This blog post is dedicated to the delicate situation that singers can find themselves in when working with accompanists who not only want to do musical work but also provide technical assistance.
Répétiteurs are characterised by a great love of the singing voice, great knowledge of the repertoire, their stylistic confidence, and familiarity with ornamentation. They know how to begin and end phrases, which articulation is used where; they can help to recognise and understand the structure of a part, they know which instruments are to be heard where, and which cues the choir urgently needs even when marking the rest. They can help us choose the „right“ piano scores and assist us with understanding the structure of a work.
That’s a lot of knowledge and skills
Répétiteurs are our most important musical partners. They know our rhythmic, intonational, interpretational, structural, music-theoretical and even our intellectual weaknesses. Répétiteurs have studied piano or conducting and/or even répétiteurship. A long and demanding study. A demanding profession.
Singers have studied singing, a demanding study of at least 6 years. A demanding profession. The greatest challenge of the singing profession lies in the fact that one can only judge one’s own voice to a limited extent at the moment of sound production because the ears are attached to the head and thus connected to the upper resonating body. If ears were attached to the knees, life would be much easier for singers. The second challenge concerns the fact that we work with „living material“ that is constantly changing. This connects us singers with dancers and actors – the constantly changing body is our instrument.
The profession of a singer requires a few ears from the outside AND regular technical checks. Singers need not only musical but also professional technical control. Not every week, but certainly twice a year. Anyone who has worked for a few years without good vocal control knows that this can get you into trouble, especially if your voice changes (again). The technical control should be entrusted to someone who has studied singing and not only knows exactly about the physical (and psychological) ups and downs of this profession but also knows exactly what professional singing feels like.
There is a dilemma often cited by members of opera studios: repetiteurs try to help by giving singing tips, everyone tries in a different way, wanting only the best, and after a few months young singers are completely confused and in the worst case lose what they were able to do before they started at the studio and why they were hired: sing really well.
Remember: You only get hired at the studio if you know how to sing (!).
After the time at the university, during which you had a technical control twice a week, you are suddenly on your own – feels great at first, but you shouldn’t be without a singing teacher for too long, who you can fall back on in case of a crisis.
What do I do when I get vocal instructions from accompanists that are confusing to me?
I say: „Thank you for pointing this out, I have identified the problem, I will clarify the technical matters with my singing teacher before our next lesson“. If you know the person in charge of the singing well, a unit via FaceTime or WhatsApp is also possible in a pinch (Skype or Zoom, designed purely as voice programmes, don’t work). Knowing that there is someone else to take care of the technical things relieves the burden on the accompanists because they no longer have to feel responsible (to the opera house!) for everything. But this also means that I, as a singer, MUST have a person I trust technically and who can help me in a technically sound way and knows what is suitable for which problem/for which singer at what time of the career.
It is part of the personal responsibility of every singer to seek regular vocal advice. We cannot pass on this responsibility to the accompanists.
I hear répétiteurs say, „and I’m supposed to be mute now when I hear that something is technically wrong?“ – No, of course not! We desperately need you to point out when something sounds crooked or strange, sounds stilted, dumbed-down, pressed, squashed, unfocused, with too much air, too tight, too far back, etc.
We need your ears and your analysis, but you don’t have to/shouldn’t SOLVE the problems; that’s what the technical experts are for.
Just as we shouldn’t try to show you, pianists, how to play trills, there are vocal specialists who can show us singers how to improve vocally.
For singers in the coaching lesson:
The first step for us singers is to translate/interpret: what did I do that was technically strange when the accompanist says, „it sounds kind of squashed“? Then I can try to correct the problem myself with the means at my disposal, and if I get stuck, I can consult a singing expert.
The répétiteur’s task
It is the répétiteur’s task to focus on the musical part and to recognise and point out technical problems, but it is not the répétiteur’s task to solve technical issues.
The best accompaniment lessons I have had are with colleagues who work so incredibly musically that you immediately sing better, and some technical problems solve themselves through the music.
And the final word: if you have a vocal coach who is not a singer and still helps you technically – stay there – exceptions prove the rule 🙂