Coaching Pretoria’s Singers

 I was recently at the University of Pretoria as a visiting coach for three days. One of the days I coached a number of students (pictured with myself and head of vocal studies, soprano Hanli Stapela) in front of an audience and the rest of the time I worked in the usual one-to-one setup.

The approach to content did not differ greatly between the public and the private coachings, but it was interesting for me to notice how the public coaching conjured up similar emotions for me like those observed during a performance. I found I was not only focusing my energy on the singer who was being coached at the time, but I also projected my energy beyond in order to reach the audience. 

The presence of an audience gave the participants a larger soundboard as I invited questions and responses too. This seem to make the singers feel more encouraged in general by the group’s response as well as my direct feedback. The fact that the students also had to project beyond the private one-to-one scenario made them perform more during the public coachings. I did notice that performance anxiety did not seem to be playing a role in this instance, which I suspect was due to the fact that the singers were put at ease knowing they had another chance in which they could improve their efforts.
Three points that regularly came up during my time at Pretoria were:
Direction of Energy
In the Alleluia from Mozart’s motet Exultate Jubilate for soprano I encouraged her to find the direction of the energy the music insights based on the phrasing. This was specifically clear in sections that had repetitive motivic material. By deciding to sometimes let a repeating motive now belong to the preceding statement or lead to the following statement, the singer found that she was more capable of shaping the coloratura musically, as well as sustaining the fluidity of the coloratura. I believe that as the bigger sections were divided into piecemeal sections, she was now able to make more sense of it and so manage it better physically and musically. This dissection of the phrases furthermore ensured a more musical and enjoyable performance.
Voiced and Unvoiced Consonants
How to approach consonants have come up a number of times throughout the sessions and I kept by my rule of thumb regarding this. I have previously found – and this was reinforced these past few days – that one can not approach consonants the same. Voiced consonants have to be voiced on the pitch that is due in the vowel that follows it. This caused the sound to be more focused and free than compared to when under-energised voiced consonants cause the vowel line to become lethargic.  In high tessitura areas the voiced consonants were made lighter, but still on the pitch (without a slight scooping up) and the singers found that this “hook” helped to focus the vowel sound.
Unvoiced consonants on the other hand are best approached by imagining that they are a tone above the pitch. The energy that is engaged in this instance causes the vowel again to be free and focused. Having done some painstaking work with a couple of singers, literally drawing attention to every consonant immediately improved the spinning power of the vowel and in some cases the intonation as well. Even in high tessitura this approach worked successfully and the singers did not “hoist up” any sounds, causing unnecessary tension.
Familiar to Foreign Texts
Many of the students were Afrikaans and so this was a perfect opportunity to experiment with ways of how to make the text’s meaning their own. Whilst reciting the text we worked on jumping from Afrikaans to English to German/French/Italian. Since the student as a result experienced the text in three different languages the meaning got ingrained easier. After a while the singers became more confident in how to inflect the foreign language as the important words were understood and therefore illuminated. It also helped with memorisation of texts. I believe this kind of work should be done prior to singing the melody as it the automatically informs the inflection of the text-melody as opposed to be doggedly bound by bar lines.


  1. Alice HB

    Well done and congratulations on your success in South Africa!
    I skimmed over your blog, but it certainly deserves intensive reading, so I’ll again be around soon.

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