March 28, 2013

The Complete Collaborator: Martin Katz

The New York Singing Teachers Association invited the incomparable Martin Katz to give a two-hour masterclass last night at Columbia Teachers College on 120 Street. This was made possible since Katz is in town appearing with tenor Lawrence Brownlee at Zankel Hall.  Kudos to NYTSA's board and Judith Nicosia for making this event happen.

I've heard Katz in recital many times over the years - most recently with Frederica von Stade at Carnegie Hall. He never disappoints. Nor did he last night. Having sung for him in a masterclass at Westminster Choir College when I was a graduate student, I knew what to expect: adroit, masterful instruction and text driven performance. He really isn't happy with anything else. 

Katz is a trigger happy man, that is, he wants to know what you are thinking about when you start a song. To find the trigger, the thought that brings the song to life, you have to know the lyrics backwards and forwards. You have to have a point of view - and a strong one at that. Stand there and do nothing but make pretty sounds? You are skating on thin ice.

Katz was specific, working with each singer (there were five) to bring out the meaning of the text. He emphasized the need for 'glottal' attacks in English and German repertoire, sustaining of the vocal line when the composer has placed a rest in the middle of the lyric ("You must make the poet happy: a rest is just a rest, not a lunch break!), bending the music to make sense of the words, and modulating the voice to bring out character. If the poem is about a young girl, it really doesn't serve the text to sing with the rich tone of a mature woman, does it? You'd think these things would be common sense, and that would be so for those who have studied their texts closely, but this is not always the case, especially for those with a 'voice,' or for voice teachers endeavoring to help singers with vocal technique, the latter sometimes forgetting the big picture. (This is why the Old School insisted on technical proficiency before allowing the singer to essay any repertoire.) Once technical matters are secure, pianist and singer have the unique luxury of thinking about details in a way that other collaborators do not. Why? They have words to deal with.

Katz's detailed instruction reminded me of another great American artist: Liza Minnelli. I caught her on the Actor's Studio last week. Minnelli spoke about being specific when singing a song, and finds her triggers - to use Katz's word - by creating a song book. One side of the page contains the lyrics, while the opposite side contains the song's 'backstory' written in detail. This is something classical pianists and singers could do as well. What's the point here? Great art, regardless of its genre, is made up of emotion and meaning, and rooted in specifics. This is what makes it universal. 

Katz has written his own book, The Complete Collaborator: The Pianist as Partner (2009), which you can find here.

Lastly, there is something quite wonderful in seeing a master craftsman at work. Katz reminded me of why I wanted to sing, and why being a singer means being a life-long student: there are more songs to sing. 

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