July 22, 2012

Singin' in the Rain

For my birthday a few weeks ago, I went to see Singin' in the Rain on the big screen in Times Square. The picture (a term we don't use any more unfortunately) was presented by TMC as part of the film's sixtieth anniversary. What a revelation! I saw things that you can't possibly see on a little screen, facial expressions for one thing. Their subtlety really stood out, Gene Kelly's being memorable. The man could really act with his face as well as his legs. Speaking of which, the power and beauty of the dancing is altogether different when writ large. Its stunning right-in-your-face-ness, especially when Donald O'Conner and Kelly kick their legs towards an old world diction coach in Moses Supposes, knocks you back in your seat. You are witnessing the greatest dance sequences captured on film. 

Filmed in 1952, during the golden age of the Hollywood musical, Singin' in the Rain is notable for looking back towards the beginning of Talkies, which included many a voice teacher's flight to the west coast to ride the sound wave. The Mid-Atlantic speech heard in the film by the character of Phoebe Dinsmore? It's hysterical (her name is too) when juxtaposed with the crass dialect of Jean Hagen's character, but accurately expresses the influence of the Old Italian School with its rounded vowels in film history. 

This is seen in one sequence as Kelly sings a vaudeville number with chorines, progressing through various venues, singing the same tune, finally arriving in a classy Ziegfield number in white tie and tails, rounded tone with vaulted headdresses, visually expressing how elevated diction was synonymous with high style, having its roots in the art of bel canto. The distinction between classical and popular style is still with us, growing every more nuanced as evidenced in the new term: Commercial Contemporary Music (CCM). I think this is a good thing, as it defines as well as illustrates the range of expression possible. As it is, experience has shown that we really do learn by being able to contrast tonal values. 

Cahn't or ceeeen't?

You haven't lived as a voice teacher until you find yourself having a similar moment in the studio. It happened to me when a young woman arrived dripping with diamonds, sheathed in a stunning black dress, and proceeded to howl through Happy Birthday. Having seen a leading soprano - and her first opera- the week before, she was determined to become an opera singer. Ok, I said. May I tell you what is involved in getting where you want to go? Scales, languages, learning to read music, the fine art of politics- and that's just for starters. Really? She said. I have to learn to read music?

Uh, huh.  

July 20, 2012

Singing Position & Placement

They need each other: 'singing position' and 'placement.' How to find each aspect? It's not as hard as you might think, that is, if you have an ear for it.

The classical singer can find his/her singing position by speaking a clear, deep and resonant vowel. I call this CDR for short. What happens when you can make a clear, deep and resonant vowel on a lower (approximated) pitch with ease and not too much volume? (Not making a lot of volume makes you listen.) Larry the Larynx goes down a bit without any fuss. He just goes there, often without the student even being aware of it. Once a clear, deep and resonant vowel is obtained, the teacher can then ask the student to observe what happens when the spoken vowel is not clear, deep and resonant. "Oh!" They often say. "It doesn't go down!" Meaning Larry. Of course, the danger comes when the student gets fussy and tries to keep Larry on the Low instead of listening to the clear, deep and resonant vowel. Funny how that is. Students can be prone to controlling the voice mechanically if they are given the chance, but my observation is that- without exception - this always bites them in the butt. To get them to stop doing that? This means listening to a clear, deep and resonant vowel.

Are you aware that I've written CDR five times now? Get the idea? The teacher has to keep this in the student's consciousness until they are able to obtain it on all vowels, closed or open. What does the student hear when they are doing this? Larry vibrating with tone. My own teacher called this the 'core.'

Then what?

Once CDR has been obtained on all the vowels in the speaking voice, the student transitions to singing without letting go of the singing position. However, the singing voice is different from the speaking voice in one crucial aspect: instead of the attention being on the 'core,' it must shift to the level of the face, head and eyes. This takes some practice. Of course, five minutes of demonstration reveals a great deal more than the written word. It has to be heard. And what is heard? The old term is placement. A more modern term - or explanation - is bone conduction. One hears the head ringing with tone. Paradoxically, it also seems to be outside the head. This is the air-conducted aspect.

The higher one goes in the scale, the greater the sense of placement, the stereo-like sense of the vowel swimming around the head and face. It doesn't appear, however, if the singing position has been lost. In this sense, the singing position and placement aid one another: higher notes beget placement, while lower tones singing position. It's simple, elegant and - dare I say - easy, if you can hear what it means.

July 10, 2012

Farinelli in Three

The legendary castrato Farinelli (1705-1782) - aka Carlo Broschi - Handel's muse and student of the legendary vocal maestro Nicola Porpora. His fame increased exponentially after his debut at the age of fifteen. Don't you wish you could hear what he sounded like? 

"Farinelli had a penetrating, full, rich, bright and well-modulated soprano voice, with a range at that time from the A below middle C to the D two octaves above middle C. ... His intonation was pure, his trill beautiful, his breath control extraordinary and his throat very agile, so that he performed the widest intervals quickly and with the greatest ease and certainty. Passagework and all kinds of melismas were of no difficulty to him. In the invention of free ornamentation in adagio he was very fertile."

All images from the New York Public Library Digital Archive.