Several months ago I realized that some of the most important words used as we become and remain good singers, artists, musicians begin with the letter “P”. From these I have latched onto 5 of what I consider to be among the most important tools we can use to develop our craft.
They are POISE, PERSEVERANCE, PATIENCE, PREPARATION & POINT OF VIEW.
POISE: This is a very descriptive word and has a good “feeling” about it. The concept of Poise, in our context as singers, is both physical and vocal .
The physical is, of course, the way we hold and use our instrument which happens to be our body. T’ai Chi, Yoga, Alexander Technique are all great ways to be conscious of our posture and the coordination of its parts. As a recent devotee of T’ai Chi, I am amazed at the similarities it has to beautiful signing: physical coordination, concentration – long lined movements, lyricism, timing, etc. It involves both the mind and the body.
Vocal poise is the earmark of belcanto singing, of course and it is heard in all of the great singers both past and present as they sing long legato lines, smoothly blend all registers of the voice, have total control over vocal dynamics and are able to execute breathing-taking crescendi and dimuendi (messa di voce) . This too requires mental and physical coordination plus a great dash of musicality. Just listen to the messa di voce of Giuseppe DiStefano of the 50’s and 60’s and the same vocal elegance of one of today’s finest singers, tenor Matthew Polenzani.
PERSEVERENCE: This “P” is very, very important to develop. The singer’s state of mind is the key. For instance, in not winning a role, or a first prize it is so easy to wallow in a defeatist frame of mind. A less-than-stellar audition or performance may have a singer very depressed and discouraged. But would it not be more productive to patiently address what could make that audition or performance more beautiful and hopefully successful the next time round ? Sometimes we learn more by a negative than a positive outcome. Most successful singers have known disappointments but they have a firm belief in their abilities and long-term goals. Only a calm sense of patience and faith in one’s potential will help a singer or any artist reach the bar they set for themselves. That bar is yours – you develop it and you work towards it despite the setbacks or disappointments. Instead of thinking of there being a “problem” think of there being a
In today’s world,we are so used to instant gratification – technology allows us to do amazing things in a flash. We also are exposed to media shows that give a performer instantaneous exposure to millions of people, be they ready or not. I call this “The American Idol Syndrome”. Some of them go on to earning outrageous amounts of money. Its philosophy is the opposite of patience in one’s craft and focuses on fame and fortune – not necessarily hard-won success.
So many of us become “impatient” at not being able to execute a vocal challenge instantly and just keep pounding away at it relentlessly. Rather than just stopping, taking a breather, going onto some other aspect of your vocalizing they become frustrated, discouraged and, of course, vocally exhausted. It is amazing how vocal challenges end up solving themselves if we “take a breather” and come back to it later.
In a recent talk with Mr. Polenzani on that very subject he considers his art a “work-in-progress – as do so many, many other singers that we respect a great deal. When asked in an interview how it feels to “have made it” – he emphatically responded that he does not think of his career in that way. Instead he is constantly growing as a singer, artist, actor, etc. To listen to the interview between Joyce DiDonato (one of the great singing actresses today) and Dame Janet Baker ( a living legend) is to hear how they carefully prepare their new roles. It is done slowly, carefully and meticulously.
PREPARATION: This “P” requires a much longer discussion, of course. And I look forward to doing just that in an upcoming blog. But suffice to say now that it is best to develop a system that works for you in learning a new piece. Some singers say they first begin with the words, and others begin with the music. Then there are those who do both at the same time. But a successful singer does his or her homework and does it well. This Preparation has to be painstakingly done – learning the meaning of each word, the syntax & punctuation of the language, complete rythmic & pitch accuracy, musical values, vocal command of the works’ demands, the background of the opera, etc. etc. Maria Callas called it “The Wedding Cake” approach – learning one layer at a time and putting the bride and groom at the top (words and music) only when all the layers have been carefully prepared.
POINT OF VIEW:
Stephanie Blythe, in her wonderful Master Classes at Manhattan School of Music, uses this “P” as the premise for working with singers.
It is so easy to be “told” by a teacher, a coach, a conductor, a stage director, what to feel about a specific character. This tends to diminish the singer’s own input. The way to being able to handle this is, of course, to already have a definite idea about what the character’s goal is in saying the words they say and why the composer set it in his or her way. The imagination is the key to this skill and should not be hemmed in by the opinions of others exclusively. Half the fun of learning a piece is getting to the inside of the “why, who, where”. Finding the goal a character might have in exclaiming the text is a wonderful challenge. Using your own imagination will allow you to absorb and try what others suggest but you, at least, have a starting point.
I will welcome your ideas and thoughts on these 5 words — they will have specific meanings for each individual.