Today’s post is written to mark the first turning point in my three year ‘Lilli Lehmann Project’. To reiterate, the Project is created to refresh my voice and engage with historical vocal pedagogy with the aim to become a responsible singing teacher. Today’s turning point, coming four months into the project, is to focus on efficiency. Efficiency to me means that, if I am to train myself to sing full coloratura roles, which I believe will be the test as to my understanding, or otherwise, of the Old Italian School of Singing, I must avoid wasting energy.
This is quite a different focus for me because, until now, I have been focussed on sound. Sound, of course, is (nearly) everything. In a recent Tumblr post, I quoted Isaac Nathan (pupil of Corri, who was, in turn, the pupil of Porpora) who told a wonderful story about a certain Signora Grassini. According to Nathan, she was wonderful when she sung only seven notes but when she extended the compass of her voice, to two octaves, she lost the sound quality and fell out of favour with the public!
For the past four months, I have concentrated on reading and applying Old Italian School of Singing/Bel Canto literature. This literature is primarily focussed on technique. Technique and Art, to remind us of Lilli Lehmann’s words, go hand in hand. There is a great deal of work to do over the next two and a half years, but the first steps are in the right direction. However, there are more than one way to skin a cat, depending on the psychology of the pupil. Here, the pupil is myself. Therefore, I can easily analyse that if I look at singing from a different angle then I may be able to solve lingering problems once and for all.
Therefore, today, and for the next few months, I am changing my priority. I will prioritise efficiency. Fortunately, the Masters of the Old Italian School of Singing were/are experts in efficiency. This is why a properly trained singer of this school of singing can sing for extraordinarily long periods of time, use the full compass of their voice range, engage a range of expressive techniques such as messa di voce, mezza voce, voice characters and the like, and, have a long singing career. Singers like Lehmann, Sutherland, Te Kanawa, Pavarotti and Dawson have had extraordinarily long careers. As Denes Striny says, it is how they sung.
An example of how my singing wastes energy is the tendency to scoop. Scooping can be obvious, but, more often than not, in my case, it is subtle. Accordingly, I am using my iPhone to record every note I utter. I critique every note. Often it may be that the voiced consonant is slightly flat. To combat the stubborn voiced consonants, I am engaging the use of a grace note and then repeating the note three times without the grace and then the phrase three times until it the errant note is contained. Sometimes, I have ignored one note in the pattern. (I must then make an enormous effort to correct the following notes). Sometimes, one wrong note, many notes prior to the top note, causes the top note to fail. My top A is constantly flat. It took a while to notice but the great thing about coloratura singing is that it is unforgiving. Eventually, I could not ignore that the constantly flat top A was causing my top notes to fail. Fix the A and the top C/D/E takes care of itself!
In the end, inefficiency can be attributed to bad technique. Or worse still, if a singer knows technique, then it is simply sloppiness. Therefore, a focus on efficiency, means I must focus on 100% accuracy rather than thinking that I can ‘get away with’ producing a ‘nice enough’ sound.
The great singers were masters of efficiency. One has only to compare a lesser singer with La Stupenda. Dame Joan Sutherland lightened her voice quality yet it was beautiful. Her mouth was her pharynx (to use the words of Garcia). She expressed with her voice, not her body and extraneous body movements. And the result? We all know! The lesser singer, of which I am one, will engage in all sorts of contortions, whether it be an extraneous body movement, opening the mouth too wide or scooping.
Another singer who is efficient is Amelita Galli-Curci. Luckily we have superb recordings of her singing. Archive.org has recordings of Galli-Curci that are freely available on the internet and slightly better for our purposes than listening to Spotify.
The third Lockdown Concert, to be recorded on my iPhone and uploaded to this website, will focus on efficiency. In the meantime, I will be uploading little snippets on Instagram when I feel confident an efficiency has been achieved. I did this yesterday by recording a little snippet of Estrellita. Estrellita is a simple little song but my change of focus when I learnt the song was different. In essence, I made sure I was 100% accurate with the intonation before thinking of dynamics or anything else.
My reserved conclusion is that a change of focus, for me at any rate, away from sound and to efficiency will address lingering problems with my singing whilst improving, inevitably, the quality and sustainability of my singing. Today’s professional classical singers must be good musicians and sing sustainably. Hopefully, the next few months will sow the seed for insights I can share with pupils in times to come!