The voice teacher series: Betsy BishopInterview
Between performances of her own - at The Metropolitan Opera and Washington National Opera, to name a few - American mezzo-soprano Betsy Bishop loves to teach singing. Three years ago, she founded the Potomac Vocal Institute, which brings together teachers, coaches, conductors, and singers to offer training tailored to today’s singers.
In the first of three interviews with PVI’s voice faculty, we spoke with Bishop about what she asks of her students, and what she loves solving a “technical puzzle”.
What do you enjoy most about teaching voice?
What I enjoy most about teaching is giving people the ability to sing what they hear in their head. I love taking a technical puzzle and figuring out the best solution. Oftentimes students run from teacher to teacher or coach to coach looking for the “secret ingredient” to singing - I love helping them put down all that mess to see how basically simple the act of singing can be. Most young singers have accreted so much technical information that they over think EVERYTHING. I enjoy helping them “de-gunk” themselves.
What is the difference between a voice teacher and a voice coach?
The difference between a teacher and a coach is that one helps the artist build their “brush” and learn the basic strokes. The other helps the artist use that brush to paint particular pictures. I teach technique and production; my husband, who is a coach, helps perfect style and language. I often say that I help them bake the cupcakes; they need a coach to help ice them!
Can you describe what you hear when you feel you are hearing “good singing”?
Correct singing to me has a consistency in the resonance and tone. No air in the sound, no sense of the voice wandering around the mouth. It is focused in a concise, forward place and allowed to resonate freely.
What is a healthy way of teaching the topic of breath support?
I see breath support not just as AIR, but bone and muscle supporting the breathing mechanism. If we talk about CONTROL, students tend to stop the air flow, which is obviously wrong. I think the safest way is to emphasize strength and width in the ribs and stability in the obliques and abs. Keeping the ribs open allows for free movement of the diaphragm, which has the effect of control with a smaller risk of misinterpretation.
What trends have you noticed in the vocal writing of 21st-century music? What does it demand of singers?
The biggest challenge I find with 21st century music is learning to work within the tone language while maintaining the same sense of legato. With a few notable exceptions, I find that many composers substitute large leaps and difficult intervals for actual line and drama, rendering it a task indeed to stay comprehensible with the language and line. I don’t mean to imply that there is no beauty in modern music; there most certainly is…just that the challenge is different.
Do you feel that you have a responsibility to assess a singer’s future potential? How might you discuss it?
Boy, assessing a singer’s potential is a sticky wicket! My singers, being older, have a different need for honesty. I don’t think it is ethical for me to pronounce judgement on their potential, but I do think I should point out difficulties that might put a career out of reach for them. It is not my place to say when their dream is over, but I can help tailor their expectations of what that career might look like.
Readers, do you know a teacher worthy of some spotlight? Send your nominations for our Voice Teachers interview series to [email protected].