“Now We Are Most Alive!” Satisfying Our Curiosity, and Staying Curious!
Reprinted with permission from The Canadian Music Educator July 1, 2011
“Now We Are Most Alive!”
by Darryl Edwards
As I write this, it’s the last day of university classes. It’s also the season for “summing up,” with end of year voice examinations (“juries”), student recitals, term reports, and when meetings for offers of admissions and scholarships merge with event scheduling for the year ahead. Students are clamouring for more voice lesson time as they put the final touches on the repertoire they’ve been preparing through the year. Dropped into this is a two-day trip to Montreal, to adjudicate master’s degree recitals at the Conservatoire de Musique et d’Art Dramatique de Québec. There, I admired its new facilities and met wonderful colleagues. During lunch break, I excused myself to participate in a conference call as part of the AIRS project (Advancement for Interdisciplinary Research in Singing), and something so commonplace as a conference call boggles my mind. We held a discussion between colleagues in Seattle, Toronto and Charlottetown in one phone call.
It’s also time for my own performing. This week, it’s Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light Requiem in London, ON, and next week, the Verdi Requiem in Peterborough. With everything happening almost simultaneously, I recall words from Nancy Telfer’s cantata, When the Spirit Dances, with its proclamation, “Now we are most alive!”
I am sure it’s the same for you, only more so! The events change, but the activity level has its own “snap, crackle and pop,” compressing the responsibilities and commitments that have you in “a jumble of antithetical elements!” And yet, we do it. We thrive on it, actually. As music educators, nurturers, contributors, performers, this is what we do. Because of your choices and sequential intensities, students discover and achieve, colleagues share and learn, we enable young hopefuls on their life paths. Through our planning, teaching, and performing, we create.
In this space and moment, then, it’s also time for the next CME submission. Rather than writing on a single topic, I’d like to touch on several that have been tugging for attention. Some of them will receive more expansion later, but will get a healthy mention now.
Several colleagues and at least one student have been dealing with thyroid issues. The topic has come up so often in the last year that it will merit a dedicated article in the future. Of the group of people in this circle who have been affected (all female), two are on thyroid medication and three others have had their thyroid glands removed. Thyroid medication often induces hoarseness, bringing physical and psychological ramifications to bear, especially for professional voice users like us. In singing, it can affect voice quality, range, and stamina. It requires detailed attention, careful voice use, and focused engagement of the breath-to-sound intensity and follow through.
The Love Song Waltes (Liebeslieder Wälzer) of Johannes Brahms are wonderful voice teaching pieces for young tenors! They are sung as solo quartets or as choral pieces, and there are some exquisite duets and solos in the work, too. For tenors, learning how to move from approximately the D next to middle C (D4) through the pitches above (especially between F#4 an G) this passage work can be a voice buster for those who negotiate it without any skill. It was to my delight that my young tenors improved their handling of their upper registers immensely because of their recent preparation and performance of this work.
By narrowing and brightening the vowels between D4 and F#4 (“aw”à “ae,”, “ih” to “ee,” and “oh” to “oo,” for example), it was an ideally blatant pathway to success. The concept was then transferable to other repertoire, and other successes! My gratitude went to our choral conductor, Dr. Hilary Apfelstadt , who, in selecting this repertoire, provided an ideal object lesson that was memorable, applicable and repeatable. Thank you, too, Johannes Brahms!
What is your specific “go to” repertoire for teaching technical concepts and skills in your choir rehearsals or voice lessons?
When recently visiting the University of Western Ontario, I took note of a sign outside a large new building on its campus, and especially the specific words: “Clinical Skills Learning Building.”
This sign highlighted a few things for me. First of all, it demonstrated the amount of funding available in the health care and university sectors for such training. Oh that we could get similar funding in arts education under the banner of “Health, Lifestyle and Disease Prevention!” That, however, is for another day, and another author. The building and its sign also demonstrated the recognition of skill building as a necessary, focused pursuit toward artistic excellence. Talent and inspiration need the third element of effort to ignite their powerful, combined effect and rewards. Perhaps one day we’ll have a named “Singing and Performing Skills Learning Building” as part of a “Vocal Arts Performance Centre.” Of course, it is the blending of all these elements that gives us our art; understanding a thing and doing a thing well are not the same. First, however, comes the inspiration and curiosity, followed by the skill building “from awkward to awesome.” Then, hopefully, the art appears.
During our annual university admissions committee meeting, I was chatting with a colleague who is a superb violinist. She remarked on how solo singers are late bloomers in comparison to violinists, who by contrast are training on their instruments at such a young age. I remarked that while this is true, the finest singers are those who have a background of disciplined musicianship training that is borne of young musicianship classes (Kodály, Dalcrose, Orff), music reading skills, ensemble experiences (in choirs, orchestras) an affinity for languages, as well as movement or bodywork awareness and training. Singers without those internal tools find it immensely difficult to succeed over the long term. The timbre of a person’s phonation does not alone make an artist, just like an excellent trumpet does not make an excellent trumpeter, or a Stradivarius makes a virtuoso violinist. The media can give an impression that “overnight successes” abound, but it is not true. For anyone to have a sustained career to spontaneously “pop” onto the scene, they too have had a tremendous amount of training and development that has been invested over time. A closer look at the making of an artist will show that all the steps have been taken. Those who skip to the front of the line are soon disadvantaged by what they have missed.
On the subway last week, I met a pianist friend who is “babysitting” a grand piano in her home for the next eight months. She asked me if I’d like to come over and sing some Schubert and Schumann songs. I thought it was a great idea! There’s no plan for a concert; we have not been hired to perform anything. It’s just for fun and enjoyment. What a wonderful opportunity! Do you treat yourself to art like that sometimes? In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron that taking some time for art is a must, at least once a week.
““Zooming In,” “Zooming Out,” and “This One Counts.” These are mental tools for balancing the time we spend focusing on developing specific technical issues, while also needing and wanting to make music. “Zooming In” is for those times when the eyes become glazed as we move to master any number of skills, including memory work, pronunciation, articulation and phrasing, resonance balancing, register balancing, and connection to the dramatic subtext as examples. “Zooming In” is about mindful, purposeful repetition. It gives you permission to pinpoint a specific task whether building or correcting a skill goal. “Zooming Out” is for folding skills from “part practice” into “whole practice.” It’s about making the music, while including the revised approach, and summoning the interpretive as well as technical aspects of the artistry. It’s the “Just sing the darn song!” and “Tell the story” point of your preparation. “This One Counts” invites you to sing while mentally positioning yourself in the performing moment. It allows you to beckon the skills and imagination with a distinct air of expectation. It’s about placing yourself in the venue, with specific people who may make you nervous, as well as people who are there with unconditional support. It’s about performing amidst unrehearsed and surprised circumstances, and while triumphing over any distractions. At this point, you’ve now set the stage for “flow” to occur. It’s your enactment of Emily Dickinson’s description that “Nature is a haunted house–but Art–is a house that tries to be haunted.”
These are a few of the musical topics and happenings that have been whirling around in my brain. I hope it’s allowed you to consider the things that are present in your own mind, and helped you to put some actions to your thoughts, and make art of your actions!