City Opera is facing an enormous budget shortfall, and they have just hired a new general manager in the person of George Steel. This article discusses the challenges for the company and its new leader.
So by request, I am going to post a vocalise every week. Some will be hard, and some will be easy, but I hope this will provide an accessible source of information on those funny exercises that we singers do. I also hope that it will force me to make some new ones because I tend to use the same few over and over again.
So this is the “major scale plus 9th” vocalise. I learned this from Prof. Charles Roe at the University of Arizona, though it is very common for singers and instrumentalists.
I practice this vocalise about 20 times a day so it makes sense for me to post this one first. The challenges include:
- Maintaining your pitch center while moving quickly.
- Modifying vowels quickly and precisely.
- Navigating passaggi. Don’t over weight your chest voice because that will make your shifts more difficult.
- Keeping your breath steady. I tend to breathe after [a], but if you are working on breath control you can breathe after [u].
As you can see the export cut this off half-way. Be sure to change keys regularly. Also, the chords underneath are a I V7 pattern. Pretty easy, and any spelling is allowed. Enjoy!
Today is Felix Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday.
We singers can thank him for two oratorios St. Paul and Elijah, a number of songs, and the revival of interest in J.S. Bach’s music partially due to Mendelssohn’s revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
Here’s a New York Times review of on Mendelssohn’s “Liederbuch für Cécile” along with a bit of history about the cycle. Performers are soprano Ying Huang and Thomas Bagwell on piano.
Breath is one of those subjects that every teacher agrees is important, but not everyone agrees as to how it should be taught. Some minimize it saying that athletes have great breath but do not have great voices. Some emphasize it continuously saying that it ties into everything we do as singers.
I guess I am closer to the latter camp. I do believe that breath ties into everything we do as singers. I do make sure, though, that I tackle other areas as well and relate them back to breathing rather than focusing on the breath on its own for extensive periods of time.
If we think about breathing as it relates to singing there are four main areas where understanding and fine tuning one’s breath is crucial:
- The inhalation.
- The onset.
- The legato line.
- The silent period between the end of the line and the beginning of a new inhalation.
Hmmm…that’s every moment! I divided the moments like this though because each one has its own set of challenges that must be handled differently than the others.
For this post though, let me explain my overall idea with breath.
I believe that breathing for singing in general should be a deliberate and controlled process. This is done by controlling the release of air from our lungs with the breathing musculature alone. This means that a phrase is never sung where elastic recoil and glottal resistance control the phrase. Instead the entire breath system acts in a coordinated fashion so that when air starts, sound starts and vice versa. When sound stops, air stops and vice versa. This minimizes any air leakage and also trains singers to offer the balanced amount of glottal resistance that is appropriate for the given phrase.
What also needs to be accomplished is a “fooling” of the breathing reflexes. When we take a relaxed and full inhalation, a number of reflexes follow that allow for a wide throat and an easy passage to the lungs. This wide open space is also nice for singing, so while we sing, we should maintain as much of that inhalation feeling as possible.
We singers try to avoid the opposite reflex instinctively, which is the rising of the larynx due to low air pressure in the lungs. You can feel this yourself by placing your finger on the Adam’s apple while blowing all the air out of your lungs. It should rise automatically. This constricting of space may be valuable for certain acting moments (it’s a good trick actually for feeling the emptiness of sadness or sudden loss), but for singing this is usually undesirable because it results in a desperate and pinched sound that can be disturbing to hear or produce.
So I maintain the sensation of inhalation while I exhale. Folks have come up with all sorts of terms for this like “singing on the gesture of inhalation” or to sing on the inhalare. La lotta vocale is the “vocal contest”, which may be referring to the battle within this respiratory paradox.
It certainly is a battle. It requires a great deal of respiratory strength but not the “pushy grabby go-get em’ harrumph with the abdominals” kind. It’s more of a “poise under pressure” kind with a bit of hidden “harrumph!”
So that is as far as I will go this time because this post would just go on forever if I tried to let out all of my ideas about this now.
If you have any ideas about breath, please let me know.
We artists are valuable. All of us.
The current stimulus proposal moving through the Congress contains money for the National Endowment for the Arts. The idea is that this would stimulate the economy by helping keep artists working and hopefully expand existing arts projects. The NEA supports a wide range of arts initiatives like grants and awards to organizations and individuals. They even have a service that helps artists find health insurance. There are many people who find the NEA very controversial, though, and they have reason (Warning: may be offensive to some).
So, there is opposition to this funding from some within our Congress. They and others are arguing that such money would not stimulate the economy at all, and some of this criticism has a particularly dimissive tone to it:
Simply borrowing money out of the economy in order to transfer it to some artists doesn’t increase the economy’s productivity rate.
Brian Riedl, analyst for the Heritage Foundation (quoted from NPR.org’s story on the stimulus and the NEA)
This dismissive tone does not stop with those who are opposed to funding the NEA. Between artists, there can be a sense that their own art is superior or more relevant than other kinds. E.L Doctorow the renowned writer, in the middle of an otherwise elegant appeal for federal support of the arts once said:
I suppose I would have to confess, if asked, that I feel about opera, for instance, that it is not a living art in this country, that we do not naturally write and produce operas from ourselves as a matter of course as, for example, Italy did in the nineteenth century, and that, therefore, as wonderful and exciting as opera production may be, it is essentially the work of conservation of European culture; opera companies are conservators of the past, like museums, and their support by the National Endowment reflects this strong bias or belief in the arts as something from the past rather than the present.-E.L. Doctorow (1981)
(Quoted from Long Pauses)
There are obvious arguments against each of these quotes.
- Artists create and hold real jobs and are thus part of the economy (visual artists, musicians, singers and related workers, dancers and choreographers, actors and directors).
- The NEA is not a special interest group but is a federal agency.
- And new operas are being written, especially in the U.S. (also here and here). And even if they were not, by excluding art from the past you exclude Shakespeare, Milton, Van Gogh and countless others.
But the bigger issue is that…
In their own ways, they have reduced the artist to a one-size-fits-all concept for their own use (not part of the economy, offensive, or subjectively relevant or not), which is easier to dismiss totally or support partially.
We are not a single concept.:
- Some of us design the clothes that you are wearing.
- Some of us design your homes, your furniture, and your computer that you read this on.
- Some of us make puppets to educate and entertain your children.
- Some make puppets out of food to make political points.
- Someone composed that jingle in that commercial you like so much, or the song you sing in the shower or the hymn you sing on Sunday and even the boot up music in Windows.
- Some of us create totally offensive works that tick others off.
- Some make totally offensive works that make you laugh.
- Someone took some wood and turned it into instruments.
- Some play those instruments.
- Some of us try to channel some sort of divine force.
- Some of us sing unamplified over an orchestra in foreign languages.
- Some of us dance ballet, jazz, modern or in Pilobolus.
- and so on.
Art is something we do, and if there is a “should” in art then it is that we should do more of it. The reaction against an offensive work ought not to be campaigning against the arts en masse but creating art that you think is better. The reaction to a stuffy performance should not be to dismiss that art form but to get involved somehow and make it better.
But to dismiss artists and their art is wrong, especially when real people’s lives are affected by it.
I do not intend for this to be a political blog, but it is hard to avoid when politics has such a large impact on our individual lives. Please click on the Times Topics link on the right, and you will see how opera companies are being affected by the recession. Regardless of whether you agree with the stimulus or not, or even the NEA, please understand that artists are not separate entities outside of society but are interconnected within it.