Notes from vocal masterclasses

© Eileen Huang 2014
Jayne West working with Lawson Daves, with Tim Steele at the piano. Jayne is my teacher, so all my notes from her are filed away in my head — sorry!

I have a lot of notes from masterclasses this summer scribbled here and there — in the margins of programs, the back of sheet music, and even my phone — and thought I’d share them while I organized them. My intent is to share advice that singers can apply broadly, so these notes are not comprehensive nor representative of what each clinician taught during the class.

Kayo Iwama and Alan Smith

Practice tips:

  • Practicing speaking, then singing, each phrase in one long sigh.
  • Practice runs from the end to the beginning, e.g., sing the last 4 notes, then the last 8 notes, then the last 12 notes, etc. That way when you sing the run normally, you are always moving towards something more familiar.
  • Establish a vocal warm-up routine for every performance.


  • Always offer an aria in your native language.
  • Your face is your theater. Keep your hair off your face.
  • Never sing your biggest challenge in an audition. Demonstrate what you can easily do now, and leave the jury wanting to know if there’s more.
  • Present your repertoire list in columns (composer, title, larger work) and sorted by category (opera, song, oratorio, theater).

General good singing:

  • Lead with text, not sound.
  • Breathe with emotion.
  • Be careful with gestures. Don’t mime.
  • Support messa di voce with emotion and thought, so it’s not just an exercise in dynamics.
  • Motivate the idea across rests.

David Kravitz

Five tips for a successful career:

  • Know your music.
  • Take every gig seriously.
  • Be nice to people. Everyone.
  • The recitative is often the first impression you make. Spend as much or more time preparing it as you would the aria.
  • Control what you can, and let go of what you can’t.

Additional advice:

  • Plan how to get out of each gesture, e.g., if you raised your arms, when and how do you put them down.
  • Everyone gets bad reviews. If you want to believe the good reviews, you also have to believe the bad reviews.

James Maddalena

  • Breathing is not phrasing. Breathe where you need to, as long as you maintain the line.
  • Sing the A’ section of a de capo aria as though you’ve experienced something during the B section.

Ryan Turner

  • Use the inflection of words to guide your phrasing.
  • Don’t rush after cadences and periods in recitatives.
  • Think dramatically. Every phrase needs a character.
  • No appoggiaturas on one-syllable words.


What’s a normal amount of practicing?

Yesterday afternoon I spent an hour with a voice student working solely on rhythm: writing beats in the score, tapping subdivisions, speaking in rhythm, and count-singing. Perhaps concerned by the little amount of time we spent actually singing, at the end of the coaching, the student asked me, “What’s a normal amount of time to spend on this?”

I think she was hoping I’d respond with a prescription like “for ages 18 to 21: 30 minutes, four times a week,” but I had none. This student needed to dedicate a lot of practice time to counting, but her French was already excellent. On the other hand, I’ve known students with strong rhythmic aptitude who spent an entire semester improving their French from unrecognizable to somewhat passable.

Every musician has certain skills that require more practice. As a pianist with tiny hands, I spend a lot of time practicing awkward stretches and leaps that an average pianist would play without a second thought. It’s as frustrating and tedious for me as it is for my student to practice her 1 & 2 & 3 &s. A “normal” amount of practice is the amount it takes to make our difficult skills feel as easy as the skills that come naturally.