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The Singing Line is a series of lighthearted and informative articles on many facets of singing technique. New articles appear regularly.
Nancy and the Divas
Northwest Opera's Production 2014.
The Singing Line
Talking is to Singing like Walking is to Ballet. The average person walking down the street makes a decidedly different impression from that of a ballerina walking across the stage. In singing, the short clipped words of normal speech have to give way to sustained vowel sounds. And those vowels have to have resonance power to carry that singing line. That is why you hear those mysterious ni-ne-na-no-nu sounds emanating from the noisy voice studio upstairs. The vowels sounds carry the singing line. Got it? Now you try it. First, try speaking these words normally : O Shenandoah, I’m bound to leave you. Now, try stretching things out and simplifying the vowel sounds….something like:
Oooooooooooh Sheh nahn doooh ahhhhh. Ahhhhhhhhhhhim baaaaaaaaaaound tooooooooo leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeave youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.
Feels weird, eh? So, now, try singing it to the tune. Nice! You can try this approach on your favorite song by pretending to have a European accent (any country will do). It is no substitute for actual voice lessons but it will give you a head start on the whole idea.
Next article: Consonants as Condiments
Consonants as Condiments
In an earlier column you will recall some mention of The Singing Line. This article builds upon the idea that singers must sing a "line" instead of thinking of one note at a time. We learned that Vowels carry the line. So, the question which instantly presents itself is: "Where does that leave the consonants?" Never Fear! There is room for Consonants on the singing line. There are two loose categories of consonants. Each group of consonants interacts with vowels in a unique way to help perpetuate the line. You may ask: What are the two categories? Salt and Pepper? Well not exactly. However one could easily draw a parallel or two in that direction! In non-culinary terms, however, we could divide our p's and q's into Voiced and Un-Voiced groups. So, what is a Voiced Consonant? It is one that can vibrate at a pitch. Try these for example… L, M, N, R, V, Z. Go through the alphabet out loud and you will find some more. Any of these can be sung on a pitch. So, in practice, these consonants can share the breath energy of the vowels. They both vibrate on a pitch and so can be joined, nay, united! on the singing line. Un-Voiced Consonants, such as F, K, P, S, T, do not vibrate on a pitch…and so must receive a different - some might say more concentrated breath energy in order to function as part of the singing line. Oooooh, things are getting pretty technical all of a sudden. Suffice it to say, all consonants, of whatever flavor, must receive adequate breath energy in order to be good citizens of the line. A neglected consonant can become a drag on the singing line! So get out there and energize your consonants, people! Long Live the Singing Line!
Next article: Breath or Braggadocio?
Breath or Braggadocio?
In the last issue of Take Note we discussed “The Singing Line”. The more you think about the singing line….the more beautifully you will sing. Now, I think it is high time we get to the root of the matter and discuss breath which is the foundation of the singing line. Breath can be a tricky subject in itself….depending upon whether you decided to indulge in that Starbuck's Garlic-Tofu Latte as a part of your New Years Resolution to eat healthy. All of that aside (please!), let's talk about breathing for singing. Voice teachers all agree on at least one thing: singers do breathe! HA! There are many ways to describe the process. Here is one approach. Try to make a sound without using breath. If you manage it, I dare say it won't be a very pleasant one! The vocal bands must receive the energy of the breath before they can vibrate. That vibration is the beginning of the singing sound. First we will look at breathing from a physical point of view. Try this: stand up and do a little panting….in-out in-out just a few times…the action centering down near your waist. Relax a moment and silently let a breath come in right where that pant action took place. This should cause a nice expansion of your “tank”: all around your body from sternum to hip. Now, see if you can sigh this breath out in one big puff without collapsing around the ribs! If you did this successfully, you probably noticed your lower abdominal muscles spring into action. Aha! Try that whole cycle again…except this time, hiss the breath out slowly….stretching out the exhalation as long as possible while maintaining your feeling of expansion. If you did this successfully you have just started up the engine which makes the breath energy which in turn supports The Singing Line! This breath energy must constantly respond to the needs of the line. But that is not the end of it! Breath is more than just a physical exercise…it also has a tie to the emotions. I have come to believe that breathing for singing also requires major quantities of both optimism and stubbornness! Optimism - to believe the breath really can last as long as you need it. Stubbornness to maintain the breath energy even if your optimism runs low! So ladies and gentlemen - singers all - start your engines….crank up the optimism…get out there and Sing!
Stay tuned next time for: Are all words created equal?
Are all Words Created Equal?
Where were you when you took your last expansive breath? Hopefully it wasn't too long ago. In the last issue of Take Note we talked about how the breath supports the "Singing Line”. If you've been an ardent reader of this space, you have begun to build an idea of how vowels and consonants inhabit the singing line which thrives on the energy of the breath! I think you've got it! Now, it is all well and good to sing beautiful vowels and spicy consonants on the ever expanding breath energy. But what is one to do when faced with words and music? How do we make the words and music live together on the singing line? First, let's take the words. In the classical tradition it is almost always true that the words were written before the music, and the music was, in turn, written for the words. This order eliminates a lot of problems that would crop up if things were reversed. But, even in the best compositions there are occasionally places where the word accent and the musical stress do not seem to agree. Who wins? In almost every case,the words have to win! What we usually discover, when we follow the natural accent of the words, is that the composer was there before us and has actually used this little "pressure point" to create a nuance in the musical phrase. Danger! This does not always apply to songs that have been translated out of their original language. Depending upon the translator, you might find a bit too much nuance on your nuance! I could give you all kinds of esoteric examples, but I'm saving that for my Doctoral Thesis: "Putting the emPHAsis on the right syLLAble". Meanwhile, I challenge you to try this for yourself. When you're singing along to your favorite song on the radio, be ever alert for the contest between words and music. Remember, if you let the Words win, you may find a hidden clue to the real direction of the musical phrase!
Stay tuned for the sequel……Are all Syllables Created Equal?
Are all Syllables Created Equal?
I readily admit that I am no constitutional scholar! As such, I am not prepared to speak on the constitutional value of equality. I can tell you that on The Singing Line, equality is a pretty scarce commodity! In a recent column we learned that, when push comes to shove, words have clout over music in deciding where the stress lies. We were relieved to learn that not only do most composers know about this contest between word accent andmusical stress - they actually exploit it to enliven the Singing Line. It is a true joy to sing music which is written with this awareness. Thank you, Bach, Mozart, Mahler, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Puccini, Poulenc, need I continue? But I digress! Equality can be a great thing when applied to "equal pay for equal work", or "equal protection under the law", or even equal division of candy bars among siblings. The Singing Line, however, suffers a most grievous indignity if all syllables are sung as equals. The artful singer must decide what will receive stress and thus….what will NOT receive stress! Here is an exercise: Take one phrase (the notes you will be singing on one single breath) and choose the word in that phrase which holds the greatest emotional power- the Color. If it is a two syllable word, only the accented syllable will be the Color. All other syllables in the phrase either lead up to or flow from the Color. Please note: The Color is not accented as such; it just acts as the focal point for the energy of the phrase. This practice eliminates those pesky false-accents that steal the energy and poise from the Singing Line. We'll try it on something familiar by Stephen Foster. First, let's sing it as badly as possible with a big ol' stress on each and every syllable. Beau - ti - ful - drea - mer wake un - to me - I'm afraid the dream just changed to a nightmare! Now we'll choose the Color. It can be the accented syllable of any word in the phrase except, maybe, "unto". Beau-ti-ful Drea-mer, wake un-to me With the first syllable as our Color…the rest of the words follow dreamily on the singing line, giving just the feeling the composer seems to want. Or change to: Beau-ti-ful Drea-mer, wake un-to me. The phrase has a different emotional slant but still preserves the dreamy quality.
So, do what I do: be equally kind to your cat's and your dogs, to violinists and violists, labor and management, vegetarians and pedestrians alike! But you have to let some syllables be more equal than others if you want to preserve The Singing Line!
Next article: If you're just on time, YOU'RE probably LATE!
If you're just on time, YOU'RE probably LATE!
When last we looked in upon The Singing Line we were busy with issues of syllables, stresses, and constitutional equality. But it is February now. And between the Super Bowl and Super Tuesday…it seems like a good time to leave the subject of stress for awhile. HA! Speaking of time, let's talk about late, early and right on time as it relates to the singing line. Every musician is eventually faced with this issue of timing - how to arrive at the appointed place and time, sounding good and ready to be musical! Anticipation of the movement of the musical line is a requirement for all musicians. We require adequate lead time to be physically, mentally and cosmically ready for a musical entrance. (Pause here for aura adjustment as necessary.) While this lead time may be only an instant in linear time (where did I leave my quantum physics handbook?) it is crucial in making an effective musical entrance. For singers, things such as breath preparation, diction, pitch, rhythmic preparation and the emotional climate of the text may make it a challenge to actually be on time. The singer who does not develop this internal timing will embody that old Pennsylvania Dutch saying…"the hurrier I go, the behinder I get." Musical singers start the initial consonant early enough so that the ensuing vowel is heard on time. While this is especially important to the beginning of a phrase, it applies to every word in the phrase as well! Pianists who are skilled at collaborating with singers learn to listen for the vowel when determining what the singer is doing with the musical line. If the singer persists in putting the consonant on the beat - thus making the vowel late, the pianist will dutifully slow down, waiting for the vowel to appear. If this practice continues….a formerly recognizable song may begin to resemble Theater of the Absurd….see Waiting for the Vowel. Speaking of waiting…I am anxiously waiting for Spring to appear. When it does, we will continue to unravel this mystery of musical time and timing as it relates to the Singing Line.
Next article: Caution: I brake for resonance
Caution: I brake for resonance
Most recently we were dealing with the idea of being on time. That is a big subject, and I had promised to blather on about it some more this month. However, I recently attended the live HD Broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and I find that time has moved down on my list of priorities. During that glorious and transcendent 5 hour sing-fest at the movie theater, time just flew by! And it occurred to me that I should be talking about Resonance. After all, there is always time to talk about Time…but Resonance is really what makes the song go round! Resonance is a tricky subject for singers. Until you experience it, you don't know what it is or how to find it! Once you find it, you never want to be without it! The Wagner orchestra is larger than any other opera orchestra. Combine that with the intensity and length of his operas, and you have the supreme challenge for a singer. So, how do they do it? Mmmm Hmmmm.. Resonance! No singer can handle the mondo demands of a Wagner role with brute strength alone. Birgit Nilsson, a famous Isolde, when asked what it takes to sing such a role, responded -"comfortable shoes."! Well, besides the shoes, it is resonance that gives the voice the power to make such a dramatic statement. I can't divulge any trade secrets here - you know - job security and all that. Let's just say that the singer is the resonator, both physically and mentally! It helps to be born with a great voice and an excellent bone structure. Beyond that, a singer develops a special sensitivity for how the tone must be mentally prepared and how the resonator must be physically shaped to allow the acoustical phenomenon of resonance to occur! Ladies and Gentlemen, Singers all: We have met the Instrument and the Instrument is Us!
Next article: Time for Inspiration!
Time for Inspiration!
The Singing Line has been on an extended vacation in the south of France working on its accent. But now, as the academic year has commenced…it has returned to help us explore more singing phenomena! Today, I feel inspired to talk about breathing …“inspiration” as inhalation! The two words can mean generally the same thing…but “inspiration” may convey more of what is necessary when one is breathing to sing. When we think of inspiration, we have a sense of being refreshed. Our well-spring of breath is re-charged and we can launch into a sublimely expressive, musical phrase. It is just this feeling of inspiration which all good singers cultivate. In truth, when we expend breath….a vacuum develops in the chest…and when we breathe, it is this vacuum which draws air into the lungs. Thus, we don’t need to “take a breath” so much as we need to “allow inspiration”. Now, in order to experience this refreshing inspiration, the singer must continue to maintain an expansive posture. Why? Well, it all comes down to a Bowl or a Tree. The Diaphragm, one of the most misunderstood muscles in singing, is located below the lungs and is attached at the ribs and at the spine. Upon inhalation, when the ribs expand and the lungs inflate, the Diaphragm is stretched out into a broad Bowl shape. That Bowl then engages with the abdominal muscles in a friendly game of give and take. It is this dynamic little game which provides energy for the singing voice. This give and take must continue all through each singing phrase. When the ribs collapse during a singing phrase, the Diaphragm is no longer stretched out but collapses up between the lungs into something like the shape of a Christmas Tree. Although one could reasonably expect nice surprises to appear under such a tree, the Diaphragm, in this position, is helpless to assist the singer. And to make matters worse…the collapsed form must be laboriously re-inflated into the expanded posture during the breath. Alas and Oy veh! Not very inspiring! However, if the singer maintains expansion throughout the phrase, the Diaphragm will still be in the Bowl shape when it is time to breathe. And voilá: refreshing inspiration happensJ! The scientific community continues to uncover some of the mysteries of the singing voice. However, the art of singing remains highly mythological, partly because only a portion of the entire mechanism is even visible to the casual observer. Science and Myth notwithstanding, you may rest assured that singers will continue to breathe and breathers will continue to sing, as long as there is air to breathe and songs to sing! Hurrah! Job security for The Singing Line! Meanwhile, I wish you all much refreshing inspiration!
Next Article: It’s all about Balance
It’s All about Balance
To misquote Johnny Cash “Because I’m fine, I walk the line.” Have you ever actually tried to walk a line? One needs a good sense of balance. In my youthful attempts at gymnastics….I remember that success on the balance beam was achieved when I concentrated on looking forward and just sensing the narrow surface under my feet without actually seeing it. I never imagined that this gymnopédic (Mercí, Monsieur Satie) experience would be helpful in the realm of singing. While it is not an overstatement to say that balance is a necessary element in virtually any endeavor, I will confine my view to The Singing Line. As has been mentioned in a recent column…one of the charms of being a singer is that we are our own instrument! Flesh and bone – mind and body. Major benefits of this arrangement are: easy portability – no heavy carrying cases, no assembly required - no pesky strings to change or reeds to make. However, unlike a flute or a cello whose essential shape is a constant, the vocal instrument can and does morph from moment to moment…sometimes without the express permission of the singer! It is a challenge for the developing singer to feel the physical coordination of singing separately from whatever else might be going on. One may be singing along with reasonable resonance when an unexpected sound or different sensation occurs. The young singer’s first reflex is to scrunch up the face and hunch the shoulders in a smile of chagrin – at which time all hope of saving the sound is lost for the moment. With this unconscious cringe, the singer has rearranged the furniture in the resonator and the sound is stumbling around – losing its way. Or a singer will be really getting into the emotion of a song and suddenly find that the head has tilted over onto the shoulder in the expression of this emotion. Awwwwwwwww – how sweet! Again, this causes a fairly disastrous change in the shape of the resonator not to mention what it does to the symmetry of the muscle action of the larynx, eeeek. It is the singer’s task to sense if, and how well, the resonating space – the internal cavity from the larynx to the lips - is fostering the vibration of the vocal folds, and then to react to that awareness. It’s kind of like juggling with no hands! Hmmmm! This is balance of a sensational kind! Singers learn to tune the resonator by subtle use of the articulators – which reminds me of a favorite tongue twister – The Lips the Teeth, the tip-o-the Tongue – the tip-o-the Tongue the Teeth the Lips. (repeat 5 times fast). Where was I? O yeah – Balance. We’re walking a fine line to achieve and perpetuate a balanced, resonant tone. As Spokane’s hometown guy, Thomas Hampson, was heard to say in a local masterclass a few years ago: “If you’re not resonating, you’re not singing!” What he said! Attention all singers: Tune your resonator – make friends with your sound!
Let’s get out there and walk The Singing Line!
Live at the Bing 2015
The Maltese Trout?