09/27/2011 12:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

"Never Try to Teach a Pig to Sing"

"...It is a waste of time and annoys the pig."

My voice teacher had this quote by Robert Heinlein on a sign in her studio.

There are times it is really easy to just open my mouth and sing. Just today I whipped out an acapella "Happy Birthday" for a student pianist. I have used my voice to get attention from an oblivious waiter, letting out with a high note while bending over as though I am going to pick up something. The restaurant falls silent and I can then say, "Oh, waiter..."

Back in the day when we were paid in cash while singing abroad, I would have to declare and explain this at US Customs. I actually sang a few notes for one officer at Kennedy Airport who did not believe that the sweat-shirted and blue-jeaned vision standing before him was an opera singer.

Having to sing on command, however, is not cool. I think any person with a talent has experienced the parental "Perform for nice Mrs. Jones!" moment. At a certain point I needed to explain to my loving and supportive parents that my time at home with them was my downtime and not performance time. How many doctors are asked to diagnose someone at a social event? Legal advice from a lawyer? Most of us would not dream of approaching someone like that yet most people think we singers can just open our mouths any old time and let it rip. Ideally, it would be swell if we could be forewarned and warmed up if we are going to "perform."

It is a curious thing, classical singing is. The other day one of my students at Rice University told me that her instrumental colleagues do not understand what singers do in voice lessons. I have used the sports analogy before but let me go further.

We work on breathing and low abdominal support to regulate it (sort of the equivalent to bowing for string players), sound placement, recognizing and avoiding tongue and jaw tension. As English-speakers our love of expression with our lower mandible can be problematic. Delicate young ladies need to accept the fact that they will soon have backs the size of a linebacker's if they are going to breath correctly. One's body has to be lined up but relaxed to make an unencumbered sound.

The source of the sound is out of view so teachers need to hear and see very carefully and observe the slightest change of mouth, sternum and rib positions. When you add to all that the fact that everyone has a different shaped head and face and therefore a slightly different resonance cavity, then being a voice teacher is a lot like being a doctor. No two voices are alike. A lot of time is spent trying to diagnose what a student is doing to produce the sound. Is it natural or manufactured? Free or forced?

I often tell my students that "all systems need to be a go" before they make a sound. My mantra is, "Open. Support, Sing." If only it were that easy. The work consists of fine-tuning. Not unlike a camera lens, the slightest adjustment will change the focus. We go by feel and not the sound. Here is the irony: if the sound is small to us then it is probably loud and correctly produced and strong out where it counts. We cannot really enjoy the sound of our instruments. If we did we would be holding it inside rather than letting it out. If one is a control freak I advise another profession.

Ideally the student needs to get these basics down to a point that they are relatively automatic and then apply it to the notes on the page, text, phrasing and the mysterious unknown world of expression. You cannot teach someone to honestly feel and communicate -- it is either there or it isn't. You can teach most everything else. Alas, Murphy's law applies. After mastering the above, something will change, we will grow, have a child, battle illness, and that will affect our voice. The fine tuning is a life-long endeavor.

Psychology comes into play when teaching. It is hard to sing when upset, so when a student has tears welling up the lesson turns into a of therapeutic session. Once they unload about relationship, financial, or other problems, they can get back to the task at hand. Since our instruments are in our bodies we will often feel like they are really who we are. If we sing poorly then we are a bad person. It takes a lot of rewiring of the circuits to understand that we are not our voices.

The text aspect is a challenge not just in translation but also in pronunciation. It is not enough to be fluent in a language. There needs to be an adjustment the pronunciation to accommodate the singing. The guidelines on how to achieve this falls under the label of "diction"-- making more room for and adjusting vowel sounds, knowing the international phonetic alphabet and subtitles thereof, and the inflection of the language.

Memorization is a necessary evil. I often get impatient with myself because I am bad at names or forget where I put my keys, but then again I have about 25 operas and over a hundred songs (probably more) in my memory bank that could be hogging all the space. Methods to this end are different for everyone.

Acting and movement are key, as I have addressed in a previous entry. There are many styles of movement associated with different eras, and there is also actions dictated by the music. My specialty through my career has been "trouser roles" -- male parts sung by a woman. It is a real craft, especially in roles like Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier when I not only have to start the show in bed with a woman, but I also have to pretend to be a woman and flirt with a man. Confused yet? I am a woman, playing a man playing a woman. It differs from, for instance, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, as the character of Viola is disguised as Cesario and later reveals herself as a woman all along. It is more akin to when all roles in Shakespeare were played by men.

Some professional singers liken vocal production to golf. You will have great days and crummy without rhyme or reason. You give a performance that feels vocally right on, and no one says a thing. Other times you feel like you sang like crap and will get all sorts of compliments. The days when everything is clicking are rarely on performance days. One learns to go with what they've got that evening and just control what they can. The important thing is to keep trying for the optimum result and not get complacent.

I was very fortunate to meet my voice teacher Norma Newton after I finished my masters degree as I was, until that point, just getting by on raw talent and no technique. I had to learn everything the hard way and as a result I realize, through my own teaching, that she gave me quite a gift. She also taught me the quality of patience, and finding the right semantics that make sense to the student. The satisfaction when it all comes together is hard to describe. The whys and hows are equally as hard. Norma remained my teacher, friend and advisor until she passed away before her time. I will continue her legacy. I never imagined that I would be a teacher but here I am balancing both teaching and performing for the past twelve years. Thankfully in my case and that of many of my colleagues, George Bernard Shaw's idiom, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" does not apply.

Be forewarned, though: never ever try to teach a pig to sing.