Motherhood and singing

‘Ro Ro! Ro Ro!’ This is what I hear day in day out about ten times a day. When my daughter wants me to sing Row row row your boat there is no saying no. She will scream this phrase over and over until I oblige by taking her hands and pulling her backwards and forwards whilst singing this scintillating nursery rhyme. When you’ve got a sore throat and a looming concert that’s the last thing you want to do. Don’t speak or sing said the doctor. Fat chance, I thought. 

Whilst I was pregnant I had a few offers of work for after the baby was born. There was one engagement which was 6 weeks after the birth. At the time I was unsure whether to accept it or not. So I asked around other singing mums for their advice. ‘ I felt as strong as an ox’ one singer said. She started performing hard core repertoire very soon after giving birth. So I thought why not? I’ve always been a reliable singer with a good solid technique to back me up. Sure I’ll be tired, I thought, but I’ll get my mum to do the night shift the night before the concert and Bob’s your uncle. 

How wrong could I have been? I’d been sleeping for no longer than 3 hours at a time for just over 6 weeks. Plus the horror of the longest most traumatic labour known to man. How on earth could I catch up such sleep deprivation in one night? I’d learnt the repertoire when I was doing nothing and pregnant. I knew the dots. I knew I could sing it. (Apart from my irrational fear that if I sang too loudly when I was pregnant I would scare her.) A week before the gig I sang a little bit to check that my voice was still there and that I hadn’t screamed it away during the labour. 

The day arrived and my 6 week old baby was being looked after outside the rehearsal room by my mum. She was generally screaming at the top of her lungs the whole time and as a consequence my breasts were ready to explode with milk. However, the rehearsal went well. I was feeling good. It took about three hours. The soprano part was extensive and it was a demanding sing but I sounded on the ball and I was happy.  We had two hours before the concert and to my horror I just knew that my singing voice had gone. Five minutes before the concert and I was wondering at what stage do I announce that I think I may be incapable of delivering the goods. My first entry came and I sounded like a horse. 

 By bar three it was gone. Horror of horrors. The conductor looked my way with a look of horror to match mine. I shook my head. The choir and orchestra gauped at me. It was a disaster. 

My body just said no. No more energy. Nothing. That’s your lot. Goodnight. My brain was frantically trying to muster something up but it was hopeless. The next three days were spent feeling totally depressed. I couldn’t do it anymore. Will I ever have the stamina again?

My voice did return and I actually came back with a depth and a warmth that I hadn’t experienced before I became a mother. However, before every performance I now relive that horrific memory and live in fear of it happening again. It hasn’t but it’s made me very aware of my limitations and treating my instrument with respect and care. 

Handel- Pleasure and pain.

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Handel has always been my all time favourite composer. To sing his music is an absolute joy. I performed my first Handel aria at the age of 13. La speranza from Ottone. I performed it at Burnley Music Festival winning first prize with  Vivian Pike adjudicating. It felt so comfortable to sing and ever since then Handel’s repertoire has been on my programme.

Now I have the pleasure of singing at Handel House on Brook Street. The 13 year old me would be thrilled!

http://handelhendrix.org/whats-on/events/pleasure-and-pain/

Acting and opera

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As singers, we work hard on the sound we produce. Every element of our voice is scrutinised and painstakingly tweaked. This takes years and as opera singers, we are resigned to the fact that we have to work very hard every day over a long period of our lives.

We also work hard at languages. Pronunciation, translation and authenticity are key to making a performance believable. Again, this isn’t an over night process and often we are working on multiple languages at once.

However, there is one element to an opera singers performance that is taken for granted and often ignore. Acting. Every single aria, song, recitative, gesture and movement is accompanied by an emotion. However, we just take it for granted that this comes naturally to singers. Very little weight is put on acting in a singers musical education. We may get the odd workshop once a year but it is often the last thing to be worked on. Can you imagine if we practised acting everyday for half an hour or so as we do our singing? How would we go about this? However, it can be this element that can make or break an audition or an overall opinion of a singer.

Often directors talk about a thought process. Imagining what the character is feeling of thinking. That’s a great thing to do but does it translate to our faces, eyes, bodies and overall performance? I know a lot of singers that feel neglected in this department and need more practical help in achieving a more realistic performance. Conservatoires do the bare minimum in this department and more encouragement is needed to help singers of all ages to realise their acting potential. 

Here are a few resources to get you on your way to becoming a better actor.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Acting-Singers-Creating-Believable-Characters/dp/0195145402

http://www.actingforsingers.com/

http://www.actingforopera.co.uk/

Aside

Debut of a new piece by Andrew Keeling

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holy tinity pic

Last night Anne Marshall and I performed a recital at Holy Trinity Church, Wimbledon.

This was the programme…

Britten                Let the Florid Music Praise

Handel                Tornami a vagheggiar (Alcina)

Brahms                        An die Nachtigall

                             Wie Melodien zieht es mir

                             Sonntag

Hahn                   Si mes vers avaient des ailes

Chausson          Le colibri

Poulenc              Violon

Lehmann           When I am dead my dearest

                             Evensong

                             The Wren

~INTERVAL~

 

Parry                   My heart is like a singing bird

Britten                Oh waly, waly

                             The trees they grow so high

Keeling                        Annabel Lee

                             Within my garden

Quilter                Love’s Philosophy

                             My Lifes Delight

Dring                   Business Girls

                             It was a lover

We had great fun doing it even though it takes a lot of hard work and concentration. We had some new repertoire in there including ‘Within My Garden’ by Andrew Keeling. This was written for me last year and last night was it’s world premier. It was very well received and the select audience were great.

Competitions – a necessary evil

Singers are forever being compared to each other. At the moment it seems to be one of the routes to starting a career. Win the Kathleen Ferrier for example and you’re sure to land an agent and wide spread exposure.

So what makes a winning singer? A beautiful tone? A connection with the audience? Great repertoire? A cracking dress? Who knows? Probably a combination of all of those but one never really does know for sure.

All panels are all different and are looking for different qualities. Some will over look technical flaws for intelligent, text connective singing. Where as others will be purely about the sound even though the are faced with a plank.

One of the most difficult things about competitions is the lack of feed back. Often there are so many applicants that they simply don’t have time to forward comments on a particular performance. Secondly, the atmosphere is so sterile and unnatural to performers as they are used to feeding off the reactions of an audience. Most of the time you don’t get to hear the other performers and so it is hard to make a judgement as to whether you were even close to being what they were looking for.

Having said all this, musicians will always be subject to such comparisons. One has to have a thick skin and to remain focused on how well your own performance went. Remember to give yourself credit for a performance that you were proud of, whatever the outcome.

 

Say what?

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It’s half an hour into a performance and you find your self sitting in the audience wondering what on earth they are singing about and if it’s even in English! We’ve all been there. Of course nobody likes to admit this to the person they’re sitting next to. They just cobble together a plot like Sherlock Holmes by piecing together the manic arm waving, heaving sobs and lusty embraces. Unrequited love. That’ll be it. It always is.

But as a paying customer shouldn’t we expect at the very least to understand the text? Is it too much to ask to involve the audience in the scene that is evolving in front of them? Or is it a given that they have come simply to hear shimmering tones, stratospheric coloratura and messa di voce to die for?

Opera is an art form that pushes human ability to the extreme. It takes strength and stamina to fulfil the demands made by the composer. The hours of practise and painstaking attention to detail culminate into a thrilling and mesmeric sound that can move audiences world wide. But what of the text? Sometimes I think that librettists must despair at the unrecognisable sounds that the audience are presented with. Especially having spent hours agonising over the subtle use of language.

Is it possible to have both impressive vocal acrobatics and a decipherable text? For sopranos this is particularly challenging as the singing lies much higher than the natural speaking voice therefore requiring a lot of space. Renee Fleming once said that it is ‘like trying to hold an intelligible conversation while yawning’. I’d have to agree, however this is no excuse for unclear diction when singing on or below the stave.

Clear diction is something that can be instilled into singers at a very early age. After a while, it seeps into a singers muscle memory and becomes a natural part of their singing. It does takes hard work at first and can be very frustrating when you are stopped at every other word in order to put it right but it is worth it. It really is. Audiences will switch off if they don’t understand the words easily enough.

However, it is a balancing act between tone production and clarity of text that will always be there. Composers don’t always take this into consideration so we have to do our best to bring words to the paying public.

Nerves

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I often get asked the question ‘Do you still get nervous?’. The answer is and always will be yes. Nerves are a natural reaction to a stressful situation. No matter how experienced a performer is, they will still experience some degree of nerves. In fact, I would go as far to say that for the majority of people, nerves get worse with age. Somehow you become more aware of what could go wrong. I often find that young pupils of mine, before the age of about 11, are pretty much fearless and just get on with it. From the onset of out teens, we start to doubt ourselves and our abilities. We become more aware of others around us and worry about how we will be perceived. I’ve heard tales of performers vomiting at the side of the stage before their entrance. Not the most ideal situation before you’re about to sing.

The thing that does come easier with age is dealing with nerves. If channelled in the right way they can bring a positive element to the performance and not just a negative one. Some people rise to the occasion and thrive on the adrenalin whilst others shrink under the pressure.

Whether we like it or not, nerves will always be a part of performing. It’s the way we deal with them which can make or break a singer.

Choosing a singing teacher.

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Deciding to have singing lessons can be a big decision. It takes courage, confidence and commitment. Exposing your voice to a total stranger can be very scary. Voices are personnel things which give away so much about ourselves. If you are willing to be open to criticism, analysis and personal scrutiny then you want to be sure that you have the right teacher for you.

Finding a teacher can be daunting. Knowing where to look can be the first stumbling block. If you Google ‘Singing Teachers’ you get page after page of websites offering different types of singing lessons. This can be confusing and can end up being a wild stab in the dark. Sometimes there is so much choice that you need to be sure of what you are looking for. For instance, what kind of singing am I interested in? What kind of repertoire would I ideally like to sing?

Undoubtedly the best way of finding a teacher is through recommendation. If you know the person and trust their judgement then you are half way to finding a good a teacher. However, one singing teacher does not necessarily suit everyone. Everybody has a different approach to learning and one teaching technique does not work with everybody. Some singers respond well to the use of imagery in their instruction and others find detailed physiological facts are the easiest way of getting results. A good teacher should be able to quickly find out what kind of learner the pupil is and adjust their teaching techniques accordingly. This does take skill and experience especially if a teacher can naturally produce a sound without actually knowing how they are doing it.

A trial lesson is the best way to see if the teacher is the right one for you. It is a chance to get a flavour of their teaching techniques and also to see if you can connect on a one to one level. There should be an element of a rapport between student and teacher so that the student feels comfortable and able to ask questions. Singers only produce their best when they are at ease so being frightened to death of the teacher is no good. Teachers are used to giving trial lessons so don’t be embarrassed to decline lessons after the initial meeting.

Take your time in finding a teacher as the voice can be a delicate instrument, especially in the young. It can take a long time to undo a bad technique so you need to be 100% sure in your choice. Once you think you have found the teacher for you, you can enjoy the fruits of their knowledge and make a start on your journey of singing. Good luck!

The Folk Connection

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Folk music. It means so many different things to so many people. From open toed sandal wearing men with long ginger beards, to the angst ridden teenage folk rockers. The Oxford dictionary defines folk music as ‘music that originates in traditional popular culture or that is written in such a style. Folk music is typically of unknown authorship and is transmitted orally from generation to generation.’

With such massive scope, this could be anything. To my teenage self, folk music was unaccompanied strophic songs telling tales of unrequited love, tragedy, weird pie fillings and reason upon reason as to why women shouldn’t trust men. They meant learing verse after verse of ridiculous text involving a lot of ‘fah la la’, ‘diddle o’ the day’ and ‘whipsy diddley dandy die’. It didn’t thrill me but I must admit that I did enjoy the freedom of folk songs. Singers can really show their personalities (or lack of!) and can really play with the audience. It’s perfect for show offs and I often find that in a recital the audience always remembers the folk songs rather than the thrills of the gymnastic arias. People can connect with the text. They sympathise with the characters and laugh along with the nonsensical comedy. The trials and tribulations of life still involve love, money and death. This is why they stand the test of time. The melodies are not always simple but they certainly stick with the listener.

I now know that there is more to folk music than ‘foldie rol the days’ and I have been involved in many projects which show folk in all it’s forms. After all, people make music and we, the folk, continue to compose, sing, play and listen.

Singing – to be or not to be?

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As a singing teacher, I like to think that I am shaping the singers of the future and giving them the skills to pursue a career in performance. We cover all aspects of the voice as well as languages, musicianship and acting skills. Most of the time they learn just for pleasure, to gain confidence or have simply been forced into it by their parents!

But just recently I heard these words…

‘When people ask me what I want to do, I tell them I want to be a singer and that you are my inspiration.’

I was floored.

Very rarely do you get a case of somebody actually intending on making singing their choice of career. When this situation arises, I panic. Not because I doubt the persons singing ability but because I feel a sense of dread and doom for them. My thoughts go immediately to all the negative aspects of having a career in performance (which includes actors, instrumentalists, artists and anybody else who relies on subjective decision-making). Heart break, frustration, apprehension, depression, disappointment, jealousy, nerves  – the list is endless. Of course everybody has a different experience but we have surely all felt a hand full of these emotions. Your career is not in your hands but in the hands of others who can pick you up or drop you on a whim.

Now I’m not just having a moan, because even the most successful singers will feel these emotions on a daily basis. But it’s how you cope with these elements that really matter. Some people are driven by competition, nerves or even rejection. However, it takes a very strong person to be able to turn all the negatives into positives. I cannot begin to tell you the number of singers I’ve spoken to who feel disillusioned and let down by their career choice and have retrained in something else either for financial reasons or lack of determination. There are also people who have had very fulfilling careers involving travel, great artistry, job satisfaction etc. The spectrum of experiences are vast but they all involve hard work, perseverance and soul-searching.

In my own experience, my very first singing teaching tried her best to put me off my ambitions. She described music colleges as ‘hot houses’ and said I would earn virtually no money and I would be better off doing law.Thank goodness I didn’t take her advice, sound as it was. She was right about it all but underestimated my inner strength. Yes it’s hard, frustrating and even self-esteem crushing but it’s also exhilarating, daring and thrilling in equal measure.

We rarely get a chance to follow our dreams in life and if you feel compelled to do something then why should you deny yourself. If someone finds themselves ignited with a particular passion for whatever it may be, why snuff out that desire by opting for security, reliability and the mundane. I’m certainly glad I didn’t. So be prepared for the ride in every way possible and do what you have to do. You can be informed and guided but ultimately passion should prevail.