March 3, 2012

Even more singing


While I was working on SHADOWS and not listening to the radio earlier today an interview came on with some Ofsted* bloke about the brand-new report on music in schools in the UK.**  Music in schools in the UK is pathetic and getting patheticker*** but what caught my attention is the bloke saying that the official verdict is that even when there is music education offered at all there is too much talking and not enough . . . music.


 * * *

When I arrived at Oisin’s this afternoon he was in a high state of boys-with-toys glee, having got the latest add-on to his fancy computer organ programme sorted.  Don’t ask me, it’s all way over my head.†  He was so happy, and, as I thought, distracted, I thought I might get away with . . . but no.  So, what have you brought me, he said.††  Ah, erm, I said.  But he goes deploying that old gimlet eye.  Drat.  He might not have noticed if I’d put the book in my knapsack.†††  But there it was, all large and shiny, Benjamin Britten’s Complete Folk Song Arrangements.‡  So.  Yeah.  I sang.  We had a plunge at The Ash Grove and O Waly Waly which is what we’d done last autumn when I was still in a higher degree of squeakery than I am now.‡‡  I then (re)made the mistake of asking if there’s anything he’d like to play, that I might have a quarter of a chance of learning to sing‡‡‡.  So, any of you out there sung any of Fauré’s songs?  I love Fauré’s vocal stuff, but I suspect it’s harder than it looks.§

            I’d gone so far as to photocopy Britten’s Down by the Salley Gardens for my accompanist cough cough cough because I like Britten’s arrangement better than the one in my official music student’s book, which I keep getting the timing of wrong because I’ve got the Britten in my head.  So maybe we could try the Britten . . . and then noticed that it has kind of a lot of top As.  Oops. 


Just as a thought . . . In my lessons, I was always told to think of it as placement of the voice, rather than reaching for or hitting the note. It’s funny, but using different words actually can change my ability to make the right sound. I know that I have the note, but often when I try to hit it, everything gets tight again, and I can’t do it… or when I do, it sounds wrong anyway.

But if I don’t set myself up with the mindset of “I can hit this note and I’m not getting it and I’m so stupid, I can’t do this aaaugh“, and instead just breathe properly, find the space and let the note happen without stressing about it, the result is a much prettier sound. 

Yes.  All true.  I shouldn’t have said ‘hit’.  It’s exactly the sort of eeek/antagonistic attitude that Nadia is trying to winkle me out of.  But I fall back way too easily into ‘I’m so stupid I can’t do this aaaaugh’ especially when, for example, I’m on my way to choir practise and I know I’m going to need that A.  Stress?  Me?  Stress? . . . I wouldn’t know not stressing if it bit me.  Ow. 

            Nadia says that whatever your range is everyone stresses about their top notes.  Sopranos do it.  So do bass-baritones.  And part of the irony is that it’s got nothing to do with ‘reaching’ or ‘hitting’—if you want to think in physical terms, the higher the sound the faster the vibration.  It doesn’t go up and down, it just goes faster or slower.§§  And something that both Blondel and Nadia have said to me is not to think in terms of reaching up—since I insist on thinking—but of rising above the note and drifting gently down on it.  This, when I can stop freaking out long enough, works pretty well for me.  It opens up . . . whatever the frell it is that needs opening. 

            Nadia has also said that I should try just singing—do my warm up exercises away from the piano and check my top notes after I’ve sung them.  And when she’s warming me up for my lesson I keep my eyes averted from the piano.  She can tell me what I sang later.  


Different words have different subconsious connotations. New students frequently use the language of “reaching” or “hitting” a note, but voice teachers try to change this way of thinking about singing as quickly as possible, as “reaching” tends to make a note flat (reach up and barely touch the note) and “hitting” tends to make it harsh or come off the body (adding extra unnecessary effort when what is needed is greater release). 

Well, this was supposed to be the point of my joke about hitting it:  WHAM.  Nadia talks about space a lot.  Relaxing your throat to let your poor vocal cords/folds vibrate freely, but also using that empty space in your head, you know, resonant sinuses and things, letting the sound carom off . . . well, whatever.  Clearly I haven’t quite absorbed this concept yet.  But I do know about the singer’s smile—that it’s about lifting and making space—and occasionally I manage to do this.  And my mouth opens a little more than it used to—Nadia says that my jaw will drop naturally as I get used to having space, as I learn to like that space.  One of the things she’s been talking about recently, since I made my Great Breathing Leap forward a month or something ago, is that the first year of voice lessons is usually the hardest because it really takes that long before you begin to develop a good clear positive feedback loop:  breathing deep into your gut feels good and makes a nicer sound, so you do it more, for example.  And about jaw-dropping, she says that when I was first coming to her this time last year ‘I couldn’t have got a cigarette paper between your teeth’. 

. . . For me, thinking of placement was always a disaster, because “placing” a note gets translated in my overcontrolling little brain as “doing it manually”, i.e. forcing a note to go exactly where I want it to go . . . This way (for me) lies shrillness, offkeyness, and lack of resonance. However, thinking about “placement” for someone  . . . without the overcontrolling issue can be a helpful way to get a note (or line, or voice) to focus. . . I had much better results when I thought of a high note as having directionality . . . 

Yes.  I’m still groping after this—I’m not sure yet what my practical theory of the whole nonsense is—of how to get the best noise out of me.  But I’m aware, occasionally, on very good days, of a sort of moving around within the liveness of music and making the contact or connection of sound with a few of its notes.  It’s there, you know?  And if you’re on form you can kind of chime with bits of it.

            Okay.  It’s late, and I’ve been working on SHADOWS for kind of a long time. . . .  

It depends on what problem the teacher is trying to fix and where the student is coming from. . . . Learning how to get out of the mindset of “omg why can I not do this I was doing this yesterday in my lesson I am so stupid arrgh” is TOUGH. A lot of advanced singers struggle with it . . . Absolutely, allowing yourself to let something happen is by far the best way to do it- the trouble comes (obviously) after you start being hard on yourself. . . . 

And finding the line between ‘working hard’ and ‘being hard on yourself’ is, as ever, a ratbag.  We didn’t try Britten’s Salley Gardens today but Oisin said, oh, go on, so I’m putting it on the list for next week.   I can always take it off again. . . .

* * *



*** Of course that’s a word.  Oisin and I use it all the time when discussing the state of music in British schools. 

† Although in this case it was mostly on his hands and knees under the desk/manuals/whatyoucallem.  He’s installed a bunch of foot buttons.  You know about organs?  I didn’t, before Oisin.  You can pre-set your registrations, which is which of the terrifying range of stops you have pulled in or out, and attach a different registration to a different single foot or finger button, up to the number of buttons you have.  I would have said he has a lot, but apparently not to an organist.  He’s going to put in a second row.  

†† Ah, the temptation.  A partridge in a pear tree?  Three calling birds?  A dead fish and a handful of empty sweet wrappers?  Six and a half stale brownies?^  A cubic zirconia that looks like the Koh-i-noor?  My first symphony? 

^ Stale?  Not bloody likely. 

††† Additional reasons for carrying a gigantic knapsack.  You can hide your music in it and pretend you didn’t bring it. 

‡ Which is looking rather beat up from all the time it spends in my knapsack. 

‡‡ Now I can just about be heard over the frelling piano.  Did I say this last week?  He’s got a GRAND piano in his rather tiny studio.  Okay, the studio is larger than a breadbox^ or my kitchen at the cottage, but not a lot bigger, and the grand piano is only a baby, but it’s a medium sized Steinway baby in a very small space and singing to/with it is a bit like being hugged by a large bear.  You just hope it’s friendly. 

^ Does anyone play Twenty Questions any more?  Or know what a breadbox is? 

‡‡‡ I’m still a bit stymied by how to make the experience worth his while.  He’s a music teacher but he’s not a voice teacher, and he’s a professional accompanist, and it’s not like I’m practising for a recital^ or going for an ABRSM^^ grade test or anything sensible/goal-oriented.  So . . . erm . . . 




§  Everything is harder than it looks.  And one of the things I’m going to ask Nadia this week—I have a little list—is about coping with singing with a someone/something that’s doing something else.  I mean, not a choir, where there should be at least a few of you all doing the same thing and providing mutual support etc.  How do you just not get hugged to death by your large (friendly) bear?   The Ash Grove is one of the (very few) songs that I can sing with something that might almost resemble feeling if you were quick enough to catch it as it flashed by in an instant^ . . . but as soon as there’s a piano I revert to snatching breaths and squalling.^^ 

^ Which you wouldn’t be, of course, because if you were there, it wouldn’t happen.     

^^ I’m still a lot louder than I was six months ago.  And there are moments approaching musicality.  Just not very many of them. 

§§ If I’m getting this wrong, blame me, not Nadia.  The stuff I write down in my notebook so I can doublecheck is always right.


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