Tribute to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Like many of my generation, my first exposure to Lieder–actually to what we call art song in any language–was from LPs of the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (“the Dietster,” as I have fondly nicknamed him recently).

In late childhood, I was introduced to the immense world of Classical vocal music. My father (a true hero in my book) began college at the age of 30, with a working wife (my mother is also a hero!) and children of age 10 and 3. Dad earned a music education degree in a record 2 years and 9 months, after having graduated high school some 12 years earlier. He went on to earn a graduate degree in church music, and served as minister of music and other church staff positions–including as pastor, before retiring a few years ago. Dad’s voice teacher was a DFD admirer, and I remember being introduced to Schubert recordings he assigned Dad to hear. (I was also introduced to the “yellow book” of Italian songs/arias, Copland Old American Songs, etc., by playing them on our Estey spinet for Dad’s at-home practice, but that’s another post…)

Before digital media, there was the LP. As a high school student in the Atlanta area, I well remember trips to the Atlanta Public Library, walking out with stacks of 20 or so Lieder, Melodie and occasional opera recordings. DFD was the singer on most them. By the way, another legend–Dalton Baldwin–was the pianist on many, including all those of Souzay. I cannot express the joy and thrill I have so often experienced in these past years at Westminster Choir College, when I have frequently performed with, coached with, shared students with and socialized with Mr. Baldwin, an American treasure.

This brief YouTube tribute to Mr. Fischer-Dieskau consists of his singing “An die Musik,” as various quotes scroll by (rather quickly, I warn you). Notice the emphasis on imagination and synthesis; it is these powers that allow us to learn, grow, express and move ahead. Of course, my young ears were initially drawn to the sound of DFD’s voice, as the voice itself is the instrument we play. Younger listeners may not seem to appreciate the personal and artistic dimension as readily, but many of us “got it” at a significant level when DFD sang.

Many teachers assign students to hear DFD recordings as a reference for diction and style. As I mature in my own singing, there is more and more basis for relating to and profoundly appreciating this legendary artist. I was blessed to attend a week of master classes by the great Dietster himself in Weimar, back in 2001 when he was at the age of 76. Though retired from singing, I can tell you that his demonstrations were amazing! Even in retirement, his voice was big, powerful, solid, spinning, and still immediately capable of his signature “head voice/mix/half-voice, etc.” that goes directly into falsetto. In a future post here, I may explore some opinions and methods for approaching the voice in such a way that this seamless registration is possible; this is central to what I currently seek in my own singing and teaching.

As you enjoy this brief YouTube clip, I hope you will be inspired to consider/reconsider this great artist. Hundreds of recordings are available, of course, many on YouTube. I also hope you will be inspired, as I am, to seek out his writing and interviews. Much to learn!

More on warming up…

The previous post on warming up has to do primarily with creating physical readiness. Know that the “warming up of the brain” is more important.

The initial approach to the singing voice must be characterized by thought and attitude that emphasize coordination and integration, fluidity of motion and stability of body, devoid of unnecessary tension. Anything that feels like tension or pressure is too much.

Spend a few minutes gently (not tentatively or guardedly) waking up the voice while placing operative concepts of balance and freedom into the conciousness. The ultimate goal is to be “thoughtless,” but directed and helpful thoughts will allow the warm-up to be effective.

Must-See Video on Bel Canto

These two YouTube clips, featuring Sutherland, Horne, Pavarotti and Bonynge, simply must be viewed by all serious students of classical singing! So much is worth consideration and celebration in this informal discussion among artists at the peak of their careers. I cannot single out any one or two highlights, as I am fascinated by the entire clip. Both segments played sequentially take just over 16 minutes.

I suggest that you take the time to listen, concentrate and consider without interruption or distraction. The next step is to get to a practice room immediately and have some fun with your own voice! Enjoy…

Why Artists Should Avoid Shortcuts

In the great wisdom that I find as a maturing artist (seasoning at varying pace for a few decades now), a number of things are becoming more clear to me. Here is one.

Many of us want to excel, to follow the rules, to be responsible and obedient servants of the art. It is too easy to diligently target some “perfect version” of a piece  from recordings or live performances of other artists, style manuals, instruction from teachers and coaches, etc., then work very hard to reproduce it. Not the best strategy.

What is better, is that the student (aren’t we all students?) develop skills, musical-dramatic concepts, and personal sensitivity that allow him/her to perform or recreate a specific work of art. In other words, we must not be content with “as though” expression, but actively choose truth at the moment–the truth that we are convinced enlivens the piece (song, aria, visual art work, etc.). For example, one can sometimes easily identify an acting performance that is emotive, even resembling truth, but it does not “touch” the audience member, because it is simply not true. The cure for a bland or unconvincing performance by an actor is not to over-act. What may be missing is the research that would make the character and situation more clear to the actor. In this case, reading, listening, seeing other performances, and taking to heart the advice of directors and coaches will help the actor make informed choices that can be confidently carried out.

As a singing actor–which is essentially the calling to everyone who sings text–one must become aware of the difference between merely following instructions to ape another’s performance or standard, and the honest performance that emerges when an artist faithfully commits to process.

One is sometimes tempted to jump too far ahead, to attempt repertoire that is well beyond the reasonably expected, earned and trusted skill level. (I am reminded of the Lee Trevino story in my earlier post, The Confident(?) Performer, where I quote Trevino’s observation that confidence is earned in practice, not in performance.) Yes, tackling more difficult rep is often the path to progress, but students and developing artists must be certain not to jump in too deep. The artful teacher and wise artist develop a sense of how much challenge is too much, partly based on experimentation in the practice room. However, one must not assume that somehow making a given piece “work”–by hook or crook–elevates him/her to a place of greater skill and qualifications. Precocious children may have great intelligence or talent in certain things, but they are still children, and should not yet be presented as adults.

Here are a few practical areas where the singer must beware the short-cut, microwave oven approach to learning and presenting a piece. Future posts here will follow-up on some of these ideas, as much more can be said.

Pronunciation and articulation are not the same thing. The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is a valuable tool for singers. It graphically represents how a word is pronounced, not how it is sung. IPA is essentially a tool that helps us to know how to say a word, not how to sing it. An accurate pronunciation in the background of the singer’s conciousness is the genesis for articulating or shaping the resonance while singing. Furthermore, simply choosing to darken or brighten the vowel does not necessarily affect the tone in a positive way; do not expect merely a different pronunciation to lead to the desired ease or quality of sound. Vowel is not tone. Consonants are often not articulated the same way in singing as in speech.

Translation and interpretation of texts are not the same thing. It is better for a singer to create his/her own translation, word for word, if possible. If language ability is not sufficiently strong for that, find a trustworthy, literal translation of the text as a starting point. Even better, learn the language in question as well as possible. I often say that the singer must be fluent in the text’s language, even if only for the few lines of words that make up the poem or libretto in question. There is more to understanding language than knowing how it sounds or how it feels to articulate the sounds, even if the syntax and musical quality of the spoken language are noticed. There are differences of thought, attitude and expectation that one begins to experience when living with a language over some time.

Tonal result and a cohesive vocal technique are not the same thing. Similarly, the student who learns to make a positive impression on a given aria is not necessarily suited for nor capable of singing the entire role. An aria may show a very limited slice of the character’s attributes. Successfully singing one note with a desireable timbre does not guarantee that it can be presented in the appropriate context. It would be embarrassing to spend the entire budget on an extravagantly expensive, beautiful, finely tailored shirt–only to wear it with worn, out-dated trousers and overly casual accessories.

Easiness and relaxation are not the same thing. Ease of production and expression is desirable; indeed, not only should it seem easy to the audience, but the performer would prefer that the singing actually be relatively easy. Additionally, we seek repeatability and the ability to recover well. Investing super-human effort, simply to present one good performance, is too costly a choice for the artist who desires to perform at a consistently high level.

Legato and avoidance of consonants are not the same thing. My students know that singing auf Deutsch, for example, does not mean that the singer grudgingly leaves the concept of legato to Italian, nor does the execution of consonants rule out beautiful, musical flow. Lyric singing is based on legato; there is a commitment to line and momentum or flow of the music. However, vowel is not to be exclusively worshipped and consonants eschewed. A feeling for line should enable the singer to manage his/her energy in such a way that relatively longer or shorter vowels and stronger or more gentle consonants can all live in the language, while the musical line progresses. The entire text (long vowels, short vowels, glides, consonants, consonant groups) must be supported, thus energized. Inflection of language and the pursuit of musical legato are not mutually exclusive. Far from it.

Guarantee and faith are not the same thing, far from it! There are no guarantees; it is precisely that element of risk that makes performance so exciting for all of us. To end this post on a cliché, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

Elizabeth Parcells

Recently, my teacher/coach/friend/colleague, Harold Evans, suggested that I look up the soprano Elizabeth Parcells, and I am very glad he did. Ms. Parcells was an American singer who made her career primarily in Europe, suffering an early death from cancer in 2005 at the age of 54. I have a faint memory of having heard about her before, and I feel a strong kinship with her–as though I knew her, although I don’t think we met.

Visit elizabethparcells.com and explore this extensive website, containing a massive library of audio and video downloads. I have heard only a few excerpts so far, but much of it I like a lot.

What I have also found to be of great value is a transcribed interview with her, a “Discussion About Singing.” I highly recommend that all my students take the time to read this lengthy article, as it contains much truth.

More to come.

Advice to Artists from a Novelist/Critic/Academician

Revered author C.S. Lewis penned these words: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

For those of us who are committed to being authentic and avoiding cliché, this is liberating and empowering advice.

Our calling to be creators and re-creators is guided by respect and love of the truth. The performing artist seeks artistic truth in word and music, and personal truth finds its way into the performance. Inspiration and preparation — in its various forms — allow that performer to deliver the truth through his/her own lens.

Mature artists and students alike must choose to seek truth in art and in themselves. Truth is a beautiful thing, though it may seem ugly, coarse or even repulsive. Singers must find that broad range of expressive potential in their voices — literally and artistically.

This brilliant quote is my favorite excerpt from C.S. Lewis. It surely bears further analysis, contemplation and application…


Observations, not Excuses

In singing (or just about any endeavor), one must be observant of what goes well and what goes poorly. Arguably, most of this critical observation should be done soon after the activity, not so much during the creative process.

Determine why some things went well. Be grateful for them, and re-create these circumstance and potential choices again the next time.

Determine why some other things did not go well. Rather than use these failure-contributing events or choices as excuses — thus letting yourself “off the hook” — get right back on the hook. Next time, create different background events and/or preparation, so that you can make more desirable choices. In other words, learn from mistakes — including those you did not commit on purpose, or were not even aware of.

A mistake is a choice you make that does not lead to your best outcome; that’s why we are always works in progress, learning which choices to make and which ones to avoid. The person who accepts responsibility accepts the power to affect change.

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 studio; vital concepts are introduced there, but the student builds with and upon those concepts/techniques in the practice room (the coaching studio, the opera rehearsal, the choral rehearsal, in performances…). It is important that techniques introduced in the studio be promptly, thoroughly and regularly supported by generous amounts of time in practice.

Practice is also about rediscovering or 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 experiences physiological changes in the maturing process, it is valuable to rediscover earlier choices and make subtle adaptations.

Perhaps the most important reason to practice is to develop confidence. If one does not practice to “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. The approach that I offer is based on poise, balance and flexible strength — not on manipulation — and the singer must be willing to take necessary risks to develop consistency.

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!

New Eyes and Ears

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.

A singer can expand his/her abilities by gradually perceiving what the notation on the page actually represents. For example, “Caro mio ben” (as arranged by Floridia, contained in the 24 Italian Songs and Arias anthology) has not changed on the page for approximately 100 years. At first glance, it contains a simple melody based on the diatonic major scale, with simple and balanced phrases — rather straightforward, a suitable study piece for beginning singers. Music and text of this song can be easily comprehended, so that essential vocal technique and musical/dramatic character are successfully explored in lessons, practice and performance. In other words, the piece is easy enough that many students will be able to find its essential character almost immediately, and it becomes a means for technical and artistic application and growth — not an overwhelming challenge.

When a singer is confronted with a song or aria that is more complex, with musical and/or textual language that is not immediately heard in the inner ear, basic accuracy is a challenge. To be insightful and authentically expressive with such a piece is a very tall order indeed. This is often the case with 20th and 21st century music, due to more advanced compositional language. Yet if the singer’s musical and literary skills are well developed, and if that singer is experienced in dealing with such challenges, he/she can see beyond apparent confusion on the page and hear the sound world of the piece.  It becomes more and more clear that composer and author/poet actually have specific expressive ideas, and more details begin to emerge.

Over time, even the most ornate or severe printed music becomes more simple for the artist who invests the needed effort to convert ink into meaningful sound. Melody, harmony and rhythm on the page somehow relate to each other, and the artist is able to express truth that has been there all along. Familiarity with what at first seems incomprehensible on the page develops with time and focused observation.

In the same way, all singers — young and old, those who are developing their technique, and those who are maintaining and adapting their technique — discover capabilities that they already possess, but have not yet properly recognized or validated. The singer who desires to grow and improve must be willing to experiment, to sense the voice with new ears and keenly observant body and spirit.

I think Proust would agree.