A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Perfection is already here, dear! - Kathryn Harries

As promised, here is a summary of our session with Kathryn Harries, Director of the National Opera Studio.

I think it's fair to say that all of us found the session engaging and very interesting. There were a fair number of us to get through, but the difference in sound she was able to coax out of some people in such a limited timeframe was immense! As is always the case, we all got told the same set of things (after all, as Kathryn Harries said, there are only a couple of elements to this whole singing thing), with everyone having an extra issue or two of their own. Luckily, none of the remarks she made were new, we get them all the time from our teachers and coaches, and we're all works in progress. It is however nice to hear a new take on familiar issues, and sometimes a new way of working, if only for 20 minutes, sparks a change, a new feeling that we can latch onto and then (fingers crossed!) reproduce.

What a strange profession! We spend more time training than doctors! Every singer has gone through the hands of an army of specialists (teachers, coaches, masters, directors, choreographers, etc.), usually spending a fortune on it in the process, and the truth is it never stops. The voice changes with age, experience, repertoire, and you're always learning... Which is odd, when you consider how organic singing is, even sustaining the volume and stamina needed for opera (Kathryn Harries pointed out that babies can scream tirelessly for hours on end, because they have proper support built in).

In any case, for the singers out there reading this, here are some notes from the class (pardon the chaotic order):

You can't raise the soft palette while singing. It happens on the in-breath, so be mindful of this when breathing before a phrase where it may be needed.

Better to use positive instructions. So rather than think: don't tighten the jaw, think: relax the jaw. Negatives cause stress and tension.

Wherever you sing in your voice, you can always sing softly easily if you raise your soft palette.

When you breathe, you prepare the space for all the notes you have to sing, accommodating for the highest.

Allow a breath, rather than take a breath. This is about relaxing your stomach muscles to allow your guts to move out of the way for your descending diaphragm. At the same time your ribs should swing out as a result of the air filling your lungs.

The order of play (so priorities in thinking) and which body parts take part in tackling a particular step:
1. Breath.
2. Voice.
3. Vowel. (tongue)
4. Consonant. (tongue, lips, teeth)
So you have your breath, space, and vowel ready before you even think of how to make the first consonant! An exercise she showed us involved us singing the following on a note in the middle of the voice: a consonant followed by a shadow vowel (never mind the vowel, but a well produced, supported consonant with masses of space behind it ready to sing), a rolled R (to relax ye olde tongue) and an ɛ vowel (an 'open e' as in the English word 'bed'). It would be something like this: b(uh) rrreee, b(uh) rrreee, b(uh) rrreee, b(uh) rrreee, brrreee. And you can (and should) go through all the consonants with this exercise.

You can't drive your voice forward, you have to invite it forward.

Finishing notes tail upwards. If you go into head voice on a diminuendo, it's secure and 'you can go [wheee]' (very funny, very quiet high-pitched sound was produced at this point)

Support is a funny feeling. It's a bit like both pushing and pulling at the same time. If it just feels like: 'tuck in', then nothing, then 'tuck in', then nothing... then it's not really support. There has to be a constant connection.

Your speaking voice in introductions should be as close as possible to your singing voice: position, breathing, support, resonance. This prepares you for singing, and more importantly there's a chance the audience will hear and understand what you're saying.

Practice runs slowly, then think of them in groups.

Your intention starts as you breathe. Or even before (as Dominic Wheeler said in Banff... See?! I remember things!)

You need enough breath to carry the intention through the phrase. 'You started well, but then went to la-la-land for singers.'

Perfection is already here, dear! We just need to learn to access it consistently... This was the nicest thing she said to me, by the way, after what I felt was a grueling ordeal for both of us (everyone else in the room thought she liked me, funny thing: watching something and being in the thick of it... I do hope my friends were right!).

Have THAT sound when you breathe in. Don't look for your sound once you start singing.

Fill your mouth with air, swing (your ribs) and sing.

Your sound feels like a column that the melody moves up and down in.

If your eyebrows are down, so is your soft palette.

We don't lead with consonants, remember the order of play: breath, voice, vowel, consonant.

Make sure your shoulders get wider as you sing. Keeps the sound alive, stops it collapsing with your body.

You're the centre of our attention, so be proud! Take the space!

We never stop for breath.

Both vowels and consonants happen above the top teeth.

Regarding nerves: Nobody made you do it! You can be nervous, but don't be self-indulgent with it.

Right, I can see you all there now! (I'm talking to the singers, of course) You've read these and thought 'Well, obviously! Mneh!'. Now go through them again, think hard at each one and answer honestly: Do I do that? All the time? Even on a bad day? Could I do more?


  1. Thanks for this! I enjoyed reading! Sounds like a great session...

  2. I had a masterclass with Kathryn too. She gives wonderful advice - as you say - it is gruelling going through it, but very much of value. I think I got more from her than from any masterclass I have ever done.