The mantra of my studio is One breath impulse per phrase. There exists general consensus that it is important not to interrupt airflow during a phrase, in speech as well as in song. Unfortunately, singers are often taught conflicting systems of musical articulation and lingual enunciation which lead them to the very opposite - frequent interruptions of the breath impulse when changing pitch and moving from vowel to consonant to vowel. All historical treatises and singing manuals place a version of “smoothly binding together the notes” on the forefront by discussing it as the number one goal to be achieved after the basic skills of singing a single note (onset, release, and messa di voce). A singer must understand how to get from one pitch to another without interrupting airflow - loosely called legato and specifically resulting in portamento. Then a singer must understand how to maintain his legato when introducing language to the line, that is, how to enunciate the language “on the breath” in a dramatic fashion. Legato is one of the corner stones of the bel canto style of singing and the corner stone of my coaching philosophy.
While the basics of pronunciation of operatic and art song languages are taught in diction classes, not enough time is spent on achieving flow of language, in speech and song alike. Too often consonants are branded the enemy of legato. Only when the singer experiences consonants as taking part in the line can he feel a true dramatic connection to the text. The International Phonetic Alphabet is not a language - it is merely another system of symbols attempting to pin the spoken word to paper. What then makes Italians sound Italian? What makes Germans sound German? What is the inherent rhythm of the language? What does the poetic meter tell us about the shape of the phrase? In my experience, a clear understanding and internalization of lingual rhythm and poetic meter are the foremost tools in building confidence in a foreign language in a young singer and elevating the lingual ability of the more advanced one - at least in the absence of moving to Italy, then Germany, then France and becoming fluent! The essence of style results in part from understanding these “other” complex and varied rhythms. How the lingual rhythm and poetic meter support or subtly fight the relatively simplistic notational system is paramount to the singer’s ability to “read the score” fully.
I often hear the comment “A singer must have something to say - he cannot just be technically perfect!” In my experience, all singers have “something to say” (some more than others, but that is to be expected). The singer’s greatest frustration is not being able to sing what he imagines - being stymied by a technical inefficiency that distorts his delivery of the line he desperately wants to bring to life. My business is legato and language. I believe improving the singer’s ability to move freely from note to note while embracing language as a partner in this goal allows the singer to speak (sing) his mind clearly. For me this is “technical perfection” - if such a thing is possible.
CLASSROOM TEACHING AND RESIDENCIES
First we study facts and how to apply them; then we find more facts and study them. I believe it is my job as a teacher to equip my students with real knowledge in a music world where, increasingly, people believe that everything is a question of opinion and personal taste. Fighting a fact with an opinion is like bringing a knife to a gunfight!
Step one is reading - the best way of knowing how things were is to find someone who wrote about it at the time. Luckily our predecessors left us a treasure trove of treatises, articles, reviews, letters and annotated scores to study. We fight the urge to see the score by looking backwards through our modern eyes. Instead, we try to step back in time as best we can, to read the score in terms of what came before and not what came after. We explore the continuum between the Baroque, Classical and Romantic styles more than what sets them apart. Especially for the singer, these “styles” have more in common than a semester-based music history curriculum will lead them to believe. The singer’s instrument provides a continuum in a musical world otherwise wildly influenced by the invention and development of musical instruments.
In addition to reading, a singer must listen. While the history of recorded sound is obviously far more recent than that of the written word, it provides valuable information to the modern singer. “How is the singer singing?” and “What is the singer singing?” are the more important questions for the young professional singer in training. “Do I like the voice I am listening to?” surfaces in the mind, of course, but has very little practical impact, since the goal is to sing with your own voice.
Research has an important, tangible effect on how we read (some would say interpret) a score and bring it to life in performance. Of course, it is true that there are aspects of music difficult or even impossible to explain or quantify. Heaven knows I am thrilled that it is impossible to explain why I love music so much, although I might enjoy trying to do the impossible over a glass of wine! But, as a teacher, my first job is to teach what can be taught.
THE INTERSECTION OF RESEARCH AND COACHING
It is essential for the singer to develop an understanding of the composer’s musical milieu and idiosyncrasies. Even today, systems of musical notation remain a crude way to codify a composer’s intent. No amount of musical notation can accurately capture the possibilities of a musical mind - especially not the mind of true musical genius.
The further we go back in history, the more this is true. This is in part because the notation system was itself developing - pitches, note length, rhythm/meter, tempo indications, dynamic markings all entered musical history at different stages. But it is also because the composers of the past (up to and including Verdi) were writing in styles defined in part by ornamentation and variation. Put simply, composers did not expect singers to sing exactly what was notated. They were not expecting singers to slavishly sing the notes, nor the rhythms on the page. Interestingly, once composers started to indicate dynamics and rubato, their intentions become quite specific. Sadly, these are the aspects of their notation most routinely ignored by modern performing musicians.
"Indeed, either an air, or recitative, sung exactly as it is commonly noted, would be a very inexpressive, nay, a very uncouth performance; for not only the respective duration of the notes is scarcely even hinted at, but one note is frequently marked instead of another, as is the case where a note is repeated, instead of that note with its proper appoggiatura or grace... in consequence of which, the singer is misled, by being made to sing a wrong note.” (Domenico Corri, 1780)
Corri is a contemporary of Mozart, but his words also ring true concerning the music that came before and after his time. Here Corri singles out the appoggiatura (and he is not the only one who does, when writing on the topic of embellishments), since in this case the notational convention is dictated by the needs of the continuo group. It was the convention not to notate the dissonance of the appoggiatura as it would complicate the ability of the continuo group to realize the figured bass. As the continuo group leaves the scene, composers have no trouble notating the dissonance - Rossini and his predecessors including Handel and Mozart almost never write them, Donizetti sometimes writes them, Bellini almost always writes them.
Nevertheless Corri clearly highlights the appoggiatura as just one example of how we should not sing “exactly as commonly noted.” His remark clarifies that the composer merely “hints” at the duration of the note and challenges us to find the lingual and poetic stress which will make the eighth notes uneven, speech-like if you wish.
In addition to understanding the convention of the appoggiatura, the singers also consistently added or changed cadenzas, ornamented the notated melody, and varied the cabaletta. The very existence of the ABA form in the time of Handel and Mozart as well as the repeat of the cabaletta in the bel canto era inspires ornamentation and variation. We know what they did and how they did it because a wealth of historical ornaments and cadenzas have survived, both in notation and early recordings.
If we read the scores of Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and all the others applying the modern belief that “the composer wrote everything he expected on the page” we are doing Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and all the others an injustice. They were expecting us to be collaborators, or even co-composers. We owe it to them to take an active part in bringing their scores to life.
In the coaching room, unlike the classroom, I do not have time to explain all the reasons and research behind every appoggiatura, cadenza, ornament and variation, but I try at least to impart some basics of these topics so that the singer might improve his/her ability to decode scores from these eras without help. In the meantime, the duo of composer/singer envisaged by the masters becomes a trio of composer/coach/singer. It is an honor to play my part in this fluid dance of creating and performing. I have the best job!