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May I Be Franck?

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Recently a young soprano brought the Pie Jesus from Faure's Requiem to work on in her voice lesson. Her church choir director had asked her to sing it this Easter season, and she was very concerned about breath support.

We know that breath management is dependent on the coordination of the body with what happens at the level of the vocal folds, vocal tract and articulators. They are all dependent on one another even though we sometimes work things separately.

But instead of working this coordination, I suddenly decided to veer in another direction and have the student listen to some great French organ works of Cesar Franck, who lived about the time of Gabriel Faure. Some of my students know that I grew up as the daughter of a full-time church musician, but rarely do I reveal the pipe organ geek that lives in my soul. My crib was behind the wall of the organ in the first church my dad served. I grew up hearing weekly, if not daily, the King of Instruments. I attended high school summer choir camps and studied organ in college; one of my brothers earned a masters degree in organ performance.

So in a flash, I knew that if this student could hear the French reed organ pipe sounds that were developed during the Romantic era in Western Europe, played on a good pipe organ, she might be able to develop an inner compass to execute the lines of the Faure that she wanted to sing. And by developing that part of her ear, she could take what she already knew technically and start to apply it without my leaping around the room "teaching her how to support.

During the Romantic period, French organ builders introduced a type of wind chest which was able to control higher wind pressures. The new sounds could imitate the woodwind instruments of the bassoon, oboe and flute. So between the new mechanical action of the organ, and the new woodwind sounds, the organ could produce lovely legato singing.

The student, who is very talented anyway, instantly got the connection of Cesar Franck's Prelude, Fugue and Variation to the vocal line of the Pie Jesu. She and I were both amazed at what an instant difference it made in her singing.

And I was humbled at how my shutting up enabled the student to learn more!

This essay was first published March 8, 2009 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008

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