Throughout life, everyone works on “finding their voice” —not just musicians, and certainly not just singers. For most, it’s about finding a way of expressing yourself that’s true to who you are.
As a voice teacher, Sharon Neff has aided students who’ve have literally lost their voices, whether through stress, illness or overuse. For students like these, regaining their voices is a milestone both in recovering their health and rediscovering themselves.
Neff cites one current student who’d all but lost the ability to speak, much less to sing. “She had hurt her back and lost her job, and it had all gone to her throat,” she says. “She had sung when she was younger, and she was determined to get it back.”
Neff’s approach to teaching voice, complete with charts and diagrams of the mouth, throat and vocal cords, emphasizes the physical foundations of making sound with the voice.
“I use those images so they can feel what’s going on inside their bodies,” she says. “The instrument is inside your body, and that’s the hardest part to teach.”
Starting with private lessons at age 16, through her teachers at Houghton College and the Eastman School of Music, Neff says she has had teachers who were “good technicians,” stressing proper vocal technique across all forms and styles of music.
“I fell in love with opera,” she says. “I would hear things like Placido Domingo singing Pagliacci, and I thought, ‘I have to sing,’ even though I wasn’t planning on majoring in music.”
Though her students run the gamut in age from early-middle-school to retirement, most are high-school-aged and very involved musically. “A lot of my students have sung in choir or school musicals, and some of them do pageants and talent shows,” she says. She helps them make smart repertoire choices that match their voice—she calls it “giving your voice a chance to catch up with your brain.”
Opera might have been Neff’s touchstone as a singer, but she’s open to whatever interests and styles her students bring to her. “I tell everyone,” she says, with a laugh, “I promise I’m not trying to make you into an opera singer.”