Prima la Parola.
Today’s blog is all about words. We all use them, sometimes properly, sometimes wrongly. They can hurt, maim, inspire. They are our main tools for communication, being able to travel over radio waves, phone signals. They are the tools of our trade-those of us who seek to earn a living on the lyric stage. Yet they are so often ignored, not examined, left behind in our relentless quest to make a sound...
When we go to music school, we embark on a learning process that seems about sound. The noise we make is what drives us. The young tenor rushing to the keyboard to check what note he has just hit in the toilets. The young soprano desperate to sing Vissi D’Arte struggling to reach the Bb at the end, with no regard to the text. It’s the wrong way around...
We learn a vocal technique in order to be able articulate the words. The beautiful sound is merely a conduit for our brains to better tell stories. Or it should be.
My own journey as a ‘wordsmith’-I was a kid of 18 when I fell in love with opera. I was lucky enough to get an introduction to the great and legendary teacher Rudolph Piernay. Rudolph is, quite honestly, a musical genius. His language skills are incredible, speaking fluently in many languages. His understanding of the weight and shape of words will never be matched. He could demonstrate a sung phrase and render the student speechless with awe. He is a complicated man, not always easy to work with because nobody will ever adequately reach his standards. But I loved him. And I learnt so much from him. I was incredibly lucky to have him in my life. I’d love to tell him that...
He decided early on that I was profoundly unmusical. I had no natural balance and couldn’t phrase properly. I had had a huge vocal upheaval in my technique and was struggling so much with the sound, that any natural ability I did have struggled to come out. So I started to listen and think, try to work it all out.
As my technique improved I started to get a grip on the syllabic and vowelistic skills required to form words beautifully, and overdid it. I would listen to a singer shape the words ‘Du Traute’ in a song by Wolf and spend hours trying to copy it. I was obsessed by film actors who could say words in differing ways and would try to copy them when I had similar lines. I would give too many accents, attempt too many colours through articulation. Through hard work and brilliant teachers and coaches I’ve moved to a state of understanding the power and the delivery of words. I no longer work with Rudolph, but I fantasise that were I to stand in his room today and work with him on a song I might get a grudging nod of ‘not bad’. I am still on the journey though, still trying to milk more beauty from the words I am privileged to be given to sing. I’m not boasting-I’m still struggling. But I understand better now.
We need to work towards being beautiful articulators, not sound machines.
Because we all speak words they tend to get taken for granted. And the study of them can make them in the short term less powerful-we. An get confused. Some of us are blessed with easy articulation, and can sing with crisp text yet be utterly boring. For these articulate folk there is never any consideration. They ‘feel’ and therefore emote. All their efforts are towards better sounds. Others are blessed with huge voices and no text.
Recently I was listening to Luciano Pavarotti sing the aria from La Boheme. What a performance, but what makes his voice sound so astonishing is the way he caresses and phrases. My favourite Broadway singer Linda Eder frames her glorious sound with immaculate wordic delivery. The way we sing makes our sounds more or less beautiful. And to go back to last week’s blog-we need to chose to be the artist we want to be! And to go back to the week Bedford’s blog-our technique should ALLOW us to explore the words we sing.
If we ignore the words (as most singers incredibly do), we get it wrong. How many times have I heard colleagues or students actually choosing the wrong emotion for a song? To me a piece of music is a puzzle. The composer read something and wanted to illuminate the meaning that he or she saw therein. We need to work out exactly what they saw, and discover skills that allow us to demonstrate and bring it all to life. When I sing a song I give myself one word to set a mood. I work out an overall mood and allow myself one word in my mind. This week I’ve a bunch of girls auditioning for a show. They must sing the sing Nothing Stops Another Day, from the musical Ghost. Because we all know the story we expect the emotion to be sad. But the words are very positive. My word for this song would be Positive. The words speak of hope, of belief. Yet all the girls wanted to make it wrought with pain. As soon as they listened to the actual words, and sang with smiles and hope the song came to life. It’s too easy to get lost in a great tune, and simply put our ego before the meaning.
But what is this mystical art of words? Well. It’s complicated and almost impossible to describe in a short blog. But I’ll try...
Words are made up of vowels and consonants. We need to delve into the beauty of each sound. Vowels can be long or short. It staggers me how few of us consider this, or even realise it. Consonants can be voiced or unvoiced. The S of there’S versus the S sound at the end of the word kiSS. We need to mine and exploit these sounds, be aware of them. Think of how one says the word Kiss. In English there is beauty to be found lingering over that wet S. In German the short umlauted vowel of Küssen, followed by a lush long S sound. In Italian the screwed up C of Baciare... There are so many opportunities that most of us will miss if we don’t consider. Then we wonder why our glorious sound isn’t filling our pockets with gold!
I was lucky enough to sing Le Nozze di Figaro with the legendary Susie Stranders. It was she who coined to term ‘Wordsmith’. Together we mined those Italian recits for all the gold we could could find. I remember Christopher Purves singing the count at Welsh National Opera (I was understudying Figaro, the one time. I’m a Count!). He would twist his inflections every time he sang to make the others stay alive during these recits. I remember my first Susanna, the incomparable Maria Arnet at the beginning of the second half of Figaro playing with her text each evening and totally beguiling me. As a young singer you must learn from these brilliant singers.
And more-every time you watch a film, listen to the radio, watch the TV you should be learning. When you meet people who can get their points over through use of language you should be learning. Studying politicians not for their message but for their delivery. Thinking thinking thinking. Growing and developing. Learning and homing skills. Seeing words as objects with weight that can move mountains and change lives. Studying the voice purely as a means of telling stories. Not confusing acting with articulating-the two skills are linked but if you can’t understand the difference you can’t show us that you can act.
Making the choice to become a great user and understander of words.
And yes, I have made up some of the words in this blog. Because I can. If a word doesn’t exist, make one up that the reader will understand. We should, as actors on the lyric stage, be desperate to be understood.
Again, thanks for reading. I love it when people read and comment or send messages. And if you got this far and have found anything of worth, please share. Apologies for the clompy nature of some of my uttering-I’m a singer not a writer-but I love talking about this thing we do. And have a great week!