June 29, 2011

Vocal Placement

A very good example of correct vocal placement in the classical voice is the singing of Franz Grundheber, a student of Margaret Harshaw. His voice is placed very forward. This is achieved through via a correct use of the /i/ vowel, which I wrote about in my last post.

Franz Grundheber

The Old School taught students to 'place' the voice where they heard an /i/ vowel that had forward resonance. Every vowel was taken from a correctly produced /i/ resonance. Of course, it is helpful to have someone show you how to do this, but the autodidact can learn much from an example, even a Utube video. Of course, as with such things, you have to know something to know something. Nes pas?

The /i/ doesn't sound the same in every voice. Baritones don't sound like sopranos, and mezzos like tenors. But the canny voice teacher will know how to give the student feedback, and the even cannier student will be able to use their imitative ability to find the right quality.

Here is one hint that might help: the muscles of the outer ear (there are three of them) engage quite strongly on a well-placed /i/. In fact, the ears will feel pulled back and up.

Another hint: sing /i/ through /a/.

June 28, 2011

Singing in the Dark

The title sounds like a variation of the standard Dancing in the Dark, doesn't it? But I have a quite different matter on my mind however. It's something I learned during my journey to the Listening Centre in Toronto in 1999. And it's this: the awareness of higher frequencies is, for the singer, like having a bright light on in a room. You can see everything much more clearly. Colors stand out. Green becomes greener, red redder, while forms and shapes have depth, and shadows have contrast. Reduce the light, and colors become grey and muddy. Heck.  It's even a rule in decorating. A house can stand day-glo colors if it is in the bright and blazing equatorial region, but will look out of place in Norway. There the colors have much more grey in them.

It's the same with vowels and vocal tone. Take away the higher frequencies in the singer's perception, and the voice loses its color and flexibility. Is it any wonder then, that the Old School teachers taught that depth of tone, and even head voice, was gained via closed vowels like /i/ which has these frequencies? Many Old School teachers taught their students to vocalize on /i/. Lilli Lehmann even turned  this vowel into the cornerstone of her technique. Alfredo Krauss talked about it in a masterclass which you can read in this transcript.

Let's back up a second: did you click on the link to Dancing in the Dark and watch Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse? You should, if only for the sheer glee of watching two masters of the craft. It was a nighttime scene, right?  Ok. What color were they wearing? White, right?  Would it have been easier to follow their images if they were dressed in black?  Ah...no. I don't think so. Dark colors on a dark background?  They would have been lost. No chiaroscuro in that. Here's the deal. Great art directors and voice teachers know this simple truth: If you want to sing with a dark color, make a romantic scene with your voice, you had better keep your vowels clear and forward, or your listener won't get the picture. 

Want to sing full-on classical music? Find your day-glo /i/.  Make it radically pure.  Vocalize on it while thinking /a/. Turn the halogen lights on and sing! Otherwise, you are singing in the dark.

June 23, 2011

Sean O'Boyle & Suzanne Kompass

t is a tale of our times. An extraordinary soprano and her equally extraordinary composer and conductor husband are stranded across the border and can't get home.

I am writing about Suzanne Kompass and Sean O'Boyle, a singer who met a composer in his Australian homeland. The two fell in love, married and then returned to New York City. Because Suzanne is also a citizen of Canada, the couple's recent travel there to perform has been complicated with Sean not being able to re-enter the US. Chalk it up to complications with greens cards and the like, the situation reminds me of Menotti's opera The Consul where the lead character, Magda, cries out in frustration: "Papers! Papers! Oh, the day will come, I know, when all our hearts aflame will burn your paper chains!" Sean's situation is all about papers at the moment.

This is not an isolated case. As early as 2007, artists from around the world have had a very difficult time visiting, much less, living in the United States as the Washington Times reported. And if the current requirements for residence are daunting, I can say, having known Sean and his wife for some time now, that he not only meets the requirements, he exceeds them.

Sean O'Boyle is a rare individual. He not only writes excellent music, he understands singers and the art of singing. And in a world where the art of bel canto is endangered, his talents are sorely needed back in New York.

Let Sean and his lovely wife come home!

June 18, 2011

Nicola Porpora's Inspiration

Considered the father of bel canto, Nicola Porpora taught the great castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli. He also taught Giovanni Ansani who reportedly instructed Manuel García the Elder in the precepts of the Old School. While Porpora did not record his instruction for posterity, his student Domenico Corri did, publishing something of his master's precepts in a treatise titled The Singer's Preceptor in 1810. It can be found - along with a treatise by Corri's student Issac Nathan - in The Porpora Tradition which was published in 1968 by Edward Foreman (Pro Music Press). A very hard-to-find book, I was fortunate in snagging a copy via Abebooks some years ago. Here are Corri's instructions on practice which undoubtedly reflect those of his illustrious master.  

Begin by half an hour at a time, increasing more and more in proportion to the age and strength of the constitution on an average from two to three hours each day, until it is acquired, after which you may relax the exertion, but must never abandon it totally as long as you wish to improve and preserve your voice.  
The best time for practice is considered to be after breakfast, the Lungs then being in the happiest state to bear the exertion; during this progress you must abstain from an other Singing, because, for this appointed Exercise, all your power should be reserved.  
1st. Place yourself near a Piano Forte and before a Looking Glass, standing, you will thus possess more strength.  
2nd. Keep the Head and Body upright which gives free passage to the Voice.  
3rd. Open the mouth in an oblong form, as smiling, so that the lower Lip may not rise above the Teeth, which otherwise will damp and weaken the tone of the Voice. 
4th. Take as much breath as you can, draw it with a moderate quickness, with suspiration, as if sighing, use it economy, and at the same instant sound the letter A as pronounced by the Italian or Scotch, thus ah 

Did you catch the word Corri uses for breathing, that is, suspiration? It is a more sophisticated directive than the usual instruction to 'take a deep breath.' A kinesthetically oriented word, suspiration calls to mind feelings of contentment and repose. I've come across only one other place, and that is in Luigi Lablache's treatise.

You have to be inspired to sing.

June 16, 2011

Empiricism vs Science

Doing and knowing. Are they the same thing? Not if you are learning to ride a bike. You can sit down with a book and study the parts of a bicycle, but this knowledge won't help you go around the block. In the end, you will have to get on the thing, find your balance and your legs. Learning to sing is much the same. Study all you want. Learn the parts of the vocal mechanism and the history of vocal pedagogy, but keep in mind that this won't help you sing unless you are a canny autodidact, which, if anything, is the rare individual. The fact is: few people are self-aware enough to learn from the written page as far as singing is concerned. And those who do?  Well. They've been around the block a few times.

I'll go out on a limb here and say that I consider myself someone who has learned a thing of two from a book. That said,  I've had to wade through a ton of junk. Research can be like panning for gold: you go through a lot of dirt before you find a nugget that can be useful, even revelatory. In fact, there is nothing more exciting than putting in a call slip at a library and waiting for a book that might change what you know. You might wait weeks, months, even years for that moment. But if you want to get to the bottom of things,  that is what you do. You can't hurry research any more than you can learn Isolde in two weeks. It takes time. And if you keep at it long enough you begin to see patterns, and then patterns within patterns. But all this 'knowing'....what does it amount to? 

The kid on the bike just wants to feel the thrill of movement, of being alive, and going downhill at breakneck speed. Whatever you do, don't 'know' so much that you forget how to ride with the wind in your hair.  

June 10, 2011

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Remembered

I was lucky enough to sing onstage with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and see her weave her art at close range night after night during a run of La clemenza di Tito. More than anyone I can think of, she sang like an instrumentalist, that is, she phrased like nobodies business. This seemed to be, in retrospect, her primary concern. Perhaps it is no coincidence that she was first a professional violist. This is not to say she didn't make a beautiful tone. She did. But in her case, the beauty of her voice always seemed to serve something else, something- how can I say this- much more spiritual.

I still remember when I heard that she had died. I was at a busy market on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and ran into a colleague. "Oh my God! Did you hear?" He told me the news. No. I didn't know. And my immediate thought was that a great light had left the world.

Listen to her here.

Lorraine Hun Lieberson 

June 7, 2011

Anna & Lilli (and a dachshund named Baby)

They were friends and colleagues. Two German ladies with a connection to the Old School, Lilli Lehmann was the great soprano who trained her lyric voice to sing dramatic roles, while Anna Schoen-René was the promising soprano who's career was stopped by illness. She became, instead, the great voice teacher of her time. Both wrote books. Lehmann's was translated into English and titled How to Sing, while Schoen-René was titled America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences. The lady with the dachshund in her lap had the last word.

Lilli Lehmann, Anna E. Schoen-René and Baby c. 1908 

In later life, Lilli Lehmann gave the impression of being a woman much younger than she actually was. Strikingly handsome, of a commanding grace, with lovely, classical features, her white hair contrasting with her beautiful, deep, dark eyes, she was always full of animation. 
An advocate of simple life, she was almost a vegetarian, took much outdoor exercises, and used the rest of her time and energy looking after the welfare of her pupils and of her pet animals, which, it was often said, she preferred to the majority of human beings. She was the founder of protective associations for animals, not only in Germany, but also in France and England. Once she warned me never to go to Egypt or Turkey where she had seen such mistreatment of animals that she had cut her trip there short. (It was a pleasure to remember that her little dachshund "Baby" had a great liking for me!) 
Because she was severe in her criticism and dominating in her manner, Lilli Lehmann has been much misunderstood. However, there has seldom been a singer of such unselfish and charitable nature. She was always willing to advise and encourage musicians, and was the founder and financial supporter of a hospital and institution for needy woman musicians. It was she also who originated the famous Mozart Festivals in Salzburg; their immense success is largely due to her efforts. 
My friendship with her was brought about through her admiration for Pauline Viardot. She had seen some of the unforgettable performances of Viardot's public career and had, indeed, modeled her interpretation of Fidelio on that of Viardot. 
Thus it was that I returned to Berlin to make my headquarters there, as the representative of the Garcia's, that Lilli Lehmann—who had been my friend for a long time before that—was much interested and often invited me to listen to her teaching. After such visits she invited me to share her luncheon which usually consisted of fruit, and afterwards, we talked about music and teaching. Viardot herself always praised Lehmann to me (and wrote about her) as a great musician, a Wagnerian singer par excellence, and a "Lieder" singer of unsurpassed merit. 
I remember particularly a lesson of Lilli Lehmanns with an American girl which at her request I had to attend. The singer who had a beautiful voice was struggling with the coloratura passages in the aria of Donna Elvira from "Don Juan." She seems not to get the piano passages correctly; Lehmann's explanations only served to confuse her even more, and by the end of the lesson the girl was in tears. 
Lilli, thoroughly disgusted, said to her, "I do not know why you cannot understand me. I am explaining the technique exactly as my mother, who was my teacher, explained it to me. My mother was a disciple of the Garcia's the greatest teachers of the century and Mme. Schoen-René, who herself has just returned from lessons with Pauline Viardot and Manuel Garcia, will agree with everything I had said." 
After the poor girl left I went upstairs with Lilli. She immediately began talking about her pupil's stupidity in not being able to understand her explanations. So I said to her, "I don't want you to misunderstand me, and wouldn't venture to speak of this if we were not alone, but since you have brought the matter up again, and since you call yourself a disciple of the Garcia technique, I would like to tell you exactly how Viardot and Manuel Garcia have taught the production of piano singing." 
I was relieved when she took in the right spirit what I had said, and asked me to explain it to her (the technique is, of course, to keep the same quality of the naturally produced tone—not to use falsetto, as the student did which was why she was criticized.) She saw immediately where she had been making her mistakes, and was so happy to learn about it that she threw aside the peasant-dress on which she had been sewing, and ran downstairs to the music room with me to practice exercising the mezza voce as the Garcia's had taught it. As soon as she tried the difference, she looked at me with a delighted smile, "You were right!" she said. (She herself, it is to be understood, always sang piano correctly, it was for teaching purposes that this explanation was a revelation to her.) 
I always considered Lilli Lehmann one of the greatest teachers for repertoire, style, and dramatic expression. In her long career as a singer (more than sixty years), she was able to establish a technique and style which, however, very few could execute. She described it in a handbook for singers, but I must confess that I think her explanations hard for any student to understand, and again, it has been my life-long conviction that singing cannot be learned form a book. Scientific explanations can only be grasped by singers already educated in the principles of their art. 

From America's Music Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941) by Anna E. Schoen-René.