BDG in Berlin

I was fortunate to be one of the special guests at the 30th anniversary Congress of the BDG (German Singing Teachers Association). It began on Friday 13th April with over 300 participants in a very good auditorium in the European School of Management and Technology in cooperation with the Hochschule für Musik “Hans Eisler” Berlin.

The welcoming speeches were interspersed with musical items including a costumed demonstration of Baroque dances by Lully, a soprano concert aria by Mozart and a tenor aria by Puccini. This was followed by a lecture on the theme of the Congress “Lachen und Weinen” featuring examples as diverse as Gesualdo, Shakespeare, Beethoven and ‘My Fair Lady’. We were then treated to a lovely string quartet and baritone performance of Dover Beach by Samuel Barber and Professor Stewart Emerson (he is English and married to Eleanor Forbes) guided the five students through the text and sonorities of the piece.

Then Dr. Petra Kob gave a very clear presentation on the effects of hormones on female singers. She dealt exclusively with women and did not explore the complexities of pubertal changes in boys or girls. It certainly stimulated a lot of discussion but there did not seem to be much awareness of the international level of research in this field. We finished Friday with Adam Benzwi who worked on text and music with a song by Adolf Strauss, getting the young singer to put the text into his own words and then lots of ‘sprechstimme’, mixing spoken and sung phrasing and vocalising many times to ensure a great depth of interpretation.

The river cruise on the Spree was a great opportunity to socialise and learn people’s interests and backgrounds but as in Helsinki and Paris we were treated to torrential rain and lightening, so very dramatic!

Saturday morning began at 9am with Professor Sascha Wienhausen outlining the future of the BDG and the increased professionalisation and certification they are proposing. This created many questions in the rank and file! Walter Prettenhofer lightened the mood considerably with some very amusing demonstrations of different kinds of laughter (an excellent actor!) and tears with plenty of musical examples. A very clever demonstration which would have been equally fascinating in English! The only thing he didn’t explore was the effect of the lower abdominal muscles of both Lachen und Weinen. We then had a comprehensive overview of the singing aspects of the education programme run by the Berlin Philharmonic featuring Simon Halsey and Sir Simon Rattle. This was followed by a short lecture/demonstration of jazz improvisation on Autumn Leaves (which I felt was pretty basic) and then two lesson demonstrations using Frülingstraum from Winterreise and R. Strauss’s Ich liege dich. Both of which gave me some new ideas for approaching teaching and so worthwhile.

The performance of The Barber of Seville at Komische Oper was excellent and unforgettable. In modern dress with texting, Facebook, refugee crisis, electric guitar and video it brought the story bang up to date for a new generation and it was very cleverly done without denying the power of Beaumarchais or Rossini at all. The singing was superb!

Sunday began with a gentle demonstration of Alexander Technique, followed by an excellent lecture giving an overview of the ‘Kaleidoscope’ of the various we teach singing by Dr. Barbara Hoos de Jokisch. I have asked AOTOS to consider inviting her for 2020 and Heidi and I have already written to ask her to keep the dates free. Even with my limited German I could tell she had really clarified the muddy waters of our teaching profession in such a non-judgmental way but with an historical overview that helps us all to be more professional in the way we work.

We then had two young presenters talking about their work creating a popular music course in Berlin which I had hoped would contain a little more detail on how the course was structured. Then Dr. Philipp Caffier gave a generalised overview of the grunts, belting, distortion effects of singing ‘Pop’ music which was very scientific but I am not sure everyone would agree with his conclusions. Dr. Kevin Clarke talked about the changing cultural expectations and the role of women in Operetta, contrasting various performances from historical archives to the present day, a stimulating and provoking presentation.

Finally Anne Schwanewilms spoke with Professor Marilyn Schmiege about her illustrious career and then worked with two young singers. Sadly we ran out of time as she had much to teach us about using the air we breathe to spin the sound. I confess I am a huge fan of hers having heard her as an unknown singer in 2002 in Euryanthe in Glyndebourne and it was a huge honour for me to finally meet her and her husband. A truly wonderful, sensitive and intelligent singer.

 

New approaches to singing

I have always wondered whether I would write a book on singing. The trouble is there are so many books on singing and voice, would another one be worth all the effort. And if I did  what kind of things would it include.

A part of me would like to be revolutionary and try and find new things to say, unconventional perspectives that would get singers to think in new ways about their instrument. And being a teacher it would have to include educational approaches I suppose.

I suppose what has interested me has been the relationship with other forms of creativity and expression, like sculpture, or dance or needlepoint, winter sports and tennis. Or at least how I can see the making of sound with one’s body reflected and reimagined through other mediums. It is interesting that the earth itself makes so much noise, wind, rain, ice, volcanoes, and when we sing we connect somehow to a deeper level of expression.

So if I imagine how my book would look, what would the chapter headings be!

1. Sound as a soul: an examination of vocal identity

2. Singing and movement : the physical imagery of sport, dance and sound

3. Singing into space: acoustics and the  sculpture of song and sound

4. Singing and textures: weaving threads of timbre

5. Singing and colour: painting and pointillism

6. Singing and words: the crunch of consonants and the halo of vowels

7. Conclusion or just more questions?

Would that make an interesting book? I think so but would anyone else?

Play Music

It has all been a bit busy lately but this morning I started a tots and toddler group for our three churches to encourage and bless our young families. And I found myself saying well 30 years ago I was running music groups for young children called ‘Play Music’ and I can do so again.

So here I am more than 30 years on (with my own grandchildren now living too far away) starting up a “Play Music” group for the tots and toddlers in our Parish. And now I will have to find all the games and songs that I used to do and make some more instruments for them to play.

I used to do a game where they beat out on the chime bars the time on the clock which had a chocolate finger pointing to the hour and if they got it right they could eat the chocolate finger. Now I shall probably have to do it with a carrot stick so it is healthy. Not sure about that!

I have a treasure store of songs about trains, clocks, pussy willows, apples and bananas, as well as all the nursery rhymes which I shall have to dig out and remember. It is funny, on the one hand I have my talented B. Mus Vocal performance singers at Chichester University and then the up and coming singers of the next generation!

Meanwhile I am preparing to go to Ghent to have our EVTA board meeting next week in preparation of our Eurovox Congress at the end of August in Ghent. Life is certainly abundant.

Tennis and Singing

Each year during Wimbledon I am reminded how so much of tennis performance is parallel to the singing world. So here are some of the tips I have picked up from hearing the commentators on the tennis.

I loved Billie-Jean King’s comments on the ‘intensity button’ that all great athletes seem to have, the control over the emotional intelligence of a performer, being able to calm down when the emotions are running high, and then when things are getting dull and dry in performance to be able to turn up the intensity button. I shall use that when I am teaching voice!

Then I heard how the speed of the serve really surprises players when they play at club level and then play with a Grand slam champion. It reminded me of a concert I did for my teacher Mollie Petrie and the wonderful Susan Chilcott, also her student, sang and I heard that sound, how huge and resonant and loud it all was and then I realised how much I had to learn about singing at a professional level.

Watching Andy Murray play with his hip injury, how the upper body was weakened because of the weakness in the lower body and how he couldn’t get any speed in the serve, and how the core muscles need the strength from the pelvis. So do singers, so many ignore the whole body awareness which is fundamental to producing a great performance.

Acoustics of air is something tennis players know, and they feel when the ball is fast or slow depending on humidity, heat etc and singers need to be sensitive to the air and how acoustics affect the sound we make. I have also been reading “Sound” by Bella Bathurst describing hearing loss and gain and how she learnt the particularly qualities of air for sound. We still do not know enough about the ear and acoustics for singing.

So apart from singers becoming athletes and learning from sports psychology, I also learn a lot about Singing when watching Wimbledon, crazy but true!

Metaphors Matter

We need to encourage more timbre words. Metaphors are really useful and they can and should act as intensifiers rather than comparators. Teachers who used images and metaphorical language were deemed to be ‘old-fashioned’ and un-scientific, when the voice scientists came along and told us what was happening in the throat! That was all good in its way and we have to thank Sundberg and Titze and Sataloff and many others who have opened our eyes and ears to the complexities of singing.

But there has been a flattening out of vocal colours in singers of all genres, partly due to recording digitally, though that is changing, with the return of analogue.

We have to learn to encourage our students to play with their voices and develop more colours, appropriate to the text of course.

It is coming to the end of semester at University and the singers are getting nervous about their final dissertations. I never know how they will perform under pressure until it actually happens. Last week I had a very promising first year singer who appeared for a lesson 24 hours before her assessment singing with a tight jaw and bent neck! I had never seen this before. Stress she said, so I said “You’re stressed, so am I!? why are you suddenly tightening everything up just before you sing!!”

These are moments you have to think quickly to help them break out of a dangerous physical cycle where they could sing badly or worse do some damage. So in this instance I made her sing with her back against the wall so we got the head balanced again and the jaw loose and I made her promise not to tighten up in her recital. I think the surprise and the energy with which I spoke made her realise how dangerous the stress had become, especially when she is usually such a good performer. Exams do strange things to singers!

If the singer can overcome stress and use nervous energy to their advantage they can concentrate on the colours and the vibrancy of their sound, using the acoustic to explore the space for sound. But if they have no idea how to begin, because they haven’t been taught to ‘imagine’ and ‘intensify’, and their sound palette is limited to just a few descriptors like, sob, sigh, cry, belt, moan, they will only be able to draw with primary colours instead of blends and shades of colour.

Movement and sound

Just watching the Young dancer competition 2017 on BBC is making me think about how we need as singers to think about our performing space, movement pathways, using our vocal technique in challenging ways. It is so exciting seeing the different genres, ballet, contemporary, Asian and street dance and how they convey the music in dynamic ways.

As singers and teachers we must always be thinking of extending our boundaries. Learning from other genres is such an important lesson for us all.

 

We can do it with modern musics but the challenge is to take our pre-conceived ideas about ‘classical’ performance and refresh and renew. We can certainly use movement and visual space but we can also use our timbre, to change weight, to feel the sound in our bones, phrasing with the acoustic colours. However how do we teach that to our singers who feel so insecure at the best of times!

Make a sound out of the piece of crumpled paper.  Use colours and textures of mixed media, torch lights, pottery and clay vessels and of course dance movements.

The next difficult task is to create something as community singing, getting a group of singers to perform in an adventurous way.

Reaching out with singing

We live in a world where people feel isolated and alone as we seem to have lost much of our sense of community, looking after our neighbours. Singing together in choirs can be a wonderful way of feeling part of a group, and that group can be very diverse with folk of all levels of musical ability and background.

EVTA, with some wonderful partners from our LeoSings project are planning to co-host a new concept called Singing Roadshow which will involve a communal creative project which will use singers, choral directors, singing teachers, artists and other creative people to develop a vocal performance that will encourage singers to work in new and refreshing ways,  at higher levels of competence with diverse audience experience. EVTA hopes that local teachers will offer vocal technique opportunities as well as engaging in the sharing of creative ideas.

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.

Sniff-hums and eye resonance

The great teacher Lucie Manen who taught so many fine singers used an old bel canto ‘trick’ to help the initial voice ‘placement’ of doing a little sniff-hum before starting to sing a phrase. My own teacher the wonderful Mollie Petrie also used it with me occasionally along with putting my hands around my eyes like a pair of binoculars, making me sing through my eyes. Now I know and she knew the sound doesn’t come from the sinuses but it is a good way of feeling that ring and resonance in a place that lifts both consonants and vowels and is part of the kinaesthetic response when we sing.

Feelings are fundamental to singing, emotions yes, but also the physical responses we need to monitor our aural sensations. If you play around with colours like an artist with his palette you can explore all kinds of ways of producing differing timbres with the same pitch note.

I know if I get my voice in the right ‘place’ I lose and use, less air, I feel my lower abdominals working more, I feel the strength I need in my back and I am in the zone. And it is easy! Mind you it can take ten years to find that easy place and it demands huge resources from us mentally and physically but not in the larynx, that is still good to go IF I have everything flowing well.

In this day of quick fixes we can easily get frustrated if the voice doesn’t do what we want immediately but like any athlete you need to keep your muscles and nerves regularly exercised. If you seriously want to sing for the rest of your life, you never stop learning and you never stop singing.