Teaching with Your Mouth Shut or “May I be Franck?”

We voice teachers love to talk. We love to explain. We love to sing and illustrate and lead and pontificate with the wisdom of our accrued years. We love the sound of our own voices. We love the sound of (most of) our students’ voices.

Sometimes, knowing when NOT to speak is more important than anything you can say. (Hummm. Sort of a wisdom- for- life- kind- of- thing.)

Recently a young soprano brought the soprano solo from the choral setting of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem to work on in her private voice lesson. Her church choir director had asked her to sing it during an Easter service and she was very concerned about “breath support.”

As a voice technician I try to listen ‘functionally’ and work very slowly and ‘technically’ to address the student’s needs, but that lesson I suddenly decided to veer in another direction and suggested that the student listen to some great organ compositions of the French composer Cesar Franck, who lived about the time of Gabriel Faure.

Why did I do that?  Where did that idea come from?  What did I hope to accomplish?

First, some background: I grew up as the daughter of a full time church musician/ organist/choir master (Dad) and singer/voice teacher (Mom.)    Evidently my crib was located next to a wall which shared the chambers of the organ pipes, in an apartment above the first church Dad served. To see some photos of what an organ pipe chamber looks like, click–

Google Image Result for http://www.stpaulnc.org/music/01%2520Pipe%2520Chamber.jpg.

I grew up hearing daily the King of Instruments and feeling the vibrations of the pipes as Dad practiced. I also studied organ in college (even though I was a Voice Major in the BM program) and spent several summers as a substitute church organist in Pittsburgh, PA.  One of my brothers earned both a BM and MM degrees in Organ Performance. 

Wilhelm organ Wooster 1
Organ built by Karl Wilhelm, First Presbyterian Church, Wooster, Ohio

(Growing up, my brothers and I thought it hilarious to call each other names like “Crumhorn” and “Sacbutt,” which are names for organ stops which control tone quality.  Ah‐hem, yes, I know. Very organ geeky.)

As a result of this background, I knew that if my singing student could just hear the French reed organ pipe sounds that were developed during the Romantic era in Western Europe, played on a good pipe organ, she might be able to follow her own inner compass to execute the long vocal lines of the Faure piece.  

And by developing that part of her ear, she could take what she already knew technically and start to apply it without my “interference.”

During the Romantic period, French organ builders introduced a type of wind chest that could accommodate high wind pressures, enabling the organ to imitate woodwind instruments like the bassoon, oboe and flute. So between the new mechanical action of the organ and the new woodwind sounds, the organ could produce lovely legato “singing.”

The  student, who is very talented anyway, instantly “got” the connection between Cesar Franck’s “Prelude, Fugue and Variation” for organ and the vocal line of the Faure solo, “Pie Jesu.” She and I were both amazed at what an instant difference it made in her singing.  She automatically and effectively used what she knew to spin the long lines with more freedom and skill.

And I was humbled at how my shutting up enabled the student to learn more…

(The student, M.C., is currently a sophomore voice major at the University of Maryland/College Park.)

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