When I first came to BYU as Director of Opera in 1973, my teaching load was
split between opera directing and choral conducting. I chose not to teach
private voice because I saw a potential conflict of interest in casting my own
students in operas. I risked unfairly overlooking my own students for
political reasons as well as unfairly favoring them because they were mine.
But there came a time in the early 1980's when two needs converged in me. My
experiences with choruses and with group voice had awaked in me a passion to
figure out what really caused vocal beauty. This desire joined my need to get
the most beautiful singing possible from the students I had cast in the opera
productions. I negotiated my teaching load so that I could teach some lower
division voice majors.
This was during my impatience phase mentioned at the beginning of chapter 6. I
told my students glibly, "If you haven't learned to sing really beautifully
within two years I will insist that you move on to another teacher." My
colleagues smiled and jokingly referred to me as "Mr. Insta-voice."
I soon became wiser. It was indeed going to take us longer than I had thought
to figure out this beautiful singing thing. I also soon got frustrated seeing
my singers move on to other studios before I was satisfied with their singing.
But if I taught more advanced students, how I would resolve the conflict of
interest as I cast the operas?
VOICE PROGRESS SCORING
Out of this dilemma arose an illuminating moment of reasonable thinking. My
colleagues agreed to attend the opera auditions and score our students'
performances there. I then tried to choose operas that would feature the
students who received the highest average scores. I reserved enough
flexibility to assure the right vocal timbre, personality, and sufficient
acting capacity in the leading roles, and I always circulated the proposed
casting for faculty approval before posting it. The faculty appreciated being
included in those important decisions. To make our scoring as objective as
possible, we eventually agreed upon a benchmark description for each score
level. These came to be called Voice Progress Scores (VPS):
5 = In a fully professional setting (e.g., a leading role in a
regional professional company), this performance would have received
favorable press reviews and a significant 'bravo' response from the
audience. (None of us has yet given a 5 in an audition, not even to his or her
4 = In a featured university setting (e.g., a leading role in a major
opera, oratorio, or music theatre production with orchestra), this performance
would have been completely successful. I would enjoy hearing this
student sing for an hour-long senior recital.
3 = In a modest university public performance setting (e.g., a
secondary role in an opera, oratorio or musical theater production with
orchestra), this performance would have been successful. I would
enjoy hearing this student sing for half an hour in a junior recital.
2 = In a university classroom performance setting (e.g., in an opera
scenes class or a short recital with piano) this performance would have been
satisfactory. This student's technique is sufficiently solid to
permit concentration on character projection. I would remain comfortable during
a 15-minute recital.
1 = Preliminary vocal technical work is still needed before attempting
any significant public singing. This student however shows promise as a voice
major at BYU.
0 = Not yet ready to be considered as a voice major.
With the option to add + or - to any of the above scores, we had a relatively
objective scale of eighteen segments or, using decimal points, a continuous
scale. In order to protect the scoring from undue influence by a faculty
member who might be strongly biased either for or against a student, a faculty
score which fell farther than one semi-score away from its next nearest
neighbor would be adjusted back to the neighboring semi-score. Thus the low or
high score would still have modest weight but could not distort the whole
average. The faculty enthusiastically welcomed this adjustment as a chance to
protect us from our own biases. It allowed us to feel free to really score
honestly with respect to the benchmark descriptions. For opera casting
decisions we used the highest score from the last two hearings in order to
remove undue pressure from any single performance and to reduce the possibility
that an "off" day would cut a student from a deserved role.
It didn't take us long to see that there were many advantages to recording
these scores, and we started scoring all hearings, including semester-end
proficiencies, recital hearings, advancement hearings, and entrance auditions.
We posted these averaged and adjusted VPS scores on a graph kept in each
student's departmental file (see figure 8.1).
VIDEOTAPING EACH STUDENT HEARING
As inexpensive video cameras became available, we began to record on each
student's personal videotape all of these VPS hearings, starting with the
admission audition and continuing through the graduation recital. This is
part of the evidentiary path that documents the students' growth and confirms
the VPS scores. We store the tape in department files that can be moved into
each hearing session along with the video recording equipment. We don't
rewind the tape, but always keep it cued to record the next faculty hearing.
At graduation, transfer to another school, or change of major, we return the
tape to the student as a meaningful memento of his total learning experience.
This little bit of extra effort required for the VPS tallying and recording
and for the videotaping has helped us in many ways:
First, we can immediately and accurately account for exceptional growth (or
regression) in the individual student. Recently, the faculty voted to
accept a student provisionally into upper division work in a
performance/pedagogy major. At the next proficiency, the faculty majority
voted to deny continuation. At the conclusion of the day of hearings the
student's teacher was puzzled by that vote in light of her own estimate of the
student's exceptional growth for the semester. She suggested that before we
sent the denial letter, we should post the faculty average score on her VPS
chart for comparison with the semester of her admission and then replay the
last two hearings from the videotape.
The scoring system and video backup kept us honest. The teacher was clearly
right. The growth between the two performances was in fact so exceptional
that there was no way any of us could justify remitting her to lower division
work. We provisionally continued her for another semester with the
anticipation that she would be able to maintain at least a part of that
stunning growth pattern.
In an opposite case, we voted to provisionally admit a student who had
struggled for a long time to get into our program. In spite of vigorous and
intelligent work in the studio, the student's semester-end proficiency
revealed that all of the former glaring inadequacies were still lingering in
her voice. The student's frustration was quite easily allayed as she viewed
with her teacher the video recordings of several of her proficiency
performances in succession. This made it emotionally easier for her to
transfer into a major that required less demanding vocal capacities.
Second, when students move from class voice into private studios or between
studios, we can minimize the slippage in vocal technique. One faculty
member was very puzzled when the VPS score for one of her new students showed a
significant drop from a prior semester. As she reviewed for the first time the
succession of video recordings of the student's proficiency auditions,
including the one which had passed the student from Vocal Beauty Boot Camp (see
chapter 11) into her private studio, she exclaimed, "Why, she certainly didn't
sing that well when she came into my studio in September! If I had known she
was that good last spring I would have expected a lot more from her this fall.
I can see now why her VPS went down. How did the boot camp instructor help her
get her voice that full, clear, secure, and in tune? Why didn't she hold on to
it over the summer? Why didn't we get it back during the semester?" Needless
to say the teacher began to seek some healthy answers from her colleagues.
In a most dramatic case, a young tenor who was finally singing very freely and
beautifully in the 4.0 VPS range decided that he should change teachers. The
new teacher had not yet discovered the insights that the student's videotaped
performance history could yield and assumed that the student was still
"muscling his way through his voice," as he had done in earlier semesters.
Perhaps because of the summer break he had even reverted to his old muscle
style when he first sang for the new teacher in September. She thus spent the
year diligently "backing him off again" rather than building on the tremendous
progress he had already made. He obediently followed her counsel, but
discovered at the next two semester proficiency hearings that the faculty
scored him down significantly from his previous year's hearing.
Angrily suspecting bias against him by the faculty jurors who had all advised
him to stay with the prior teacher, the student made an appointment to
complain to the Voice Area Head and then went straight to the Music Department
Chairman. Both reminded him that the truth would be found in the careful VPS
records and the videotaped history in his file, which he should first consult.
With indignation, he checked out his videotape.
The next morning he talked to the Vocal Area Head, but with a much changed and
more receptive spirit: "Well, you may not believe this, but when I looked at
the videotape last night, I honestly had to admit that the jurors were right
yesterday. I was singing so beautifully last year that it was even thrilling
for me to listen to myself. But the two proficiency performances this year
were really quite dull in comparison. Even though I was doing exactly what my
new teacher wanted me to do, she didn't realize that I was further along the
path. I should have shown her the tape."
We find it imperative at the beginning of each term, before setting new
objectives, to review with the student the ultimate truth-teller, the
videotape, as we read together the written faculty comments on their jury
Third, we can quickly discern and acknowledge studio success
patterns. Within a semester after one teacher discovered the importance
of getting her students' neck posture "long, back, and free," not only did
faculty comments about poor posture virtually disappear from her students'
proficiency grading forms, but she was also reinforced in her work with the
knowledge that her average student VPS growth for the semester had been +0.49
(on our 0 to 5.33 VPS scale) against a departmental average of only +0.25.
There is a confidence that comes from knowing how well we are doing.
In addition to providing a relatively objective measure of progress for the
student and teacher, regular use of this scoring system has proved most
helpful in a number of unforeseen ways.
Fourth, we can see more objectively how we can best help one another
improve as teachers. Average VPS improvement over several semesters for
all students at a given level in a given studio has helped to identify those
teachers who tend to be most successful at various levels of instruction. Some
teachers emerge as good "jump starters," able to coax new students quickly into
beautiful full-voiced technique. Other teachers seem most successful in
polishing and expanding the capacities of intermediate students, while still
others seem most able to trigger that theatrical vulnerability which exciting
professional performances require. As the composite VPS scorings begin to
identify particular teaching strengths, we find it easier to consult with one
another for ideas and insights as well as to refer students to one another for
focused help on technique, interpretation, or repertoire. Frequently we invite
one another into our studios to work jointly with a student on a problem, and
we have even worked helpfully with one another's students in combined studio
Fifth, we can objectively assess the flat places in our overall vocal
program, so it becomes easier to develop an informed plan to change things.
For example, after analyzing successive average scores for all voice majors
in the school, we saw that we were quite successful at getting young voices
quickly on the way to healthy, beautiful, physically integrated vocal
technique. They got to where we would enjoy hearing them sing their
hour-long senior recital. However, most of our students tended to flatten
out in growth once they reached "3+" to "4-" on the VPS scale. Consequently,
we made some shifts in curriculum aimed at helping our students find a path
across that 4.0 VPS barrier and into exciting, professional quality
This is a revision of my article "Voice Students of the University II: Managing
Student Growth," NATS Journal, (Jan/Feb 1993) 18-21, which I also
wrote while still serving as Vocal Area Head in the School of Music at BYU.
The following Brigham Young University voice faculty members ratified the
article for its original publication: Matthew Bean, Marjo Burdette, Arden
Hopkin, Marion Miller, Shirley Westwood, Randy Booth, Marilyn Gneiting, Gayle
Lockwood, Barry Bounous, C. Houston Hill, Rosemary Mathews, and Lila Stuart.