A Few Insights on Singing with Imagination

Some vocal technique is already present in each of us. We are wired to communicate well with our voices, both as speakers and as listeners. Those inherent abilities with spoken communication are closely linked to singing, of course. Inborn technique that manifests itself in singing is called talent. Technique and talent ideally function the same way in singing: each is accessed easily and directly as needed, largely without conscious effort.

VOCAL TECHNIQUE

Much of what we call technique is simply an awareness of what is considered good singing, more than specific actions or techniques. This knowledge of process (which may be gained in lessons, classes, even reading) makes it more likely that good things are allowed to happen. It is this allowing that frees up the singer to sing consistently, expressively and powerfully.

Good singing is not unreasonably complicated. Singing is a skill (actually a group of skills) that has much more to do with coordination than intellect, more with imagination than knowledge of physiology and acoustics. Improvement can be a way of life if a few essential techniques are consistently made new. Other than low larynx/high palate (the essential open throat), efficient breath support and a pliable system of resonators and articulators, what other technical fundamentals can there be? Surely the overarching principle of poise and balance, instead of tension and over-pressure, is vital. The essentials are relatively few, though, as agreed on by most reputable teachers. I once read an essay containing a long list of things to think about while singing. In the ordinary sense of left-brain thinking, I strongly disagree with that writer’s approach. Rather, thinking with the body can be a helpful way to find the mind/body connection.

One should not confuse relaxed with collapsed/disconnected, or engaged with tense/effortful. Technique and imagination empower each other when the artist confidently and daringly allows them to engage with each other. There are occasions when a singer must think specifically about technique—a particular note or phrase. Boris Goldovsky called these razor blade moments, when the singer is keenly attentive to an essential task. Even during these moments of specific technical intention, the imagination must be allowed to coordinate multiple tasks into a fluid process that seems easy, cohesive, spontaneous, honest, and ultimately convincing. The Alexander concept of availability of motion, more than obvious physical movement, is pivotal in developing the powerful engagement of body and mind.

Thorough training is essential, often over an extended time. As physical coordination and strength become trustworthy and second nature, the imagination is better able to artfully blend vocal and interpretive intentions into unified and inspiring performances.

CHOICES

No singer—particularly the young student who is initially developing his/her vocal technique—should ever be so committed to a particular sound that creativity suffers. This is not to deny technical mastery as a goal, or to say that the expressive end justifies the means. Far from it, as great expression may be found in technique that is limiting, or even damaging! One should rather develop techniques that allow increasing options for both today and tomorrow. The goal of mastering the sound alone will ultimately disappoint; the student will lose motivation and the basic joy of singing—what I call the fun factor—fades.

The increasing options mentioned above are actually choices that the artist makes, based on technical ability and preparation. Imitation is a vital element in identifying those choices. The teacher can be an effective vocal model in lessons (particularly if teacher and student have similar voices). Extensive and frequent listening to live and recorded performances by outstanding contemporary and historical singers is an important way to discover options. Just as art students are found in great museums, copying the masters’ work stroke by stroke, it can be helpful for a young singer to imitate what he hears from established artists. In doing so, she may find her own authentic voice, simply by recognizing what is appealing and somehow inviting in others. There is important vocal and artistic overlap between singers, usually those of similar voice category.

There is certainly more to performing effectively than faithful imitation, good intentions or positive thinking, yet too often singers don’t trust their preparation or skill. They attempt a level of conscious control that actually weakens—even sabotages—performance. Trying to perform without effective and frequent practice (thus being constantly on guard, often second-guessing) makes it nearly impossible for valid, true artistic choices to be carried out. Those singers will not develop the technical freedom to empower expressive freedom, and will quickly lose faith in their technical approach. The approach that I suggest is based on poise, balance and flexible strength—not on manipulation—and the singer must be willing to take necessary risks to develop consistency.

The serious student must be willing to experiment with a wide range of choices, attitudes, timbres and vocal directives. Voice lessons, coachings, opera rehearsals, even choral/ensemble rehearsals provide the dedicated student with opportunities to expand her horizons. A teacher, coach or conductor may insist on a particular timbre, intensity level, even a specific vowel (things that may seem manipulative or severe) but perhaps the singer will find there a positive result that identifies a future choice.

Above all, though, the practice room is the place to discover choices, abilities and talents that have been there all along, simply not recognized. However, the student must not be so focused on technique-building that expressive energy disconnects from the process. If he practices imaginatively, incorporating performing energy all the while, the imagination will ultimately deliver an effective performance, partnered by well-practiced vocal technique.

TRUST/CONFIDENCE

One cannot personalize or own a performance without a relatively broad and deep knowledge of what the composer and author have created, as represented by the ink on the page. With thorough and diligent preparation (including helpful research into the text, performance practice, characteristics of composer and poet, etc.), the artist earns the right to be confident. This confidence makes it far more likely that imagination will flourish and produce strong performances. This cycle of preparation—confidence—imaginative performance will constantly inspire the artist to be ever more productive.

Lee Trevino, the beloved golf champion with such a gregarious public persona and surprisingly philosophical mind, was interviewed by Roy Firestone on ESPN, back in the late 1980s. Firestone remarked that Trevino’s winning the US Open as a young, relatively unknown athlete must have been a huge confidence builder. Trevino immediately disagreed, “Oh, no. Let’s say I have a 90-yard wedge shot to the final hole of the tournament, with a simple two-putt to win. If I haven’t successfully made that shot hundreds of times in practice, all the positive thinking in the world won’t help me to win the tournament. Confidence is gained in the practice rounds.” Relying on talent, intelligence, adrenaline, superhuman effort, or good luck is no substitute for that confidence. A keener imagination is its fruit.

Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” This is inescapably true in the process of learning to sing, of learning repertoire, of learning to recognize and appreciate art, of learning to live richly. So very much is already in front of us, around us and within us! We need only to perceive it, actively, earnestly, deeply and more clearly. As the person and the body change somewhat each day, fundamental techniques must be reinterpreted and reincorporated. There can be no substitute for consistent, centered, observant and inspired practice and reflection.

When seen from a larger perspective, each phase of an artist’s work is valid; it is one day’s version of that person’s creation. Today’s choices are often built on earlier ones; even if seen as failures, those former choices were made in the light of that day’s understanding and perception. No desirable choice carries a guarantee for future success; each choice must be constantly renewed. Just as significantly (and often the case with young students), true and lasting progress is elusive in the face of desperate preoccupation with the future. Patience is an imperative ingredient in success for singers.

Through good teaching, practice, coaching, observing, listening, imitating, research, conversation, and other performances, the serious artist discovers effective choices that—when engaged—will result in the performances that we dream of!

NB: This article has languished since 2015, hidden away in a Google Drive folder, until I was recently asked to provide attribution for a quote from it. I searched this site and the Westminster Voice Teacher Help Center, with no good result. I assume that I wrote this article – in which I quote liberally from other posts on this blog – as a more comprehensive statement on processes and activities contributing to effective singing. To my knowledge, this is its first posting.

Some Considerations to Guide Listening and Discussion of Performances of Art Songs and Arias

I wrote this brief document for my small group of private voice students at Westminster Choir College, fall 2020. It is shared here to help you focus ears/eyes/artistic lens for effective listening to performances of classical repertoire, although the considerations should help us in listening to multiple genres.

  1. Do the performers seem to engage in a cohesive way with the performance? Does it seem that their preparation was thorough and effectively carried out?
  2. Is there a sense of freshness, spontaneity, and commitment to this performance?
  3. Do the performers seem to be in sync with each other, re: musical and artistic intentions, moment-to-moment ensemble, etc.?
  4. Is basic musical and textual correctness secure enough not to be a distraction?
  5. Do the performers find originality in their artistic choices? (NB: originality is not limited to yet-unheard sounds or ideas. An original performance could possibly consist of combining interpretive choices that are borrowed from other performances.)
  6. Is there a healthy and creative balance between expressive/improvisational energy and stricture or respect for style and tradition?

Specific observations for the singer – how effective is she/he in these areas?

  1. Does the music seem securely learned? Describe how we know it’s secure: eyes, audible hesitation, apparent lack of full engagement, etc.
  2. Is text clearly delivered, re: diction choices, pronunciation, articulation?
  3. Does he/she seem confident in this performance? Are they truly prepared or simply trying to put the best foot forward and “wing it?”
  4. In addition to musical and textual faithfulness/correctness, do the following elements seem strong enough not to be a distraction? On the other hand, are they especially strong?
    1. Basic tone – evenness, brilliance, breath efficiency, spin/vibrato, audibility/projection
    2. Intonation
    3. Variety of intensity
    4. Expressive use of timbre/color
    5. Inflection of language, based on all four qualities of a musical tone: pitch/intonation, intensity, timbre, and duration
    6. Secure memorization
    7. Body usage that allows audience members to be confident and relaxed
    8. Relative ease of physical engagement
    9. Other?

Artistic Voice

I wrote these words to a dear composer/friend, after having just heard one of his more recent compositions.

Hearing your performance of your music now and knowing your overall catalog as well as I do, distinctions between artistic voice, musical/textual language, and cliché come to mind. In essence, I’m going to write these few words about how composers, improvisers, and performers in general – how we use some of the same sounds, elements, and choices frequently (those musical elements and attitudes that make Mozart identifiable as himself, not as Haydn, etc.), without merely copying ourselves as though warming up leftovers for tonight’s dinner.

Your rhythmic textures, melodic and formal landscapes, and harmonic choices are uniquely yours, even though no singular element does not exist elsewhere. We all create in the context of everything we’ve heard and experienced previously, from others and from ourselves. The legitimate, essential teaching tool of copying the choices of others plays into the creative potential. As I often impress on my voice students, we explore sounds, attitudes, and expressive options by imitating great singers. The big caveat is that we don’t stop there; we find what is authentically our own through this kind of exploration.

Here the quote from Lee Hoiby comes to mind, that there’s still much to be said with triads (in your case, m/M 9th chords and others!).

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?