By Susan Jordan
Since I established my voice studio in 1979, I’ve been privileged to spend time with many special people who have come to me to “learn to sing.” Most of these have been high school students since that seems to be a period when people become aware of the music inside that they want to share. I know that was true for me. I heard a Met broadcast at the age of 13 and was amazed, stunned, and awed by the wonderful sounds I heard. And I knew immediately I wanted to try and do that.
Every teacher who works with vocalists knows that what we do in the studio is just the beginning of each student’s journey. Our primary responsibility is to provide them with tools they can learn to use to unlock their voice; how well they succeed partly depends on how hard they are willing to work, and how much time and effort they will devote to one of my favorite words: practice. It is indeed a journey, and every student’s path is unique, because every voice is unique . . . which is what makes what we do so fascinating.
Recognizing the Various Paths to Success
One of the first students who came to me exemplifies a path that very few students can follow. A 14-year-old high school sophomore when she began to study, she had a true and complete gift: a voice of exceptional natural beauty, and an innate sense of musicality. She almost immediately absorbed every concept I shared with her. Of course, with this ability, her voice blossomed and her singing was a joy not only to hear but to see as well. The love she experienced and could release through singing was very evident. Since she learned quickly to sing with ease, she was able to make music . . . the goal we have for all our students.
The path most students follow is generally not so smooth, as is evident in another high school sophomore’s story. Thanks to a very good cheerleading coach (yes, cheerleaders can also be singers!) she had a good understanding of using her breath correctly. There was a lot of promise in her voice but it was very far back, so obviously that was the challenge. It was slow going, but she was determined and we worked together on vowels, combinations of vowels and consonants, and forward focus. Then I gave her a song she fell in love with, and she was able to incorporate all the concepts we’d been working on . . . and music happened! From that point on it was smooth sailing, and she wound up as a vocal performance major at an excellent school.
Students as Individuals
One of the most important things I need to do as a teacher of young talent is to have a sense of each student as an individual. Knowing this girl is painfully shy or that boy is filled with insecurity means I need to help them develop the confidence to perform as well as teach them to use their voice correctly. With some students, I find I have to explain concepts in several different ways before I see the light go on! I always tell my students to ask questions if they don’t “get” what we’re trying to do. Picking up on visual and aural cues is important, but questions from the student are direct and cut to the chase.
As teachers we all have a set of exercises that seem to work well with the majority of our students. Sometimes the trick is to modify these, or to consider what else might work. Since singing involves some muscles that we can’t directly see, we often try different ways to find what imagery works best for a particular student. Moving jaw, shoulder, and neck tension to another part of the body where it’s a help rather than a hindrance can vary from simply walking around while singing to one of my favorites, facing the door and pressing with the hands against the frame while leaning forward. (I tell my students to try and push my house down.) This activity engages the intercostals and makes the student aware of how important muscles from the chest to the floor are for a singer. I’m sure all teachers have similar items in their bag of tricks.
Patience is a huge part of teaching teenagers. I have had more than one student who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. With these students, I find less talk and more action works best. Generally, focusing on one element at a time has been most successful. It’s not ideal but eventually we can put the pieces together and move forward. I constantly encourage these students to explain to me exactly what they are doing when they’ve been successful, and this helps them to retain the concept.
Telling Students to “Just SING”
I’ve had students who were very, very serious about “learning to sing.” I appreciate their passion and determination, but these are the students I have to sometimes remind not to over think what they are doing. Singing is hard work, but it also needs to be a source of joy! Sometimes I will tell these kids to stop thinking, take a deep breath, love the music, and just SING.
I recently explained to one tremendously talented student that I’m trying to provide him with the tools to share his soul through his music. That was a revelation for him. He has the same incredible gift of vocal beauty and musicality as the young woman I mentioned earlier. They come to us from time to time!
After attending the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, Susan Jordan moved with her family to the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania in 1971. She established her voice studio in 1979 and has had students accepted into such schools as the Eastman School of Music, Peabody Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, Hartt School of Music, Westminster Choir College, Cincinnati College-Conservatory, and many other fine programs. Former students have performed on Broadway, in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, on national tours of Broadway shows, and in regional theater. Some are also teaching either as school chorus directors or in private voice studios. Since 1984, she has directed some 80 high school and community theater musical productions. Currently, along with private teaching, she operates the music notesetting business established by her late husband, Jordan Music Engravers. She is a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing and was recently honored locally by being inducted into the East Stroudsburg Area School District Music Hall of Fame.