Thursday, 16 April 2015

Confidence, criticism and the power to destroy

It's been a long time since I've written a Singing Is Easy post. But I still sing, and I still teach. Not as much as I used to, but that's a good thing. I'm no longer wearing my voice out with constant teaching, so I am now enjoying my own singing more - although I am not doing anything like as much as I would like, no doubt because when I was teaching so much I lacked the time or the energy to focus on my own singing and have therefore disappeared off the radar. Do I have the inclination to do anything about this? I'm not sure. I love singing, but if I am honest I am less confident about singing than almost anything else I do. Even criticism I know to be unjustified cuts to the quick. The scars are very deep.....

Recently I was told by a friend that I have a "very high voice". This friend has hearing problems. The nature of his hearing difficulty is that he does not hear a certain range of frequencies - which just happens to be the frequency range in which the fundamental of my voice sits. So he does not actually hear my voice at all. All he hears is what we call the "overtones" - the high harmonic frequencies that give my voice its "shine". Fortunately - or perhaps unfortunately, as I shall explain - my voice is overtone-rich, so it is actually possible for him to hear my voice despite (for him) the missing fundamental. What he hears is a high faint sound. And for him, that high faint sound IS my voice. He doesn't like wearing his hearing aid because it is uncomfortable, and because he can actually hear me (though faintly) he doesn't need to. But he doesn't like the high faint sound, so he tells me I should speak lower and louder so that he can hear me better.

His criticism is not limited to my speaking voice, either. He makes the same complaint about my singing voice. He thinks it is very high and very quiet. It is actually neither, as people with normal hearing who have heard me sing know.

And yet although I know this criticism is completely unfair, arising as it does from this friend's own hearing difficulties rather than any real problems with my voice, it gets to me. It reminds me of my first year at the Royal College of Music, when I struggled to be heard because my first teacher had removed the "edge" from my voice. The "edge" that she so disliked IS my voice. Without it, I do indeed have a high faint sound. She just didn't like my voice.....

So when my friend says that is what he hears, although my brain knows he is not hearing me properly, my hypersensitive emotional self thinks it is back at the Royal College of Music. College was not a happy experience for me: I was never one of their stars, and when I left after four years I was in worse shape both vocally and emotionally than when I arrived.

At the end of my first year at the Royal College, I failed my end-of-year singing exam. This is a serious matter: failing an end-of-year exam in your principal instrument can mean being asked to leave. It was not my only failure during my time there, but it was unquestionably the worst. It was a formative experience, and not in a good way.

I still remember how I found out about my exam failure. I was stewarding for the exams to earn some extra money, so the day after my own exam I turned up in the Exams Office to collect my papers for the day. The Exams Office had an outer office and an inner office. I went into the outer office, then stopped because I could hear a conversation going on in the inner office about someone who had failed their first study exam the previous day. I thought I had better not interrupt, so I waited. As the conversation proceeded, it became evident that they were talking about a girl, a first-study singer, and they didn't know what to do. She had passed her piano exam, and her theory exams were very good - the only problem was the singing, but it was her first study....As I listened I became increasingly uneasy. Then someone said "Who is her teacher?" "John York Skinner," came the response. And then I knew. I was John's only female student.....I still remember how it felt to hear that. Like a knife into my stomach.

I interrupted, of course, much to the embarrassment of the people concerned. But the damage was done. I completed my stewarding that day, then went to see Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at the Royal Opera House. But I don't remember much about it. I cried all the way through. All I could think about was the disastrous singing exam result and the possibility that I would have to leave college.

I saw John the following day. He was horrified. He told me that when I arrived at college the previous year he had wondered what I was doing there, because he couldn't hear a voice, but that he had now changed his opinion. He said that the criticism made by the examiner was completely unjustified and he was going to complain to the Director. I'm fairly sure that he did, because I was subsequently asked to repeat the exam in front of the Director. The repeat went well, and I was allowed to stay.

But the damage was done. I never regained my former confidence. Even now, when I receive unjustified criticism - such as that from my friend - I start to doubt myself again.

It is shockingly easy to destroy a singer's confidence, and extraordinarily difficult to rebuild it. Singing is intensely personal, more so than any other instrument. When you sing in public, you put yourself on show: there is nowhere to hide. I remember someone once saying that singing was like "undressing in public". Woe betide the stripper who doesn't have a good body....Audiences not only hear your voice, they feel your emotions and see your vulnerabilities. If they don't like you, their criticism hits home. And because singing is also very subjective, it is quite possible that an audience might not like you, not because there is anything wrong with what you are doing but simply because they don't like the sound you make or the way you look.

This is why teachers and examiners have a terrible responsibility. I have written before about teachers whose incompetence causes physical damage: but teachers and examiners who wreck the confidence of singers are possibly even more dangerous. Physical damage can follow on from catastrophic loss of confidence, because the emotional distress and physical tension caused by a disaster such as I experienced predisposes the student to damage, while misguided attempts to rectify supposed problems can actually make matters worse. Vocal lesions are at least in part emotional in origin.

But with the best will in the world, it is hard for teachers and examiners to put their personal likes and dislikes on hold. If you simply don't like the sound someone makes even when they are singing well, how can you judge them fairly? How can you teach that person safely? Singers tend to be highly intuitive and very empathic: you could say we are hypersensitive to other people's reactions to our singing. Studying with someone who just doesn't like your voice slowly erodes confidence. Being examined by someone who has nothing positive to say is destructive.

I now know that there were issues with the conduct of the exam that were sufficiently serious to invalidate it. The exam panel should have consisted of two members of the singing faculty and one pianist (since piano was my second study), a total of three people. But there were only two people - one member of the singing faculty, and one pianist who was also a choral director. I suppose the fact that Hubert Dawkes was a choral director sort of qualified him as a singer, but he wasn't a member of the singing faculty. And the other member of the panel was known to have problems with alcohol abuse. My exam was at four in the afternoon and he was already out of it (I could see that as soon as I walked in the room). The exam was therefore conducted by one person alone. It was evident from the remarks that Dawkes simply did not like the way I sang, and because the other person was out of it, there was no-one to challenge his opinion.

But this is water under the bridge. What happened, happened: and it changed me permanently. I went to college believing that I would have a professional singing career: I left knowing that I would not. And although I fought this conviction for many years, encouraged to do so by many supportive people who loved my voice and wanted to hear me sing, I have never been able to overcome the deep-rooted sense of inadequacy created by that awful experience. Perhaps I never will.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Diagnosing voices

One of the biggest challenges for a singing teacher is to identify what a voice "is". This is not an optional extra: correctly identifying the voice type is essential if the teacher is to set appropriate repertoire and give appropriate technical advice. Bass voices simply don't behave in the same way as tenors and should not be treated as if they do. I was frankly horrified to hear another singing teacher commenting that these days no-one really bothered with vocal classification any more. She might not, but I do. I teach too many people who have had vocal problems because they were not singing in the right way, or singing the right repertoire, for their voice type. Not diagnosing the voice type is in my view a dereliction of duty.

The traditional choral classifications of soprano, contralto, tenor and bass are utterly inadequate as voice descriptors. They are only a basic indicator of vocal pitch (what we call "tessitura") and range, and need extensive qualification. Mezzo-sopranos and baritones both sit between two classifications and people with these voice types often find it difficult to know which part to sing in a choir. And even if a voice can be clearly identified as belonging to one of the choral classifications, that says very little about the sort of repertoire that will be suitable. A light soprano is arguably further removed from a potential Tosca than a lyric mezzo-soprano - but she is still a soprano, whereas the mezzo may well be classified as a contralto.

The German "fach" system of voice classification can be helpful, especially for sopranos (there are more different sorts of soprano than any other voice type and the repertoire differs wildly). But even this is flawed, and if the classifications are used too rigidly it can result in people being forced to sing repertoire that is unsuitable for them. For example, I am a lyric mezzo-soprano, but because the top of my voice is enormous (I can do 80 decibels without much effort) the lighter end of the lyric mezzo repertoire doesn't suit me, whereas some of the dramatic repertoire does. In the soprano fach system I would be "spinto" (Jugendlich dramatischer), which sits between lyric and dramatic: but for some reason there is no equivalent in the mezzo fach system.

Any vocal classification system can only be a guide. Fundamentally, it is the teacher's judgement as to what technical advice and repertoire is suitable for a particular voice. And we get it wrong. I frequently have to reclassify voices: so many times people are told, or choose to believe, that their voice is low when it is actually high, or vice versa. Even when they get vocal tessitura right they may get the scale wrong: I've written before about the problems caused by teachers setting repertoire that is too light for their student's voice.  The problem is that for many people, the type of voice they have is related to their identity: they "see" themselves as "a soprano" or "a tenor", and it can be as devastating for them to hear that they are something else as it would be to tell them that their hair is red when they've always thought it was brown.  When someone's incorrect perception of their voice type is very bound up with their emotional identity, I tread carefully: if their self-image is so mistaken in that respect it is likely to be in others too. I am not a counsellor or psychotherapist, and sometimes people need more help than I can give.

Diagnosing a voice is done on two primary criteria: the tessitura of the voice - where it "lies", pitch-wise - and the timbre. Of these the first is more important than the second, especially in a young singer or where there are vocal problems that interfere with the tone quality. However, extreme physical tension and poor breathing habits can make a voice appear higher than it is, and an over-dark vocal quality can give the impression of a lower voice. I am currently teaching two people who presented as - respectively - a higher and lower voice than they have turned out to be.  One is a light lyric mezzo-soprano who when she started was so tense that she had no low notes at all and could only produce a small high squeaky sound: she sang soprano at the time, of course, but now she is learning to relax she is finding singing lower more comfortable and we are beginning to hear the richness and warmth of her mezzo voice. The other is a really rather good dramatic tenor who told me he was a deep bass and produced the darkest and most muffled tone quality I have ever heard.

It isn't always easy to diagnose a voice correctly, and there are a number of common mistakes. The first is to confuse tessitura with range. One of my students was originally trained as a high soprano. At the age of 17 she sang to a choral director who said he thought she would be a mezzo as an adult. She went back and told her teacher, who said "Oh, don't be ridiculous. You have a good top C", and carried on training her as a soprano. But as the years went on, her voice began to rebel: she lost her high notes and was eventually forced to drop down to alto in choir. The trouble was, she had never sung low and had no idea how to use the low part of her voice. She ended up with her voice fragmented and was forced to leave the choir. When she finally came to me for lessons, I confirmed that her voice was indeed a very good mezzo-soprano - but by that time significant damage had already been done, and it has taken literally years to stitch her voice back together and re-establish her confidence. It is tragic to see someone with a lovely voice and real musical ability forced to stop singing because of wrong diagnosis and bad training.

The second common mistake is scale. Generally we err on the side of "too light" when setting repertoire for young singers, because serious damage can be done by attempting repertoire too heavy for them. But that is not true of adults. For them, the scale of the voice must be respected in setting repertoire. I'm currently teaching a spinto soprano. Her previous teacher is a light soprano who teaches everyone to sing like her, which completely confused this student and left her with very restricted high notes. She sang Mimi's first aria from La Boheme, which she found comfortable. But she struggled to give enough weight to the high notes, so we tried Musetta's aria from the same opera. It was a disaster. She couldn't sing it at all:  it just didn't work. Bemused, we tried Mimi's second aria....which like the first was fine except for the restricted high notes. The problem was Musetta. Now, in the fach system, Mimi is a spinto and Musetta a lyric. So Musetta is just too light for my student. She needs bigger stuff to feel comfortable, and we have to resolve the technical problems and mental hang-ups that are restricting her high notes. She's currently singing Casta Diva from Bellini's Norma. That's more like it.

And the third mistake is timbre - the "sound" of the voice. Typically, bigger voices tend to have darker tone qualities. So many times I have seen spinto and dramatic sopranos singing mezzo or even contralto because they have a dark tone quality, when the voice clearly wants to be higher. I once had a 14-year-old girl  referred to me by another teacher, who said it was a very unusual tone quality and she thought she was probably a contralto although something didn't quite add up. It really didn't. Yes, this girl did indeed have a very dark tone quality. But her voice did not want to go down. It went up - into an enormous dramatic soprano with a comfortable (and deafening) top C. It is a truly extraordinary instrument and I am still very sad that she has chosen not to pursue a singing career.

I could add lots more examples. I've spent much of my teaching career rediagnosing and retraining voices, to the point where "Go to Frances for lessons and she'll turn you into something else" has become a standing joke among my Rochester Cathedral choral colleagues.  But my final case study is myself - and it shows how prevalent mis-diagnosis is, and how damaging.

I've always known that my voice prefers to be in the middle. But because the best part of my voice is my high notes, many people believe that I have a high voice. I spent twenty years fighting with vocal coaches, choral directors and adjudicators who insisted that I was a spinto or dramatic soprano. I even had two singing teachers who attempted (unsuccessfully) to train me as a soprano. One of them went on to become the Head of Vocal Studies at my alma mater, the Royal College of Music - after setting me on a path that eventually led to vocal damage severe enough to require surgery. I despair. Surely a top conservatoire professor should be able to diagnose a voice correctly?

The ultimate guide to voice diagnosis is, of course, the Coppola Rules. If it hurts to sing, or singing is difficult.....something is WRONG. A throat constantly tightening up and breathing forced into the shoulders when singing is often a sign that the tessitura is too high. Lack of resonance and uncomfortable breaks appearing in the middle of the voice can be a sign that the tessitura is too low. Hoarseness after singing indicates wrong repertoire. Singing should feel easy and comfortable and the voice should "flow". If it doesn't, don't struggle - get help. And if your teacher won't listen, find a different one. You only have one voice. Don't risk it.


One of the things that we are asked to do as singers is to tell a story using both words and music. The ancient tradition of ballad-singing is essentially storytelling: a ballad in the traditional sense is a story, usually with a sad ending and often intended to reinforce cultural values or beliefs. We have come now to regard a "ballad" as a slow song on a sad subject, but that's not its original meaning.

This week, I worked with a young singer on the ballad "The Banks of Allan Water". This is a harrowing tale of love, betrayal, grief and suicide, set within the context of the four seasons of the year. As it is not very long, I reproduce the words here in full (note the traditional use of the word "gay" to mean "happy"):

On the banks of Allan Water, when the sweet springtime did fall,
Was the miller's lovely daughter, fairest of them all.
For his bride a soldier sought her, and a winning tongue had he;
On the banks of Allan Water, none was gay as she.

On the banks of Allan Water, when brown autumn spreads its store,
There I saw the miller's daughter, but she smiled no more.
For the summer grief had brought her, and the soldier false was he;
On the banks of Allan Water, none was sad as she.

On the banks of Allan Water, when the winter snow fell fast,
Still was seen the miller's daughter; chilling blew the blast.
But the miller's lovely daughter both from cold and care was free;
On the banks of Allan Water, there a corpse lay she.

I've written before about expressing grief in song. But here we are not asked to express grief.  We are the onlooker - the reporter, the journalist - describing what we see. And it is our OWN emotional response to such a horrible story that we should be expressing.

So my young singer sang the first two verses of this song - which is all she is asked to do for an Associated Board Grade III exam. I asked her to use dynamics and tone colour to make a clear emotional difference between the joy of the first verse and the sorrow of the second. This should not be particularly difficult for a singer of her standard, and as I expected she did indeed make a distinction. But towards the end of the second verse there was a burst of anger that surprised both me and her. She had allowed her own feelings of outrage at the soldier's behaviour towards his beautiful wife to influence the way she sang the song. And it transformed it. Suddenly this was not simply a neutral observer. This was an angry young woman involving herself in the awful fate of another young woman, with whom she clearly identified.

This is the job of the ballad singer. We are not asked to be neutral observers. We are to be emotionally involved in songs where we are the storyteller just as much as those in which we are playing a role. The difference is that when we are playing a role, it is the emotions of the character we are playing that we need to feel: for me that is best done by stepping into the skin of the character we are playing - for the three minutes of the song, becoming someone else, feeling what they feel and doing what they do. But when we are the storyteller, it is our own natural emotional response to the story we are telling that brings it to life.

My young singer's anger was entirely natural and appropriate. I hope she sings it that way in her forthcoming exam. Of such exceptional expression are distinctions made.....

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Expressing grief in song

The other day I was coaching someone on the interpretation of Fauré's lovely song "Après un Rêve". In sleep, the poet dreams of his lost love, seeing her again as beautiful as ever and hearing her lovely voice.....but when he wakes, the vision fades. In desperation he cries out: "Come back, radiant one!" but to no avail....the "mysterious night" has gone and with it his happiness.

Technically this is a difficult song, with very long sustained phrases and requiring expansive singing and a full tone. Added to that are its considerable emotional demands. Grief is perhaps the most difficult emotion to express through song: if the singer feels sorrow too strongly, the voice "chokes" and maintaining a stable tone and accurate pitch becomes all but impossible. And yet the singer must feel the emotion strongly enough for the audience to feel it too. Finding the balance between too much and too little emotion is quite a challenge.

Après un Rêve is by no means the only song that has this problem. Richard Strauss's Allerseelen is even more challenging. Whereas Après un Rêve speaks of a faded dream, Allerseelen is a living nightmare - a recent bereavement and terrible unresolved grief. By the grave of the beloved on All Souls' Day, the poet remembers how they were in May.....and desperately pleads for her to come back, even if only for one day, so that they can be again as they were then.

Both composers helpfully set the cry of pain in their respective songs high in the voice and loud. In classical music we usually adjust the pitch of songs to suit the singer, and this offers an opportunity to choose a pitch that helps express emotion. Because of the emotional intensity of Allerseelen I normally sing it in a key which is on the high side for me, and I don't restrain the high notes at the end - such pain cannot be held back. I know some people may find this too loud and intense for chamber music, but which is more important - preserving people's sense of decorum, or accurately portraying the suffering of the principal actor in this mini-drama?

The Fauré piece is more subtle and the emotion is less raw. The night has gone and the vision has faded, but there will be another night......I choose a medium key for this piece and the high notes at the end are within the general dynamic range of the song. But "Hélas! triste reveil des songes...." is still a cry of pain and needs to sound like one. I still let rip, just at medium pitch so it isn't quite as loud and intense as the climax of Allerseelen.

Deliberately restraining emotion in song is not a good idea. Coldness is perhaps the worst crime of all in art singing: if you don't feel the emotion yourself, you shouldn't sing the song. We have to let our songs affect us. I remember my teacher, Tony Hocking, suggesting that I should sing Hageman's setting of Rabindranath Tagore's harrowing poem "Do not go my love", about a parent watching his child slowly dying. My own children were very young at the time, and I found this song almost impossible to sing....but Tony's brutal remark was that my emotional reaction improved it. So if there is a song that really moves you, sing prepared for the choke in the voice, sing as loudly as you need to to maintain tone (never mind the dynamic markings - actually producing the sound is more important), and have a box of tissues handy. Eventually, you will be able to sing the song with feeling but without tears.

Mind you, tears and a choke in the voice can be part of a great Sinead O'Connor's singing of "Nothing Compares 2U" shows us. Sometimes beautiful singing is not enough. Grief is ugly.....

(When I am organised enough I will produce my own recordings of the classical songs in this post songs.....but for the moment, the singers are Véronique Gens (Fauré), Barbara Bonney (Strauss) and Elizabeth Bailey (Hageman). My thanks to them.)

Friday, 6 July 2012

I am a bank

I am a bank.

Honest, I really am. This is not a joke.

You see, I lend people money. Or, more accurately, I allow them to run lines of credit, which I create for them out of thin air.

Let me explain. My day job is teaching singing, much of it to teenagers in secondary schools. These teenagers' lessons are paid for by their parents. I invoice them for 10 lessons at a time and they are supposed to pay for the whole series of lessons before the series starts.

In practice, hardly anyone does. About half will have paid by the 5th lesson and the remainder have to be chased. The vast majority do pay by the end of the series of lessons, but there are a small minority who have to be cajoled, threatened or even prosecuted. Some negotiate with me for payment in instalments and then forget to make those payments.

No doubt because of their own financial difficulties, the proportion of people who pay late is rising, as is the proportion of people who don't pay at all. In the last year I have prosecuted two people at the County Court, one of whom didn't reply and has had default judgement served against them - but I still haven't been paid. The other has offered to pay off the fees and associated charges at £20 per month, which is all she reckons she can afford.....but if that is true then she couldn't afford the lessons in the first place, because the fees for 10 lessons between January and March were £135. In effect she is expecting me to extend her an interest-free loan.

But she is not the only one. In fact every single one of the parents who pays late is expecting me to provide them with interest-free credit.

Which is why I say I am a bank. But unlike a normal bank, I am expected to provide this credit interest-free - parents get very angry if I start imposing interest on late payments, although the law does allow me to do this and even recommends a rate. If I upset parents, they may take their business elsewhere - and student numbers are falling at the moment because poorer parents are finding it difficult to maintain their childrens' musical activities at the moment. So I could end up even worse off if I insist that parents have to pay up front.

I am by no means alone in this. Most small businesses are forced to extend lines of credit interest-free to customers, particularly large and rich ones who have the leverage to squeeze them out of business if they complain. The majority of small businesses, therefore, are unofficially acting as banks.

And they do it at considerable cost. Like most micro businesses, I rely on the fees from my singing lessons to meet my personal living expenses. Because parents routinely breach my terms and conditions that clearly state that payment must be made in full within 14 days of the invoice, which is sent before the start of term, I have no idea when I will be paid - but my own bills still have to be paid. Unlike my parents, I have no access to interest-free credit: I can only borrow from the bank, and if I go over my overdraft limit that funding is at a penalty rate. And as I said above, it is difficult for me to pass these costs on to my customers.

There has been considerable discussion recently about trust in banking. People are understandably angry that banks have betrayed their trust and behaved disgracefully. I have no doubt that the parents who fail to pay my bills on time (or at all) are among those who are angry at the fraudulent behaviour of banks. What a pity they can't see that their own behaviour is just as bad.

Businesses like mine depend absolutely on trust - trust from the parents, that their child will be properly taught: and trust from me, that parents will pay in accordance with agreed terms and conditions. If one side fails to abide by their obligations, that trust is broken. I already feel as if I should, for my family's sake, seek employment with a steady income, but I resist that pressure because I love the work I do and believe that I deliver real value to my students. But if the present trend - increasing volumes of late and failed payments - continues it will not be possible for me to continue.

This article is cross-posted at

Friday, 24 February 2012

Things aren't always what they seem to be

The other day, I was coaching one of my GCSE students for her final performance. She's singing Memory from Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, a standard - and very well known - musical theatre number.

We've been working on this piece for a while. One of the problems with singing musical theatre numbers for a GCSE performance is that the marking criteria require the song to be sung accurately with respect to the published music, but the published music may differ significantly from the best-known recordings. Different editions of the music may also differ musically - I have three copies of Memory, all of which differ in details of rhythm and dynamic markings, all of which have different accompaniments, and one of which is in a different key.  The challenge for the teacher is to select an appropriate performing edition and ensure that the student sings accurately in relation to that edition, ignoring everything else. The challenge for the student is to learn the song from the sheet music, rather than by listening to a recording. The trouble with Memory, of course, is that everyone has heard it sung by Elaine Paige (or possibly Barbra Streisand), and it is very hard to airbrush Elaine or Barbra out of your head and learn the music from the dots on the page.

Anyway, my student has succeeded in doing this. At her lesson she sang the rhythms accurately and did all the marked dynamics in the printed edition we are using. But it was boring. I felt she had not really understood what this song is about, and she had not connected with the emotions of the character singing it.

On the face of it, Memory is a nostalgic song about past glories sung by an elderly cat (Grizabella) who is evidently lonely and longing for physical affection. But when my student sang it like that, it didn't work. So I began to wonder if there was more to this song than it appeared.

The key phrase comes in the third verse: "When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory too, and a new day will begin". I asked my student whether that was a statement of hope or despair. She thought for a minute and then said, "Hope".

I don't think so. You see, Grizabella looks forward to dawn with both fear and longing. The Cats legend is that at dawn, one of the cats will be selected to be taken up to "cat heaven" - what Grizabella earlier in the same verse describes as "a new life". This looks much like death, doesn't it? So Grizabella looks forward to dawn in the hope that she will die - and she both longs for death (because of her belief that it is the gateway to a new life) and fears it.  And suddenly we have the key to our character: this disgusting old alley cat with a very nasty nature was adored when she was younger, because of her beauty. Now she no longer has beauty, she doesn't have love either.... and without love there is nothing left to live for, so she longs for death. Dawn may bring hope, but her basic existential position is despair.

So I asked my student to sing the song from a position of despair rather than hope. This is quite advanced emotional expression for a young singer and I wasn't sure she would be able to do it. To my astonishment the song absolutely took off: she sang with commitment and real feeling, and Grizabella's desperate cry for physical contact at the end gave me goosebumps. I really hope she sings it like that in her exam.

The lesson from this is that songs aren't necessarily what they appear to be, and if we don't study the words, the character and the context, we may fail to connect with the real meaning of the song. And if we miss the point ourselves, so will our listeners. This is particularly true in musical theatre and opera, where it is essential that the context of the song and the motivation of the character is understood. When Susan Boyle released her version of "I dreamed a dream", from Les Miserables, I didn't like it - and I still don't. She turned it into a sad personal statement of lost ambition, whereas in the show it is a rage-filled despairing outburst from a dying woman about the abuse and abandonment that has left her destitute.

But it is also true in another genre - the art song. I've been working with students on musical settings of two poems by great English poets: John Ireland's setting of "Spring Sorrow", by Rupert Brooke, and Eric Thiman's setting of "To Daffodils", by Wordsworth. Both of these poems are, on the face of it, about nature: "To Daffodils" containing a vivid description of a swathe of daffodils beside a bay, and "Spring Sorrow" depicting the early signs of spring. But actually, neither poem is really about nature at all.

The key to the Wordsworth piece comes in these lines:

 "For oft when on my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils".

The memory of such a beautiful sight is enough to lift the poet out of his habitual depression.  Really it's the same sentiment as in "Favourite Things" from the Sound of Music:

" When the dog bites, when the bee stings,
When I'm feeling sad,
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don't feel so bad."

Would you ever have thought that Rodgers & Hammerstein and Wordsworth would have had so much in common?

Turning to Spring Sorrow, this is a deceptively simple, almost naive poem.  I reproduce it in full here.

All suddenly the wind comes soft
And spring is here again:
And the hawthorn quickens with buds of green,
And my heart with buds of pain.

My heart all winter lay so numb,
The earth so dead and frore,
That I never thought the spring would come,
Or my heart wake any more.

But winter's broken and spring has woken,
And the small birds cry again;
And the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds,
And my heart puts forth its pain.

The greening of the earth at the start of spring becomes a metaphor for the reawakening of feeling after a long period of numbness following deep hurt. Pain returns - but that is a sign of healing, and of new life.

Exactly when Rupert Brooke wrote this song I don't know, but it may have been during WWI: even if it was not, it is so clearly about the start of recovery from grief that I am sure Brooke must have been writing about personal bereavement.  John Ireland's setting of it dates back to 1918, not long after Brooke's death, and I wonder if the two men knew each other: certainly Ireland's setting - also deceptively simple - perfectly captures the bittersweet nature of this poem.  Because of its simplicity, the Associated Board set it for Grade V: but for me, this song requires far more emotional maturity than a typical Grade V candidate will usually have. A simple song it may be, but it conveys complex and difficult emotions.

So songs should never be judged by appearances. And actually, nor should students - despite what I have just said about Grade V candidates! I am constantly amazed by the ability of young singers to understand and communicate emotions that are not yet, and may never be, part of their life experience. Imagination is truly a powerful tool for a singer.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The price of greatness

Tonight, we mourn the passing of a great singer. Whitney Houston was found dead in her hotel room at the age of 48. In the last few years, her life had been marred by personal problems and drug abuse. Along with her wonderful voice and extraordinary talent, it seems, went emotional vulnerability and an addictive personality.

                                      Whitney Houston singing Run To You - YouTube

On 23rd July 2011 we mourned the passing of another great singer and songwriter.
Amy Winehouse was found dead at her home at the age of 27. She had a history of personal problems, drug and alcohol abuse. The inquest reported that she was more than five times over the drink/drive alcohol limit when she died.

                                        Amy Winehouse singing Back to Black - YouTube

On 25th June 2009 we mourned the passing of an extraordinary musical talent. Michael Jackson died in his bed at his rented mansion. He was 50. He had been addicted to prescription drugs and painkillers for a long time and died from an accidental overdose of a hospital anaesthetic administered by his personal physician. 

                                             Michael Jackson in Thriller - YouTube

Many more great musical and artistic talents have died young, and a high proportion of those have been from some form of substance abuse or another form of self-harm. Jimi Hendrix (27), Janis Joplin (27), Jim Morrison (27), Hank Williams (29) and Elvis Presley (42) all died from drug overdoses. Kurt Cobain shot himself after taking a lethal amount of heroin: he was only 27. Charlie Parker died aged 34 from pneumonia and an ulcer brought on by drug abuse. Karen Carpenter died from anorexia at the age of 32.

It seems to me that their greatness came at great personal cost. Do people with such talent suffer because of their talent? Would they have been so great if they were not so vulnerable? Perhaps it is their very vulnerability that makes them so able to connect with us. What makes them great is not just their wonderful voices, their great musical and artistic talents. It is their ability to express for us the feelings that we dare not experience. And in expressing those extreme emotions, they are caught themselves by the pain. Even I, a much less talented singer, must experience to some extent the emotions I wish to convey through my music. Perhaps these much greater singers, because they communicate those emotions so much better than me, suffer much more than I do - and when the pain becomes too much to bear, they numb themselves with drugs, alcohol and self-harm......

Whatever the reason for their vulnerability, it is certain that many of the greatest artists are not with us for very long. They burn out quickly and are gone, and we are left only with the memory of someone who was able to touch us deeply. Recordings and images are but a feeble reminder: the heart is gone, and we are bereft.