Music, Voice

Two Dickinson Songs

Here are demos of my first two songs for baritone voice and piano, on contrasting poems by Emily Dickinson.  It’s taken the past two months to write these — the compositions are complete, I think!  The audio isn’t final though: I’m still working on vocal delivery and am hoping to record these again with a real accompanist (in these clips, the piano part is played by rather unforgiving software).  Feedback on the compositions is welcome.

I many times thought Peace had come
When Peace was far away—
As Wrecked Men—deem they sight the Land—
At Centre of the Sea—

And struggle slacker—but to prove
As hopelessly as I—
How many the fictitious Shores—
Before the Harbor lie—

Perhaps you’d like to buy a flower,
But I could never sell—
If you would like to borrow,
Until the Daffodil

Unties her yellow Bonnet
Beneath the village door,
Until the Bees, from Clover rows
Their Hock, and Sherry, draw,

Why, I will lend until just then,
But not an hour more!

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


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.