Sunday, March 28, 2010

Oz, revisited!

This afternoon I attended an excellent production of The Wizard of Oz presented at Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A neighbor kindly invited me to go with her. Her son was a member of the production team who not only constructed the scenery but moved it all about the stage for the many scene changes. He is also the technical advisor for my computer!

Not having seen a high school production of a musical for a number of years, I wasn't sure what to expect. To my great joy, these young people put on a very professional performance of what is, without doubt, a very complicated piece of musical theatre. The number of scene changes and costume changes alone boggles the mind. And both of these areas had been handled expertly by students and adult volunteers. My hat is off to the costume designer who came up with the many creative outfits that graced the stage. To say nothing of the dedicated people who sewed most of them.

The singing was of a uniformly high order. The Dorothy sang with a very sweet, unaffected voice, clear diction and great stage presence. She made you forget Judy Garland for a couple of hours. The Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, the Good Witch, were equally good. The young men as The Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow, and The Tin Man, as well as The Wizard himself, sang very well. Young men's voices at this age have not had time to mature in the same way a similarly aged young woman's voice has, but these guys sang well, with energy and good sound. Puberty has a much different effect on the male voice from the female voice.

An enormous ensemble of Munchkins, Crows, Poppies, Guards, and Monkeys also sang very well. A well-rehearsed and trained group.

The scrim at the back of the stage showed various scenes of the tornado, Munchkinland, the woods, the field of poppies, the snow, which also fell from above, and the Emerald City.

In this day and age when music is not the most funded part of the public school system, it is good to see that this branch of the arts, at least, is being encouraged to produce productions like this one today.

More power to you!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ici on parle Deutsch!

In the fall term at Smith I conducted a class in French pronunciation for my students and just this week I did a class in German pronunciation. My friend Heinke Brendler came up from Longmeadow, MA to help with the German class. Heinke wrote the German exercises in Vocalizing from the Ground Up! and did the recording of the phrases for the CD that accompanies that book.

I feel that it is essential that singers be as fluent as possible in the languages they sing, or at least be able to pronounce them absolutely correctly so that a native speaker listening to them can understand every word. The best thing is to be able to speak the languages in which one sings, but this is not always possible.

In speaking English, we all know various shades of meaning for every word we use, whether in singing or in everyday speech. It takes a great deal of time to develop this ability in other languages.

Certain sounds in both French and German are often difficult for English speakers to master. In both languages the vowel found in the French word tu and in the German word früh can cause an English speaker a problem. I suggest that the singer begin by singing the vowel [i] as in 'see'. and then bringing the lips to a gentle pout without changing the position of the tongue. This should produce the correct vowel sound.

In the German word Glück the singer should sing the vowel [I] as in 'it', and come to the gentle pout. It is not necessary to pressure the lips into a tight pout to achieve these sounds.

In dealing with the vowel in words like jeune and löst the singer should begin with the vowel [e] as in the word 'eight' or more correctly été and then bring the lips to an easy pout. In words like heure and Hölle the singer should begin with the vowel [E] as in 'bed' and pout the lips. Again, I find that this is the easiet way to find the correct sound for these vowels.

These sounds must be practiced out of context until the singer can pronounce them without having to think about it every time.

Another problem I find in German is in words like der,den, dem, and des. The first three must be pronounced with the brighter [e] vowel as in été or 'chaos' and des must use the [E] vowel as in 'fed'.

This may seem fussy, but unless we sing every language correctly, we are not doing our homework and will not be understood by the listener. And this, of course, includes our own language! I am often puzzled listing to someone sing and wondering what language they are singing only to find it is English. Madeleine Marshall, you should be living at this hour!

All singers need clarity in sound and in pronunciation. Add emotion and musicianship to this mix and you have an artist!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Denim don'ts

While visiting in Florida recently I learned that a number of Country Clubs have a ban on wearing denim in the clubhouse and on the greens. What a strange idea. Perhaps denim is toxic to the fairways?

In the old days, it was Jews and Blacks who were banned from these places.

Fortunately, I don't wear denim or play golf, so I guess I'm safe. But I am Italian! So beware.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Practice makes perfect!

Each term during my teaching at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, I have my voice students prepare and present several recitals. Performing in public needs to be a part of the education of any young musician, whether or not they plan on a professional career as a concert artist. If you are learning how to sing, or to play an instrument, at some point in your life you will want somebody to listen you, either in a formal or an informal circumstance. It's best to know what it feels like to be 'on the spot' in moments like this.

At the mid-point of each term I have my singers prepare at least one song or aria by memory to sing for their fellow voice students who study with me. They may invite one or two friends if they wish, but this is basically what I call 'A Working Recital'. They sing whatever they have prepared for the rest of the students and then we work on it.

At the end of each term we present our public recital to which they may invite anyone they like. Many friends and family members often attend these programs and we may have forty-five people in the audience. At this point the singer is feeling what it's like to stand up on a stage in the real world and produce.

In the class we just held we started by talking about stage etiquette. How one walks on stage. That she should be looking at the audience with a pleasant smile on her face. That she should then settle at the piano, taking some deep nose breaths to relax, and finally begin to sing. Each student practiced doing this. Then, after singing. how the artist should gracefully acknowledge the pianist.

The first student to sing (they drew numbers) sang the Aires Chantés of Poulenc. These are difficult pieces, even for a professional, but my student had prepared them well with the help of our staff accompanist, and sang them very well. After having attended the Marilyn Horne Master Class a few days earlier, and seeing four of the six singers singing poorly because of a high breath, I spent a lot of time with each student harping on 'LOW BREATH, LOW BREATH, LOW BREATH'. I told my students to get used to hearing these words. The inhalation is the most important thing you will ever do when singing! (No pot, please!) Anyway, the places where the student was not getting a good breath is where we concentrated our work and she improved immediately. This is so important in fast songs, where you may feel that you don't really have time to breath. Figure exactly where your breaths will come and then stick to it!

The next student. a coloratura, sang 'O luce di quest' anima' from Linda di Chamounix. This aria starts with a long recitative-arioso section and then becomes a coloratura's dream. The student had prepared it well and sang it well. She has a tendency to hold back her sound in the mid-range. This often happens with sopranos, but beautiful high notes are not enough. One has to balance the entire range of the voice. Sing out in the middle. The middle of many voices can sound weak. As Anna Russell said, 'Singers arrive at the point where they have one or two very loud notes at either end of the voice and nothing much in between!' She was absolutely correct; as she was in so many of her comic statements, which were more accurate than a lot of other things people have said about singing. This was what we worked on with this singer. Sing out throughout your range. Don't mumble in the middle.

The next singer chose Vissi d'arte from Tosca to perform. With her, we had already worked on developing a seamless line throughout the aria. She has a tendency to chew her words, which just doesn't work. When the jaw is pushing up and down, each push interferes with the action of the larynx. The jaw is also apt to wobble while you are singing in this manner. The jaw should 'hang', like the wired-on jaw of a lab skeleton. It should feel very free and loose. When singing in the mid-range, if you were to look into a mirror, your face should look about the same as when you merely say the words. Once she was able to allow this to happen, the aria was just fine.

The next singer has had a problem with a persistent wobble. She sang a Fauré song. With her, the wobble happens especially on long last notes. I have tried to have her envision the sound as it leaves the body and continues on out the window, down the road, where ever; but OUT! An old habit like this is very apt to reappear when one is a little nervous. We have worked on this for a while and I thought we had it conquered. Muscle Memory is hard to change, especially when it's bad memory and has been in your body for a while. But you must change it! For more information on this subject, read the Chapter entitled 'I Wonder as I Wobble' in Sing On! Sing On!

The last singer sang 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen' of Schubert. This student has had a very busy term doing other things and this was the first time I have heard her 'perform'. She sang the song very well, but what struck me, was that I now think that the voice may be a lyric Mezzo instead of a Soprano. Young voices tend to all be fairly light and soprano-ish. As one learns the technique of singing and the voice begins to find its proper tessitura, it begins to tell us what it wants to be when it grows up.

The voice of the young woman who sang 'Vissi d'arte' already has indicated that hers will be a large, dramatic sound. That of a Spinto or Dramatic Soprano. That won't happen for a while, but that is undoubtedly the direction she is headed. Similarly, the Coloratura will probably continue in this fach for a good while. Some Coloratura's voices darken and deepen as the singer matures. They then may take roles that are suited for a lyric soprano. But this is a very individual event. Many continue to sing coloratura roles throughout their career.

I felt the class was a success, since everyone sang well and , I hope, everyone learned something that had not been brought up in a lesson. They certainly heard a lot about taking only deep 'aw' singing breaths!

At the end of the term, we will present our public recital, where each singer will present several songs. Two of my students, a Senior and a Sophomore, will present solo recitals in April. I am also having them perform at my home on May 2nd. The Senior will also sing four German songs in a recital that is a recreation of Judith Raskin's senior recital at Smith in 1948. I am pleased that one of my students is involved in this program because Judy and I worked together in the fifties. She died much too young.

I can not over estimate the importance of this kind of performance. A practice for the real thing. That's what we should aim for: the real thing!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Mastering the Master Class

Recently two friends of mine invited me to accompany them to a Master Class that Marilyn Horne was giving at St. Joseph's College in West Hartford, CT. I remember attending a Master Class she gave at Julliard some years ago. She and Christa Ludwig shared the program. Christa worked on songs by Brahms and Mahler in the morning and Marilyn worked on American songs that afternoon. I felt that Christa's half of the program was far superior, both in musical content and technical support.

Marilyn's 'American Song Book Class' didn't match up to the morning session. She mostly heard a number of the Copeland 'Appalachian Songs'. Coaching one or two of these songs covers that idiom, it seems to me. Not going through the entire series. There are a number of more important songs that Copeland wrote: The Emily Dickinson Songs, for instance. And there are plenty of other American composers who write very well for the voice. One young man, an Asian Baritone, sang 'Ching-a-ring-a-ching-ching'. Not quite having mastered the American 'R', it came out Ching-a-ling-a-ching-ching, losing something in the translation. Marilyn's only suggestion to him was that he stand with his hand in his pocket while singing the song. How's that again?

She then listened to a rendition of Malotte's 'Lord's Prayer', which she had asked one of the singers to sing. This chestnut really does not belong in a Master Class at Julliard or anywhere else.

Christa, working with Brahms and Mahler was magnificent in her depth of knowledge about the idiom, but was dismayed by some of the female voices she was hearing and said several times, 'Where are the head voices??'. Beefy female sound was not what she was looking for in a German Lied but it was what she got. Most of the singers were from the Julliard School. One very good soprano, who was already singing with the New York City Opera Company, was the best of the bunch. The rest were only fair to middling, unfortunately.

In the class I just attended it seemed to be an older and wiser Marilyn Horne teaching from the Marilyn Horne of ten years ago. For one thing, much of the repertoire she heard was based on roles that she had sung, rather than the folkish Copeland songs of the previous class. Three Mezzos, two Sopranos, and a Tenor sang for her. The first to sing was a 27 year old Mezzo from Egypt. She has an excellent voice with very few problems and looks good on stage. My only quibble would be that the voice is often overly bright, becoming shrill in the top register. At first she seemed to be pushing the voice; what a friend of mine calls 'Can Belto' as opposed to 'Bel Canto'. She sang 'Il segreto per esser felici' from Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. This was a role Horne had sung and she was very helpful suggesting ornamentation on the repeat, which is typical for this period. Marilyn asked her to articulate fast turns with 'he-he-he-he-he', which I feel is unnecessary. One should be able to sing this kind of fioratura clearly without this 'H'. The only place I suggest this is when the singer has to sing staccato. Then I ask the singer to giggle. The voice will naturally produce a staccato effortlessly but not glottaly. Basically this woman needs to create more space with her inhalation. She spent a lot of time with this singer, which was too bad in a way, in that the singers who came at the end were rushed through a bit. Basically this young woman has the possibility of a career.

Next came another Mezzo who sang 'Sgombra è la sacra selva' from Bellini's Norma. This was an odd choice to sing for a Master Class. It is mostly recitativo and does nothing to show what the voice is capable of. This singer was sharp almost continuously with a real flutter in the sound. There was no connection to the breath. Marilyn finally said something about the pitch, but overall, it was not a pleasant voice to listen to.

Third was yet another Mezzo who sang 'Que fait tu, blanche tourterelle' from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. She sang a bit better than the previous singer. The first thing I wrote in my notes was 'Soprano??'. Marilyn eventually said, 'Have you ever thought that you might be a soprano?' (Great minds-same conclusion). I have a feeling that this tessitura is where this young woman would sing with more success. One reason I felt this way was that the bottom of this woman's range was very weak. The voice just didn't want to resonate below the passaggio very well. Marilyn said a couple of things that I really disagree with whole-heartedly. When the singer was singing 'doo' instead the the French du, Marilyn said 'Tighten your lips for the vowel'. Naughty! I ask my students to make a small hole for the sound to come through but never to tighten. This results in a very squeezed tone.

Fourth was a Soprano who sang 'Steal Me' from Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief. The tremolo in her voice was so out of control to be almost ludicrous. Here again what could one day be an attractive voice, was unconnected to the breath. She sang the final high 'Steal me' with a very raspy sound in several repetitions. I did not observe that she took a deep breath before those entrances. When one takes a shallow breath anywhere, but especially before a high note, the note is going to be pushed from the throat. This one was and was raspy each time she sang it.

The biggest problem with all three of these singers was that the all were operating on a high breath. Their pitch was unreliable, and they all had vicious tremolos. This kind of singing drives me crazy! It's like hearing a constant trill on every pitch and, of course, this is one reason their pitch is so unreliable. All three voices have potential. I'm not sure any of them could have a career, but with better training, especially in how to take a singing breath, they could sing much better, I'm sure.

This kind of trilly voice is difficult to sing a duet with because one never is sure where the center of the pitch lies. When Lorraine was singing the role of Didon in the Berlioz Les Troyens at the Met, she had to sing an extended duet with a Russian Mezzo who had a real 'flap' on her voice. Lorraine said she practically had to block off the ear nearest the other singer to maintain her own pitch. And Lorraine always sang right in the center of the pitch!

Then a 25 year old Tenor from Angola came on stage and blew us all away with his rendition of Tosti's 'Mattinata'. A little trite for a Master Class but who cared? This young man has a wonderful voice, musicianship, and I'm sure could have a career if he chooses. Marilyn was delighted, I'm sure, finally to have a real voice to work with! She spent a lot of time with him and he had an ovation at the end. He first sang the song down a half step from the original and took a high A for the top notes. His sound at the bottom was weak. Marilyn wisely suggested that he sing it in the original key of B Flat. This of course lifted the Tessitura exactly where it should be for the song. He was a little afraid of the high B Flat at first, but I could hear that that can be worked out with practice. It's called 'Fear of Flying'. It was a magnificent performance. Worth the whole afternoon. A well deserved ovation from the large audience! He was accepted at Curtis but is now studying at the Hartt School in Hartford. I'm sure his natural talent is enormous and I assume he has a very good teacher. I certainly hope so. This young man is a winner! His name is Nelson Ebo. Write that down!

The final singer was a Soprano who sang 'Ach, ich fühls' from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. This singer just had no line to the singing. Her high G's seldom found a place to sing, were off pitch and pinched and the little run in the middle of the piece was badly handled. Very lumpy. Energy was what was missing in this rendition. The performance was really unmusical.

One of my sophomore Soprano students at Smith sings an 'Ach ich fühls' that would break your heart it is so beautiful. So this is not an impossibility for a young singer. But you must have connection to the air and a very legato line in your phrasing.

The problem with the four women who did not sing very well was their method of breathing. Period! They all took high breaths throughout their arias. Two of them, having to enter on high notes, seemed to begin to sing with no breath taken at all. As a result, a pinched sound emerged. Marilyn did her best to get them emotionally and physically involved, but it will take more than one Master Class to make singers out of them. Until they learn how to 'breathe to sing' rather than to 'breathe to breathe', they will not sing well.

The first woman to sing and the fabulous Tenor are the ones to keep our eyes on. There is very good vocal material there. With hard work with the right teacher they could both have careers. One more thing that Marilyn said to the Tenor bothered me. When singing above the male passaggio she said several times 'You must keep the passaggio closed' when singing above it, and made a fist to demonstrate. I can't imagine telling a man to do something like this at the top of his range. I'm not even sure what Marilyn meant by this statement, but she was adamant. This can make the person sound as if he is about to blow up! Tension is never good in the voice!

I was much more impressed with Marilyn's teaching than I was ten years ago. I'm sure that she has done a million Master Classes by now and has figured out how to do it. She comes packaged by her agent. This class began with a short film of Marilyn singing a drop-dead aria from L'Italiana in Algeri from many years ago. I'm glad I wasn't one of the Mezzos standing in the wings off stage waiting to sing while Marilyn took no prisoners on film. I probably would have slit my throat! Marilyn, in those days, was something else. She easily had a three octave range, all of which worked. She always sounded to me as if she were singing through a megaphone in certain areas of her voice. Her voice today still has that almost nasal sound; today she is more of a Tenor than a Mezzo. Her teacher was the great William Vennard in California, whose book on the voice is an encyclopedia for singers. He espoused this very front sound. She also worked with the great Lotte Lehmann in her native California.

It was interesting what happened with the woman who sang sharp most of the time. When Marilyn would demonstrate for her in her Tenor voice, she (Marilyn) went flat consistently. Compensating? At times the sound issuing forth was very loud and quite bizarre.

I like a well focused voice, but when it is pushed into the nose, even though it does not sound nasal, it gets on my nerves. In the old days, singers used to talk about covering the voice. As someone once said, if you have a nice voice, why cover it? I think this used to be a way to round out the sound of a very well-focused voice that the singer thought was too bright. My theory is that if one takes the correct inhalation, listening for the sound of 'aw' in the throat as the air goes down, the larynx relaxes naturally, the soft palette lifts naturally, and you have created the space for a focused warm round sound without sounding as if you were John the Baptist singing from Salome's well!

There was a packed house at St. Joseph College who were enthusiastic in their applause for all of these young singers. Marilyn did a good job at the helm. She sometimes talked too much about how she had sang various roles but, because she had done this, she was able to give a special insight to these young singers. I think one reason I liked her work so much better this time around was that she was working with greater music that she knew very well and had performed.

Personally, I have found it problematic to give what I call a 'Hit and Run' Master Class in which I hear six singers in two hours for twenty minutes each. I have usually never seen or heard the singers before and may never see or hear them again. I feel as if I'm giving each singer a glancing blow to the larynx, hoping it will produce something wonderful. I try to make comments to them that will be helpful, without confusing them. Since I will probably never have another chance to see or hear them again, I will never know if they understood what I was talking about or not. It is too easy to confuse a young singer in this type of class. One needs to be very careful that one doesn't make matters worse! I hate to send them off on a fool's errand.

My ideal way of giving a Master Class is to present a series of classes over a period of days in which I will hear the same students a number of times. This way, at least, you have more than one opportunity to get ideas across to them. And you can monitor any progress they are making. Unfortunately, this is not often possible for financial reasons alone.

I was one of fifty voice teachers from across the USA invited to attend a two-week series of Master Classes that Christa Ludwig gave at Carnegie Hall about ten years ago. It was a magical week, even though, as at Julliard, the singers were not all top quality. Christa was once more working on Brahms and Mahler. I remember one poor Soprano whose German she continually had to correct until she finally said, 'Well, you just don't speak German, do you?' That was the last we saw of that young lady. Christa's depth of knowledge of the music, of vocal technique, and of presentation was breath taking.

One of the best 'Hit and Run' Master Classes I ever attended was given by Gabriella Tucci, the famed operatic soprano of an earlier generation, at the Yale School of Music. One of my vocal students, a young Baritone, was getting his degree at Yale at that time. He came up to my home in Sandisfield from New Haven for his lessons. He invited me to come down to the Yale campus to attend the class with him. I have often taken a dim view of retired operatic Divas suddenly turning into voice teachers. But Gabriella was certainly the exception to the rule. She gave a fantastic class with clear illustrations and very practical ideas about technique and interpretation. I was impressed! And she could still sing!

Finally, what to my way of thinking is the ideal type of Master Class, is the sort of thing that the legendary Phyllis Curtin has taught at Tanglewood for many years. In this setting, Phyllis works with the same group of singers several times a week for the entire summer. She shares her experience as an opera singer, a song recitalist, and her many years of teaching, with young singers who come from all over the world to work with her. I have attended a number of her classes over the years. Last summer I went to one of the sessions with a friend who was visiting from Boston. It is obvious that Phyllis still has the same enthusiasm and incredible energy that has powered these classes for so many years. There are other vocal coaches at Tanglewood, but Phyllis is the sine qua non! Many of my students have participated in her classes over the years.

Phyllis and I see each other once in a great while, and exchange emails from time to time. We often do the same sort of thing I used to do with our mutual teacher, Olga Averino; we talk singing. What else is there to talk about?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

When is a voice teacher not a voice teacher?

After what seems like about one hundred years of teaching voice, piano, organ, harpsichord, I have come to the conclusion that all teachers of music, but especially voice teachers, must wear more than one hat. You must be a well-grounded musician, you must be an expert in the fields in which you teach, you must have a vast knowledge of music in general and of your specialties in particular. Ça va sans dire, as we say.

However, teaching an external instrument, like a violin or piano, is one thing. No matter what the condition of the performer, the instrument stays pretty much the same. Just tune it once in a while.

This is not true with the voice: our internal instrument. When the singer is tired, the instrument is tired, when sick, it is sick, when unhappy, unhappy, and so on. I never met an unhappy oboe.

So in addition to the above-mentioned hats, the teacher of voice needs a degree in psychiatry. While a student of any instrument may need mental encouragement from the teacher from time to time, because of the unique position of the vocal instrument, this is much more important with the singer. And sometimes, impossible!

Some years ago a very fine Mezzo-soprano was studying with me who had a great fear of performing. In the lesson she would sing brilliantly, but put her on stage and she often fell apart. We worked together on this problem for a long time and she made some improvement, but was really never happy performing. I don't know of any course of study that can really fix this problem. A psychologist would probably be a help. I told her that I was the only person who had ever heard what she really sounded like when singing. We are still great friends and everything else she does is very well done. There was just that one quirk.

Another student who came to me some time ago spoke in an incredibly soft voice. I practically had to cup my ears to hear what she was saying when she was four feet away. And my ears are pretty good. Not a good omen for a career in voice, to say the least. Of course, she sang in the same, nearly inaudible manner. She wanted to be able to sing solos in church, so I tried to help her find more energy and more sound in a healthy way. It turned out that she was extremely depressed, which I discovered after a couple of lessons. Our sessions together often began with 45 minutes of her telling me her troubles while I, in vain, would play a chord and say 'Let's begin singing'. She was very unhappy in her marriage and didn't mind sharing with me all the reasons that this was so. She would often begin to weep, while I was still playing a chord every once in a while to try to break the spell. To get her to use more energy, I decided to start with her speaking voice. My studio in those days was a very large hall in a church. I would ask her to go to the far end of the hall and we would chat. I would ask her a question, and when she answered, if it was inaudible, I would ask, 'What was that you said?'. She finally got the idea that she had to use more energy or I would never hear her.

I tried in her singing voice to get her to use the same energy as when she spoke from a distance. Eventually she improved and sang some solos in Church that I was told went very well. However, the weeping and moaning continued in our sessions together. Her lesson was at 1:00 p.m. and I had to teach until 5:00 p.m. after she left. I was worn out by the time she left the studio. I decided that this was unfair to my students who followed her in the afternoon to let her sap my energy. I told her several times that she should see someone trained to help her with her problems. That while I was sympathetic to her woes, I was really not equipped to help her in that way. I finally, for self-preservation, had to tell her that I could no longer teach her. I'm sure she never forgave me. I try to invest myself in the lives of all of my students to the extent that seems possible and correct, but this was a case for a shrink!

More recently, a woman called to study with me. When she arrived and I asked for the music to whatever she wanted to sing, she asked if I had a computer. She wanted to do a sort of Karaoke audition. Well, of course, I have a computer, but it's in my bedroom, and I don't usually give lessons there! So she sang a Capella 'Climb Every Mountain' for me. She began in an incredibly high key. Sort of the Meliza Korjus version of the song. She also had an incredibly fast vibrato; a tremolo, actually. My handyman was working in the sun room which adjoins my studio and poked his head in the door during the lesson with a puzzled look on his face. Fortunately, she was facing the other way and didn't see our exchange of appalled glances!

I said to her, after this performance, 'You have a very fast unnatural tremolo in your voice.' She answered, 'I love to do that!'. I tried some exercises to find the natural vibrato of her voice, which I think we did, but she insisted that that was the only way she wanted to sing. This was her only lesson with me! She's probably still tremoloing somewhere! But not in my studio!

I shouldn't complain about a few singers whose emotional needs I was unable to meet and, therefore, was not able to help them very much. So many qualities go into the making of a singer. You must start with a good set of pipes! The way you use them can be improved, but no teacher can give you a sound that those pipes are not willing to sing. You must be a musical person. And you must really want to sing. It takes work to become a fine artist. Pipes alone won't do it.

I still have all my hats on and I have to use various ones from time to time to deal with my students. I love my work, which makes it all worthwhile!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Curing vocal ills

Recently I was asked to evaluate the voice of a woman who was complaining of serious vocal problems in her singing. Somehow or other, I have earned a reputation as a 'Vocal Doctor Fixit'. Admittedly, I have had some success in helping singers with vocal problems find a more comfortable, freer way to sing. But I can't pass my hand over someone's throat and turn then into Montserrat Caballe, as much as I might like to. Anyone coming to me for a 'fix' needs to realise this: rebuilding a technique that has developed unfortunate ways of working, is a long-time commitment.

This singer brought a song to sing for me that she was familiar with, as I had asked her to do. After we spoke for a few minutes I asked her to sing it. This is the way I always begin a lesson with a new student. I want them to tell me, by singing, what is wrong with the voice. There is no point in beginning by vocalizing with them until you know what needs fixing and which vocalise would be the most helpful to start.

She was completely correct. Her voice was indeed in a lot of trouble. She sang a fairly simple song for me that stayed pretty much in the middle octave. I could hear that at one time, there had probably been a very nice voice there, but the overlay of years of rash singing, developing bad habits, without getting help had taken its toll. She told me that she had been a high soprano years ago, singing roles like Monica in The Medium and Lucy in The Telephone. These are lyric-coloratura roles and require a wide vocal range. Well, that was then and this is now. Her low register was fairly free and sounded good. But once the voice rose above middle C, it ran into problems. Not only was the passaggio closed off, but everything above it was cloudy and labored. This is not the range of a lyric coloratura, needless to say!

At first I thought that she was taking a fairly low breath, but when we did our first breathing exercise, it was obvious that she hadn't been doing that since she hyperventilated. This often happens when one has not been used to taking deep, singing breaths, but breathes in a shallow manner. Once one takes a few really deep breaths that go down to the bottom of the belly, after having used shallow breathing heretofore, when that new quantity of oxygen hits the bloodstream and the brain, it's like a free high!

With the 'fainting spell' out of the way, we proceeded to the first breathing exercise. To begin with, I always ask the singer to listen to the sound the air makes on its way down the throat. It should sound like 'ah' or 'aw', never [I] as in 'it'. That open sound on inhalation means that you are allowing the larynx to drop naturally to its relaxed position. If you place your hand lightly on either side of the larynx and take this kind of breath, you will feel the larynx drop slightly. If you do the same thing with the [I] breath, you will feel the larynx rise and tense. This seems to be such a simple way to begin to sing that I often wonder why more people don't do it! I have also found that it is impossible to take a high breath when you hear the 'aw' sound upon inhalation. You just can't avoid taking a deep, singing breath. This is the only breath I allow for singing. A deep, through the mouth breath. Nose breaths are handy for relaxation-keep-the-air-moving-moments when you are between singing phrases. I always encourage a singer to keep a steady movement of air in and out of the body throughout any piece of music. This way you will never allow yourself to become vocally tense.

The first exercise we did can be found in Sing On! Sing On! (Sorry to keep plugging my book, but what's a Blog for?? And it's only $15.00 or so and it has a lot of information a singer could use. End of commercial!). The singer takes the 'aw' breath we just discussed and immediately blows out all the air that went in. There is to be no hesitation between the inhalation and the exhalation. I had a teacher years ago who had us take the breath, hold it for a second, and then sing. What happens when we do this is that the vocal cords will close and the epiglottis will close. You will need to produce a 'glottal attack', as it is called. (I hate that word 'attack' when applied to singing!) This is the body's way of protecting us from drowning or choking.

Baby's are born with a high position of the larynx, which permits them to nurse and breathe simultaneously without choking. As the child matures, the larynx gradually drops and that is when speech usually begins at around eighteen months. Our cousins, the apes, start with a high larynx and it just stays high. No talking from them (so far!).

Here is the exercise: 1) Inhale on 'aw' and immediately blow out all your air in a whoosh on one beat. 2) Inhale on 'aw' and blow out all your air over two beats. 3) Then do the same on three, four, five, six beats. If you are blowing enough air out, that's about as far as you will get in the count.

The next exercise we did, which is also in my book, is one I learned has been used by Montserrat Caballé. Talk about someone who knows how to use her singing breath! In this exercise, the singer takes the same deep breath, and closing the lips lightly, allows a tiny crack to appear somewhere along the lip line. You then allow the air to ESCAPE. Do not push the air out. It will take a second for your lips to open a tiny crack and let the air begin to escape. I liken this release of air to sticking a pin in a tire and producing a very slow leak. At first it will feel as though you are doing nothing whatsoever. Then, watching the second hand of your watch, count the seconds until you are out of air. You will feel the abdominal muscles gradually begin to come in. Do not pull on them. This singer went to 45 seconds on the first try, so there is hope that she can convert to this kind of breathing pattern without too much trouble.

We then worked on focus exercises, keep-the-tip-of-the -tongue-on-the-back-of-the-lower-teeth exercises, and general relaxation exercises.

By the end of the hour the singer was feeling more comfortable and her voice was working and sounding a little better. It was still slightly cloudy above the passaggio, but the sound was a bit clearer and she said she felt she was singing with more ease. But it was no Dr. Fixit miracle. You need Doctor Dulcamara from L'Elisir d'Amore to get one of those.

I impressed on the singer that there is no quick fix to vocal problems. It requires dedicated time spent correcting the bad habits and replacing them with good habits. Everyone needs a garbage pail where he or she can throw away their bad habits.

A fine clarinetist I used to perform with, Roy Gussman, in our practice sessions would, from time to time, bat his hand to one side with vigor. I finally got up the nerve to say 'Roy, what on earth are you doing?' He answered 'Those are the bad notes I'm getting rid of!'.

Whatever works!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Where did I come from?

There is that delightful story about the little boy who went to his father one day and asked 'Daddy, where did I come from?'. The father decided it was probably time to have that serious conversation with his son about the way babies are made and went step by step through the reproduction process. The boy then said, 'Oh. I know that! Billy came from Cincinnati; where did I come from?'

Where I came from as a vocal teacher is probably a much more complicated story than the one about conception. But I will try to write a tell-all history of how I became the teacher I am today. If anyone in interested. Even if you're not!

I'll start with a question I asked Olga Averino many years ago. By now, if you have been following this blog, you will have heard this name many times. Olga was one of the most amazing and interesting people I have ever known and she made a profound impression on my life as a musician and teacher. She was Sheherezade when it came to telling stories of her escape from Tsarist Russia; crossing the continent to Siberia with her infant in her arms; riding on whatever kind of train she could get on; going into China; singing in the Western Opera in China; eventually coming to San Francisco and New York; meeting her father, whom she had not seen since their escape, on Broadway one day; finally coming to Boston where her husband Paul, played in the Boston Symphony; becoming Kousivitzky's favorite singer; singing the first U.S performance of Lulu..... Well you get the idea. Not your average life.

I asked Olga, 'Was there any one teacher who established your concept of how to sing and to teach?' She said that there wasn't; it evolved over time and she basically figured it out for herself.

I adored Olga and we spent many a cocktail party at her apartment in Cambridge, sitting on her sofa talking about singers and singing while everyone else exchanged Harvard gossip. I studied with her for a while, but in spite of the fact I thought she was an incredible musician and person, our ideas on vocal technique went about so far in the same line and then she went one way and I went the other. I never felt that she taught the way she sang. Her bright clear voice was still working just fine at age 91! She certainly produced remarkable results: Phyllis Curtin, for one!

All of this is a preamble to my trying to put into words my vocal genealogy. As a child I sang in school and church choirs. Miss Carly came once a week to Roosevelt Elementary School on Capital Avenue in Battle Creek to teach singing to all of us children. I started studying piano at age 9. I started studying organ at about 15. When I was about 16 or 17 I decided that I wanted to study singing. By now I was singing in the Adult Choir in the Presbyterian Church in Battle Creek. An elderly man, Mahlon Searns, (probably much younger than I am now, but in his seventies I would guess) was the lead tenor. And whatever his age he could belt out a high C on any occasion, and did. He became my first voice teacher. He would come to our home after church on Sunday to give me my singing lesson. He kept goats, and always had a certain farm-fresh (?) aura swirling about him.

Mr. Searns did not play the piano. So at every lesson after he warmed me up, I would then sit at the piano and play and sing while he sat in a chair and, sometimes I think, dosed off from time to time. Face it, I was no Domingo! Sitting and singing is probably not the best way to learn how to sing. His concept of technique was Strength! He would lie on the floor on his back, have me stand on his stomach, and lift me up and down with his abdominal muscles! I was six feet three and a half inches and no lightweight, so that man had some set of muscles. Fortunately, he never reversed the process with me on the bottom!

What a strange beginning to vocal instruction, you may say. Damn right!

All through my Junior High and Senior High School days I accompanied a number of young singers at their lessons and in performance. I was a member of a group of young people whom the USO signed up to entertain the troops in the area during the Second World War. 'The END of the Second World War', as Beatrice Lillie would say.

When I entered college as a piano and organ major, I also took voice lessons with Harriet Hillier Birchall, whom I remember as a very good teacher. In 1950 I came to New York City to complete my degree at Columbia and began studying with Mrs. William E. Neidlinger. (You've heard me mention this lady before who had a Bull Dog tied to the piano leg during our lessons.)

Later, when I was Searle Wright's Assistant University Organist at St. Paul's Chapel Columbia, I began to study with the remarkable Anna Hamlin, who came down every weekend from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, to teach in the city. I may have been the only male student Anna ever taught! I also accompanied all of her lessons for the women singers she worked with. Each one was better than the other. Anna was a little whiffy, as most voice teachers tend to be, but she knew how to teach a person to sing. I think one has to be a little crazy to be a voice teacher. It's always worked for me!

By this time I was becoming a vocal coach in the city and worked with a number of Anna's students, including the wonderful Judith Raskin. As a side point, one of my students at Smith, will be singing in a recreation of Judy's senior recital at Smith from 1949 this coming April. To continue the 'Smith Connection', Anna was the head of the voice faculty there at that time; many years later, my own student, the wonderful Jane Bryden, had that position while she was studying with me and then, after John's death in 2008, she invited me to teach at Smith, saving my emotional life! 'I'm not making this up, you know!' (Anna Russell's remark in her exploitation of Wagner's Ring Cycle.) What a wonderful cycle of singing teachers! I will call it the Sing Cycle!

I started life in New York City as a vocal coach, and in those days that's what a coach did: COACH. More recently vocal coaches are often found getting into teaching vocal technique when usually, they should leave technique to the voice teachers! But I digress.

One of my first coaching students was a mezzo-soprano who sang in my church choir in Closter, NJ. A person once asked me where my church job was. When I answered, 'Closter, New Jersey', they asked 'How close?' No kidding! Anyway, Hilda, had an amazing voice. A gorgeous sound and a range that went from tenor middle E to the E above C in alt! She was studying voice with someone at the Mannes School, which was on East 73rd Street in those days, but coached with me. She said to me one day, 'You are really helping me more than my voice teacher; can I just study voice with you?' I said, 'Sure, why not?'. What did I know? She was a Mezzo, but her best warm-up was to sing the fifth movement from the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem, a high soprano role. She had several auditions at the Met (the old one on Broadway and 40th Street) that I played for, and she was given a contract. My first Met star! I was about 24 at the time. She was a bit older than I. And that, children is how Uncle Herbert became a voice teacher.

Well, I taught and I taught: voice, piano, organ, harpsichord- the works. And the more I taught the more it became obvious to me that I was doing something right. My singers could sing beautifully with a free technique and perform well in various venues. Over the years I have no idea how many singers I have worked with. I mentioned in an earlier piece my work with Judy and with Jerome Hines. From then on it's like the last scene in the movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips. If all of my past students were to pass before my eyes today it would take a long, long time.

And then came Lorraine.

I was teaching voice (sub rosa) at Harvard in those days. Harvard does not have an applied music department but I taught Harvard students who were subsidized by the University, in the choir room at Memorial Church where John was the University Organist and Choirmaster for thirty-two years. I also had studios in New York City and New Jersey to which I commuted from time to time. A fine baritone student of mine said to me, 'My ex-girl friend is in a big career and having trouble with high notes so I told her to get in touch with you.' And she did. I still remember that November day when Lorraine drove out to Rood Hill Farm in Sandisfield to sing for me the first time. My life was never the same after that encounter. Yesterday was her birthday. I learned as much from this wonderful woman, musician, friend, as she did from me. From her star power, I suddenly was a hot item in the voice teaching world. I was pretty much doing the same thing I had been doing for a long time, but I had a Diva. So I must be good.

By today's writing six of my students have sung at the Met. I guess that's some sort of record. I have a few on the way who may end up there as well!

I have no idea why I teach the way I do except it seems to work. My teaching method is obviously a combination of all the teachers and coaches I have worked with that has produced this rather odd commodity called 'Herb'. Perhaps, like Theodor Leschetizky, "I have no method!'

The wonderfully funny, dear Madeleine Marshall was my diction teacher, a very good friend, and a tremendous influence on my teaching. Her study of singing diction has helped me as a teacher beyond measure. We used to do workshops together and spend much of our time telling stories and laughing at the foibles of singers and the way they pronounced words. She coined the phrase 'singer's English', a language spoken by no known tribe! She was a 'oner', as they say in the crossword puzzles.

Olga Averino once said to me, 'To be a voice teacher, one must be obsessed with the human voice'. I think that she hit the nail on the head. I am!