Shame on me for being away so long. Mea Culpa!
One of my students expressed her fear of singing for people as a case of nerves she felt unable to overcome.
Just to make things clear. . .everyone suffers from nerves before singing in public. But there are ways to handle this. I always joke, saying that when I was singing I would have paid someone to go on for me in those moments before walking on the stage. But I knew that it wouldn't last a long time, and of course I never did this! I said my mantra and dedicated the performance to someone or something, so it could be bigger than singing for my own aggrandizement.
First, a mantra. Something meaningful to you that you can repeat over and over again to calm yourself. One sentence will do it. Tops two. Go into a quiet place and close your eyes, and let the words come to you. When it is right, you will know. And then. . .do not tell anyone what it is! It is just for you. Prior to going on stage, repeat your mantra to yourself and it will help you enormously. I promise you.
Next. . .dedicate the performance. You can dedicate your performance to anyone, living or dead, related or not, famous, not famous. Or you can dedicate it to anything! Like world peace or stopping hunger. As long as it comes from your heart, you will be singing for a cause or a being that you love and respect. It raises your game several notches and you will feel proud for having done this.
And then. . .back to the Breath! In the first 5-10 minutes or so on stage, you just concentrate on your breathing and that alone! Your voice is there but your breath can desert you! So breathe through parted lips and through the nose and go on to breathe either diaphragmatically, or intercostally with your full attention on doing this. I promise you that within 10 minutes tops you will be calm and your attention will be on performing, interptreting the music given to you, and you will wonder where you nerves went!
And here I must include a statement from the N.Y. Times review of "Inside Llewyn Davis, about the folk music scene in the early '60's. He said he was reminded that. . ."the most fundamental fact of musical performance: It is always, first and foremost, an act of courage."
As we know, the way to hell is paved with good intentions! I have failed miserably to deliver the follow-up to my last blog, Breathe!, promising all the names and revealing all! Well hang on, 'cause here it comes!
If you recall I said I could not resign myself to the only breathing technique available to me, diaphragmatic breathing. I also told you that reading the first chapter of Jerome Hines marvelous book, "Great Singers on Great Singing" opened my eyes to a new approach! I remember reading it and having that cold chill of recognition go up my spine. Here it is! The way I breathe. And here is some of what Mme. Licia Albanese had to say about "our" breathing technique: First her denegration of diaphragmatic breathing (for her). . ."If you push down with the chest and abdomen. . .where do you get the breath? I tried this years ago (as did I!) For me it did not work. (me neither, Licia). Expand down and push up to sing. . .you just don't get a good breath." She went on to say "You should leave your belly in, expand your chest and back, and you should use your hands and arms in an upward sweep to get a full breath. It is a taller feeling and pulls the shoulders back to a good posture". This is the way I learned my new breathing technique, and was eventually able to replacate the taking of the breath without always expanding my arms. But that sweep outwards of the arms is an amazing feeling, if you haven't tried it! There is so muc more of what she said that i would like to capture here, but I will confine myself to the most stunning of her revelations. She goes on to say she believes that the so-called "placement" of the voice comes from the breath! And when Hines observed "You don't use your lips much when you sing, do you?" To which she repleid, "Good vowels are made from the throat, not in the mouth." If you are or have been a student of mine, you have herd me say this. . .endlessly!
But I digress! So for some few years I continued to sing and grow as a singer, finally being able to use my breath, as advised my Mme. Albanese. I Found that those first few minutes onstage, when the nerves are still present, having my lifted chest, and pulled in abdomen to cut me off from anything but my breath, calmed me and enabled me to sing through those first few nervous moments, after which you could not have pulled me from the stage!
A wonderful coach I had in Frankfurt, James Pearson, was leaving for another opera house, and wanting to divest himself of some of his belongings, gifted me with a book. . ."The Singing Voice" by Robert Rushmore. Reading one day I came upon a section devoted to breathing. After dismissing clavicular breathing saying" saying vocal experts condemn it as inadequate and unsuitable for singing." You know this type of breathing. It sounds like a series of little gasps from the upper chest and is heard now and again from newscasters. But it has one use for us. . .he says. . . "a cunning singer falls back on this type of breathing when he cannot manage a long phrase Not wishing to break it, he takes a barely imperceptible half or 'catch' breath. When you have read what comes next, I will refute this ever so slightly. And then I read. . .
"A second kind of breathing goes under such names as 'lateral or 'Intercostal'". . .this last what I now call it.
Intercostal breathing. He goes on to say that "a fanatical believer in this type of breathing for singing, issues these exhortations to her students: Draw in the abdomen below the navel, as well as the navel itself, and keep them thus always, for the rest of your life."
Thee is so much more to this way of breathing. . .including the belief that it was the choice of the early great bel canto singers and of the wonderful castrati. "The words of Manuel Garcia II that the chest should be lifted and the abdomen drawn up and in while taking breath are also frequently quoted by his fervent disciples in support of the intercostal breathing method.
In my next blog I will do some explaining why this works. As well as the pitch for diaphrgmatic breathing which does work for some singers. . .esp. men.So hang in there. We're getting there. But at least you have a name for my breathing technique now.
If only it were that easy! The miracle that occurs when breath becomes sound has never really been fully understood. I remember one of my last voice teachers volunteering to have Bell labs put cameras down his throat to try and see just when the miracle occurs! But we do know this. Breath becomes sound and the way we make that happen is to breathe! Catch this! From a marvelous book no longer in print, The Singing Voice. " . . expelled breath, rushes ino the versatile larynx. At the same time, solely by direction of the brain, wedge-shaped folds within the larynx (vocal cords) dart out from either side and all but block the passage of breath up to the mouth. Such is the pressure of the air that the ligaments are forced to give way in all or part of their length and a puff of air escapes through. In what is known as the "Bernoulli effect" the ligaments immediately resume their former position until the pressure of the air rising from below once again forces through a minute puff. This breath, chopped up at an incredible rate of speed, becomes sound." He goes on to remind us that a well-trained singer can stand before a candle flame, and having taken a deep inhalation of air will expel it in the form of lovely sound that doesn't move the flame because it is no longer breath The breath has been transformed into a singing voice. Beyond a doubt, a miracle.
We don't think much about breathing to live. Unless we are ill. But breathing to sing is something else. Gather eight voice teachers in a room and you will have eight people unable to agree on how best to do this. Sadly, one of my last voice teachers and I almost parted company over this issue of how to breathel He was a supporter of abdominal breathing, which for me was death. He would compare it to trying to hold a beach ball under water and all I felt in doing this, was choked. This was one of the best teachers in N.Y. at the time, and someone who put my voice together after the birth of my son forever changed it. (More on that another time!) But he could not teach me how to breathe and we nearly came to blows about it! Finally, I knew I would just have to find my own way, and I set out to find it.
I will leave you here this time, saying only that a book written by Jerome Hines which was a series of interviews with the great singers of his day about how they sang, changed my life forever. The essays were in alphabetical order, as they were all equally famous, and I didn't have to go any further than Alicia Albanese! The first singer in the book to describe her methods and the last I would ever need. She held my answer! In imitation of how she described taking her breath I found the support and freedon I had been longing for. And it wasn't till much later that I learned that this breathing technique had a name! And that it was probably the way the famed castrati of the impossible, long breath, breathed. . .the way many famous singers breathed throughout history. And now my way. I know. . .I haven't named it. But I will. Next time.
There's so much I want to share with everyone. I am hoping this will be a place where potential students will come
and get information that will help them even before they start to study. And maybe it will be a place where I can share my experiences as a professional singer for so many years. Don't forget. . .I was a beginner once! I often say that I took the "low road" to becoming a singer. I studied with the wrong people, didn't trust my instincts about my voice, and was very conflicted about who I was as a singer. Was I a musical comedienne? Was I a singer/songwriter? Was I really an opera singer or was that only a distant dream? Discovering who you are and what you should be singing is a very important piece of the puzzle, so I was correct to be concerned. But I felt guilty when I was singing anything except opera, failing to enjoy whatever I was singing when I was singing it! The truth is, I was all those things. We are all many things. And yes, at some point we do have to more or less choose where we want to sing! In a recording studio and in huge venues, miked to the hilt, or in an opera house or concert stage, never to be miked! As it says in the bible and in the song by the Byrds. . .to everything there is a season, (Turn! Turn!) and a time for every purpose under heaven.
Remember this and you will enjoy the journey of becoming a singer and discovering how you want to use your voice! It's all good! There is no one calling that is better than another. Opera is no more a holy art than rhythm and blues! Be open to the possibilities, and the chance that they may even overlap! Just learn to sing! And pursue a technique that will serve you no matter what you sing! That is the word I leave you with today. Technique. That which enables you to communicate with your voice because you already know how to produce it! Pursue this and everything else will fall into place.