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Developing the Lecture Class Program
By Patti Compton Christopher
When I first began teaching voice in the Loyola Preparatory Vocal Program here in New Orleans, I was told by the program director that the piano program had achieved uniform success by requiring its students to purchase certain books from a proven method for piano (which included sight-reading), and certain books from a proven method for ear training, and another for theory. I was expected to offer a similar program for my vocal students. The problem was that I didn’t have anything but standard vocalises, Vaccai, and Panofka with which to teach, since that was how I was taught by my longtime teacher of 8 years. I had tried a smattering of theory books, sight-reading, and ear training books, but hadn’t really settled on anything specific.
The book I chose for theory was the one that sufficiently and logically explained to me the Circle of Fifths, which I couldn’t seem to understand completely from high school, college, nor my own sister’s explanation. I used the ear training books I had from college which were also used by the Prep Piano Program. The sight-reading book I used in college was also excellent, but too expensive to require my prep voice students to purchase. When I finally located one that was just right and used the standard solfeggio, it was out of print within a very few years!
Problems with establishing the method books for voice alone were also challenging, since the diction books I used in college eventually went out of print as well. The books available in the library were some help, but didn't echo what I was using with my students. Once my own method book, Vocal Ease, was in print, I was more easily able to teach my students, assured that they would have a good frame of reference from which to work, which would answer their questions during the week when they were practicing away from me.
Vocal Ease, coupled with the 8-12 week lecture classes, circumvented that old bug-a-boo of students not reading their assignments, and therefore not having a clue what the method was about. Still further, the testing of the students on the method proved to be the best way to ensure that they were doing more than imitating me or singing without thought. Most of my lecture classes had five to 18 students in them.
The idea of the lecture classes came about because I was talking too much at the start of every semester with my private lessons, which caused hoarseness. I wanted to be an example of good sense in using my voice, and not "someone who could no longer sing ~ so she taught." It was absolutely vital to me that my students understood the workings of the human voice so that they would not abuse their instruments, and I needed to be an example they would like to emulate.
Holding group voice classes in lecture form (complete with exercises in posture, breathing, resonance, consonants, vowels, vocalises, musicianship, and performance deportment) not only saved my voice, but it also sparked the idea for a Teacher Class Package. This package would give the teacher multiple books and materials at a discounted rate, which they could resell to their students and make a small profit. The class voice idea was used by myself for years on groups of students aged 15-72 (we encouraged all, who had gone through change of voice and wanted to learn to sing, to take classes). As they advanced, they were then given private lessons. This was the perfect solution to the problem of getting one’s feet wet in voice in a short period of time, and still being able to come away with some viable knowledge of the art. At the end of the lecture series, the mature student could continue or not, but they were not allowed to be on recital until they had at least one semester of private voice lessons. Usually a contract was signed between the parents, teacher and student stating that they agreed to read, study, and practice daily, as well as do any homework assignments in theory for an entire nine month period (renewable each year), however, the mature student was allowed the option of staying or leaving at the end of lecture. Most opted to stay until after the first recital, and many stayed well past that, once they were stage struck. I opted to use this contractual idea even in my private studio.
I am no supporter of teaching children to sing prior to the change of voice, however, one year my director asked me to consider taking a group of 10-12 year olds as a group, having everyone singing the same pieces in a group. My first and only group of pre-teens were real students, heavily encouraged by their parents to strive for the best in everything, and so they were a joy to teach. They were not allowed to sing on recital until they had a full six months of lessons. Even this was too soon in my thought, but the program director stated that the Christmas and Spring recitals were part of the Prep Program’s promise to the parents of all students.
The real challenges began to surface as the kids’ voices began to change that following summer. I saw that they needed time to develop, and cancelled further classes with this age group until the change was complete. As it turned out, I believed that acquiring such an avid group of true students was not to be counted on in future, and opted out of continuing to teach preteens.
All beginning students of mine were kept away from studying opera in the Vocal Prep Program, unless they were in college and beyond. Vocal Prep students were given art songs in English, Italian, French, and German; sacred music; Broadway tunes; and ballads. They learned all the nuances of musicianship, whether or not they actually displayed true musicianship.
I encourage all voice teachers to consider my Vocal Ease class method of teaching voice as a viable option for introducing beginners to the art of singing. Often students enjoy singing in groups more than solo singing, so this is a great way to get more students involved in the art. I had numerous opportunities of teaching even as few as two or three students at a time. These students loved singing duets and trios, which helped develope their ear toward harmony. The options for voice teachers are endless, and the results are so worth it!
The late Dr. Knudd Andersson of the New Orleans Opera Association said,"This book deserves to be the vocal text used in every serious music school."