Susan McCulloch

Professor Susan McCulloch FGSM ARCM(Hons), Senior Professor and Consultant of Voice at the Guildhall School, highlights the urgency of preparing excellent vocal teachers for the future. Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

Teaching the Teachers of Tomorrow’s Soloists.

As a Senior Professor of Voice at the Guildhall School, I am acutely aware that currently, our generation of singers is the last generation to be taught by teachers who weren’t able to avail themselves of the breakthroughs in the anatomical and physiological advances in understanding how voices work. Teaching voices was successfully (and not so successfully in many instances!) taught by inspiring teachers who passed on the way they sang / were taught themselves, with no real knowledge of how ‘things’ happened. It was a way of passing on their own understanding of how they themselves ‘felt’ the sound, but without the underlying knowledge that we now have, and was often little more than that…. A series of sensations and imaginative concepts …. All mixed in with their own foibles and misunderstandings. Granted, many of them had excellent ears and were well able to correct and teach sounds, and generations of singers learnt from the feet (or voice) of their masters, but when things went wrong with voices, there were precious few who were able to rehabilitate the voice successfully. We, the current generation of teachers are expected to understand and pass on the anatomical and physiological perspectives that science has researched during our lifetimes and which has supported a much more in depth knowledge of vocal pedagogy; we also have to be able to apply this knowledge in our teaching of students and teachers.

Our generation of teachers now has a much more eclectic and, indeed, intricate set of information to pass on, and as we help to teach the teachers of the next generation, there are many more things that we need to update our own pedagogical skills to be included in future teaching programmes. We are now therefore, able to offer an infinitely richer learning vocabulary to our future teachers and students. I firmly believe that it is a vital part of our job as teachers to be able to explain to our students in a way that they are most easily able to process. Some will achieve great tangential learning curves with a series of Left Brain imaginative concepts and sensations, (“Sing into the dome” … “It’s like a ping pong ball on a fountain” …. ) whilst to another student these images are at best vague, and at worst, utterly unhelpful. We would then have to be able to switch instantly into a more Right Brain approach and explain things in a more detailed anatomical or scientific way. The ability to be flexible in our dissemination of this information and adaptable in how something is expressed is surely a crucial skill for our future teachers to learn. So we must be able to accommodate the different learning styles of all our students and use which ever of the many tools we have at our disposal to enable the student to make sense of what we are seeking with them, and ultimately to put it into practice for themselves. This is a very exciting time indeed in vocal pedagogy as we are able to use all this ‘new’ information at our disposal in the most effective and helpful way for each individual student.

I am not advocating the idea that science in teaching supersedes the skill of the ear, or the joy of making sounds, or the understanding of the aesthetics of hundreds of years of beautiful singing, for something cold and clinical; but we have to understand that science has a great deal to teach us about the facts of singing and we have a duty to pass this on to the next generation of singing teachers, hand in hand with all of the aesthetics of singing, to be sure that teachers of the future can help all sorts of learners and, importantly, can also heal and rehabilitate damaged or broken voices that have not learned how to sing properly and have been damaged by bad practice.

Singers these days are expected to be able to do considerably more than singers of my generation, and these expectations are not solely vocal. They are expected to look terrific, travel overnight and sing the next day, perform under strenuous and ever shorter rehearsal periods, work with directors who will demand more than merely “park and bark” ….. sing taxing and complicated arias whilst riding a unicycle/ doing a complicated dance routine/ rush round the stage / lie curled up in a foetal position on a foam filled stage for example. Our teachers have to be able to help them achieve this.

We have to be able to teach the teachers of tomorrow to educate their students to be terrific all rounders as well as outstanding soloists. Our teachers of tomorrow need to be able to pass on a massive amount of information in a succinct and detailed way. Details relating to additional supporting subjects like body language, marketing, intuition, watching, listening, analysing, psychology, nutritional information, presentation, preparation, fashion, use of technology etc….. As well as enabling singers to make utterly beautiful sounds and convey the message of the text, as they have always done.

It is true that nothing can make up for teachers who enable singers to make these beautiful sounds and sing intelligently and emotionally, but the singing world has moved on and singing is only one element needed for a professional singer to succeed in the 21st century.

Our teachers of tomorrow need to immerse themselves in areas long since understood as being of significant value in the sporting world on their elite player pathway. Areas such as nutrition, performance psychology and self awareness. For example, my niece who plays rugby for England Women’s team had an intensive training camp before the Autumn Internationals and there, they were given group sessions from highly qualified nutritionists and psychologists in their preparation and lead-up to the greatest games of their lives. This was the same in preparation for the World Cup, which England Women won! For both instrumentalists and singers, many enlightened teachers are already starting to inculcate ‘peripheral’ professional skills, and are researching for themselves aspects of 21st century practice such as the aforementioned nutrition, psychology and self awareness to be included in their students’ classes.

For singers also, developments in technology offer important possibilities, for example in videoing and recording their rehearsals to give them an idea of how they are coming across to the people for whom they are singing…. Many auditions nowadays are recorded, and being enabled to watch yourself and discuss this with a well-informed teacher is a powerful tool in being able to perform better, and be more objective. Teaching the teachers how to benefit best from the increasing amount of information out there to enable them to produce singers at the top of their game and be that little bit better than their competition is a vital part of the work for our generation. After all, as governments cut arts funding, and more and more established international arts organisations downsize their operations or shut their doors completely, the world that we are preparing our instrumentalists and singers for is also getting smaller. There are far fewer choral societies than thirty years ago: each county used to have at least two, putting on maybe three concerts per year… Now they are all amalgamating and putting on maybe two per year, only one of which might employ instrumentalists and singers…. The maths show a drop of six concerts employing soloists, to maybe one. The proliferation of small regional music societies is also dwindling and those concert opportunities are drying up with them.

Our teachers need to be preparing innovative and talented singers to create their own performance opportunities. For this they need marketing skills, as well as creative initiative…. And then to be able to deliver a top quality performance on the day.

To prepare the teachers of tomorrow for these tasks, our generation has the responsibility to start catching up with the skills that are needed too. There are copious amounts of interesting, well researched and highly useful information on the web (where would we be without it?!) that our generation needs to catch up with, in order to be thoroughly informed and pass this on to our next generation of teachers.

There are not many institutions teaching practical pedagogy at the highest levels. It’s exciting that the Guildhall School is now planning a degree in pedagogy. This means that we are in the excellent position of being able to influence the teachers of tomorrow, and start inculcating the highest possible standards in a wide variety of disciplines to ensure that they will be leading the charge and producing singers equipped to succeed in the ever more challenging world of music in the 21st Century. It is up to us to ensure that we are succeeding our teachers and ensuring they have the tools they will need to equip them for their work. Our future depends on it.

© Professor Susan McCulloch FGSM ARCM (Hons)

The international soprano Professor Susan McCulloch’s solo career spans all fields of the classical music world. Susan was invited to become a Performance Consultant at the Royal Opera House “Jette Parker Young Artists Programme” and is a Professor of Voice at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, as well as a founder tutor on the Abingdon Summer School for Solo Singers.





Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s