NPR featured an interview with Carlo Ponti Junior on Weekend Edition this Saturday. In it they discussed classical music in our schools, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Mussorgsky’s Pictures At an Exhibition, and why classical music is important. There are some recordings on the page as well.
I was lucky enough to see a Marilyn Horne Foundation artist by the name of Alex Richardson give a recital here in Las Cruces. His recital was well sung, exciting and full of interesting music. The recital also made me much more interested in the Marilyn Horne Foundation.
This article that was recently printed in the New York Times gives a brief history of the foundation and Marilyn Horne.
View the article here.
Marilyn Horne foundation here.
When I was a younger singer who had just become interested in classical singing, I had the great opportunity to study with a man named Dr. Larry Day. Dr. Day had studied with Berton Coffin at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and much of his teaching seems influenced by Coffin’s emphasis on vowel pronunciation. He was my teacher for two years at the University of Arizona, and one of our earliest exchanges sounded like this:
“Ok, Ian, now sing Ah!” (he played a melody of Do-Re-Mi-Re-Do-Re-Mi-Re-Do)
“Ah!” He had a big smile on his face, and his “AH!” was ringy and sunshiney sounding.
It took me some time, but I did manage learn to sing a pure “Ah” (or for the IPA inclined [a]). We began our lessons every time with this exercise. As we ascended the scale, the [a] then began to be modified slightly towards “Aw” and then “Ah” with a strong sense of [o] followed by a pure [u]. He was teaching me the Caruso vowel scaled without me being conscious of it, and I found in my singing that I would naturally move towards that covered place high in my voice and then move towards the [a] returning to my lower voice.
Lately, I have become interested again in [a]. I have been for the past 1 1/2 years interested in Ingo Titze’s finding that closed sounds like lip trills, buzzes, and vowels [u] and [i] allow the voice to move more easily toward head production. Using closed sounds has been very helpful to aid my students in moving towards their higher voice. They are also useful in vocal warm-ups and when a voice has become fatigued but absolutely must sing.
However, when I see great singers sing, they open their mouths when they sing [a]. I saw La Boheme at the Met not too long ago, and the soprano Maija Kovalevska really opened her mouth to form big beautiful “ah”s. Pavarotti, unless he is protecting himself in preparation for a high note, he will often sing “Ah” with a really open mouth:
Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not imply that a singer’s mouth should be flapping all over the place. But often I see singers try to sing loudly and richly without giving their vowels any space. I have been guilty of this. In recordings I can hear my voice sounding wobbly and out of tune because I am over covering what ought to be an open sound. Recordings done more recently where I made a conscious choice to open more do not have this problem. I also do not mean that [a] is the only vowel to which this applies. “Eh” and “Ih” (like “bit”) are both open sounds and can do with a bit of opening. As a final note, a singer’s breath must be really in place before any extended time working out on open vowels can take place. If a singer is banging his/her poor folds all over with uneven breath pressures and an open mouth, then breath is that with which one must deal first.
So, some things I will be trying with myself and my students:
- Doing slow scales and arpeggios high into my voice trying to sing a pure [a] throughout. What needs to be adjusted? Can any vocal problems emerge? Is there a way to do this safely?
- Comparing that to a more consciously vowel-modified approach. What is louder? What is prettier? How do they feel?
My hypothesis is that, yes, this can be done safely and can be useful. However, I make no claims to how easy it is to do. I expect that breath control must be much greater and that the vowel modification will be there but not be as obvious as moving through clear-cut IPA symbols. I also believe that this may be a good way to simulate the “tight-rope walking” feeling of singing a difficult aria within an exercise. My other hypothesis is that extended covering is a way to “fix” your sound and resonance in advance. Using an open sound is more risky and needs to be created in a different way for each different note and vowel, which is more difficult but perhaps more rewarding.
One of my favorite shows is Marketplace on NPR. This is an half-hour daily show that reviews the day’s events and contains stories that cover a broad scope of economics and finance. Some times, this can be a bit over my head.
Weekly though, there is Marketplace Money, which is an hour long and is devoted to stories on personal finance. It is really very helpful when it comes to understanding how world economic events can influence an individual’s life and then how to best deal with them.
On this last week’s segment “A Day in the Workplace”, they featured a story on a music therapist named Holly Miller. I enjoyed this segment much more than I usually do partially due to my personal interest in her profession. She also tells some very interesting stories, and the background music, whether intentional or not, also perked me up a bit. A placebo?
For those of you who are interested in the Met’s financial troubles mentioned at the beginning, here’s the link.
Thanks to the blog Get Rich Slowly, I was reminded that today is Benjamin Franklin’s 303rd birthday. Here’s the link to the article: Get Rich Slowly
Within the article is a link to Benjamin Franklin’s “Way to Wealth” (here: Way to Wealth), which contains many of Ben’s most famous phrases. In it, a man quotes Poor Richard and then lectures at length beginning thus:
It would be thought a hard government that should tax its people one tenth
part of their time, to be employed in its service. But idleness taxes many of us
much more, if we reckon all that is spent in absolute sloth, or doing of nothing,
with that which is spent in idle employments or amusements, that amount to
He then goes on using rhyme and humor to warn of the perils of idleness and debt. However, this is not all doom and gloom. I actually found myself laughing out loud at the wit of this tricentarian even while he was filling me full of dread at my personal inadequacies.
And what does this have to do with singing? I’ll tell you.
I do not believe in the myth of the “overnight success”. I believe that the myth corresponds to a moment when the stars, perhaps, do momentarily align, however, they align for someone who has spent a great deal of time preparing for that moment. As Ben points out:
‘Tis true there is much to be done, and perhaps you are weak handed, but stick to it steadily, and you will
see great effects, for constant dropping wears away stones, and by diligence and
patience the mouse ate in two the cable; and little strokes fell great oaks, as Poor
Richard says in his almanac, the year I cannot just now remember.
Thus, we as singers must take care to make some small stride every day. And there is no shortage of work to be done! We can:
- Listen to new rep
- Practice our languages
- Practice more
- Eat well
- Prepare for the future financially
- Keep in touch with our friends
- Make new friends
- Check out our local arts scene
- Learn how to dance
- Look up audition dates and requirements
- Practice more
- And on and on…
And if this is daunting, Ben replies:
Methinks I hear some of you say, must a man afford himself no leisure? I will
tell thee, my friend, what Poor Richard says, employ thy time well if thou
meanest to gain leisure; and, since thou art not sure of a minute, throw not away an hour. Leisure is time for doing something useful; this leisure the diligent man will obtain, but the lazy man never; so that, as Poor Richard says, a life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things.
Also, remember that singing is fun and feels good. Ben seems to think that one’s trade ought to be something one enjoys, and I agree.
PS. Much of his article is also devoted to debt, the avoidance of it, and the perils of it, and I will not go into that much now but save my thoughts on it for a future post. Needless to say though, debt is never a good option, especially for those of us who may always be on a financial tightrope.