by Lou Mancinelli
We all sound different from each other. Our sound is already inside of us. It is our breath that brings it out.
The way we sound when we talk or sing is the result of a number of factors. None of those is a rock and roll or glitter outfit (thought it may help in a psychological sense). And singing is as much about confidence as it is about breathing, relaxing, posture and letting your voice just happen. It almost sounds a bit like yoga.
So says and so teaches Germantown resident Connie Koppe, who has made a career singing and teaching opera, theater and cabaret for more than 30 years. This winter, the University of the Arts (UArts) professor will teach an eight-session “Beginning Singing” Saturday morning class (starting at 9:30) at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, 6511 Lincoln Drive, beginning Feb. 4.
“It’s aimed at people who always wanted to sing but feel they don’t have the courage,” said Koppe, “or they’ve been told before they shouldn’t.”
She has been teaching the class for six years. The number one issue that ails singers is a lack of confidence, she said. Her most common students are church choir singers.
Koppe, who prefers that her age not be mentioned, graduated with a master’s in music and opera performance from the Boyer College of Music in Temple in 1977. She studied music education as an undergraduate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (1973 graduate). Born in Lawrence, Kansas, but raised in Conshohocken, the 1969 Plymouth Whitemarsh (PW) graduate has been on stage and backstage, where she’s been a stage director and costume designer. At present, she performs French cabaret music with her band Enchante, which has performed at the Philly Fringe Festival.
In addition to teaching and performing, she has founded arts organizations like Arts for Anyone, a non-profit independent arts education program created in 1993. That same year she organized the Singers’ Network, a non-profit networking organization for the singing community in the Greater Delaware Valley. She is also a member of the American Federation of TV and Radio Artists, the Actors’ Equity Association and American Guild of Musical Artists.
Her nine directing credits include a 2010 Delaware Valley Opera Company production of “Don Giovanni.” She also directed “The Marriage of Figaro,” among others, and performed in more than a dozen operas including “Hansel and Gretel,” “Carmen” and “La Boheme.” She’s also been involved in the production of shows and has done children’s theater for years.
At present, Koppe teaches singing and teaching at UArts, as well as privately in her home studio. At MALT, Koppe introduces students to the Linklater method, a technique developed by Kristen Linklater, a Scottish vocal coach who came to America in the 1960s to train theater actors in speech work. She now teaches at Columbia University. Linklater has trained performers like Mary Tyler Moore, Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray.
Koppe uses the method in the beginning of her class to help students learn to breathe and relax when singing. Later classes focus on sound, humming, then jaw awareness and loosening the back of the chin and neck. Still later there is tongue and palate awareness, rib work and “how big can your breath get?” Mixed in with it all is some actual singing.
While Koppe’s interest in Linklater’s teachings stirred as a graduate student, it was not until 1996 that she began to study the discipline in earnest. She is also interested in branching into the corporate world and teaching the work to a whole new spectrum of students.
“When you have thoughts and you know you’re going to speak it, the diaphragm reacts,” says Koppe. “A lot of people second-guess themselves.”
That lack of confidence causes people to hold their breath or restrain themselves. The result is an off-pitch or pinched sound, according to Koppe. You can notice this type of sound in a woman who speaks in a high-pitched voice more reminiscent of a pubescent girl than a mature female.
“When you really release your voice and stop second-guessing yourself, when you allow yourself to breathe in, in all its fullness and be reactive to acting and what the playwright has written, you are allowing yourself to tap into the more organic part of the body.”
It almost sounds like a breath lesson for yoga or mediation students. The concepts behind the two are similar. So is the fact that the more aligned one’s spine is, the less restricted the vocal passage will be. If you stand slumped, or your body is not aligned, or you are the type of person who stands on one hip, your lungs and diaphragm will be compressed. It’s about finding balance. The sound of your voice is even affected by your feet’s relationship with the ground.
“It’s about how you use the body,” says Koppe. The act of singing requires an orchestrated play between the diaphragmatic, abdominal and intercostal (those between the ribs) muscles, she explained.
As a child, Koppe began to sing in her church choir at the age of six. This was in Schenectady, New York, outside of Albany, in between her family moving from Kansas to Conshohocken. Before New York, the family also lived in Minneapolis. By nine she was singing solos. By junior high the family had relocated to our area. That’s when she began singing arias and the like at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lafayette Hill. At 16, the singing lessons began.
While the Beatles roared in and out of America, Koppe was being exposed to theater and opera at PW and in the church choir, and in the past three decades she has taught thousands of others to find their voice.
“Perfection is not what it’s about,” said Koppe about the class. “It’s about getting people around to the idea that they can sing.”
For more information, visit www.mtairylearningtree.org.