Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Round-up: 51st NATS Conference in Salt Lake City – “Echoes of Song”

Rachel & Craig FINALLY meet (long-time MTH buddies)

I was pleased to be the recipient of a NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) Independent Teaching Fellowship this year.  This new award was created by NATS to better facilitate the participation by private studio teachers (who make up most of the membership, but are least likely to hold Board positions) in NATS and attendance at conferences.  The Fellowship covered the cost of the conference fees, as well as a ticket to the private show that Kelli O’Hara gave the conference attendees.  I have to say that I would not have been at the conference without the Fellowship.

Sessions that I attended and their “big ideas” were:

Full Session 1: “Male Voice Master Class,” Stephen King, presenter

The big idea: BREATH is everything, EASE of breath is even more.

Special Session: “Solo/Choral Singing: A Symbiotic Relationship.” Panel composed of: Dr. Sharon Hanson (moderator), Tim Sharp (Executive Director of ACDA), Martha Randall (Past President of NATS), Dr.Brenda Smith (author of Choral Pedagogy), Dr. Brady Allred (Director of Choral Studies at University of Utah), Scott McCoy (NATS Immediate Past President), and Allen Henderson (NATS President).

The big idea: “NATS is about collaborating with anyone we can.” Our jobs as private instructors is to give the students the ability to best do their jobs – often times these include choral positions, and we need to facilitate the vocal technique necessary for BOTH solo and ensemble singing.

NATSAA (NATS Artist Award) Final Auditions: Thomas Florio, baritone, 1st place winner

The big idea: COMMUNICATION is key, not just a “pretty voice.”

Break-out Session: “Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence,” Dr. Karen Leigh-Post, presenter.

The big idea: “The behavior of singing is no more than taking pen to paper or brush to canvas. Vocal artistry is the act of engaging the creative mind to that which behavior responds.” — Dr. Karen Leigh-Post

Full Session 2: “The Female Voice: New Findings,” Dr. Ingo Titze, presenter

The big idea: Dr. Titze is hilarious!  I laughed so hard I was crying.  Seriously, he posits that the FEMALE voice, as the natural extension of the adolescent voice into adulthood, is the standard and the male voice is the “aberration.” Also, a term that resonated throughout the rest of the conference was “vocal tract reactance” — the vocal tract behaves in the same manner as any instrument, briefly “grabbing” energy from the source, holding onto it, and then feeding it back to the source at the right time to amplify the sound.

Publisher’s Showcase: Graphite Publishing, “Vocal Music by Living Composers”

This new publisher, based in Minneapolis, MN, is run by a pair of composers.  From their website: “Rather than focusing solely on publishing music that pushes musical frontiers with a compromise in audience comprehension, or work that tips the excellence/accessibility scale more towards accessibility, Graphite will even the balance by promoting quality new music, but music that has the power and ability to be appreciated on a basic level on a first listen. Also, we will build popularity and excitement around a composer and the work he or she is doing, rather than single out one excellent piece. I.E., we’re trying to avoid publishing one-hit wonders.” They pay generous royalties (50% of the consumer cost of a piece of solo vocal music goes directly to the composer), and I spent quite a bit of time talking with them between sessions.  During their 45-minutes presentation of songs, there was one piece to which I responded “Meh,” but nonetheless was well-composed.  Overall, I LOVED what they had to say and the manner in which they said it.  If you’re looking for quality new vocal music, go to these guys!

Publisher’s Showcase: “Hal Leonard Musical Theatre Sampler,” Richard Walters, editor

The big idea: There is a new Bernstein collection of AMAZING songs, several of which have never been published.  The High Voice, Medium/Low Voice volumes do NOT contain all of the same material.  The Duets and Ensembles also has some wonderful gems that were previously very hard to get.  Even the big publishing houses do some fabulous work.  We need to work harder to make sure original scores are used in our studios so as to support the work of new composers as well as scholarly work of editors.  Copies of the High Voice edition were given to all Showcase attendees.

Full Session 3: “Stepping on Stage: Preparation for Your Opera Audition.” Panel composed of: George Shirley, Gayletha Nichols, Christopher McBeth, Matthew Horner.

The big idea: PREPARE! Sing repertoire that is appropriate to your voice and “have the complete package” — language, presence, communication AND voice.

Art Song Composition Award (ASCA) Winner: David Sisco

The big idea: “Missed Connections,” cycle for mezzo-soprano and piano.  Texts taken from Craig’s List postings.  This is a very smart, well-composed and VOCAL composition.  As I was listening, I thought “I want to sing this!” I thoroughly enjoyed myself and David’s composition.

Break-out Session: “Voice Students from the Fringe,” Nancy Bos, presenter

The big idea: ALL singers need vocal instruction that is pedagogically based.  We must serve our Contemporary Commercial Musician (CCM) singers as well as those in Music Theater and Opera.  There is a SOUND pedagogical basis to teaching belt, and it needs to be understood, and this information passed on to our singers so that they can have longevity in their careers.  Also, Nancy brought up the idea that CCM is becoming much more gender neutral in its approach and that singers are asked to sing more within the same ranges, regardless of gender.

Break-out Session: “Beyond Belt – Acoustics and Mechanics of the Super-Belt,” David Sabella-Mills (president of NYSTA), presenter

The big idea: More and more demands for “more heroic sounds” are being made of our singers (of the type made of tenors during the late 19th century), especially in Music Theater.  We must be able to guide them with a pedagogical, “head voice dominant”/top-down approach to belt.  “If it sounds like belt, it IS belt.”

Full Session 4: “Song Search: Finding Old and New Friends,” Carole Kimball, presenter

The big idea: There are many wonderful songs out there – being written by current composers AND songs from favorite composers that are not in the immediate lexicon of teaching.  Search out songs off the beaten path, and you’ll be happy that you did.

Publisher’s Showcase: “Messiah: The Old and New Variants,” Dr. Chester Alwes, presenter

The big idea: Finally, a version of ALL the Messiah variants presented in one volume. So, there’s only one to purchase, and you can sing whichever version the conductor wants.

Publisher’s Showcase: “Happy 100th Birthday Samuel Barber!” presented by Hal Leonard, Richard Walters, editor.

The big idea: The new 65 Songs of Samuel Barber High Voice and Medium/Low Voice include most of his mature output.  Previously unpublished songs are included in the collection, including an early version of “The Daisies” (his mother was named Daisy….). Also, there are now FIVE volumes of the Italian Art Songs High, Medium High, Medium, Medium/Low, Low Voicings – newly expanded to 28 songs, based on the Paisiello edition, including song background and IPA transliterations of all the texts.  A Book/CD version is also available, including text pronunciation tracks.  Copies of the High Voice Barber edition were given to all Showcase attendees, as well as a Medium Voice edition of the 28 Italian Songs and Arias.

Full Session 5: Master Class: “Kelli O’Hara”

The big idea: COMMUNICATE and say something.  You must be mentally present at all times

Break-out Session: “It Takes a Team: Managing Voice Disorders,” Dr. Kari Ragan, Dr. Karen Wicklund, Leda Scearce

The big idea: Work WITH your student through any vocal disorder.  Complete voice rest is rarely the treatment these days (if the muscle’s not working correctly, how will it re-learn function without use?), so modified singing is indicated.  Some schools are also allowing “therapeutic juries” in which a jury is completed using a modified curriculum – the disorder is treated as a disability that must be accommodated.  The full jury must still be completed at the appropriate time.

Special Session: “Écoute: Pieces of Reynaldo Hahn,” Norman Spivey (NATS Master Teacher), presenter

The big idea: This was an extraordinarily entertaining piece of theater, in which he presented himself as Reynaldo Hahn, summoned back by the audience to “account” for his life.

Morning Session: “Singer’s Mental Health, Session 3” (I missed the first 2 as they were at 7:30 am), Dr. Lynn Eustis, presenter

The big idea: Keep yourself mentally healthy as the teacher.  The student is NOT the validation of our work.  We are, at all times, our students’ advocate – even when it might necessitate playing “bad cop.”

Break-out Session: “Teaching Children,” Robert Edwin, presenter

The big idea: Children are singing and SHOULD be given the proper guidance, even at extremely young ages.  We, as teachers, should NOT expect them to sound like adults, but should be applying sound pedagogical principals to help them achieve longevity in their careers.

Full Session 6: “Do you hear what I hear? When to refer,” Dr. D.D. Michael, presenter

The big idea: There is an amazing amount of new vocal research out there.  Gather a voice team, as necessary, and treat the WHOLE singer. A Voice Team Locater is referenced by the Voice Academy and is a great resource.

Publisher’s Showcase: “Sing Along with Joan” Joan Boytim presents two new duet books

The big idea: Two new duet books at an intermediate level are now published by Hal Leonard.  There is an Easy Classical Duets and a Traditional Sacred Duets book.  Both include pieces previously out of print for use in the studio.

Publisher’s Showcase: “New Vocal Repertoire for Concert, Studio, and Church” presented by Lorenz & Roger Dean Publishing Company

The big idea: There are some fabulous new arrangements of old standards out there.  Mark Hayes arranges for these guys – check them out!

Full Session 7: “Stepping on Stage 2: Preparing Your Music Theater Audition,” Panelists: Florence Birdwell, Michael Ballam (Utah Festival Opera), and Terrence Goodman

The big idea: Your BASIC minimum requirements are 1) intonation, 2) respect for the literature (style, notes, rhythms, language), and 3) musicality.  Deal-breakers are lack of communication (no, a beautiful voice does not make up for a boring performance, but neither does an amazing performance cover up deficient vocalization), and TALENT NEVER TRUMPS ATTITUDE.  Remember, the 3 most important notes (especially in a 16-bar audition) are the first, last, and highest.

Full Session 8: “Can You Hear What I Hear: Are You Sure?” Dr. Kris Chesky and Dr. Stephen Austin, presenters

The big idea: Dr. Chesky talked about noise DOSAGE in the music classroom.  There are no guidelines currently in place (and very few studies on the subject), although dynamic change in teaching style (highs and lows – just as in interesting music) is the biggest indicator to lowering dosage of noise.  PAMA (Performing Arts Medical Association) and NASM (National Association of Schools of Music – accreditation body of 600 schools) are currently in discussion to add guidelines on noise-induced hearing loss into the curriculum (it’s completely absent from present guidelines).  These are to be recommendations for informing students of their risk and what they can do to help lower their dose.  Dr. Austin talked about studies of VOCAL dosage (amount of use) in University Vocal Majors.  Singers are using their voices all the time and we, as their teachers, need to help raise awareness of how much students are using their voice.  We must work together as colleagues to space out the vocal demands on the students throughout the semester rather than have it all concentrated at one time.

Gala Banquet: Simon Estes, Special Guest Speaker

The big idea: Simon told us of his amazing journey, which is a testament to his talent and commitment to the art of singing.  But he left us with these parting words, a challenge to teachers everywhere: “Make sure that we give our young people the totality of singing. That you sing not only with your brain, but with your beautiful, beautiful hearts; and our hearts need love.”

As you can tell, I attended as many sessions as I could, although there were three choices during each Break-out session, so I was unable to attend everything.  I met amazing people and have already applied several things that I learned into my studio.  I came home rejuvenated and energized to teach (I also purchased a HUGE amount of music, but got several books free from the Hal Leonard sessions!).  Above all, keep connected with those who do what you do.

Anyone else with NATS Conference experiences?  Share them here as you LIVE the challenge that Simon gave us.

About the Author

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 ... [Read more]


  1. Kal Voice Studios

    Hi Rachel,
    Thanks for this great post! Due to the content you’ve shared here, I’m looking in to NATS!
    Thanks again, and have a great week!

    In Christ, miranda

  2. Nancy Bos

    Hi Rachel, Excellent write-up of the conference. I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog posts and other articles! Nancy

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