Category Archives: Technique

Getting into the mechanics of singing but in no way trying to detract from the magic.

Reflecting After the Recital

Shall We Gather, my first New York City recital, was a success! My heartfelt thanks go to all those who made it possible – Holyrood Church for the use of their beautiful acoustics and space, The Washington Heights Musical Society and Alexandra Dunbar for having me as part of their concert series, Baritone Boy for being my constant support, Bill Lewis for being my teacher as well as my pianist, and all my friends who were in attendance and those who wished me good luck from afar. Funds from the free-will donation will be used towards housing/travel expenses for Astoria Music Festival, and a significant portion was donated to Holyrood Church.

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Sunlight streaming in at Holyrood Church. NYC, 2014.

It was an intimate gathering, which made each face in the audience that much more dear to me. It was incredible and so touching to have friends from work, friends from San Diego, recently-made friends from New York, and even two friends from junior high whom I have not seen in about ten years there on such short notice, on such a beautiful Sunday evening, in a city where there are so many entertainment options to choose from. Continue reading

Bastien und Bastienne

Tomorrow I’ll be singing my first full Mozart role! It may be a role from one-act opera that he wrote when he was a pre-teen, but it still counts!

Each of the little numbers Mozart has composed for this piece is a gem. I can just imagine a mini-Mozart sitting at a desk that dwarves him, his feet dangling from a too-high chair, scribbling away as these ideas come to him. Hear for yourself: a recording of the whole work is available here, with Dagmar Schellenberger as Bastienne, Ralph Eschrig as Bastien, and René Pape as Colas.

The story is simple: Bastien has left Bastienne for a fancier city girl, and Colas, the local pseudo-magician (I envision him as a slightly drunk Santa – I’m not the only one, am I?), helps bring the two lovers back together. The music seems simple, which is appropriate for these country folks, but there are nuances in the changing meter, shifting tempi, and the layers of emotions revealed phrase by phrase. As I was going through the text and writing in the translation, I was surprised at how infrequently Mozart allowed Bastienne, a heartbroken shepherdess, to descend into melodramatic moping and sighing. My sense is that Bastienne is fairly young, and as a country girl, not too sophisticated. However, Mozart writes music for her that is graceful, charming, and clever. Given how upset she must be (a teenager who has just been dumped by her boyfriend), she doesn’t spend too much time wallowing in minor keys. I find this pretty impressive.

Getting this music in my voice has been a bit of an experiment. By the time I knew the notes well enough that taking into my lesson made sense, my teacher was heading out of town for a month-plus of traveling and performing. Bastienne’s music isn’t flashy and virtuosic, but it has definitely challenged me in other ways. Many of the phrases dip into the lower end of my voice, and I sing quite a few notes below the staff. This is a pretty big deal for me because for a long time I considered anything below a B4 to be problematic in tone, resonance, and volume.

I’ve been working on my middle voice, and I actually added a predominantly middle-voice aria, “Piangerò, la sorte mia,” to my rep last year and felt really good about it. Since moving to NYC, I’ve been learning how to relax into my middle voice instead of trying to control it in my search for resonance. As a result, I think that part of my voice is getting stronger and fuller. Along with that, my teacher and Baritone Boy say that my overall sound is getting warmer… things are opening up, and I’ve started looking at music I previously thought to be unlikely/improbable. But I digress! Back to Bastienne: the performance is tomorrow. I’ve never sung in the space before, so I have no sense of how big or live or unfriendly it is. I will remind myself to focus on the sensations of breath flowing rather than fixating on whether it sounds good.

I’m excited for tomorrow, and I wonder what Mozart I’ll tackle next!

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Finding and embracing my “schlanke” voice

My voice lesson today housed one of my bigger technique ah-HAH moments since the semester began.  In the weeks leading up to this, my new teacher (I wonder at what point I’ll think of her as just my teacher and not my new one) has identified my technical hiccups and begun making suggestions for ways to smooth out my registers, strengthen my low and middle voice, release my top voice, and access my extension.  As is almost always the case for singers, I get what she’s saying during the lesson but am not sure if I’m doing things right as I practice during the week.  Most singers are extremists: if you tell us to do something. we grab onto the idea like a new toy and practice so hard with it that it’s almost unrecognizable the following week… then you have to tell us to do the opposite of what you told us last week.  So it’s very possible that we spend a lot of time practicing the wrong thing.   No wonder it takes 15 years to learn how to sing.

Today’s ah-HAH was that I was singing too much from my throat and thereby creating a thicker sound.  I know we’re not supposed to sing from the throat, and I wasn’t doing it intentionally – but I admit I was trying to sing with a full voice.  This throatiness probably grew out of a breakthrough I experienced about six months ago, a breakthrough that I may have taken just a tad too far (we’re all extremists, I tell you!).  Back then, I had a method of cheating up during an ascending interval where I would drop my breath energy and have my voice pop up into my head.  This gave me some cool floating high notes, but it ruined my phrasing and my breath support.  The breakthrough came when I finally sang through the note changes.  I’d always taken that phrase to mean having a legato line, but that day I understood it was also a reference to energy and texture.  This continuation from one note to the next gave a new uniformity to my sound where before my high voice seemed disconnected from my middle.

Looking back now, I can see a correlation between the discovery of this sense of continuation with a struggle to get on top of my high notes.  Notes that I’d never had trouble getting up to in the past became more of a struggle, and I would be slightly under pitch.  I didn’t know exactly why, and I actually attributed it to a hole in my technique rather than extra baggage in my technique.  After today’s lesson, I see how I morphed the idea of continuation into vocal weight, which is what has been making those high notes more difficult.

To combat this, my teacher had me bend over at the waist with knees unlocked, neck released, and arms dangling so I could feel the blood rushing to my eyes, nasal passage, and forehead – where I felt the pounding was where my voice should be vibrating.  She had me sing through a few phrases from “Willow Song” in this position: I expected to have more difficulty singing with half my body upside down, but beyond having to take a little more energy to initiate my onset of the phrase, the high notes were easier to sing.  My throat didn’t have to act as a resonator anymore because I was sending my voice to the areas where the blood was pounding.  That throbbing in my head from the upside-down position combined with vocal vibrations is unmistakable.  Usually I worry about being able to access the technique in my practicing without having a teacher to guide and prompt me, but this was so visceral that I don’t think reproducing it will be a problem.

Yes, I used to suffer from a slight complex about having a “small voice,” as if this meant I couldn’t have a successful career as a singer, but this is mostly behind me now.  My technique has filled out enough that I don’t think my voice is small, although it is on the side of “lighter” compared to anything full lyric and bigger.  I’m just happy to know that it’s possible for me to sing with the core of my voice without sacrificing accuracy and ease in my upper register.   I didn’t “lose” my high notes; I just had to accept the nature of my voice in order to access the high notes properly, letting the core ring in my head rather than generating mass in my throat.  As my teacher said to me today, the Germans call it schlanke and it’s a good thing.  I can’t wait to practice tomorrow.

Schlanke [‘ʃlaŋkǝ] – adj, German: slender, slim, neat

Getting High E into Shape

A few years ago, Mozart’s (concert) aria “Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio!” was one of my recital pieces.  The tessitura is quite high, meandering around E5, and there are three high E’s (E6) toward the end of the A section.  Other parts of my voice are stronger now than in my UCSD days, but I don’t think I have the E6 lined up well enough to sing “Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio” tomorrow if needed.  Here is the excellent Diana Damrau convincing us that this piece is easy to sing (with text following at the end of the post).

My recent repertoire has mainly extended to D6 (“Obeissons quand leur voix appelle” and “Willow Song”), which is quite comfortable and no longer nerve-wracking.  There’s an optional Eb6 in the final cadenza of “Oh! quante volte,” but I only include it in my practicing and have not used it in an audition or competition yet.  There are practice sessions when the Eb is easily accessed, but it’s not quite consistent yet.  Since my repertoire hasn’t required an E6, I do not routinely sing up there or warm up to E6 or F6.  That’s changing though, because I want “Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio!” back in my active repertoire.  Plus, I want to do “Glitter and be Gay”, and I also plan on reviving “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” – both of which are E6-happy.

I started vocalizing up to F6 during BASOTI and will continue to do so.  E6 and F6 don’t always sound great, and they haven’t gotten all the overtones ringing yet – but it is easier now than it was a month ago.  Although my recent technique is vastly different compared to the technique I used when I sang “Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio!,” those high notes must still be inside me.  Let’s say they’ve been taking it easy and having a few too many relaxing drinks by the pool; it’s time to whip them into shape so they look good, feel good, and know to show up on-time, every time.

I’m going to give myself until the end of Fall semester to get the E where I want it and at least one of these E6 pieces ready.

text for Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio!

Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!
Qual è l’affanno mio;
Ma mi condanna il fato
A piangere e tacer.
Arder non pù il mio core
Per chi vorrebbe amore
E fa che cruda io sembri,
Un barbaro dover.
 
Ah conte, partite,
Correte, fuggite
Lontano da me;
La vostra diletta
Emilia v’aspetta,
Languir non la fate,
È degna d’amor.
 
Ah stelle spietate!
Nemiche mi siete.
Mi perdo s’ei resta.
Partite, correte,
D’amor non parlate,
È vostro il suo cor.

Singing The Tempest and Relearning How to Breathe

Well, my wardrobe is not exactly prepared for a summer in San Francisco.  BASOTI warned us it would be “chilly” – they should’ve gone with “downright cold” and “as windy as Chicago.”  I was a little too optimistic packing dresses and flowing summery tops, and now I wish the luggage space had been used for sweaters and coats!

The Tempest.  Yesterday was the first music rehearsal for my scene from Lee Hoiby’s The Tempest.  This opera was written in 1986, and the libretto is based on Shakespeare’s play.  Hoiby uses a combination of old and new to great effect.  The lyrics are from another century; the themes are very real to a present day audience.  Traditional harmonies are organized into clear structures and patterns; a few bars later, voices are woven together in a free exchange and exploring a less obvious tonality.  A phrase starts off with unusual leaps and steps to create musical tension before moving to a shiver-inducing resolution.  Of my three scenes, this scene contained, without contest, the most challenging music to learn because I could not always predict where the vocal or instrumental line would go.

The first half of the scene has Ferdinand and Miranda (me!) in a duet.  They begin with shy, round-about expressions of concerns for each others’ well-being, which evolve into declarations of love and hopes for marriage.  Propero, Miranda’s father, is the orchestrator of this affair, and he calls three goddesses to bless the couple.  The three goddesses, Iris, Ceres, and Juno, then sing unending blessings and bounty onto Ferdinand and Miranda’s lives together.  The second half is structurally and harmonically very different from the first, which gives the scene such depth.

The music rehearsal went more smoothly than I think most had anticipated.  The fact that the opera is in English made it easy to memorize, but I find it difficult to keep the core of my voice engaged in this language.  After some reflection, I think the issue is approaching the beginnings of each phrase from below rather than above.  Coming from below suggests a lack of preparation; I know what note to aim for, but I am leaping up without a foundation in place to help get me there.  Coming from above means a well-executed inhalation acts as a springboard to create the energy needed to start singing on the right pitch.  Too many years of listening to pop music has lead me to associate singing in English with a lax initiation of the voice.  Just listen to all those pop singers scooping their way up to their notes and putting so much air into their sound.  It’s emotional and expressive, but it’s not a good way for The Tempest to be sung.

Breathing.  Apparently, my concept of breathing has been wrong this entire time!  Or it may be more accurate for my to say my conscious concept of breathing has been incomplete.  There have definitely been times in lessons and competitions were my breath clicked into place and none of my phrases felt like a breath-holding contest.  But most of my performance anxiety stems from not knowing what kind of tone I will produce when I’m feeling nervous.  The simple solution would be for me to never get nervous, but that may not ever happen so I need a way to improve the consistency of my tone instead.

Singers always hear, “Don’t breathe with your chest, use your diaphragm, support, engage your core, fill your lungs, your ribcage should expand, breathe deep, let your belly hang out!” While none of this is wrong, these comment made me forget exactly where our lungs are located:

Location of the Lungs

Ah, our lungs!

Lungs are big; the extend all the way up into your upper chest and under our collar bones!  For so long I concentrated on keeping my upper chest and collar bones still, trying to fill the bottom half of my torso with air.  I let go of my pride and stopped sucking in my stomach.  When I took a deep breath, I imagined my rib cage expanding to the left and right sides, and even to the front above my stomach …  But what about the rest of my lungs?

Our Alexander Technician pointed out that our ribcage is a dynamic column that can expand in 360° and is subject to the laws of volume and pressure. When the ribcage expands, volume increases, internal pressure drops, and air rushes in to equalize the pressure.  Now I have no reason to worry about orchestrating a good inhalation because the lungs will naturally fill up the “right way.”

When I allowed this natural inhalation to take place, I feel the expansion from the bottom rib (a few inches above my hip bone) all the way up to the base of my neck (the area between my upper shoulder blades).  The muscles between my rips and attaching my ribs to my spine lengthen, which is an amazing feeling.  When was the last time you were aware of those muscles?  I’ve spend so long breathing low I forgot how to breathe wholly.

Of course, I am going to incorporate this into all my singing, but I am particularly curious to see how this changes my English pieces.

Breathing deeply and fully,

Joyce

Training and letting go with Diane

After ending the work week on Friday, I trekked over to my voice teacher’s and had a wonderful masterclass/lesson with soprano Diane Alexander.  It was exactly what I needed after Thursday night’s unsatisfactory practice.  I’ve learned all the new notes for my Musical Merit repertoire (six pieces in two months), but getting each piece into my voice has not been as smooth of a process.

My voice seems to change every few weeks when my teacher and I uncover a slight adjustment in my approach to support, resonance, breath, or vowel. I don’t mind improving, but having these changes in the weeks right before the biggest competition in town takes some of the fun out of the process.

As a coloratura soprano, my challenges occur when navigating around E5-F5-G5.  I feel like a beginner each time I encounter  one of these notes: how do I achieve the right combination of resonance and clarity?  These notes, of course, make their appearance in every single piece, so I need to get this straightened out.

In an effort to create depth and size through my problem passaggio, my latest strategy was to use the resonators in my mouth (teeth, tongue, palate) to generate more energy in the sound.  Instead, I ended up with a tired voice and doubts about my fundamental technique. Maybe I don’t know how to sing.  Maybe getting into graduate school was a fluke.  What if I’m not special enough to compete with the hordes of sopranos circling jobs like vultures …  This is such a dangerous path to go down.  I know when this thought-process starts gathering speed, but it’s hard to slap enough sense into yourself for it to be effective.

My teacher says to relax and just have fun because this is when the best singing happens.  I try to follow all his directions, but this one is tough: how can I relax and have fun when there is so much music for me to learn and when my technique isn’t secure?!   When my short-lived career is never going to have a chance to mature?!

Then Diane gave me the same message.  I never disbelieved my teacher, but hearing another experienced professional give me the same advice and then applaud the sound I produced right after taking the advice was a powerful moment.  We were working through “Willow Song” from The Ballad of Baby Doe, a piece that Diane is very familiar with.   She took my hand.  We sang the last page of ahh-ahh’s together, our hands swinging happily back and forth.  It was incredibly lighthearted and light-spirited.  The aria is wistful, hopeful, excited, tender, joyous, carefree, and loving, and I enjoyed it more in that moment than I ever have before.

Diane encouraged me to allow the voice to flip over the top half of the mask. This was a familiar idea, but one I had backed away from because I thought it was cutting off a deep-seated energy and thinning my voice.  The extra effort it took to control and multiply the sound was tiring my voice and leading me to over-sing.  With Diane’s suggestion, I was no longer fighting to control the flow of breath and sound – what a relief.  I used this in my practice tonight and sang comfortably for about an hour.  My voice felt stronger, my line was smoother throughout my range, and my breath was more stable with less air escaping unnecessarily.  YES!  Can’t wait to practice again tomorrow!

Lightheartedly,

Joyce