Music, Voice

Hampson Masterclass

One of the things my voice teacher tells me constantly is to take calmer breaths.  Don’t rush to inhale right before the beginning of a phrase.  Inhale early, so you can do it calmly, even if that means getting off the end of the previous phrase sooner so you have more time.  I’ve sometimes wondered whether learning this lesson is just a matter of practicing a lot — noticing the hasty inhalations and correcting them until better habits are ingrained — or whether there’s some fundamental change in mindset that would make it all easier.

Today I went over to NEC to observe a masterclass by the great baritone Thomas Hampson and he made a few comments to the student singers that shed light on this very question.  I scribbled these phrases down on my program sheet:

never lose the feeling of inhaling

air is coming to you while you’re expending it

air is not gasoline for a car

My initial reaction to Hampson’s statement that “air is not gasoline for a car” was “Yes, so true!”  But in considering the comment further, I realized that I do tend to think of air as a kind of fuel for singing.  Even though it’s relaxing to exhale, I’m usually aware that I’m “expending a resource” that will need to be replenished before I continue.  I sometimes find myself wishing I had more air so I could sing longer without the interruption of an inhale, and as I get close to the end of my reserves there’s sometimes a sense of anxiety about “running out of air” before I finish the phrase.  What would it actually mean to not think this way, to not think of air as a precious resource for singing, to not think of it as a substance like gasoline that’s constantly being spent and needing to be replenished?

Hampson’s assertion that a singer should “never lose the feeling of inhaling” seemed to me, at first, like one of those many pieces of singing advice that’s evocative but also perplexing and contradictory.  If inhaling and exhaling are “opposite” activities, ones which can’t be performed simultaneously, how could a singer “never lose the feeling of inhaling” even while exhaling?

When I got home from the masterclass I decided to try an experiment and sing a long note on an ah vowel while thinking of inhaling.  The idea was not to try combining inhalation and exhalation in any physical sense (a problematic endeavor!) but merely to keep the thought of inhalation in mind as I exhaled.  My experience is that thinking about one thing while doing the opposite usually feels awkward or creates a sense of cognitive dissonance; I expected that to be the case with this experiment, but it wasn’t.  To my surprise, it actually felt quite comfortable and natural to think about inhaling even while exhaling, and I found that doing this caused a shift in mindset where I stopped feeling I was “losing” something as I exhaled and instead felt that my overall sense of energy was increasing as I continued.  Just keeping the idea of inhaling in mind throughout the phrase made me feel less “in a rush” to inhale at the end of the phrase and yet it made the ensuing inhalation feel more natural and come more quickly.  That inhalation seemed to be the mere continuation of something I had already started moments earlier.

I wondered if “thinking of inhaling while exhaling” might be a bit too convoluted a mind game to play regularly, but as I considered it further I realized there’s actually some solid logic here.  Every bit of air that you exhale can be thought of as making way for new air that you will inhale in a few moments.  So in some sense, each exhalation can be seen as a preparatory part of the upcoming inhalation.  The idea that the two activities are “opposites” may be unnecessarily dualistic — they are just different facets of the same cycle.  There’s a real coherence to the idea that exhaling is not about “spending” or “losing” air but rather about getting ready to gain new air, and the longer you exhale the more new air you’ll soon gain.  Thinking of exhaling as gaining potential makes a big difference psychologically, because at the end of a long phrase you can avoid considering yourself as “depleted” but instead consider yourself as fully prepared to take in more air and keep going.

Of course, there’s a limit to how far this mental reframing can go, and if you simply wait too long to inhale, no matter whether you’ve been thinking about inhaling throughout the phrase, you’ll end up depleted and rushing to breathe at the end.  It’s still necessary to manage breaths well and make conscious choices about where to take breaths.  But from the little experimentation I’ve done so far, I’m hopeful that maestro Hampson’s suggestion to think “air is coming to you while you’re expending it,” may be just the shift in mindset I need to really internalize the lesson my own teacher has been reminding me of so often.  In any case I thought I would share these reflections from the masterclass for the appraisal of anyone else out there who cares about this stuff.

Addendum: my teacher mentioned that some of these ideas are reminiscent of a concept called inhalare la voce tracing back to Lamperti.

Music, Voice

Alap Practice

Here are a few clips of my recent practice of Hindustani-style vocal alap. They are works in progress. First is the pre-dawn Rag Lalit:

 

To Western ears Lalit may be one of the more “exotic” sounding ragas and you might think it is therefore one of the most difficult to sing. There are definite technical challenges here (in particular getting an accurate intonation of komal dha in the middle octave when it is approached from tivra ma) but overall I find the mood of the rag so enveloping that I don’t need to work too hard to maintain its distinctive character — the experience of singing it is trance-like and not particularly cerebral.

Second is the early-morning Rag Ahir Bhairav:

 

My teacher considers Ahir Bhairav to be an “open” raga without many formal restrictions (therefore lending itself to experimentation) but I have found it quite challenging to express, because its character seems to depend on a proper balancing of the darkness from komal re with the brightness from the Ga-ma-Pa-Dha region. Without continuous attention to integrating those bright and dark elements, the alap can come out sounding like something of a hodgepodge. For me at least, there’s more active “work” required to hold things together here.

Third is the evening Rag Desh:

 

In contrast to Lalit and Ahir Bhairav where the alap may proceed by “visiting” and bringing focus to individual notes of the raga in succession, Desh calls for a phrase-based approach where the alap consists of the repetition and elaboration of a melodic signature.

 

Music, Voice

Marwa

In this clip I sing a Hindustani-style vocal alap in Rag Marwa, accompanying myself on tanpura.  Marwa is a difficult raga to sing as phrases often avoid sa (the home note) and seem to establish dha or re as an alternate tonic.  When the true sa is finally heard, the experience is more of a surprise than a comforting return home.  In the recording here I’m attempting to sing with the specific intonation I learned from my teacher.  The tanpura sometimes takes me an hour to really get in tune, as does the voice, and the raga should be sung at dusk, so it’s taken me many evenings of practice to get a usable recording. This one is far from perfect but it felt good to make and I hope you enjoy listening.

Music, Voice

Whither Must I Wander?

At my voice class yesterday I sang Whither Must I Wander? by R. Vaughan Williams for my teacher and some other students.  This was my first time running through it with the wonderful collaborative pianist J. Marzan and I learned some new things about the piece from our interaction.  I took a recording on my phone and thought I’d share the clip:

Home no more home to me, whither must I wander?
Hunger my driver, I go where I must.
Cold blows the winter wind over hill and heather:
Thick drives the rain and my roof is in the dust.
Loved of wise men was the shade of my roof-tree,
The true word of welcome was spoken in the door -
Dear days of old with the faces in the firelight,
Kind folks of old, you come again no more.

Home was home then, my dear, full of kindly faces,
Home was home then, my dear, happy for the child.
Fire and the windows bright glittered on the moorland;
Song, tuneful song, built a palace in the wild.
Now when day dawns on the brow of the moorland,
Lone stands the house, and the chimney-stone is cold.
Lone let it stand, now the friends are all departed,
The kind hearts, the true hearts, that loved the place of old.

Spring shall come, come again, calling up the moorfowl,
Spring shall bring the sun and rain, bring the bees and flowers;
Red shall the heather bloom over hill and valley,
Soft flow the stream through the even-flowing hours.
Fair the day shine as it shone on my childhood -
Fair shine the day on the house with open door;
Birds come and cry there and twitter in the chimney -
But I go for ever and come again no more.

R. L. Stevenson
Music, Voice

Thoughts on Practice

A recent voice lesson gave me the chance to reflect on my path in music and to notice how a major stumbling block of the past now seems easier to manage.

My teacher asked me to stop thinking about how I was singing and instead “let it come naturally.” We were working on Gute Nacht, the opening piece from Schubert’s Winterreise cycle.

In the many years that I listened to Winterreise as a teenager and then a twenty-something (collecting well over a dozen recordings along the way), I believed I would never be able to sing. I had played guitar since age 15, but my great secret wish was to make music with my own voice. Fear kept me from pursuing it: I thought I’d never be able to hold a steady pitch or make a pleasing tone.  But two years ago I finally signed up for voice lessons. These days it’s startling to realize that I’m singing the music I had once admired from afar, and it’s gratifying to see how a circumstance of self-doubt has turned into an opportunity to improve through practice.

My teacher read me a quote about running: according to research in sports psychology, the best runners don’t think at all while they’re running. They operate on auto-pilot.

Perhaps because my mind is so often abuzz, I sometimes receive this advice from teachers: “Don’t think so hard.” It’s good advice, but one faces a conundrum in applying it. Sure, the best athletes and musicians don’t need to think because they’ve practiced so long that good technique is now automatic, but what do you do before you reach that point? Sometimes you may have progressed further than you realize – all that’s needed to “cash in” on your practice is to step back, relinquish control, and let the good habits you’ve built now work for themselves. But there are other times when you try to “let go” and find that old habits come rushing back: without the oversight of your conscious mind, you regress. You can still benefit from taking a calmer approach, with less mental chatter, but you’re not quite ready for auto-pilot.

Of course, you don’t know what’s going to happen until you try. So, I took my teacher’s suggestion: I resolved to stop thinking about my singing and just enjoy the music. I let myself gesture freely and gave up my concerns about intonation and projection, jaw position and diction – all the things I had been studying in class. I was skeptical at first, but something magical happened within a few bars: I felt I had become a character in the play I had been watching all those years. Now I was that hapless wanderer, shivering as he departs his maiden’s house in that bleak snowy night. The music seemed to pour forth from me, and the dynamics fell into place: softer here, more forceful there – there was no need to consciously “interpret” the piece now that I was experiencing its drama first hand. The German text had become my own.

Fremd bin ich eingezogen,
Fremd zieh' ich wieder aus...

(A stranger I came,
and a stranger I depart...)

When the piece came to an end I felt I had said what I needed to say, nothing less, nothing more. The performance had been a transcendent moment for me – the reason I wanted to study music in the first place – and a terrifying moment too, as I had entered the psyche of Schubert and Müller’s frightful character.

There was silence as I came out of the “scene” and finally looked at my teacher. I was still swept up in the storm and cold of the piece and not quite ready to speak. She had been accompanying me on piano, and I thought she too might need a moment to rest after such intense music-making.

“That was nice…” she said. “It was nice… but… it might be time for you to take this piece to the next level… to make some more sensitive dramatic choices… to really start conveying the text. And also… I don’t want to nitpick, because the German was great overall, but there were a few places where the consonants got lost.”

My teacher is wonderfully encouraging, and she’s praised my Schubert before, so coming from her, this lukewarm response amounted to something like a C+.

The best way to vent my inner turmoil in that moment would have been to sing more Winterreise – but no, I thought, apparently my soulless Winterreise doesn’t convey any emotion so there would be no point in doing that!

While I experienced great emotional contrasts (from tenderness to rage) in the performance and thought I was communicating them, what actually came across to my teacher on this particular run-through was a narrow dramatic range, not enough variety between sections. Also, she thought my physicality could be more relaxed (less shifting back and forth and conducting with my hands) and I should take calmer breaths earlier, rather than gasping right before phrases began. And there were places where I could have rolled my German r’s with more vigor.

My teacher’s technical comments did not surprise me – these were precisely the things I had chosen not to worry about during my uninhibited performance, but I expected I’d still have to go back and work on them. The more confusing thing was that all the inner passion which I assumed must necessarily manifest in my singing just hadn’t come through. This was one of the most fervid moments I remembered having in the voice studio, and I felt I had taken a real risk in laying myself bare like that. For someone who’s usually reserved, these times of exposure don’t come often. How could my experience of performing the piece be so at odds with what my teacher perceived?

At one point in my life, a disconnect like this would have been more than confusing, it would have been crippling, sending me into a spiral of questioning and doubt. As an audience member – on the one hand – I’ve always reveled in the mystery of artistic expression. While we can analyze a performance and talk about its features, there’s no way to systematically predict what will move a listener, or how communication between artist and audience will unfold – and that keeps the game interesting. But when it comes to my own performances (whether in singing, playing guitar, speaking, or any other medium) I’ve always wanted there to be a clear causal relation between inner experience and external response. I want to know that what the audience hears will be somehow connected to what I feel, or at least that when I have a great inner moment, something rare and transcendent, when I think I’m at my very best, it won’t all turn out to be a fantasy! When that hope has failed, I’ve often become obsessed with trying to understand why. Where did the communication go wrong? Was I deluded, or was the listener in the wrong, or was something strange happening in the air between us?

In this particular context I began to wonder whether my teacher and I read the Schubert score differently — perhaps our interpretations were simply irreconcilable? Or maybe she was concentrating mainly on technical points as she listened? Or could it just have been that I was “off” without knowing it? But then how could it have felt so right? Endless questions sprung up, but I was able to walk away from them before too long, and that’s a choice that would have been difficult for me to make earlier in my life. It’s frustrating when there’s a disconnect and then… no, you don’t go and brood over it for hours… you go on and sing the next piece.

The way I look at things now is like this: as you perform, you might be moved by the music you’re making, or you might be unmoved, as if you’re executing the mechanics without true participation; likewise, the audience might be moved, or they might be unmoved. Of course, this is an extreme simplification of what’s possible. The important thing to realize is that all combinations of inner experience and external response can happen: you might be moved and the audience might be moved too – that’s great. Or you might be unmoved and the audience might be unmoved as well. That’s unfortunate, but at least it makes some kind of “sense.” In both cases, you and the audience appear to be in sync. But there are two other scenarios that make less intuitive sense and yet they happen all the time: you might be moved but the audience is unmoved, they just don’t “get it.” And on the other hand, you might be unmoved but the audience turns out to be deeply moved by what you’re doing – somehow! There’s really no way to know for certain, or to fully control, which combination will arise — the best you can do is influence it by practicing and trying your best every time.

And what do you know? In this particular class, we talked about a few other things I could work on, I thanked my teacher for the comments, and then went on to sing a couple of other pieces in a different vein, including Cole Porter’s So In Love and Donaudy’s O Del Mio Amato Ben, both of which she thought were spot on.

Music, Voice

Prehearing

A basic ear-training exercise that I return to regularly is to sing intervals over a drone: for each of the twelve notes, you sing the interval from the drone to that given note, and vice versa.  It’s useful to choose the target notes in a more-or-less random order so you don’t rely on the previous note as a crutch to guide you to the next one.  It’s also helpful to practice different ways of singing the interval, ranging from a slide between the notes to separate staccato attacks.  The next stage of this practice is to keep the drone playing, but choose a different starting note: instead of singing from the drone note to each given note, you now sing from, say, a minor second above the drone to each target.  Go through all twelve possible starting notes, and sing all the intervals from that starting note to all the possible targets.  In my own practice I’ve found that the exercise becomes a lot more challenging (and more rewarding as well) when I add an explicit step which I’ll call “prehearing.”  Let’s say you’re singing the interval re-fa (over a do drone).  The idea is that while you’re still singing re, you try to hear fa in your mind.  You keep singing re for a while as you imagine fa, and only then, once you have a clear inner sense of the sound of fa, you switch from singing re to singing fa.  So far I’ve found that there are many cases where I can sing an interval pretty accurately, but the challenge of “prehearing” the target pitch while singing the starting pitch still eludes me.  For example, I might be able to sing re-fa, but my sense of “where fa is” only solidifies once I start moving towards it: I can’t actually hear fa at the same time I’m singing re, before I’ve begun to move in fa’s direction.  However, that ability to simultaneously sing one note and imagine another can be developed with practice, and the advantage of practicing it, I think, is that you can move between notes much more securely: you tend to land on the target more decisively, without “searching” for it.  I’ve seen that when you practice without explicit prehearing, you can still get quite good, and you can make the period of searching for the target note shorter and shorter, so that a listener might not notice any hesitation or uncertainty as you sing; nevertheless, prehearing lets you do even better, hitting the notes dead-on and with complete confidence.  This post is a note-to-self to remind me to practice prehearing!

Music, Voice

Vocal Experiment: Neck Tension

Here’s a simple vocal experiment that one of my teachers gave me yesterday — I’ve already found it very helpful in learning to navigate my upper range.

Position your hands so they are gently cupping the back of your neck. (You’ll need to raise and bend your elbows to do this.) Make sure you can feel the spot where your neck muscles meet the base of your skull. Now sing a scale up towards the top of your range and use your hands to feel for any tension that builds up in your neck. Repeat this a few times and see if you can sing into your upper range without any buildup of tension, so that from the perspective of your hands, everything feels the same as you ascend.

This experiment has been a revelation for me — already it has given me a glimpse of what it’s like to sing high notes with feeling of effortlessness. Until trying this I was starting to doubt that I could ever hit those high notes without some internal struggle, even if I could make it sound good. (I’m a baritone, and in my case the high notes I’m reaching for are F, maybe F# or G above middle C.) As I tried the experiment I found myself making subtle adjustments to my entire posture — from head position to pelvic tilt to knee bend — all so that my neck muscles could stay relaxed. With sensory feedback from my hands, alerting me to the ongoing response of my neck muscles, all of these small adjustments in the rest of my posture came intuitively: I “just knew” what to do. I realized that until trying this experiment and actually “staying in touch” with my neck as I sang, I never had a good sense of how the neck became tense or relaxed in response to my overall posture — until, of course, the tension became extreme and I experienced it as struggle in singing.  A little bit of feedback can go a long way.