Distinguished vocal coach Mary King believes there’s no substitute for hard work, good posture and great technique. She’s worked across classical, jazz, musical theatre and contemporary genres at top institutions such as the Royal Academy of Music, Glyndbourne and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. She’s also a writer and broadcaster and regular consultant on West End shows.
How did you get into singing?
I loved singing but didn’t think I could earn a living at it, so I read English at university and become a teacher. When I was 24 I thought “I’ve got to do it now”. I auditioned at the Guildhall and won a scholarship to study opera. I worked as a professional soloist for many years but was easily bored. My principle was – and still is – that if somebody asks you to do something and you can’t think of a reason not to, then say “yes”. This led to lots of interesting opportunities including being asked to run a youth group for English National Opera (ENO). That began a 17-year connection with the ENO. Then I started a voice department at the Southbank Centre called Voicelab. It had about 2,000 members and we did lots of incredible artistic projects. But after six years, funding became an issue, so I left to work freelance. That’s it in shorthand. I’m very old, there have been lots of stages in between.
Why doesn’t Voicelab exist anymore?
I’m gutted about it. Voicelab was an extraordinary life-changing experience. But if councils in this country can’t provide statutory care for vulnerable adults and old people, then what chance have we got for it changing?
What is your greatest strength?
I would have to say My ears. I’m constantly fascinated by individuality. The golden ticket is finding that individuality, so that you can be, for example, Macy Gray. She’s wonderful, completely authentic and nobody could imitate what she does. Ditto Nina Simone or Louis Armstrong. I’m fascinated by wonderful artists with a good technique who don’t sound like other wonderful artists. The challenge is to be faithful to a genre and what it demands, but to do it safely, with joy, and without losing your individuality.
How would you introduce that concept to somebody who is trying to find their own sound and stay within those constructs?
It’s incredibly difficult because everybody is different. To me, the teacher-pupil relationship is a two-way process. It’s endlessly flexible. You try that. Okay, now I see this. Now you try that. Unless it’s a two-way process I don’t see how the teacher-pupil thing can really work. Unless the pupil is astonishingly self-aware, and most people aren’t.
What common issues do you see with singers?
Young singers across all genres often say: “I want to stretch myself”. What they’re really trying to do is be a tenor when they’re a baritone or sing too high or too low. It’s important to trust that what you have is enough; use that as your starting point and stretch from there.
I also come across many students with phenomenally developed voices, but no fundamental understanding of musical structure. If you haven’t got that, you are always going to be infantilised. You’re going to be put in a position where you have to do what you’re told.
Physical self-awareness is another issue. I think the simplest thing is to get somebody to align their body right, so that they put their instrument under the least amount of stress possible. I see a lot of bad posture. I’m not sure whether that comes from a lack of sport, texting or sitting like a banana.
What’s your approach to teaching?
The psychology of learning, and how people learn, influences my work enormously. I’m always trying to figure out the best way to teach the person in front of me. It’s about empowering the student – and not necessarily telling them everything I’m hearing. If they’re doing something that’s not sustainable, and they’re feeling vulnerable or scared, I choose the right time to say: “You must stop doing that”. I’ve got to give them an alternative. That’s why you need to have more than one methodology. A methodology will work for the people it works for, but there will be lots of cracked, broken eggs.
I learnt one of my most important lessons – something that I’m still trying to pass on today – when I was studying at Guildhall. I had terrible performance nerves. But one day when I was in a singing competition and feeling complete terror, I heard my voice behaving as it did when I didn’t have terror. In other words, I’d acquired a technique, where muscles did what they did whatever my brain or my heart was telling me. I was 25 and that was huge. What I’m trying to teach people now is a continuation of that and it’s this: you don’t know when certain pennies will drop. A technique is not just a technique, it’s is a growing thing. We all, as human beings, are in a constant state of learning. If that stops, you might as well order the coffin!
Do you incorporate other modalities into your teaching?
Yes. It depends on what the issue is – whether it’s an alignment thing or a breath thing – but I would say choose your poison: yoga, Pilates or Feldenkrais. I also send lots of people for vocal massage. If you get to a point when the tongue ridge is very tight, when you’re incapable of not constricting the throat to get to higher notes, or when you’re doing eight shows a week and you’re getting tenser and tenser, then you need to find a way to release that. You need a specialist. I would recommend a manual therapist at least once a week.
What’s your view of reality television shows such as The Voice or X Factor?
Some brilliant teachers are involved in those shows, the problem is all the work takes place behind the scenes. They never film it. They talk [on screen] about talent, but not about how you can improve your or make it your voice instead of a paler imitation of somebody famous.
To my mind, there are two motivations to get into the industry: one is fame and money, and the other is music. If music is your motivation, then that will carry you through. Even if you aren’t successful, you’ve still got music at the end of the day. I think one reason that people audition in their droves for those shows is – and this makes me sound so cynical and about 103 – they want to be famous.
You’ve crossed so many genres and angled through so many different sectors of the singing industry. What patterns or changes have you noticed?
The internet has made a big difference, providing space for opinions wide and varied. The problem is it’s difficult to distinguish between the people who know stuff and the people who think they know stuff. The equality of something like YouTube is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t help a 17-year-old distinguish between good advice and bad advice – and there is bad advice out there.
People these days want to do things quickly; they want an answer straight away. But you find the answer by working with a few trusted people over time. My biggest thing is effective practice; it seems to be taught to instrumentalists but not to singers. What singers tend to do when they learn a song is start at the beginning and sing it through, and the bits that are shit stay shit. A piano player or a flute player would never do that. They would play that difficult bit slowly. Or they’d go over that four-bar phrase. People don’t understand that it’s really obvious when someone practices – and when they don’t.
What changes have you noticed in the industry in recent years?
There’s more emphasis on what you look like. That explains why you get some classical singers doing roles that they shouldn’t be doing. In my era we could cope with going to Marriage of Figaro, suspending our disbelief, and having a 45-year-old playing Susanna. But now, perception is, that can’t happen. You get younger and younger singers playing roles that, in my day, they wouldn’t have sung for another 20 years. It’s tough in the contemporary world too. The pressure is greater than ever. Twenty years ago, you were protected by R&D departments and all the rest of it – some dodgy, of course, but some not. Now you’re at the mercy of absolutely everybody.
Any other final words of wisdom?
Technique is something to be welcomed. Sometimes a contemporary singer thinks that it is a barrier to true and individual expression, but it should always be serving what you want to do as an artist. I think you need help one-to-one, at least in the beginning. For the contemporary singer, when you are singing songs that are slow, intense and grief-ridden, it’s tempting to close your throat up and to suffer. But you’ve got to find a way of allowing your technique to express suffering without suffering.
MAIN IMAGE: Mary King teaching at Glyndebourne Academy final weekend 2016. Photography by Sam Stephenson.