C.S. Lewis Strikes Again

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?

Some Essential Steps in Learning Vocal Music

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!


  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Find or create a transcription into the International Phonetic Alphabet, to the degree that you need it, for accuracy of pronunciation.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Review your earlier observations of keys, tempi, form, etc.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.]
  6. 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.

Not perfection, just musical

”Look,” he says quietly, slowly, ”at a certain point, something is musical. And beneath that point, it’s not musical. You can’t sing out of tune, you can’t play out of rhythm, you can’t play your instrument that isn’t tuned, the tempo has to be right. I don’t know, is that perfection? I don’t say that once you reach that point, you must keep going to the sky — although I do think, Hey, you got this far, why don’t you see how far you can go? If you want to call that perfection, O.K. But it’s not anywhere near perfection, it’s just musical.”  Paul Simon

Advice for Students facing Voice Juries

Hello, dear students (and honored guests). You notice that I have not written a post here in a long time, but today I am inspired to give some guidance. Since you are here now, I urge you to look around after you read this post, as there are others that you will find helpful.

Many of you face voice juries, recitals, auditions, or other imminent performances. In the days leading up to such opportunities, here are a few not-quite-random thoughts to consider.

1. Worry or extreme anxiety may be a clue that you are not well-prepared. Yet, it is never too late to increase your chances for a stronger performance, although it is surely true that inadequate preparation does not allow your very best work.

2. With humans (that would include most of us!), the mindset of “all or nothing” is generally not a helpful approach to performance. You will never achieve the dream, “ultimate” level that you strive for, but you must move towards it. If you are ever convinced you’ve hit a perfect 10 on your personal scale, then re-calibrate that 10 to 8 or 9, and keep progressing. Don’t worry, this will happen very rarely (or never) if you are honest. As with good body management, we are not after place or position, but direction.

3. Obsession with perfection is an inhibiting, negative, destructive, damaging, limiting, damnable energy-drain for performers.

4. Obsession with perfection is an inhibiting, negative, destructive, damaging, limiting, damnable energy-drain for performers.

5. Obsession with perfection is an inhibiting, negative, destructive, damaging, limiting, damnable energy-drain for performers. It is never a good thing. Don’t try to be perfect; be truthful, open, communicative, skilled, confident and grateful for the opportunity to perform.

6. Here is a short list of some fundamentals in vocal technique:

a. balanced, deep, and accessible breath support (appoggio),

b. easy availability of energy to articulate tone and language, avoiding “support” from the upper body,

c. freedom to inspire physical processes with mental/emotional “performer energy,”

d. Etc. [Add your favorite fundamental here.]

7. As the word implies, a “fundamental” rests securely deep within you, at your core, your foundation. It is not at the top of your thought process, a mental effort to make things happen. Fundamentals allow/empower things to happen, they don’t exist for their own glorification. Every desirable action is allowed or inspired by the imagination, not by “manual override.”

8. Fundamental technique is a result of both learning/understanding and training. It happens over time. One of my wisest teachers told me that a talented singer should be able to learn and embody a solid vocal technique in two years of study. I think she was right, given consistent and dedicated work by that student. Once the essence of technique is incorporated, your continuing study is towards refinement, making specific application and choices, improving your abilities, etc. This work is done with your voice teacher, with trusted coaches, and sometimes independently–above all, through consistent practice.

9. All of the choral/ensemble/non-classical singing that you do is potentially limiting to your own progress. This is why your own personal practice must be sufficient to keep your goals clear. As I have said many times, you must be the Chair of your own Vocal Board, and your voice teacher is your Senior Advisor. No conductor, coach, director, parent or friend, has the right/responsibility to either of those positions (Chair, Senior Advisor).

This is not a comprehensive list of values or processes, but I must at least mention that it is never too late to review texts, translations, dramatic subtext, poetic thought, etc. Musical score study is never inappropriate. It is a good idea to refresh your memory. Additionally, the more you live with a song or aria, the more likely you are to find new connections on the printed page that will enhance your performance. This may relate to musical or textual phrasing, new insights into why the composer made some of his/her choices, etc.

Bottom line, do not panic. Do not give up. Make the time to be as well-prepared as possible, building on what you have already done. Choose to present yourself confidently and give a valid performance that represents your most truthful and committed work on that day. Choose to be on the up-escalator, progressing even through the performance itself.

How to Learn to Sing (Better)

One of the greatest joys in my life is to teach gifted singers on a regular basis (in my studio at Westminster Choir College of Rider University), several other wonderful artists periodically, and quite a few students in various master classes. Regardless of the frequency of these encounters, whatever learning and growth take place is dependent on what both teacher and student do.

To a very large degree, the effectiveness of a voice teacher is due to how well he/she motivates students. A good teacher is never too easily satisfied, and the focus of a lesson is seldom limited to resonance and support (though vitally important). One teaches artistry, musicianship, organized thinking, discipline…and responsibility. Various teachers have varying styles to help students work well and accomplish much; my own manner is to be respectful and considerate of the student, to be authoritative (after all, I do believe in what I teach!), but seldom to demand.

Having said the above, the one thing that is uniquely the responsibility of the voice teacher is to guide a student in the formation of his/her vocal technique. This is not the privilege or the job of the choral conductor or vocal coach, I hasten to add. In actuality, each singer must be the chair of his/her “vocal board” and the voice teacher is “senior advisor” and guide. Many students fail to assume their own privilege, due to the time and energy they spend with conductors and coaches, who give them specific input into musical performance. It is too easy for these students to mindlessly do as they are told—certainly not the intention of my colleagues.

As magical as vocalization in the studio may seem to be (it is thrilling for me to see eyes light up with new successes in vocalization!), and as enlightening as repertoire and text work may be, the real engine that determines a student’s progress is the student him/herself. Not only does a good teacher bring new instruction, information and advice to the student in a lesson, that teacher must affirm what the student discovers in practice and performance. Sometimes, that affirmation is quickly followed by introduction of alternative techniques that will be more beneficial in the long run. This kind of teaching moment does not happen unless the student has been working diligently and consistently.

Westminster (where I have been privileged to teach for quite a few years) boasts a large and highly-capable voice faculty. I have excellent colleagues; we share many basic values, preferences and techniques that characterize our teaching.

I am convinced that the determining factor of a student’s success is usually less about technical approach, and more about how that student responds and works between lessons—what he/she brings into the teaching studio. Even with benign or inappropriate technical emphases from voice teachers, smart and gifted students will largely find a way to “put things together.” I certainly enjoy teaching more when students come to their lessons with an agenda, questions and suggestions—balanced by their trust and willingness to accept my instruction. We all benefit.

Link to “The Focus Vowel”

My friend, Daniel Shigo, writes/compiles an extensive, inspirational and helpful blog called VoiceTalk.

I recently read Daniel’s article on “The Focus Vowel,” which relates to methods of my own teacher, Margaret Harshaw. He is quite accurate in his comments about her teaching. We would usually vocalize in the order of [i,u,a] to find both core and focus (most often, with florid vocalises). We find brilliance and power in [i]. We find warmth and roundness in [u], and they combine in [a]. Each needs the other.

In the comments, Daniel makes the excellent point, to “think” about a vowel is the best way to positively impact your tone. As you know from my own writing, it is the imagination that brings about coordination and maintains the freedom to access flexible strength. Don’t “set” your primary articulators (tongue, jaw, lips) into a given vowel position. Rather, allow the thought of vowel to bring about subtle changes throughout the vocal tract. This is one place that support/appoggio and articulation intersect.

Bravo, Daniel, for this excellent post, and for your very interesting site!