Rachel Velarde

Rachel Velarde

I began my music career in Bloomington, Indiana. After receiving my B.A. in Music from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, I earned two Master of Music degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Luminaries I have worked with include Vernon Hartman, James Caraher, Lorenzo Malfatti, Shirlee Emmons, Mary Sue Hyatt, John Sikora, David Jones, David Britton, and Carol Smith. I offer private, one-on-one weekly or twice-weekly instruction to students of all ages. I am also Adjunct Voice Faculty at Grand Canyon University, and am beginning the pursuit of my DMA at Arizona State University. I accompany my students on piano as much as possible, and I encourage healthy singing, coupled with a working knowledge of the voice. My goal as a teacher is to give my students a “toolbox” for their vocal technique, so that they can work towards a healthy, free and easy production. My students should be able to sing for a lifetime of enjoyment. Singing is, above all, FUN. If you love it, you can learn it.

I graduated with two Master of Music degrees (vocal performance and vocal pedagogy) in 1997.  I’ve been teaching privately and performing regularly since then, while still taking lessons myself.  I learned a lot of detail work and artistry since then, and I didn’t feel as if I needed to go back for my doctorate.  Most of my studio has been high school students and adult devotees.

Last year, though, I had three high school seniors preparing to go on to vocal performance degrees, as well as one community college student, preparing to go on to her junior year in vocal performance in college.   [···]

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This past Christmas break I was working on music for a faculty voice recital, scheduled for January 20, 2011.  As I practiced, I noticed that something was just NOT right with my voice.  Singing classically, I was fine, if sounding slightly tired.  The problem came when I was trying to sing a slightly higher Broadway belt sound (D4-E4).  My voice was making extra noise and just wouldn’t phonate properly.  I knew that I felt I was working too hard, and my self-diagnosis was muscle tension dysphonia (in other words, using too much muscle and “overblowing” the cords).

So, on January 13, 2011, I went to an ENT to have my cords looked at.   I was shocked when the doctor told me that I had small bilateral pre-nodules on the leading edge of the vocal folds.  I have always had “cords of steel” and been able to pretty much sing through anything.  This diagnosis of pre-nodules really made me re-think how I was approaching my voice.

What are pre-nodules? Here’s the layman’s version: the vocal folds are covered with the same skin as the outer layer of the skin on the outside of your body (squamous epithelium). Nodules are similar to calluses that form from repetitive motion.  If, when you notice that a callus is forming, you change your behavior, the callus can go away pretty quickly.  This is similar to the situation of pre-nodules on the vocal folds: it’s what is the beginning of the formation of a callus, but the skin has not yet hardened. Because I knew my voice and knew that what was going on was NOT just because I was exhausted, I got myself to the doctor quickly.  

What causes nodules? Nodules are most often a vocal disorder of vocal misuse.  But, in any voice disorder, there are generally a confluence of factors that contribute to the diagnosed disorder.  In my case, I had many factors that contributed: 1) On top of my private studio teaching and my regular performance schedule, I began teaching in a university setting in September 2010 (including 13 private students and class voice) which drastically increased my voice use, 2) in December my daughters became ill, & I ended up with very little sleep for 2+ weeks while continuing the crazy schedule that is a singer’s life in the Christmas season, 3) because I am able to be loud, I was speaking too loudly at home to my daughters, 4)  I was singing in the Turandot chorus, which for mezzo-soprano is on the upper end of the tessitura (it hangs D5-F5), 5) I was working learning how to belt while my voice was tired, not the style in which I’m most highly trained, 6) I had an undiagnosed case of Laryngo-Pharyngeal Reflux Disease (LPRD).  All of these factors combined to create what I had felt was just a “tired voice,” but ultimately resulted in something that COULD have been very drastic.

How are pre-nodules diagnosed?  [···]

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1) How am I empowering my students to learn on their own?  Are they improving their technical skills?  Are they improving their interpretation skills?  Are they improving their communication skills?  Are they making music or realizing notation?

2) Am I helping my students to learn how to practice rather than just spin their wheels?  Is practice time focused and well-utilized, planned out in advance – is it effective?  How regular is the practice?  Is the physicalization of the repertoire becoming ingrained into their body?

3) Am I being careful of my singers in this season of illness – keeping them on a forward trajectory, yet not causing them to feel they have to “sing ill” and therefore possibly injure themselves?

4) Am I being truly honest with my students on my thoughts about their potential?  Are they in the right place and singing the right repertoire to put them where they want to go?  Do I need to ask for more?  Do I need to back off expectations?

5) Am I practicing what I’m preaching? Do I take care of myself when ill?  Do I take regular lessons and practice regularly?  When’s the last time I learned new repertoire really well, just for the fun of it?

6) How can I expand my horizons, learn more so that I can teach with a broader spectrum of knowledge?

7) How am I networking with other teachers so that I am constantly “upping my game” as a teacher?

What questions are you asking yourself as you begin this new year?

Photo: Question Mark Squircle http://www.flickr.com/photos/xurble/376588066/ by Xurble (Gareth Simpson)

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