One Man Band
By Yelena Kurdina
Published by Opera America 2006
After 20 years of coaching and accompanying professionally in New York, it has been interesting to think about the role of a vocal coach, accompanist, collaborative pianist, language coach, or some combination of the above as part of a team that supports a singer's career. While each specialty is part of the same big picture, and many of the skills overlap, the focus varies.
An audition accompanist is a person whose services you will require often as you build your career. I am often perplexed to hear how little singers seem to care about the accompanist who plays for them at auditions. So often I hear: "The accompanist was terrible, but I didn't care. I just sang…" That's comparable to saying, "Oh, I didn't want to wear a nice dress to an audition, I just went in my pajamas."
When a singer sings, he or she indeed is a soloist, but is at the same time a part of a bigger picture. How can one not care about such an important part of the performance as the pianist whose job is to support the singer and to help present the singer in the best possible light?
The truth is that singers often do not realize what makes a good accompanist. They might intuitively feel that someone is good - or not - but they cannot usually describe what makes one better than the other. There are several key qualities a good accompanist possesses. Number one is a strong sense of rhythm and the ability to extract important harmonies that provide a clear and solid foundation (rather than play as many notes as possible). When accompanying operatic repertoire, we accompanists stand in for the orchestra. Obviously we cannot play everything on the page, even when playing from a piano reduction, but we can create the feeling of an orchestra by creating contrasts between different registers, accompanying chords and melodies, etc.
Accompanists must also have the ability to simultaneously lead and follow the singer. Just as a conductor does, we have to provide a steady frame yet give a singer the freedom to express within that frame. That is a quality that makes accompanying an art.
What is the best way to find that perfect accompanist? Word of mouth is the best way I know. Ask fellow singers who have been auditioning for a while. Listen to other singers' auditions. Try a few people by scheduling coachings or rehearsal sessions. What works well for one person may not be comfortable for you. I suggest identifying one person to play most of your auditions as well as several other people who may help if your regular accompanist is unavailable. It is best to audition with an accompanist you know.
Finding a vocal coach is another important aspect of building a team. You are looking for a person to be a second ear to your voice teacher, someone you respect, trust, and like as a musician and a person. Ideally your coach is a person who likes your voice and talent. At the same time, he or she should be capable of honestly telling you where you need improvement and should not be afraid to give you constructive criticism. Your coach is your professional confidant.
Make sure that your coach is also capable of sharing you with other professionals in the business. Your coach should be open to hearing other points of view and capitalizing on them by helping you to apply good advice and incorporate it into your work. My strong belief is that no one person knows everything, has answers to every question, or can do it all. I have my own team of coaches to whom I like to send my students to polish certain repertoire, to work on diction in certain languages, or to improve dramatic presentation. A coach has to be humble enough to know his or her strengths and weaknesses. Again, word of mouth is generally the best way to find someone. ASK. Do not be shy about going to your colleagues' lessons.
I love singers who ask me questions and do not blindly trust every word I say. Sometimes coaches know more than the singer, and sometimes we don't. Even though you come to us to learn, don't think of yourself as a silent participant. You are an artist (or in the process of learning to be one), and your opinion does count. When I ask a singer to do something, I am usually able to explain why.
One more thing: there is no one way of singing, phrasing, and breathing. We give suggestions and options. You have to decide what is best for you and learn to be flexible and creative. A coach who says, "You must do it my way" is not a team player. Run! One might say: "But a conductor only wants it this way." Indeed, one conductor might want something a certain way because he or she has a concept of the whole piece and what fits that concept. However, another conductor will want it phrased in exactly the opposite way. You have to have the ability to do it both ways and find your own motivation to do it convincingly.
Who is your collaborative pianist, the person who will accompany you in recital? Sometimes it is your audition accompanist, sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is your coach, and sometimes it is not. I often perform with people I coach, but I also perform with singers with whom I rehearsed once or twice before the recital. Those are singers at the top of their profession, and there is no need to either coach them or discuss anything. They know what they want, have a clear concept, and communicate it so well to me through music that no words are necessary. That kind of experience is not an everyday occurrence, though.
Needless to say, in recital repertoire it is important to play as many notes as possible. Usually one will sing art songs where the accompaniment was written for the piano, and therefore not much room is left for choosing which notes to play and which to leave out. One has to be a very good pianist indeed.
When I coach I am completely focused on listening, analyzing what is good and what is wrong, and trying to find the most efficient way to explain and fix something. Often my playing becomes a sketch. As a collaborative pianist I am as much a performer as the singer. My main focus becomes my instrument. I think about ensemble, balance, where to lead and where to support, and creating a sound that is beautiful and rich but not dominating.
Your regular coach may or may not be your ideal collaborative pianist. I have worked with singers who were nervous about performing with me in recital because they thought I would listen to them with a coach's ear. I think it is very important for both a singer and a pianist to be conscious of these different roles and adapt to them in a way that is most beneficial. Of course, there are plenty of terrific pianists who are also terrific coaches.
Yet another hat that some of us wear is the hat of a language coach. Many singers are surprised to learn that I play the piano because I was recommended to them as a Russian coach. Being Russian made it natural for me to make Russian diction a specialty, but it took a few years for me to realize that speaking the language and coaching it to singers is not the same. In Russian especially, the way the language is spoken is quite different from the way it is sung, and one has to have a very well trained ear to be able to teach that.
I personally know very few people who can do it well. "I have a friend who can speak the words for me," is not the way to go in most languages, and certainly not in Russian. Spend a few dollars. Get it right from the beginning. There is nothing more difficult than unlearning and relearning wrong sounds in an unfamiliar language. Go to a professional, preferably a native speaker. There are several languages in which I feel comfortable starting someone off on a piece, but I do like to send them to a professional native coach who is a musician. There are details, nuances, and fine points only a native can feel and know, and only a musician can truly incorporate all this into a singing line.
In your career, you will likely hire a vocal coach, accompanist, collaborative pianist, and language coach. You may hire several different people, or you may find these skills in one person, who, in a way serves as a team unto him or herself.
Vocal Coach/Russian Coach/Collaborative Pianist