According to C.S. Lewis, “Symbolism exists precisely for the purpose of conveying to the imagination what the intellect is not ready for.”
Herein lies not only the truth about Symbolism in poetry, but the essential nature of art: Art communicates with the imagination/personality/soul/heart in ways that the intellect cannot. This is why meaningful interface with art cannot be based merely on analysis, historical context, or conscious thought. Also, the creation or release of art lives in the same realm; e.g., both the composition and performance of music are dependent on imagination. Granted, technical mastery enables effective work from either side of the equation, but the employment of technique in a creative vacuum is pointless. As the old question goes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it make sound?
[Update: the new CD, Forever Sing, was released on May 7 by Affetto Records (distributed by Naxos), and is available at iTunes, Amazon, and all other download sites.]
I am relieved, gratified, and excited (don’t forget tired) as we completed all but one of the recording sessions for the upcoming CD – as yet untitled, but devoted to Psalms, with a short final group of Gospel music and hymns, to be captured next month with the help of Donald Dumpson. Last month, we recorded Sowerby, Freed, and MacDermid, with the wonderful organist Noel Werner. This week, my long-time, peerless piano collaborator JJ Penna and I completed Psalm settings of Dvoràk, Honegger, Rubbra, and Laurie Altman. The brilliant Sam Ward engineered the sessions for John Baker’s label, Affetto Records.
I’ll admit to bias, but this project is perhaps the most exciting of all, everything considered. I am so grateful to be in wonderful voice these days, better able than ever before to serve the art and imagination. Singing is surely a joy!
Sensations and levels of awareness must be constantly updated, as they change according to degree of energy/fatigue, emotional attitude, vocal condition, physical health, etc. What does not change are the essential truths of physiology and acoustics. Let your daily warm-up be guided by consistent goals based on those facts, and your most basic engagement of technique – not to over-control and create tensions.
Determine to be aware of how it feels to sing today. You will then be able to coordinate your vocalism based on today’s variables. Over time, you will gain more and more consistency and skill. You will also become a more effective and imaginative artist, less distracted by the struggle of wrongly applied techniques, due to operating on yesterday’s assumptions.
A fundamental truth has brightened my mind and spirit in the last few minutes. I think I’ve known this for a long time, but now it seems so very clear. (Btw, I was listening to Al Green sing “Don’t it make you wanna go home?” when I was enlightened. There’s the singing reference that makes this post at home here on Kavbar’s Blog.)
As a Christian believer, gifted with faith, my long-term (if you call eternity “long-term!”) happiness and well-being are assured. However we conceptualize Heaven – we actually know little or no detail, based on the Scriptures – our eternity will be absolute joy and fulfillment – yes, Life itself.
In the meantime, the life we lead here is best and most joyfully carried out in service and love towards each other, and to the world as a whole. This is the fundamental basis for Christian mission, ethics, morality, et al.
I surely want to be reminded of this clarity of thought and identity, and intend to search the Scriptures for the countless references that lead to such an awareness. Now I’m on record, and want to be held accountable!
Please note: as one gains “chronological maturity,” essential and basic truths like this, that we’ve heard and read for so long, seem more simple and tangible.
Also note: a follow-up to this post could well explore the context and role of worship and its centrality to everything written here. Maybe later.
A fight is won or lost far from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, on the road, long before I dance under the lights. – Muhammad Ali
This wonderful and inspiring quote requires no explanation. We know that it speaks to practice, conditioning, spiritual and emotional centering, preparation on every level. It also assumes giftedness, evidenced by the desire to do. Your “need” to sing is evidence of your gift.
The fruit of thorough, consistent preparation is spontaneous and free “play” in the ring or on the stage. No boxer has surpassed Ali’s grace, skill, freedom, and effectiveness in the ring. We know why.
Here is an article that I have prepared for my students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. It is my attempt to offer specific steps for learning a new piece of music–including the choral repertoire that they sing in the one, two, or more choirs that they manage simultaneously, with a variety of conductors and tonal ideals.
I want my students to be able to sing in each situation with as free and consistent a vocal technique as possible, even though specific goals and demands are different. You will read elsewhere here in Kavbar’s Blog that ideal vocal technique allows a singer to make appropriate and different choices at any moment; it is therefore necessary to avoid any sense of locking, be it physical or otherwise. Commitment and consistency in approach, yes. Same-ness, no.
Although I contemplated creating an article or Studio Class activity to teach my students how to prepare their choral music, it struck me that “singing is singing.” This article is therefore applicable to solo repertoire, but it may be applied to the initial study of choral music (to be suitably prepared for the rehearsal), with some modification or omission. In this way, the student has a chance to begin to get the music “in his/her voice,” in a way that sectional rehearsals would not allow.
This approach may seem to some like overkill for an initial music-learning session, but “music is music” and we take very seriously the privilege of interpretation!
BEFORE GOING TO THE PRACTICE ROOM:
- Look at the score. Who is the composer? Who is the poet or what is the text source? What musical and/or interpretive indications have the composer or editor placed on the page? What is the musical form: strophic, through-composed, da capo (ABA), modification or hybrid of these forms? In what key(s) does the piece begin and end? Are there modulations? Is the piece transposed, or the text translated? How long is the piece? Where does musical and/or textual repetition occur?
- If you have no sense of the musical style or characteristics of the composer or repertoire from the historical period, do some reading–just enough to get a start. Ditto for the poet, libretto, etc. Is musical ornamentation allowed or expected?
- Listen to a recording or two, if available, score in hand. Make note of pitches, rhythms, or pronunciations that seem unexpected or very different than you anticipated. This listening is to lay the groundwork for your own exploration and learning; never learn your music by rote from any recording–not even the MIDI file that a modern composer may provide.
- Find or create a literal, word-by-word translation of the text into your native language. For example, www.ipasource.com, may help with your text work. Take time to consider and paraphrase that translation, then reduce it further into a sentence or two. In the case of a dramatic text from a larger work (opera, oratorio, possibly a song cycle), determine the context of this particular text. Who is your character, etc.? Remember the actor’s question, “Why am I saying what I’m saying the way I’m saying it?” Begin to personalize the text and determine how you may serve it well with your own expressive gifts.
- Find or create a transcription into the International Phonetic Alphabet, to the degree that you need it, for accuracy of pronunciation.
IN THE PRACTICE ROOM:
- Referencing any IPA symbols that you have penciled into your score (careful not to needlessly clutter the page), begin to speak the text with meaningful and fluid “stage” diction. It may be helpful to read the text from its literary source, so that you’re not overly influenced yet by the musical shapes. Even now, some meaning (images, feelings, attitudes, memories) should begin to partner the text in its printed language.
- With your eyes on the score, practice intoning the text with the general shapes and the rhythmic values of the music (merely approximate pitches). Remember that the “right” note at the wrong time is the “wrong” note. Even at this stage, developing a feel for rhythmic relationships and pace of the musical line will help to make pitches and melody clear to you.
- Review your earlier observations of keys, tempi, form, etc.
- Sitting at the piano, play your pitches in rhythm (slowly, if helpful), simply to find tonal relationships and begin to hear the melody more clearly. If your piano skills are not strong enough–you should practice piano six days a week, too!–find a friend to help. If you are learning choral music, perhaps a member of your section could do the keyboard work, and you could do the text work. You need to hear the harmonies that support or take place along with your line, and the piano is an excellent help. Always know the “pitch center” of the section or phrase. If you have strong Solfege skills, it may be good to omit this step, and go immediately to Step 10.
- Stand. If it is helpful, practice your vocal line on Solfege syllables, with correct rhythms. Gradually begin to sing in the indicated tempo. Next, practice singing with the “neutral” tone–essentially [oe], or a sustained schwa–not overly rounded, certainly not pulled back or down. Using an initial, voiced consonant like [l] or [d] may help, especially if pitches change quickly. [NB: Throughout Steps 9 and 10, vibrato should be free but slender, not manipulated. Do not forbid vibrato or insist on it, but avoid unnecessary weight. Different levels or qualities of vibrato may ultimately be found.]
- Finally, begin to practice with correct pitches, rhythms and text, based on your initial understanding of pronunciations. It is important to have guidance from your teacher, coach, or conductor for specific choices of vowel, how to articulate certain consonants, length of vowels, consonant emphasis, etc. In the voice studio, vowel articulation is an important part of learning technique, and you must be skilled enough to vary those articulations according to style, range, intensity, interpretive idea, etc. I teach that one does not merely “sing a vowel,” one sings tone. Vowel is that part of the tone that intersects with language. In choral singing, the conductor must often and of necessity be very specific with vowels–due to musical style, the timbre and “tonal personality” of that specific ensemble, certain exaggerations that are sometimes needed for clarity in a choral sound, personal preference, perhaps other factors. Each singer (with the help of the voice teacher/Senior Advisor) must build a vocal technique that is characterized by integrity, flexibility, power, and freedom. In this way, individuals can begin to find their full potential as singing artists. Not only this, but each singer can be a valued contributor to choirs, on- and off-campus.
I have been taught that vocalization is best done in short sessions of 10-12 minutes (Garcia even recommended only 5-minute sessions), and I pass this along to my students. We should vocalize for 3-4 sessions a day when building technique. This article from the New York Times seems to back up that strategy. Take a look: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/05/ask-well-3-short-workouts-or-1-long-one/?smid=pl-share