As printed in the June 2008 issue of Classical Singer Magazine.
The Art of Coaching
A Session with Eric Trudel
by Imelda Franklin Bogue
“Let me put in a CD—I always give singers a CD of the session,” says Eric Trudel in his Hamden, Conn. studio. The studio is walled with scores, decorated with spare, impeccable French taste, and patrolled by a small gray-and-white cat who purrs contentedly as if to assure me that I’ve come to the right place for a coaching—and two minutes in, I can see that I have.
“So!” says the 2008 Classical Singer Magazine Coach of the Year, smiling, “What are we working on today?”
I have a gig singing a bit of Carmen for a scenes concert, and want to spit-polish my French. I ask Trudel if I can just speak it first. “Of course,” he replies, graciously. I begin, “L’amour est un . . .” He interrupts me, just three words in, with corrections.
I grin. Trudel is a toughie. We go through the entire aria, syllable by syllable, and he introduces me to a whole new world of thought on French nasal vowels, which I discover I haven’t been singing with full resonance.
“They’re not in our nose!” Trudel exclaims. “They’re behind it, in our sinus cavities. Like this.” He pinches his nose and sings a flawless line of French nasal vowels with a beauty I didn’t know they had.
“Like this?” I ask, attempting to imitate the beautiful sounds.
“Not quite,” he says.
“Like this?” I try again.
“Still in your nose,” he tells me.
“Yes! Now try singing it.”
It feels like a different voice.
“Yes!” he nearly shouts. “Overtones!”
I hop about the studio, shrieking. “That feels great! I didn’t know I could do that! Thank you!”
Eric Trudel is an exciting coach. He’s also a phenomenal listener and extremely flexible. We have 13 minutes left. Would I like to do anything else? On my next piece, a quartet, I just want to review the intricacies of how the piano part interacts with the mezzo line. Fine. I am surprised—and impressed—that he doesn’t correct my Italian or ask me to sing full out. I’ve asked to hear just the piano line. He has heard me, and that is exactly what we do.
“I like it when singers come in with an agenda,” he says later over a chicken pot pie at an Irish pub down the street: “‘I want to work on rhythm.’ ‘I want to work on language for this piece.’ ‘For this I want to fine-tune the rubato.’” Perhaps paradoxically, he notes, singers who have specific goals to accomplish in a coaching session tend to be more inherently collaborative and open to suggestions.
What is the one piece of advice he finds himself giving singers over and over again? “Conduct your arias,” he says. “Conduct your arias, conduct your arias. It gives you a sense of really knowing the piece, of ownership, the internal structure of it, that you can’t get any other way. Most singers look at me like I’m crazy, but I think 10 percent of them really get it.”
So what is the art of coaching all about? “It’s a balance,” he says, “between being descriptive and prescriptive. Voice teachers are prescriptive. They should be—‘do this,’ ‘do this’—they have to be specific, tell you what to do and how to do it. If a voice teacher tells you, ‘Just sing it beautifully,’ good grief, that’s not useful! There’s a place for saying specific things and being proscriptive in coaching, too, but a great deal of it is being descriptive, mirroring the singer. ‘I hear this, I hear that.’ ‘I notice that your strength appears to be this.’ ‘You might want to work on that.’ This involves a great, great deal of compassion and sensitivity.”
In a world where singers are frequently on the bottom of the musical pecking order, it is extremely gratifying to hear another musician speak with such fondness and respect for our unique breed. How did Trudel get to be so “in tune” with singers? The answer is a lesson in artistic humility.
“I started taking voice lessons,” he says. “It was a huge, huge, turning point for me. [It] completely revolutionized everything, the way I taught and coached.” He leans forward. “It’s hard—singing.”
“No, it is!” he says. “I don’t think there’s enough compassion for singers in the business. Everyone, everyone who works with singers should be required to take voice lessons. Get up there and try it yourself before being so quick to judge.
“. . . The job of a singer is harder than the job of anyone else. People have no idea how hard it is. So much to do! Tempo, rhythm, rubato, languages, acting, being a good colleague, interacting with other people—and singers so rarely have compassion for each other, the people who should know the most and be the most compassionate.”
“Sometimes agents think they are voice teachers,” he continues, “[and] start giving impromptu lessons. And then there’s the whole issue of weight. People think they can say anything to a singer.” He rolls his eyes. “It’s brutal. The weight issue is blown out of proportion, because a singer is primarily a musician and people who go to the opera first and foremost want to hear great music sung well.” After speaking so sympathetically about the myriad of pressures singers face, he concludes, “There needs to be more compassion in the business, more respect.”
Trudel moves on to his thoughts on more long-term collaborative relationships between musicians. He doesn’t understand why some singers bounce around from voice teacher to voice teacher, nor the reason some are so eager to recommend their own voice teacher to other singers.
“If your teacher is really great,” he says, “If he or she is that great, why, why would you want to share that information with your competition?”
As for the coach-singer relationship, “So many singers are insecure and rudderless,” he says, “especially in New York. They go from coach to coach. [They go to] the newest guy, and never really figure out who they are as musicians. If you have a coach that you make great music with, that you trust, don’t change! Why go to someone just because he or she is trendy?”
How long do you spend making music together before you really know a collaborator? “Ten years,” he says. “At least.”
Trudel is a native of Quebec and, as might be expected, graduated from the Quebec Conservatory of Music with highest honors. He won the prestigious Prix D’Eurpoe competition and went on to private study
with pianists Garrick Ohlsson, Jean-Claude Pennentier, Marc Durand, and Louis Lortie.
He has taught and performed extensively throughout Canada, Italy, Japan, Korea, Spain, and the United States, and has worked as a pianist, coach, or conductor with many organizations, including the Montreal International Piano Festival, the Banff Center Festival for the Arts, L’Opéra de Montréal, Connecticut Grand Opera, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, the OK MOZART Festival, and the Pro Arte Singers. Private coaching currently takes up much of his time and energy, but when asked what is in the future for him, he says that he wants to spend more of his energies on performance. He will perform Rachmaninoff’s complete piano preludes this month (June) in Greenwich, Conn.
I am honored to have had a coaching with him and hope that I get to perform with him in the near future, and hear him play Rachmaninoff.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have a coaching session CD to review.
Imelda Franklin Bogue is a lyric mezzo-soprano and sometime scribbler of purple prose. Her one-woman show The Secret Life of Opera Singers is currently in production and her new traveling recital, The Life of Christ in Song, will premiere in New York City in June. Her website is www.imeldafranklinbogue.com and her blog is a great read.