Vocal Master Class #7 May I Be Franck?

This week’s post features a manner of working that is dependent on the student being both musical and a musician. Musical means there is expression in the voice, (phrasing, colors, emotional connection, etc.) regardless of technical and personal issues, and a musician means discerning in what they are able hear with some developed skills in place.

Melinda was a 17 year-old soprano who brought the “Pie Jesu” solo from the choral setting of 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.”

She had been studying regularly with me for two years, was very interested in classical music and was smart and sensitive artistically.

To address her concerns, I suddenly decided to not work functionally and somatically in order to veer in another direction.  I suggested that the student listen to some great French organ works of 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?

I grew up as the daughter of a full time church musician organist/choir master (Dad) and singer/voice teacher (Mom.)  Practically every day the “King of Instruments” was part of my environmental soundscape.  I also studied organ in college (while 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. Growing up, we 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 my background, I knew that if Mindy could 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 using her ear and musical sense, she could take what she had developed technically and 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.”

There is a correlation between the breath pressure needed to play the double reeds and singing legato. (I also played oboe and bassoon in middle and high school.)

Mindy “got” the connection between Cesar Franck’s “Prelude, Fugue and Variation” for organ and the vocal line of the “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, recently graduated from the U of Maryland after a 5 year program in Vocal Performance and Music Education.)


  1. You make an excellent points, Cate. Sometimes it’s hard to think of letting some other method, person, genre (especially instrumental) help do our job. I often think the onus is on me to fix and do every little thing, otherwise I’m being lazy and therefor ineffective. I remember after I finished my master and artists diploma I was working on some Handel aria (can’t remember which one) with lots of FAST moving passages. I was a locked up mess. Prior to that I avoided listening to other professional singers, because it discouraged me and “blocked the channel” if you will. A coach recommended that I Iisten to some Janet Baker and I reluctantly did. Within a week or so something clicked and the florid passages became so much easier and legato. Teachers are not just teachers, we curate. Some days I think it seems the curation and cultivation of what we ask our students to hear, do, and think about are way more important than anything else we do.


    1. Brilliantly put. I’ve always been amazed at the number of voice teachers who don’t even recommend audio for students to listen to and then discuss, like it is a waste of time in a lesson. Listening to good singing is the foundation of learning to sing. It doesn’t mean you copy them or don’t develop your own style, but it is the root cellar of building a musical house! I love your phrase “we curate!”

      Liked by 1 person

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