Monday, October 17, 2011

Anna as Anna

Having read several mixed reviews of Donizetti's Anna Bolena, the recent Met production which starred Anna Netrebko, I was looking forward to seeing it in HD at Monmouth University in Long Branch, NJ this weekend. I attended the screening with several friends whom I was visiting while in the Garden State.

The production is hampered by a bleak, rather ugly set that appears to be a series of gray walls. In the days of Henry VII I have a feeling that royal palaces, at very least, had some furniture. More than the bright red bed which, while appropriate to Henry's reputation, left a lot to be desired scenically. When singers were required to sit, they had to plop down on ledges that projected from the gray walls.

This is the first time I have heard Netrebko in person. It is an amazing instrument, but I am not a fan of the kind of 'covering' she employs. While this worked in mid-range sections of the role, she changed position when she had to sing a high note. At this point, she visibly adjusted, physically and vocally, to get rid of the weight that is caused by covering. While the voice has a creamy sound, it is almost as if someone else is doing the singing behind her somewhere. I would love to hear what she would sound like with a more forward projection throughout the range.

At the end, she goes through a door in the wall, pulls her hair to one side, and prepares to have her head cut off. High above her appears the executioner with an axe in his hands. I believe that, as with all royal executions, for Anne Boleyn, a French executioner was used who wielded a sword instead of an axe.

The role of Jane Seymour, Anne's lady in waiting and Henry's wife-to-be was sung by Ekaterina Gubanova, a Russian mezzo-soprano, who sings much more in the tradition of many Russian singers of the past. Her brilliant voice is really fine and she sang with great energy and passion.
Unlike some of her predecessors she does not 'Take the paint off the wall' with her brilliant voice. It would be nice to find a nice mutation of her voice with Netrebko's. You'd have the heavy cream plus the brilliance. When we can clone singers, that might actually happen.

In the scene where Henry is trying to get Jane into bed, he seems to be kneading bread as he wrestles with her, ignoring her pleas to wait until they are married. I wondered if she were black and blue at the end of the performance.

Oldar Abdrazakov, as Henry, has a very good and powerful voice. He is an imposing personage on stage, looking very kingly. He tends to push his very low notes, making them thin out a bit, and overworks his jaw to excess. He also pulls his tongue back into his throat a lot of the time.This tenses the instrument and thickens the sound.


For a voice teacher, the advantage of the close-ups the camera provides, which I would never be able to see in the house, allow a voice teacher the opportunity to look right down the singers' throats, just as I often do in a lesson. It is important for the teacher, and especially for the singer, to know what's going on in there. Voice teachers, especially I, should probably not be allowed to go to opera productions like this one since we can't stop teaching in our heads as we see fine singers doing energy-wasting, vocally unpleasant things. And we can't say 'Wait a minute, let's fix that!'

Lord Richard Percy was sung by Stephen Costello, a  good tenor, who started out a bit roughly vocally, but who got better as the opera went along and began singing rather well later on.

Tamara Mumford, mezzo, sang the pants role of Mark Smeaton. She has a good voice, if a little uneven at times, and certainly looked the part.

The roles of Lord Rochford and Sir Hervey were sung by Keith Miller and Eduardo Valdes.

Overall I was disappointed in the production. A more exciting set would have provided a better mood for the action to take place in. I wish that I had heard Beverly Sills or Joan Sutherland sing the role.

Alas, it's too late for that to happen.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Chapter Three

I am being propelled into making this into a book. I had an email from a friend saying 'When are you going to talk about using your air to sing?'

I guess now is as good a time as any.

Once we have taken this free, low breath, what do we do with it? 

We sing!

As I said in the previous chapter, the inhalation-to-sound rhythm is like the bounce of a tennis ball. Inhale as the ball strikes the floor and sing as you catch it. Ka-boom. If you hold the breath, even for an instant, you shut down the vocal apparatus. It also gives you time to 'manage' the breath-to-sound instant. In this case, managment is a bad thing. Olga Averino always spoke about singing from 'Impulse'. That is a very good thought. You should basically inhale the phrase you plan to sing. Your inhalation should be lively; not a gasp, but lively. Lively in-lively out. A slow drawn-out inhalation prepares you to yawn; that's about all.

Everything we do in life requires energy. In singing, our air is our energy. We stymie this by slowing down the breath-to-sound process.

An instant release of sound from the deep, open-throated, relaxed larynx inhalation should be a free, beautiful sound. I just witnessed this happen, yet again, in a student who began studying with me recently. I worked with her on the breathing exercises I have already mentioned, did some work on focus as detailed in my books on singing, and she instantly produced a free, wonderful sound. She was amazed at how quickly and easily this happened. It was an example of free energy at work.

There are several focus exercises I use; humming, duck call, and so on, when the voice is out of focus. But in general, when the air works this way, the voice finds its focus without outside help. A free release of sound automatically locates the resonators, and vibrates, finding the overtones in the sound, and sounding great.

I also do a 'Slow Release of Air Exercise' that I stole from Monserrat Caballe who was being interviewed by the flutist Ransom Williams in Opera News  some years ago. She suggested taking a deep breath and then letting it escape. No pushing of the air. You won't even hear the air escaping. When your mouth is full of air, a little place in your lips will open and a tiny stream of air will escape. It's like sticking a pin in a tire. You produce a slow leak. You then time how many seconds of release you can achieve. I have had students go over a minute with this exercise.

Obviously, this is a lot less air than we use at the time of singing, but it gives us a very good idea of how much air our lungs can hold.

Turning air into sound should be an instant simple event. Too many singers complicate it in various ways that make it difficult. Sing from the impulse of the deep breath hitting your pelvic bone and bouncing right back up into sound, like the tennis ball.

This friend also mentioned that ballet dancers and Pilates practitioners advocate high breathing. Frankly, I don't see the point of this. To my way of thinking, high breathing involves tension, holding, in the lower abdomen. Tension is the enemy of good singing. In Yoga the deep breath is paramount. In singing, it is as well.

This friend also pointed out that good posture is not a part of everyone's body. Stand against the wall so that your back and buttocks touch. The back of your head may or may not be touching, depending upon how you are built. This should give you an idea of good posture.

Lie on the floor. Place a small pillow under your head so your head is not pulling back to touch the floor. Again, you should get a good idea of a straight line for your body.

Good posture should be a comfortable sensation. A military stance is not required. Tension should play no part in the alignment of your body.

Look into a mirror a see what you look like when standing in comfortable posture. Have your teacher or coach help you to achieve this way of standing.

Our entire body is our instrument as singers. Getting it into a good posture is like putting your clarinet together. Unless you assemble it correctly, it won't play!

Once this is all in order, the act of singing is mostly a mental and emotional operation. Again, quoting Olga, 'If you think what it is you want to happen, it may just do that'.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Take a deep breath and call me in the morning.

This is apparently going to be chapter two of my sixth book. (NOT!)

My recent posting on the subject of the term and physical action of Appoggio and reaction to it has got me off on another tangent. I have heard, and been taught, so many different and disparate methods of singing breathing that I feel the need to put in print the method I use in my own teaching.

My first voice teacher, when I was in high school, was an aging tenor who emphasized the need to have very strong abdominal muscles. He would have me stand on his stomach in my stocking feet while he lifted me up and down. I was six feet, three inches, even in high school. It's a wonder I didn't kill him.

So the first point I will make in talking about breathing is: Don't do this! It won't help the singer and you may do damage to yourself.

When I went to college I studied with a soprano who never said a great deal about breathing, so I have no idea what her theory was on the subject. Apparently, many voice teachers have little or nothing to say about breathing.

Point two: Breathing is the absolute basis for singing. It is important that as a singer and/or a teacher you figure out how to incorporate a good breathing technique into your vocal equipment.

The first woman I studied with in New York City emphasized the use of the umbilicus muscle. That's the muscle right around your belly button. She wanted us to tug that muscle each time we began to make a singing sound. She had students who sang at the Met, so for them I guess it must have worked. Either that, or they simply ignored her suggestion. I know that I did.

Two of my students from years ago also did some work with Eleanor Steber. She was a very great singer. Apparently she taught this umbilicus thing, too. I still don't advise it.

Point three: Don't yank on your belly button, or anything else down there, when you are singing. Yanking creates tension; tension creates bad singing.

The next two teachers I studied with never had much to say about breathing at all. They both had students who starred at the Met so they must have been doing something right. Not that everyone who sings at the Met is a great singer! But I learned other important things about singing from each of them that I use in my own teaching to this day.

So here we are. One from Column A and one from Column B.

Or none of the above.

My theory, which I arrived at through about sixty years of teaching and coaching voice, is based on the fact that everyone breathes. That is an important part of living. The body seems to know how to keep us breathing all night long when we are asleep. We don't have to wake ourselves up and say, 'Breathe, dummy!' In fact, nearly everyone breathes deep, belly breaths all night long, however they may breath during the day or when they are singing.

Perhaps we have hit on something. Deep breathing is so easy to do you can do it in your sleep. Why not do it when you sing?

This is where my method of breathing begins. Singing breathing should be deep and relaxing, while still being energetic. Just as our abdominal muscles move in and out all day and night long when we are doing other things, they can probably do that when we sing without our getting in the way. Because that's exactly what we do when we push or pull abdominal muscles while singing. We get in the way of a natural physical activity and create tension. Tension is the killer of good singing.

Many people, for one reason or another, develop a habit of using a high breath all day long. This is not particularly healthy but if all you are doing is sitting, standing, chatting, who cares? Some people develop the habit of holding their abdominal muscles to look thin. Get a size larger shirt and stop holding. It is not sensible to breath one way all day long and then try to breath correctly when you start to sing. It probably won't happen.


Now, how do you find this free, low singing breath if that is not your habit? Here is how I work with a new student in solving this question.

First of all, check your posture. Your body should be in a tall, straight, easy line. No zigs and zags. Elaine Brown, my conducting teacher from years ago, suggested that we imagine a pendulum hanging down the center of our body. Centering. This is easy to do. This easily gets our body into a comfortable, straight line.

Your collar bone should be the highest part of your rib cage.Learn to maintain that position without tension or stress. This puts our rib cage in the optimum position for singing in a free, relaxed way. Or just for every day good breathing. Do not feel that you are holding your body in this way, just allow it to find this position as comfortably as possible.

I then suggest to my students that they mentally transplant their lungs from their actual locale in the rib cage to the space below the belly button. No real surgery required. Place your hands in this area and say to yourself, 'These are now my lungs'.

Now inhale and fill them.

ALWAYS INHALE THROUGH THE MOUTH FOR SINGING! A nose breath will cause you to hold your lips together, shut your teeth, and send your tongue to the roof of your mouth. This is not the optimum way to prepare to make a singing sound. You have just completely closed your instrument. Nose breathing is fine for 'keeping your motor running' during musical introductions and phrases where you are not actually singing. But to sing, breath through the mouth!

Through your easily opened mouth (no pushing down), inhale, listening for the sound of 'Ah or Aw' as the air goes down your windpipe. There is no way you can get a high breath using this inhalation. I've tried; I always get a deep, relaxing breath.

Allow the air to go down in a lively manner. A slow inhalation will mean an unenergetic response of sound. I sometimes have singers bounce a tennis ball to feel the rhythm of inhalation to sound. When the ball hits the floor, Inhale, when you catch it, Sing. This does not give you time to fiddle around with the air you just inhaled. Do not inhale and hold the air for a second. One of my teachers wanted us to do this. What this does is cause your vocal cords to close and your epiglottis to close. Your body assumes you are going to swallow and it doesn't want you to drown. This is a natural defense the body employs to keep you from choking. Vocally, when this happens, you will need to blow open the cords and epiglottis to make a singing sound. This is unattractive and not healthy for your larynx.

There are various breathing exercises you can do to practice this kind of 'Singing Breathing'. I mention several in my various books on singing.

You should create an imaginary curved line just behind your head around which the inhalation speeds and comes right back out as sound.

Singing should be a relatively easy occupation. I am amazed at how complicated many singers make it out to be.

Of course, we must go beyond this initial stage of developing a good breathing technique. As singers and teachers we must work on singing  a musical, emotional phrase, singing every language as if we were a native of that country, developing ourselves into a musical artist.

Nobody wants to listen to technique.

But without this underpinning, this method of breathing on which to send our song into the world, no one is going to want to hear a poorly performed song either.

To be a good singer, or a good oboeist, or whatever, we need to develop all of our musical skills.

Breathing is the basis of all the other musical qualities we possess. Learn to use it wisely.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Push-pull, click-click

A student recently asked me to define 'appoggio' and 'covering' for her. Neither of these is a term I use in my teaching. Covering I do know is a pulling back of sound rather than allowing it to surge forward from the instrument. In some people's heads, the sound they hear when doing this is rounder and darker. To my ear it is swallowed and out of focus. Don't do it.

Appoggio is a different problem. Appoggiare in Italian means 'to lean', as in an appoggiatura where one pitch 'leans' into a second pitch. It is also defined as meaning 'to press' or 'to hold'. These are not singing principles I agree with.

In singing, appoggio does not seem to have the definition of 'leaning'. In reading Shirlee Emmons's article on 'Breath Management', she quotes Richard Miller from his book Training Soprano Voices to support (pardon the pun) her theory of appoggio. To begin with, I do not train soprano voices much differently than alto voices or bass voices, bar the obvious range and passaggio differences. A good singing technique should apply to any voice part. Miller, in his definition of  appoggio also suggests tucking in the lower abdomen. In my opinion, this merely causes tension.

The abdominal muscles should move freely in and out without pushing, pulling or tucking. I use a breathing exercise wherein the singer takes a deep breath and then allows the air to escape. The singer doesn't push the air out. It's as if you stick a pin in a tire and develop a slow leak. You then time the release. I have had students exhale over a minute with this release. Toward the end of the breath, the abdominal muscles certainly do come in and up. But THEY do it, you are not pulling them in!

This is a perfectly natural way that these muscles operate. When you cough or sneeze, when you cry 'Watch out!!!' to someone about to be hit by a bus, they perform a more violent version of this movement. You are not pulling on them. This is an involuntary reaction to an event. 

Miller also speaks of the expansion of the chest upon inhalation. This is perfectly true, but it should, again, happen naturally, not  through purposeful pressures to expand and contract the rib cage. This only produces more tension. Tension is the enemy of good singing.

William Vennard, the noted writer and teacher, has said that vocal teachers should spend more time on phonation than on breathing techniques. I disagree whole-heartedly with this concept. The breath is the basis of singing. We are wind instruments. Everything else will follow when one develops a free breathing system. Without a good breathing system, you can phonate your head off and never learn how to sing.

With almost very new student who comes into my studio I find I must begin to insure that they can use a deep, energetic breath before we do anything else. I do not ever use the term SUPPORT in regards to the breath. I find that with most people, this word means to them: 'holding or pushing the abdominal muscles', which makes the whole body rigid. This is no way to begin to sing.

Then I work on 'focus'- phonation- whatever you want to call it. But trying to get good focus on a tense breathing system is a waste of time.

Another source speaks of 'taking a breath and then pushing in your belly muscles to move the diaphragm. Push-pull, click-click! More tension!

Emmons's main point seems to be that the chest cavity should be in a high position. This is fine with me. I simply tell singers 'Your collar bone should be the highest point of your body without tension'. Basically I am talking about good posture.

She also says that 'the descent and ascent of the diaphragm are not directly controllable.' Right on. But she then says that 'Appoggio singing retains the inspiratory posture of the sternum and ribcage, retarding the ascent of the diaphragm.'

Hmm. I thought that the speed of the diaphragm's movement was not 'directly controllable'.

Miller apparently dislikes the term 'belly breathing'. 'Your lungs are up here!' That's how a student of mine almost stopped singing when a new teacher at her University tried to change her low breathing habit which was working just fine. She left the teacher, came back to work with me outside the University,  and went right on singing beautifully.

I know where my lungs are. Everyone does. But I ask students to mentally transplant their lungs below the belly button and inhale, listening to the sound of 'ah or aw' as the air goes down the wind pipe. You instantly get a deep, relaxed breath which is ready to go to work at once to produce a free, beautiful sound. Breath should go into the lungs and be returned immediately as sound without a second of holding. When one takes this kind of breath, not only does the singer get a deep, relaxing inhalation, he relaxes the larynx simultaneously.

Emmons goes on to suggest that the singer not allow the chest to go up and down with inhalation and exhalation. Great! Me, too! But then she speaks of 'sideways' inhalation. This term puzzles me. Popeye may inhale sideways, (look at his mouth), but for singers this is a strange suggestion to my way of thinking. 'Inhale sideways, not frontways', she says. I have no idea how to do that.

She speaks of how the ribs will expand- which is great. But unless the abdominal muscles are allowed, not made, to expand as well, you are going to get a high breath.

So beyond the point of keeping the collarbone high and allowing the chest to expand with the inhalation, I still don't know what this definition of appoggio has to do with free singing. It is just too busy to allow instant access to your sound.

Like a well-known politician, I guess I am a maverick; but a number of my students have had wonderful careers without covering or appoggio.

Another source speaks of using appoggio to 'retain' air in the lungs. As Olga Averino said, 'Lose your air'. To my way of thinking, appoggio is apt to create tension in the breathing process. Here is the 'holding' part of the definition of the word.

Too many rules spoil the singer. It leaves no time for singing.

The singing process should be a simple one. Learn to take a deep breath and use it at once to produce a sound. In a lively, relaxed body, everything else that has to do with singing should flow effortlessly into infinity.

I hadn't planned to write my sixth book today, but my student's question got me up on my soapbox about this subject. It also made me really think about this term, appoggio, which I have never used in my own teaching. So thank you, Anita, for getting me interested in talking about this questionable technique.

Why make something simple complicated?


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dear Olga

First we had Irene, then we have had several days of torrential rain. As a result my picturesque dirt road is in ruins. So this was a good afternoon to watch Turner Classic movies.

As fate would have it, they were showing Doctor Zhivago. I know that I read the book years ago, struggling with all the Russian names, but, for some reason, I never saw the film.

Well, today I did. And it brought memories of my dear friend and beloved mentor, Olga Averino.

I first heard Olga sing when she was in her late sixties and was stupefied by the ease and beauty with which she sang. She was already a good friend of my life partner, John Ferris, so it was natural that I got to know her and to study voice with her. I quote her obsessively in my teaching and in my writing. She was an incredible musician and a wonderful human being.

Today's film reminded me of the many times  Olga and I sat on the sofa in her apartment in Cambridge after one of her dinner parties and talked.... and talked...
Often about singing, but also often about her amazing life.
As Zhivago in the film, she, with her husband, her baby daughter, and a nanny, fled across Russia to escape the Revolution following WWI.

She had many tales of these harrowing adventures. In one, she tells of a friend who was also trying to escape and had hidden her jewels to avoid having them stolen by the Bolsheviks. Olga asked her where she had hidden them. She said, 'There is a place in my piano where I concealed them'. Olga said, 'O my dear, that's the first place they look!.'

She, herself, was trying to keep some jewels to use for cash for the long trip across Siberia. She had a large cabochon emerald ring, which had a very great value. When the soldiers found this she told them, 'Oh, that's just a piece of stage jewelery; it's worth nothing.' The soldiers, looking for sparkling diamonds and such, believed her, and the money from the ring got her family across Russia to Vladivostok. She tells how the train was stopped from time to time; everyone was forced to get off and find somewhere to stay, sometimes for days, until the train went on its way. They slept in whatever humble dwelling they could find. From Vladivostok they finally went into China.

Olga said that she sang in Western Opera in China until they were able to get passage to the United States. When she finally got to New York City, where she sang in the Greek Opera (her grandmother was Greek), walking down the street one day she saw her father, who had escaped by a different route from Russia.

Her husband was a fine violinist who became a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Olga became Koussevitsky's favorite soprano. She was the first to sing the 'Lied der Lulu' of Schönberg in this country. This was before any recording of the work had been made. Koussevitzky was amazed at the first rehearsal when Olga sang it perfectly. He said, 'Olga, how do you do that?'  She answered. 'It's like teaching the rabbit to ride the bicycle; do it over and over until he doesn't fall off.'

I have used this illustration of preparation in my teaching for years. I quote Olga in practically every lesson. Just yesterday in a lesson with a new student, a fine young soprano, Olga was right there with me. This is the wonderful thing about teaching: we pass down to following generations information that we have received from our mentors. I owe more that I can say to this wonderful woman. A good teacher is not just out there on his own. He has a wealth of wonderful teachers behind him who inspire him to pass it on to the next generation.

Everyone who reads this post should go to and type in 'Olga Averino'. There are two wonderful posts by Olga's grandson, Michael, which have her speaking, and, above all, singing, in that free, beautiful, intense voice.

She is one of the reasons I am still teaching voice at 81 and a half.