Learning Renée Fleming Runs

Whenever I say that I sing or that I take voice lessons, I worry that people imagine me as one of those people in the beginning episodes of American Idol. The people who are convinced that they’re the greatest singers in the world but can’t actually carry a tune. I’m objectively decent, I want to say, want to promise. There’s a certain amount of natural talent that comes with singing, at least as far as tone goes, and I’m lucky enough to have some talent.

But just as with everything, raw talent can only take someone so far. I’m constantly trying to better myself as an amateur vocalist—not as someone who’s chosen to study vocal performance, but just as someone who loves to sing—and take voice lessons in Carmel in order to do just that.

wagner

With my voice teacher, we’ve been working towards a “senior” recital of sorts where I’ll perform over an hour of music—primarily opera in Italian, English, and French, but with an additional set devoted to musical theatre. The thing to remember about opera, though, is that it’s hard. There are stereotypes about fat women in horned helmets singing higher than birds can tweet, but no one ever jokes that opera is easy.

I’ve done operatic pieces since I was in high school, but never before have I worked on pieces as difficult as the ones for my recital. One piece in particular, Piangero la sorte mia, was killing me for months because I couldn’t get this one difficult run. My voice teacher told me that while she could plunk out the notes for me during our weekly lessons, I would need to practice this section heavily on my own.

So I did. Obviously.

My voice teacher is there to help me with the things I can’t do on my own—plunking out notes is something I can do on my own, but it would be much harder to give myself feedback on the shape of my vowels, since it’s easy to exist in a literal echo chamber when practicing a vocal piece. She helped me by letting me record her playing the notes at the tempo we were shooting for (although I still need to pick up my speed), and I used that to practice. She also helped to point out errors in how I was approaching the run at our weekly voice lessons, that way I wasn’t building on something I’d incorrectly learned.

And then one day, after weeks and weeks of practicing, I sang the run correctly. She made me do it again. Testing me to make sure that it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t, thankfully—I’d finally done it.

Now I’m working on getting that run up to tempo, but that’s another task entirely since I’ve learned the notes.

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The teacher-student relationship in voice lessons makes it easy to apply one of the characteristics of learner-centered teaching, but my voice teacher’s role in our lessons was crucial in the process of learning this particular run.

The role of the teacher, in this case, was to facilitate, as is largely the role of the teacher in a learner-centered environment. My voice teacher provided me with the tools that I’d need in order to learn the run—the recording, the strategies for how to approach the run based on where I was in my learning process (e.g., chunking sections of the run, playing only certain notes for myself to make sure that I’d landed in the correct spot, etc.), but I was the one doing the work and doing the learning. She would additionally facilitate by checking my progress at our weekly lessons.

Her facilitation of my learning of the run was especially interested in regards to the role of the teacher in that she did need to intervene when I’d made a mistake. It’s very hard to unlearn a mistake when it comes to singing, so my voice teacher would be sure to point out where I was messing up in the run, but also what I was doing—was I going up instead of down? Was I skipping a note entirely? She would tell me, and so then I knew what to fix on my own going forward.

Going forward, too, her role is still primarily that of a facilitator as she plays accompaniment, provides feedback, and gives me strategies for what to do during my own practice time. In providing me strategies, too, she models how she would approach particular sections of a song, but it’s still up to me to do the learning.
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