September 3, 2013

Learning from Gérard Souzay

Gérald Souzay 

I've written about Gérard Souzay's singing before (which you can find by clicking on the label at the bottom of this post): yet today, I want to revisit his singing -  if only because I have been working on a Duparc song he sings so eloquently. I've been on my own vocal journey - and Souzay has been there from the beginning. 

Teaching has been a big part of that journey too. Having to demonstrate keeps me on my toes. I don't find it tiring. On the contrary, it gives me a lot of energy. (Yes- I do have to pace myself. The day can't be too long.) 

There is also the matter of what I teach, and in the studio that means breathing, pure vowels, open throat and placement- to use terms from the Old Italian School. One important vehicle? The five cardinal vowels. /i/ /e/ /a/ /o/ /u/. One by one, one to the other, mixed and matched, on simple scales and single tones. Each one gives the student a specific aural experience. Learn what they have to give and the voice eventually takes off.

My tack has always been to find what works and then "transfer" over from that. If /e/ works better then /i/, then we start with that, these two vowels being useful in obtaining "ring." (For many people /i/ is spoken and sung with a closed throat, while /e/ is more open.) Once the student has the experience of what works and what doesn't, I hear myself using the "Bowling Lane" analogy.

If you get the ball going the right way at the beginning, you are more likely to make a strike.
 However, if you start in the gutter, you are doomed from the start. 

This "start with what works" approach makes things a lot easier for everyone. The trick is getting the student to remember how to help themselves when practicing at home in ten minute sessions. How to find their "strike."

Using what works is a training wheel. It's taken off only after balance in obtained - which takes awhile. It's put back on when there is trouble, which is a necessary part of the learning process. It has to be utilized a ga-zillion times, just like kids who say "ma-ma" over and over until other sounds and sentences start coming out. I've written before that singing is a language, which I believe now more than ever. You don't learn the grammar of singing, that is, anatomy and physiology, to "speak" singing: you learn the sounds! You immerse yourself in them! 

Sometimes a student comes into the studio with the express purpose of fixing a specific problem, and while I am happy to address their concern, I am acutely aware that what they think of as the problem may not be the problem at all. 

Can't get that high note? What about that weird vowel you are singing on the note before it? You know, the one that sounds like "uh" instead of "ah"? 

The five vowels. Get them right in your middle voice and the heavens will open. That's what the Old Italian School teachers thought anyway. It's simple of course. So simple as to be overlooked. 

In the end, what we learn to do—if we have learned anything—is to become our own teacher. Of course, I didn't make that idea up. I've heard it expressed by both the Buddha and Pauline Viardot-García, the latter saying that someone can help you a little, but in the end you have to do it yourself. The Buddha? In the moment before his death, he is quoted as instructing his disciples to rely on themselves. 

Of course, someone has to give you the tools. I am getting a little aural help from Souzay, since our voices are similar (not forgotten is the coaching I had with a very gifted colleague who encouraged me to sing Mélodie with Souzay as my model). Then I am reworking Duparc's Chanson triste. Why now? It's teaching and singing all those vowels in the studio. I've learned a thing or two.

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