What is it about music, any kind of music, that makes us feel things? Why do we love and need it in our lives? What is your role as performer in this whole process? What responsibility do you have in making music, which for the most part was written many decades ago, become relevant to those who experience it in our current time? What do you as performer want to transmit to an audience? What story does the music, all by itself, tell you? How do you become part of the “whole” musical line?
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a piece of music that when played, takes them back to a particular time and place through the memories it stirs. There is usually a particular song that was “your” song when you “fell in love” for the first time. It still whips up that magical feeling and congers up an image of the person you shared this experience with to this very day. You can recall almost every infinitesimal detail of that moment in time. Sometimes, music helps us get through difficult times by joining in our sadness or sometimes, it can help lift us up out of a not so great emotional state.
Last night I watched an interesting special about the evolution of Latin Pop music and how it finally broke through the ethnic barrier to become accessible to everyone. It became “the craze” for awhile partially because this kind of music with its powerful and seductive beat was new to most Americans. It even made it to Broadway, in the powerful 2008 Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights, written by and starring the composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda. This type of music can make us feel alive and like dancing. Or on the flip side, it can make us feel something besides happy; it might be too much in our faces, so it irritates us, but it makes everyone feel something.
What was it that irked Salieri when Mozart became his competitor? It wasn’t just that Mozart wrote more innovative, complicated, and compelling music. It was more about his frustration with not being able to touch an audience through his music the way Mozart did. Mozart’s music seemed to come from an intrinsic inner place that has the ability to touch our inner most core. Salieri had to try hard to make his compositions happen; there was no muse to guide him. The music came through Mozart, not from him as it did with Salieri.
“Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.” – E.Y. Harburg
Where would the movies and TV genres be without music. The music helps us understand what is happening and what is about to happen. It heightens our experience by making us feel real emotions for something that is only make believe. The music drives the story and makes it seem believable. How many of you who saw Rocky the movie, walked out of the theater believing you could do anything? And when you hear that music today doesn’t it still give you that same feeling? Have you ever thought about using it just before an audition to get you into that zone?
What of modern opera? Do you like it, love it, or hate it? What makes you feel that way? Why do some people love Puccini more than Verdi or Wagner? It’s interesting to think about these questions because you will notice that the reason is a feeling that usually comes from a very deep part of you that is often called “soul”. It’s the part of us that is not hampered by religion, politics, reason, ethnicity, or intellect.
“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.” – Daniel J. Boorstin
Music tells us a story whether it uses words or not. If we love it, it touches us at the core of our being. If we don’t love it, it annoys us and grates on our nerves like some almost physical thing scratching away as it desperately tries to reach into that deep place at our core. It generates emotion of one kind or another and takes us on a journey; time stands still because we are truly experiencing only that moment.
Most of the music we listen to is second hand live music; it’s not the real deal. Today, it’s easy to download to our IPods –Iphones-Mp3s, etc almost anything we want to hear. Today, we can even download a whole opera onto some very small digital device. It’s amazing. But it is still not the real deal. And because of how one can, during the recording process, “fix” almost any human flaw in the making of music, we expect the same kind of perfection when it comes to experiencing a live performance of any kind. When we perceive the human imperfections of a live performance, especially opera, concert, or recital, we are very disappointed and value that performer less because of it. Yet, as performers ourselves, we know “stuff” happens because we are human during a live performance. And that too is the real beauty of hearing something live. Sometimes, we are privy to or have personally experienced a truly inspired and extraordinary performance that a recording can never duplicate because everyone, performers, conductor, orchestra, audience seemed to be in sync which can only happen in real time. It creates a magical synergy.
“Love the art in yourself, rather than yourself in art.” – Constantin Stanislavski
So, as a live performer, what is your obligation to this amazing process of performing? One of the most important things we can all do is to learn the music exactly as it was composed. Really pay attention to the exact musical notations; notice where there are sixteenth notes and sing them that way as opposed to making them into eighth notes, etc. And how often are you true to the dynamic markings within the music? The composer wrote them that way to express a particular emotion the way he/she intended. It seems that we often take way too many liberties in representing a composer’s music today. How often do you learn the music and text by precisely studying a score? It seems with today’s technology it is easier just to learn a piece by listening to someone else perform it and then copy that. In doing so, you miss the amazing opportunity to represent the composer and at the same time put your own unique stamp on a piece. And it could be that you are be duplicating wrong pitches, words, and cuts. It’s very important to allow the emotion of the music, the character you are portraying and the story to come through the sound of your voice. When one puts this into practice, it’s amazing how the flow of music moves us from one emotion to another with great ease. As Stanislavski says, “Sometimes an ugly tone or a different color is exactly the effect that we want. If the words were spoken in anger or contempt, the color would change. Why shouldn’t it also change if the words are sung?” And because of our mind-body connection, the body follows through with movements appropriate to the emotion. This also often allows some great Universal power to make its contribution which is beyond our control. Maria Calles is a great example of this as are many of the great singers of the 50’s and 60’s. There are singers today that perform this way as well, like Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez, Luana DeVol, Angela Gheorghiu, etc. Become a collaborator with the musical line and notice the inner play between the instrumentation, music, and singer. One begins where the other left off allowing a congruent and consistent musical and emotional line throughout the entire piece. The music can affect and move you physically as well as emotionally. Notice also how sometimes your words say something completely different emotionally than what the underlying music says. There is a conflict or tension created which is essential to great drama or comedy. A good composer knows that and it is your job to be able to convey it. You often, within a piece, say one thing yet feel another. That is art imitating life.
“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything; It is the essence of order and lends to all that is good, just, and beautiful.” – Plato
Recitative is dialogue and the best way to understand and learn it is to copy the words on a separate piece of paper, then memorize, and speak them before trying to put them to music. Work with a lyric diction coach if necessary so you can speak the words as if you were a native. (Great way to start learning a language as well.) In doing so, you will notice that the composer helps you understand his/her intention, inflection, emotional content and cadence of the phrases as you start working with the music. The first of the ten maxims of believable singing acting as David Ostwald calls them in his amazing and spot on book, “Acting for Singers”, is, “Your characters believe they are real people.” I hope that statement shakes you up enough to use his principles. Duplicating an action or emotion exactly as you or someone else has already done, leaves little room for being in the moment, and loses the sense of your characters spontaneity. Mr. Ostwald adds, “Focus instead on revivifying the sources of your characters’ actions and feelings as developed in the rehearsal process; respond in the present, and you will achieve a new – subtly different – success.” It’s your job to experiment and explore with what the composer and librettist have given you musically and text wise, so you can make it uniquely your own. Part of this process is to call on your own past experiences to help you find the right emotional path honestly, realistically and sincerely as you portray the character. The exact situation may not be something you have yet experienced, but you will be able to find a similar emotional state in your memory banks. In the beginning of rehearsals you may find yourself going beyond that point of simply portraying an emotion to engaging in it fully which will undoubtedly affect your vocal production, but that is OK. The idea is to experience it and be able to observe how it is affecting your body movements and the color of your voice so you can duplicate it authentically without allowing the feeling to overwhelm your vocal production. It’s a fine balancing point that gets better with experience, and is a line you the performer can never cross once you are performing a piece. One must be able to remain true to oneself, the composer, and the dramatic identity of the piece. You want the audience to experience the deep emotion of your character through your actions. When you the performer get too caught up in the emotion, the audience doesn’t get to experience it. So, whether it is comedy or drama, your job is to take the audience on a wild and crazy journey and return them safely at the end of the performance.
“If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.” – Gustav Mahler
Often, words are repeated over and over again. It is the performer’s job to find a new emotional significance for each repeated word. It’s amazing how being able to do this, no matter how subtle the change, does change the inflection of what is being said. Often, if a phrase is being repeated only once or twice, it is enough to say to yourself between them, “I said” and then sing the next identical phrase. They will magically each carry their own specific meaning. How often does one have trouble connecting to a coloratura cadenza? Many of you probably already do this, but if you write out an actual dialogue keeping it in character of course, for each of the notes within the cadenza it becomes so much easier to memorize and sing with ease. When these pieces were written, it was up the each singer to come up with their own cadenzas. It could get out of hand as the competition between singers cadenzas became more important than the story. I want to encourage those that sing this style of music to try your own hand at creating your own cadenzas; it’s what is called “scat” in the jazz world. Could start a new, interesting, and exciting trend. Whether comedy or drama, notice where the emotional intention of an upcoming scene may require some type of physical or vocal action on your part to help the audience transition to a musical, rhythmic or dramatic mood change. This helps reinforce the seamless movement of the drama within a piece and allows the audience to understand that something new and exciting is about to happen.
“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides!” – Artur Schnabel
Breathing is a large part of the expression and drama for a singer. Breaths can say all kinds of things. They can contribute to a phrase sounding wispy and breathy, to being Verisimo dramatic. A quick inhale and holding of the breath can help keep the audience in suspense until you utter the next sound or just exhale. Conversely, not taking a noticeable breath at the end of a phrase allows the audience to take an emotional break and usually denotes the end of a specific thought or emotion. Not all musical rests in music require a breath. Often they are used as stop breaths denoting a crying or laughing effect within a phrase. As was suggested earlier, drama within singing may occasionally require some not so beautiful singing. What is important is to satisfy the musical and emotional intent of a phrase. Listen to recordings and watch DVD’s of several different performers doing the same opera or piece. Notice how they inner act with the music of the composer. How well do they move physically to help connect the emotional musical dots? Do they use their voices to tell the story, not just sing the notes written? What moves you when you listen and experience a production? Analyze what it is that you love about a particular performer; notice their ease of telling the story through the sound of their voice, how their bodies move to the music, how they relate to the other characters and how that is congruent with intention of the music. How well do they become one with the heart and mind of the composer and his music? It seems to me that there are many budding professionals that worry about expressing the style of music. One does not change ones vocal technique to make this happen. Every composer has his own style of writing no matter what historical period his/her music was written in. Luckily for us, changing styles happens automatically by simply being true to the note values and expressing the dynamic markings of each different composer. Feeling everything you can about whatever music you are involved in is fundamental to being able to express yourself fully which can take many different forms. Music is a very collaborative effort between performer and the audience. There is a synergy that is created when it is done well that is indescribable, in the moment and touches one deep within. It’s as if our hearts, souls, and minds are melding with what the composer has created to help take us on that amazing journey. We feel the music, rhythms, beat, and story. What the music is telling you is unlike any other experience; it is immediate and priceless.
“Men profess to be lovers of music, but for the most part they give no evidence in their opinions and lives that they have heard it.” – Henry David
So, this is your call to action! Don’t just read and hear the words on the page, get up and try some of these suggestions. Often we stop ourselves because we become inhibited and afraid to express our real selves. Sometimes we just go through the motions and think that is enough. Sometimes we get lazy instead of doing the real work because we are too tired from living our everyday life. However, I know from my own experience that when you start incorporating these suggestions and techniques, you feel excited, alive, and well. You have a real purpose to pursue and feel empowered.
I love hearing your stories about how you get all fired up, or perhaps gain confidence or inspiration just when you needed it. Your correspondence helps me get better at what I do and gives me my inspiration for future newsletters. So keep me posted and in your loop!
Avanti and Ciao until next time,