Music critic, pianist, and author is taking questions at the New York Times website. Several questions and answers have been published, and they have been thoughtful and thought-provoking. I encourage anyone interested in classical music to give this a few minutes to read over.
Thanks, Vinnie Moore!
I remember when I was 15 years old, and I had my musical world turned upside down.
I was in love with the electric guitar. That summer I had learned the guitar solo (as best I could) from “Stairway to Heaven”, and I had learned some amazing things that allowed me to solo convincingly. I thought I was hot stuff.
At some point that Fall, a friend played an Vinnie Moore electric guitar instructional video for me, and I was shattered. I realized that my right hand had been doing it wrong all along. I had been using all down strokes, while better guitarists went down/up. I tried doing this, but this was the equivalent to a tongue twister for the hands, and I felt like I had to go backwards in my technique so far way that I had might as well just give up.
Of course, I didn’t give up, and the new technique made me a much better player.
Pride cometh before a fall
Around the time you get your first dollar for singing, you might start to think that you’re pretty good. After all, asking for and accepting payment for singing requires some chutzpah. If you win a competition or if you get into grad school or if someone you admire compliments you, you might think that you have more to learn but not all that much. You may even begin to think that you could teach yourself whatever is left.
That’s where I have been every now and then right before I get brought down to earth:
- I have won a competition and weeks later performed embarrassingly badly in a master class.
- I have gotten a lead role and found out later that I was not the first choice by a long shot.
- I have shown good songs to people who hated them.
- I have wrapped up a successful run and found out afterwards that the directors had been terrified that I might bomb the performances.
- I have found out that some technique that I was very proud of was totally wrong.
“Once I was the king of Spain, now I’m eating humble pie”
Since working with my latest teacher Andrew Zimmerman I feel like I have these mini-crises pretty regularly. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not abusive or anything. But he will introduce new techniques to me, and I realize that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. For example, I had no idea how ingrained into my singing my tongue tension was until we began working on it. It is still there a little bit even after a year and a half of persistent work.
The latest one has to deal with breath. He will sometimes stick his hands into my belly and demand, “Why is this so hard! Let go!” This last time, it stuck. I really tried letting go of my abdominals while I was singing, and I couldn’t do it without great effort. We experimented with it and my voice got bigger and more “baritonal” (darker). Later in Alexander Technique/Opera Workshop class we expanded that release by spreading it throughout the body. I sang very well.
So I spent a long time Friday night working on singing without adding belly tension while privately worrying to myself how I was going to apply this to songs that had been learned under the old tight belly regime. The excessive ab tension creeps into other parts of my body. And when I let it go, I find that seemingly unrelated aspects of singing are infected with the bad habit and without it function sloppily. I will release my abs just to find my tongue halfway down my throat. I will release my abs and pronounce like I have cotton balls in my mouth. Letting it go is like a cure that makes you feel worse before you feel better.
But it is better. I was singing very easily, loudly, and beautifully Friday night, but I have a whole lot of practicing to do before I can start thinking I’m hot stuff again.
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.