Saturday, April 24, 2010

Getting it together

I have been working with my students at Smith on various recitals they are presenting this spring as the school year comes to a close. Having worked with professional singers for a long time, it somehow didn't occur to me how many things besides singing a young performer has to learn to appear on the concert stage. And it's up to the teacher to help them learn these techniques. Mea culpa!

Naturally, first and foremost, the vocal apparatus must be in good working order; the technique secure, the musicality in place, and the songs well-memorized. But beyond that, one also has to know how to walk on and off the stage without looking strange, bow, and interact with the audience in a convincing manner. How to acknowledge the accompanist in a graceful manner. I think next term I shall offer a class in stage deportment in addition to the language classes I gave this past year.

There is also the question of what to do with these two things hanging down at our sides while we sing. Arms and hands seem sometimes not to want to be a part of the performance. We really have to watch ourselves in a mirror as we prepare to sing a program, deciding whether we are doing anything expressive with our arms and hands, or too much. Have we turned into a whirling dervish? Do we look like a plaster Saint? Are we frozen into place?

I have seen examples of all of these characteristics, and not just with amateurs. Lorraine had a wonderful sense of calm on stage in concert. No matter how violent the text she was singing her movements were always appropriate but never over done. In opera, especially the Peter Sellers stagings that she did, she often had to roll around on the stage while singing coloratura melismas in Handel; but in concert it was the calm assurance that she was certain that what she was going to do was going to be wonderful that always carried her through.

I remember seeing a Russian mezzo some years ago in Carnegie Hall. She was indeed a very great singer but her stance in the first group of Bach songs she sang, holding her two hands pointed outstretched in front of her, looked as if she were about to make a swan dive into the orchestra. After that group, she used her hands in a perfectly normal way. Perhaps that is a Russian tradition when singing Bach?

Our facial expression must also evoke the words we are singing. I think that sometimes one is thinking so much about what comes next that it is easy to get a blank expression on the face just trying to concentrate. Again, I don't want to see one 'making faces', but if one watches in a mirror as one sings a song, the face should reflect sadness, joy, misery, whatever the text calls for. And in an easy natural way.

One thing that helps all of these extra-singing movements to feel free and easy, is to be absolutely sure of the notes and words and emotions one is singing long before the performance. When one is trying desperately to remember what comes next, it is very easy to get this blank stare of concentration on the face that does not convey much to the listener. The answer to this is LEARN YOUR MUSIC WELL IN ADVANCE!

Every singer should take a course in acting. Where, when merely speaking, one learns to convey emotion both in the voice and in the body. This kind of body-language is just as important for the singer if not more so.

It is probably easier to achieve this ease in characterization when one is singing an operatic role. For here, your character is delineated as is your movement on stage. You also are the same character for the entire opera. In a song recital, your character changes with each song. You must play a variety of roles. This is obviously more difficult.

It's like doing a one-person show where you keep changing characters. Years ago, I saw Ruth Draper, the great monologist, do such a performance on Broadway. She slipped easily from character to character within the same scene and you were convinced that there were many other people on the stage with her, even though she was all alone up there. Cornelia Otis Skinner did the same sort of thing as did Joyce Grenfell, the British actress. I guess this sort of performance isn't seen much anymore. We see one-woman shows, but these earlier actresses were acting out complete scenes populated by numerous others who just weren't there!

In a song recital, the singer must be Ruth Draper, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Joyce Grenfell, Montserrat Caballe, Maria Callas, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson all wrapped into one!

Preparation must include every single thing you will do on stage: walking, bowing, expressing, and singing!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

There was only one!

I've been under the weather for a few days following what is now called 'Oral Surgery'. We used to call it 'having a tooth pulled', and that is still what it is basically. Since mine was a more than usually difficult tooth to pull, I've been taking it easy for several days.

This afternoon, to help pass the time (when I should have been teaching at Smith!), I watched some old Turner Classic Movies. And the winner was Deep in my Heart, a very sentimental telling of the career of Sigmund Romberg. It literally had a cast of thousands, Ann Miller, Tony Martin, Cyd Charise, Jane Powell, and on and on. But the real star for me was that incredible woman: Helen Traubel.

It's not that I had forgotten how wonderfully she always sang, but hearing her sing these Romberg songs brought me back many years when I first heard her sing on the Community Concerts Series in Battle Creek, Michigan at the W.K. Kellogg Auditorium. The lid of the piano was all the way up when this strawberry blond, sizable woman strode on stage and stole my heart forever.

The glory and majesty of her voice has seldom been heard since. Singers just don't sing like that anymore. She was a mid-western native and she sang with a mid-western directness that was awe inspiring. And that glorious sound. High, low, loud, soft, always steady. To me that is the way sopranos should sing. Unfortunately, few of them do that anymore. She never quite got her due at the Met because Kirsten Flagstad was still singing most of the Wagner. But her every appearance was remarkable. She was offered a Met contract in 1923, but didn't sign until 1936. She made up her own mind when to do things.

Today, glamour and designer dresses have often replaced good honest singing. It is a great loss.

I have a CD of her singing Wagner that ends with 'Take me out to the ballgame!' She was a fan. She had a fight with Rudolph Bing (I think it was) when she appeared on Jimmy Durante's TV show and he fired her. Big mistake. She did a couple of Broadway shows and several movies.
She also sang in night clubs. A woman of great variety.

But there was always that voice! Rich, warm, true, and expressive. Every singer of the present generation should listen to some of her recordings. They would get an education. They might even begin to sing better!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hit and Run!

Recently I gave what I have called a 'Hit and Run' Master Class at Smith College where I teach voice. I heard six singers who study with the three other voice teachers on the faculty. All six sang very well, which is a good advertisement for the voice department. However, this does present a sort of quandary for the Master Class teacher. One would like to have one really obvious problem to contend with. Even a train wreck! So what I had to do was nit-pick. I hope that this was helpful.

Most of the singers were already using a low breath, which, when it is not happening, is often the starting point for one to make corrections. However, not all of them were consistent with this, which gave me a way to begin to coach. A singer who sometimes takes a deep breath and sometimes takes a shallow breath can never be sure which kind of breath he or she will take when the chips are down. When that long, high phrase is coming up, or that difficult run. I tried to help the singers find a way to use the deep 'aw' breath with every inhalation. We all did an exercise which should help them remember to use this kind of breath consistently.

One student, who was singing a song from a Broadway show, sounded too 'classical' for the Broadway world. She was also using a high breath, which didn't help the situation. The voice was tremulous and unsubstantial. I tried to help her find a way to sing better, using a good technique, without sounding as if she were in an operetta. It is much more difficult for classically trained female singers, opera singers, as it were, to sing pop or show songs convincingly. I remember a CD that the great Kiri Te Kanawa made some years ago. She sang 'Blue Skies', among other standards. It sounded as if the conductor or producer, on hearing her sing it the first time, said, 'Too high, Kiri! sing it lower'. And then, after it was dropped a third, 'Still too high! Lower!'. Finally her voice was at the very bottom or her range, out of focus and breathy. I then picture the producer saying, 'That's it! It's a take!' It is a miserable sounding CD of a very beautiful voice. Renée Fleming also made a disastrous 'Pop' CD a few years ago. I remember hearing it on my car radio and thinking, 'Who on earth is this awful Pop singer that was allowed to make this CD?' Again a beautiful voice trying to be something it wasn't. It is as bad as when Barbra Streisand made a recording of, I think it was, Frauen- Lieben und- Leben. Someone once threatened as a punishment, to make me listen to this over and over. Fortunately, once was enough to absolve my sin.

One of the few operatic singers who made the cross-over successfully, and brilliantly, was the great Eileen Farrell. She could sing the 'Immolation Scene' and turn right around to sing 'I've got a right to sing the blues', and be totally convincing in either fach.

Male operatic singers have a much easier time making the cross-over. Years ago, Ezio Pinza proved this when he sang the lead in the Broadway production of South Pacific opposite Mary Martin. Robert Weede made a similar successful move to Broadway when he sang the lead in Most Happy Fellow. Ira Petina was on Broadway as the Old Woman in the original production of Bernstein's Candide, but that is a very operatic piece of musical theatre and she fit right in.

Most of the other technical points I worked on in the class with these six young women included singing with a better legato line, using the messa di voce in every phrase, projecting the voice by using a visual stimulus. By this last suggestion I mean singing to a distant point that the singer looks at while singing the song. Allowing this sense of space to help project the voice without feeling that one has to push the sound.

This was especially true with one of the singers who was singing quite well, but who was basically aiming the song at the floor. As soon as she was given a distant point to sing to, the song was projected and was quite beautiful.

As I have said before, I am not a fast teacher. I distrust teachers who, in the first lesson, tell a singer, 'My dear, you are not a this, you are a that'. Type-casting a singer this quickly is just not possible. Or, at least, it can be done only rarely, when a voice is so obviously a this that it could never be a that. This is why, in my opinion, a 'Hit and Run' Master Class is not an easy thing to teach. I would like to be able to follow the singer through a few more classes and see if my suggestions had borne fruit.

I enjoyed working with these young women, all of whom have obviously had good training and who are singing very well. I hope that my nit-picking was helpful to them and that my 'Hit and Run' didn't do any harm.