Thursday, December 25, 2008

Blog move

I have moved my blog back to the blogspot host, and re-published it.
The old web address will redirect to this one, and I've also added a
new link,, which should always get you
to the right spot.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas concert

Katarina and I give a Christmas concert each year. This is a tradition we started when we lived in Stockholm, and we continued it after we had moved to Örebro. Sunday Dec 14 was our third Christmas concert in Rinkaby Church.

I don't give many concerts - perhaps 2-3 each year - so it's always a special (and unfamiliar) occasion. I felt great the day before, but on the morning of the concert, I woke up with the snivels and a stiff and sore throat. The vocal cords were not affected, so I figured I'd be able to sing, but it took a good 2-3 hours of careful vocal warmups before the voice started feeling like it normally does when I get out of bed! This was obviously going to be a challenge.

Our musicians were coming in from Stockholm on an afternoon train, so we'd have rehearsals in the church, then go to our place for a quick bite, then back to the church. Rehearsals went ok, except I started feeling a bit dizzy while singing O Helga Natt (Cantique de Noël). I started thinking that I should perhaps let Katarina sing that one. But as I got up for that particular block in the concert, I realized it was to late to ask...

A blocked or runny nose isn't so much of a problem as long as you don't rely on nasal resonance, but it is a problem when it starts running down into your throat. Also, worrying about the voice distracts you from your main mission: to connect with the audience. Well, what can you do?

In the end, the concert went well. I decided to post two clips on youtube (since people keep asking, and they were, after all, fairly decent.)

Cantique de Noël is actually a bear of a song for a tenor. There are only two ways to do it: either with full voice and dramatic quality, or ... not at all. When I say "dramatic quality", I don't mean to imply sounding like a dramatic tenor. Both my voice and my demeanor are firmly in the lyrical tenor camp, and I couldn't be a dramatic tenor if my life depended on it. But within the bounds of their natural voice, each singer is (or should be) able to draw on different "modes" - for example, light, lyrical, and dramatic. It's not a matter of singing with "different voices", but rather of subtle shifts in timbre depending on the mood of the song.

In Cantique de Noël, the tessitura and range are pretty similar to Cielo e mar from La Gioconda. The ending high Bb should come as a release, but the long low phrases and the forte passage around the passaggio which precede it can often cause problems. You need a stable, low position but with head voice firmly engaged from the very beginning (as always, one might add). At the same time, you had better not make it too dramatic. After all, you're singing about the Second Coming of Jesus - not the end of the world. It's a dramatic occasion, alright, but one that calls for rejoicing.

An added challenge for a Swedish tenor is of course that Jussi Björling's version of this song is welded into everyone's mind, and it is of course not possible to even begin to compare with his unique rendition. All you can do is to try to be yourself, stay very cool, and hope that hearing it live with another voice is after all refreshing, even compared to playing Jussi for the thousandth time on your CD player at home.

The other song, Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul, is also one that everyone knows by heart, and has heard a countless number of times. I am reasonably pleased with the way the phrases move, the legato line, and the almost fragile quality of the mezza voce.

It's pretty obvious that I'm unaccustomed to the whole concert setting. Only more concerts can cure that.

A warm thank you to Robert Robertsson, who came from Stockholm to play the guitar, and to Eva Johnson who played the piano. Our Christmas concerts are a wonderful opportunity to get into the right Christmas spirit, and your warm presence and musicianship make it easy.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Not a real tenor..."

I'm browsing through Juvas Marianne Liljas' doctoral thesis, "Vad månde det blifva av dessa barnen?" ("What is to become of these children?"), about David Björling's vocal pedagogy. David was Jussi's father, and the dissertation is quite interesting. Actually, it's my wife, Katarina, who's borrowed it for her own research.

One passage that caught my eye was about how David Björling, who frequently used recordings by Caruso in his teaching, also used Karl Martin Öhman as a role model.

"Öhman, who studied in Milano among other places, was considered a consummate bel canto singer. Martin Öhman mastered a wide range of opera repertoire and his career was most successful abroad. It's evident from historical sources that Öhman initially had problems establishing himself on our Swedish national stage. At the Royal Opera in Stockholm, it was considered that Öhman was 'not a real tenor', since his timbre was too dark."
I found a sound clip here.

Interesting to find that the Swedish suspicion towards dramatic tenors goes so far back. Later (pg 320), Liljas describes Jussi's conflict (in terms of vocal technique) with John Forsell (artistic director of the Royal Opera) as representative of the struggle between the old influence of the French school and the national, or naturalistic, tradition. In this case, Jussi (and Öhman) rather represented the Italian school, or a cross between the Italian school and the naturalistic Nordic tradition.

Öhman later went on to teach Nicolai Gedda and Martti Talvela - marvellous singers both.

The thesis is quite interesting. Hopefully, I'll have time to read it thoroughly.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Great Equalizer

The last couple of years, I've given much thought to the effect of microphones on singing, and our ability to judge good singing.

Katarina and I went to see Tosca at Opera På Skäret. An experience in itself, this performance also offered the rare treat of hearing a real Big Voice live. It was Stuart Neill singing Cavaradossi, and suddenly, the difference between "loud" and "big" became very clear.

We had discount seats in the back of the auditorium, but Neill's voice could not only be heard easily - we could feel his voice. This is an experience that a recording can never give you. You can learn to recognize a big voice and imagine what it would be like to hear it live, but such occasions are unfortunately rare.

Listen for example to this clip. You can hear that Neill has a lush beautiful voice, but the recording is unable to convey the feeling of being immersed in his sound. One of the reasons is that you want to place the mikes so that you capture the direct sound from the singers, and not let the ambient sound dominate too much. But the Big Voice becomes part of the ambient acoustics, and fills the auditorium. The recording becomes to the live performance as a photograph of a majestic scenery is to the experience of being there in person.

I can recall many conversations where I've come to understand that most people don't know this difference when it comes to singing. Apparently, quite a few people think that opera singers wear microphones, just like in the musical theater. And I've had friends who've told of their great disappointment when some famous pop singer was unable to make herself heard without a microphone when singing solo with a choir - she who sounds like she has so much "bite" in her voice.

With amplification, most singers sound pretty much equal.

This is bad news for singers who have worked hard to acquire this Big Voice quality (yes, it's an acquired skill- it's just that few know how, or have the patience to acquire it). They should be wary of concerts where microphones are called for. The microphone will erase much of the advantage of the Big Voice, to the great benefit of the singer who lives by the mike.

Katarina recently gave a concert with pianist Hans-Ove Olsson. They did both opera and jazz in the same concert. Jazz can be sung with a Big Voice - that's how it used to be - but at least here in Sweden, there are very few such singers left. I had the pleasure of hearing Katarina and Hans-Ove rehearse in the auditorium at Klockargården, Huddinge, he at the grand piano and she beside him, making the whole room vibrate with the sound of their music. The actual concert was on an outdoor scene, however. It was windy, and Hans-Ove had to make do with a quirky electrical piano. It was about as good as could be expected, but much of the magic from the rehearsal got lost somewhere between the amplification and the wind. Actually, at least when I was turning sheets on the stage (a small gazebo), I experienced the magic. That little gazebo reverberated with the sound of her voice and his playing. If only the 100 people in the audience could all have crammed inside that gazebo... Then they would have been in for a real treat.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Good Dreams - Joseph Shore

I spent some time researching details about vibrato (which is perhaps an interesting story in itself), and stumbled upon Joseph Shore's website. Specifically, it was the text "Where have all the great singers gone?" which first caught my eye.

It is a very interesting article. In other fields, it would be called a "position paper", I guess.

Some parts can be seen as provocative:
Singers with a thousand different voices-- a different color for every note-- are not "interpreting" music. They are singing badly. They have no inner reason for singing; no inner perspective giving their singing impetus. They have no point of view. Having no inner guidance they "pop" it and try to "sell it." They may even use the pop singer's techniques of straight-tone onsets, uneven vibrato, and hand gestures. Usually they feel it is unnecessary for them to study the great singers in opera's history. They may even think it would be harmful for them!
Personally, I've come to think that "they have no inner reason for singing" might not quite hit the spot. They may well have (I know I did), but their vocal technique gets in the way, and cannot convey this inner perspective. This, of course, leaves both singer and audience frustrated. And of course, when you try to pop it and sell it, whether there was an inner perspective to begin with becomes a moot point.

I'd like to tell an anecdote: A few days before reading Shore's article, we had had one of our gatherings here at our place, with Bengt visiting from Stockholm and spending two days teaching us and friends. It's become quite an event, and many of the "students" testify that they've been searching for years for this kind of sensation when singing. This time we had been talking about how proper singing is a flow experience, in that it demands so much of your attention.

Shortly after that, I was driving and listening to the radio. They were talking about a production of a Haydn opera at Drottningholm. They announced a sound clip from the performance, and felt that it was important to inform the listener that the soprano was playing badminton while singing her coloratura aria - and the applause from the audience came because she actually managed to hit the ball... Needless to say, hearing the aria without the benefit of also seeing the badminton match left the listener somewhat unsatisfied; it sounded a bit like she was preoccupied while singing. I couldn't help thinking that this was the exact opposite of what our own singing sessions were aiming for.

Shore returns to this theme later on:
There is a term many genuine singers have for this kind of "diminutive," "stylistic, mannered" singing. It is called 'dishonest' singing! As Osborne says, "We cannot care about or believe in a note they sing or a word they say." Think about a truly great artist like Caballe, Sutherland, Horne, Corelli, Bastianini, Siepi, or Hines. There is a quality of depth or "honesty" about everything they sing. There are no tricks. No deceptions. They utilize the beautiful legato line, with the big tone, as their principle means of interpretation. They do not take the pop singers approach which removes consistent resonantal quality out of tones for the sake of individual word coloring. Word coloring is done subtly within the broader usage of legato and tonal beauty.
Surely this is something for singers to shoot for in their singing. Surely this is worthwhile. Surely this is "honest" singing. Singers will grow as individuals from this kind of singing. Singing will become their "yoga" in life and give them MORE to express. People WILL then care about the words they say and the notes they sing, and they will not need a microphone to keep people's attention.

If I may offer a word here to the confused modern singer, regardless of the level of talent you as a singer may possess, you must go for the best in yourself. How can you go for less? Even if you do not have the talent to be a supremely great singer, you can learn from the art of the great singers and thereby find the best in yourself. The "art" of singing has much to offer the human spirit.

Some singers may think that the information in this article is all very depressing. You may think you would be better off not knowing. That might be possible, but I tend to believe that is reality denial which will leave you confused and guessing. The truth is always all there is. Usually it is better to know it.
So who is this Joseph Shore anyway? Well, he was a fairly accomplished American opera singer. Why he didn't enjoy an international career is a very interesting story, told in the book Good Dreams, which you can download from his web site. Shore stumbled onto the opera stage mainly by accident, learning some arias by listening to records in 1973, and then winning the Met Auditions two years later, with a voice that was simply stunning for a 26 year-old (not to mention one who had not been schooled). A clip from the radio broadcast can be found on youtube:

The book is entertaining, and tells the story of his successes and big disappointments, when he was "blackballed", and branded as difficult. Shore tells of his own self-destructive moves and bad timing, but also of how he often won the audience and critics, and found supporters among some of the great singers of the last century.

Perhaps Mr Shore's path was intended to prepare him for teaching? I kept wondering while reading the book how he would eventually become a good teacher. People who win their laurels too easily seldom become good teachers. Would Shore really be able to help others build a big voice, since he didn't have to build his own? The answer is given in the book:
When I faced my students I was considerably less secure. I had never been trained as a teacher of voice, nor had I patiently developed my own voice through long rigorous study. I had a few empirical images from my own teachers, but that was it. My first semester showed how new I was. The young, minimally talented students, just learning Caro mio Ben really benefited very little from my Bardelli sayings. I was way over their head. I was determined not to fail as a voice teacher so I went to the music library and literally read all of the books on vocal pedagogy. Luckily for me, my first semester we had many master teachers come in for 231 classes. I learned from all of them. As I read books on voice science and physiology I began to develop a way of teaching which I thought would communicate and show results. I gave the student just enough information about his physiology that would help and experimented with exercises designed to work on the involuntary muscle systems that we use in singing. I seemed to have something of a knack for it. The result was that my second semester students shot way up in Juries and my colleagues gave it kind notice.

I saw now a different side to the world of singing. I had literally started out at the top, bypassing all of this level of education. All of the singers I had known had been great professional opera singers. What did I have to say to these kids? It happened slowly, but as I tried to teach them as my teachers had taught me, I found myself loving them. And then I realized that singing is far more than a contest to the top of the world. Singing is a human experience which everyone has a right to do. Most of my students did not have much talent if you looked at them the way I had been looking at singers in New York. They would graduate and then go out and teach public school music. A few would go on to graduate school and teach in College. I had none that could possibly reach entrance level professional. Was that a waste of time? No. I changed in Greensboro. Love for my students changed me and I continued my reading and my research to try to develop my personal way of teaching voice.
It is so easy for us to get hooked on the idea of becoming famous; if we don't get that world career, we are failures, and we couldn't have been much good to begin with. This is something I've had to struggle with personally from time to time: I was expected to have a fine athletic career, and believe that I had enough talent to aim for an Olympic final. But talent is not everything - not even talent and ambition. You also need to stay clear of injuries, have good advisors, and perhaps also a fair bit of luck. I may have had enough talent; I probably didn't want it badly enough, and I didn't stay clear of injuries. It took me several years to get over the feeling that I had wasted a great opportunity. I was/am also very good with computers. I've enjoyed quite a good career in programming, and have received some international recognition, but I can't help feeling that I'm only putting half a heart into it - if you want to become really great at something, that won't do. I've also thought for many years that I could have been a successful singer (not only because there aren't that many tall tenors around), but I've always had this thing about being judged on subjective grounds. This kept me from singing in public for many years. With age, I've come to realize that my own particular gift is to see the connecting patterns, and it is this mindset that, more than anything, keeps me from single-mindedly pursuing any specialized field. Successes and failures are in themselves neither good nor bad. It's how they shape us that matters.

Perhaps it is really a shame that Joseph Shore didn't receive international recognition as an opera singer. On the other hand, it seems as if the mistakes and injustices, as well as his initial career as a scholar and the successes he did enjoy after all, all served to make him a fine teacher.

Joseph Shore has a great story to tell. I'm sure he also has a lot to teach.