The voice teacher: Mary King

Mary King. Photo © Brian Tarr

A vocal teacher and performer herself, Mary King shares some of the secrets to helping a student achieve success in singing competitions.
Photo: Brian Tarr

The relationship of a voice teacher with a student is very close and the teacher has to fulfil many roles: technician, musician, emotional support. It would be going too far to say it's like a marriage, but there are some parallels. Some singers stick with the same teacher for a number of years, others have to try out many before they hit lucky.

Like a marriage, it's a two-way street. Each has to trust and respect the other. The teacher must believe in the talent of their student, and the student has to trust that the teacher will guide them responsibly and appropriately. Frustrations can arise - the singer might understand what the teacher wants them to do, but be unable to comply physically. They might be able to sing brilliantly one day, and not recapture it the next, and not know why.

Singing is an intense activity, through which one can express profound emotions. Singers are in many ways 'inside' the music, and it's not surprising that they can sometimes be capsized by what they are trying to convey.

And since the singer is their own instrument, he or she is more than usually susceptible to being sabotaged by Life - the voice, though remarkably resilient, will often reveal what you are really feeling, however much you might hope to disguise it!

There are two different routes to improvement. Firstly, through individual practice - some guided, some solitary - where the singer experiments, thinks about words, music, qualities of voice, dynamics, expression and technical execution. Secondly, through performance itself, when the prime purpose is to communicate the intentions of the composer and poet to the audience.

The most common problem is that when the singer is in front of their audience, they are still in 'practice' mode, and worried about technique - thinking instead of feeling! Conversely, a naturally gifted person who communicates well but is less interested in technical matters may find that under pressure their lack of 'skill' leaves them vulnerable.

A competition confronts a singer with some specific challenges. In the opera house, you would have gaps between your arias - for competitions, singers often sing three pieces in three languages, and move between character types and styles of music. Some people find this easier than others, but you do need to practise it, so you can make the 'switch' quickly. And all singers need to practise pieces in their competition order, to make sure they can move from light to heavy singing, comedy to tragedy, low notes to high notes.

I often have to remind singers that they should also give their performance clothes a rehearsal before the big night. No-one wants irrelevant distractions (slipping shoulder straps, wayward shawls, impossibly high heels), least of all, the singer.

Knowing what suits you as a singer at every stage of your development is important. Young singers often want to sing repertoire that is too big for them (Verdi, Puccini for example) too soon. A good teacher will advise them on this, so they don't bite off more than they can chew. The jury can see the potential; they need to know what you can sing now.

No-one can second-guess what a jury will 'go for', as so many factors come into play - but juries, audiences and teachers alike love singers who commit to their music and communicate passion for it well.

The teacher sits with bated breath hoping their student acquits themselves to the best of their ability, knowing that they can intervene no more - but let's raise a glass to all the fabulous voice teachers all over the world whose work is so celebrated in this competition!

Mary King is a highly experienced performer, creative director and vocal coach. She is widely known for her television work on series such as Operatunity and has appeared several times as a resident expert for Cardiff Singer. In 2006 she was appointed Head of the Southbank Centre Voicelab.


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