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The benefits of ongoing vocal training

John Byrne gains an insight into the benefits of ongoing vocal training when he attends a singing lesson taken by distinguished teacher Hamish Pitceathly, with rising star Alexandria Beck

This is a picture of Hamish Pitceathly coaching singer Alexandria Beck and is copyrighted to Ray McKie
Photo © Ray McKie
A top gospel singer I know tells me that she was first inspired to pursue music full time having seen people in the congregation moved to the point of tears by her early church performances.

My own attempts to sing have also brought people to tears, but unfortunately not for quite the same reasons. Although Hamish Pitceathly, one of the country's top vocal teachers is adamant - even in the face of this evidence - that "absolutely anyone can learn to sing properly'', my presence in the corner of his book and recording-stacked music room is not for the purposes of saving the nation from further aural torture. Rather, it is to observe at first hand a teacher whose methods not only link back directly to one of the most renowned names in the vocal world, but who is also one of the first points of contact for some of today's brightest rising stars when it is time to take their abilities to the next level.

The student going through her paces next to Pitceathly's piano is a particularly good example of this. Canadian-born Alexandria Beck has worked extensively in Europe and North America, attracting industry attention not just as an opera singer, but also in the fields of jazz and musicals.

From singing in front of 30,000 people to close the Canada Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square, to a residency at Harrods in Knightsbridge, she is certainly no stranger to prestige performances. With a vibrant personality and highly marketable good looks, it is not hard to believe that Beck's career could lead her to similar million-selling heights as her fellow North American, Michael Bolton, who recently sought out Pitceathly to provide the grounding for his foray into the operatic world.

Given that much focus on singing lessons centres on pupils who are starting from scratch as children, performers from other disciplines adding to their skill set or adults from other walks of life finally fulfilling long-held dreams, my mission today is to discover what ongoing training can contribute to the career of artists of Beck's standard. And, if I can get away with it, to snatch an insider's look at what exactly it is that top-flight teachers such as Pitceathly do differently, which motivates international stars such as Bolton to seek them out.

"One of the main reasons I come to Hamish is to learn to sing healthily,'' says Beck.

"I have experience in a number of different styles, but whatever style I'm performing in, it is only possible when my voice is in top condition."

As with previous Pitceathly lessons I have watched from the sidelines (another of his current students is Carmen Jones star Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi), the work I watch him do with Beck today confirms two of my existing impressions.

Firstly, that lessons with this most distinguished of teachers seem to involve far more cups of tea, chats and bouts of laughter than would seem to be compatible with his evident passion and seriousness about getting the best out of the singer he is working with.

And, parallel with that, I can't help remarking yet again that despite the light-hearted approach, some of the vocal runs Pitceathly manages to coax from students such as Beck and Maswanganyi as they work through practise pieces are more impressive than many other people's finished performances.

Speaking to Pitceathly afterwards, it seems to me that his teaching style and ideas stem from his own early experiences as a student in his own right.

Returning from South Africa to England in 1949 to study piano, he also showed promise as an opera singer.

Unfortunately, bad training took its toll and it was not until 1959 that he began to retrain his voice with the now legendary maestro E Herbert Caesari, often travelling from London to Brighton for lessons four times a week, having done a full day's work.

Caesari, then in his eighties, encouraged Pitceathly to see himself as the successor to the master's practice, but it was the persuasion of daughter Alma Caesari, herself a noted teacher, which finally led him to make his teaching available outside university walls.

Having recently celebrated his own 70th birthday (the private recital staged by his students in celebration would probably have been the sell-out show of most opera festivals), Pitceathly is surprisingly egalitarian in his choice of students.

"I enjoy teaching beginners just as much as trained performers," he says. "In fact, it is often easier to work with beginners. Sadly, I find that there are many professional and supposedly trained singers who are, in fact, damaging their voices by carrying on habits they have picked up from bad teaching, and with many of those clients I would describe the work I do as helping them to unlearn much of what they think they should be doing."

Based on both his own experience and on working with many singers of different types, Pitceathly maintains that many teachers and performers simply don't understand how the voice works. In fact, he believes that a worrying number of them have literally "got it backwards".

"The voice actually works from the top down,'' he points out. "Yet many singers have been told to focus on controlling the diaphragm and to vocally confuse effects with causes."

It can take a lot of unlearning to sort out the confusion. "One pupil I worked with recently had been through 12 previous teachers without success."

Although Hamish aims for a positive atmosphere in his lessons, I can vouch for the fact that he is certainly not laid-back when it comes to quality.

Beck evidently has an amazing voice, but as he gives instructions from the piano, going back over passages until they are right, it is clear that the teacher isn't satisfied with anything less than the best that such a quality instrument is capable of producing.

However, the one time Pitceathly gets angry in the course of our interview is when he is talking about the teachers who stretch pupils not in the direction of what the performer themselves wants to achieve, but to suit the instructor's own tastes and agenda.

"I have seen so many voices ruined, for instance, because a teacher insists on turning someone who is a natural baritone into a tenor."

As Beck finishes her lesson and prepares to brave the hordes of Christmas shoppers - some of whom will get an even bigger bargain than they expected if they catch the concert she is scheduled to perform outside Harrods to open the pre-Christmas sale - Pitceathly is getting ready for his next pupil, again someone I recognise from a recent successful show, to begin their warm-up.

And, just in case you are wondering, no, I didn't ask Pitceathly to test his 'anyone can learn to sing' theory with a lesson of my own.

I'm sufficiently convinced that ongoing input from teachers of his calibre and approach are important enough to today's working performers not to run the risk of pushing him into retirement just yet.

* For more details, Hamish Pitceathly's website is

* Alexandria Beck's music can be explored at and she can currently been seen performing at Harrods, Knightsbridge on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

* Feedback/queries are welcome to
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