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Good Singing

The radio was tuned to WGBH, the local NPR station, when I turned the car over. I was going to change it to AM to get a weather report when the radio announced that it was about to play excerpts of the New England Regional MET auditions. I kept the dial (as if my radio actually has a dial!) tuned to WGBH to listen to Christian something-or-other, a bass who placed first in New England and was one of the national winners.

His first selection was a Bellini aria I had never heard before. He sang it well, for all I could tell. His voice is nothing special, but he seemed to be in control of it. One of the judges requested "Non più andrai" from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro for his second piece.

I was shocked. His diction sucks! His voice is good -- better than mine at the moment, I'll admit -- but there's only so much a good voice ought to cover up. But that's the problem with the music scene today, and probably why I will never become a big name in singing. It's all about the voice now, about how pretty and expressive it is. That's fine if you're singing vocalises (songs without words), but that is not, in my opinion, acceptable for singing.

It's not just about the voice. Opera and other forms of singing are artforms that combine music with poetry, movement, visual arts, theater, dance, and so forth. Singing is communicating. Never mind that most American audience members have very little clue about Italian, French, or German -- languages have lives of their own, and properly pronouncing them is essential to conveying the character of the music. The succesful singer has to have complete command of his vocal mechanics but also a mastery of language, of poetry, of interpretation and communication, of theater. She must be the total package, not just another pretty voice.

My strengths as a singer lie in the interpretive side of things. As such, the tables are stacked against me. (Am I mixing up my metaphors?) But every once in a while things click vocally for me.

I've been very frustrated in my practice lately. I feel that I am not getting proper breath support, that my tone often sounds strained and whiny, that there seems to be a lot of tension in the jaw that keeps me from releasing my sound. But even though I sometimes feel as if I'm banging my head against a wall, vocally speaking, I know I am doing good for the voice. If I have my doubts, lessons like last night's cast them away.

I just opened my mouth and started to sing. And the sound that flowed out was full and expressive. It was nuanced and subtle. It was confident and gentle. And, most importantly, I was in control of my sound. I sang five Schumann songs last night, the first four of Dichterliebe and "Widmung," and, though I've just started learning them this past week, already sounded as if I've been singing them for weeks.

It's one of the most satisfying feelings in the world when everything comes together vocally, artistically, for me. I hope I can sustain this and build on it.

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
pinkfish
Sep. 19th, 2003 04:30 pm (UTC)
Am I correct in my understanding that there are accepted standards for Operatic French, German and Italian pronunciation that are designed to make the music "sound right", and that don't (necessarily) have anything to do with the way these languages are pronounced by native speakers today? Things like rolling r's on the tip of your tongue (which is normal in Italian, Spanish and Scottish, but not in French or German). I always wondered how the ch in Dichterliebe is supposed to be pronounced in opera, since I can't imagine the High German pronunciation to be at all singable, and certainly the Swiss pronunciation of this sound would send your audience screaming from the theatre.

If I am right, then Correct Diction is as important to the performance as Correct Pitch (or timbre, or anything else), and isn't a matter of "that's just the way I pronounce it."
spwebdesign
Sep. 19th, 2003 04:55 pm (UTC)
You are correct in your understanding. I've been laughed at by Americans who spoke a very cosmopolitan French because they thought my French was so wrong. Ignorant bastards! ;) A lot of languages have a "classical" standard that is used for music, theater, etc. You can hear this "classical" French in some classy French movies as well as in singing.

I beg to differ about Hochdeutsch. The placement of high German is very forward in the mouth, which makes it very singable. (I'll have to demonstrate sometime, since I can't replicate the sounds in print.) There are some consonant combinations that are very tricky and require lots of practice for the mouth to get used to them, but that isn't something that interferes with proper vocal production.

Of the common singing languages, the worst is probably Russian (and perhaps other Slavic languages, though I am not as familiar with them), which is pronounced farther back in the throat. English is also not a good language for singing in. The best are probably Italian and French.
rsc
Sep. 19th, 2003 05:32 pm (UTC)
I agree with most of this, except for a few details. English is not so bad if you can avoid being too literal about your diphthongs. I think French can be very problematic -- nasalized vowels can result in bad tone production, and while one can (should) compensate by delaying the nasalization as long as possible, a lot of French singers don't seem to realize this.

Not that this is going to stop me from singing Faure.
spwebdesign
Sep. 19th, 2003 05:54 pm (UTC)
I've never had much trouble with my nasal sounds in French...I wonder if I'm doing them right.
rsc
Sep. 19th, 2003 07:05 pm (UTC)
I wonder if I'm doing them right.

Or maybe I'm not.
sonata960
Sep. 19th, 2003 04:30 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, the music world seems to be going for more and more purely amazing voices, and worse singers, because that's what impresses the average person who's going to plunk down his or her $$$ to support the Met. Nuance and diction and interpretation are being overlooked, because it's a business and they feel it's more important to cater to the tastes of the public than to artistic integrity. Which may be why there's a tilt towards pretty faces as well. Once and a while you hear someone who has it all, of course.
am0
Sep. 26th, 2003 06:09 am (UTC)
And that's what the hype from the companies push, placing a spin on things to maximize profits.
scholargipsy
Sep. 19th, 2003 04:55 pm (UTC)
It's one of the most satisfying feelings in the world when everything comes together vocally, artistically, for me. I hope I can sustain this and build on it.

*nods* You and I sing very different stuff, and I wouldn't want to compare my voice to yours in terms of talent or training, but I know exactly what you mean.

Rock on, opera guy!
rsc
Sep. 19th, 2003 07:04 pm (UTC)
I feel that I am not getting proper breath support, that my tone often sounds strained and whiny, that there seems to be a lot of tension in the jaw that keeps me from releasing my sound.

Oh, yeah, I've been there.

It's one of the most satisfying feelings in the world when everything comes together vocally, artistically, for me.

There, too.

Aren't those Schumann songs wonderful?
spwebdesign
Sep. 19th, 2003 07:23 pm (UTC)
I love Schumann. He can be difficult to sing, but it is such rewarding music!
rsc
Sep. 19th, 2003 07:53 pm (UTC)
All of this reminds me that I should go practice now, instead of sitting here LJ'ing!
am0
Sep. 26th, 2003 06:12 am (UTC)
You haven't been sipping home-made wine, have you? That should relax you and make your voice smoother and more mellow.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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