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Janet Shell

This page covers Janet's thoughts on a variety of matters...

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WHAT DOES AN EFFECTIVE SINGING TEACHER ACTUALLY DO? - February 2015

To understand this, we need to agree on the word 'effective'. Note that I have not employed the word 'good' as it has a value judgement attached to it.

By 'effective' I mean that the results of a teacher can be clearly heard and seen in the progress a student makes, both in terms of the speed of progress and in the confidence of the singer to take charge of their own voice and understand how they produce their sound. I don't regard the results of singing exams as necessarily an indicator here as in my own experience they can be very subjective and when a none singer (examiner) has to make notes on a singer, their criteria and expectations can be markedly different and frequently misplaced. eg knowing how a young female voice develops means understanding that the higher range may sound over bright or understanding when a young male voice is creating an artificially deep sound by lowering the larynx.

It seems to me that there are some specific criteria which show an effective practitioner. The list is by no means exhaustive and each category could be a separate area of study, however, I believe a really effective singing teacher will have success in addressing the following things.

PASSAGIO

The transitional parts of the voice must be recognised and engaged with. I think there are not only the two clear upper and lower range areas but in female voices certainly, there is another, mini passagio at the mid range, around about B'/B flat. The voice can struggle with those notes long after others have been secured.

In dealing with the passagio, there should be strategies and exercises given to facilitate an effective bridging of these transitions. Tied in with this needs to be an understanding of falsetto and how it manifests itself and indeed what it is. Even top surgeons are divided as to what happens in falsetto, however it is not an absent of the vocal folds meeting - there would be no sound if that happened. Anybody who has been told that falsetto is the vocal cords not meeting, should question how that would be possible! From videos I have seen, falsetto certainly seems to have the vocal folds meet but not full closure of the entire depth of the fold. More activity seems to happen on the top edge of the cord and it is always thin fold activity.

Female voices very clearly have falsetto too which is that awkward moment when they pass through the upper passagio and then seem to get a new voice. It is very easy for girls to develop this part of the voice so its sounds strong, however, there will always be a tricky moment coming back down into the middle part of the voice or thicker fold and often a great resistance on the part of the singer to address this for fear of failure.

Conversely, some teachers working with tenors actively encourage the falsetto to gain a sensation of 'head voice' and then open up the voice once there. I am not a specialist in this field, so will learn from others. Suffice to say that I have heard varying degrees of success using this method. I think that pre 19th century this was more widely used. Once you get to Verdi et al, the modal voice is enhanced in the upper range.

Efficiency in dealing with the passagio and teaching how to manage it are crucial for more advanced progress to be made.

LEGATO

Achieving a true legato line makes singing so easy that it astonishes me more attention is not paid to this. True legato singing, as I was taught it, requires absolute attention to the vowel with the sound being butted up against the consonant and then immediate change to the next vowel and so on.

It is easy for singers to think they are achieving legato when in fact they are making slight jumps and adjustments, particularly when there is a wider interval between notes. A teacher needs to listen out for what can be very effective masking of true legato!

Some people are able to sing the line of text purely on the vowels, in my experience, many people find this challenging if not impossible! As I had always been able to do it myself, I was surprised to discover this and I am not sure if it is wrapped up in a mild dyslexia or just something to practise.

Again, letting this go or muddling along with it should not be an option. The very essence of great singing is to exact legato from a student. It's surely one of the biggest favours we can do?!

A phenomenon that can occur is what can be called 'sausaging' on notes: beginning a note and then it bulging during phonation before settling back down as it leads to the next note. There is a discernible difference between this and bloom on a note in that the habit of the former tends to sound pushed or squeezed depending on pitch and occurs on every note, rather than at the apex of a phrase.

RESONANCE

Finding the thing we call resonance is what makes voice production rewarding. It's that ring and shine to the voice that offers so many possibilities within just one note. It makes singing less effortful and is a vital element for vocal health.

Much is written about resonance and what is and isn't, but if you ask any singer who successfully negotiates singing above an orchestra with minimal effort, they can tell you what they think it is or how they perceive it. Really singers are working with secondary resonances as if they were the primary resonances. Nearly every singer who accesses it will tell you that it feels as if the sound happens away from them at face level, not throat level, at face level. They will speak of imagining the sound coming from between their eyes or out of the apples of their cheeks. They will speak of the sound as being quite edgy and almost internally deafening and that it is as if you have opened the door into another room in which the voice has renewed strength and flexibility. Personally I don't care how much you tell me that resonance happens at pharyngeal level, my attention is not going to be put there where I have no discernible feedback.

Singing with resonance is not about loudness either. An effective teacher will introduce the art of pianissimo singing while staying in modal voice ie not wandering off to falsetto. I once heard the scientist Ingo Titze talk about the best exercise for singers which was the 'messa di voce'. I would concur with that. It operates the complete vocal cord in the right order of its journey through a note. If you have mastery over that, you can sing any note within your range with a perfect balance. You require 'resonance' to remain active in order to achieve this.

THE SOFT PALATE

Never has there been such a dichotomy of ideas as surrounding this part of the vocal tract! The bottom line is that the amount of space you create in your mouth is directly proportionate to the kind of sound that comes out. Notice that I didn't say amount of sound. I have seen singers who need to create a physical large space and others who seem to move their jaw very little - both effective. For me personally I require a lot of thought about imaginary upper space and the feeling of lift combined with jaw release and daring to open that bit further - just to see how far I can go! This would be quite wrong for somebody else who won't have my thought processes or physiognomy. A teacher needs to know how to explain this sort of thing.

Happily, we can see the soft palate and when the uvula closes off against the throat while it is 'raised'. (best example of this is when we yawn) Control over this bit of tissue will allow the singer to experience a much greater wave of sound and indeed when the uvula is not actively engaged with, the sound becomes over nasal. There is actually a condition called Velopharyngeal Insufficiency where closing of the uvula is impossible leading to a nasal speaking voice as extra air has to travel down the nose.

'Lifting the soft palate' is a common statement to make, however, many, many singers are mostly unaware of how exactly to do this. It becomes a matter of pot luck. Working with the singer to understand this process and sensationalise how that works is one thing, however, care should be taken that the singer does not then over open the throat in an effort to repeat the feeling and end up depressing the larynx.

TONGUE TENSION

It stands to reason that the tongue has an effect on the jaw and vice versa but my suspicion is that its chiefly the tongue which dictates the tension. Other more learned people than myself will probably put me right, but in listening to singers (both professional and students), I have watched people seemingly release their jaw to an extent while their tongue has a rigidity which creates a muddy and very 'far back' sound, a bit like Kermit in the Muppets.

A teacher has to be on the look out and 'listen out' for this. To the singer it can sound incredibly rich and powerful in their head, which is all the more reason to address it before it becomes a familiar part of their singing.

There are no end of tensions a tongue can create from the retracted tongue as a higher note approaches to the tongue being glued to the sides of the molars to an over flattening of the tongue which limits the space in the upper part of the throat because, of course, the back of the tongue descends with the lowering larynx.

Some singers ram their tongue tip against the lower teeth to keep it from moving backwards, others almost try and dip the tongue into a concave shape in order to get as much space around the note as possible. Neither of these are going to help create that relaxed and free sound that is the gold standard of singing.

There are many effective exercises to loosen the tongue muscles generally and a quick search on the internet will reveal an equal number of thoughts regarding tongue tension. Some can be very specifically tongue root issues and I call the sound of a tense tongue 'middle mouthy'. The sound is masked from arriving forward enough.

Once a singer becomes aware of the tensions both in their tongue and of course the jaw area, great progress can be made. It needs a constant reminder as I have found in my own teaching.

Another aspect of tongue tension is the need to free up the tip of the tongue which works so hard when dealing in other languages. A lot of people have trouble rolling their R, yet reviewing the placement of the tongue tip and simple things like articulating tongue twisters can all help get this tip moving!

BREATH AND SUPPORT

Although connected, they need separate attention. Nearly everybody who walks into my studio has heard of the diaphragm and they have without exception a notion that it is implicit in either breathing or support. We need to clear up the notion of what the diaphragm does. It is a ring of muscle attached to the bottom of the rib cage that descends when the lungs fill with air but it has no conscious feedback for anybody. You don't move it independently, it just IS. Similarly, despite the old school singers, particularly men, saying that with support you push outwards, this is counter productive to a free and released sound! An effective teacher remains a curious learner and will be interested to research and try out various theories on this most elusive of singing terms.

Suffice to say, teachers can implement many effective ways of utilising breath and indeed must do this as it is the fuel for the voice. Learning to use breath efficiently and in a studied way initially is going to save a lot of time later. It may be the 'boring' bit of singing, but it will make phonation a good deal better and the more you focus on breath and manage it, the more the tone of the voice improves! Singers also need to practise where they are breathing within a particular piece of music in order to manage longer and longer phrases. It isn't a competition though. Well managed breath is imperceptible to the listener.

If the voice is to go the distance without collapsing, support is crucial and must never be something which hijacks the voice, but does what it says on the tin.

It can take a long time for a teacher to work out a good way of explaining this and discovering something which works for all their students and it may be that what is support for one person is not for another. Come what may, the principles of the muscle connections need to be explored and made effective for the singer because the consequences of not dealing with it include falling off a note, tuning issues, squeezed throat muscles and inability to sustain tone throughout a phrase. Signs of this are the singer collapsing inwards towards the ends of phrases, rounded shoulders and a general unease!

...TO CONCLUDE...

With all these ideas, you are often making the unconscious, conscious which can feel odd and downright uncomfortable for some. There is never a moment when you can turn around and state that a singer is finished, but you know when they are well on their way and have the tools to mange their own mechanism. The above mentioned items are of course merely the building blocks for the voice. How long is a piece of string? There are tomes written about singing technique and it is always interesting to read about ideas and try them out to see what validity they can have in your own studio. In the end, any teacher teaches from what they know and experience; if they don't it will always be a lot of great ideas that remain unconnected and rather random. That is how it will be for the student too. It is the ability to put it all together, layer upon layer, to create the best sound of which a singer is capable at any given moment that will determine the success of the instruction.


WHAT SCIENCE CAN AND CAN'T DO FOR YOUR VOICE - July 2014

Today, as a singing teacher, you cannot escape the feeling that if you are not scientific in your approach to this ancient art form, you are not credible.

As a teacher I find what cords do and all the surrounding muscular activity and co-ordination fascinating. It is incredible that all that is happening just to allow me to sing an unimpeded 'A'. I could embrace it much more than I do and get a degree which means I can quote you short structures with long names and blind you with my knowledge!

The more mechanical approach is a sort of fail-safe in that if you know what your muscles are doing, and use conscious thinking over intuition, you are less likely to have a vocal crisis. I can see the appeal of that. As somebody who indeed had a vocal 'calamity', could that have been avoided had I been taught by this method? As it happens, I think not, because my haemorrhaging had started many years before I was a singer, although I was blissfully ignorant of that and it was not picked up by any teacher because I sounded and looked fine (this was the time when I was winning competitions and singing live on the radio etc). Had my vocal crisis been one born of inadequate technique, however, then maybe a little awareness of muscular activity would have been useful.

We are so lucky today that techniques to see the cords have been developed and understanding of the vocal mechanism allows us to mend broken voices in a way that was not possible before. Had it not been for my wonderful vocal surgeon, well, I cannot imagine where I would be now. We need specialists who love the voice and what it can achieve to be passionate about their science and to teach us a little of what they know as a kind of preventative medicine.

As with all things though, it is with the skill of the practitioner that the solution lies. This result is dependant upon how you receive the information and how you tick as a person. As teachers, do we feel 'better' if we have given out all the indisputable facts on voice production to somebody? Then, at a subliminal level, it becomes less of our responsibility if the 'instructed' doesn't use it correctly. Ultimately, we did what we could. I just wonder if in studios around the world, there are singers and teachers striving to achieve that perfect sound and still not quite hitting the mark despite doing everything 'right'? Could it be that in singing there are other factors that come into play?

It is my belief that teaching singing from the 'outside-in' is not effective. You see, a voice automatically does all those things if the thinking is right. A singer who has spent years perfecting their craft will tell you things that seem mad to the uninitiated. They will speak of the images they use, the feelings they have and how isolating one or two things means the rest takes care of itself. They will speak of a personal journey, of taking a piece of information from one source and tying it in with a thought from somewhere else; they will tell you of a passing comment from a vocal coach that revolutionised how they think and how reading a text gave them a moment of clarity and perception which was theirs alone. They will alarm you with the randomness of their mental world until they open their mouth and make you connect with something inside you. Most of all they will inspire you. Singing has to be done from the 'inside-out'.

The problem with teaching wholly as an observer is that you never quite 'get' the mental journey of a performer.It's so tempting to remove all that 'airy-fairy' stuff which has no basis in science. Using knowledge of how a voice works can be fascinating and enlightening, but it fails to get to the nub of why somebody sings in the first place. (Or the second or third come to think of it)!

Perhaps the separation of teaching singing and actually being a performer is what is at play here. All the muscle control in the world will not make you a great performer. Is a great singer a great performer? NO! It is tempting then to think that great performers must be great singers. Often they are not! They know all about muscle control but you may be surprised at how little they know about how their body achieves that and even shocked at how little they care! Some resolutely do not want to know!

Teaching with scientific knowledge at the forefront may be a useful tool, but it must not be the only one! At worst it makes a singer feel inadequate and dependant. Therefore we must ask the question, is teaching without mechanical knowledge appropriate? Singing on intuition alone only takes you so far. I will guarantee you now that every single performer has employed bad technique at some point in the middle of a performance! The emotions of an operatic 'argument' spill over just once into the voice allowing for a fabulous moment for the audience but a potential disaster for the singer who has to reign back for a few phrases to get back in control; or the sudden connection with the emotion of music and text that is too relevant at that moment in time for the singer who finds themselves playing out their own life on stage.

The simple fact is, you cannot separate singing from performing. The teaching of singing is the development of a craft which changes constantly depending on the emotions of the singer in front of you. Science depends on absolutes. This can lead to a state of mind which refuses to accept anything else. It is safe for many people because you cannot argue with it. It allows people who are not singers to teach singing because it is merely a question of using the right muscles. It can reveal amazing things. It can be revolutionary. What it struggles with is the inexact nature of singing! In utilising the scientific approach, you have to employ flexibility.

I can tell you that my own voice dysfunction revealed to me a fascinating side to the voice that I had ignored up until that point. Interestingly though,as a performer, I must say, the last thing I use to sing well is any conscious thoughts about tiliting my larynx, anchoring, untying my tongue or keeping my false folds from impeding on the other ones! My own technique has all been done in my personal practice sessions so that I am free to use the well honed vocal mechanism to express in performance.

This may be a disappointment to those who are guardians of various methods of singing at the moment. I honestly don't believe there is one method alone which is an all-purpose vocal solution and I don't believe that will ever happen. Medical intervention and scientific progress will continue to bring us more hope and be a support for singers in trouble, however, it is of little help to a singer coping with the emotions that inadequate vocal technique bring about. That is not the job of mechanical fixing. And all the information in the world about singing cannot help a singer express the unspeakable or unbearable which is so much a part of what singing is about.


WHEN THE LEARNING HAS TO BE SELF INFLICTED - June 2014

The wonderful thing about the internet is being able to access so many pearls of wisdom about every subject under the sun. When it comes to 'learning to sing' the possibilities are endless. Even for established singers, there are always new things to learn and hear about, and the web allows us to discover more and more about the different methods used to achieve the ultimate perfection! (I am ignoring the absolutely abysmal teaching you find too!)

As a long established teacher myself, I know how satisfying it is to gain a reputation for talking sense and finding the solutions for students. In singing teaching the most important possession you own is a pair of ears, closely followed by the eyes! To paraphrase something I heard, nature gives us two eyes and two ears and one mouth to be used in those proportions! I always think it's an interesting exercise to record a lesson you teach and hear just how much you talk! By nature we singers do love the sound of our own voices!!

I have noticed in all my teaching aspects though, a worrying trend where people want to be told what to do. It starts in school where nowadays, everything has become prescriptive and there is no time for experimentation and exploration. This has seeped into the universities and beyond.

Let me backtrack a bit here. When learning about singing, I DO believe in instruction as much as discovery. In learning to sing, another pair of ears is essential because the acoustic feedback both externally and internally gives a false reading of how the voice sounds to others. The teacher has a set of skills they are excited about passing on and initially a lot of 'correction' will take place.

I truly believe, however, that once the principles are established, very early on, it is essential that the singer starts to 'own' thier voice and not keep giving it up to others to manoeuvre. I also believe this is an incremental process.

I recall that after my first singing lesson, it was an absolute revelation to me to understand that if I feel my voice in my throat, I am already making it work too hard! I would go as far as to say this still remains the most enlightening piece of information I pass on to others. We all know our vocal cords reside in the larynx, we can be aware of them when we speak and also to how that sounds inside our head. Making that switch to turning on higher overtones and unburdening the larynx from constriction is of course, the very essence of singing well. My thoughts come to this moment: as a teacher, I am not inside the head of my student. I can hear what they may be doing to block a freedom of sound and I can offer solutions and explain how it feels when I sing. I could open any number of books and internet sites to back up my theories and present a massive reading list. In the end, the best learning happens when the student is emboldened to go away and engage personally with the voice.

I want to encourage singers to establish a relationship with their own voice and it starts right away. Singing like Pavarotti or Freni might seem like an impossible dream - however I remember reading how Pavarotti would spend a lot of time going from one note to the next just on one vowel in order to find a true legato. After a while he would add in another vowel and develop the feeling for how he could minimise the clonk that bringing in a second or third vowel can produce! He did this repeatedly so that the sound stayed in one spot and then eventually he would sing through a song on just the vowels etc That matching up of vowels brought a seamless quality to his voice and it remained at his disposal to the end. It puts the voice in one piece, something I hear many singers struggle with.

I often say that in singing it is about eradicating all the ways that don't work until your muscles eventually only go along one route to sound. What you do with it next is another matter of course and how you develop the sound is another journey - but we are talking here of the fundamentals.

The singer who returns to their teacher with either their discoveries or their concerns from the journey will be learning in an active and symbiotic way.

Progress is inevitably the most rapid with this self discovery. Hanging on to the words of a charismatic teacher and waiting to be told what next to do may be a very comfortable place, however it leaves you disempowered. I would be wary of the teachers who engender this approach.

If you know how it feels to produce the most healthy, uncluttered sound which is easy to use, then you are well on your way. It truly is not difficult to find this. (Meanwhile there are a lot of people making a lot of money from complicating the process!) Yes, you will always benefit from another pair of ears; you will always be glad of a guiding hand - however, if you still need to address fundamentals when you are already having a career, that is a very scary, and I would go so far as to say, doomed, place to be.

I was blessed to have very good instruction when I was first learning (by that I mean the first 15 years!), but I was also compulsive about finding that sound for myself. I self monitored all the time and listened to others and then tried it out. Ultimately I was able to let go of the 'over thinking' and to trust that I had managed to find that easy place. I am still never satisfied to this day - it is one of the crosses you bear as a performer, that one of perfectionism. I have learnt not to turn on somebody who tells me how much they enjoyed my singing by detailing the one phrase I was not happy with! (However, in my studio I then work the vowels and the sound and the approach to make sure that doesn't happen again! My reward is that it will be somewhere else the next time!!)

I suppose the hard lesson I have had to learn is that there is no 'fix' in singing. It is never finished. That is the connundrum and the exciting things about any instrument. Put fundamentals in place, then let the deeper learning begin!


OH STILL SMALL VOICE OF CALM - April 2014

A resume of a song sung by JSQ - on his death

As another great protagonist of the art of song dies, I wonder where the future of song recital will be? Watching videos of John Shirley-Quirk and listening to, a seemingly endless list of, recordings I have of him, I see and hear quintessential technique for producing your best sound. He is of a generation of singers who were masters of their instrument. Whether or not you like the finished product is another matter, but finished it is.

Why can I not say this of many modern singers? Why am I left feeling that they were 'nearly' excellent? I watched a video of him singing the Vaughan-Williams song, 'Silent Noon' and forgot about the singer, just enjoyed the song. He did nothing to upset my listening - so here is my take of a few of the things he did to bring the song to life and take us on that all important journey into the music and words.

BREATH - he breathes s-l-o-w-l-y. I remember being taught that at Guildhall by Robin Bowman when I was having a French song tuition. At the very outset of a piece of music you gather up your breath and then at the top of your breath, you sing - you don't hold onto it, you don't gasp it in at the last minute. The timing of the breath is part of the music and preparation for the music. The expansion is visible but none obtrusive. The most accomplished pianists know this and intuitively work with the singer's breathing. A good reason why accompanists should have a go at singing too! Wherever possible the singer needs to prepare with a slow breath.

POSTURE - he stands STILL! No need for flapping about - ok it is a slow song which at least helped. But I have witnessed tortuous body positioning masquerading as expression at times! Personally I am not keen on the 'grip the piano' stance - but at least his arm is resting and not gripping! His upright and still posture allowed the breath to be taken deep for the long phrases without energy being expended elsewhere.

LOOSE AND FLEXIBLE JAW - hallelujah for the open mouth, the dropped jaw which doesn't compromise the sound inside. John has that classic jaw release from the hinge by the ear - it widens the space to allow the sound to bloom on held notes. I hardly need mention that the legato is a given- when you connect all the vowels together and your tongue is with your jaw, everything is balanced. Note he did not over widen the mouth, just released the jaw downwards. It is not stuck, it is not over dropped which depresses the larynx. He has worked out/been taught what feels comfortable for him to produce the sound economically.The jaw does not get in the way of any word; there is no gripping of certain consonants, and very interestingly he actually sings a northern 'a' in the word amass which is a higher note in the piece. He was not tempted to sing 'amarse' (possibly for a very good reason!). He doesn't need to employ vowel modification, so he makes the choice to go with his own pronounciation of it. It does not disturb the smooth line. Vowel modification is a learnt art and necessary at other times of course.

MOUTH SHAPE - There seems to be a backlash against rounded lips at the moment. Your lips are the front end of your vocal tract. They, along with the tongue, are the articulators which create the words. I keep hearing that vowels are produced in the pharynx, yet, if you listen to vocal cords recorded at voice box level, it is just a raw, rather grating sound with no definition. If you make a sound and then move your lips and jaw, you find all kinds of vowel sounds, all level of widths of the sound. The internal mouth space alters the sound of the vowel and by doing this you are lengthening or shortening the vocal tract. The lips are the finishing touch. They must always be loose, never tight as they close around the sound and we are talking a very loose closure here, merely a slight shaping of the vowel as it leaves the body. John uses his top lip in particular when he needs a deeper, darker colour - this lengthens the tract and so deepens the colour. Internally the mouth shape is open for business. If you want to open up internally for a louder sound, it stands to reason that you have to narrow the external mouth opening somehow to keep the sound from splashing out widely and being disruptive ot the colour. Yes, his jaw is open and released, but watch his lips compensate for that. There is a wonderful side shot at about 3' which exemplifies this.

WARM RESONANCE - the voice is in one piece from top to bottom. The warm, ringing tone is ever present so there is no jumping about to get a higher note and indeed the pianissimo on the high note at the end bears testimony to this. You need ringing tone in order to be able to colour it. I think there is a lot of confusion about bright, forward sounds. Just because you hear a singer like John with a warmer, rich tone, don't think that is what he is actually doing to produce that sound! You can hear by the freedom in the sound that he is 'in the mask' - the sound is placed forward and stays in that comfortable position WHATEVER note he sings! The balance in sound comes from the understanding that you don't then live in that place. You spend as much time leaving that place as you possibly can while still staying in touch with it! How far can you go before the voice loses that internal 'ping'? As a young singer, not very far; by the time you are a master singer, you can travel a long way and thus build up the space. The sound blooms when it hits the space OUTSIDE your mouth and you have to trust that! If you are trying to create everything before that, you have already interfered with the potential beauty of it and blocked it It is about letting go!!

UNDERSTANDING THE TEXT - John embodies the text with nuanced expressions in his face. he does't have to put it on from the outside because he is living the text from the inside at that moment. His face automatically joins in and his eyes light up as he visualises. You know I believe that is what singers do. They need to have a strong, nay, furtive imagination. Most recital singers will have that 'middle distance' look - they are watching an internal film of every second of the text and describing it to you. That is why memorising a song is crucial for a public performance. The worst case scenario is a half memorised text, because just as you are off into the distance, you have to come back and physically look at the music and it destroys your journey and if you are not careful, that of your audience too!

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER - to seem so relaxed and at ease with your instrument is a lifelong learning curve. There is no finished product. You will never just be able to sit back and rest after a lot of learning. You will get to the stage where you can trust your technique to work for you. You will have tamed your muscles to 'do the job' in a technical way. however, this is just the beginning of the story! Then you are free to experiment and take risks, because, you see, as a musician, you must never be risk averse!


A SINGING PRACTITIONER IS A PRACTISED SINGER - February 2014

What is it that drives a singer to a certain teacher? What do we look for when we are searching for somebody in whom we can entrust our most precious possession? The world of decent singing teaching necessarily becomes muddied by the fact that successful singers are in demand as teachers. Surely if they have a high profile career, they must have discovered some secret ingredients that they may pass on to you?

This, of course, while being logical, is not the reality. Teaching is a different skill to being able to sing well. It is a different skill, for that matter to being a polished pianist or accompanist with an interest in singing! Pianists can end up teaching singing because their pianistic skills can give a young singer confidence and it helps enormously to be buoyed up by an underlying accompaniment.

I have a bit of an issue with the pianist-cum-singing teacher, and here is why. I think there has been an erosion of understanding over the years between the concept of a very good vocal coach and a person who teaches singing technique. I have had fantastic vocal coaching over the years from some very talented pianists who have gleaned a lot from their time when they have played for singing lessons. It is wonderful to witness the transformation that a singing teacher can elicit by a few simple words or an idea. It seems so clear and if I were a pianist, I too would store away that information to see if it worked for somebody I was coaching.

I am sorry to say that this is not enough. Those teachers who, in one sentence can open up a voice, have spent years and years with their own voice. The fact that they can distill all that learning and knowledge into one presient sentence is the telling feature. In my books, to teach singing, you need to have that long established internal connection; you need to have developed a relationship with your voice over a lot of time, made peace with it and learnt to respect it. You need to have put it under the spotlight, (quite literally!) and learnt to manage it under many different circumstances. Only then will it not be a sticking plaster, but something more substantial.

People have the dubious advantage of knowing how the vocal mechanism operates now and it seems easy to teach singing because you have studied ‘how to do it’ .You see, we all have a voice. It isn't like picking up an instrument about which you have no previous experience. The science of the voice is fascinating, but it is not the starting point. It has become fashionable to spew forth stuff about the larynx and its various complex movements and to suggest that until you know about this, you are not quite the rounded singer. There are many potentially wonderful singers out there being let down and having half a career because of it.

I teach singing because I KNOW how it feels to do it. I have listened and learnt and read and discussed and tried other ways of using my voice. I have thought and wrestled with concepts and questioned and evaluated. I have, in equal measures, cried over and been elated at my own singing abilities. I have lived every second of my life with an awareness of my voice at any given moment. You don't have to like it, it may not speak to you. All I can do is work from my personal experience and what I continue to learn. Actually I teach because I was born to it - it was my first career! I am drawn to share and explore with others. At heart I am an educator.

I am open to other concepts. I willingly try out different things. I have had cause to re-evaluate what I was doing through my encounters with the medical profession and even an operation on my voice. I have undergone speech therapy and have in turn become fascinated by the science of the voice!

I remain thankful for the skills of my own technique teachers; they gave me the gift of their experience and knowledge and when I finally had surgery, reconnecting with my voice was not traumatic. I still experiment with my voice - I try out some of the dafter ideas I hear, just to see what it feels like to activate them. I'll be honest and say that 9 times out of 10 I don't take them onboard but that is only because I can immediately sense why they might not be a good idea for long term singing! If I hadn't had the years of performing, I might not come as quicky to that conclusion.

The ultimate goal is to have experience and knowledge dovetailed - one without the other is always going to be only half the story.


VOICE REVEAL THYSELF - January 2014

In today's world, teaching singing has become a multi million pound activity for some. There is a 'holy grail' mentality and singers are always seeking that moment of revelation. Unlike any other instrument, singing happens from the inside out and you cannot immediately see how it works.

With technology comes a little light and there are any number of videos now showing how the cords function and an increased and amazing understanding of how many things move around as we change pitch and, indeed, the names of attending muscles and cartilage have become more familiar. It is tempting to start believing that a sure way of getting great results will be to work methodically through the muscle activity therefore producing the desired outcome.

Have we found the missing ingredient for thousands of singers hopeful of becoming the perfect vocal athlete? Logically, it stands to reason that if the larynx tilits forward when pitching higher, then by seeking out to do that manually as we go up a scale, we are helping nature and we can't go wrong. By moving the false vocal folds out of the way, we gain space and stop those false friends from impeding the movement of the 'real' cords.

How did singers of old manage it all? Were they singing under false pretences? Did they just stumble across something which worked and hang onto it? We hear stories of Caruso and his endless operations for nodules and how Joan Sutherland went through endless pain in singing through her blocked sinuses, continuing one performance with blood pouring out of her ear from an abcess which burst through the pressure.

It seems to me that today we want quick fixes, that the art of singing has been replaced by 'singing by numbers'. The time honoured tradition of slowly revealing a voice has been superceded by manufacturing a voice. With that, there are any number of methods appearing which claim to be the perfect choice and yet, alongside that I hear voices which are not a complete package, singing repertoire which will destroy them eventually. I say that as much about singing Handel coloratura as about young voices tackling Verdi.

A singer who is short changed by teachers who cannot help them stand on their own two vocal cords is unlikely to have the longevity of career of a Sutherland or Horne. Our culture today is to throw away anything old and that includes long traditions of slowly encouraging a voice to reveal itself. Rather like a sculptor who begins with a block of marble, and patiently and slowly through understanding the nature of his medium, gradually unveils a statue of perfect proportions, the voice responds to gentle persuastion and as the singer begins to understand how it feels to sing with ease, the voice is built, layer upon layer until the singer can take charge and steer it.

It is never finished. A voice is more than an instrument, it is a living part of us. It is affected by our emotions and mental perceptions and our physical health. A good teacher will guide you in understanding techniques that maintain a consistent sound throughout the range despite these potential blips; a great teacher will encourage you to be an active sculptor rather than a passive recipient so you are not knocked off course by minor disasters and can do a little DIY with some knowledge. Managing your voice and tending it are skills worth having.

We can marvel at the science which has allowed us to see the magic of the voice, but the Emperor's new clothes come in a 'one size fits all' package. It's time to re-assess and enjoy and use our newly gained understanding and marvel at how established singers of eras long gone by, up to and including the early part of 20th century, sang with such freedom and beauty despite not seeing their own cords at work.


WHAT IS MUSIC COLLEGE REALLY LIKE?...

We are fortunate in the UK to have conservatoires of excellence which attract stars in the making every year to our shores. Out of their doors come some of the finest opera and concert artists in the world and plenty of fine musicians who become great teachers, the staple of orchestras and leaders of innovative programmes for the next generation. That is fairly obvious.

So what does it take to be even considered for one of those precious few places on offer each year and what happens once you start? What is asked of you and what do you have to bring to the table? I can only speak as a singer, so here is my resume.

THE ENVIRONMENT

This is often first rate. Maybe not in terms of the actual buildings, although in the past 20 years each college has had a building programme and greatly improved the setting and facilities. At last you are in a place dedicated to the development of musicianship and your instrument. There are other enthusiastic people there and the place is often buzzing with an air of excitement. Well known professors/singers pass by you in the corridor and the air of expectancy is never far away. The library offers choices of music and scores and sometimes, first editions to view. Students of all ages discuss various recordings and pour over scores while listening to the 'greats' sing. Practice rooms spew out all kinds of sounds and you are now a part of that. Your voice will be in the ethers of the college for ever in some small way, mingling with great singers of the past who previously studied here. The noticeboards are filled with fascinating opportunites from competitions, to in-house requests for a singer to residential courses in far flung corners of the globe. As you walk down the corridor as many languages as there are people assault your ears and singers frequently demonstrate phrases that have pleased them or worried them with no concern for passers by! The cafe buzzes with some of the finest artists the world has yet to see, all eyeing up the glorious cakes on offer and saying "I shouldn't really...."

THE TEACHING

You may have selected your college because of the profile of a particular teacher or part of the course on offer. Your teacher will be tasked with bringing your voice on to give you the best chance of post college work. Nowadays there are as many pressure on professors to demonstrate progress, as on students to comply. Perhaps it was ever thus. Your teacher is the special one and you hope to show them that you are special for them too. You may feel privileged and important, until you see the students further on in the system who seem to effortlessly embody the very thing you are struggling with just now. Some arrive in college with a huge reputation and expectation and sometimes they continue in the ascendency and sometimes they cannot sustain that. It is a melting pot of the high end of talent. There may be a tricky time when the teacher with whom you have previously studied feels wrong for you. It is important not to stay out of loyalty if you really feel the need to have something different on offer. Equally it is important not to switch at random intervals because some teacher has become flavour of the month. You need to find somebody you trust and know that this is one of the most important times of vocal development you will undertake.

THE COURSE

You will have your lesson on your instrument and in the early years will be encouraged to back that up with keyboard skills, even if you have hardly played. Many people arrive at college with at least piano, often people have played an orchestral instrument to a good standard. If you can play the piano you save yourself a lot of money over the years when it comes to speed learning something! There will be language classes to attend so you can roughly translate what you are singing for yourself - that will involve homework again!! And there will be the song clases. Your teacher may take one of these song classes and no sooner have you had your first lesson than you are required to learn a song in Italian or French or German to sing to everybody later that week. This is one of the pressures that you have to be able to bear straight away. In that class, like it or not, you will be scrutinised for your language skills, your ability to engage with the text and sell the song, the way you stand, how you introduce something and what your face and body give away while you sing. You can be nervous but you will be expected to control that in order to give a reasonable account of the song. There is no time for anything else. In front of all your fellow students you will go through master class after master class in order to hone your skill over the years. You must be credible in the language in which you sing otherwise your reputation will be less than you wish for. Your course will probably allow for specialities like ensemble singing, jazz, contemporary etc There will be courses in stagecraft and even dancing - after all in an opera you will need to take a turn around the floor on occasion and look credible! There will be sessions on how to behave in an 18th century costume - perhaps you are a mezzo who will have to learn how to be a man, what little things like feet and hands give away, whether you can sit in that century or not and meanwhile you are learning songs and ensemble pieces for little luncthtime concerts and exams.

You will be truly amazed at how mature some people's voices are and how unschooled yours may feel by comparison. Which brings me onto my next point.

THE OTHER SINGERS

They will be FUN! They will be talented and empathetic and amazing, inspirational and international. You will be privileged to listen to some glorious singing of future stars and even sing with them on that level playing field of college. However, let's get a truism out there. This is a competitive environment. Nobody is there because they want to be a teacher of singing, or to have a bit more knowledge. If you have been used to being a big fish in your little pond, get ready to swim with the rest of the shoal. There will be plenty of supportive people around you, however, there will be others who are so ambitious, so determined that they will stop at nothing to undermine you. Particularly if you start to have a little success! If you have never experienced that you are in for a shock. There is no PC-ness in the real singing world. In your head you may be the next Pavarotti or Sutherland - funnily enough that is also what everybody else is thinking about themselves! In a way it's part of the belief you have you have - that you have something unique to offer. If you don't have that, you are an easy target! It may be the way somebody winces in a song class as you sing a higher note, or the way they whisper something to somebody. it may be the shock you have when you think you are communicating to be told that your face is inexpressive or that you singing something too blandly. You will, of course, have something that got you onto the course in the first place, however it can be very hard to remember what that might be at times! You will struggle to sing well if you are doubting yourself. Your mindset will directly affect what your voice does next. It may be the conversation you have about something technical when the other person looks suprised and says they don't find that a problem and it all may be much more subtle than any of that. There is no way getting around that ultimately you need to prove your worth, as indeed in any other workplace and, let's face it, you will be in one of the top music conservatoires in the world - why would the best not be expected of you?

THE 'LETTING GO-NESS'

Whether you are shy or an extrovert, you will be expected to do things beyond what you have ever done before in order to truly communicate. That true vulnerability is what really connects with an audience. When they feel as if they have glimpsed your soul. You have to be comfortable with that. Intellectualising music and performing it are two very different things. The first stays firmly in your head and may be very pleasing to you, but it says nothing to others around you. The second takes an audience and shakes them up emotionally whether they expect that or not. To get to the latter stage you need to learn how to be comfortable with all the aspects of your body you don't like. The whole of you not just your voice, will be on display. Being protective of your body or your emotions is counter productive. That is not the same as not being in control of them though. Opera singers have to be ready to do extraordinary things in order to convey the character. In rehearsal that may well involve rolling over and over on the floor with somebody else while singing, singing while balancing on somebody's shoulders, kissing a complete stranger as if you were their lover, striking somebody else across the face, running up a flight of stairs and then singing an aria, dressing somebody else on stage or even taking clothes off on stage and being prepared to do quick changes in the wings while everybody else is moving around you! If you feel this sort of thing infringes your privacy then opera is not for you! Dealing with the other people, some of whom are frankly despots is another story and probably another post! It may be that your voice is deemed unsuitable for opera - something you don't know until you have been trained for a while. Even as a recitalist or oratorio singer, you need to feel free to convey emotional nuances through your whole being and it is amazing what that takes, because in the audience we will know at some level if you feel uncertain about that and feel cheated.

THE ENDGAME

There never used to be much career advice! After all what can be said? "Don't do it because for every singer who makes it, there are 10,000 that don't?" The more pro-active you can be the better. You need to do competitions, get your name out there. The great thing about music college is that you mix with many people with whom you will collaborate over the years and sometimes it might even be 20 years later that somebody calls you to see if you are free because they remember you from that time. It IS a short cut to getting work in a way! Music college will be what you make it and it can be a magnificent experience. It can also put you through the mill in a public way. You will need to learn how to pick yourself up after rejection and humiliation. You will need to have a nugget of faith that means you believe you have something to say - that will be substantiated by the number of times people comment favourably upon what you do or tell you that you have inspired them to sing a certain song or say how much they love a certain aspect of your voice and/or performing. Finally, the endgame is about never wanting to stop improving- it doesn't end with your college degree. That is the start of this crazy, mixed up, outrageous, exciting and rewarding profession.


THE WISDOM OF TENNIS COMMENTATORS - August 2013

"You can't listen to the evil twin inside" - this is so much about the inner battle we have when we are close to achieving something. The little niggling voice in your head that starts doubting your ability to close something out. That voice that starts to hijack everything we have worked for. You have to stop that evil twin - not listen and the best way to do that is the next point.

"You have to believe that all the effort and energy pays off in the end. Believing in that makes it happen" - it isn't a fluke that you have got to where you are now. It is the result of all the work you have put in. It is about harnessing your energy and building something up bit by bit so that the foundation of what you are dong is strong and can support the next stage.

"Do something different, otherwise nothing will change" - this is so obvious yet we have probably been brought up in the culture of keeping going and perfecting something, of try, try and try again; that only by doing that will you have the chance of gaining the top prize. Yet, sometimes it isn't enough and it is only by looking at something with fresh eyes and having the courage to alter something that you truly achieve your outcome. Have the strength to do something, anything differently and see what happens!

"Accidental things work when your game is going well" And learning that means you will gain the courage to work at getting fluidity in what you are doing and then understand that sometimes unexpected things come into play. It is rewarding to notice those, however small. Maybe they are for somebody else on your team, but those little, surprising delights along the journey show us we are on the right path, brcause they only appear when you are in flow.

"Most players who have a big win go on to lose their next match" - and this seems such an anomaly - how can that happen? Easily of course, because all the focus was on the 'big win'. When you are successful in something for which you have been striving so long, it is after the sweet victory that you take your eye off the ball. The next challenge can sweep you aside and give the impression it was all a fluke! All that has happened is that somewhere you have relaxed and let go and success has allowed you to slow down for a moment. Anybody in theatre will tell you it is not the First Night which you have to worry about, it's the 2nd!

"Knowing you can, is the key to success. That ball toss is with the non dominant hand - this shows how the reactions of others can influence you" Oh indeed - how often are we put off by wondering what others are thinking of us? It permeates every aspect of our lives and for some people it is debilitating. Stepping up to the mark takes courage and determination, the reason you are doing it is because you had that courage and you are in charge at this moment. It is a right you have earned. All success is achieved through risk and most of us are terrified of being put in a vulnerable situation, yet recognise it in others. So, even if you have a few wobbles, it only shows you are human, but you took the risk by beginning the journey - you won't return the same person because of it. You will have moved forward.

"You can't keep getting beaten by the same things" - and so identifying your weak spots and finding strategies to overcome them is crucial for moving forward and winning! Not being afraid to be honest with yourself and taking yourself to the edge of your 'limitations' will provoke a reaction within you which will stir more creative energy. The hidden courage of those who win is that they face up to things and tackle them in a variety of ways until they have mastered them, whatever that may mean to you. There is something refreshing by no longer running away from a challenging task, a pride in facing something tough.

"It's hard to be angry when you're smiling" - knowing this will give you a sense of balance. Even in the toughest crisis, if you can keep a sense of perspective and humour, you will win friends and feel better yourself. You never know who is learning from how you react to situations and you never know how much you will gain from it if you keep taking everything so seriously all the time. Balance in all things and letting things go. So what if the other person feels like they have won, this is not failure, it is just part of your learning curve and you will be more selective so you don't end up here again. Meanwhile, a smile dissipates tension filled moments and gives you hope.

"You have to have strategies for the big points" - it's certainly true that when the chips are down and your big moment arrives it is by focussing on the strategy that you are likely to pass the winning post. Often the bigger the moment, the more strategic you have to be and not be distracted by the comments around you or your own thoughts getting over excited. Cool, calm focus will take you through and then you can celebrate!

"You need to be working every day towards being the best" - that means taking something apart that needs to be understood and not being afraid to re-invent it. It might mean repetition of boring tasks, it might mean unpleasant moments, it might mean facing up to uncomfortable truths. It will most certainly mean creating each building block with a thorough preparation and bringing mindfulness to the table. The people who achieve the very best often struggle with seemingly insurmountable issues, but they keep going; they develop strategies and they hold faith in what they are doing and know that hard work will pay off which brings us onto the final phrase I noted:

"You have to have the belief that you can make it. You must take the moment to prepare well, and breathe!" Preparation is key to your best work. While speedy reactions are valid and useful, I think you will find that the final touch is having prepared well, tied in with the absolute faith that you can do it and - well I am very pleased to hear this one - breathe! Too many things fall apart at the last minute through being rushed - if you remember to consciously breathe before you say or do anything vital, you will have given your brain time to get into gear!

With thanks to John McEnroe/Tim Henman/John Lloyd and Andrew Castle!!!


THE SOUND OF RIPPING VELCRO - July 2010

The Shakespeare play for exams at the moment is Macbeth, that tortured tale of greed and jealousy and ruination. It reminds me of another of the operatic disaster moments, when Welsh National Opera chose to perform this opera on their small scale tour and I sang in it.

There is no role for a mezzo in the opera and the witches are usually portrayed by the chorus, but this being a budget Macbeth, the music was cut about to give a few people roles and to be able to tour it to smaller theatres. I ended up playing chief witch alongside two non singing witches played by actors. The music was an amalgamation of chorus music and Dama who is the lady- in -waiting to Lady Macbeth, so had a stupid range for a start. I shared the role with another mezzo, Susan Parry, and between us we played several venues over the course of a couple of months in 1993.

It was never a happy production from the outset except for the glorious, and I mean heart stoppingly glorious singing of the baritone playing Macbeth, Terence Sharpe. He was in ill health, but vocally still in top form. I remember listening to him singing Macbeth's final aria and wanting to cry - he had such emotion in his voice and it was the sheer beauty of his singing which stopped people in their tracks. He had the beginnings of MS and I was outraged by some of the things which went on. He had trouble with mobility and the director was intent on Terry having to kneel and move in a way which was so difficult for him. There was no respect for this man who sang the pants off everybody else and I used to get upset at the intransigence of the director who would not alter his ideas on blocking in order to accommodate what was the very thing which brought the whole thing to life - the character and singing of Macbeth. I believe Verdi would have listened to Terry's singing and approved. But no, we had to suffer daily with Terry struggling and being undermined for not being able to do petty movements. I personally would have rather heard him singing standing stock still than all the other people who eventually came in to sing Macbeth on this tour. The curse of Macbeth for artists certainly lived on in this - 5 Macbeth's and 4 Lady Macbeth's later..........

The whole set was black with cross lighting. In the rehearsal space this was not an issue of course, but on a dark stage area with bright lights in the wings and everything black on stage, it becomes a major issue.

The entrance of the three witches came about as a black curtain - in reality two curtains moving simultaneously on poles - moves gradually downstage and is filled with smoke. Add to that, we had painted white faces and black eyes and black cloaks. Before the curtain starts to move downstage, we are all on different height boxes, still hidden within this curtain (guess who is on the highest box in the centre?!) and there are holes placed in the downstage curtain. At a designated point in the music, we poke our heads out through our particular hole. Very effective as a plume of smoke would emerge and our white, disembodied faces would appear. It was an inspired idea but presumably so unexpected that it could look funny and on more than one occasion, I got my head through the hole and heard suppressed titters in the audience!

Then we would put our heads back in and the curtain would start moving forward. The boxes would be removed by stage management and we would then, in the dark and still with smoke, try and find the exit from the curtains! Everything was on Velcro to help - but you just could not see - cue Morecambe and Wise curtain acting and desperate ripping Velcro sounds before we emerged!

Macbeth makes his entrance just before we poke our heads through. One night, only the third performance, just before Terry entered we heard an almighty crash and a groan. The orchestral playing stopped and there was silence. The eeriest silence. Stuck inside our curtain the last thing we could do was peep out and have a look. It turned out that Terry, blinded by that stupid cross lighting, had got his costume caught on the lighting stand as he entered, and brought the stand crashing down on top of him. That was the end of his Macbeth's although he sang that performance, probably in pain and with such courage.

It only got worse. Budget meant that King Duncan was represented by a papier mache ball with a crown on top of a long pole. That was covered in the most enormous (black!) cloth which the chief witch had to hold aloft, covered by said cloth with a peep hole to see where you were going. Terrifying moment every performance as you had to walk around the stage and then place King Duncan's pole body in a tiny hole in the floor of the set. As you could not possibly see down at that moment, you had to be guided by the fellow witches (left a bit, right a bit, up - THERE!). King Duncan's 'head' would wobble perilously as you paraded around and he would sway alarmingly when you pushed him into position. You could hear gasps from the audience. The other factor was that on a music cue the curtain, which had gone to upstage, would start to descend once more. If you had not got the pole in the hole, you were all in danger of being engulfed by a swathe of blackness. This lead to many expletives when you couldn't get the bloody pole in place and could hear the music cue approach. One famous night, not when I was there thankfully, Sue carried Duncan who just wasn't happy that evening. His head was swaying even before being rammed into the hole. Try as she might, Sue could not get Duncan in place and the curtain started moving. Just as all hope was about to be lost, she found the spot and forcibly pushed the pole home. Duncan's head flew off only to be caught by one of the other witches, to the great delight and a round of applause from the audience!

To be honest, I am sure it looked fantastic as a set and the cross lighting cast strange shadows in a very Hitchockian way, but it was a nightmare to actually work in. You were blinded by lights and then the all consuming blackness of the set meant adjustment was not possible. We had to run off screaming into the wings at one point and it was like running into car headlights on full beam. You had no sense of what was on the other side and whether you were running into the lighting pole or a wall and the SM often had to stand there and direct you around loose bits of furniture.

All sets are marked up with coloured gaffer tape to put chairs, tables, scenery bits and bobs into precise positions, and these became like welcome beacons when you were on set. You would aim for the blue tape or the yellow tape and know you were safe! Often though, because this black moving curtain seemed to have a life of its own, you could forget it was moving and suddenly become aware that your shoulder. Quite creepy.

I mentioned that after the demise of Terry (he never worked again and died in 2004) we then had a new Macbeth to contend with. The precise nature of the direction meant there was no room for anybody not to hit the marks as the cross lighting was dramatic and if you were not in the right position as the lighting changed you could end up in shadow! Throughout the alterations in cast, different heights of the Macbeths and bad positioning meant regular cast members subtly shifting position and straining forward in order to be in the light!

Some shows went better than others, but with all the changes in cast you were often babysitting singers who had no chance to settle into the production and you had to steer then around the set.

In every performance in a theatre throughout the land there is what is called a 'Show book' and the SM has to record every detail of the show. The showbook for this production would be well worth a read now!