How did you get started in music & singing?
I started as a high school music teacher, I did that for many years, and I was a Jazz piano player. I quickly realized the potential of singing as a way of effecting positive change in music education; I realized that the best tool I had was my voice and the students’ voices and I needed to get them singing but I knew I needed to become more confident in singing myself.
I studied some methods around music education and singing, most notably were Kodaly & Orff. Eventually, I became increasingly interested in choral work and made the transition from classroom music teacher to being a studio voice teacher.
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
I completely a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Piano (University of Melbourne), then I completed a Masters of Music Education (Monash University), a Post-Graduate Degree in Choral Conducting (University of Queensland), and finally completed my PhD in Vocal Pedagogy (Sydney Conservatory of Music).
I chose the Sydney Conservatory of Music to complete my PhD in Vocal Pedagogy because at the time it was the most regarded institute in Australia, they had a whole department and team dedicated to vocal studies.
How did you get your professional start in music?
I was torn between the idea of being a Jazz performer and being a teacher; I think it’s a huge challenge because both of those areas require a lot of attention, dedication and learning, it’s not impossible but it is difficult to be great in both areas, teaching and performing. I felt the call to teaching and that’s how I started my career, I started teaching in high schools and teaching private piano students.
What were the challenges?
Pedagogy was a huge challenge. I realized that even though I’d spent 4 years completing a Bachelor’s of Music, I didn’t have a strong handle of how to advance a student; I didn’t know how to take them from where they were and bring them forward. I realized that university hadn’t equipped me to be effective, and I recognized that the teachers who were most effective had committed to learning a great deal more beyond their University training.
It was hard to excite and enthuse kids in music. It’s challenging in a high school music setting because people don’t necessarily share your passion. My first two teaching jobs were exceptionally challenging because I was the only music teacher in the school, so I had to come up with my own curriculum and had to look elsewhere for professional support.
What was the biggest turning point in your career?
There were several turning points in my career. The discovery of the Kodaly concept was really pivotal because it helped me understand that everything I need to teach about music, I can teach through singing, and through singing I can bring people close to experiencing music and nurturing a love of music; I realized I could achieve excellent outcomes in terms of engagement and musicianship.
Another turning point for me was discovering how important it was to get out into the community and share music, the simplest and most effective way to share a love of music is through singing in community choirs. I realized that in a school setting or a private studio setting, you can have a small effect on a few students but if you get out in a community, you can have a larger influence on more people. I learnt how important a good community choir could be at increasing the quality of people’s lives.
Tell me about your voice training, and some of the challenges you faced.
I had many unsuccessful attempts to learn to sing myself despite studying music my entire life, I really sounded terrible when I sang. I had been to many different voice teachers and the experiences continued to be unsuccessful. I had the passion to sing but not really the ability or confidence to use my voice. When I heard recordings of my voice, I would always be disappointed. So, I started discovering teachers in the USA who were highly qualified and able to give me concrete answers about my voice; I did some training with Richard Miller, and Scott McCoy. Then I discovered Seth Riggs, his approach was functional and he understood what my voice did and he told me, the reason I was struggling was because I was a tenor and I was not able to get through my passaggio but that didn’t make me a bass. Seth Riggs had a way of developing my chest voice and head voice, and then coordinating the two, that really set me up to understand Jeanie’s work, so when I came across Jeanie’s work, I had a basis for understanding registration-based voice training and I had a capacity to get more from Jeanie quickly.
What drew you to singing and music?
It’s quite curious how I got into music; even through high school I had a poor music education. I sometimes ponder this idea, how does someone get into music so strongly when they’ve had such a bad experience of music and music education. I think that was part of the motivating factor because I wanted to change things for the better; I wanted to ensure that people after me had a better experience of music education.
An idea came very strongly to me throughout my career, the idea that music can be taught; it’s not just about talent. You can break down the elements of music systematically and teach them; anyone can get better, music is for everyone. That’s a concept that really resonated with me when I met Jeanie, the idea that we are taking the mysticism out of singing. We aren’t saying that singing is a rare or God-given gift that only certain individuals can possess. With Somatic Voicework™, Jeanie was saying, singing is these functional elements that can be broken down and taught. Through this, anyone is capable of learning to sing or improving their singing if they’re willing and dedicated.
When did you meet Jeanie LoVetri?
I was recommended to Jeanie’s work by a colleague in Melbourne, I was researching and looking for answers. By this stage, I was already a PhD student, I was researching many methods to teaching singing, I studied Speech Level Singing with Seth Riggs; I studied traditional classical approaches, like Bel Canto, with Richard Miller; and I studied the Estill System; I looked at CVT with Catherine Sadolin; I was on a search, looking for answers, and I was trying to understand from as many perspectives as I could what the different approaches were to teaching singing.
In 2010, I went to The LoVetri Institute for Somatic Voicework™; I did all three levels of training and found a wonderful community of singing teachers who were all on the same journey as me, wanting to be effective and able to help their students in concrete ways. From then on, I’ve been involved in the Somatic Voicework™ community. Last year, I returned at repeated all three levels of Somatic Voicework™ training at The LoVetri Institute for Somatic Voicework™.
In between those times, I regularly visit NYC and train with Jeanie one-on-one and always come armed with lots of questions.
What has Somatic Voicework™ done for you as a both a singer and as a teacher?
Jeanie’s work has given me a way to access and isolate registration: chest voice, head voice, mix, vowels qualities: bright vowels and dark vowels, and given me a way to identify the sounds that I hear.
Music appreciation is about being able to listen to music and understand what is happening in the music. Somatic Voicework™ is like Voice Appreciation, in the sense, you can listen to voice with an analytical ear and understand what is going on physiologically.
Students regularly bring in songs that I’ve never heard, Somatic Voicework™ has given me a way to systematically classify what I’m hearing and be able to reproduce the sounds in my voice and to help singers recreat those sounds in their voice.
Respect is an important piece of Jeanie’s work; watching Jeanie work with singers, there’s an underlying value of respect and regard for the singers. Jeanie’s notion that every student is always trying their best has really rubbed off on me, I am more encouraging, patient and understanding now. The value of respect and many of the values behind Jeanie’s teaching really resonate with me.
Tell us about starting your own teaching business. What were your goals, challenges and successes?
I think one of my initial goals was not to be dependent on institutions; I was looking for a way to reach more people through singing than would be afforded through schools. I was finding that I was more successful at teaching a specific demographic, comparatively, in a school, you teach what you’re given, I wanted to spend more time teaching what I was good at.
I have been successful at working with adolescent boys. Many people find adolescent boys difficult to teach, I find them easy to teach and find them easy to motivate, it is rewarding to teach this group. I’ve also been successful in mentoring voice teachers in helping them develop strategies in working with voices.
Tell me about using Somatic Voicework™ in a group or choral context
I find that a lot of people working with choirs and community singing groups have a lot of passion and believe in the importance of singing but they don’t have the tools to understand the voice and do not have the tools to positively bring voices forward.
When you are working with people in the community, you’re often working with people who are not very confident with singing, or they have a desire to move forward with their singing but they don’t really know how to do it. I think all choral conductors and community song-leaders need the kind of understanding of the voice that Somatic Voicework™ offers.
Somatic Voicework™ has given me the ability to assess the sound of the choir and given me tangible ways to help the singers improve.
For example, I always felt that the alto section in my choirs were never singing strong enough, it didn’t have the power that I’d heard in other choirs before, Somatic Voicework™ gave me the tools to understand that my altos weren’t sounding great because they weren’t accessing their chest voice, so I knew what kind of exercises were needed to address the topic.
My choir currently has 130 voices, with 70 people on the waitlist, part of the success of the choir has been from my ability to effect positive changes on people’s voices by giving tangible things to work on.
It’s taken a lot of trial and error to realize that you aren’t working with individual students, so I had to strike the balance to find exercises that will benefit the most of the singers, most of the time and then hope that everyone gets carried along over the long haul with what you’re doing. I make the choir gathering an exploration of voices, and those choir members who want to learn more can book a private lesson to explore in more detail.
I am very excited to see where the future of Somatic Voicework™ is headed. I think the training and maintaining of teacher’s certification is something we should look into as an organization.
I think the idea of teacher mentorship moving forward with Somatic Voicework could be fantastic.
About Dr. Darren Wicks
Dr. Darren Wicks is a vocalist, jazz pianist and choral conductor with a passion for working with singers and teachers. His career spans over 20 years and includes: work as a high school music teacher; work with community music groups; studio teaching; school and community choirs; musical theatre and teacher education. With an impressive academic background, Darren holds qualifications in jazz, choral conducing, aural training, a Master of Music Education degree and a PhD in voice pedagogy. Darren has studied numerous approaches to singing, including: Institute for Vocal Advancement, Speech Level Singing, Somatic Voicework ™, Estil Voice Training, Voice Science and many approaches to music education, including the Orff and Kodaly concepts. Over several visits to the USA, Darren has studied with jazz, RnB, and gospel artists in Harlem, Brooklyn, Nashville, New Orleans and Los Angeles developing his understanding of how to translate African-American singing styles to Australian culture. He currently runs a busy private studio, directs the 110-voice Melbourne Singers of Gospel, is active in numerous professional associations, widely-published and regularly presents at teacher conferences.
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