SORTING OUT TECHNICAL INFORMATION & VERBAL DESCRIPTIONS

MOST SINGERS AT SOME POINT, EITHER AS A STUDENT OR PROFESSIONAL, EXPERIENCE SOME CONFUSION OVER A TECHNICAL POINT OR AN IMAGE SUGGESTED TO THEM BY A TEACHER, COACH, ETC. THE FACT THAT THE SINGER “IS” THE INSTRUMENT MAKES THIS ALMOST INEVITABLE. THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO SAY THE SAME THING WHEN IT COMES TO OUR CRAFT.

TODAY’S BLOG IS ABOUT THE USE OF WORDS (SEMANTICS) AND THE VARIOUS EXPLANATIONS GIVEN FOR THE SAME TECHNICAL ELEMENT.

THE CHOICE OF WORDS AND IMAGES WE HEAR AND USE IS ALL IMPORTANT. THE USE OF A CERTAIN PHRASE BY A TEACHER OR COACH WILL UNDOUBTEDLY PRODUCE IMAGES THAT VARY FROM SINGER TO SINGER. THIS IS WHY A TEACHER MUST:

A) ALWAYS HAVE A WIDE PALATE OF WORD DESCRIPTIONS AND IMAGES
B) MUST HAVE A VERY GOOD KNOWLEDGE OF THE SINGER’S PHYSIOGOMY – HOW THE INSTRUMENT WORKS TECHNICALLY.

IT IS EQUALLY IMPORTANT THAT THE SINGER BE ON GUARD FOR ACCEPTING WITHOUT MUCH THOUGHT THE WORDS (SEMANTICS) OR IMAGES USED BY TEACHERS/COACHES/ETC. . TOO MANY YOUNG STUDENTS ACCEPT THE SEMANTICS BLINDLY WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING THEIR MEANING. REMEMBER THERE IS ALWAYS MORE THAN ONE WAY TO DESCRIBE A TECHNICAL CHOICE OR A DESCRIPTION OF HOW OUR INSTRUMENT WORKS. OUT OF POLITENESS OR NOT WISHING TO OFFEND THE TEACHER, A SINGER MAY HESITATE TO ASK FOR A CLEARER EXPLANATION. AND, OF COURSE, A STUDENT MAY FEEL HE IS CHALLENGING THE TEACHER IF HE QUESTIONS THE INFORMATION.

HERE ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF HOW CERTAIN WORD CHOICES THAT MAY OR MAY NOT WORK FOR A PARTICULAR SINGER.

THE WORD “SUPPORT MAY PROVE TO HAVE A POSITIVE EFFECT FOR ONE SINGER BUT CAUSE UNDO MUSCULAR TENSION IN ANOTHER.

ALSO THE SUGGESTION TO “PROJECT” MAY BE MISUNDERSTOOD. TO SOME IT COULD CAUSE THEM TO PUSH THE AIR AND SOUND WHILE OTHERS DO NOT FALL INTO THAT DANGER.

I FIND THAT THE WORD “ATTACK” CAN OFTEN CAUSE ONE SINGER TO AWKWARDLY SING THE FIRST NOTE OF A PHRASE & NOT ANOTHER. IF IT DOES ONE MUST FIND ANOTHR WORD I.E. “ONSET”.

CONFUSION MAY ALSO BE EXPERIENCED BY A YOUNG SINGER WHEN DIFFERENT EXPLANATIONS ARE GIVEN IN DESCRIBING HOW THE INSTRUMENT WORKS. HERE ARE TWO EXAMPLES SOME OF YOU WILL RECOGNIZE I AM SURE.

VOWELS: SOME TEACHERS WILL INFORM A STUDENT THAT THE VOWEL IS FORMED AT THE BACK AND DELIVERED FORWARD BY THE TONGUE. ANOTHER TEACHER MAY INTRODUCE THE IMAGE OF THE VOWELS ALREADY BEING FORWARD ON INHALATION.
YET ANOTHER TEACHER MAY INFORM THE STUDENT THAT THE VOWELS ARE MADE IN THE LARYNX. NONE OF THE ABOVE INFORMATION IS INCORRECT. BUT TO ONE STUDENT THE FIRST IMAGE MAY CAUSE A SINGER TO “FEEL” OR “IMAGE” VOWELS IN THE BACK AND THE TEXT WILL LACK CLARITY. ON THE OTHER HAND THE IMAGE OF THE VOWELS ALREADY BEING FORWARD COULD ERRONEOUSLY CAUSE A SINGER NOT TO PREPARE THE WHOLE VOCAL TRACK ON INHALATION. AND THE THIRD DESCRIPTION OF THE VOWELS BEING MADE IN THE LARYNX, WHILE NOT ALTOGETHER WRONG, MAY CAUSE THE SINGER TO FOCUS ON THE LARYNGEAL MOVEMENT WHICH, OF COURSE, RESULTS IN AN UNSTABLE LARYNX.

BREATH: OF ALL THE TECHNICAL ELEMENTS DEVELOPED IN THE VOCAL STUDIO THE ONE THAT SEEMS TO CAUSE THE MOST CONFUSION IS THE BREATH MECHANISM. EACH SINGER THAT I HEAR FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY STUDIO IS ASKED WHAT THEY ALREADY KNOW ABOUT THE “SINGER’S BREATH”? THE VARIETY OF RESPONSES IS STAGGERING. SOME ARE EITHER TOTALLY UNAWARE OR ILL-INFORMED OF THE INHALATION/EXHALATION PROCESS. OTHERS ARE ABLE TO NAME EACH MUSCLE INVOLVED. YET IN BOTH GROUPS SOME MAY NOT BE ABLE TO USE BREATH MANAGEMENT EFFICIENTLY.

FROM MY EXPERIENCE IN RECEIVING SO MANY VARIOUS RESPONSES, I COME TO THE CONCLUSION THAT THERE ARE THREE APPROACHES TO THIS ALL-IMPORTANT SUBJECT BEING USED IN VOCAL STUDIOS BY THREE DIFFERENT TYPES OF TEACHERS:

1) THE TEACHER WHO FOCUSES ON VOICE SCIENCE & USES TEXT BOOK INFORMATION IN DESCRIBING THE PROCESS IN MINUTE DETAILS

2) THE TEACHER WHO DOES NOT WANT THE STUDENT TO BE OVERLY OBSESSED WITH BREATH MANAGEMENT AND DOES NOT DEAL WITH IT SPECIFICALLY. THIS TEACHER MAY SUGGEST THE SENSATIONS SHE OR HE FELT IN THEIR OWN SINGING.

3) THE TEACHER WHO BALANCES THE PHYSICAL KNOWLEDGE OF THE INHALATION/EXHALATION PROCESS COUPLED WITH THE MUSICAL VALUES OF A PHRASE, I.E. LONG LINE, LEGATO, ETC.

THE INDIVIDUAL SINGER WILL RESPOND BETTER TO ONE OR OTHER OF THESE APROACHES.

AN INTERESTING STORY —- I HAPPENED TO BE AT THE ONLY MASTER CLASS GIVEN BY THE GREAT AMERICAN BARITONE, ROBERT MERRILL. HE WAS A VERY OLD MAN AT THE TIME BUT WAS ABLE TO SING RIGHT ALONG WITH THE YOUNG SINGERS WITH A STEADY TONE. A VOICE STUDENT IN THE AUDIENCE PUT UP HIS HAND AND ASKED: “MR. MERRILL, I HAVE BEEN TO EVERY VOICE TEACHER IN NEW YORK IN AN ATTEMPT TO UNDERSTAND A SINGER’S BREATH AND I STILL DONT KNOW HOW TO SUPPORT. COULD YOU HELP ME?” MR. MERRILL IMMEDIATELY RESPONDED:
“OF COURSE I WILL — HERE IS HOW IT WORKS: YOU TAKE A BREATH AND YOU SING” WAS HE WRONG? — OF COURSE NOT. FOR ROBERT MERRILL THIS SIMPLE EXPLANATION WORKED FOR HIM DURING HIS LONG CAREER. HOWEVER, THIS LACK OF A MORE DETAILED EXPLANATION DOES NOT WORK FOR EVERYONE.

HOW DOES A YOUNG SINGER DEAL WITH THE SUBJECT OF “SEMANTICS” AND/OR CONFLICTING TECHNICAL EXPLANATIONS? BY ASKING QUESTIONS IS A GOOD PLACE TO START. IF THEIR IS ANY CONFUSION AS TO WHAT A TEACHER OR COACH MEANS IN THEIR CHOICE OF WORDS YOU MUST RECOGNIZE WHEN THEY DO NOT CONJURE UP THE RIGHT IMAGE FOR YOU. IF YOU HAVE HEARD THE SAME TECHNICAL POINT DESCRIBED DIFFERENTLY BY ANOTHER TEACHER OR COACH BRING THAT UP DURING THE LESSON. A GOOD TEACHER WILL ALWAYS HAVE THE PATIENCE AND IMAGINATION TO HELP YOU UNRAVEL THAT CONFUSION.

A GOOD RULE OF THUMB IS TO BE HONEST WITH YOUR VOICE TEACHER. TOGETHER YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO CLARIFY ANY CONFUSION WITH THE INFORMATION ONE GETS EITHER FROM OTHER SINGERS, TEACHERS, COACHES, ETC. YOU WILL BE SURPRISED HOW THAT WILL HELP YOUR GROWTH AND CONFIDENCE. IDEALLY YOU AND YOUR PRIMARY VOICE TEACHER WILL DEVELOP A LANGUAGE THAT WORKS FOR YOU. THERE IS REALLY NOTHING WORSE THAN BEING CONFUSED AND DOUBTFUL. NIP IT IN THE BUD BEFORE IT GETS THE BEST OF YOU.

HOW DOES A TEACHER DEAL WITH THE INDIVIDUAL STUDENT WHO MAY NOT GET A PARTICULAR EXPLANATION OR WORDING USED ? BY HAVING VARIOUS WORD CHOICES, OF COURSE, AS WELL AS A VERY THOROUGH KNOWLEDGE OF HOW THE INSTRUMENT ACTUALLY WORKS. ABOVE ALL, TO HAVE PATIENCE AND TO USE IMAGINATIVE VERBIAGE BASED ON SOLID KNOWLEDGE. IT IS A GOOD IDEA TO ENCOURAGE THE SINGER TO USE THEIR OWN DESCRIPTION OF A VOCAL SENSATION THEY EXPERIENCE. PUTTING IT IN ONE’S OWN WORDS IS SO HELPFUL.
TO QUOTE A FAVORITE MAXIM: “IF YOU ARE NOT ABLE TO EXPLAIN IT SIMPLY, YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND IT WELL ENOUGH”
(ALBERT EINSTEIN)

IN SUMMING UP, I THINK ANOTHER MAXIM SAYS IT BEST FOR BOTH YOUNG SINGERS & TEACHERS/COACHES ALIKE:

“EDUCATION IS NOT THE LEARNING OF FACTS BUT THE TRAINING OF THE MIND TO THINK” (ALBERT EINSTEIN)

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PREPARING TO PERFORM

MANY FOLLOWERS OF THIS  BLOG WOULD LIKE TO TALK ABOUT HANDLING PERFORMANCE ANXIETY .

As the Fall season approaches every serious singer, be they student or professional, will be “performing” in some manner or other, I.E.  an audition for the Opera Department at your school or for one of the important Young Artist Programs. Many of the major and regional opera companies will be auditioning for their future seasons. Professional singers will be embarking on a new performance calendar in opera, recital or concerts. 

        A singer never stops “performing”. It is a much better mind-set than “auditioning”, of course. To perform means to share musically, vocally and interpretively. To audition connatess “being judged”. If we think of “performing” in the broad sense of the word we will go a long way in mentally preparing our thoughts as to how we want a piece to sound, what emotion we want to convey. So many young singers, either through inadequate vocal and musical preparation, become very nervous at the thought of “performing” in whatever venue he is facing and mentally treat it more as “auditioning”.

      There are many reasons why a singer feels a great sense of fear in facing a performance of any nature. One of these reasons can be their attitude in developing a good technique. If this goal is approached as an end in itself the singer will not be as ready to  “perform” as to much as to “exhibit”  technical skills. The needed impetus to communicate music and text will not be in the forefront of their  thoughts. Instead they will be “trying” to do it “correctly”. It  is absolutely necessary then that  vocal study, from the beginning,  must incorporate the intuitive, spontaneous, musical and vocal impulse each singer naturally brings to their voice lessons or coachings.

      Voice science has taught us so very much about the workings of the singing voice–about the anatomy of a singer.. But this knowledge must not be isolated and focused on to the point of making a singer overly conscious of their physical mechanism. This will only induce a sense of “holding”,  not allowing a singer to go to the level of truly comfortably expressing  the human emotions inherent in the music,  be it on the Operatic Stage, in the Audition Hall, the Studio or the Practice Room.

     How does one then find the calmness and alertness to perform with joy and ease. Is it by being “excited” when you walk on stage? Or is it a definite gathering of energies prior to stepping out to sing? The latter, of course, is the more sensible way. The former only is uncontrolled energy, somehting like a runaway car.

     This brings us to Preparing to Perform. And it is all has to do with how we prepare mentally, physically & emotionally prior to stepping onto the platform with the healthy impulse to perform and to share. And this preparation takes time, concentration and calmness. A body that is tightly held  because of over-focusing on the mechanical  cannot vibrate. By the same token, a body that is under-energized and “loose” will never make a beautifully ringing  tone. Therefore the postural preparation of the singer is a good place to start in any lesson, coaching, audition or performance.    We have to wake up the body and the mind to “want” to perform.

     Cecilia Bartolli is quoted as saying she feels like a young race horse in the wings -” eager for the gate to open” so that she can go out and run with energy, making the performance a wonderfully joyous experience.

    Some singers find this calmness and readiness  by  doing physical warm-up exercises. it is a good idea to have a set that one does regularly.  They can be stretches, Tai Chi moves, dance steps, etc.

    Another way of finding the impulse to perform is to be affected when  hearing certain  piece of music, a poem, a particular thought.  Each singer is able to find something of this nature that will be the driving impetus  that brings one to the wings with energy and alertness.

    All of this preparation takes time, patience, intelligence and concentration. Only if these skills are developed in advance  will the performer truly perform with ease, energy and a wonderful sense of calmness.

“STOP – LOOK – LISTEN” – THE ROLE OF IMAGINATION IN SINGING

 DEVELOPING THE IMAGINATION  is one of the major tools in the development of  the classcal singer’s art and craft.   This concept  enables  the singer to  “allow” rather  than to “try” to sing with ease. This concept of “allowing”  is important to so many of life’s activiities, but especially important to the singer.  Why?  Because as singers we do not see our instrument .  All that we are able to see is our posture, and our speech mechanism (lips, teeth, tongue, jaw & soft palate).  The rest of the instrument  resides deep in the body & cannot be  seen by nor heard realistically by the singer themselves.

Therefore the role of the Imagination  must be carefully  and continuosly developed.  The”Inner Ear” and the “Inner Eye” will   develop a  clear sense of what the singer wishes to achieve technically, musically, interpretively, etc.   Thought turns into beautiful tone, legato line, smooth registration,  clear text,  dynamic contral  – all the characteristics of classical singing  which we call the  “Bel Canto” style and technique.    It first must happen in the Mind.  In other words, we  learn to “allow” what we have mentally heard and seen  prior to singing  rather than “trying” while we are actually physically engaged.  

WE CANNOT “ALLOW” WHAT WE HAVE NOT PREPLANNED IN OUR INNER EAR & INNER EYE.    One will not create images aurally or visually without knowledge. Therefore it goes hand in hand that the young singer develop physical, vocal, musical & interpretive goals.

With the guidance of the voice teacher, the young singer will slowly create   images both aurally and visually .  Eventually the singer will, as they develop and grow, come up with their own specific images, based on the bel canto principles,  and thus take ownership of their own singing, developing  their own uniquness to sound, text and phrasing.  The wonderful American Mezzo soprano, Stephanie Blythe calls it developing one’s owns Point of View.

     This approach to singing well  is often neglected.  A young voice student  very, very often will simply plough into a phrase without first hearing it in their  Inner Ear or having a clear  “Inner Eye” picture of the instrument or of the phrasing  It is  often called “Visualizaton”.   There is no end to its possibilities born of knowledge and that Point of View.

“KEEP THE MIND AHEAD OF THE VOICE” (Benita Valente  MC, NATS) sums up this approach  perfectly. 

 A driver does not get into his car without knowing where he is headed and what he must do to get there. A pilot does not dare fly his plane without filing a flight  plan both realistically and mentally  before he “takes off”.  Visualization has long been a tool for Olympic athletes. The 2010 Olympic Champion Snow Boarder, Shaun White described to an interviewer how he prepares for the performance of his lifetime. To paraphrase “I quietly imagine in my mind’s eye what I am going to do and then I go out and ‘allow’ it to happen.” In other words he carefully preplans in his imagination before, not during, the execution of the program. He does not “watch” himself or “try” as he executes the incredibly challenging curves he must conquer with great momentum and speed. Rather, he sees the pathway in his mind’s eye and calculates mentally how he will physically negotiate these twists and turns. He carefully has programmed his Imagination.

Again praphrasing,  the British Pedagogue, Thomas Hemsley (Singing & Imagination) wisely acknowledged that   the development of a solid technique is about basically  two things:

 1. Training the Imagination  to give clear and precise impulses to which the body will respond. 

2. Training the body to be able to respond with an easy facility. 

LEARN TO DRIVE A CAR – NOT MECHANICALLY BUILD ONE

Too often a singer’s training focuses on “mechanics” – information from the outside either from a book or from a purely technical point of view. Often the Technique becomes an end in itself. Of course, a clear  knowledge as to how the car functions is important, but to drive the car one must allow the coordination of  all the elements that allow one to drive safely and to reach their destination.

“LISTEN TO YOURSELF BEFORE YOU SING, NOT WHILE YOU SING” (Thomas Hampson – Master Class – Manhattan School of Music”

      How many times do we hear a singer say when he is struggling with a technical issues,  – “But I’m trying”?    However,  if that singer would “STOP – LOOK – LISTEN” before he tries executing the phrase he would save himself a whole lot of frustration and he would be “allowing” what is already programmed in his Imagination to do its work.  He will stop listening to himself while he attempts that phrase,  but will “allow” what he has aurally and visually imaged.  It goes without saying, then, tht the Imagination has to be developed intelligently and sensibly.  

      Of course,  there are many aspects to developing the Inner Ear & Inner Eye i.e.    Knowledge of the instrument  and how it works in singing ;   A strong point of view as to the emotional content of the phrase or aria; a thorough knowledge of the text (diction & exact translation).

In approaching it this way the Inner Ear will develop the desired tone color to reflect the emotional context of the music and the text.  

The Inner Eye will allow the singer to  experience certain positive physical sensations.   Calling on these sensations repeatedly is what develops the Technique that allows a singer freedom to express with ease what he wants the audience to hear and feel.

 Remembering that their are no hard and fast rules to developing the Imagination is important.   It is a fertile playground.   Give it free reign.  There is a wealth of potential in every Mind. It takes patience and concentration, and yes, knowledge to “Allow”.  So give yourself permission to Stop – Look – Listen.

No better advice is given on this subject than the following:

“SINGING IS MENTAL RATHER THAN PHYSICAL —-  PSYCHOLOGICAL RATHER THAN PHYSIOLOGICAL.  THINK THEREFORE  OF THE EFFECT DESIRED RATHER THAN OF THE PROCESS”  (Richard Hemsley “Singing & Imagination” (Oxford University Press)

 

PASSION & DISCIPLINE

At the srecent Manhattan School of Music Graduation Ceremonies the main speaker was the Tony Award winning Baritone and MSM graduate,  Shuler Hensley.  His remarkable speech focused on these two words – Passion & Discipline.  They resonated so well with me that I want to addres them in this Blog.

It is imperative to have both – Passion and Discipline – and both in good measure.

Having a Passion for singing is the first requisite that a young singer must have as he or she starts on the long journey to becoming a well-trained singer, musician, performer.   As any professionally successful singer knows, the road to reaching this goal is anything but smooth and straight forward.   There will be, without question, in every young singer’s career path many ups and downs that are very often difficult to handle emotionally.  I doubt if any singer has not considered at one time or another giving up on the pursuit of a professional career.   It is at these crisis points  that the passion for what you want to do must be solid and deep.

Passion cannot be learned.  It has to be a part of one’s intellectual and emotional makeup.  When a young singer asks me if they should continue their efforts in becoming a first rate singer I pose one question to them:   When you wake up in the middle of the night, ask yourself, “could I imagine my life without singing and performing?”  If that person needs to stop and consider the answer it may not be such a good idea to continue the expense, the effort, the time it takes to pursue the brass ring.

As a teacher I encounter singers every day who face the challenges of developing their vocal, musical, linguistic skills.  Experience has taught me that it is the student who has a built-in Passion for what they want to do that will surmount the inevitable obstacles. There is a definite sense of self and belief in their chosen path.

Is  Passion enough to justify the long, expensive, often-frustrating road?    There really is no answer to that question as each student is an individual in every way.  Reality must enter the picture, of course.  The talent must be there.  And by talent we must consider the voice quality, the musicality,  the intelligence, the physical health of the aspiring young singer.   When these attributes are in place to a good degree it will be the strong desire to pursue excellence that will be important.  Therefore Passion really has a lot to do with a person’s ability to judge their own potential and their strong, unwavering commitment to develop their unique gifts.  Usually one is aware at a young age if their voice quality or their musicality is strong enough to attract the attention of others – be it a choral director, a church organist, or hearing from others that their voice is very good and worthwhile training.  It comes from a reaction by others in many cases or the joy one feels when they sing a solo in church.   These signs that there is talent there become obvious quite early on.

This is where discipline comes into the picture.  It is simply not enough to have a desire – a passion – a blind faith on one’s potential.  It is a realiztion that, no matter how wonderful the voice may be, it will take a unique set of skills to bring these talents to fruition. There will be no short cuts taken.   There must be an innate sense of self and belief in one’s abilities.  Patience will be one of the virtues they will be needing to develop.  And that, unlike a sense of passion, can be developed and must be developed from the very beginning of one’s studies.

There are no short cuts and there is no straight path. Combining heavy doses of Discipline to the deeply felt Passion is a good combination in starting the journey.

SUBJECTS FOR MY SUMMER BLOGS — SINGING WITH MANY VOICES

Now that the Spring Semesters at both The Curtis Institute & Manhattan School of Music” have ended, I am planning on devoting a lot of the time to looking at various topics for “Singing With Many Voices”.   Some of the subjects I am looking forward to working on are”

“BUILDING PERFORMING & AUDITIONING CONFIDENCE”

“BRAIN/BODY RELATIONSHIP IN SINGING”

 

 

“ALLOW – DONT’ TRY”   

“THE BRAIN/BODy CONNECTION” –  

“REAL CONFIDENCE -VS- FEIGNED CONFIDENCE

“HOW THE FUTURE LOOK FOR YOUNG OPERA SINGERS?”

“A LOOK AT THE BASIC VOCAL PRINCIPLES”

I also look forward to answering submitted questions or addressing suggested topics from my readers.  You can send them to “Singingwithmanyvoice@wordpress.com or to my email address:  joanpatenaude@gmail.com

Wishing you all a great summer of music.

 

 

 

CELEBRATING MARIA CALLAS

On December 2nd, 2013 Maria Callas would have celebrated her 90th birthday.   I have wanted, for a long time, to pay homage to this great artist and to touch on the characteristics ,  both personal and musical, that made up this remarkable performer.

Most of us never did hear Maria Callas in a live performance.  What we know of her performing  comes from listening to recordings, watching DVD’s and, of course, studying her work on YouTube.  That in itself is amazing.  Yet, she reigns, to this day, as perhaps the finest singer-actress of the 20th century and beyond.   The mere mention of her name to this day, both by artists and the music-loving public,  brings sighs of approval and wonderment.  

I have chosen to quote many of Maria Callas’s statements in various interviews, believing her own words give us a better understanding of who she was  as a person and as an artist.   

THE VOICE:

What was it about Maria Callas that made her performances so powerful and exciting?  Was it the voice itself?  

 “I don’t like listening to myself – I don’t like the kind of voice I have”  she claimed In a 1969 interview in Paris. I find this  amazing. i  She confesses that in 1949, as a young singer performing in Perugia “I wanted to give up singing hearing myself.”

Many will honestly say that the first time they heard the voice, myself included, I was not taken with its quality.  Being a Tebaldi fan from early childhood, the Callas voice was not as beautiful and round  to my young ears.  Yet, as time went on I began to understand  that she put the voice at the service of the text and the music in a way that was direct, immediate, multi-faceted and, yes, unique.  In studying her recordings you will hear that she uses a brighter and lighter color in singing the  more girlish roles, i.e. Gilda, Rosina,etc.  To the more heroic and dramatic roles she brought a vast palette of colors that conveyed the essence of the character being portrayed.  It is as though she took the raw material (the voice itself) and moulded it into many shapes and colors.  

She continues:    “Even though I did not like my voice I learned to accept it and to be detached and objective. My voice is unique as is everyone’s.  It is not how we  sing but the uniqueness we bring – like the way we walk or talk…one’s own unique personna.”

EARLY STUDIES & EARLY CAREER:

Callas had one voice teacher –  Elvira de Hidalgo, a well-known Spanish soprano in the the 20’s.  Hidalgo speaks about those early days in this very same 1969 interview.  “I knew when I met her first that she was unique — her dark penetrating eyes and her wide, full mouth”.  She would come to my studio first thing each morning and stay right through my teaching day, listening to all the other lessons.   She was inquisitive and wanted as much knowledge as I could give her.  If I gave her a new aria one day she had it learned and memorized by the next lesson – often a day or two later.  Her dedication was complete.  ( Throughout her career Callas also attended all rehearsals in order to hear the orchestration, the other singers, etc.) 

“I was always able to relax when Callas performed, unlike the anxiety I would experience in listening to my other students.  I always felt at ease and comfortable, knowing she would sing beautifully.”  (Hidalgo)

Early in her career  she was singing Wagner.  During that run she sang for Maestro Serafin who told her she would be singing “I Puritani” in a week due to the cancellation of the soprano.  It was an enormous gamble but she had faith in the conductor and knew she could do it with his blessing. “Being young you have to gamble.  I had not sung a bel canto role beforehand but was willing to take a chance.”  Of course, the rest is history.

“Singing Wagner is much easier  to sing than  Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, etc.  One is not as exposed in the former repertoire as in the latter.”  It was Callas who spearheaded the renaissance of this repertoire known as Bel Canto.  

 

ROLE PREPARATION:

In a BBC interview with Lord Harwood she talks about learning a new role in this way:

“I choose a role based on the last act of that work.  This I learned from Hidalgo, her teacher  as well as  Maestro Tulio Serafin, who made my career.    Even if the  1st, 2nd, 3rd acts are interesting and the last act is weak I do not do the opera.  I want to know that the characteristics of the heroine agrees with the music.  This does happen frequently.  Once I have accepted the role  I learn it as a conservatory student — exactly how the composer wrote it –  no more and no less”.  She continues:  “The embellishments chosen by the conductor must serve the expressions of the character – be they happy, sad, etc.  Music must always have a flowing rhythm and that comes from having spoken the recitatives over and over to oneself. This I also learned from Maestro Serafin.   This work never ends.   After all of these preparations  (the A.B.C’s) you can then take wing.”   She adds:  “It is like reading a letter, you must read between the lines.”  It was the famous Italian Maestro Serafin, of course, who first recognized the musical and interpretive potential  of this artist and was her guide into the bel canto repertoire.

 Again in her own words from 1969 “A performer must understand the atmosphere of the piece  – the hundreds  of colors to choose from.  It is all in the music.  It is not only about singing, it is about interpreting.”  Later on she comments: “If you seek applause you are cheating.”

“To be successful an interpretive artist must work 20 hours a day to be successful.   When you think you have reached 100% you must then strive for 200%.”  

“The voice is the main instrument of the orchestra – thus the word “Prima Donna”.  We must  understand the score intimately in order to be a part of the orchestra.”   As a result  she would color her voice according to the instrumentation of a specific aria, duet, etc.   She was able to find the exact  color for all human emotions.  This came from her mode of preparation and, of course, her intimate knowledge of the whole score, not only her own role or vocal line.

PERFORMING: 

In the famous 1969 Paris interview Visconti claims, in front of Callas who is sitting beside him on the couch, that her near-blindness was a good thing in that she was able to be in her own world on stage without being aware of the public or any other distraction. She agrees.   It is also the reason that she learned every aspect of the score perfectly.  She could barely see the conductor.

“Do you believe in repeating an aria a second time (i.e. ”  Ah, Forse Lui” or  “Addio del Passato” from La Traviata) she was asked?Her answer:  “Never repeat  – dont risk it a second time.  We must be an instrument of the theater”.  However, she agreed that in same operas repeating the main aria following a cabaletta is justified i.e. in “La Sonnambula”.  She was not discussing, of course, the Handelian repertoire as she rarely, if ever,  performed his operas.  

“Always dig deeper to find what the composer wanted was Serafin’s advice to me.  The ‘feeling’ musT be real – deep feeling always will be real.   An interpreter’s first duty is to try to feel and recreate what the composer wanted.  I would become the audience, the performer all at once in order to be faithful to this principle and to give it the breath of life”.  

REVITALIZING AN OLD ART FORM:

“Opera has been dead for a long time now.    Audiences change, of course, through the years and a bit of ‘twicking’ here and there is necessary but as long as we keep its dignity and emotional truthfulness the audience will be moved.  Otherwise it is not giving pleasure.  If music fails to agree to the ear – to soothe the ear – it has failed.   Opera is not old-fashioned but often the interpreters are.  We cannot modernize too much but we have to give it freshness in order to be credible to the eye and ear.

 PERFECTIONIST:

In the  1969 interview with the great director, Luchiano Visconiti, with whom Callas worked closely, the word “Perfectionist” comes up many times.   The director repeats several times that perfection was her goal.    She agrees to a great extent  but claims that, not only in her art was she reaching for  perfection, but in any other task she took on in life.    She talks about her need to have everyone she worked with uphold  the same high standards and that it is why she gained a reputation of being difficult to work with.

However, there is one statement she makes that is fascinating in the face of her Perfectionist goals:  “Perfection does not exist. I don’t want my singing to be perfect. I thought my recording of Lady Macbeth was perfect as did my colleagues.  It was vocally, but I had forgotten the character’s mood.  Verdi asks for a particular color — dark, even acid-like.  It was all in the music.”

In listening to her speak of her work ethic and her great drive to be as faithful to the composer as possible may lie one of the reasons for her demise. Who knows?  She was relentless in trying to achieve more and more of what was in the music and text.  But, as far as I am concerned, I am grateful she did persist in this goal.  Although often described as difficult, she was a very humble servant of the creators and a true “interpreter” in the very best sense of the word.  This often does take a toll as she later stated herself.

VOCAL CRISIS:

Again, it is in Callas’s own words that we understand the struggle she had in making her decision to stop singing around 1965.

“I would return home after a performance where the public applauded wildly, but I knew it was not up to my standard.  My voice simply was no longer able to execute for me what I needed to say.  It was a decision I had to make by myself alone and I had to be honest with myself.”

In the Paris interview of 1969 she admits that she has stopped performing and has returned “as a young conservatory student” to work with her one and only teacher, Hidalgo.  She needed to learn from the ground up once again.   She anticipates a La Traviata in 1970 with Director Visconti.  However, the recordings of her Farewell concerts with tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano only too obviously prove that she was not able to return to the stage as “La Callas”, the most famous of opera singers in the mid-20th Century.  

HER HERITAGE TO US:

Without Maria Callas and the intelligence of Maestro Serafin we may not have found the bel canto style and technique again.  Each singer and teacher from the 1960’s on have benefited from the renaissance of these great works.  Long may it live.

SUMMING UP:

There are three interviews done in America at the time of her vocal and personal crisis.  The most embarassing of all is  with Mike Wallace who literally needled her relentlessly as to why she had to stop – did she lose her voice – did she like Jackie Kennedy, etc.  Nothing was mentioned of her craft, her artistry, her great career.  The other one is with Edward R. Murrow which is of the same type — mean-spirited and personal questions are asked that were completely out of place.   In these interviews she becomes very uncomfortable and ill at ease.  However, the interviews with Lord Harewood (BBC) and with Emilio Pizzi (Paris, 1966) and finally the interview from Paris in 1969 tells us so much more about this unique artist.

“I am embarrassed by compliments.  I cannot have the same perception of myself as the public has.  I cannot judge myself and I have a hard time realizing what I have done.  But if you manage to persuade and to thrill the public then you have won.”

I think the following sums up for us all where the art and craft came from in the person of Callas herself:

“We serve this unique art – the music most of all.  It takes a lot of worry and a lot of anguish.  It was left to us as a heritage and we must carry it on against all odds  –  even at our own health’s cost.  

 

Joan

 

 

 

 

 

 

POSITIVE NERVES VS NEGATIVE NERVES

Several singers have asked that  the perennial topic of singers’ nerves be discussed in one of my blogs.  I am happy to do so  both as a performer and as a teacher.

Iit is safe to say that all performers have, do and always will deal various nervous reactions .  They “go with the territory”.  It is a fact that nerves are an indisputable part of performing, be it in audition, live performances, recordings, etc.   Rehearsal situations also can trigger the “nerves” button in us all.  The first rehearsal with a new conductor, new stage director, first rehearsal  in front  on the whole company – so many things.

President Roosevelt’s now famous words ”  We have nothing to fear but fear itself” should be every singer’s mantra. But it takes work to be able to do this successfully.

It is important to be able to recognize the difference between “positive ” nerves, which get our adrenalin up and running, or “negative ” nerves that cripple us psychologically, physically and, of course, emotionally.  Both types of nerves can be listed under one heading – “Performance Anxiety”.

The most prevalent type of performAnce anxiety , of course, is the negative type..  But the successful and, yes, comfortable performers,  manage to control them through various intellectually sound approaches.

There are tried and true truths  to “dealing with the obvious symptoms of the”bad” nerves such as heart palpitations, sweaty palms, dry throat, shaking legs, high breathing, shortness of breath, memory problems, etc.  They all lie,I believe, in the singer’s careful preparation.

The intelligent,  slow, solid preparation is multifaceted, especially for a singer, who must deal with words and music, interact with other characters, move easily and fluidly, create a believable character, etc.

A singer who devotes him or herself to preparation will slowly and meticulously address the following steps:  1)  A complete study of the music to be performed, not just the pitches, but the composer’s markings, the composer’s chosen rhythm and key .  Why did Mozart put a certain  aria in the key of ………. ?  These things are  in themselves a fascinating study and brings the singer into closer and closer context with the work.

2) Intimate knowledge of the text – in the language of the work…. not a loose, vague translation into our own language.  The wonderful collection of libretti  and translations  published by Nico Castel is an indisputable tool to help the singer know the syntax of the language, be it Italian, German, etc. followed by the way (the syntax) that phrase would be said in English.. He also, of course, uses the IPA symbols brilliantly.

A word of caution re IPA. Using it alone without knowing the text intimately, is only a tool to guide us but it is too often used as a short cut to truly relating to what the poet or librettist wrote. A singer who uses IPA exclusively in singing a foreign language ends up making sounds — sounds without real meaning.   That singer will remain “outside” the emotional power of the text and only makes  room for one to be a nervous performer.

3)  Learning to “Be” rather that to “Act” will put the singer into the very heart of the aria, the role, the song.  That entials the individual imagination of each performer — using one’s own life experiences, one’s knowledge of the plot, the period in which the opera takes place, etc.  This is the most fascinating and wonderful part of all.   There are no limits.  When one comes up with a definite “Point of View”  negative nerves on stage will not have room to get into one’s psyche.

3) Technical preparaton is, without question, at the top of the list.  It is often said that “one must put the technique on the back burner when performing” but we must have a technique to put on that back burner.

“Am I afraid of high notes — of course I am.  What sane man is not?” was the response Pavarotti gave in an interview.  Despite that honesty, he will always be remembered as “King of the High C’s”.  How did he conquer that fear?   Because he had a solid, clear image of what he needed to do in his mind before he actually executed a challenging phrase.   He had a flight plan and that prevented doubts and fear from taking over.  Knowing your instrument and how it works comes first, of course.  The mind will make a blue print of how to coordinate its parts, and all in the service of beautiful singing.   Technique will be a means through which he can go to the level demanded of a performer on stage. It is not and end in itseLf but allows us to express the music and text in a profound way.

Of course, there are simple and proven physical exercises to allow the body to release negative tensions prior to performance.  Breathing is, of course, one of them.  Leontyne Price writes that she would take long, slow, releasing breaths and then sigh them away (Yawn/Sigh) and she would do this 20 times the day of a performance and before going on stage.  Here are a few movements that are very helpful: marching in place; putting your hands against a wall with one foot behind the other and “leaning into the wall”; shoulder rolling (backwards only) or beginners’ easy T’ai Chi moves. These all help coordinate the body and calm the mind.

It is well documented that famous divas of the distant past would not even read a murder mystery the day of performance for fear that they would become agitated.  Makes sense.  In our world, of course, the successful singer does all kinds of stressful things around performance time and on a performance day such as interviews, contractual discussions, jet lag etc. etc.  The privacy the older singers knew no longer exists, of course.  Our time is filled with a million distractions a day. However the day of performance should be “free” of mental or physical stress. Going over the text, reading it aloud, sensible vocalizing of short duration are essential to your performance preparation.

When finally on stage the hours of preparation will put you at the ready to share with your public all that you know and feel about the work you will sing.   With this as your goal you will feel the often crippling symptoms of negative nerves disappear or diminish greatly. The fear of being accepted or not by the public will not be your mind set.The great coloratura soprano Edita Gruberova claims that she needs to feel the audience is not there. Thomas Hampson has a wonderful way of handling the “facing the public” anxiety — “Bring the audience into your world – do not go out to their’s looking for acceptance”.   It was the legendary soprano Licia Albanese who shared with me her way of handling this anxiety when she said “I learned early on that if I went out to ‘tell a story’ my fears about singing disappeared.” These mental concepts allow the performer to focus on conveying all he or she knows and feels about the song or aria through the voice and through their whole  being.

Summing up, negative nervous reactions to performing  can, as we see, be brought  under control by what we do long before we arrive  At the performance stage., which includes auditioning. Then  Postive nervous energy will be the fuel that makes us feel we are at the starting gate and we that just cannot wait for someone to open it so we can enter the stage with energy and exuberance and confidence.