Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Singer's Art

It seems that the greatest difficulty confronting the young singer of today is arriving at a clear perception of what the art of singing really means.  For centuries a great deal of wrong thinking and misplaced energy have been devoted to this matter of singing.  Some celebrated musician once uttered an axiom which sums up the altogether mistaken viewpoint under which we are still laboring.  The witticism is usually credited to Rossini; although, in view of the intelligence of his other statements, this does not seem entirely probable.  At any rate he is supposed to have said, “There are three fundamental requisites which the singer needs:  First, voice; second, voice; and third, VOICE.”
          Now in this is the source of many of our troubles!  A statement like that caught the popular imagination, as “clever” remarks have a habit of doing, and had the unfortunate result of confusing singers, critics, and public alike.  It caused them to overemphasize the physical aspects of the voice alone and to shove into second place all those other vital considerations without which singing becomes merely a colorless, meaningless vocal accident.
Enjoy a recording (date unknown) of Feodor Chaliapin performing “Le veau d’or” from Charles Gounod’s Faust:

The Full Equipment
Forget, for a moment, that you are a student with something to learn, and imagine yourself a passive auditor at some musical performance.  You have come to be stimulated, to be lifted to a higher plane of living than the one on which you entered the hall.  What are the elements of the artist’s performance which will give you this spiritual lift?  Voice alone?  Never!  Certainly, a fine voice will stir you.  You will be enthralled by its sheer physical beauty—for a while.  But after that, if the evening offers you nothing more than the outpourings of a well built throat; if it offers you no imagination, no human sympathy, no answer to some need of your own, you are unsatisfied.  Your mind wanders to other things, and you become bored.  Now, boredom in a listener means lack of art in a performer.  And thus, from your own experience, you will agree that voice alone is not enough!  Voice is an accident, a gift from God.  It is not art.  To sing well, to hold listeners spellbound, requires a great deal more than mere voice.
          This has been learned through hard experience, but experience which, for all its buffetings and difficulties, I would not exchange for the softer, easier method of learning out of a textbook.  I have been on the stage for forty-five years.  My “professional” life began as an apprentice to a cobbler, in my native Kazan, Russia.  When I began to sing, I, too, had the mistaken idea that voice is everything.  No one corrected me, and so I had to learn better by the hard knocks of experience.  I got my training by doing pretty much everything there is to be done on the stage.  I have acted without music; I have declaimed recitations; I have sung in choruses, in operetta; and so my promotion into concert and opera was earned.  Whatever position I found myself in, though, I tried to observe, to learn from both good and bad examples in the work of others, and, most of all, to relate my work in some way to life itself.  Such are the means by which I learned that voice alone is not enough to make a singer.  An unusual voice may, perhaps, make a “star”—never an artist.
          On the other hand, I do not wish to give the impression that a singer’s voice is an incidental element.  Far from it!  It is the very foundation of his future work, and must be carefully trained.  This training, however, is too individual a matter for me to venture any general or categoric advice.  Every throat is built differently, and every singer must find his own best means of development.  In my own beginner’s days, I studied with a teacher who was considered excellent and who did much for me in cultivating my taste and perceptions.  But his vocal methods were conceived according to his own “system” and not very well adapted to my throat!  After a while, I found I could not sing comfortably at all!  So I went back to m own natural methods, which I had used almost unconsciously when my voice first asserted itself; and thus I regained my ease.  I do not think that that teacher’s methods were bad; they were simply bad for me.  Since then, I have been very careful to watch for my own vocal needs, and equally careful about prescribing for the needs of others!

The Safe Method
I can safely say, however, that the best singing method is the one that feels easiest and most natural.  The moment that continued singing feels fatiguing to the throat, wrong methods have been used.  One singer may make greater use of masked resonance; another may counsel “relaxation”; and that is what I mean by treating every voice individually.  But, regardless of method, the throat should always feel open, free and comfortable.  The result is always the same, and the only test is the individual feeling of the thing.  Never force the voice.  Never sing so loudly that you feel a drawing upon your last resources.  Always keep a fund of reserve power.
          Another point in voice care, which should receive great emphasis, is the entire manner in which the singer lives.  The voice, after all, is part of the physical organism and, as such, reflects all the ups and downs of bodily well-being.  The singer who wishes to conserve his best vocal form, should live a very simple, moderate life in all respects.  He must avoid excesses, of food, drink, tobacco, or pleasure.  He must learn to say “No.”  He must let nothing interfere with his regular hours of rest; and, at some time during the years, he should take a period of complete relaxation, so that the body, on which the voice depends, may become strengthened, or reborn.  He should lie on his back in the sunshine, listen to the hum of the insects, and watch the shadow play of the clouds above.  Thus he will grow strong, calm, and toned up.  I feel myself physically and vocally vigorous, after forty-five years on the stage; and I believe that a simple and regular life has helped to keep me so.

But One of Many
Still, the voice is only one of a number of important elements in a singer’s career.  Indeed, it is only after the voice is so well trained, so pliable, so easy that tone production has become second nature that one is ready to begin artistic work!  When Tsar Boris is seen moving majestically across the stage, the young artist is not conscious that he had to spend months—possibly years—in learning to walk that way; that at one time, he even had to learn the very beginnings of walking!  Neither is he conscious of all that.  It should be exactly the same with the voice.  While the singer is still feeling for his tones, while he still has to indulge in conscious concentration on producing a good B or B-flat, he is not ready for full stage work.  The actor who walks with clumsy self-consciousness, or the singer who sings self-consciously, gives but poor effects.
          It is possible for a young man to be a great artist, but it is extremely difficult!  One’s younger years are taken up in learning the mechanical technic upon which art must be built.  There must be the learning to use the voice, to gesture, to walk; there must be the learning of the values of different historical epochs—how the people of various lands and ages looked, how they dressed, how they thought and felt.  One must learn what to do with his arms and legs, how to handle a sword, a goblet or a rose.  Each thing must be learned separately, and none of them has the least meaning until they are all fused together with such complete technical mastery that one is conscious, not at all of his actions, but only of the human, emotional effect he wishes to project through those actions.  Precisely there is where art begins!
          The young singer should cultivate the habit of acute observation.  That is his greatest means of learning.  What his teacher tells him is good.  What he finds out for himself, through personal experience and application, is better.  Suppose he wishes to portray a king on the stage—Philip II of Spain, let us say.  How will he go about it?  In his mind there is great ardor and a vague idea; somewhere in the world, there is a definite conception of what Philip II should be like.  How will the young artist connect the two?  Of course, he will read and consult with his teacher or coach.  But that is simply passive work!  It means that intellectual ideas are merely reaching him from the outside.  Next—he will try to get into some theater where his king is being performed on the stage.  At once the active element enters into his preparations.  He sees a flesh-and-blood personage before him.  It is no longer intellectualism, it is life!  Then he begins work.  He observes every least action his king makes.  He studies how he dresses, how he conducts himself.  He leaves the theater with a vague idea supplanted by a living picture.  Then he begins all over again, by himself, to re-construct what he saw.  He tries to remember all the things that were so clearly before him.  And finally, out of the effort of his own mental reconstruction, he begins to build up a Philip II of his own!  He imitates, he discards, he adds, he recreates the personage; and that character becomes a part of him—or, is it the other way round?  Only by such means does he really learn.

A Study of Life
I believe firmly in teaching (and learning) by example.  Maxims and methods are only half effective.  One learns algebra out of a textbook, but not an art which means the reconstruction of life.  Only by living can one learn to live.  Only by doing can one learn to do.  A good teacher should be able to offer his pupils not merely advice but also striking examples of what must be avoided.  The pupil, for his part, should learn to watch for models—on the stage, in life, everywhere—for that he can copy and that he must shun.  He can learn a great deal from a thoroughly bad performance.  It shows him with faithful exactness all that he must never, never do!
And, along with his power to observe, the student should cultivate a wholesome respect for his art.  Let nothing that touches his work be casual or haphazard.  Let nothing be “good enough.”  Only perfection is good enough—and no one has achieved that as yet!  The modern mind seems inclined to be a bit self-centered; to take itself and its “personality” a trifle too seriously.  I remember working in various theaters, when I was a youngster.  Many of the coaches were great artists themselves; and, when they saw some inexperienced novice doing terrible things, they spoke to him roughly, scolded him publicly and in no uncertain terms.  I got plenty of such training myself!  Of course it was painful.  Of course it made one feel like creeping under the floor.  But it was good for us.  Once we had felt the sting of such public censure, we redoubled our efforts to avoid a second dose.  We were humble, alert, disciplined.  And thus, we were able to grow.
          Today such training is out of fashion.  Young people’s feelings are easily hurt.  They prefer being handled with kid gloves.  They think of themselves quite as much as of the work they are doing.  And, while they sincerely wish to do good work, they are equally anxious to be spared pain.  That makes them softer, I am afraid, than we used to be.  If a youngster cannot stand up under a thorough scolding, how will he fare when he begins to feel the harsher blows of life?  He must not be afraid that his “personality” will become repressed by discipline.  It will not.  Because mature personality (as distinguished from mere spectacularism) is nothing more than the human distillation of all one’s experiences.  The person who lives much and ardently, through all sorts of experiences, good and bad alike, emerges as a personality.  The person who shields himself and spares himself, remains a figurehead.

Telling the Song’s Story
I like to think of a singer as a teller of stories.  He uses his voice to spread convincing tales of human love and hate and revenge and compassion, quite as artists of a different sort tell their tales on canvas or in a book.  And to tell these stories well, one must know life, must observe people, must keep a warm compassion alive in the heart for other human beings.  Things are going on about us at every moment, which may one day make one better able to tell the story of a young man in love, of an old man who has found his peace, of a restless spirit who has not yet come to port.  The singing artist must observe these things and then retell them through his own voice and acting.  I learn something new every day—something that will make my next performance I have never noticed before, something better than any of the others.
          To tell stories, the voice must be completely flexible and full of color.  When saying, “I love you,” there must be an entirely different color of voice from the one required to say, “I detest the sight of you!”  For the one, the voice is warm and mellow; for the other, it is dark and menacing.  If the singer does not have these different voices—and countless others—at command, he cannot tell his story movingly.  When it is told movingly, then the singer is approaching art.

Complete Singing
To sing with a singing voice alone, means nothing.  It never will enhance the singer’s progress in art; and it never will reach his hearers’ hearts.  But to tell the different stories of human life and emotion through the voice; ah, that is another matter!  And that is why the theory of “voice, voice, and again VOICE,” is not sufficient.  If one is born with a  voice in his throat, he has simply an added blessing for which to be grateful.  What he does with it, depends on himself; on his ardor, his powers to observe and to reconstruct.  Anyone can sing notes and syllables, as they appear on the printed page.  Some can even penetrate into the music enough to sing melody and words.  But only the very few learn to sing the song itself, with all its human emotion, all its joy and suffering.  Those who do, are artists.  They devote themselves to portraying the truth of life, through music.
          I am often asked about American singers.  Well, I see no reason why America should not produce singers as great as those of any other land.  I have heard many voices in my career, but there is one that still rings in my ears.  It is the voice of Miss Marie van Zandt, an American girl.  I had the honor of singing with her, in “Lakmé,” long ago.  Delibes wrote the part of Lakmé with her in mind; and, if you go to Paris and look up the Delibes monument there, you will find upon it the likeness of that young American girl.  She had a great voice and she was a great artist; and, if America produced her, why should it not produce other great artists?  Perhaps they are in the process of development today.  There are thousands of eager young people in America’s vocal studios, learning, and working, and burning to develop into something.  What will that “something” be?  It is for them to say.  I hope, sincerely, that they will elect to become artists.

Enjoy Dame Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne perform the “Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’ Lakme:

1.         Quote a fallacious adage on singing.
2.         Why is more than “voice” needed?
3.         What is the safest method of voice production?
4.         How is the voice to be preserved?
5.         What will the singer learn by the observation of life about him?


1 comment:

  1. Thanks Jessica! I got such a kick out of this article. That was an awful lot of typing you did. Definitely eight hundred dollars worth! :-).
    Love, KK