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Tools for the Independent Singer

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Every singer knows that wonderful feeling of truly flying on wings of song. The voice obeys ones musical and dramatic wishes, is powerful or soft at will, breath seems endless and the piece of music and the text fit like a glove. Who needs technique and know-how on days like this! Perhaps no one: but on all those other days, during those other years and decades?

How should we handle times when our voices are affected by music uncertainty or ill preparedness; times of pressure through conductors, directors or composers who seem to demand the impossible of us; times of singing too much or -- equally problematic -- singing too little; times of travel stress and jetlag; or professional disappointments or conflicts with colleagues? How should we manage these times of personal turmoil and of inner and physical change?

We have been blessed with good voice teachers and we have learned our technique, but as any excellent teacher -- especially one who has had substantial stage experience -- will admit, that just scratches the surface of what we really need to sustain long and happy careers.

We singers need practical, practicable solutions for a myriad of ever changing challenges and we need the right mind-set to search for and recognize these solutions. The challenges of a young soubrette singing in a Mozart opera for the first time are going to be different from those of an older singer being confronted with acrobatic stage directions or microtonal music or polyrhythms or a concert piece in an unknown language. Challenges can, of course, be less dramatic. For example, just learning to sing with a conductor’s beat or learning to sight-read or to memorize effectively.

Early on I had the good fortune to collaborate with dancers and observe their ways of work. A good dancer is perfectly in tune with his body and recognizes the body as a perfect memorizer. Later on I concertized with several excellent percussionists and could observe their manner of constantly dealing with practical things and continually enhancing their own coordination. However, both the dancer and the percussionist are primarily interested in the aesthetic result, but they are in no way too proud to look for (sometimes simple) solutions.

Too often singers feel helpless in the face of adversity. Rehearsal pianists often teach them their parts and learning by rote is not uncommon. The singing artists whom I find most fascinating all come across as independent, creatively thinking individuals. In short, artists who have found their solutions and will continue to do so as new ones are needed. Yes, of course, the beauty of the voice is wonderful, but in the end it is the complete artist that the audience wants.

Often the solution is much closer than one might guess. Through my artistic acquaintance with dancers, percussionists and many other inspiring colleagues, I started to recognize that the learning and singing of music compositions need not be abstract or a game of chance, that the connection body motor functions memory is extremely reliable as is the connection motor functions rhythm, which might not seem intrinsic to lyrical singing. I also recognized that that the attributes of the instrument (the voice) and its player (the singer) are quite different from those of any other instrument and its player. No, it is not that singers are less musically inclined than instrumentalists it is that our instrument functions differently.

For the last few years I have been offering workshops under the title of "Tools for the Independent Singer". In most cases I made a point of saying in advance that I would not teach vocal technique at these courses. Happily, though, I almost always hear lovely vocal improvement which comes with the certainty of better musicianship, more reliable memorizing, more vital rhythm and more understanding of the practical things of a music score, however complicated it may be.

So what do we do in these workshops? We discuss productive practicing; we learn to invisibly count on our fingers; we learn the great value of being nice and kind to our subconscious so it will serve us well when we are singing by memory; we learn to give ourselves cues; we learn to produce our own internal rhythmic structure over which we can sing as legato as we wish without dragging; we learn how to reliably get our pitch and keep it; we learn to study full scores (because they are a help and very interesting); and most important of all-- we learn how to learn and how to work independently. Of course, we singers need our basic technique, and we continue to work on it as long as we sing. But for the many times when it is not a matter of truly flying on wings of song and when we perhaps just simply need to be professional we must find solutions or tools. And lo and behold: The more tools we have at our command the more likely we are to fly on wings of song for a long, enjoyable time.

This essay was first published February 9, 2010 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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