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.

Warming Up: postscript

The choral, or group, warm-up is insufficient for the serious singer, who must find the time for a pre-rehearsal, private, personalized warm-up. The choral warm-up serves other purposes well, in ideal circumstances.

Each singer should report to rehearsal already warmed up, ready to function as a member of the larger vocal instrument. To do less awards to others (conductor, assistant conductor, etc.) a level of control and influence that should be prized and safeguarded as an individual right. Concurrently, the singer who arrives at rehearsal unprepared to offer his/her best singing does not contribute responsibly. Everybody loses.

Warming Up

Aside from “warming up” the brain (rediscovering that deeply energetic coordination that enables good singing), the vocal warm-up is about activating phonatory, articulatory and support-related muscles.

Know that as muscle fibers get warm, they become more fluid, so that they stretch and contract more rapidly. Both florid and sustained singing (florid singing on fewer and longer notes…more on that topic later) become easier. The rapidity factor is important, since the vocal cycle happens on average 100-500 times per second for men and approximately 300-900 times for women. Related muscles must be very responsive, indeed, for such a trick!

The core, supporting muscles of the torso and lower body must also be able to vary the intensity of their engagement nimbly and sympathetically, in order for the vocal apparatus to work at peak efficiency and freedom. For this reason, simple breath-related exercises (even non-vocal) can be helpful in warming up the body. What we call “support” or “appoggio” in Classical singing has to do not only with breath management, but with providing stability for the body, thus allowing easier engagement of the articulators, and enhancing the ease of performance on every level. In addition to these low support muscles, the vocal folds themselves and related muscles of the upper body need some warm-up time to reach optimum function.

Athletes in various sports require warm-ups of varying character, intensity and length; some athletes seem to reach peak (or at least functional) level more quickly than others. I think of the pinch-runner in baseball, who jogs out to first base on very short notice and does a few stretches on the spot. To be sure, that runner has executed a more complete and generous warm-up a few minutes or hours earlier.

Some singers warm up very quickly — so much so, that it may seem no warm-up exercises are required. Depending on the repertoire, it may be true that a well-functioning speaking voice will sufficiently enable the desired result. I have heard singers say that they don’t need to warm up; in my experience, Classical singers who make such a claim are usually basses. Other singers more nearly “grind down” their voice, instead of warming it up, by vocalizing too much, too aggressively, and/or with inappropriate thought.

Though some of us can reach a functional level of singing almost immediately (often depending on time of day and energy level), a singer typically finds that after a few minutes of singing, he/she will reach a higher level of comfort, flexibility and power. Each of us must determine how much warm-up is enough, and must never expect technical mastery, intelligence or extra effort to compensate for an ineffective warm-up.

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.

Parenting Skills for the Singer

Wait…this post is intended for every singer, not just those who have (or will have) children.  The relationship that each of us has with our singer-self (and with “the voice” itself) is a lot like that of a parent and child.  Just as the role of a parent changes according to the seasons of life, so change our responsibilities towards the creative self.  At various times, we must encourage, demand, challenge, affirm, and enable the singer-self to find its potential.  Yet, at all times, the care that we offer must be based on love and acceptance, even when it is “tough.”

One must take an honest view of the talents with which he/she is gifted.  When a singer receives the compliment, “You have a beautiful voice!” or other such accolades (music to our ears), the appropriate response is, “Thank you.”  That same expression of gratitude is more rightly addressed to the One who created our minds, bodies, souls and spirits in the first place.  Truly, the singer did absolutely nothing to acquire those talents.

To recognize, believe in, train and develop one’s gifts, though — here is where the opportunity for good parenting presents itself.  The mother or father who senses talent (potential excellence) in a child should make it possible for the child to explore the medium (sports, music, acting, visual art, writing, etc.).  Those parents make available performances, recordings, trips to museums, etc., for the gifted child, in order to spark his/her interest and stir the young imagination.

Those parents make it possible for the child to pursue training and development as he/she matures, often at great sacrifice.  (Lang Lang and his parents come to mind.)  Throughout the entire process of growth and exploration, a number of parental traits can be identified.  Though certain parents find certain attributes easy to display, necessary parenting skills often require deliberate strategizing and practice.  Among the characteristics of good parenting are love, patience, vision, calm, honesty, optimism, and encouragement in the face of fatigue and/or disappointment.  The parent helps the child to joy in discovery and growth, but never fosters complacency.

Do other traits of good parenting come to mind?  How faithfully do you — the creative artist — nourish your own gifted self, from the viewpoint of a wise and committed parent?  More to follow in future posts.