August 30, 2011

Water Boy

The title says it all. A week after I got back from Umbria I had my first swimming lesson. You'd think after being a member of the West Side Y in Manhattan for 15 years that I had been in the pool before then, but you would be mistaken. Never did. Why? It wasn't fear of the water. I could get back and forth across a pool. But real swimming, as in swimming with grace, élan and a modicum of technique? Never. I just made do. I always told myself that I would get in the pool eventually but never did. What made me dive in? Perhaps it was the physical I had the day after I got off the plane and being told that while I had perfect blood pressure (two weeks in Umbria and lots of laughing and singing and Grappa will do that) my cholesterol was out of wack.

Il Dottore said I had to cut out the eggs and get more exercise. Heart pounding exercise. And swimming being very different than being on an elliptical trainer, I thought it was time. Nothing like being in the water and swimming for your life, or at least a better blood test in three months. 

So what does any of this have to do with bel canto singing? Plenty! After you get in the pool and learn how to swim freestyle you start to really understand the art of breathing and what it means to endure. Training in the water is like singing Bellini or Wagner. It's all in the breathing. 

Yes. There is a great different between breathing for singing and breathing for swimming. In the latter, one's head is face down in the water and the emphasis is on exhalation (the secret is to keep making bubbles), while in singing the emphasis is on the gesture of inhalation. The Old School called this inhaling the voice- inhalare la voce. You'd think that one would not have much to do with the other, but they do. Active exhalation aids the mechanism of inhalation (the Lamperti School called the interplay between the two the vocal struggle). 

To sustain the gesture of inhalation implies that there must first be an exhalation. And swimming certainly strengthens the latter aspect. Once you get the hang of exhaling with your head in the water (and not holding your breath because of the fear of drowning) things get a lot easier. And this is my main point: fear and inadequate technique in both singing and swimming takes you right to the bottom. The body literally contracts, shortens, and the light goes out of the eyes. As a consequence singing through a phrase or crossing the length of the pool seems impossible. You're drowning. 

Get the exhalation right when your head is in the water and the air will come into your lungs without effort when you turn your head. And when you are able to sustain the gesture of inhalation by hearing that your vowels are clear the exhalation will take care of itself. An unclear vowel is like thrashing in the water: both go nowhere

The key is to feel buoyant when you are in the water or singing an aria. Limbs and vocal lines both need perfect placement. 

Like the beautiful tile? It's from the Moravian Tile Works c. 1926. A place worth visiting in Bucks County, the owner also built one of the first houses out of concrete in America. It's in the style of a French Chateau. Now a museum, it is filled with amazing tile from all over the world. Apologies for the florescence which lends everything a garish tone. That said, I hope you can see the craftsmanship that went into creating this Temple of Beauty.  

Beauty in art and life. It takes discipline and work, simple unrelenting work. I started out only being able to go one lap before my chest starting heaving and I was out of breath. Now in my second week (I've gone every day) I can go two. A small improvement. But improvement nonetheless. The short term goal is five laps without stopping. And then ten. And then fifteen. And then twenty- and so on.  

Those Old Italian School voice teachers had their students sing on long tones for twelve to eighteen seconds. And then they did it again, over and over on every note of the scale. Think that was easy? 

Everyone in the pool! 


  1. Outstandingly diverse and subtle, down to the tile of the Y. I especially liked the discussion of buoyancy; this was very learnéd. The endurance part then fell right into place. Plus, the attire is ennobling.

  2. Thank you Laurent. Speaking of attire, I've spoken with a few old-timers who have fond memories from when the Y was a gentleman's establishment and swimsuits were nonexistent. Me? I have my speedo.


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