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

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Discovering the Wheel (A week with John Fisher)

I think 'privileged' is the only word that accurately describes how we all feel this week at the RWCMD. Since Monday we have been lucky enough to be working extensively with John Fisher, who I think must be one of the world's leading vocal coaches. Perhaps best known to the public as Chairman of the jury of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, he has held senior posts at such opera companies as La Scala in Milan, The Met in New York, La Fenice in Venice,  De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, WNO here in Cardiff, as well as working as a producer for Decca Records and Deutsche Grammophon. He regularly works with the best singers in the world, but this week we had him almost all to ourselves (well, to be fair we shared him a little with the NOS trainees, but still...). Apart from a public masterclass, he worked individually with all us MA Opera students, and I was fortunate enough to get two such sessions, as well as sit in on several others.

As ever, I will paste a list of my notes from the week below for my own future reference, and perhaps to serve as inspiration to anyone who might be reading, but first I'll try to briefly summarise what this week has all been about. What exactly is the mysterious Wheel in the title?

As John pointed out repeatedly during the week, what we do all stems from the text. The music and our singing is all about conveying the energy of the text, which is why he emphasised the importance of figuring out how the composer set about setting the words. It's not enough to do what's on the page, you have to understand why it's there in the first place: find the reason for every marking the composer gives us. Learn to speak the text in an energised way that's fully aware of what you're saying before you even sing a note. Then when we eventually get to the singing part, we get on the Wheel, and once on, we don't get off. It's aways turning, feeding energy into the text, the notes, the rests, phrases, the orchestra, the audience and then back to us, our support, breath, voice, text, notes, rests, phrases, audience, etc.

It sounds vague, but standing there and working with the man it all made sense to me, and I saw both in myself and my colleagues how much we lose by stopping at a rest for example, or not letting a longer note live, bloom and travel, or how much more effective and impressive it is to LET a note sound rather than MAKE it sound (it's as if the Wheel hits an obstacle, jars, rather than glides smoothly on). It is taxing, in that it requires us never to lose concentration. You can never stop thinking about energising what you're doing, even when you're not singing (or especially then, the silences are often more important than the notes). But that concentration saves us a lot of inefficient muscular work, like when we have to restart with every phrase rather than stay on the Wheel.

Another thing I noticed was how complicated we sometimes make life for ourselves. A couple of times, after introducing a new approach and asking a singer how it felt, John was surprised to hear us say: 'it feels less in control'. He always replied that it is in fact more in control, more supported, and that's certainly how it sounded to listeners. Why then did we feel out of control? I think it's because doing a lot of hard work, which John would deem unnecessary (unhelpful even, like over-modifying vowels), gives the illusion of control.

For me personally, this was one of the most valuable insights: don't work harder than you have to just to feel more in control. Another was the feeling of sending out a ball of energy at the end of every phrase, energising the rest to prepare for the next phrase (even if there isn't one)*. The next was preempting top notes, making sure that they come into their own (or in other words: the vowel sounds out) where they are written. This sometimes means anticipating them slightly, to stop myself from hitting them because I feel I'm late in making the sound. All that, and of course the Wheel ;)

* If my Head of Department ever reads this, she's bound to go 'That's what I've been telling him for years!'... I hope it's of some consolation to her that (fingers crossed) the penny has finally dropped :)

Once again, I want to reiterate how amazing it has been to start the new term off on such a strong note. I leave you with my favourite John Fisher quote:

'It's simple!!! That doesn't mean it's easy...'

And now for the random and confusing notes:

- When changing styles, you don't change how you sing.
- The end of a phrase energises the next one.
- Vowels are simpler than you think, even closed ones or 'dark' ones can be placed on the mask, without too much jaw work.
- Always put in the work before going to singing: text, why it's set a certain way, differentiating repeats. - Take a second to think about what the composer meant.
- When you arrive on a long note, don't take a break: immediately lift it, energise.
- What we do is chamber music, whatever the forces involved: the 'accompaniment' informs what you do and vice versa.
- Never apologise. Long notes need to reach the other side of the hill.
- Never sing the diphthongs, stay on the vowel as long as possible. Also, don't anticipate consonants.
- Don't make it happen, let it happen!
- Be aware of your body and posture when studying.
- 'U' vowels are very friendly vowels, as are 'i' vowels, but people seem to be afraid of them.
- Sing notes as if you're never going to leave them, even if they're short (intention, not length).
- Final notes: throw them up, let them fly, and then end by catching them, ready for the next throw.
- When taking a half step back in dynamic, increase the energy.
- Motivate before you sing. Breathe, motivate, sing.
- Imagine and visualise the vowel before placing it.
- It's simple! Doesn't mean it's easy...
- Bel canto: it's all about the vowels: the vowel must speak where the note is written, so the preceding consonant belongs to the previous note.
- Imagine the orchestra can't play without the energy you give them.
- A rest doesn't always equate to a breath. Neither does a comma. You can observe both without breathing. Too many short breaths may lead to shallowing the breathing, which leads to tension.
- Accents in bel canto are in the vowel, nothing to do with the consonant.
- A portamento isn't a slide, it's a link.
- If you make a decision to do something (optional top note) then flaunt it. If you can't, don't do it.
- When you're intimate, increase the energy.
- If you want to bring the audience to you (intimate moments) you do it with your support, the energy of your sound feeds back to the support, like a wheel that winds and reels the audience in.
- In cadential figures where you have a fermata on a first note, allow it to establish before you move off it to embellish.
- Even in recit, where we have some liberty, rhythms should be respected, especially rhythmic proportions.
- Use the energy of the word, the intention. Never try to make more sound, it'll happen on its own.
- It's not about the voice, it's about the energy and the text.
- When preparing, you need to get as close to the language as possible. Never underestimate the value of the grunt work.
- Sometimes when you see an interval you think you have to change something and shift position to make it. 9 times out of 10 you don't have to do anything.
- 'Oh' is not a word, it's a vocalisation of an emotion, so you have to decide what the emotion is, feel it and energise it before you sing the 'oh'.
- When there are short notes, don't short-change the vowel, or it becomes a diphthong or gets lost.
- Your imagination will do a lot of the work for you: imagine what you want to do (the sound you want) and then let it happen, don't make it happen by working the muscles.
- At the ends of phrases the energy always goes up, which will help if you 'don't know how to come off a note'.
- In combination vowels in German, find the pure vowel before moving into the diphthong. 
- The pauses between phrases are as important if not more important than the singing. They need more energy than when singing.
- With a leap, put consonants on the lower level and use them to bounce up and lift. Make sure they sound on the vowel where they are written (you may have to anticipate them).

'More! We want to hear it! You're pleading with him... Beat him into submission with the top note.'

'Don't feel you have to to modify. Just take the step and let the sound flower.'

On auditions:
Don't do them if you don't feel 200% in control. Think carefully about arias: 4-5, contrasting etc. but they have to be things you love and enjoy singing.
There's never one moment you will feel 'Yes! Now I am ready'.
You have to have something to say, being correct is not enough.
Don't get paranoid, try not to cancel if you're working and are ill, but when it comes to auditions, if you're not feeling 100%, don't do them.

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