Friday, 16 December 2011

Seriously entertained

Last night I sang at a Christmas dinner function. I was scheduled in between the main and dessert. Perfect timing really – the guests have had enough wine to be slightly merry and expansively forgiving of any minor slip-ups, but not so much food they’re going to sleep and you have to studiously ignore the man at the second table with his head resting on his side plate, snoring in the key of E.

Actually it wasn’t really me they wanted. Originally the organiser rang my teacher Rebecca Ryan, but she was unable to do it, so she recommended me. With any luck no-one told the dinner guests that they were getting second choice and a very distant second at that. Like three miles astern. When I was discussing the details with the organiser he said that they wanted a ‘serious’ singer. This tends to be a non-singer’s term for ‘person who sings very loudly, with a lot of vibrato and in a foreign language and therefore must be rather good’.

It’s always interesting choosing repertoire for performances. You may have just put the finishing touches on a technically-challenging 20th century aria with more accidentals and time signature changes than should ever be crammed into 5 pages, but it’s most likely going to fall flat with a bunch of Rotarian’s at their Christmas party looking to be entertained. Oh they’ll politely applaud and look impressed but will they enjoy it? Probably not. So serious, but enjoyable was required.

I started with the short but very sweet Quilter song ‘Music, when soft voices die’, just to give them a dose of ‘serious’. This seemed to be appreciated i.e. thank heavens you’re singing in English and it’s short and tuneful. And then I combined ‘serious’ with ‘entertainment’ and let rip with Flanders and Swanns’ ‘A Word on my Ear’.  If you’ll forgive my lack of modesty, I had them at ‘Hello, I am the great operatic diva Dame Edith Huntington-Smythe-Jones-Smythe’ and it was all smiles, laughs and applause from there. A girl could really get used to that. I’ve sung this several times now and I’m at the point where I can relax and really get into the acting side of things and not sing it through strictly adhering to the time/bar lines/rests etc. Of course the accompanist is very much an intergral part of not just the music, but the acting in this one and mine was with me every step of the way.

So that’s the last pre-Christmas performance and with three weeks holiday starting from Friday next week, plenty of time to start getting my teeth into new repertoire. ‘King David’ here I come….

Monday, 5 December 2011

Let There Be Joy!

Last night I was part of a world premiere! In fact, I can now claim to be the first person to sing a particular song in 450 years. I am a member of A Capella Singers and A Capella Concertino and last night we gave a performance entitled 'Let There Be Joy', music with Scottish connections for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. These are songs and carols researched, translated and edited by Dr Raymond White and recently published in a book also entitled Let There Be Joy. 

In the mid-1500's John Knox and his cohorts of the Reformation disapproved of art, music, dance - in fact as Raymond puts it in the preface of his book, 'they were the cultural terrorists of their time'. Apparently Knox had the idea that 'Satan had corrupted the noble gift of singing cheifly through the Papists, by the use of the Latin language that does not edify'.

Surely the man must have been tone deaf! How can you listen to Palestrina or Gabrieli and not want to be a better person?? 

It was a good test for me of how well my focus on breathing was working, as it was a big sing - 13 items in all, including 3 of them with the small Concertino group and one a solo. (Not to mention I was making my debut as a conductor with two of the songs). In rehearsal the solo had gone well, and felt nice and free. Stepping up to sing it at the performance my mouth was as dry as the Sahara and I was terrified that the lower notes at the end of the first and third lines (only middle C#, so yes I can hear the mezzos and altos amongst you scoffing - stop it Sarah!) but a leap downwards to get there and I wanted to stay in head voice rather than grind them out in my chest. So I just focused on taking the most relaxed and full breath I could and let that do the work for me. And it did. And more good breathing and the echo-y acoustic of St Mary's Basilica allowed the higher notes to float out easily. For once I was actually reasonably happy straight off.  Just the chamber organ and cello as accompaniment. 

The music as a whole was joyful and uplifting and I absolutely adored 'Illuminare Jerusalem'. So many of the songs are dance-like there were times I wished we could have moved accordingly, but of course choirs in church don't do that, that would be naughty. And the shade of John Knox would come and clip as all around our collective ears and consign us to the fires of Hell. 

And of course what would a concert of carols be without a good hearty rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas, Adeste Fidele - ooh! more of that wicked Latin - and Silent Night.

My next gig is as part of the entertainment at the local Rotary club Christmas party. Apparently I will be on straight after the main meal so hopefully they won't have all nodded off by then. I'm going to lull them into a false sense of security with a Quilter art song and then knock 'em dead with 'A Word on My Ear'.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Work those flabs!

It’s been an interesting week, full of birthdays (my Mum, Dad and I all have birthdays within one week of each other), singing opportunities and another session with the voice therapist.

The therapy session was intense and I felt quite wrung-out by the end of it. Lots more breathing and focusing on the muscles involved. I discovered that I am a tactile person when it comes to understanding these things – I need to actually feel what is happening – and so I spent time with my hand placed on various parts of my therapist’s mid-section, trying not to be depressed that she has abs and I have flabs!  We discussed the fact that we girls tend not to breathe freely because we are too busy holding our tummies in. All I can say is that if anyone is standing at right-angles to me when I’m letting it all hang out it they may find themselves thinking about having jelly or blancmange for dessert that evening. NB: I have never eaten blancmange, but I’ve always wanted to use it in a sentence. Excellent, another item crossed off the bucket list.

The evening after my session I was in charge of the programme for the Music Circle of the local Womens Club to which I belong (and which my brother-in-law somewhat unkindly but, it must be admitted, truthfully calls the ‘Grey Hair & Glasses Society’. Actually ten years ago it would have been more accurate to say ‘Wisteria Rinse & Glasses Society’, but I digress). As well as organising the programme of items, I was also performing a duet, an arrangement of Silent Night.

After work, I had a quick run-through. And discovered that instead of being all lovely and free after my therapy session, my voice had….gone into hiding. I could barely reach an F5. I walked into the kitchen and my other half, for whom classical music is something other people listen to while he listens to Glen Campbell, said “You wouldn’t have been happy with that”. Well that ratcheted up the stress-levels to a bicycle-clip factor of 8.5 in a heartbeat. What to do? I contemplated not doing it at all and then decided that with a combination of steaming, gentle warm-up exercises and a real focus on getting the sound forward, I could manage. And thankfully, I did. It certainly wasn’t as good as it should have been, but neither was it a disaster and fortunately the middle and lower register filled out nicely and blended well with my singing partner.  I emailed my therapist the next day to tell her what had happened and we both agreed that it was probably a combination of a long day, intense concentration during our session and the stress of organising the programme.

I sang again on Friday at a function, this time all was well. A rendition of Flanders & Swan’s ‘A Word on my Ear’ which is always great fun. Although it’s surprisingly difficult to sing off-key deliberately!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Beautiful Baroque

I think we all have a era of classical music that appeals to us the most. One where, if we were stuck on that Desert Island of radio fame, and were told that we could choose only music from one era, this would be what would choose.

For me? Baroque all the way baby. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi - quite apart from the quality  of those three, there's thousands of MP3 files right there without even thinking about other Baroque composers. Right from a young age I gravitated to the Baroque composers - both in instrumental music and in vocal. What would Christmas be without Messiah? (And my consequent discovery of Emma Kirby. Sshhhh, don't tell my singing teacher).

Of all the works I studied at High School, what do I remember - and can pretty much sing all arias and choruses of without a score still? Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Which incidentally will stand me in good stead when the choir I belong to, A Capella Singers  performs it next year.It wasn't until recently that I discovered the delights of the Arie Antiche, mostly thanks to the CD of the same name by Cecilia Bartoli. Love her or hate her, she certainly immerses herself in the arias. Deceptively simple they are. (Sorry, channeling Yoda there). My favourite? It changes from week to week. Right now it's Vivaldi's 'Sposa son disprezzata' If I could do that last trill as softly as she does at that pitch I would be a very happy soprano.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Learning to breathe like a baby

I had my first proper session with the speech therapist (Vanessa Jerome, in Dunedin) yesterday. She identified from  my initial assessment that my speaking voice is not as it should be and feels that if we can work on that, it will flow through to my singing voice. So back to absolute basics - learning to breathe properly.

It's amazing how an hour of breathing exercises just flew by. Envisaging myself rhythmically inflating and deflating a balloon with no tension. Then we added an sssssss on the exhalation. Another discovery - I tense my neck muscles on ssssss. I found that by putting my hand gently on my throat I could feel what I was doing and adjust accordingly.  Hmmm yes, but it wouldn't be a good look in a recital! Best I learn to do it without the physical prompt.

Then using zzzzzzzz. When I got it all together it was amazing feeling of power with no effort. So now I need to practice all this and be aware of what I am doing so that eventually it becomes automatic.

Tomorrow I have two lots of singing - firstly normal Basilica choir which will include 'How Beautiful are the Feet' from Messiah and then in the afternoon A Capella Singers has been invited to sing at the St John's Church 150th celebrations. So a couple of opportunities to try and put the above into practice. Wish me luck!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Can I have my voice back please?

First the history. Back at the end of the April I sang the roles of the Dew Fairy and the Sandman in Humperdinck's opera "Hansel and Gretel'. It was part of the Southland Arts Festival. These were my first solo roles and it was a completely awesome experience. My teacher sang the part of Gretel, the lovely Amanda Winfield (who is a fabulous soprano and a complete professional as you will soon see) sang two big roles, the Mother and the Witch, and her very talented husband-in-real-life Ravil Atlas was the director and conductor. (I'll tell you about my experiences of singing my first opera role in another post).

Depsite a bit of a head cold, all was well until I woke up on the Saturday morning of the last performance, opened my mouth to say something and was alarmed to discover that an enraged chicken and taken over my voice. Despite the best efforts of a magic gargle and steam, it was clear to everyone that I was not going to be able to sing. Being a complete amateur I thought this was someting of an insurmmountable problem and with what little bit of voice I could muster was apologizing to all and sundry. And yes, I admit it, trying not to cry. 

Ravil decided that Amanda would sing my part from the wings into a microphone leading to a speaker that was already at the front of the stage and I would mime. I got ready to duck, waiting for Amanda to throw a diva-tantrum along the lines of "I'm already singing two big roles and you want me to sing two others that I will have to sight-read??!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" *hurls breakable objects at anyone in the vicinity* And what happened next, dear readers is why working with professional singers although being completely nerve-wracking for an amateur like me, is also a god-send when something goes awry. Amanda calmly reorganises her costume changes, grabs the score and lightly sings over my two arias (I slaved over those for weeks!) and then as I launch into my 1,346th apology, she turns to me and says with a big smile "It's fine - really". And it was :)

Anyway, the point of all that is that it was the start of the problems with my voice. My voice came back, but only slowly. And now anything more than about half an hour of singing and I get husky. First stop the doctor and a prescription for antibiotics to ensure no silent infection and then prednisone to reduce inflammation. They might as well have been jelly-babies for all the good they did. (Actually real jelly-babies would have been more therapeutic). So then a referral to an ENT specialist in Dunedin where a camera was shoved up my nose and down my throat - not nearly as bad as it sounds - and I was able to watch my vocal folds on a tv screen. Is it vain of me to say that they looked beautiful? The ENT man agreed that they would make a lovely illustration of what-vocal-folds-should-look-like in a text book. Which is all very nice, but didn't explain the voice problems.

So here's his theory, and the reason why I had my first visit to a speech therapist on Thursday: Because my voice took a while to come back after losing it, I unconsciously started using a number of smaller muscles in my neck and shoulder area to help bolster the sound. These aren't designed to take that amount of work and therefore get strained. So I have to learn to stop using them. Back to basics. Lots of steaming still. Oh and for those of you who have ever conversed with me, this will amuse you  - I have to try and slow down my speech a little. Frankly I think I would have a better chance of singing Mimi at La Scala than speaking more slowly but I'm going to try. I know. I. can. do it. if. I. really. try.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


Welcome to my 'singing' blog. I have another blog, but it's supposed to be about my family and I found I was writing more about my singing stuff some days than about family stuff.

First things first. Is it hard to name a blog or what?! And now I've named it, I've got to figure a way of living up to the Amusing part. As opposed to just musing. I wish I could steal some of Sarah Court's ability to write posts ranging from amusing to downright hilarious.

Now those of you who know me know that I'm not the next big thing. No aural resemblence to Kiri Te Kanawa whatsoever. Frankly, I'm too old to be the next big thing. But by golly I'm going to be the next quite-pleasant-to-listen-to thing if it kills me. I'm going to be world famous in Invercargill. If I fail, don't blame my teacher - she should be given a medal for putting up with me and the weird and wonderful noises that issue forth from my mouth.

Which leads me to the topic of my next post - the reason for the weird noises that issue forth. Stay tuned. (A440 is always good).