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

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

You have to be like a swan (Ann Murray)

A dreary day in a barn turned into a pretty inspiring experience, thanks to the boundless energy and enthusiasm of Ann Murray DBE, with whom we worked as part of Garsington Opera's offer for their young singers. As ever, I'll include my notes from the session below, in the hope they'll spark someone's imagination. It's always difficult to describe these masterclasses to someone who wasn't there, especially when Ann is one of those people who give plenty of metaphorical examples of what they'd like you to try. Nonetheless before I simply paste the notes, I'll try and describe what I personally got out of the session, both as a participant and observer (though I won't bore you with a blow by blow through my aria!).

The first thing that was a bit of a lightbulb 'ping' for me was when Ann said:
You don't have to be louder than the orchestra, you have to be in front of them.
She meant aurally, not in terms of tempo of course. It's a great way of thinking about it, as it means you don't have to try to fight the ultimately futile 'loudness war' with the band. What saves the day is projection forward. This is as much a question of where you place the voice (nice and brightly forward, ping rather than volume), as of projecting your thought and intention.* The moment you sit back and just 'sing it' it loses life and it doesn't travel past the orchestra. The orchestra provide us with a wave of emotion that we can then surf, and when you surf you're always ahead of the crest of the wave (I assume :P) - in front, anticipating and projecting forward.

An image I loved that referred to how often we take our singing lessons, technical thoughts, hang ups, etc with us into performance was when she said:
You have to be like a swan - we see the grace and elegance, not the diddly-diddly of the paddling feet.

She also repeatedly mentioned housekeeping. This referred to taking it easy in sections that lead up to big phrases, as well as coloratura and simply making sure you're singing every single note. It also came up when Ann pointed out that as singers we can't sing our hearts out for 6 hours a day practicing. We can however spend that time on housekeeping: sorting out our vowels, the pitches, rhythms, writing out and thinking about our words and stories, as well as where you can save energy to have it for the key moments.

Regarding my own singing (to future Jan when he revisits this post), though it came up with pretty much every singer today, Ann was very particular that we keep all vowels in the centre of the voice, or conversely get into the centre of every vowel. I was singing in French and working way too hard on working hard to keep the vowels correct/idiomatic and where I needed them to sing the key top notes and ends of phrases (and these two did not always match up in my first attempts). What she said was that all the notes are closer than I think, in the same place. Especially notes that are close together on the page (pitch wise) should be close to each other vocally. It's so easy to overcomplicate these things...

Finally, she said something to me that rang very true and was a much needed boost for me.
Sound young! You'll have more years being as old as me than being as young as you, so make the most of it.
Having had a fair bit of feedback recently from auditions saying that my voice sounds too young (not undeveloped, for the same feedback commented on my fine singing and impressive vocal technique :P), this was very nice to hear. It's strange, but I notice that panels do often like male singers to sound...overly mature? But I even had the thought watching Cardiff Singer of the World: Wow, I'd rather be 30 and sound 25 than be 25 and sound 50! So to have this reinforced by Ann was great, because apart from anything else, it'll give me the confidence to stop myself from manufacturing 'mature colours'.

Anyway, that's enough from me! Tiny disclaimer regarding earlier paragraph, and then on to notes...

* I must stress this is my personal interpretation of what I heard and felt in the room, Ann herself did not go into technique as such, and was adamant that everything that she offered was an exercise for the moment and to be taken or left as we see fit.

Domesticate it - find the situation you're in and play the story.
Don't be self-indulgent, make the audience come to you.
Long upbeats! Every note on the page needs to be heard.
Don't get tempted to think 'I can really sing it so I'll just plonk these notes in'.
React to the music and ride the wave of emotion it provides.
The big notes will sing themselves, take care of the short ones.
Don't think A B A B, it's not four sections, every section is a story.
Think of the consonant sitting at the bottom rather than trying to lift it on a jump, as it may disconnect.
If you put too much on the bottom note it's difficult to lift it up, especially if you're going for tenderness.
Keep all vowels in the centre of the voice.
Coloratura can't be sloppy or swoopy. Get on your vowel and stay on it, don't modify unnecessarily and stay in the centre of each small note.

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