Published on October 31, 2016
TVF: Where do you currently teach?
MH: I am currently associate professor of voice and coordinator of the voice area at Auburn University, where I teach applied voice, diction, and vocal literature classes.
TVF: Please tell us about your vocal training and performance history.
MH: I earned an undergraduate degree from Ithaca College, a master’s degree from The Hart School, and my DMA from the New England Conservatory in Boston. All of my degrees are in voice performance, but I have always had strong academic and pedagogical interests as well, so I took additional undergraduate degrees in music theory and music education and a graduate degree in musicology. My background is mostly in art song, oratorio, some opera, and lots of professional choral singing, but my current singing activity is mostly as a recitalist, giving approximately 5-10 performances a year at various universities and other venues. I also enjoy collaborating with my wonderful instrumental colleagues at Auburn on chamber music.
TVF: What is your teaching philosophy?
MH: I don’t often get asked about my philosophy, so this was fun to ponder and try to put into words. In sum, I think I try to respect the uniqueness of every person with whom I work. Every voice, personality, and mind is different, and I try to unlock the gifts that each individual has to offer. This applies to technical work and repertoire assignments – understanding the voice’s strengths and weaknesses and selecting music that will advance technical work as well as show the singer off to best advantage – but also applies to their expressive gifts and specific career goals. As my teaching continues to mature, I find myself better able to connect with and help students if I try to approach a lesson more empathetically and from their perspective. As a younger teacher, I think I was more likely to teach two different students the same way, whereas now I am more tuned in to individual priorities, personalities, and learning styles – I now teach people instead of singers.
TVF: What genres of singing do you teach?
MH: As a classical singer myself, I mostly teach classical singing and repertoire, but I also enjoy music theater. Although my students are classical voice performance and music education majors, they enjoy occasional forays into other styles as well. My previous institution, Shorter College, has a thriving music theater program when I taught there from 2006-2012, and many BFA students were in my studio at that time.
TVF: Do you believe that anyone can learn to sing? (Barring any medical complications)
MH: Absolutely. Sometimes professional musicians forget that music is not just for professionals. We should be actively engaged in getting the whole world to sing along with us! There are so many opportunities to do so in schools, communities, churches, and even personal at-home music making.
TVF: In your experience, what are some of the most common pitfalls in vocal training?
MH: This varies from student to student, but singers are often highly intelligent people, and intelligent people tend to overthink things. At some point, you need to get out of your head and into your body if you’re going to sing well. This is a tricky balance, because there is a lot to think about – words, music, technique, etc. – but ultimately a singer has to be more kinesthetically oriented. You can't think your way to good singing, and unlike many disciplines, being smart isn’t enough. Many people compare musicians to athletes, and the analogy is a good one.
The other big pitfall I see is students who are too eager and get ahead of themselves, singing difficult repertoire before they are ready or singing a selection that is not appropriate for their voice type. I tell my students that good repertoire selection is like good gift giving. A good gift is not necessarily what you would like to buy for a person or what you think the person needs; a good gift is something that the person would like to receive. Same thing with repertoire: just because you like the song or aria does not mean that it is a good fit for your voice. Enjoying your repertoire is important – you have to be passionate about what you’re singing – but you have to choose wisely too.
TVF: How will understanding the voice production mechanism make someone a better singer? Or a worse singer?
MH: I don’t think that more knowledge is ever a bad thing, so no, I certainly don’t think it could make someone worse. Better is a more interesting question. In theory, understanding vocal production and how the voice works should make one a better singer, but at the same time, you can’t learn to sing by reading a voice pedagogy or voice science book. You learn how to sing by singing! I think of voice science as something that complements and informs training. Certainly singing teachers should have a thorough grounding in the basic principles of voice production so that they can skillfully shape the ideal training regimen for their students.
TVF: What do you think about current vocal training programs in the academia? What would you like to see changed/improved?
MH: I actually believe that we are doing a lot right and getting better at it all the time. For example, most curricula are now on the same page with offering courses in lyric diction and fact-based voice pedagogy classes (this wasn’t always true), and the level of singing I hear from students across numerous institutions continues to improve each year. Standards are raising - even the smallest of colleges now have first-rate faculty members. The obvious drawback is that there is only so much you can learn in school with between university curriculum requirements and 18 credits per semester. Even someone with a master’s degree (often earned at the age at 24!) is only beginning his or her journey. Things like language fluency, an expansive repertoire committed to memory, stage experience, and technical/artistic maturity are things that are left incomplete by formal schooling and must be developed over a longer timeframe.
TVF: What are some of the difficulties that young singers or emerging singers face in the performing world?
MH: Obviously, there are only so many opportunities and you are competing against older and more experienced artists at auditions, so facing initial rejection can be very hard on young singers. Singers who stay stout-hearted and continue to persevere (and grow) for the love of what they do often find success. I also stress having as many skills as possible to so that a singer can supplement his or her income. I know many singers who piece together a living by teaching, having a church job, and performing, for example.
TVF: What advice do you have for child singers and their parents?
MH: I think that the best music education that parents can give younger children is to enroll them in piano lessons and an excellent children’s choir. Through these experiences they will learn basic musicianship, sight reading skills, and the essentials of good voice production. Parents need to be very careful not to push their children too early into singing genres that are intended for more mature voices, such as opera arias or TA-dominant CCM repertoires. But good posture, breath management, musicianship, and exploration of the head voice can be learned at any age are great things for a child singer to explore.
TVF: What advice do you have for aging singers?
MH: Keep singing! There is no reason to stop. In my church choir, I have had singers as young as 14 and as old as 83. The last time I checked, there is no age limit when it comes to singing. There are joys and challenges to singing no matter which life stage you are in.
TVF: The “voice” community is a very tight knit group of medical professionals, pedagogues, scientists, and vocal performers of many genres. What can we learn from each other?
MH: Perhaps my favorite symposium of the year is the Voice Foundation Symposium in Philadelphia, which always held the week after Memorial Day. This conference brings together voice scientists, surgeons, otolaryngologists, speech-language pathologies, and singing pedagogues, all of whom share their research with each other. Science truly meets art, and it is very inspiring. I always leave Philadelphia feeling like I have learned so much that I can apply to my teaching and research. In the interdisciplinary 21st century, we can no longer do it alone. I continue to learn so much from scholars and specialists in other voice-related areas.
TVF: Do you have a project you wish to talk about?
MH: Several! I recently finished work on two books, both of which were really fun projects. The first is called Voice Secrets, which I coauthored with my colleague Linda Lister from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. It was released in June and is comprised of 100 short essays, each of which explores a specific aspect of singing. The second is an edited volume called So You Want to Sing Sacred Music. This book includes essays from various singing specialists on a wide variety of styles in sacred music, including Jewish cantorial singing, Gregorian chant, choral singing, and contemporary worship styles – quite eclectic! It is currently in production and should be released in about six months. I also continue to collaborate with my Auburn colleague Mary Sandage, who teaches in the department of communication disorders at Auburn. We are working on a variety of short- and long-term projects, many of which explore singing through the lens of exercise science principles. Mary is a magnificent colleague and the opportunity to work with her at Auburn has been an enormous privilege.
TVF: Who are your favorite singers?
MH: There are so many singers I admire, but three of my favorite classical baritones are Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Thomas Hampson, and Håkan Hagegård. Fischer-Dieskau especially is such an inspiration to me – the breadth of his recorded legacy is astounding, and he brings such intelligence and musicianship to his expressive singing.
TVF: What sparks "joy" for you as a person?
MH: My sustaining joy is my beautiful wife, Theresa, and three children: Hannah (9), Sofie (7), and Zachary (5). I also enjoy being active in my church and am an avid reader of nonfiction and poetry. Seeing my former students succeed as adults in their family and professional lives is also deeply fulfilling.