Sound not notes

Once again it is time to mark the students and give them helpful assessments but I am so fortunate that my daily work involves playing and listening to great music. And I don’t mean just classical music and art songs, though I love Schumann and Fauré et al. All musics have great examples, jazz, rock, folk, pop; the list is as long as world music will allow, but generally I work with classical music and music theatre.

But I woke up this morning thinking about the difference between notes and music or as I suggest in the title notes and sound. My role as teacher is to develop the sound my singers produce, the timbre, tone colours and music they create with their voices. I’m not a coach who helps them learn the notes though that is always a part of my job, but singing is so much more than getting the notes and the language correct. I’ve just been working with the French language singers trying to help them get the sound right as well as the words accurate. It is a subtle difference between French French and Bognor French but oh so obvious when you hear it. It requires an ear for colour and timbre which some singers seem to understand instinctively while others are still struggling with “Have I got the notes right?”.

And I think it’s a bit like having an electric keyboard or an acoustic piano, or an upright piano and a Steinway grand. We can hear the difference in our bones. The return to analogue recording rather than digital is also a reflection of this desire to have a vibrant living sound, even on recordings.

So how do I teach this sense of ‘more than notes’?

I try to encourage singers to think of colours for phrases. And encourage them to listen to their timbre and the vowel colours of the language they are singing in. I use a lot of visual imagery and emotionally breathing techniques. For some it is easy because they are open to ideas that are ‘outside the box’ and a little unconventional. I also try and convey the wonderful privilege of singing a Schumann song. When they have been used to singing for music exams they can lose that sense of wonderment in a Sondheim lyric, or a Gershwin melody.

I have been working with a group of mixed media artists,  and it has been such a creative process with the sharing of ideas on colour, shape and texture. I do a lot of hand embroidery and I have learnt how much I see from a textile perspective both in my visual art and my sound world of singing. But I learn so much from other artists who work in 3D, sculptors, painters, weavers, potters.

And for singers they also need to work in other genres, learn from singing other languages, celebrating the diversity of vocal sounds from actors as well as singers who maybe a little unconventional but who can open the mind and broaden the perceptions of sound.

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