man in Manchester who received a merit at Grade 8.’

Trinity College London also points to a 58% growth in singing exams during the last five years, with the biggest proportion of this increase being observed in its advanced and higher-level grade certificates. The age distribution has remained stable in the last seven years, with the biggest proportion of Trinity singing candidates being older adolescents and young adults. Candidates from the south-east of England undertook the most singing qualifications, followed by candidates from Northern Ireland.

Surge in demand
The recent boom in singing has brought singing teachers an intensity of demand for lessons – and with it an increasing pressure to embrace a range of genres and techniques. In an unregulated business, where anyone can set up studio, the quality of tuition is naturally going to vary widely.

‘There is a huge mix of teaching out there,’ says Jenevora Williams, one of the UK’s foremost singing teachers. ‘With the rise in enthusiasm for singing in contemporary styles there are many more teachers who have come to fill this need. Many teachers are enthusiastic to learn and study their craft, though there will always be those who live in their own bubble and don’t engage with their peers. But most teachers have an open mind to learning and developing.’

Janice Chapman, a singing teacher and director of Classical Voice Training, says that in the past 20 years there has been an encouraging change in the understanding of the emerging science that underpins the teaching of singing. However, she also believes that the standard of teaching is still very variable in the UK.

shutterstock_235762195‘Knowledge of the fundamentals does not spoil the “art” of singing. But without this underpinning, many studios still have very doubtful practices going on,’ she says. ‘Anyone can be a “singing teacher” – there is no one to check up on what you are doing. In the major music colleges there is also a wide variety of voice teaching – all the way across the spectrum from “in the six years I studied with him he never once mentioned breathing and support!” to “I came to college with a good voice and feeling for the art, but no vocal technique to back it up”. This was what I was lucky enough to get while I was a student there.

‘I firmly believe that, while students themselves do not need to know all the “nuts and bolts” of the machinery, the teachers really do. In this day and age, there can be no excuse any more for teaching by “passing on my magic”. It is just not good enough. And with voice students now paying top fees to conservatoires and colleges, the competition will surely tell.’

Founder of CoreSinging Meribeth Dayme, who is from the US, offers a different standpoint on the quality of UK pedagogy. ‘Singing teaching and performance have improved immensely in the UK,’ she says. ‘But what is missing? In general, there is still so much attention being paid to the physical and technical aspects of singing that performance and communication are given short shrift. The education of teachers and singers needs to include much more mime, acting and improvisation with song and text.

‘Many years ago, when I first arrived in London, there was almost no vocal pedagogy. There was also a rather uncreative exam system. However, much has changed in the past 20 years. Teachers in the UK became hungry for teaching tools and methods. When the Estill Model came along, it was a godsend to many teachers.

‘Gradually, as curiosity and a quest for new learning took hold, more new concepts and ideas were sought. This was aided greatly by the British Voice Association, an organisation unlike any in the USA. By combining all the voice professions in one organisation, it promoted an excellent education and collaboration among voice professionals. The Voice Care Network is another example of the cross-voice sharing that is happening in the UK. The Association of Teachers of Singing has made huge strides in training teachers, as well. And I am very excited by the programme offered by Voice Workshop and its postgraduate certificate.

Jenevora Williams: ‘There is a huge mix of teaching out there’
Jenevora Williams: ‘There is a huge mix of teaching out there’

‘While all of this has been going on, the influence of forums such as Facebook cannot be overlooked. The teachers in the UK are now having valuable discussions with teachers all over the world, particularly the USA.’ Indeed, Jenevora Williams herself says that the best country for training both singers and teachers is the USA: ‘They have a very well-established infrastructure of vocal pedagogy which is embedded in the training from undergraduate level.’

Developing infrastructure
Traditionally, the UK conservatoires sometimes offered token ‘techniques of teaching’ modules at undergraduate level, but the quality, depth and duration of these courses were, anecdotally, rather variable – if existent at all. In the absence of postgraduate vocal teaching courses at the conservatoires, the support for those who sought continuing professional development has had to come from elsewhere.

‘There have been shifts in teachers’ access to training,’ says Williams. ‘About 20 years ago, teachers would gather information from many sources: other teachers, books, professionals in related fields – a sort of magpie method. Then several “methods” were developed: teachers often latched on to a system that appeared to give them the answers. Now I think that teachers are tending towards the “magpie” system again, and collecting multiple teaching methods. There is certainly much more opportunity to study teaching now.’

The benefits for singing students of tuition with a knowledgeable teacher – in possession of a finely-honed ear – are clear. Chapman says: ‘As soon as a singer has had some good training and knows what is going to come out of his or her mouth, they are freed up to access their emotional imagination, their dramatic instincts, their lyrical love of the text and, of course, their innate musicality.

‘Singing can be, at best, a highly refined Olympic sport which turns on a sixpence to become an art of immense power and beauty, and it is of great value to the human race. The art is underpinned by the craft and the craft is underpinned by the science, in my opinion.’


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