Those of you who know my work and the usual technical or musical precision of my instructions will perhaps raise an eyebrow at me using imagery in my singing coaching sessions. But today I was working with a new client and this fun session produced the swimming pool slide, the swing and the hiccups.
My client arrives today with Vissi d’Arte and Porgi Amor. Both big arias in their way, divided by over 100 years of opera writing (1900 and 1786 respectively). This client has recently discovered a much bigger voice and is enjoying the exploration of more dramatic repertoire.
What worked and what needed to change
We start with the Tosca aria. The client has the voice for it, but the phrases feel ‘calculated’ – all the notes are there but there is no real flow. The first change I want to make is to get her to move her voice around in a different way. The full lyric sopranos (bigger voices) that I’ve worked with connect notes in a very different way to my soubrettes.
I decide to use the smearing exercise. In this exercise you take a phrase and sing it very slowly. Full resonance on each note, then KEEP the resonance, tone and volume and slide (smear) your way slowly to the next note. Yes, you’re essentially glissandoing between the notes – the point is to keep exactly the same vocal setup, sound, vibrato and breath flow on the journey between the notes, so that there is no real difference between the travelling to, and the arrival on, the target pitch.
Bear in mind that this isn’t “hold the tone, back off and straighten to slide, then add the tone again”. That just sounds like a truck making a three-point turn…
In the smear version there is no difference in setup, tone colour and volume when you’re on the note or when you’re moving between the notes.
This is an extremely effective exercise for vocal movement and phrasing. Once you have experienced this, you can decide whether you connect ALL the notes with a slow smear or whether you want to speed up the movement and make the listener believe you’ve ‘stepped’ to the next note.
Imagery that works
The image/description to achieve this that works best for this client is a swimming pool slide. It gives her exactly the right amount of subglottal pressure, even volume and a sense of forward momentum without gripping or pushing. How did I know that? It was repeatable, and my client felt it was a lot easier and also matched how she imagined herself singing. The sound that comes out is more vibrant, denser, used less breath and energy, and seems more appropriate to the writing and to Tosca’s situation.
By the way, this is something else I look out for in my coaching sessions – when we hit the right balance for that singer with that voice singing that aria in that context, even supposedly difficult arias become easy and enjoyable for that singer to perform. And it’s important not to impose my imagery (or the imagery that worked with the previous client) onto the singer in the room – it’s their imagination that’s important.
Dynamics and the garden swing
The second bit of imagery relates to dynamics. In the middle of Vissi d’Arte the phrases are marked piano. If you are wielding a big voice, it’s easy to tighten up when you see the instruction to sing softly – your throat closes and you lose the tone quality. It’s useful to remember that dynamics in singing are relative to the size of the voice and the repertoire (orchestration and drama). Because a bigger voice usually has a solid core to the tone, a piano sound will be bigger, denser and more present than the piano for a lighter-voiced soprano. To help my client find an easy piano for her voice, and more variation in her dynamics in general without sacrificing her tone colour, here are the instructions I use:
- Sing the phrase “Nell’ora del dolore” etc at a healthy mezzo forte all the way through. Get comfortable, as this is your “ground zero”. Everything you sing in this exercise relates to this volume and tone colour.
- Sing the phrase again starting at the same mezzo forte then go one notch louder.
- Repeat going one notch quieter.
- Repeat the phrase experimenting with 1, 2 or 3 notches louder or quieter, always starting from your “ground zero” mezzo forte.
The imagery that works for my client in this exercise is to imagine a garden swing. The swing in its still/balanced state represents mezzo forte. It could move in either direction (louder or softer) in relation to its still state.
The difference in her singing is remarkable. After one repetition of the above exercise she is more in control of volume, changing it at will without losing the richness of the sound or the feeling of supporting the tone. Again, she felt it was how she wanted to sing.
Finally we focus on the phrases in the middle of the aria. “Sempre con fè sincera la mia preghiera ai santi tabernacoli salì. Sempre con fè sincera”. In these phrases there are three little grace notes, on fè, tabernAcoli and fè. It’s not unusual for some sopranos to gloss over these notes if they are not sure how to interpret what’s written. There’s a trick to learning grace notes like these, and it’s in two parts:
- Make sure to learn the pitch of the grace note. In the first phrase the fè is on a Bb but has a C grace note. That means you have to pitch the vowel on the C (the consonant is an unvoiced f so can’t be pitched). By adding this C to the note before, you get both the pitch and the approximate timing. So “con” becomes confè-è on Bb+C+Bb. Make sure to sing the è vowel on the C as well as the following Bb. This is more complex to write than to do! With “tabernacoli” the grace note is on the Bb, which is a minor third higher than the previous note. So the sung word for this part of the exercise becomes ta-berna-acoli, with the “na” pitched on the Bb. The same applies to the final “Sempre con fè sincera” – the phrase becomes “Sempre confè-è sincera” with the word confè-è sung on three notes (C+Eb+D)In part 1 of this exercise you focused on singing the notes (and which part of the word is sung on the grace note) to let your voice and brain be accurate to the music. But it’s dry and doesn’t carry the appropriate information to the listener. You need a reason to sing them.
- Sing the phrase again and this time think of the grace note as being a little kick, or as my client said, an emotion hiccup. You will retain your pitch accuracy but now you have added meaning to the writing.
My client works on just these three phrases then sings the aria again. Because she now understands how the grace notes work and what to do, she automatically sings the two additional ones on “Kirsche” and “zurück” correctly without practising. Result!
Client is thrilled, and also slightly annoyed that no-one in her singing history has told her about these simple things before. Well, that’s what you come to me for – simple and profound changes that make sense, work for your voice and help you express who you are as a singer.
I’ll talk about using the bicycle wheel and the escalator imagery for a more successful Porgi Amor in a later blog!
PS If you want to know what I can do to help your singing feel easier and more authentic, come and work with me in person or online – I’d love to help you discover more about your voice and performing.
PPS If you want to hear more about targeted imagery, coaching singers in different genres and more case histories, check out our new “Let’s Talk” event, Joining The Dots, in London.