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Finding her voice: Ema Katrovas on vocal training as a contemporary classical singer

Ema Katrovas performing in her solo show "Diva Lazarus"
Ema Katrovas. Credit: Antoine Boureau, from the solo show "Diva Lazarus" at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Lyon.

With a natural ability to sing, Czech-American contemporary classical performer and podcaster Ema Katrovas was thrilled with the positive feedback she received about her voice from a young age. This early praise inspired Ema to pursue degrees in performance and propelled her into a career as a classical soloist and operatic soprano, performing at Czech opera theatres and appearing as a concert soloist in the United States.

But despite her accomplishments, Ema's journey as a classical singer hasn't been entirely straightforward or self-affirming.

“Because I had a flexible voice with a big range and was able to make a lot of sound, singing teachers misdiagnosed my voice type when I was younger," said Ema, who was encouraged by various singing teachers to train as everything from a dramatic soprano to a lyrical mezzo to a coloratura soprano.

"There is this fetish in classical singing of the vocal teacher as the guru who holds the key to your voice. They make you sing amazingly in a lesson, but then when you are on your own you have no idea how to recreate what you did."

Although she now knows that she is most comfortable as a lyrical soprano, the misidentification of her voice type and contradictory training led Ema to adopt an effortful approach that eventually resulted in the emergence of vocal issues like instability and tongue tension.

“In the end I had built myself a house of cards with all these different singing teachers and it was falling apart," said Ema. "My voice was unstable and I got tired of being pawned off between people who didn’t understand how the voice works. They just wanted to make me into something extreme; the subtext being that I wasn’t good enough as I was."

Ema says that she gravitated to Estill Voice Training because it is underpinned by science and knowledge of how the voice functions rather than subjective opinion. She is currently working with opera singer and Estill Master Trainer Stefan Holmström to get to know her own voice better and to develop a reliable technique as a contemporary classical performer.

"Estill gives the agency back to the singer."

"Estill gives the agency back to the singer," said Ema. "It’s up to you to learn the concepts and use them in your artistry. In my work with Stefan I don’t necessarily sing better in the lessons, but I come away with exercises that I can do in short sessions throughout the day, and that truly transform how I sing."

According to Ema, many classical singers don’t like learning about vocal anatomy because the practical uses are unclear. During her Master’s at the Academy of Music in Prague, for example, Ema took classes in vocal anatomy, but found that it was almost impossible to apply to her technique what she learned.

"But what Estill does so well," she said "is that it connects the anatomy to physical actions, so that the anatomical knowledge becomes intrinsically linked to the voice. It's especially useful when I have a bad vocal day because it gives me strategies to help me get where I need to be for a performance."

One of the functions that Ema and Stefan have explored is thyroid cartilage control, or tilt. Tilting the thyroid cartilage is part of what makes a sweetened, dynamic classical sound. The two have spent a lot of time working consciously with this function to help Ema stabilise her voice over the passaggio and enable a broader range of dynamics.

"With Estill I learn how to produce all sounds safely."

"I have to use the extremes of my voice all the time in contemporary classical singing," Ema said. "From lowest, highest, shrieks, yells, whispers. There is this notion among classical singers that anything outside a narrow bel canto tone is bad for you, but with Estill I learn how to produce all sounds safely."

The clear separation between craft, artistry and performance in Estill Voice Training is also helpful for Ema because the technique she learns supports her creative expression instead of interfering with it.

"There is a lot of confusion in the world of classical singing because there is often no distinction between vocal technique and interpretation," said Ema. "For me, the Estill approach is perfect as it teaches me what I need to do to create a particular vocal colour or effect and how I can move quickly between extremes."

Having recently completed a Diplôme d’Artiste-CréationS at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Lyon, Ema is looking forward to continuing to explore her voice with Estill Voice Training while undertaking further studies as a Ph.D. student. She's also in the early stages of creating a brand new podcast concept geared to young artists seeking alternative careers within the performing arts.

If you would like to help Ema gather input for her new podcast, please fill out a quick survey, which will be open until 13th July 2024. Anyone interested in the performing arts economy and alternative careers for performing artists is welcome to take part.

For an opera-singer-turned-experimental-performer like Ema, Estill Voice Training is a perfect complement for her chosen genre of contemporary classical because it gives her the tools to expand her artistry beyond the traditional bel canto style.

"I don’t yet know exactly where I'm headed on this journey," Ema said. "But I do know that I’m finally finding my own voice."

Stefan Holmström is a professional opera singer and voice teacher who works with a diverse range of clients. He offers online and in-person vocal coaching and workshops from his studio in central Brighton in the UK. As an Estill Master Trainer (EMT), Stefan uses Estill Voice Training (EVT) as a baseline for safe and sustainable voice use.


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