Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pontifications of a hobby singer

I don't get out much...

...as a singer, that is. One of the problems of having singing as a hobby and pulling 10-12 hour workdays doing something else, is that you really have to limit your engagements. Luckily for me, this is no hard task - it's not like I have to turn down any offers. This year, I've received exactly two offers to sing professionally, and that about fills my quota, considering that there is also the traditional Christmas recital.

This time, it was a Summer recital at Ödeby Church outside Örebro in Sweden. 'Öde' means 'desolate' in Swedish, and while the village isn't desolate per se, it is at least remote. You drive until the road seems to end, and suddenly there's a nice little Church. This being Örebro, it means that you'll be driving for about as long as it would take you to go to IKEA from Downtown Stockholm. In Örebro, the far country isn't that far away.

The first weeks of my vacation reminded me that in order to sing at the level I aspire to, you really do have to sing every day. I don't really have time for that, so I cheat. I invent small exercises that I can do on the subway, in the office, in the bathroom. They seem to keep my muscles reasonably fit, but don't help much with timing, expression, and the micro-adjustments needed when singing for real. There simply isn't any substitute for doing the real thing.

We had a rehearsal the week before with wonderful accompanist Jan-Erik Sandvik. It felt great, and I was convinced that a daily regimen of rehearsals for the final week would more or less guarantee that I would be at the top of my current capacity.

Only I wasn't going to get that chance. A trip to London, management meetings, representation with important partners, talking to the rest of the staff... I was back to my cheating again.

I returned home on Thursday. The concert was on Saturday. One day to wake up the voice, one half day to go through the program and memorize it all once more.

"The only thing you have to fear is fear itself", maestro Bengt keeps telling me. Time to dust off that old saying and put stock in it. I have three things going for me:
  • I believe I have really found a good position for my voice. I know how to quickly get to that place where the voice 'ignites' (vocal ring), and I've gotten pretty comfortable maintaining it. Once I'm in that position, all I should focus on is diction, legato and interpretation (...and tons of minor things, but these three will go far).
  • My wife Katarina would be singing with me. When we're on, she will be a rock, as always.
  • Jan-Erik has accompanied just about every singer in Sweden. There is nothing I can do that will throw him off-balance. He will notice if I falter, and lead me through it.
Not all amateurs are so lucky.

Things went well. The church was full, taking into account that one-third of it was occupied by scaffolding due to refurbishment. The weather was perfect, and the audience seemed to be of the same disposition.

I always try to shoot video and record the audio with 'good' mics. For me, it serves a pedagogical purpose. I need to get on stage to hone my instincts and harden my courage. Publishing the result is part of that mental process. Also, feeling that the concert was a success is one thing. Seeing yourself on video afterwards is another. A lot of things you thought would work really don't, and if you remove the video and listen to audio only, it's even worse. Every reduction step cuts away some of the magic, and emphasizes the flaws.

If you're up for it, it's a great learning experience. For me the keyword is 'more': more energy, more legato, better diction. My goal should be to sit down in front of a recording and observe that 'that was really too much'. Then I can start scaling back. But if you've never been there, you can't trust your instincts, and when you're on stage, that's pretty much what you're left with.

Being my own sound technician adds to the challenge, of course, especially when I'm not well prepared. This time, the good mics were set up but not plugged in. The backup - the little Zoom H2 on the balcony - would have to suffice, and it wasn't the first time either, I might add.

Katarina always gets to start. She is the star - I'm the sidekick - and it always calms me down when she gets the ball rolling.

We sang Swedish and Finnish 'romances' - Rangström, Stenhammar, Alfvén, Körling, Sibelius... and then some Puccini at the end.

Sibelius is difficult. Most difficult for me was 'Säf, säf susa', but I really wanted to do that one. Working with it was a great learning experience, especially singing in the original (high) key. Jussi sings it one full step higher, which is really more comfortable, but I like it in the original. I think it adds to the atmosphere. The dramatic middle part is very difficult to sing without pushing. It helps me to think 'g' - the onset of a resonant 'g' gives a nice low position.

After the romances, there was a short break, and then the Rodolfo/Mimi scene from La Bohème. Getting up for Che gelida manina, I had lost my position. None of my exercises for finding it again were appropriate on stage, so I just had to get on with it. The beginning was a struggle, and I tried not to think about the high C that was drawing closer. Oh, well... The only thing to do was to just go for it, and it worked! After that, I had my voice back.

The encore was Summertime for Katarina, and Torna a Surriento for me. I thought she would start, and sat down with a glass of water. She waved me on, and I took a gulp of water - too quickly, and nearly choked on it. Jan-Erik started playing immediately, so I had a few bars to quit coughing. Maybe I should learn to signal that I'm ready, and not before...

All in all, I couldn't wish for a better hobby, and to share this with my wonderful wife is just perfect.


Martin Berggren said...

Thought I would compliment you on your singing! Sounds great; clearly a "Swedish phonation model", to speak like JRL!

Found your blog through the Toreadorsong Vocal Technique blog. I am the Martin giving him comments now and then. (Jag är också svensk men håller mig till engelska eftersom du gör det...) I just read through your old post. Really nice - looking forward to more of them!



Ulf Wiger said...

Thank you for your kind words.

Some of those old posts make me blush a little when I read them again, but I guess they form a record of my growing understanding of singing.

Full understanding seems to be out of reach until I actually start to master this stuff, and so the truth reveals itself little by little. It's great fun!

I expect to see you around, as JRL keeps posting pearls of wisdom.


Anonymous said...


Hälsningar / Robert