“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” – Miles Davis
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!
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 and the release of art live 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?
Here is an article that I have prepared for my students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. It is my attempt to offer specific steps for learning a new piece of music–including the choral repertoire that they sing in the one, two, or more choirs that they manage simultaneously, with a variety of conductors and tonal ideals.
I want my students to be able to sing in each situation with as free and consistent a vocal technique as possible, even though specific goals and demands are different. You will read elsewhere here in Kavbar’s Blog that ideal vocal technique allows a singer to make appropriate and different choices at any moment; it is therefore necessary to avoid any sense of locking, be it physical or otherwise. Commitment and consistency in approach, yes. Same-ness, no.
Although I contemplated creating an article or Studio Class activity to teach my students how to prepare their choral music, it struck me that “singing is singing.” This article is therefore applicable to solo repertoire, but it may be applied to the initial study of choral music (to be suitably prepared for the rehearsal), with some modification or omission. In this way, the student has a chance to begin to get the music “in his/her voice,” in a way that sectional rehearsals would not allow.
This approach may seem to some like overkill for an initial music-learning session, but “music is music” and we take very seriously the privilege of interpretation!
- BEFORE GOING TO THE PRACTICE ROOM: Look at the score. Who is the composer? Who is the poet or what is the text source? What musical and/or interpretive indications have the composer or editor placed on the page? What is the musical form: strophic, through-composed, da capo (ABA), modification or hybrid of these forms? In what key(s) does the piece begin and end? Are there modulations? Is the piece transposed, or the text translated? How long is the piece? Where does musical and/or textual repetition occur?
- If you have no sense of the musical style or characteristics of the composer or repertoire from the historical period, do some reading–just enough to get a start. Ditto for the poet, libretto, etc. Is musical ornamentation allowed or expected?
- Listen to a recording or two, if available, score in hand. Make note of pitches, rhythms, or pronunciations that seem unexpected or very different than you anticipated. This listening is to lay the groundwork for your own exploration and learning; never learn your music by rote from any recording–not even the MIDI file that a modern composer may provide.
- Find or create a literal, word-by-word translation of the text into your native language. For example, www.ipasource.com, may help with your text work. Take time to consider and paraphrase that translation, then reduce it further into a sentence or two. In the case of a dramatic text from a larger work (opera, oratorio, possibly a song cycle), determine the context of this particular text. Who is your character, etc.? Remember the actor’s question, “Why am I saying what I’m saying the way I’m saying it?” Begin to personalize the text and determine how you may serve it well with your own expressive gifts.
- Find or create a transcription into the International Phonetic Alphabet, to the degree that you need it, for accuracy of pronunciation.
- IN THE PRACTICE ROOM: Referencing any IPA symbols that you have penciled into your score (careful not to needlessly clutter the page), begin to speak the text with meaningful and fluid “stage” diction. It may be helpful to read the text from its literary source, so that you’re not overly influenced yet by the musical shapes. Even now, some meaning (images, feelings, attitudes, memories) should begin to partner the text in its printed language.
- With your eyes on the score, practice intoning the text with the general shapes and the rhythmic values of the music (merely approximate pitches). Remember that the “right” note at the wrong time is the “wrong” note. Even at this stage, developing a feel for rhythmic relationships and pace of the musical line will help to make pitches and melody clear to you.
- Review your earlier observations of keys, tempi, form, etc.
- Sitting at the piano, play your pitches in rhythm (slowly, if helpful), simply to find tonal relationships and begin to hear the melody more clearly. If your piano skills are not strong enough–you should practice piano six days a week, too!–find a friend to help. If you are learning choral music, perhaps a member of your section could do the keyboard work, and you could do the text work. You need to hear the harmonies that support or take place along with your line, and the piano is an excellent help. Always know the “pitch center” of the section or phrase. If you have strong Solfege skills, it may be good to omit this step, and go immediately to Step 10.
- Stand. If it is helpful, practice your vocal line on Solfege syllables, with correct rhythms. Gradually begin to sing in the indicated tempo. Next, practice singing with the “neutral” tone–essentially [oe], or a sustained schwa–not overly rounded, certainly not pulled back or down. Using an initial, voiced consonant like [l] or [d] may help, especially if pitches change quickly. [NB: Throughout Steps 9 and 10, vibrato should be free but slender, not manipulated. Do not forbid vibrato or insist on it, but avoid unnecessary weight. Different levels or qualities of vibrato may ultimately be found.]
- Finally, begin to practice with correct pitches, rhythms and text, based on your initial understanding of pronunciations. It is important to have guidance from your teacher, coach, or conductor for specific choices of vowel, how to articulate certain consonants, length of vowels, consonant emphasis, etc. In the voice studio, vowel articulation is an important part of learning technique, and you must be skilled enough to vary those articulations according to style, range, intensity, interpretive idea, etc. I teach that one does not merely “sing a vowel,” one sings tone. Vowel is that part of the tone that intersects with language. In choral singing, the conductor must often and of necessity be very specific with vowels–due to musical style, the timbre and “tonal personality” of that specific ensemble, certain exaggerations that are sometimes needed for clarity in a choral sound, personal preference, perhaps other factors. Each singer (with the help of the voice teacher/Senior Advisor) must build a vocal technique that is characterized by integrity, flexibility, power, and freedom. In this way, individuals can begin to find their full potential as singing artists. Not only this, but each singer can be a valued contributor to choirs, on- and off-campus.
”Look,” he says quietly, slowly, ”at a certain point, something is musical. And beneath that point, it’s not musical. You can’t sing out of tune, you can’t play out of rhythm, you can’t play your instrument that isn’t tuned, the tempo has to be right. I don’t know, is that perfection? I don’t say that once you reach that point, you must keep going to the sky — although I do think, Hey, you got this far, why don’t you see how far you can go? If you want to call that perfection, O.K. But it’s not anywhere near perfection, it’s just musical.” Paul Simon
Hello, dear students (and honored guests). You notice that I have not written a post here in a long time, but today I am inspired to give some guidance. Since you are here now, I urge you to look around after you read this post, as there are others that you will find helpful.
Many of you face voice juries, recitals, auditions, or other imminent performances. In the days leading up to such opportunities, here are a few not-quite-random thoughts to consider.
1. Worry or extreme anxiety may be a clue that you are not well-prepared. Yet, it is never too late to increase your chances for a stronger performance, although it is surely true that inadequate preparation does not allow your very best work.
2. With humans (that would include most of us!), the mindset of “all or nothing” is generally not a helpful approach to performance. You will never achieve the dream, “ultimate” level that you strive for, but you must move towards it. If you are ever convinced you’ve hit a perfect 10 on your personal scale, then re-calibrate that 10 to 8 or 9, and keep progressing. Don’t worry, this will happen very rarely (or never) if you are honest. As with good body management, we are not after place or position, but direction.
3. Obsession with perfection is an inhibiting, negative, destructive, damaging, limiting, damnable energy-drain for performers.
4. Obsession with perfection is an inhibiting, negative, destructive, damaging, limiting, damnable energy-drain for performers.
5. Obsession with perfection is an inhibiting, negative, destructive, damaging, limiting, damnable energy-drain for performers. It is never a good thing. Don’t try to be perfect; be truthful, open, communicative, skilled, confident and grateful for the opportunity to perform.
6. Here is a short list of some fundamentals in vocal technique:
a. balanced, deep, and accessible breath support (appoggio),
b. easy availability of energy to articulate tone and language, avoiding “support” from the upper body,
c. freedom to inspire physical processes with mental/emotional “performer energy,”
d. Etc. [Add your favorite fundamental here.]
7. As the word implies, a “fundamental” rests securely deep within you, at your core, your foundation. It is not at the top of your thought process, a mental effort to make things happen. Fundamentals allow/empower things to happen, they don’t exist for their own glorification. Every desirable action is allowed or inspired by the imagination, not by “manual override.”
8. Fundamental technique is a result of both learning/understanding and training. It happens over time. One of my wisest teachers told me that a talented singer should be able to learn and embody a solid vocal technique in two years of study. I think she was right, given consistent and dedicated work by that student. Once the essence of technique is incorporated, your continuing study is towards refinement, making specific application and choices, improving your abilities, etc. This work is done with your voice teacher, with trusted coaches, and sometimes independently–above all, through consistent practice.
9. All of the choral/ensemble/non-classical singing that you do is potentially limiting to your own progress. This is why your own personal practice must be sufficient to keep your goals clear. As I have said many times, you must be the Chair of your own Vocal Board, and your voice teacher is your Senior Advisor. No conductor, coach, director, parent or friend, has the right/responsibility to either of those positions (Chair, Senior Advisor).
This is not a comprehensive list of values or processes, but I must at least mention that it is never too late to review texts, translations, dramatic subtext, poetic thought, etc. Musical score study is never inappropriate. It is a good idea to refresh your memory. Additionally, the more you live with a song or aria, the more likely you are to find new connections on the printed page that will enhance your performance. This may relate to musical or textual phrasing, new insights into why the composer made some of his/her choices, etc.
Bottom line, do not panic. Do not give up. Make the time to be as well-prepared as possible, building on what you have already done. Choose to present yourself confidently and give a valid performance that represents your most truthful and committed work on that day. Choose to be on the up-escalator, progressing even through the performance itself.
One of the greatest joys in my life is to teach gifted singers on a regular basis (in my studio at Westminster Choir College), several other wonderful artists periodically, and quite a few students in various master classes. Regardless of the frequency of these encounters, whatever learning and growth take place is dependent on what both teacher and student do.
To a very large degree, the effectiveness of a voice teacher is due to how well he/she motivates students. A good teacher is never too easily satisfied, and the focus of a lesson is seldom limited to resonance and support (though vitally important). One teaches artistry, musicianship, organized thinking, discipline…and responsibility. Various teachers have varying styles to help students work well and accomplish much; my own manner is to be respectful and considerate of the student, to be authoritative (after all, I do believe in what I teach!), but seldom to demand.
Having said the above, the one thing that is uniquely the responsibility of the voice teacher is to guide a student in the formation of his/her vocal technique. This is not the privilege or the job of the choral conductor or vocal coach, I hasten to add. In actuality, each singer must be the chair of his/her “vocal board” and the voice teacher is “senior advisor” and guide. Many students fail to assume their own privilege, due to the time and energy they spend with conductors and coaches, who give them specific input into musical performance. It is too easy for these students to mindlessly do as they are told—certainly not the intention of my colleagues.
As magical as vocalization in the studio may seem to be (it is thrilling for me to see eyes light up with new successes in vocalization!), and as enlightening as repertoire and text work may be, the real engine that determines a student’s progress is the student him/herself. Not only does a good teacher bring new instruction, information and advice to the student in a lesson, that teacher must affirm what the student discovers in practice and performance. Sometimes, that affirmation is quickly followed by introduction of alternative techniques that will be more beneficial in the long run. This kind of teaching moment does not happen unless the student has been working diligently and consistently.
Westminster (where I have been privileged to teach for quite a few years) boasts a large and highly-capable voice faculty. I have excellent colleagues; we share many basic values, preferences and techniques that characterize our teaching.
I am convinced that the determining factor of a student’s success is usually less about technical approach, and more about how that student responds and works between lessons—what he/she brings into the teaching studio. Even with benign or inappropriate technical emphases from voice teachers, smart and gifted students will largely find a way to “put things together.” I certainly enjoy teaching more when students come to their lessons with an agenda, questions and suggestions—balanced by their trust and willingness to accept my instruction. We all benefit.
Just as the performing artist must not confuse relaxed with collapsed/disconnected–or engaged with tense/effortful, do not think for a moment that activity is always about obvious motion. Technique and imagination are able to empower each other when the artist confidently “gets out of the way” and allows them to coordinate. Key to that relationship is that the artist know what degree of control to exercise.
I often write in this blog about imagination and choices that the artist makes, based on technical ability and good preparation. There is certainly more to performing effectively than good intentions or positive thinking. Yet, too often we performers don’t trust our preparation or our skills; we try to exercise a level of conscious control that actually weakens–even sabotages–performance. Speaking from personal experience, this is a major challenge for all of us who teach and perform.
As essential as technical fundamentals are (choose your own ideal here: low larynx, high palate, legato, mastery of breath control, etc.), there are vital benefits to what I call active passivity. One who learns what it feels like to allow or bring about desired activities will find efficiency (therefore, less fatigue) and concentration that lead to more expressive, consistent and powerful performances.
My students quickly learn that I love the game of golf (readers of this blog can also figure that one out!). There is much common ground with sports–golf, in particular–and good singing. The golfer may have frequent lessons (it is not unusual that tour professionals’ coaches travel with them) but they know the difference between the practice tee and a competitive round of golf. No doubt, a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of the swing should be helpful, but an excellent swing is not brought about through conscious thought of when to shift the weight, cock the wrists, square the clubface, pronate/supinate, etc. Things happen too quickly for that level of conscious control. However, it is typical that a golfer chooses one, possibly two, swing thoughts as they stand over the ball. This is not unlike positive imaging, whereby one sees the track of the ball’s flight before launching the swing, or imagines success with that difficult phrase or challenging aria prior to taking the stage.
Years ago, it was a revelation to me–the good Southern boy who tries hard to do the right thing–when a wonderful dramatic coach/director (James deBlasis) urged me to take it for granted that a certain dramatic choice was intact in my performance. I began to realize, this is how learning and growth work. “Big Brother” left brain has little responsibility when it comes to the moment of performance. Once skills and choices have become secure, second nature reality, the performer must take for granted that it all comes together. A plus B will always (OK…usually) equal C.
To be more specific, efforts to establish the low laryngeal position that most of us seek too easily lead to a depressed larynx. In this case, tongue/jaw tension is a problem; the neck tends to lock down, and mobility is lost. The ability to articulate pitches and text rapidly and effectively is hampered. One of the fundamentals that I was taught long ago is that a good, natural, deep inhalation releases the larynx down; it is not necessary to place or manipulate the larynx down, but we must commit to not moving it up. I now define low larynx as “the larynx that is not pushed or pulled up.” This balancing act is a prime application of active passivity.
One more fundamental that I will address here only briefly (arguably, the most basic element in singing) is breath support/control, appoggio, etc. We often worship at the Shrine of the Low Breath, and “the breath” becomes an object of mystery. I say we must demystify the whole process to master the specifics of breath management for singing. After all, as my favorite Alexander Technique colleague (my own teacher) often points out, it is toddlers who have mastered body management. They make a lot of sound, for a long time, without hoarseness, etc. In fact, the healthy baby makes a conspicuous entrance onto the world stage by breathing very deeply, then crying out with great power!
Through refining talent/instinct into an effective technique, the athlete–whether engaged in golf, another sport, or singing–discovers that mind, body and spirit must be in sync to perform at a high level. Learning to access technique fluidly and imaginatively is vital.
In looking through some old documents, I ran across the Practice Guide that I give my students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. It offers direction on what good practice is, and how it can helpful. A portion of this document was posted on this blog a couple of years ago, but I think it bears repeating:
WHAT is practice? According to Merriam-Webster, practice is “systematic exercise for proficiency.” Practice must involve experimenting/improvising (creative energy), but it is primarily to channel that energy into training. Practice is the investment of hours and years to build a resilient, dependable technique (method of carrying out a skilled activity). Practice is what one does to bridge the gap between his/her best intentions or dreams, and reality. In other words, practice is making consistent the application of desired choices; one practices making choices, so that they become “second nature,” automatic, as natural as breathing.
WHY practice? Learning without application is of questionable value; in a skill such as singing, learning is arguably worthless—unless validated by consistent practice. One does not learn to sing only in the voice lesson; vital concepts are introduced there, but the student builds with and upon those concepts/techniques in the practice room (studio class, the coaching studio, the opera rehearsal, the choral rehearsal, in performances…). It is important that techniques introduced in the lesson be promptly, thoroughly and regularly supported by generous amounts of time in practice. Much influence comes from teachers, coaches, conductors, colleagues, etc., but the student must embrace his/her right and responsibilities as Chair of the Vocal Board.
Practice is also about rediscovering and affirming choices that have previously been identified as desirable. This truth is essential for continuing progress, as one builds a cohesive network of choices that make up technique. As a singer develops and matures, it is critical to rediscover earlier choices and make subtle adaptations.
Perhaps the most important reason to practice is to develop confidence. If one does not “work out” the technique that is ostensibly being developed, he/she must depend on over-effort and luck. To come to a voice lesson or performance without effective and frequent practice—thus to be constantly “on guard,” often second-guessing oneself—does not allow the singer to make valid, true artistic choices. He/she will not develop the technical freedom that empowers expressive freedom, and will quickly lose faith in the technical approach.
Any activity (such as singing) is more rewarding and fulfilling when one is well-prepared, and has therefore earned the expectation of success. Besides, practicing well is often exhilarating and always good for the soul!
WHEN to practice? In short, at least three times a day, for a minimum total of 75 minutes; it is better to practice frequently in relatively short segments. Make practice sessions a priority in the daily schedule; enter them in the daily planner. The length of time in daily practice (six days a week, with a “vocal Sabbath”) may often be more than 75 minutes, in addition to ensemble or opera rehearsals. If more repertoire is in process (or if the student learns music/text slowly), more time will be needed in practice, as well as in research. Be certain not to actually sing for more hours a day than freshness and vocal health can be maintained; on days of heavy rehearsing or performances, some of the practice should be silent. (Ask me for suggestions on silent practice.)
WHERE to practice? Listening to recordings, even while in the practice room, is not actually practice; it is preparation for practice. Though one must not learn music from any recording, an initial hearing can be helpful, with occasional listening to the same or different recordings of the same repertoire. The library or the computer desk can also be excellent places to prepare for practicing, as the student researches texts and sources.
Find a room with a piano, where disturbance and eaves-dropping are unlikely. The room should be well-lighted, with good circulation. When entering the actual practice room, turn off or completely silence the cell phone. Distractions cripple one’s efforts to improve and grow. Lack of an ideal practice room will not stop the committed student from working, however.
WHAT to practice? The lesson is a guide for practice. The notes/recordings that are made in lessons must include vocalises. Be creative in adapting those vocalises in helpful ways.
The typical practice day should have a warm-up vocalization session, a second, hybrid vocalization/repertoire session, and a third session to emphasize repertoire. The warm-up session lasts approximately 15 minutes, early in the day, preferably before much talking—certainly before singing in classes or rehearsals.
Vocalization will include both florid and sustained patterns, though the emphasis will vary. Two or three pieces should be the center of the repertoire work each week. The assignments that I make at the end of each lesson must be observed, and are guidelines for the week’s practice.
HOW to best practice? It is important that the warm-up session, in particular, begin in the middle or lower middle range, eventually moving up and down in pitch; there may be several minutes of breathing exercises before vocalization begins.
Set realistic goals for each session; e.g., one session may focus on greater awareness of deeper, more settled breath, on memorization, or a specific technical concept. Obviously, significant time is invested in learning musical and textual accuracy. A Practice Journal (brief notes describing what was attempted and achieved in each session, and how time was used) can be helpful. In fact, I require some students to include it in the Voice Notebook, particularly if preparation is not good. Record a practice session at least once or twice a week, particularly when the accompanist is present; later review can be informative and inspiring.
Each singer has unique gifts and unique challenges. Do not measure progress merely by comparison with others; the important comparison—one that each of us can affect—is today’s self, compared to yesterday’s.
An informative article in The New York Times (January 20, 2011) caught my eye. The title is “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test,” reporting on a study that is detailed online at the journal, Science.
The gist of the study was this: Three groups of students were asked to read a passage of scientific information. One group re-read the material several times. Another group engaged in “concept mapping,” (a method I often use) in which diagrams, lines, notes, color-coding, etc., are created to help organize one’s thoughts. The final group took a test on the reading material, to discover how much recall they had with what they had just read.
One week later, each of the three groups was tested on the initial passage. To everyone’s surprise, the final group (those who had been given a written test after the reading) did much better on the test–about 50% better. In other words, the relatively passive exercise of simply reading was not as effective, nor was the more active approach of creating a visual “map” to identify the conceptual relationships.
The study actually was a bit more involved than what I describe. The Times article includes comments from several scientists (some of whom were not involved in this study), on how the mind seems to reorganize material through testing, making it easier to access in the future. “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, a psychologist from Purdue. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” I highly recommend that you find the newspaper article to learn more; some of you may want to study the entire article in Science. If you do that, please leave comments here for all of us.
For performers, I see several implications in this study. Actually, many of us already know some things to be true that are validated or explained by this study. (Yes, that’s a subtle way of saying, “I told you so.”)
First and foremost, the activity of performing is itself a major piece of the learning/growing process. Who among us does not recognize the value of rehearsal, dress rehearsal, “studio class,” preview performances, “taking it on the road” before the reviewed performances are given, etc.? In the practice room and in the studio, it is vital for the performer to gather his/her “performer energy” and make a performance–often at the end of a session, perhaps at the beginning of the session. Many of us who teach like to occasionally bring colleagues or other students into the lesson to hear what a student is doing, e.g. In reality, this is a sort of test for the student that gives him a chance to put some things together. Very often, one may find that she is actually more together than previously realized!
Every public performance–particularly those that we call Junior Recital or Senior Recital–is a means of learning and moving ahead. Those tests must not be mere “Look at me!” photo-op attempts to validate what has already been achieved. The artist must actively engage in each performance, so that retrieval can support the moving ahead/growing process.
Far too often, the immature student (even a chronologically-advanced artist!) seems to think that public performance is merely a vehicle to display accomplishment–an occasion to gain the approval of family, fellow students, the public, even God–eagerly depositing a dead mouse on the back doorstep to establish “top cat” status.
A primary benefit of performance is the strengthening of the performer’s relationship with the repertoire. That success empowers the next performance to be even more textured, more effective!