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Musical Theatre Educators Alliance Conference and some thoughts on Music Theatre voice pedagogy

One of my favourite places, the MTEA conference in New York, with great MT educators sharing and connecting. I’m there with a hot pink scarf around my neck!

I am half way through my amazing trip to the USA working as a Visiting Research Scholar at Shenandoah Conservatory while I collect my research data for my PhD through the University of Southern Queensland looking at how voice is taught to music theatre students here in the USA. It has been an astonishing journey, connecting with colleagues and learning from the experience. My favourite thing about being here in the States is the experiencing the collegial atmosphere of many training institutions, and of course, being at my favourite conference in New York, the Music Theatre Educator’s Alliance International, at NYU Steinhardt this past weekend. Stacey Alley and Meg Bussert did an incredible job co-ordinating this event where I got to meet colleagues, new and old, and share ideas. There were casting directors, and music theatre educators from all over the US and the world sharing their knowledge and expertise. Simon Ward, from Nomiz in Sydney, was a standout presenter on the brain and teaching. I also loved watching  Gwen Walker workshopping Contemporary Alexander Technique and a highlight, Lynn Ahrens discussing her writing process. There were actually too many things I loved to mention, to be fair to any of the presenters – it was all great! I also saw The Ferryman, The Waverly Gallery and Head Over Heels. Seeing Jason Robert Brown and Betsy Wolfe at Subculture on Friday night was unforgettable. Being there with my friends and colleagues made it even better.

Lynn Ahrens was the guest keynote speaker at the recent MTEA conference at NYU Steinhardt.

I am so grateful to my US colleagues for their support and friendship. Music Theatre education is our shared passion, and as Matt Edwards said to me last semester, it takes a village to raise a music theatre performer. A village, a tribe, whatever this group of wonderful people is, I am glad I belong. I leave refreshed and excited for my research and for the future of those we teach. The care and attention paid to employability, to the mental health of students, to the standards required for employment within the industry, to trying to nut out solutions to difficult questions – all of it matters to this group of educators.

I was so excited to be part of a new group of Music Theatre voice teachers (thank you Raymond Sage  for the conversation and for hoisting the flag) who want to start a voice pedagogy discussion based on what is happening NOW, what students need now, not what was happening and being taught thirty years ago in music theatre. Music theatre singing (and other Contemporary Commercial Music singing styles) is as important, and as highly skilled in its own way as classical singing and deserves it’s own recognition. Just as I would never pretend to teach the application of classical voice, with my small amount of experience in classical voice singing training (I send students to a classical specialist – there are LOTS of them!), it is exciting to see that singing teachers who are specialists in the field of music theatre, and other CCM styles, are beginning to be recognised for their expertise, and this expertise comes from years of working with students, working in the field and understanding the nuances, just as classical teachers must train and work formally for years to understand the nuances in their fields.  Whilst I love the various contemporary voice training courses around and available to us, and have taken many of them, and I recommend them to colleagues and students all the time, no one would expect to be considered an expert in classical voice training after a nine or ten day course.  They are excellent, with highly skilled presenters and very very valuable to us as pedagogues. They are a starting point. Short courses are a launch pad, an exciting and wonderful launch pad. As are conference presentations and workshops and ideas we glean from masterclasses. Valuable and useful, all of them. I believe we need longer training and mentoring programs available to those voice teachers wishing to move into CCM and Music Theatre voice training. The skills needing to teach Music Theatre voice application (and pop/rock/ country/ R&B/ and all other CCM styles) are specific and different to classical voice training – even the American Academy of Teachers of Singing believes this, and I look forward to this new group unpacking the pedagogy into the future and being a part of this important conversation. I was fortunate to do my Masters in voice pedagogy specialising in CCM (including music theatre) styles, and I didn’t realise how rare a thing this was until I came here and realised how many classical courses there are, and how few (although they are starting to sprout!) graduate level programs are available to voice teachers wishing to specialise in this field.

Some of my closest friends and colleagues were at NYU this weekend across all the Music Theatre disciplines and I am grateful to have these people in my life. Now, back to the data analysis, remembering why I am doing this crazy huge project, then I am going to sing today. Because joy! I am filled with joy and gratitude after the weekend in NY with friends.

Observing and being a lifelong learner as a singing teacher

LOVE Sheri Sanders! Her Rock the Performance classes are a must for anyone seriously into CCM Music Theatre styles!

I’ve been back to teaching and researching after my trip to  the US in January. This morning I observed an online class with New York music theatre coach, Sheri Sanders. I believe observation is an incredibly valuable learning tool, which is just as well since it is a major part of my doctoral research!

I have been so lucky to be able to observe wonderful teaching and singers in lessons in the US over the last few years. It is such an act of generosity, allowing another teacher to watch you teach. I have watched teachers work with a student in a way that is maybe the opposite way of how I might teach but get the same end result – there are MANY ways to teach singing, and it is not about right or wrong.  I find the sharing of information challenges and strengthens my teaching.

In the past you might have become a singing teacher through the master-apprentice method. You studied with one teacher for many years, watched them teach and were taught by that teacher yourself, and then went on to teach yourself. This method of training no longer really exists, we are trained in conservatoires, or through private pedagogical courses, or both. Teaching singing is of course completely unregulated, and many teachers come to the professional without any formal qualifications but with years of performance background and teach what they know through experience. Although I had an undergraduate degree, I certainly started out that way, and quickly realised I didn’t know enough to meet the needs of my students. My Masters degree in vocal pedagogy gave me a wonderful training in lots of areas relative to singing teaching, especially voice physiology and acoustics, and was a launch pad (NOT an ending) to my ongoing quest to learn about the singing voice and voice teaching. There were gaps in the degree (you don’t learn EVERYTHING in academia, right!), which meant I needed to continue seeking out the knowledge and skills to teach to the best of my abilities. The observation of other teachers has been invaluable in filling some of these gaps. I especially like it when we can have long discussions about the lessons too!

Just some of the teachers who have generously allowed me to observe their teaching over the last three years include Jeanette LoVetri, Mary Saunders-Barton, Raymond Sage, Pat Linhart, Wendy DeLeo LeBorgne, Sheri Sanders, Elizabeth Benson and Timm Adams. Sometimes I have things pop up in my brain from lessons I observed, or when I’m researching, I might recognise how a teacher applied a certain principle. Sometimes I have watched, or participated, and been a little confused, but after a period of time, an understanding of what the teacher was doing drops into my brain. It’s like things stew around up there for a bit, and then an understanding appears. Sometimes I observe and just soak in the wonderful teaching and singing. What a privilege! Knowing not just the theory of voice pedagogy, but the application of it when seeing others teach is truly valuable.

The Diva herself – the wonderful Pat Linhart!

I learn new skills, and return to my teaching humbled by the incredible number of highly skilled voice teachers out there in the big wide world. I messaged the wonderful Pat Linhart after watching her teach and being back in my studio, pinching some of her ideas. She responded “isn’t stealing the only way!” I LOVE this attitude! We all have something to learn (steal) from one another, especially if we decide to be lifelong learners. I do think it is important to recognise and acknowledge those who have so generously sown into your skills! I am excited to be presenting on mature voices this Sunday at the ANATS Building Blocks training day. I will get to observe my Queensland colleagues teaching and presenting on the different ages of the voice. Very cool!

Observing is great, but then it’s time to go apply what you observe, so I’m off to warm up and sing! Thank you to all the singing teachers I’ve been able to watch over the years. You have all contributed to who I am as a teacher!

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