Over Lockdown, I tore my vocal technique apart. I questioned everything. Changed a lot. Kept a lot. Fortunately, I was taught well and, even though I didn’t grasp everything at the time, my past teachers’ words are in my ears. Now, I am putting the pieces together to form a whole.
How do I know I am putting the pieces together correctly?
One way to know is to ask myself “does my singing sound like my speech?” One should sing as one speaks. I am not talking about my Kiwi accent! I am talking about the tone quality. Do I sound like me? Or am I trying to be someone else?
Here are some examples I recorded from today’s practice:
The principle “sing as you speak” is also true for today’s popular song. Here are a couple of examples…
On page 71, Garcia teaches us how to sing plain passages. In this post, I am going to try out his instructions on a short passage from Lucia’s Mad Scene. See the audio files below.
Garcia writes, on page 71 of his Treatise, ‘”..chief resources are – steadiness of voice, true intonation, choice of tone-color, swelled sounds of every variety, finest delicate shadings of forte-piano slurs, tempo and rubato, and neatness of articulation…[d]ifferent appoggiature, and trills, may be happily employed, and give pleasing relief to a melody.”
In this short passage from Lucia di Lammermoor’s ‘Mad Scene’, I am going to make the following artistic choices: swell each note approaching the top note, sing the top note piano and then diminuendo to ppp, trill on the Bflat combined with messa di voce, and then turn on the following note. Here goes…
I think the trill was a bit too long and uneven, here is a second version, this time with a fp on the top note followed by a dim to ppp. The trill is now shorter.
Garcia’s Treatise is having a profound effect on my singing. I recommend using Garcia’s Treatise every day.
Hint: I tick each exercise when I have studied it because it gives me a sense that I am getting ‘somewhere’ with the book. I also diarise the exercises, for example, today I have to do numbers 7, 49, 63, 109, messa di voce and read page 71. I cross these off in my diary as I complete them. (I think if you don’t give yourself a sense of accomplishment, the book can be overwhelming.)
In 2021, I will be performing live. All of these concerts are building upon the techniques I am studying in historical vocal pedagogy. These live concerts are listed on this website. One of these concerts is called “Tracing Porpora”. This concert will be performed in May 2021, with Dr John Linker at the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral in New Zealand.
Tracing Porpora is a concert which features the extraordinarily beautiful, but difficult, music of Porpora, the great, great, great, great, great, great, grand daddy of the vocal technique I pursue and adore. This concert traces his legacy. Music includes music by Porpora, Mozart and Donizetti.
Here is a very rough diagram, showing Porpora at the top and the branch of singing teachers and pupils that I am studying. Many of these people wrote singing books, diaries etc. It is a wonderful resource for learning how to sing Bel Canto (Old Italian Singing School Method).
Here are some Spotify playlists I have created of singers listed on the whiteboard. These may be of use to young singers who are seeking to understand where their technique has come from. I hope you enjoy listening to these wonderful and, most importantly, original, singers.
South Africa has seen one of the strictest and longest Lockdowns in the World. Since Covid-19 began to isolate us all, I have used this time to refresh my voice. Alongside the historical pedagogy, historical recordings and my own insights from practice, I have used the phone to record every note. In this way, the phone allows me to be both teacher and student without trying to perform both roles simultaneously.
In the old days, the Bel Canto teachers recommended mirrors. However, we are more fortunate! Video allows time to watch and analyse every movement.
The phone has proven to be a wonderful tool for fast tracking my progress. I set boundaries of half an hour by using the timer. Within the 30 minutes, I then record my singing in very small ‘lots’. Each ‘lot’ is no longer than 2 minutes. On average, the ‘lot’ is 40 seconds. I use audio and video, but mostly audio.
Short 30 minute sessions on a piece or scale is plenty of time. After 30 minutes I find it is better to put the piece away and allow the brain time to do its’ subconscious thing. For example, at the moment I am learning Lakme’s Bell Song. It is coming together quickly because I am spending less (but purposeful) time on it.
Recording every note on the phone and then listening back encourages reflection and also creates a moment’s rest. Rest is as important to developing singing as the actual singing itself. This rest has meant that during Lockdown I have been able to interrogate my technique and learn many Coloratura arias without harming my voice.
As well as using the timing and recording functions, I have uploaded recordings made on my iPhone on my website, YouTube and SoundCloud. This creates a pressure to perform and, also, a pressure to improve and replace the recording as quickly as possible. Once the recordings are improved they are uploaded and the old recording deleted. This gives a sense of purpose which is very important during this global disruption.
Finally, I have used the phone to counteract the isolation of Covid-19 by creating social media. This has included weekly thoughts on technique, sharing gems I find in historical pedagogy and enjoying others’ posts.
Thank you for reading this post, I would love some comments from you on how you use your phone in daily musical practice! We have to remain positive during this challenging time!
This week my singing reached a new stage. A stage I never thought possible. I sang through the 17 minute Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor in the studio effortlessly. Even faults evident in my Lockdown Concerts earlier this year had disappeared. There was no tension. To my ear, as I sang, I sounded kind of weird, like a buzzy flute, but the recording revealed a sound like the old Gramophone records. How was this possible?
The answer is that this year, in Lockdown, I have fanatically studied historical pedagogy, reviews of Hermann Klein and recordings on Spotify of singers from the turn of the 20th Century. This information is free. Yes. Not a cent was spent. Plus, the information is simple. My mantra is now – don’t overthink.
Now that Lockdown is ending here in South Africa, I am returning to work with a vocal coach. This is proving invaluable because now I don’t have to split my energy between playing guitar and singing. Plus, South Africa is a singing nation with a wonderfully free environment for singing. My coach also believes in KISS. Keep it Simple Stupid!
Historical pedagogy books are freely available on the internet. There is no way I would waste my money on buying scientific singing books. How can I sing better by knowing the complex information these authors are pouring out? Even summaries of the old masters are confusing. It is easier and cheaper to read the old masters for myself!
Here is an example of information that is simple and useful.
William Shakespeare, author of The Art of Singing, written in 1910, on page 19, states the old Italian Masters believed that singing was good breath control combined with freedom of the tongue and throat. Yes. That is it. The book provides an example of how to practice breath control. Like Nike say – Just do it.
Freedom of the throat and tongue is very difficult for me because I overthink.
I was halfway to taming my tongue when Lockdown finished but not quite. My new vocal coach here in South Africa suggested an exercise to loosen my tongue which proved to be the piece in the puzzle I needed. Voila. The Mad Scene. Easy peesy. The exercise was simple to poke the tongue out and roll it whilst singing the notes of the aria. I had seen this before in South Africa but not in New Zealand. Like I say. Voila. A tongue too worn out to be a nuisance plus, more importantly, a shift of energy to the breath and my subconscious.
To summarise, William Shakespeare:
Breath + Freedom of tongue and throat = the Sensation of Voice Floating.
On this website I have referred more than once to Melba’s words ‘Don’t rely on your teacher’. I made this fatal error for years. No teacher will ever know me like I know me. But, I was lazy. I thought I could pay someone else to do the thinking for me.
Today’s post is a plea.
Give the historical pedagogy a decent go. Try it for a year. Combine it with listening to early recordings. Be prepared to sound awful. Record yourself. Try, try, try again. Remember Galli-Curci taught herself. She took four years before she ‘eloped’ with a score of Rigoletto to an audition.
The singers on the early recordings were not aliens. In fact, we are probably in better shape, health wise, today than they were. So, there is no excuse for us. Rather, we need to rid ourselves of our 21st Century tendency to think money can buy us a voice and, most of all, our tendency to overthink.
(Watch this space – I will add a couple of soundbites to this post over the next week when I have time😜 )
This week, I pondered why I sounded so dreadful singing the Sei Ariette by Giuliani, written for voice and guitar/piano. I ran through a checklist in my mind – in tune? tempi? words? Then it occurred to me. To whom, am I singing? I answered this question by imagining a hall full of hundreds of people. And, this was the problem.
Above, we see the masterpiece by Degas. We see intimacy. We see Lorenzo Pagans, a tenor, playing the guitar to Degas’s father who is listening intently.
The next day, I imagined myself, singing to one person who was listening intently. I had no need for egotistical concerns of ‘do they like my sound’ or ‘can they hear my guitar ok?’. Rather, I sang to a person who believed ‘your voice and guitar is enough’. This person had never heard 20th Century music, let alone a rock band. The world was a quieter place. This intimacy in performance demands Bel Canto technique and faith.
I recorded my attempt. I was pleasantly surprised. Giuliani’s Sei Ariette came alive. The songs were elegant. And, I was using a fraction of my voice. It was a revelation. Thanks to Degas.
I am enjoying a book at the moment called “Great Singers on the Art of Singing” by James Francis Cook. One of the fascinating things I am noticing is that some of the Great Singers were self-taught. Galli-Curci, pictured above, one of the greatest singers of all time, was largely self-taught. Other examples were Charles Dalmores and Giuseppe Campanari.
These self-taught singers all discuss their thoughts on teaching oneself. Here is what Giuseppe Campanari has to say about deciding on a method:
No one man ever has had, has, or ever will have, a “method” superior to all others, for the very simple reason that the means one vocalist might employ to reach artistic success would be quite different from that which another singer, with an entirely different voice, different throat and different intellect, would be obliged to employ.
Giuseppe Campanari, Great Singers on the Art of Singing, by James France Cook.
The three singers above, Galli-Curci, Dalmores and Campanari were all fine musicians. In addition, all had access to live Opera, all spoke many languages, all were well-educated generally and, above all else, all three had a plan.
This brings me to my topic today. Becoming an Opera Singer requires, amongst other things, a plan.
In general, a plan should start with the singer laying strong foundations. However, it seems many young people today are not prepared to lay these foundations. Here is an example. I have been asked many times to teach. I would invite the parent/student for a chat. During this chat, I would discover the student had virtually no general artistic education. Accordingly, my first advice was the student should enrol their child with a instrumental teacher, preferably piano, and a drama group. If the student was older, I suggested they also take at least one language at school, preferably Italian. I insisted singing relies on strong foundations. I could see the eyes of the parent/student glaze over.
Making a plan increases efficiency. Here is my own example. At the beginning of this year, I decided to refresh my voice to teach. Now, I feel technically ready to sing 19th century repertoire and am beginning to learn entire roles, starting with Lucia. If I had of been told this at the beginning of the year, when I was still singing contemporary repertoire with a slightly different technique, I would have said this was nuts.
Why the fast progress?
I have a plan.
A plan allows me to target my personal needs.
Here is what Galli-Curci has to say:
It was no easy matter to give up the gratifying success which attended my pianistic appearances to begin a long-term of self-study, self-development. Yet I realized that it would hardly be possible for me to accomplish what I desired in less than four years.
Amelita Galli-Curci, Great Singers on the Art of Singing, by James France Cook. Emphasis added.
Please note her words “…what I desired…”. In other words, Galli-Curci knew what her goal was. This goal focussed her on a plan to address the priorities. She says:
I did not require musical knowledge, but needed special drill.
Amelita Galli-Curci, Great Singers on the Art of Singing, by James France Cook.
Vast amounts of money is spent on singing teachers but I wonder how many students sit with their teachers and discuss their deepest desires for their voice? For some, it may be safer not to do so. Even the greatest teachers can misjudge true potential. For others, it may be vital because the teacher can help the student tailor their musical/singing education. This tailoring will give the student purpose. For example, contemporary classical singing, of which I did a lot of, requires years of instrumental training because 20th Century music requires an ability to sing intellectually difficult music. Whereas, some singers can ‘get away with’ less instrumental training for other periods of music. Another example, a student with stage fright would benefit from joining the local drama/musical society chorus. Stage fright can be soothed with frequent walking of the boards.
I hope, as I venture forth into singing teaching, I will encourage singers to make a plan. How to begin to make a plan? It starts with a dream!
If practice is left for any odd minutes when you do not particularly want to do anything else, you will never get very far.
Dame Nellie Melba, Melba Method, page 14.
During Covid-19 I have begun the steps to transform myself into a coloratura soprano, mainly for the purpose of retraining myself into the 19th Century Old Italian School of Singing Methods. My reasoning is that this repertoire will sound hideous unless I fully understand the techniques I have fudged over or disregarded in the past. Accordingly, I have worked long hours in the singing studio. Let’s face it – we have all had a lot of time on our hands during Lockdown and here in South Africa I am fortunate I have the space to rehearse without driving neighbours insane.
The question is: how much practice is too much?
The great singers of the past have advice in this regard.
Your practice should be divided into periods of actual singing. At first they should be very short, not more than five minutes at a time, gradually working up to twenty minutes. Three periods of twenty minutes each are enough for any student.
But the time of study, apart from actual singing, should extend over several hours daily. How are you to find the real meaning of the words of a song unless they are read over many times, both silently and aloud?…[the] accompaniment should be studied…[memorise] silently…[a]bove all, watch yourself in the mirror as you practise…[p]ractice breathing exercises every day, and remember that you must continue to do so as long as you sing.
Dame Nellie Melba, Melba Method, page 14.
This website is part of my three year study to become a singing teacher. The project is affectionally named ‘The Lilli Lehmann Project’. Lilli Lehmann also discusses the length of practice sessions in her book ‘How to Sing’. She advises the voice should be fresh to sing the next day.
My opinion is that freshness can be maintained, even with hours of practice, so long as the day is divided as Melba suggests. In this respect, we can use the timer on our iPhone to ensure we do not over sing. For example, when the 20 minutes of vocalising is complete we can then devote our time to studying. There is plenty to study. This is what Garcia has to say on the matter.
The special education of a singer comprises not only the study of solfeggio but that of some musical instrument, especially the pianoforte, of vocal music, and of harmony as a science. The last enables him to adapt songs and parts he has to execute, to the compass and character of his voice, – to embellish them, and bring out their peculiar beauties.
Manuel Garcia, The Art of Singing, page 4.
Another useful tool is to keep a diary. Every day should be pre-planned with the exercises and repertoire to be rehearsed, including priorities and time limits which brings me to the end of this post. It is time to begin my practice, starting with the breathing as Melba suggests!
Use your own brain. Do not depend on your teacher.
Dame Nellie Melba – Melba Method, 1926
Since I begun my project in April to refresh my voice, affectionally named the “Lilli Lehmann Project”, I have recorded every note I have uttered. The recordings last for around one minute or so. These recordings give me time to think, time to micro-rest my voice and are essential for me because I am now teaching myself.
Until September, I recorded my voice using the iPhone built in microphone. However, I wanted to produce better recordings for my SoundCloud. The plan is to eventually buy a couple of Gefell M930 and Apogee duet but for now I am finding them difficult to source. Hence, I bought a Sennheiser MK4.
The Sennheiser MK4 Large Diaphragm Microphone, retailing for around USD300, is an excellent microphone for recording the operatic voice. The microphone plugs directly into an iPad or iPhone and uses free Apogee software downloadable from the app store. The software is a little temperamental on the iPhone 8 but works well on an old iPad.
Once the recording is made, it is easy to upload the recording to Dropbox and then SoundCloud.
SoundCloud is part of my project plan to aim for continual improvement over the next three years. I must say it is satisfying to make a new recording of an aria and, after comparison, acknowledge there has been improvement since the last recording was made. The old recording is then deleted.
I recommend this microphone. Here it is without any sound engineering.
This week I pondered over how unmusical my singing was sounding. I couldn’t understand what had gone so wrong…
Then, it dawned on me.
My tempi were wrong!
Thus, this week, I have made the metronome a part of everything I do.
This brings me to contrametric rubato.
I came across an interview by a pianist about contrametric rubato in the book Inside Early Music . The pianist said:
I very much believe in the left hand not knowing what the right hand does, and I try to do this in Mozart.
Bernard d. Sherman Inside Early Music, Conversations with Performers, page 309.
This statement reminded me that singing Mozart requires an in depth knowledge of Bel Canto. Bel Canto is not just about voice production – it is, amongst other things, also about style. And, I suspect, contrametric rubato plays a much bigger role in Bel Canto singing, not just of Mozart but later composers, than we of today realise.
In fact, I think the great singers we hear on the gramophone recordings perhaps understood contrametric rubato much better than we do today.
Let me give you a fun example.
Please take a listen to the wonderful Amelita Galli-Curci below. I think that what makes her version of “La Paloma” musical is her use of contrametric rubato. You can hear the steady accompaniment as she weaves around the tempo with her voice. Yes, sometimes she lands on the beat. However, often, she does not!