Training voices to be exciting, colourful and free

By Liz Banks-Anderson

Anna Connolly can recall the specific moment aged 26 when she felt the thrill of teaching people to sing.

“A fellow young artist asked for some help with a particularly hard aria. I remember trying several things with her and then all of a sudden I felt in my own body what was needed – it was just like pieces of a puzzle falling into place.

“I somehow articulated what was required in a way she understood, heard the enormous and immediate difference it made to her sound, and saw the joy on her face when she did. Then I was hooked,” Ms Connolly says.

This philosophy has served Ms Connolly well over her 30-year teaching career. As a Senior Lecturer in Voice, she has taught 84 finalists and 37 national singing competition winners, with more than a dozen of the latter hailing from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and the Victorian College of the Arts

The latest was this year’s winner of the Herald Sun Aria, 27-year-old VCA and MCM alumna soprano Kathryn Radcliffe, the ninth student of Ms Connolly’s to win the prestigious award.

Radcliffe performed works by Donizetti and Verdi in Hamer Hall for the 90th year of the competition, competing against five other finalists including another of Ms Connolly’s students and MCM alumna, Olivia Cranwell.

This competition is a launching pad for Victorian singers trained at the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, to take their careers onto the world stage. Graduate and 2007 Herald Sun Aria winner Nicole Car, a student of Ms Connolly, went on to win one of the biggest international competitions for singers – the 2013 Neue Stimmen. A regular guest artist with Opera Australia, Nicole has just made her USA debut with Dallas Opera.

Ms Connolly believes that, if approached in the right way, competitions can teach a singer a lot about how to survive in the industry.

“If you are lucky enough to actually win a major competition like the Herald Sun, there are three main effects – an injection of much-needed capital, an injection of confidence and a tangible track record of success that potential employers in this country can immediately understand,” she says.

However, she does believe that while the sorts of things judges look for in competitions have become clearer to her, who will then go on to win a competition is far less clear and not something she says she will ever be able to judge with accuracy.

“The final decision is very subjective and ultimately all decisions of whether to employ someone professionally will be equally so.

“What I try to do with singers is help them eliminate the variables, focus on those things they have some control over and to not fixate on things they cannot,” she says.

Ms Connolly says that all the technical training on offer would not matter unless a singer remains connected to their creative purpose and the reason they started singing in the first place.

“Without this connection, it is difficult to keep things in perspective. My prime focus is teaching a singer how to learn and how to build a secure vocal technique and stable body – a skeleton that can provide a framework for other elements to hang from,” she says.

Ms Connolly encourages each student to be an open learner and to reflect on the process without judgment.

Trained in human movement and anatomy, her teaching is considered to be at the forefront of vocal pedagogy.

Using principles of the Feldenkrais Method, Ms Connolly encourages students to use their body to change the acoustics of the singing voice to something that will be exciting, colourful, free and big enough to carry in an opera theatre.

“A lot of my work with students is teaching them how to sense, learn and understand cause and effect in relation to sound,” she says.

What keeps Ms Connolly continually fascinated with teaching singing is “working out just the right ‘thread’ to pull to reveal a beautiful, resonant and powerful sound. Some singers can be trickier than others to work out, but the problem-solving is what I love and the fun part of my job!”

Article first published in Voice, Volume 10 Number 12 December 8 2014 – January 11 2015

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.