Sunday, June 26, 2011

By All Means, Say Something

By now, most of my students have come to understand that I am a technician. I believe in helping my students find their best resonance, their own unique vocal color, and the healthiest use of their instrument. I am a big fan of vocal exercises to practice correct placement and support. I don't even call them "warm ups". That is not the real purpose behind repeating the same vocal phrases at each lesson and in home practice. The real purpose is to develop a good technique through repetition. We do this through muscle memory and audible feedback.

Although I am often focused on beautiful singing when it comes to training young singers, I also desire that my students have a deep understanding of the text to make educated choices on interpretation.  Yes, one must have a nice, resonant sound, match pitch, sing the correct rhythms, and sustain beautiful phrases. But after the "vocal work" is done, by all means, say something. Take the song to the next level. I am often surprised to see how few singers really understand what they are singing.

Do a little research and make some interpretive choices. Here are some helpful questions to ask as you learn to tell the story. Who are you? To whom are you speaking? What is the purpose of your song? Make some character choices. What is the meaning of the text? When performing opera or musical theater, most of the answers are in the libretto. Know the story.

Sometimes, we are singing a song that is a setting of a text. A simple lyric song, a poem, or thoughts set to music, give us another challenge in our interpretive choices. I was initially drawn to vocal music through the text. It was interesting to hear famous works of poetry set to music. Settings of Shakespeare, Whitman, and Dickinson, by various composers intrigued me. Listening to a setting of the same poem by Quilter and Argento invited comparison and inspired my own interpretive choices. I grew to find that there was magic in singing a specific word or phrase in a leading way. In making interpretive choices, we cannot just decide to "emote" the song. We must take our music making to the next level in order to make the text speak to the listener by making technical choices.

I truly believe that our emotional interpretation of a song is an extension of the way we use our voice. By stressing the beginning consonant or lingering on a final consonant in a word, we can deliver the text to the listener and create our own unique interpretation. By connecting the notes more smoothly in a phrase, we can create a feeling of comfort or deep emotion. By disconnecting slightly and articulating rhythmically, we can lead the listener down a completely different path of light fun or intensity. Playing with the words in very technical ways, opens a whole new level of music making and text interpretation.

When developing an understanding of the text, the first step is to read the words alone. After reading the text, listen to the musical setting. Understand how the composer interprets the words by the way he writes a musical line and accompanies the voice.  Many clues to the emotion of the text are contained in the composition. Paying attention to the dynamic markings and articulation are the first step to bringing the music to life and making the words speak to the listener. You can add your own interpretive layer after you have an understanding of text and musical setting.

Just remember that it is important to stay rooted in your vocal technique and allow the expression to be an additional layer. By keeping your core sound, based in breath support and resonance, you can add depth by the way you choose to pronounce, inflect, and color the text. In summary, use your research, reading of the text, and listening to the musical setting to make your own interpretive choices. Decide how to best use your vocal skills to express the text. Enjoy the process and, once again, say something.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"To Sing or Not To Sing." Is that the question?

As a private voice instructor, I am often confronted with the question of whether or not one has enough talent to take voice lessons and develop that skill. Although I have run across a few singers that have had difficulty matching pitch and would give American Idol some great material for the opening of the season, I am grateful the students that I work with have some good basic skills in matching pitch. Being able to sing in tune is quite important, but even some intonation problems can be helped when a singer is given the proper skills in placement and support. So what is the question? Do you want to be able to make it into the advanced school chorus? Do you want to be able to sing proudly at your church? Do you want to win vocal competitions and be offered lead roles in musical theater productions? Do you want to sing better? That is the question.

Too often singers want the magic answer... "am I talented enough to make it?" Students may feel like they don't want to pursue singing lessons unless they know they have a chance at success. No one can predict the future.  True, some singers are naturals and come with a great starter package, but even those singers may show relatively little improvement week after week. Some of my 'weaker' or less experienced students have taken initiative and made great strides as well as achieving great rewards! As a voice teacher, I make assessments, corrections, and offer tools to improve. I hear what is and what could be. I hear potential. But I merely serve as a guide to my students. With out the desire, the work ethic, or the ability to process and apply the information a student will see minimal improvement. Maybe the real question is do you want to improve?

If you like sing and have some basic skills and a desire to improve, then sing! If you apply yourself, you will see success when given the necessary tools and techniques. (I think the concept of learning to cook will serve well here. If you are not a natural in the kitchen and have trouble understanding basic concepts of pairing foods, combining spices, or measuring properly, you won't make it too far on you own. On the other hand, you can learn to cook pretty well, if you take some good classes, understand basic techniques, and hone the skills you learn. You may not become a world famous chef, but you could please a palette here or there!) Just remember, even some singers who were once told 'not to quite their day job' have built good singing careers by applying a good work ethic.