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.

Dealing with Risk

Here’s another statement from Yankees superstar, Aaron Judge, about how he manages to come up big in an important game situation. There is something here for artists to learn!

“Runners on in a big situation, getting a chance to throw a guy out, you hear the crowd getting excited. That’s fun. Don’t overthink it. Don’t think about pressure. Just go out there and have fun and make a play. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

Eternity

A fundamental truth has brightened my mind and spirit in the last few minutes. I think I’ve known this for a long time, but now it seems so very clear. (Btw, I was listening to Al Green sing “Don’t it make you wanna go home?” when I was enlightened. There’s the singing reference that makes this post at home here on Kavbar’s Blog.)

As a Christian believer, gifted with faith, my long-term (if you call eternity “long-term!”) happiness and well-being are assured. However we conceptualize Heaven – we actually know little or no detail, based on the Scriptures – our eternity will be absolute joy and fulfillment – yes, Life itself.

In the meantime, the life we lead here is best and most joyfully carried out in service and love towards each other, and to the world as a whole. This is the fundamental basis for Christian mission, ethics, morality, et al.

I surely want to be reminded of this clarity of thought and identity, and intend to search the Scriptures for the countless references that lead to such an awareness. Now I’m on record, and want to be held accountable!

Please note: as one gains “chronological maturity,” essential and basic truths like this, that we’ve heard and read for so long, seem more simple and tangible.

Also note: a follow-up to this post could well explore the context and role of worship and its centrality to everything written here. Maybe later.

Salt

His use of the language was surely better taken in by native German speakers. For me, it was not easy to understand much of the Sunday morning sermon in Vienna’s spectacular Augustiner-Kirche. The priest spoke considerably faster than those who had delivered sermons on previous Sundays. Come to think of it, even if he had spoken in English, I think the pace was a bit too quick. But that’s not the point.

The point is that I “got” a few essentials, largely because the woman who read the Gospel spoke more slowly. It also didn’t hurt that I already know the words of Matthew 5:13-16,  the lectionary assignment for that day. “You are the salt of the earth…”

The scripture speaks to what I believe is the chief reason we are here–to spice things up! But salt is more than a flavor enhancer. At least two other vital characteristics were highlighted in the sermon. Here’s where my thoughts began to turn towards singing…

Salt is a preservative. Before easy access to refrigerators and freezers, it was much more common for meats to be salted in order to keep them edible for months, not merely days.

Salt also melts ice. To melt ice and snow is essentially to destroy them. True, they actually only change form, but think about that the next time you want to build a snowman!

So, salt has the power both to preserve and to destroy–two dramatically different actions, yet both essential. Salt is less likely to destroy foods, and it certainly does not preserve the ice on your driveway.

Breath support/appoggio is a lot like salt. (Here it comes…you knew we would get around to vocal technique.) The basic nature of salt does not change, however it is used. The determining factor is how, when, where and in what measure it is applied. Likewise, the singer’s use of breath energy must be appropriate to the needs of each moment.

Extreme Balance

Liberal, conservative. Democrat, Republican. Blue, Red. Us, them. Right, wrong.

Wasteful, managed. Uncontrolled, contrived. Offensive, defensive. Public, private.

Left, right. Hot, cold. Up, down. Forward, back. Bright, dark. Loud, soft.

Left brain, right brain. Spontaneous, planned. Allowing, making. Instinct, calculation. Imagination, discipline.

You get the point. These are pairs of apparent opposites, at least strongly contrasting. Consider further:

Clear, veiled. Focused, spread. Chiaro, oscuro. Onset, release. Resistance, flow.

Florid, sustained. Dynamic, static. Principal, interest. Expansion, compression. Give, take. Talent, technique.

Balance. Balance is found not only through compromise. Sometimes it exists because of independent, complementary qualities or activities.

Balance is not always a 50/50 equation. Sometimes it may seem different from day to day, or moment to moment.

In the human and political arena, it is increasingly difficult to find moderation or balance, as people are grouping themselves at the fringes. Balance is not always a matter of  right or wrong; sometimes it is “how much” or “when.” I often say in lessons and classes, “never say never.” (To quote Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore, “hardly ever.”)

Not only politicians, voters, and institutions around the world negatively label others and their views. Singers and artists often do the same. Sometimes, as we mature (not simply chronologically!), we learn to respect “the other” and learn from those who advocate it.

The singer/student must not fear exploring new and apparently contradictory techniques. The wise teacher will encourage the student to experiment.

Specific application of truth and technique may change, as specifics of the situation change. Yet, if one is diligent and honest in his/her work and practice, basic truths will be more deeply comprehended and trusted.

We must not approach today’s opportunities with yesterday’s stale understanding of valid techniques and concepts.

Update your relationship with the truth. Don’t be afraid. Truth is not limited by time.

True in life. True in singing.

Choices reflect who you are, and they shape who you become. To rue past bad choices, or to spend undue time in self-congratulation, makes it difficult to find current options.
 
The voice, body, mind and spirit will not be at their best and most responsive when trapped in yesterday. If a singer too often looks back (except in purposeful times of evaluation and learning), he/she will not enjoy today’s freshness and energy.
 
Few choices are irreversible. Likewise, no desireable choice carries a guarantee for future success; each choice must be constantly renewed. Today’s choices are actually empowered  by accepting the old ones; even if they were “bad choices,” they were made in the light of that day’s understanding and perception. Just as significantly (perhaps even more so for young and ambitious students), true and lasting progress is elusive in the face of desperate preoccupation with the future.
 
When seen from a larger perspective, each phase of the artist’s creation (including the re-creative art of the singer) is valid; it is one day’s version of the artist’s work. In the same way that we value works from each period of a composer’s or painter’s catalog, singing must be respected and valued at each step of development. Live/sing in the present, with an eye to the future.