Ten Artistic Essentials for Singers

At the closing Liederabend of our 2018 Vienna: Language of Lieder program (in the Bösendorfer Saal of the Mozart “Figaro” Haus), I gave our ten brilliant students the following ten “gifts.” At that time (June 23, 2018), the list was delivered as a monologue. Here it is written and revised, for your consideration.

[NB: These tasks are sequential; each is to some degree dependent on the previous ones.]

  1. Commit to and enjoy the challenge of consistent, progressive work on yourself and your skills. You must be in it for “the long haul.”
  2. Become the strongest musician you can possibly be. This effort must be constantly addressed, and complacency must be avoided. Mastering another instrument (e.g., piano) and exploring that repertoire will make it less likely for vocal issues to distract you from honestly evaluating your musicianship. Much of what is perceived as vocal problems is actually a “software failure,” in that the voice is not given clear commands by the inner ear, due to weak musical skills. In other words, don’t always blame bad singing on poor vocal technique.
  3. Read as a poet, not in a monotone, non-personalized voice. Merely pretending to be expressive puts you on track for specific interpretive choices. You must choose to be expressive in order to express.
  4. Enjoy the ongoing discovery of interplay between text and music, the essence of meaningful, effective, and beautiful singing. Never be simply a “sound machine.” Yes, there are times in vocalization (at every level of development) when the sound itself is explored, but this kind of work is not a final stage.
  5. See the page, hear the music, feel meaning, release beauty.
  6. Commit to artistic choices. The willingness to do so reflects and requires personal courage.
  7. Be willing to take risks.
  8. Enjoy the sound of your own voice, and how it feels to release your own, authentic sound. Merely making the appropriate sound is not enough. The sound of the voice itself is a major vehicle for expression, not only specific musical/textual choices.
  9. Know your technique(s) so well that you almost never think about it in performance. Performance is not about working hard, remembering to push all the right buttons.
  10. Know yourself so well that you need “check in” only occasionally. It is the immature and undisciplined artist who constantly disappears from the audience’s view in order to search for him/herself. A secure artistic foundation is a base of operation, constantly supporting the performance.

BONUS: Repeat frequently.

 

But I wanted cake!

Young students – all of us, actually – can be easily confused by perceived differences of opinion and method among various teachers, coaches, or conductors. Although accomplished and trustworthy artists/teachers hold certain essential values in common, each one of them has unique preferences and insights.

Combine that individuality with the fact that each student is a “moving target” at every moment, and it becomes even more difficult to find absolute, fundamental rules about artistry, even about technique. It is even less likely that one will find a definitive and specific plan for interpreting any piece of music.

Yes, through comparing performances of a piece by past and present artists we can begin to perceive common ideas and characteristics. However, we never really know an artist’s intention, we know only how we take it in from the air. Merely imitating our perception of what we’ve heard or seen can actually take us further away from a performer’s authentic and more meaningful intention.

What a privilege in lessons or classes, to hear a seasoned artist describe and/or demonstrate those inner, creative impulses that give birth to what we actually take in as listeners. Only through considerable time in study, consideration, and practice, does one develop the unique balance that begins to define his/her own artistic personality. When an artist (surely including students) is privileged to encounter advice/teaching from a great and more experienced artist, growth can and should result!

Consider something so basic as tempo. One teacher may insist on a faster tempo in a song, perhaps due to the student’s lethargy and lack of conviction, or because she/he is lost in inner space, searching for profundity. Another teacher may insist on a slower tempo on the same piece, to help that same student on another day to find gravity and more intense delivery of the song’s essence.

Dogmatic instructions for the “correct” performance of anything are suspect, at best. One is wise to stop looking for the perfect interpretation of anything. Avoid simplistic, mass-marketed methods that seem logical, even effective in some limited way. Such cookie-cutter approaches lead to pretense and “looks-like” imitations, not true and unique artistry.

The privilege and responsibility of an artist is to synthesize input from various sources, finally coming up with performances that honor essential and needed “rules,” yet those performances are marked with the performer’s fingerprints.

Consider a cake recipe. Some ingredients are essential, otherwise the longed-for cake will instead be a cracker! Yet there is plenty room and need for customization of the recipe.

True, a freshly-prepared hamburger at McDonald’s will be consistent under any authorized Golden Arches, but it is still a Mickey D’s burger – generally not the most nutritious or interesting meal. [Note the several food references in the post; it’s almost lunch time!]

The program that I founded and am privileged to direct, Vienna: Language of Lieder, exists (like some others) to deliver tools, knowledge, skill, experience, exposure – all things that one incorporates to become an artist, not merely a conveyor of others’ preferences. One cannot be an effective and powerful artist with a Fundamentalist, “just follow the instructions,” mindset.

Profundity

We performers need to trust the music and text we’re given.

The point is not that the audience must get “my version” of the art. The listener gets the art itself, and in the process of your delivering it honestly, after good preparation, reflection and personal connection, the performance will reflect your unique and valued artistry. See Advice to Artists… 

I am weary of eager yet misguided students, some professionals, and some conductors, who seem to think that everything must be deep/profound – even “spiritual,” to use that abused word. The performer does not need to have catharsis or feel-good experience each time. In fact, such a bonus may be experienced rarely if ever, and when least expected.

Don’t try to stir up those emotions for yourself; rather, learn what good acting and communication are all about. When we examine a score, certain truth presents itself to us. This essential content may be musical (in which case, “words fail.” That’s why it’s music.) It may lie in the text – although in the case of art song, the unique hybridization of word, pitch, and rhythm is what we deal with.

The job of a performer is to find that truth, which is in some ways relatively easy to see, right there on the page. Next, they must “buy into” that presented truth sincerely, with no self-conscious effort to draw attention to their own feelings.

Profound performances may result.

Game Savers

New York Yankees superstar, Aaron Judge, had this to say about one of his two vital, run-saving throws from right field in a recent Yankees win: “I’ve probably made that play a thousand times pregame. It’s just like practice. Keep a routine, keep it simple, don’t overthink it. The biggest thing is just make sure you catch the ball cleanly and keep an accurate throw. That’s the biggest thing. Just replaying what I did in practice. That’s all.”

Musicians and other athletes, this is why we practice. Technique is thus brought onto the playing field/stage.

Days before dress rehearsal

As you look ahead to your first performance (dress rehearsal), here are a few suggestions to help you enjoy a more productive hour:

1. Get a solid 8 hours of sleep, for at least 2-3 nights before the rehearsal.
2. Good nutrition (protein-rich) each day, and lots of hydration.
3. Find an hour on the day before the rehearsal to quietly perform through the entire program (seated or standing, but not phonating).
4. Write out longhand every word you will sing — even if incorrectly spelled/formatted — to deepen your memory.
5. Enjoy your regular practicing, including with your pianist.
6. On dress rehearsal day, do not attend classes/rehearsals that you can avoid. Obviously, you need to save as much of the day’s energy and voice for your performance. The practice of extended rehearsals on performance days that do seem to work for choirs, is not generally one for the solo artist.
7. Enjoy a generous, 20-30 minute vocalization earlier in the day, then around an hour before the rehearsal, you can sing briefly and be ready.
8. By doing the above, you will build yourself a foundation from which to perform with fresh and dependable energy. The joy that you find in singing will energize you in the hour!

C.S. Lewis Strikes Again

According to C.S. Lewis, “Symbolism exists precisely for the purpose of conveying to the imagination what the intellect is not ready for.”

Herein lies not only the truth about Symbolism in poetry, but the essential nature of art: Art communicates with the imagination/personality/soul/heart in ways that the intellect cannot. This is why meaningful interface with art cannot be based merely on analysis, historical context, or conscious thought. Also, the creation or release of art lives in the same realm; e.g., both the composition and performance of music are dependent on imagination. Granted, technical mastery enables effective work from either side of the equation, but the employment of technique in a creative vacuum is pointless. As the old question goes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it make sound?