Adapting Denes Striny’s exercises

Learning advanced singing for free – see my resources page

Exactly a year ago I read and followed Denes Striny’s ideas and exercises (see my resources page for details about his wonderful books). This began my journey back to the way I had been taught by my teachers’ Beatrice Webster and Isabel Cunningham. It also led to me creating a three year project for myself that I have affectionately titled ‘The Lilli Lehmann Project’ (please see my Lilli Lehmann page for details about the resources this great artist created for us to learn from).

My last post explained the vocal lineage of my teachers and the abundant resources available to us on the internet from this vocal lineage. I explained that these resources, suitable for advanced singers, are available for free on the internet (see the blog post “Learning advanced singing for free”).

My teachers always told me to make an exercise into music. The late Daphne Collins, a colleague and bel canto singer, knew instinctively how to do this. I learnt a lot by listening to her when I was in my late teens. Every note was music. Therefore, in essence, in these recordings, made on my iPhone, I am taking the exercises and having fun with them. I am not doing exactly what Striny said or my teachers said. The iPhone compresses sound but you may still get a sense that I am using a constant messa di voce, not just on a phrase, but also single notes. I have also added staccato and trills.

These exercises are how I begun my singing practice today. I am often using ‘i’ either by making a grace note from ‘i’ or thinking ‘i’. The reason is that the sound needs an ‘East to West’, to use Isabel’s words. Without this ‘East to West’ the sound is 2 dimensional. My voice is dark and I have to be very careful to balance the darkness with ‘e’ or ‘i’.

Below are my examples. Any mistakes in the interpretation of the books I read and my teachers’ words are solely my own. Please refer to Denes Striny’s books just in case I have not interpreted his words properly!

U a o – thinking i and using a grace note to help sometimes
Here is ‘You love our home’. I am dwelling again on the ‘i’ sound. I think it is a tad dark here but I like the ‘whirling currents’ (to use Lilli Lehmann’s words)
Here is an example of me having fun with an exercise I do every day. (See the technique page for details). I am adding in messa di voce here too for a challenge.
Having fun and putting in challenges.

Going from the Denes Striny warm up to an aria…

Finally, here is the use of the word ‘piu’ to warm up the aria ‘Ah, non credea’. The p is similar to a b and is great to achieve a light character. The i and u are great vowels to get a balanced sound. The u creates a depth and the i adds height. I have a dark voice so I need to concentrate on i and e vowels as well as singing on the upper edge of the note. When I warm up I would rather be sharp than a dark muddy mess.

Using ‘piu’. Also, using rubato and messa di voce. The iPhone doesn’t show it as well but there is a big dynamic range here.

Ah, non credea by Bellini

Here is an example of how I go from these exercises to an aria. Here is ah, non credea rehearsal with my clumsy guitar playing. I am thrilled with the top notes. The iPhone recording doesn’t show it but the last note was a crescendo and then diminuendo to pianissimo. I was getting glitches on the high soft singing but now I am keeping a raised palette and ‘East to West’ feel and the glitches are virtually gone.

Ah, non credea
My enjoyment of singing has increased tenfold since reading Denes Striny’s book ‘Head First’

Learning advanced singing for free

Porpora

Recently, I traced my singing lineage back to Niccola Antonia Porpora who lived from 1686-1766. The lineage goes like this. One of Porpora’s students was Giovanni Ansani. Ansani taught Manuel Garcia I. Garcia I taught Pauline Viardot. Viardot taught Anna Schoen-René. Schoen-René taught Lucie Manén. Manén taught my teacher, Beatrice Webster. Beatrice Webster also taught Isabel Cunningham who took me through my masters.

Fortunately, many singing teachers from this lineage have written singing books or memoirs. These writings are available for free on the internet. (I am not sure if Ansani wrote singing books but Domenico Corri and Isaac Nathan fill that gap wonderfully).

These writings are assisting me to rebuild/advance my singing technique in order to sing coloratura arias from the 19th Century. Coloratura arias from the 19th Century are a great way to rebuild technique, advance technique and refresh the voice. Most of this repertoire is available for free. 

Early Gramophone recordings also incredible teachers, also available on the internet for free. Imitation is an excellent way to learn advanced opera singing techniques but only if one is trained in music, only if one is imitating an excellent performer and only if one realises that anybody can sing that way. In other words, the voice is not the problem. The technique is.

My focus currently is on top notes. I want to work my way up to a top F at 440HZ. Effortless top notes can only be achieved by the study of the Old Italian School. Amelita Galli-Curci is possibly my favourite soprano for top notes along with the wonderful Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. I also adore La Stupenda. I love watching her sing and am trying to imitate her ‘ventriloquist’ style of singing. (Dame Kiri is perfect at this too and I have no doubt Galli-Curci would have demonstrated this if we had a video of her today!). Watching La Stupenda on You Tube is free.

Below is an example of the progress I am making on Una Voce Poco Fa – all made by using free resources. The top notes are appearing in the head voice without comprising a rich middle and the chest voices on the low notes. Sometimes they are a little too tentative (better that than shrieking) and sometimes I miss them. The reason? The approaching notes are out of tune. Top notes can only be achieved if every note before is perfectly in tune. Galli-Curci sings, on the recordings, perfectly in tune.

It is painstaking work to record oneself on the iPhone and then listen back to work out where the problem was but, on the bright side, making a recording of ourselves is another great teacher available to us – and it is free. Every note I utter now is recorded and critiqued. An advantage of recording everything and listening back in 3 minute sessions is to provide constant micro-rest throughout a day’s practice. Another advantage is these recordings can be sent to a colleague for peer review. This is also free. We should all help each other. Lilli Lehmann recommended this in her book ‘How to Sing’.

Another great teacher is the subconscious. My plan is to learn Una Voce Poco Fa and then put it down for a month. Recently, I picked up ‘O luce di quest’anima’ after a month’s rest. It had improved by allowing time for the subconscious to work. It is now ready for me to add more difficult cadenzas and to try to imitate Tettrazini’s show off top notes in the repeat passage (a little un-musical but very showy). The subconscious is free.

This brings me to the point of today’s blog. The best singing teachers for an advanced operatic singer are free.

Recording made on iPhone of progress on top notes.
Recording made on iPhone of progress on top notes.

Efficiency

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!

100% efficiency!

High Notes

…there is almost no limit to the height that can be reached by the pure head tone without admixture of palatal resonance.

Lilli Lehmann, How to Sing.

…the whole secret of both [extension of the compass and equalization of the registers] consists in the proper raising and lowering of the soft palate, and the pillars of the fauces connected with it.

Lilli Lehmann, How to Sing

Over the next three years (2020-2023), I have created a project for myself called the “Lilli Lehmann Project”. This project aims to refresh my voice and brain to prepare myself for teaching. The whole point of the three years is that I believe that in order to teach responsibly, I must be able to actually do it myself!

The first stage of the project is to learn bel canto repertoire, in particular coloratura. Coloratura repertoire demands, amongst many other things, secure high notes because the arias often end with a high note.

Today’s post discusses my thoughts about high notes.

First, here is short audio file where I am rehearsing the high notes at the end of Caro Nome.

Developing high notes.

In this audio file, I focussed very much on increasing the nasality in the notes before singing the notes above top C. I also increasingly thought of [e].

As soon as the head tones come into consideration, one should never attempt to sing an open ah, because on ah the tongue lies flattest. One should think of an ā, and in the highest range even an ē; should mix the ā and ē with the ah, and thereby produce a position of the tongue and soft palate that makes the path clear for the introduction on the breath into the cavities of the head.

Lilli Lehmann, How to Sing.

In addition to thinking [e], I watched Dame Joan Sutherland singing high notes. Imitating her mouth position as it changes through the registers. Once I reached the C# I positioned my mouth ready for a wide opening on the Eb.

Dame Joan Sutherland.

Here is a picture of Maria Callas laughing. This is a good example of the mouth shape for high notes.

Maria Callas

In addition, to the above, there was one more thing I did. This was to extend my neck upwards. In the following video, the Italian bel canto singing teacher, Capucine Chiaudani, explains why this is important.

Capucine Chiaudani

Tips for Cherubino’s Aria “Voi Che Sapete” – follow up

This is a follow up post to my earlier post on Cherubino’s aria. Here are three versions of Cherubino’s aria sung at 421HZ. The first version is too dark. I pressed down on the sound. It was tiring and uncomfortable. The second version isn’t as dark but I have another problem – you can see my mouth is moving too much. There is also a trace of tension. Accordingly, the language is distorted.

I decided the most efficient way to fix this was to listen to Herman Klein’s Phono-Vocal Method and sing a Solfeggio. I did this for ten minutes or so and then recorded the third version. The third version is my preferred version. The only reservations I have is that it now needs other musicians to bring it to life and time to settle.

Version One – too dark

Version Two – mouth too wide and tense

Version Three – vowels in better alignment

Herman Klein’s Phono Vocal Method

Herman Klein’s method and these recordings are an excellent resource.

Gregorian Chant for Opera Singers

Wow, the closed Italian [u] – why Italian? – why did Gregorian chant, opera, and singing in a certain way seemingly start in Italy? Their language was the main reason, and of course, we must consider that because it started there, it started because of their language.

Denes Striny, Great Singers, An Endangered Species, How to Get Back to Mother Nature, Page 43

I could pose a similar question from a New Zealand perspective. Why are there so many stunning Pacific Island Opera Singers? Their language is the main reason.

Language for some of us Kiwis is a challenge. How do we train our mouths to speak like an Italian or a Pacific Islander or a native Te Reo speaker?

Here is one way. It is cheap, easy and will save you doing a three year Italian degree like I did.

Listen to Gregorian Chant!

This post contains a Gregorian playlist for listening while you take that daily walk. (You will need Spotify to access the entire track).

Language is my everyday struggle because I have a thick Kiwi accent with more than a hint of Aussie – could it get any worse – ha ha ha! Yes, it could. I love pop music which means I am often singing around the house in chest voice trying to be Beyonce!

Gregorian chant is the perfect remedy. The language is focussed on the [u] vowel, there is no chest voice, the vocal range is not taxing and the singers sing directly onto the note (no scooping).

Put your headphones on and have a go at imitating this. Imitation is training. Training your lips to feel the [u] shape and to maintain the [u] sensation in every other vowel.

Training, training, training! Training your ear. Training your muscles. Training, training, training!

Tips for Cherubino’s aria “Voi che sapete”

Here is the process I have followed today to locate a shiny sound for Cherubino’s aria. I would like Cherubino to sound youthful. Accordingly, I am looking for that old fashioned bright Italian sound. I will add to this post over the next month or so until the aria is complete.

The word ‘piu’ is a handy word for finding the sound needed for this aria. The ‘p’ keeps the placement light and the mouth small. The ‘i’ adds in the width (brightness) while the ‘u’ adds in the depth (mellowness and access of head voice)
Sing the voice consonants on pitch, fully resonant and with a relaxed expression
Line up the vowels so they all resonate within the ‘u’ sound. (Sing ‘piu’ again if you get stuck)
Sing sharp. This develops the tendency to approach from ‘above’ rather than scooping up to the note.
Put it all together, phrase by phrase.

Tuning the semitones. Semitones are different ‘sizes’. Some are ‘bigger’ than others.
Here is a nasal close in slow motion. You do this on a double vowel. First consonant is nasal then the next consonant is full resonance. This is the word ‘donne’. You can read more in Lilli Lehmann’s book ‘How to Sing’ and also I posted on this in my blog.
I put this phrase together but I am not happy because the ‘d’ is not on pitch. There is a scoop upwards. I am also not happy because the voice is too full. I want a youthful Cherubino and this Cherubino is beginning to sound like a Granny.
Now the ‘d’ is on pitch but the phrase is beginning to sound laboured so lets move onto the next phrase for now…
Here is the word ‘quello’ sung very slowly. The q and w should be sung before the beat. The u lands on the beat. The u vowel gives us a beautiful mellow sound so don’t move too far away from that to sing the e. The double l gives us another nasal close. First l is nasal and the second is full resonance. This allows the word to be heard better.
This phrase needs a springboard from the pro of provo. The pro should have imposto and a little messa di voce to create a springboard. I make a terrible scoop on the v. Don’t do that!
Here you can hear another scoop on the last note and even worse, I am closing my mouth slightly on the last o which distorts it. This should NOT be done!
I have fixed the last o but not the scooping… the scooping has to be fixed…but lets move on…
Need to make a springboard out of the ca of capir by adding a touch of imposto and messa di voce
Here is an example of no legato. No tying of one note to the other.
The way to help achieve a legato is to practice a vibrazione on every note.
Here I am adding in a more lyric quality to darken the ‘gelo’ and also, yay, I add in the chest. All of those days trying to be Beyonce didn’t go completely to waste…
We are now up to the middle of the piece. Now we can have fun. Here is the use of the two voice characters to colour the phrases. First the light quality and then the lyric.
I sing this slowly and then faster so show the series of nasal close. The difficulty of this passage is the series of nasal close, not the crossing of the two registers. If the nasal close are right the registers will naturally fall into place. Remember, with the nasal close the first of the double consonants is nasal & the second is with full resonance. Because you are crossing different pitches put the nasal on the pitch prior and the full resonant consonant on the new pitch. This passage must be sung slowly before attempted at speed.
Think of the top notes here so that you don’t droop. If you droop onto the lower notes they will go flat and it will be darn difficult to climb out!
Here I have exaggerated the rolled r. This should be practiced in isolation to make sure it is rolled on pitch or you will sing off key! Also, the roll makes sure the singing is on the breath support. In fact, the voiced consonants are terrific for making sure you are singing with the breath support. Breath support is gentle. It is not forcing the air through but it is not floppy either so if you have a lovely resonant consonant you are off to a great start!
Here the first two breaths I took are correct. They are silent. The second two are incorrect because you can hear them.
Here is the end of the piece. Try to vary it from the first time it was sung. Can you sing it softer? Louder? With a different tone colour?
Now here is the entire piece. This time we are looking for shapes. Looking for shapes usually takes a performance or two. Remember to put on your metronome!

Voi Che Sapete – further blog post

I am continuing this post in a separate blog post because I notice the information is too much for one page. Please look at my more recent post to see a comparison of different versions…

Peter Dawson

Peter Dawson, (31 January 1882 – 27 September 1961), Australian Baritone.

Australia produces fine singers. Today’s blog post features the singing of, Australian Baritone, Peter Dawson. It is obvious, by listening, that Peter Dawson, born in Adelaide in 1882, was trained in the Old Italian Method of Singing to produce Bel Canto. Dawson’s sound quality is dark. His attack is clean, intonation secure, legato pure, agility without fault and diction faultless.

We are so lucky to have access to Dawson’s singing which could be used by teachers of singing as the ‘goal post’ for singing in general, and, specifically, singing in English. In this respect, I am very glad to have discovered Dawson’s recordings for both my students and improvement of myself.

Here is a playlist of Peter Dawson’s singing and, below, an example of his teacher’s singing.

Peter Dawson studied with, Englishman, Sir Charles Santley. Sir Charles recorded only a few songs and arias at the end of his career. However, his voice remained fresh – one of the tell-tale signs of good technique! Here is an example of his singing. Examples such as this could be used by teachers of singing as a ‘reminder’ of the Old Italian School of Singing. The power of this example may be enhanced by reading Sir Charles Santley’s books on singing and his memoirs.

Una Voce Poco Fa…

Gioachino Rossini 1792 – 1868

Everyone knows it, and most lovers of the old school of Italian singing adore it. Yet how few, even of the cleverest vocalists of to-day, can sing it really well!

Herman Klein, Herman Klein and the Gramophone, The recording of Una Voce, page 66

Listening to the finest examples of Bel Canto and learning how to critically engage with the examples is essential for developing one’s ear for the Old Italian School. In the Spotify Playlist below are four of five examples that Klein compares in his article ‘The Recording of Una Voce‘. Klein’s critique gives us insight into the performance of this aria. I suggest you listen to the four recordings and then read pages 66 – 68 of Herman Klein and the gramophone : being a series of essays on the Bel canto (1923), the Gramophone and the Singer (1924-1934), and reviews of new classical vocal recordings (1925-1934), and other writings from the Gramophone. (You can locate this book on Internet Archive to borrow).

%d bloggers like this: