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Gotta Sing!

Think Singing in the Rain -- I think it was Singing in the Rain -- with Gene Kelley exclaiming, "Gotta dance," on the minor third. That's how I feel a lot of the time, except for me it's, "Gotta sing!"

It's really frustrating at times living with someone, through no fault of that someone. I wake up in the morning sometimes and just want to sing. I'm in a hot, steamy shower and I want to let the song flow out. I come home and I want to throw my bag and jacket on the couch and start right in on my singing. But I have to be considerate. I can't be singing when my housemate is sleeping. Or when he's working on the computer and needs to be able to concentrate. Or when he's watching a movie or has friends over. And I don't want him not to sleep or work or watch movies or have friends over. It's just frustrating sometimes, 'cause I "gotta sing"!

Singing itself is frustrating at times. I might be working on difficult music and repeatedly make mistakes. Sometimes the words are a mouthful and, if they're not practiced enough, can get in the way of good singing. I might be working on a piece with a high tessitura, which can be a strain, especially if the piece is new and not quite in my voice yet. Or maybe it has a few sustained Fs or F-sharps; I can sing those notes, but they are high enough in my voice that they are hard to sustain and and sound beautifully, especially if they can't be sung forte. And, of course, sometimes my voice just doesn't want to respond the way I know it can.

But when things are working -- when I can spin the breath out effortlessly, sing clarion tones or beautifully supported pianissimos, mold meaningful musical phrases -- there are few better feelings in the world!

I want to get to the point where I can consistently produce a beautiful, effortless, well-supported, musical sound. Because when I get past the technique, this is when I really start to make music.

People have asked me throughout the last 10-15 years why I want to be a singer. They've encouraged me to use my other talents and become a doctor, a lawyer, a programmer, a scientist -- anything that is perceived "real" work. There seems to be a perception -- and I think the (lack of) music education in our society is to blame -- that singing is not a legitimate career path. That it does not require intellect and hard work. That it is not so much a craft that needs developing.

Singing is first and foremost producing a beautiful tone. This is so much more than opening one's mouth and singing. The singer learns, at the very least, the rudimentaries of physiology and acoustics. We must know the structure of the vocal tract, how the cords come together to produce sound, how different laryngeal muscles work. But we must be aware of our entire bodies: how the diaphragm drives breathing, how the ribcage and intercostal musculature work to maximize the body's breath capacity, how the pelvic girdle and spine support the body. All this knowledge contributes to our ability to produce beautiful tones.

Then there is everything that exists beyond producing a good tone. The accomplished singer is a scholar. One must be familiar with the basic languages of the song repertoire: English, Italian, French, and German. One doesn't need to be fluent, but one needs to have a basic understanding of the grammar, to develop a basic vocabulary, and to be familiar with the role of inflection and idiomatic expression within the language. Fluency, of course, helps. If the singer's particular track is opera, a knowledge of the Slavic languages -- Russian, Czech, Hungarian -- can be very helpful.

The singer must be well read. After all, what is one singing but poetry? And if one is unfamiliar with poetry -- with its structure, its use of imagery and sound, etc. -- how can one hope to convey this poetry through song? And where are the stories for operas and song cycles drawn from but from the wealth of world literature? As good as she might be vocally, the soprano singing Strauss' Elektra should be familiar with her Sophocles and, for proper background, her Homer and other Greek mythology.

A knowledge of history and cultures is essential. We live in the 21st century, but the characters we breathe to life in song are rarely our contemporaries. Those who sing Figaro must be aware of Spanish feudal customs, of the various class distinctions in that society, and also of the performance traditions of Mozart's time. A knowledge of musical style grows out of an intimate knowledge of history and culture. One would not sing Mozart the way one would sing Bach or Verdi or Donizetti.

Furthermore, one must have an appreciation of theory. Not theory for theory's sake, as academicians are so often wont to study, but theory for the sake of understanding why a composer wrote what he did. The chords, the harmonic structure, the rhythmic structure, the intervals, the voice leading, dissonances, assonances, etc., reveal so much context that the singer would be doing himself and the music a disservice not to understand them.

I've really only just described the tip of the iceberg. If the singer chooses opera or musical theater as her niche, she must be familiar with dance, movement, oratory, drama, etc. Opera sits at the pinnacle of the arts because of the number of disciplines involved: various musical arts, theatrical arts, visual arts, history, sociology, literature, physics, etc.

I laugh to myself when people suggest, "You could be anything you want to be, why waste your talents on singing?" The opera singer by necessity has to be a "Renaissance man" because of the breadth of expertise required. I can't think of another career that would so constantly keep me on my toes, constantly learning and expanding my mind, throwing new and interesting challenges my way all the time. This isn't a waste of my talents; indeed, I can only hope I'm smart enough and disciplined enough to meet its many intellectual and physical demands.

But I have no choice. I "gotta sing"! And when it all comes together... oh boy! What a rush!

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