Career Profiles - Robert Alderson

Robert Alderson

Senior Tutor of Vocal Studies, The Royal Northern College of Music. Visiting Professor, The Royal Flemish Conservatoire & The Royal Flemish Opera Studio.


  Where and when did your musical interests begin?
  I joined the choir at my local parish church in Glazebury when I was six. What made this experience particularly important was the influence of my aunt, Mrs Gavin Cook (née Sarah Anne Kerfoot). She was a very accomplished musician and had a beautiful rich contralto voice; not only did she sing in the church choir, but she had big pre-war oratorio career. It was definitely the sound of her voice that formed my young ears and shaped my musical tastes for years to come. Even now, when I hear a chorus, it is the alto part that I hear first.

  How did your musical skills grow out of these early experiences?
  I remember that my enthusiasm took hold of me one day and I said to my aunt, "I can sing like you". At this, she took me to the piano - she was a gifted pianist - and started to test me. She could doubtless tell that I was determined to sing in that same alto voice that so inspired me and she took me under her wing. Together we worked on a wide repertoire, which included many great oratorio arias.

  How did this interest in singing lead to a wider musical education?
  I think that this was a great time in my life; my musical experiences were very rich and varied, and seemed to be constantly expanding. My aunt began to teach me piano and theory when I was around seven and we worked steadily through examinations. My keyboard skills developed as I studied the music I sang. In particular, I gained a facility with accompaniments that became particularly valuable later on. The church choir - a strong ensemble of 30 odd members - continued to be great basis for my musical education. I graduated to become their organist when I was twelve and found the experience of directing the choir in its rehearsals and performances particularly fulfilling. Perhaps this gave me an inkling of my vocation to teach.

  What happened when your voice broke?
  My aunt stopped me singing for a while to let things settle, but my keyboard studies continued with another great teacher, Jane Bentham, who was also a local church musician and organist. My voice settled as a baritone and, when I was eighteen, I entered the Royal Northern College of Music as a vocal student under Albert Haskayne. This was a great experience; the RNCM was in its first year of formation and I found myself at the heart of a vibrant community where I could truly indulge my enthusiasm.

  How did the Royal Northern College of Music develop your skills?
  Albert Haskayne gave me a very solid understanding of good vocal technique. He instilled in me an inalienable sense of that clear, unrestricted and open sound produced by a good singer. Once a singer has that facility, every reserve of strength and nuance of tone should become accessible. When Albert Haskayne died, I transferred to Frederick Cox, an inspirational man who I think brought about a true renaissance in singing in this country. He created the first real opera school in a music college and I am sure brought the School of Vocal Studies at the RNCM to world prominence. In particular, he taught me the discipline required to make true Italian sounds come from an English voice.

  Were you planning a career as a soloist?
  I think that my vocational instinct to be a teacher remained unchanged throughout my studies. Of course, I sang many recitals and concerts during my years of study, and gained a great deal of valuable performance experience. At the same time, however, my keyboard skills were constantly in demand and I spent many hours accompanying other singers; this work lead quite naturally to coaching and I often found myself helping others prepare for their performances. When I finally left the RNCM, I worked for Scottish Opera and, again whilst singing, did much work as a vocal coach. Eventually I left for Manchester, gained my PGCE and began work as a school teacher.

  What lead to your current post as a senior tutor in vocal studies?
  School teaching was a splendid opportunity for me since I had access to a great deal of potential talent. Through my extra-curricular work with school choirs, I developed a number of promising singers, many of whom eventually gained places at conservatoires. This was spotted by Joseph Ward, the then Head of Vocal Studies at the RNCM, and he invited me to come to the college as a tutor. This was rather a courageous step on his part as I was young in the post - the youngest teaching appointment the college had made - and I was certainly many years junior to a good proportion of the then teaching staff.

  What are the major challenges facing you now as a professional musician?
  The challenges facing me remain the same as they have ever been. Each new voice I teach needs patient work: I have to explore the instrument until I hear what I call the most "expensive" sound. All my efforts are focussed on getting a sound that is consistent from the bottom to the top of the vocal range. This is very much a long-term effort, but it is so important. I have encountered many singers who are great musicians, but their artistry is all but lost because they fail to produce a tone of sufficient quality.

One great and constant challenge is to educate people about the natural level of the voice. All too often voices are judged, often in audition, according to their performance in small studios and practice rooms: a voice that is perhaps beautiful but still technically limited in its capacity, may sound perfect in such an environment, but will sadly not translate well to a large auditorium or opera house where it may not be heard easily. Conversely, a voice that is unrestricted and free in its delivery may sound almost too big for the confines of the rehearsal room. Such an instrument will sound ideal in its proper performance context, confidently reaching every member of the audience. It is so important that voices are understood with this realistic perspective on performance context.

  What advice would you have for young musicians hoping to follow a similar career?
  Openness to other ideas and attitudes is terribly important, but I think also that you need a certain courage in your own convictions. The nature of any musical discipline is such that pleasing all is a rather elusive ideal. You have to be capable of resisting compromise and putting your full energy behind your instincts - after all the greatest stars are distinguished not by compromise, but by forthright commitment to their own sound.