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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Knowing Now, Instead of Then (PART ONE)

Things I wish young singers knew now, that they may not realize now…

Where you end up is usually where you should start:
            I’m always amazed by the progress my students make during our rehearsal process. Truly remarkable and outstanding progress! Yet, I can’t help but wonder about those who start out struggling a bit too much with the music, or how they’re singing it, their character, their physicality, or their lack of choices. Yet on closing night, I see students giving spectacular performances that they could have given on Day One.

            Yes, I know, the rehearsal process is in place for a reason. I am a great believer in the power of rehearsal, and my rehearsal process is massively organized around allowing the students to have time to absorb, create, question, and experience. However, the students who really make it out there after graduating, are the students who arrive on Day One at least 90% prepared. They’ve conquered their scores, they’ve thought about the source material and how it corresponds to and permeates the composer’s choices, they’ve got ideas about how their character moves, and they make lots of choices – from musical ones to physical ones.

            If I could give one piece of advice, it would be for a student to imagine how they want their last performance to be – musically and vocally secure, fearless, confident, connected to text, and collaborative with their colleagues and their artistic team – and then arrive at the first rehearsal as close to those thoughts as possible. Then, and trust me on this, the rehearsal process will be magical and dynamic. I see it happen every production I direct, but usually only with a few singers. Would it be most singers!

You are ultimately your own teacher:
            Teachers and Coaches are not wizards or voodoo priestesses. There’s no magic in a voice studio. Too often students think the answer is outside of themselves. In truth, it is both outside and inside. Research on your own how vocal technique is thought of, taught, and worked on out there in the big wide world. It’s easily found. For instance, attend other studio classes; talk to your teachers and coaches about specifics. Read up on the great 19th century bel canto teachers, their vocalizes, and their treatises. Watch Joyce teach how to do a trill on Youtube. Listen to as many singers as you can. Talk to other students about what they think technique is. Coach with more than one vocal coach. Get information, internalize it, and try it out. Record yourself. Listen to those recordings. Are you making sounds you like? Do these sounds feel good and feel easy? Don’t be passive about your learning process.

Listen to Yoda: Don't Try, DO!
            Why wait to be good? Why wait to be ready? Why wait to perfect a song? Why wait to learn a few more arias? Just go out there and do it!

Opera is operatic. Song literature is not opera. Opera is not Song literature.
             Singing dynamics, as normally understood for a Brahms song, or a Poulenc piece, is much different in opera. Opera is "operatic". It is bigger. It is there to fill a huge house, not a recital hall. It is accompanied by 40 to 100 orchestral players. This means that singing piano or forte is much more about communicating the idea of these dynamics. It is about COLOR. Too often young singers mistake singing softly with singing an under supported vowel/tone that has no consonants attached to it that are audible. Too often loud singing is pushing. Neither of these ideas is helpful.
              Remember: "Subtlety begins when one can both be heard and understood!" - PJH

Courage takes conviction:
            Singing is one of the most remarkable human activities! Like other remarkable endeavours - diving, speed skating, flying an airplane, being an astronaut, one must have both courage, and an intention to try. To attempt, endeavor, strive, aim, struggle, to take a crack at something… This intention takes courage, make no mistake; sometimes a great deal of courage. Young singers are too often told to be careful, lest they might fail. Poppycock! Fail. Fail brilliantly! This takes a conviction of mind, it takes a kind of fervor and passion to boldly go where you’ve never gone before. Take yourself out of your comfort zone and see where you land.

Speaking of Comfort Zones:
            Art isn’t easy, as our dear patron saint of musical theatre brilliantly wrote. Art is not always a luscious blanket under which we cuddle with a glass of red wine in front of a roaring fire. Art is sometimes quite cold. Art sometimes seems like it wants to stab at the living essence that is our humanity. Art is a struggle. Art is difficult. Over the last few years, I've noticed an interesting trend: young singers saying "I don't think that will work because…" or "I don't think that can work because…" or my favourite “I’m just not comfortable…” before ever trying whatever has been asked (or only trying it once and after failing, deciding that it won't work.) I used to never hear those phrases. Nowadays, when I ask a young singer to try something outrageous like stand up while singing, I get questionable looks or even the “Seriously?!” comments. Of course, there are dozens and dozens of exceptions here! Again, the young singers who seem to have the most success post-graduation are the ones who’ll kneel while taking a high A-flat held on a fermata, or the students who’ll flip over on their backs and sing to the rafters without being able to see their conductor, or the students who’ll allow themselves to utterly fail in front of their colleagues while attempting something new.
            There’s safety in numbers, but there’s little room for artistic safety in opera.

Opera is more than what they think; ossia Opera’s Changed, Jo…
            Opera has changed. New operas by Heggie don’t sound like the operas of the last century (Barber, Ward, Floyd, Moore, Menotti, etc.) they sound a bit more like JRB or Sondheim. Certainly Ching’s Speed Dating Tonight! sounds an awful lot like a musical. Does that make it a musical? Is it an opera because it’s called an opera? What about Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd? Lately, it’s being produced more in opera houses than by musical theatre producers, so does that make it an opera? Opera singers are singing these roles as often as musical theatre singers. The genre is changing. The demands on young singers is changing. Now, in addition to having baroque opera arias, Mozart and bel canto arias, Verismo arias, and 20th century arias, young singers also need musical theatre arias.
            Our audiences no longer discern the difference between operetta, light opera, opera comique, Singspiel, G&S, or musical theatre. If they like live singing, live theatre, often they’ll go see what intrigues them, or what they’ve heard was exciting. Audiences attend opera based on many factors. No longer do we have the subscribed patrons of the ballet, opera, and symphony. It’s all about single ticket buyers, and they buy irregularly.  If one does not acknowledge this, then one is sticking their head in the sand and the career – if one happens at all – will be extremely limited.
It’s a brave new world! Don’t confine yourself into what opera WAS, look ahead and know that the future is a MUCH different place than you might think.