A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations. Please note, if I write something that seems pessimistic, it does not mean I'm depressed, just realistic. I'm pretty sure if you saw me that day I'd be smiling...

Sunday, 21 December 2014


With Christmas approaching I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the bizarre social life we singers seem to lead. As I'm home in Poland at the moment, and in the rare position of being here for more than a week, I'm looking forward to catching up with all my non-singer friends. Having moved to the UK to sing, I suppose I'm subject to the realities of singer life more than most, as almost everyone I have met in my 5 years in Britain is from 'the industry'.

So what are these realities? Well, for one thing you meet people either in college (or some other long-term educational course) or in productions. Music colleges tend to be quite highly strung environments, even though the order of the day is to pretend that's not the case. But we're artists being judged on a daily basis, and even if it's all done with the intention of helping us grow (or forcing us to), we will take it all quite personally. So your college colleagues will either be the ones that support you, undermine you, or just steer pretty much clear of you. Obviously the only ones worth hanging out with are the former, and while you still have a choice, just leave the rest to do their thing. The bond of college experiences faced and tackled together is usually one that lasts, and given a bit of effort can make for a lasting friendship. I'll come back to the effort part later on. The key thing for me about college was that (while I like to think I got on with most people) you can choose who you spend your time with. Call them cliques, or groups of well-meaning like-minded people, they are an inevitable fixture of a highly-strung environment full of neurotic arty-types. Just go with it and try not to take it personally is my one bit of advice if you're at music college, want to be friends with everyone, but are finding it a bit difficult.

Once you're out, the game changes a fair bit. At the start of your career you meet many new people. You meet them in rehearsals, and everyone is there to put on a show. You soon figure out that as you're all in it together, for hours on end in one room, there's not much scope for picking and choosing. You have to get on with everyone. Luckily, you are united by a common goal (the show), and perhaps even more so by common enemies. There is always adversity in any rehearsal process and nothing binds people together more effectively than being able to complain about what bothers us. It could be anything: a clueless director, overbearing conductor, impossible set, tricky music, boiling hot costume, poor coffee... Whatever it is, you all bond over it and quickly become a company, once you get past what Chris Gillett calls the dog-like bum-sniffing and posturing phase of the first few days (if you want an insight into what the life of a singer is really like, read 'Who's my Bottom'), and the unifying glue of adversity manifests itself.

The thing about 'friendships' forged in the face of adversity though (or forged through making something truly special, that also happens), is that once the show is over, you find yourself with little to talk about. To most people you say 'hope to work with you again soon' (in many cases you do actually mean it) but know that you won't be seeing them in a pub any time soon unless it's by chance. If you're fresh-faced and a bit naive, you'll say 'let's make sure to stay in touch', but I've found that most times, you just don't. Sorry. I have very many friends/colleagues who I love to work with, they're great fun to be around in rehearsals or in show runs, we regularly go to the pub while we work together, sometimes cinema trips and BBQs happen, I even trust them with bits of personal drama I may be going through... But the moment the last night afterparty is over, that's it. Until next time...

Sometimes you do stay in touch. It's hard to predict, most times it's with people you can have non-singery conversations, but that's not always enough. Friendship takes effort. In many ways it takes more effort than a romantic relationship, which of course needs nurturing, understanding, empathy, etc; but becomes a regular part of your life, one which you work at every day, hopefully growing closer and closer to that one person who can stand to listen to you retelling rehearsal stories that are only funny if you were there, or will be there to silently hug you when you've just got another rejection, or will understand when all you want to do is stick a soap on and order takeaway... Friendship on the other hand doesn't usually have the benefit of daily contact (once you're outside college), so it takes thought, willingness and sometimes a kick up the bum to just get on with it and meet up.

But here's what non-singers rarely understand. Even with all the best intentions in the world, if I'm rehearsing a show for 7 hours a day, I'm most often thinking about it almost 24/7. I sometimes carve out a bit of my weekend to catch up on admin (a horror that deserves its own blog post), but if I then go on to attend a social function, I'll have to use up valuable energy reserves to steer my mind away from the show I'm working on, or the catatonic state it wants to be in to regenerate, and force it to deal with conversation. And I would never call myself an antisocial kind of person, it's just that 'the job' takes over and one wants to be selfish with ones time...

Maybe it's a skill I need to develop. I'm getting better at admin (not constantly feeling I need to reply to everything ASAP), I worry less than I used to about things I can't control... And whenever I'm not in show mode I do try to catch up with my friends. Because without them, in the absence of a show, my life would be pretty empty. It's often said that the life of a singer is a lonely one. Certainly empty hotel rooms, solitary dressing rooms, or those moments you realise you're in a roomful of people you can't talk to about something really important to you; they are lonely. But most of the time you're actually being a singer you're having fun, laughing, joking, solving problems as a team, etc. It seems far from lonely. But I look at all the older, wiser singers who disappear the moment the stage manager releases us, because they have a home life (complete with friends) that they've figured out how to save their energy for, that regenerates them so much better than the pints some of us are heading out to get, or the mindless TV others of us are going to watch in order to clear our heads... I hope I figure out how they do it, because while I love my job, and I love my colleagues, I do find myself constantly apologising to my friends for neglecting them (and as many of my friends are singers themselves, they neglect me right back, with the same heartfelt and honest apologies).

And I find myself missing some kind of community and the permanence that comes with it. Because when I'm not being a singer (which I urge all singers to try), when there is no show, that's when it gets lonely. At least I'm lucky and I get to be home with my family, and see some of my oldest friends, have pointless conversations, sing old songs around a fire, and be part of what I left back here: community. And I take comfort in thinking about all those slightly older, but so much wiser singers who managed to figure out a healthy balance between the joy of being a singer and the happiness of having a life outside singing. There's hope for me yet ;)

Friday, 31 October 2014

A survivor's guide to touring

I  wish this post's title didn't feel quite as literal as it does to me at the moment, as probably the defining memory of this tour (MWO Carmen) for me will be the collision we had on our way back for  one of the shows... But as everyone keeps telling me - these things happen, and I will try my best not to dwell on it in the following paragraphs, though it does stay with you. But it also makes you thankful for everything you have, which is ultimately a good thing.

So touring... It's a funny old thing. With the structure of this particular tour, we spend most of our time either driving or hanging around. Various company members have differing approaches to staying over after/before shows, but however you do it, it's very tiring. It's a kind of tiredness I'd not experienced before - it's not crippling, but it never leaves you, no matter how many days off you have. Maybe it's my body conserving energy for when I need it, which is my 5 minutes of glory on stage as Moralès and then all the ensemble scenes where 8 of us try to generate the impact of a full-sized chorus. But for the hour or so I spend on stage performing there are 3 hours hanging around and about 6 hours of driving to deal with.

In many ways these extra hours become the meat of life on tour. And you spend all this time with your cohort, sharing dressing rooms, cars, green rooms, hotels, cottages, etc. This is where I have to say that I have lucked out massively. I don't think I've ever worked with a better group of people. We have fun both off stage and on, with running in-jokes galore which do occasionally spill into the performances, which I think is great, because it keeps us on our toes and prevents the show from becoming stale (with a tour of this length it is a real concern). If you ever see me in person, do ask about that time with the rubber chicken ;)

But it doesn't take much imagination to envisage what it could be like if the company wasn't as like-minded and easy-going as we are. With no personal space, there would be nowhere to get away. It could end up being quite a trying time... But like I said, we lucked out.

So as this is supposed to be a 'guide', I suppose my first bit of advice would be - surround yourself with good colleagues... OK, so that's impossible, because we have no control over who we get cast alongside. I guess I could modify the advice to - be the best colleague you can be. It can be tempting to let yourself be a bit down and moan when you're tired, but it's infectious and in the long run unnecessary. If it has to be done, do it in private, or temper it with something positive. After all, you may be touring some of the country's smallest and most dilapidated venues in the worst weather in living memory, but it could always be worse - you could be stuck in an office. Face it - you're living many people's dream! Be thankful and smile.

Always bring your chargers. Running out of battery is no fun, especially as getting your head down over your small screen (or a book) may be the only approximation of personal space you're going to get, as well as being your line of communication with the outside world (which, despite the feeling that there is nothing outside the tour, is still spinning merrily).

Be kind to yourself on the days off. As tempting as it may be to try and 'get on with your life - do your admin, line up auditions, do said auditions, schedule lessons and coachings, or do teaching; it'll add to the tiredness, so pace yourself and accept that you deserve a half-day in bed with Netflix from time to time.

Book your accommodation in good time, as cheap rooms can be tough to find on short notice.

You may think touring is a good opportunity to do some sight-seeing and get to know the country. Hmmm... It's not worked out that way for me. If we have enough time for a walk, it's normally only as far as the nearest decent coffee or the shops. It may just be the way my mind works, but again it's that thing of conserving your energy for when you need it - the stage and the driving. That being said, driving around the UK in nice weather has been a joy, especially away from motorways - it really is a beautiful country.

There are some gadgets I've found come in handy, with the winner being a Bodum travel mug with built in cafetière. Freshly brewed coffee that stays warm for the entire drive back is a wonderful thing. That and a Pratchett audiobook.

So touring... Try it if you can. It's an experience.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Singing made me unhappy

So I’ve been out of full-time education for over a year now, Opera Works is a thing of the past too, and I’ve come to a realisation. For the past 3 years or so singing was making me unhappy. It had turned into a mind-game where I was trying to please everyone (my teachers, coaches, audition panels, employers, head of department, conductors, directors, etc) but getting very little return in terms of my own joy. I kept having to convince myself I was on my way to a better future, to a career as a working singer, I was paying my dues and that it was a necessary phase that would pass… But it just became the way I was. 

I would overthink everything, which wasn’t helped by all the lectures and Q&A sessions on my various courses that sold the line ‘if you do X you will be employable’. Sing this repertoire (even if you hate it, suck it up), wear this, walk like that, stand just so, shake hands with the panel (or actually never do!), do these ornaments, vibrate on every note, suck up to so and so… Follow the magical unwritten (but oft spoken of) rules and then everyone will want you. Except they don’t. All you see is people ‘doing it all wrong’ and getting what you have been striving for. To someone like me, who likes rules and patterns that order the world somehow, not being able to understand how success is achieved was frustrating and depressing. And it infected everything I love about my ‘job’. I didn’t even notice it happening (there were enough good things in my life apart from singing to keep me happy), but various recent events and circumstances have given me a ‘forced opportunity’ to assess and reevaluate my attitude as regards singing. 

The tipping point was the decision whether or not to apply to the NOS. A long time goal of mine, I have unsuccessfully auditioned for the programme twice, but also had the opportunity to closely observe friends get in and do the programme, as well as speak to alumni. I know what the programme is, how it works, what it does to and for people. I recently went in for a consultation (honestly - to assess my chances of getting in this time) and the penny dropped. I would hate this! I’ve only just gotten out of institutionalised training and started to rediscover the joy of singing for no one but myself (well, and my employers and audiences, but you know what I mean), found a really good teacher and embarked on a path of progress that is only measured against my own criteria, not anyone else’s. And here I was subjecting myself to judgement and hanging my hopes on the opinions of people who I don’t necessarily agree with half the time. That’s not to say that they’re wrong and I have a monopoly on truth, in fact they are right, but so am I. There is no one way to make it in this profession, nor is there one gospel of singing technique (even if there were only one ‘right’ way to sing, there are infinitely many ways of talking about it and assessing it). 

The half hour I spent in the studio that day was probably the most important experience in my singing life. I got positive feedback and some notes on what to improve (that I agree with wholeheartedly and am working on), but also a lot of opinion dressed up as fact, which is the way with schools and is to be expected. But I’ve been in school a very long time, and it made me unhappy when I finished my first degree, and again for the past 2-3 years… I don’t want it any more, I don’t want to go back to school*. I want to channel Sinatra and do it my way. 

Because what has taken me back from the brink of packing it in was the realisation that there is only one thing that really matters, one recipe for success, and also one goal that motivates me in a positive way because it’s mine, judged by me, and not geared towards pleasing anyone but me - get better at singing. For an over analytical thinker like me everything else is a distraction. Rep choices don’t solve vocal problems, they can only hide them. Audition wear doesn’t get you hired, and as important as first impressions are, 'self-conscious' is not the one you want to give. So to hell with the ‘rules’, just do the one thing no one will argue with or have contradictory opinions about - get better at singing. And don’t do it for your teacher, coach, or the panel. Do it for yourself, otherwise you’ll slowly go insane and be unhappy. 

Since I made this my one rule I’ve had more success in auditions, am enjoying performing again, am able to stand up for myself in situations I would have normally stayed quiet… And I’m happy. Also, I’m hopefully getting better at singing. 

* Not that there is anything wrong with NOS, colleges, or any of the courses out there. They provide fantastic training and I owe everything I am to the courses I’ve done. But they’re not for everyone, and doing them forever doesn’t mean you keep improving, so there has to be a time when you take the step into the real world… Not that singing has anything to do with the actual real world, but that’s a rant for another day.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Teachers - trust and loyalty, but not at all costs

One of the most important relationships in our lives as singers is the one we have with our singing teacher. In career terms it is probably the most important. Your teacher is the person you trust to guide not only in your technical development, but quite often you will need their help when making repertoire choices and choosing what roles to accept in the early stage of your career. It's an intimate relationship, what happens in lessons should stay in lessons, it should be a time you are free and safe to get things wrong without fear, in order to stretch your capabilities. More often than not no one will ever hear you singing as well as your teacher hears you in that room... Or as badly. The trust has to be incredibly strong and work both ways, which is why the first months with a new teacher are often a huge leap of faith.

And it doesn't always work. There is arguably nothing worse than being stuck with the wrong teacher. Even a universally regarded teacher may not be the best one for you. And even if you've found the right one, there is quite often a time limit on how long they will be your best option. This is because of many things.

First off, teachers while trying to impart an overall solid technique often focus on their pet likes and hates, and what they have to offer may not be what you need at any given time. You can also get used to one another and lessons just turn into minor tune-ups and ego boosts, while habits that both of you take for granted strengthen and chip away at your technique. By the time they get so bad a teacher who is used to you notices them you'll be facing a huge challenge that could in other circumstances be avoided.

Some singers reading this will be up in arms defending their teachers, saying I've just been unlucky in who I've gone to, their teachers never let them get away with anything bad, etc. Maybe they've hit the jackpot, or maybe their trust is blinding them. It's a difficult thing realising that the person you've entrusted your voice to isn't perfect... But perfection doesn't exist, it's all about finding what objectively works best for you at any given time, which often doesn't mean the most comfortable option.

I think I've been lucky with the teachers I've worked with over the years, every single one taught me something important and helped me turn a corner in my vocal development. And they've all been different, despite ostensibly teaching the same 'good technique'. But various friends have not been so lucky, or have become complacent in their relationships with their teachers, or have stopped having lessons (which to my mind is the biggest mistake a good singer can make). I have also made the decision to change teacher a fair few times, the same with coaches (although there you have more license to shop around... Teachers do not generally like to share pupils, for good reason - that would imply that the trust necessary for them to do their job isn't there).

The key is to make sure you take stock every now and again and ask yourself:
- am I getting better?
- is my career progressing?
- if not, why? what feedback am I getting from my rejections, and are there recurring themes?
- is my teacher tackling these themes with me, or dismissing them? (audition feedback is very often opinionated and not founded on any foundation of technical knowledge... but if it is consistent from multiple sources, it does mean there is a problem you have to face up to, even if it's just a problem of perception)
- watch yourself back and notice what annoys you about how you perform, is your teacher addressing these things?
- am I too comfortable in lessons? do I come out of them with ego boosting reassurances ('I think that's great'), but not actually having improved, only tweaked?
- am I being challenged every lesson, or are we going through the motions?

There are many types of teachers/coaches out there, offering different things. You need to decide what you need most now and if you're getting it from your teacher. Here are some broad categories, and various teachers may be a combination of different categories. I may also have missed a lot of types off here, these are just from my experience of music college and private teachers.

The builder:
A quick imparter of the fundamentals, sees undergrads through their first period of rapid progress as they discover what is what. Unfortunately due to the law of diminishing returns and how the learning curve of singing works, there will come a time when the fundamentals are working well enough and what is needed is more detailed work rather than just going on about 'more support' and 'more space'. Progress slows down, can even stop as you plateau, and you wait for a penny to drop that can almost teleport you to the next level. Some teachers don't deal in small change though...

The working singer:
A teacher who is usually (but not always) still enjoying a career. They have a great working technique (as opposed to perfect technique, see Iain Patterson's excellent blog post on the subject: http://ayepatz.com/2014/06/18/the-everyday-voice/ ) and they try to teach you how to do what they do. It'll be a combination of good technique, short-cuts, metaphors and habits that will get you sounding good. But it may not be the best you can sound. However it will work, be reliable for the most part, even if it is a personal technique that isn't quite calibrated to your instrument, but rather your teacher's. They also know a lot of repertoire by virtue of doing it. They know what it takes to deliver it on stage and will teach you that, give you tips on how to go about preparing a role and point out potential problems along with fixes. Unfortunately what you do on stage isn't necessarily what you need to do when auditioning, and they can't quite navigate the difference.

The stylist:
Someone who knows repertoire not just from doing, but from study, passion and interest. They know style, language, history, performance practice, etc. They will do everything they can to have you doing what the composer asks you to do on the page. Every little marking on the page and colour that could be put into the music. Technique sometimes takes a back seat. Most coaches fall into this category, which is great, bacause they set you a bar that you must try to achieve with the technique you have. But at the end of the day I think you have to prioritise healthy vocal production over artistry. Once you're secure enough, they aren't mutually exclusive, quite the opposite, but they do need to happen in the right order.

The noise-enthusiast:
In many ways the opposite to a stylist. They like tone and will want you to deliver it consistently. The music takes a back seat and the voice becomes the priority. But sometimes they don't address how you make the noise thay want (they may be busy playing the piano rather than watching your veins pop out). They will get you sounding better in a coaching room, which will translate to sounding better in auditions and small rooms, but because you may not be delivering your tone in the most optimal way, you may notice a big drop in effectiveness in large spaces or when matched with an orchestral texture.

The 'master':
Someone who mostly does masterclasses. A celebrity. My pet hate. They will take credit for improvements in your performance that are not actually down to them, but to you getting more comfortable with the masterclass environment. I mean, it's natural that the second and third time you sing something will be better, as stress subsides, so they shouldn't take credit for it. They can raise valid points though and offer 'penny-drop' thoughts. Masterclasses are a valuable way of getting a new opinion on your singing and snippets of advice, but beware if they become about the master rather than the student.

The technician:
Never mind about the music, the markings, or what noise you make. They just focus on how you make it, and how to get is as easy and optimised as possible. They often read treatises, watch videos of great singers and analyse exactly how they do what they do, they have a strong opinion of what a perfect technique should be. They don't necessarily have one themselves, or they may have a fantastic technique coupled with a less-than-fantastic voice. In any case, they will leave the style and language to coaches, and not let you get away with any sound that is not efficient in its production. The leap of faith is trusting that the tone will come as a consequence of technique, rather than you manufacturing a pleasing sound by means which are not in line with an efficient technique. 'It's a lot easier to sound like a great opera singer than to sing like one' is something you may hear, and the difference between the two is that only one of those options will last a long time. It will also be more reliable in less-than-perfect conditions (so basically 360 days a year).

The trouble-shooter:
I wrote about one once. They are a technician that can adopt very targeted strategies to deal with specific issues in vocal production. Recovering from a medical condition or procedure, dealing with a specific muscular tension, give them a problem and they will solve it. Asking them to make you sing better may be overkill and get you embroiled in a very confusing series of countless exercises each working on a different aspect of singing, but that don't readily form a coherent 'big picture' of how one should sing.

Almost everyone thinks their teacher is a technician. Certainly most teachers think they are, because they try to teach technique. But it's about how they teach it. As singers we have to strike the seemingly impossible balance of trusting our chosen teacher implicitly, but also remaining very critical as to whether we are really getting what we need from our teacher. Life would be amazing if all teachers were perfect stylist-technicians who also knew what it takes to have a successful career...

Great teachers who have been amazingly good for us for a long time may suddenly stop being the best option for various reasons. It doesn't mean they are bad teachers, or that we are fickle. We owe it to our voices to not be complacent about our choice of teachers and coaches, to not get too comfortable, to keep challenging ourselves to improve.

As ever, the author's opinions are his own and may be partially or completely wrong.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Going beyond the obvious - Kasper Holten and the NOS

I've just returned from a 'masterclass' at the ROH with trainees from the NOS. The workshop (a much more appropriate word in this case) was led by Kasper Holten and took the form of him directing 3 singers as if they had just turned up for a first rehearsal of their aria in a production. He distanced himself from the word masterclass, saying that he didn't feel like a master who has all the answers about these arias, but rather wanted to see what he and the singers could discover about the characters together.

Indeed the whole thing ran like a rehearsal (albeit mic-ed up for the talking and with a surprisingly large audience). There was a brief chat about the context of the aria and an initial idea that would then be explored phrase by phrase with some rough blocking and a lot of talk about what the reality of the character's situation actually could be, rather than it just being a set number in a musical piece. I personally found it reminiscent of BYO workshops I've been on myself - an exercise for its own sake, but inspiring and invigprating to participate in (even passively). What quickly became apparent was that the operatic world (both singers and audiences) are very easily trapped in the constraints of preconceptions that have grown around the staple repertoire over the centuries, mostly because of the overwhelming temptation to just deliver the beautiful music beautifully. Kasper Holten worked hard to guide the singers to delve a bit deeper than the obvious mood of an aria, to find the ambiguities in the characters, to realise that playing what we instinctively feel it should be is an almost sure way of only doing the most boring interpretation.

Does Santuzza have to be an innocent victim who falls for the wrong man? Or can she be complicit in the tragedy, after all, she admits she knew that he only got involved with her because the woman he really loved had gotten married. She knew, but went along with it anyway, so maybe she does bear some of the responsibility for how things turned out and now that is driving her mad.

Does Faust serenade a house just because he is a young man feeling an overwhelming love? Or is he struggling with the fact that he isn't a young man at all, but an old man on borrowed time in a young body, chasing after an innocent young woman. She is innocent - poor, but pure. He is in league with the devil and is about to shower her with gifts in order to seduce her. Surely part of him knows, deep down inside, that he can never match her innocence, because he has lost his, and all he can offer her is corruption. And as he thinks of her humble, innocent dwelling, and of her purity, perhaps this isn't a love song, perhaps it's him coming to terms with a subconscious guilt while at the same time succumbing to an obsession with her as a symbol of what he has lost...

Or not. Maybe neither of those interpretations would work in context. But even briefly exploring them, probing the opposite of what we think a scene is, reveals nuance and colour that we had no way of accessing before. We owe it to ourselves as performers to explore more than one obvious way of reading a scene, especially if that way has been done before... many, many times over... and is available to own on DVD...

There were more things touched upon in this session, like physicality, dynamics, repeated words, the importance of specificity, etc. But this obligation to go beyond the obvious is what stuck in my mind and had me yelling 'testify!' on the inside.

It's a difficult ask though, because not all audiences like to be challenged in that way. They know how it should be done and want to be given what they know. Singers also don't always want to explore something that doesn't come naturally and easily. Actually, sometimes directors and conductors don't either.

The last thing Kasper Holten said was: It's great to be able to work with a stage director and explore various takes on an aria, but 90% of the time you won't be working with a good stage director. You'll be dealing with a revival director who has a week to put on a show and for your big aria his only input will be to stand you under a tree to sing for 5 minutes. It's then easy for a singer to start making excuses - they didn't give me any help, but it's our responsibility to perform and interpret, even (or especially) in that scenario. And it's performers who come up with their own take on an aria that deliver gripping performances even if they just stand under a tree for 5 minutes. But to come up with that kind of performance you have to explore more than one option...

Friday, 2 May 2014

Don't judge a book by its last page

Recently someone said to me that the problem with vocal pedagogy these days is that the teaching of singing is too sound-based, meaning that teachers and coaches are trying to get their students to create a certain quality of sound, and judging the effects of their teaching on what they hear the student produce. This makes sense, as in most lessons or coachings here in the UK the person teaching you is doing so while playing the piano, so their attention is divided between their performance and what they can hear of yours. It may not seem like a big deal, after all they have been doing this for years, and certainly coaches can play most standard repertoire almost on auto-pilot. Singing teachers though - not so much, and it's them we turn to for help with our technique. Still, maybe it's not as big a deal as the person in question was making it out to be. After all, making a good sound (as in impressive, consistent, pleasant, agile, etc) implies that there is good technique behind it...

Or does it? And even if there is good technique behind it, is it the best possible technique? We see children on talent shows presenting an adequate or even impressive facsimile of an operatic sound, but as opera singers we know that it's not a healthy thing for these kids to be doing, even if the sound is ok. We watch crossover artists and wince every time they pull a face or their shoulders go up, so we know there are flaws in how they are using their voice, but for the most part the noise they make is actually quite pleasant (if it wasn't, they wouldn't be where they are), even if we purists will never admit it. So a bad technique doesn't necessarily mean you can't make a decent sound, even though in the long run such 'cheating' will wreck your instrument.

These are extreme examples, of course, and actually for us singers it's the more subtle cases that are actually the most dangerous. Where is the line between vibrato and a wobble and how can you tell whether you're on the right side of it? I've heard all manner of pedagogues advocating vibrato as a great thing - it protects the voice, vibrating is clear evidence that you have good air flow and 'support', it means you are achieving optimum resonance... But what if the sound you're making only sounds like a healthy vibrato, but the mechanics behind it are beginnings of a wobble that will soon become habitual and increase in amplitude? Who is going to catch you in time and help you readjust your technique? It sounds fine and the people you trust (your teacher and coaches) are all basing their advice on your sound.

Audition panels may spot it, if there's someone who knows enough about singing on them (and that's hardly a given I'm afraid), but will they give you feedback? Will you trust their feedback over the words of your vocal training team? How many times will you have to hear the same thing before you think there might be a grain of truth in it? Let's say 3 (once is one person's opinion, twice could still be statistically insignificant). Assuming you get feedback from half the auditions you do (and that's a generous proportion only ever achieved by singers who have agents asking for feedback on their behalf), half of it is probably well-informed, and half of that is honest rather than polite. That's 24 auditions you've done before you start thinking there may be a problem (call it 6-12 months of your life gone?). Worse still, you're probably getting work, because you sound fine and there's plenty of opportunities out there for fine-sounding singers, which means you think you're on the right track, when actually you may have plateaued in your development, or are letting a bad habit get worse.

There are teachers out there who don't play piano in lessons. They watch you like a hawk, devoting 100% of their attention to what you're doing, all aspects of it. When I was studying in Poland we always had pianists in singing lessons, so that teachers could focus on teaching and students didn't feel so harshly exposed and vulnerable (because the first couple of times you have an a cappella lesson it is horrible!). Even if your teacher does play, it may be worth asking them not to and to have a look at you. The clues pertaining to your technical flaws (and we all have those) aren't necessarily in your sound YET, but may be in your jaw, tongue, ribcage, shoulders, left pinky, etc.

As you can tell, I haven't been able to stop thinking about this point for a few days now, almost to the point of paranoia. I'm not looking to freak out the singers reading this though, it's just something which may be worth considering if you want to get the most out of your teachers (and who doesn't? we don't go to them to be complimented, after all). There's more to singing technique than doing whatever makes you sounds good. It's a bit like a whodunit - the point of such books isn't flicking to the last page and finding out who did it, it's everything that leads you there. And with that clumsy analogy I think it's high time I stopped writing ;)

Friday, 4 April 2014

Context isn't always helpful

I recently sang my first ever Messiah. It was in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, India. While it was my first performance of the piece, I had been working on it for a few months prior to the trip, so I was more than familiar with it... unlike the audience, who turned up in their hundreds (we estimate the audience was 800 strong) to hear the first ever full-length performance of the Messiah in Goa. The following concert on the trip was in Mumbai, where Handel's best loved oratorio had not been performed since 1962, and the audience turnout was even stronger (around 1000).

Over here in the UK the Messiah seems to be done everywhere and all the time (especially around Christmas), to audiences that will most likely join in the singing or at least hum along. One of my fellow soloists from India suggested I start a tally in my score to see how many Messiah notches I can amass. To say it's a familiar piece here would be an understatement.

In India however we had (for the most part) a virgin audience. Not only that, but in Goa we were performing to people who didn't have much to do with western classical music before. Watching their reactions to the performance was priceless. Sure, there were people with puzzled looks on their faces, obviously not really sure what to make of the whole thing - strange music being sung in a bizarre way (while we were setting up for rehearsal some of the locals asked when the microphones were going to arrive... well we showed them!). But there were also people who reacted to the music in ways that we would never see here in Europe (burdened as we are with our sense of propriety and respect for the hallowed art of classical music), and yet were so organic over there. A lady in the front row danced to the Hallelujah chorus. A gentleman came with his Bible and prayed with the music. A few people were listening so intently you would have sworn they'd fallen asleep if you didn't later see the tears in their eyes during He was despised. You could see the audience be literally moved by the piece and the performance. 

It was a fantastic thing, and an experience I will recount to people whenever they mention that classical music (or opera in particular) is elitist and unaccessible. It isn't... and if it is, it's only because we have made it so. 

Yes, the fact is that classical music relies heavily on the generosity of a certain class of private individuals (with public funding being cut every year it's no surprise!) and therefore these wealthy people will naturally be a part of the audience, and quite a visible one... But why should that stop anyone else from going to experience the same performances? Cheap tickets can always be found! Yes, there is also a very visible group of people educated in music, either at university or on their own fuelled by a fierce passion for the art. Many critics will hail from this group and then seem to write only for the benefit of their own kind, leading the uninitiated to believe that if they were to want to join the audience they have to make up for their lacks in education or risk 'not getting it'... But the people in Goa definitely got the Messiah without reading up on Handel. 

I'm not saying that research and preparation is a bad thing. It can help you appreciate what you are seeing and hearing more, but it's rarely essential. Music or opera can also be taken at face value and very often it will work! It will move the audience. Of course, there are bad concerts and shows, just like there are bad books, films and tv programmes. 

Anyway: economy, history, politics, education, etc have made classical music what it is today - a very polite and civilised way of spending an evening, an excuse to dress up a bit, a bit of a middle-to-upper-class thing. But the essence of it isn't that at all! Stripped of its context the art stands on its own and has the capacity to move, fascinate, challenge, reward and please. I wish everyone the curiosity that drove our Goan audience to the church that night, and may it drive us to try things we wouldn't normally call 'our cup of tea' and let us experience them unashamedly.

One of the audience in Goa sketched all the way through the concert, 
capturing the soloists and conductor.