Painting pictures

roseRecently I was very privileged to be part of a music-making weekend centred on Jonathan Lemalu, a Samoan-born, New Zealand-raised internationally-known bass-baritone. And now I’ve run out of hyphens.

On the Friday night he took two Masterclasses, one for children and the other for adults. Jonathan’s focus for the classes was on conveying the story in the song. It was delightful watching him work with the children. He is a tall, solid man which in itself could have been intimidating for the kids, but his personality and sense of humour won them (and us, the observers) over. At one stage he was sitting on the floor pretending to be a small boy in need of distraction by lollies. One young girl sang Summertime and after her initial run-through he whipped off his jacket, bundled it up and gave it to her to hold as the ‘baby’ she was singing to. It was wonderful to see her song morph from just pretty notes to something evocative and meaningful. Not to mention that when she concentrated on painting the picture for us, her voice just flowed out and soared.

The two songs I had prepared (when I say prepared, they are definitely still works in progress for my exam later this year) were ‘La Rose’ by Fauré and ‘Hello? O Margaret it’s you!’ from Menotti’s The Telephone. Again Jonathan focused on painting the picture for the audience, and in order to do that he asked me to envision in minute detail what I was seeing. At one point, he gave me a water bottle to hold – it being the closest object to hand) – and pretend it was a rose and I was stroking the petals. Somewhat awks as the young ones say …hang on a minute, I’m young aren’t I? I am in my head anyway. He also focused me on the accompaniment at certain points, which I hadn’t done before, as helping me paint the picture. So the little rising phrases just before and with each of the opening lines prompts for statements I could make about the beauty of the rose. OK maybe you had to be there to get that.

Surprisingly, given that I generally give a good imitation of a dead stick in terms of movement when I perform, he noted that I was swaying with the music a bit at times.Note I’m not talking about tree-in-a-storm* level of swaying, just a subtle motion. As he said, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but for this song, which is intensely focused on pointing out the beauty of the rose and telling the story of how it came into being, he felt that stillness would focus the audience on the words and create a sense of desire to know more. Also, and vitally important, it allowed me to have my body completely centred and breathing supported. Lo and behold when I stopped moving my voice immediately gained intensity and ease.

We spent most of my allotted time on La Rose, so I just sang through the Menotti with Jonathan noting there would be plenty to work on in relation to painting the picture, starting with the first two ‘Hello’s. A shame there wasn’t time to delve into it.

On the Saturday night Jonathan did a wonderful concert in the Basilica, at which our combined St Mary’s and Cantores choirs also performed. Amongst other things we sang Gorecki’s Totus Tuus which was very moving for both us and the audience. The following morning he joined us for a full sung Mass complete with string players. I was granted the Kyrie from the Schubert Mass and I think I acquitted myself well. It felt good anyway! I love singing in the Basilica, as it has a beautiful acoustic.

This morning I was privileged to sing Malotte’s Lord’s Prayer at the ANZAC dawn service at the Invercargill cenotaph. There was a good attendance despite the cold and wind. Looking at the brass band, I was glad I didn’t have to  use my fingers to play an instrument. Apart from a random substitution of words – ‘as we forgive our debtors’ randomly became ‘as we forgive each other’, so at least not entirely unrelated! – I felt surprisingly relaxed. It was strange to hear my voice come out of the speakers but in an odd way that gave me some confidence. We won’t mention the couple of shots of Rescue Remedy beforehand. (Does anyone else use that for performances? I only use it on ‘big’ occasions as I don’t want to be reliant on it.)

And now there’s a lot of work ahead of me as I get all my exam repertoire under my belt.


*Hyphens are like computer game lives – if you wait long enough, they fill up again.

The year that was. Because I forgot to write about it in the year that was.

Hildegard_von_BingenIt’s been a while – yes alright 10 months! – since my last post. I’m not even going to apologise. Really, what could I say – the dog ate my blog posts?

I’ve done lots of singing, mostly of the church/sacred variety, both in groups and solo. I won’t bore you with all the details but will pick out a selection of highlights.

10th Century plainchant

The most interesting item I sang was O Ignis Spiritus by Hildegard von Bingen, a very interesting and gifted 10th century abbess. I was initially asked to sing all 10 stanzas myself, but after having a look at it, I realised it was going to be no easy task to learn (I already had a good load for that concert) and so the concert organiser suggested we rope in another of the soloists to share the burden. Some time on from that, I realised that that if we added in yet another voice we could do 3 stanzas each and then sing the final one together. That way there would be different voice timbres to create a little variety. And y’all thought I was just being lazy didn’t you? Shame on you!

Some Caccini. Or was it?

The solo item I sang in that same concert was the ‘Caccini’ Ave Maria. I wrote Caccini in the written equivalent of those air quotes you make with your fingers – think Dr Evil from the Austin Powers movies and his “sophisticated heat beam which we called a “laser.” “.. ..and where was I?……oh right, so it really wasn’t written by Caccini at all, as anyone with any knowledge of his music could have instantly told you on hearing it, but was erroneously attributed to him. Which is rather ironic given his history. In essence it’s quite trite, but it’s full of those typical Baroque falling fifths which makes the audience feel a bit soppy when they hear them without knowing why (unless they know about these things in which case they will roll their eyes while feeling soppy). It’s an easy sing with a nice soaring bit that makes you sound amazing. Which is rather useful if, like me, you aren’t actually amazing.

Headlights and Eyebrows

Two concerts in December gave me something of a breakthrough in terms of sound production. Many years ago I was singing in a choir where the conductor talked about needing to ‘turn on your headlights’ meaning keep your cheekbones up. And you thought it meant something else entirely didn’t you, you naughty people! Oh…that was just me? Ahem. Moving right along. I had forgotten about headlights until a singing friend – Hi Michelle! – reminded me about it, and also added in keeping the eyebrows up, the two together creating changes in the palate and facial musculature which allow the sound to brighten as well come out more easily in higher registers. In the first concert I had to sing the Benedictus duet in Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio which near the end has a lovely soaring line up to a top C. I nailed it, headlights beaming. The second concert I sang Handel’s ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ and my fellow singers said they could hear an immediate brightening in the sound when I turned my headlights on.

The year ended with another rendition of the New Zealand National anthem at a rodeo, this time in Te Anau. Unlike a number of the cowboys, I didn’t require the ministrations of the St John’s medics afterwards.

Right you can have a bit of breather now while I start on the next post – stop the snickering, it won’t take a year this time!

It’s not Christmas without a Messiah

Messiah-titlepageI had two major concerts to finish off the year. The first, with A Capella Singers, was Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This was my first choral performance of it, having only previously sung the ‘Echo’ aria (Ah, My Saviour). The solos were shared around the choir members, and I was given the soprano/bass duet ‘Lord Thy Mercy’, the Angel’s recitative ‘Be Not Afraid’ and the echo in the Echo aria.

We sang it in English which, while easy on the audience and those choir members who have difficulty learning anything in another language, means that the vowels and consonants do not always fall comfortably. A perfect example was in the duet where I had to sing the word Free sustained on an F whereas in the German it would have been the much more open Frei. Breathing for long phrases was sometimes more challenging due to the words (and meaning) falling differently. However it is all a good learning experience. And of course it’s Bach, where you can’t relax your concentration for a second or you slip on a musical banana skin. I was reasonably happy with my performance after putting in a fair bit of effort. I find recitatives difficult and often feel I spend twice as long on a 20 bar recit as I do for a 5 page aria!

The second concert was one I had been looking forward to for ages as I hadn’t sung a Messiah for quite a few years. This was quite a special one. Organised by Dr White (conductor of our St Mary’s choir) the soloists were bass Jonathan Lemalu, soprano Rebecca Ryan, mezzo Sandra Martinovic (also Jonathan’s wife) and local tenor Clive Thompson. The choir was handpicked from local choirs and combined with members of Dunedin’s Cantores choir. The chamber orchestra consisted of members of Southern Symphonia led by Sydney Manowitz and Gregory Peyroux and Raymond shared the conducting duties.

The Basilica was packed, the soloists were great and the ringing of the third-last Amen around the dome was electrifying. We had two moments in the choruses where we were a whisker from coming unstuck  (no, not in All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray) but we pulled it together. My teacher who was the soprano soloist deserves extra kudos for performing magnificently 7 weeks after giving birth – by caeserean no less.

So now there is a lull (I’m still on holiday, neener neener). Lessons aren’t resuming till March. Choir rehearsals don’t start till the beginning of February. This year I plan to start working on repertoire for my LTCL (Recital). I’m also getting to sing for the first time in concert the Flower Duet from Lakme. I have decided that my New Year’s Resolutions – yes, yes I know I’m 10 days late – are musical ones:

1. Work on my coloratura – specifically the ‘runny bits’. I seem to veer between lead-footed thumping and laughing hyena.

2. Learn to place the sound forward while maintaining that yawny space thing (apologies for being overly technical).

Only 2 resolutions but I’m thinking they might be enough!

One of ‘those’ days

On Sunday I took part in a concert of popular sacred music. We had 7 soloists, a small choir, a chamber orchestra and small children’s choir. It was the kind of concert where you recognised the tune even if you didn’t know the name of it. Beautiful sacred music abounded, stretching from Charpentier through to Douglas Mews. 

I had three solo(ish) moments – “If God Be For Us” from Messiah, the duet “O Lovely Peace” and the soprano solo for Mozart’s ‘Laudate Dominum”. It was the first time I’d done the Messiah aria and the Mozart with orchestra.

For various reasons I was a bag of nerves leading up to the concert. Not a dainty little jewel-encrusted evening bag of nerves, but a cavernous hold-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink kind of bag. I’m not sure exactly why. Partly because all the other soloists are such excellent singers and I was feeling a bit intimidated. Partly because my voice has been feeling quite tired and out of sorts lately. Suffice it to say, nerves are not a singer’s best friends. Shaky legs, shortened breaths and tight muscles are, funnily enough, not conducive to a good sound. 

We had a rehearsal earlier in the afternoon and my bits went ok. But I could feel my voice was not in the greatest shape. And the more I thought about that, the tenser I got. Is it any wonder that 20 minutes before the start of the concert I got a migraine? Fortunately – if you can call getting migraines fortunate – I pretty much only get the visual aura for about 15 minutes or so, and then just a residual ache around my forehead, not the searing pain that so many do. However for the next hour or two afterwards, my brain also feels like it has put on a fluffy pink dressing gown and slippers with bunny ears and has smoked something slightly illegal. You can see where this is going right?

The little man that lives in my brain and gives a running commentary every time I have to sing to an audience had an absolute field day. He revelled in his role, criticising onsets which started with a slight catch, mocking phrase-endings that went wobbly from lack of breath and whispering with vicious gleefulness about upcoming difficulties which, in his opinion, I was unlikely to surmount. Do you get put in jail for stabbing an imaginary little man who makes it his life’s mission to tell you how useless you are? Because I would have considered it totally worth it. Especially if the onset to his dying screams was less than perfect.

But hey, first-world problems right? The majority of what I sang was fine. Some of it was actually beautiful. There, I wrote it out loud. Like my little blogger ‘About Me’ blurb says: I like to sing. Sometimes when I sing, I sound good. I’m working on the other times. 

Lesson #324 – why singing from memory is a good idea

I got a last minute request to sing at a Registered Music Teacher’s concert and my teacher said “Let’s do something from your new repertoire, how about ‘Kommt ein schlanker'” and I replied “But but but! I haven’t learnt the words from memory yet.” However she was keen for me to get a performance of this one under my belt so I agreed that I would do it with the music. I did try to stuff all the words into the small walnut that passes for my brain in the intervening couple of days, but you know, that irritating thing called Life got in the way. 

Being of a certain age, I now frequently have to resort to reading glasses which is disconcerting. If I sit them firmly on my nose, the audience looks blurry and I feel as if I have lost connection with them. Sit them further down so I can use normal eyesight for the audience and I look like a caricature of a dragon-lady librarian. Alternatively I could grow my arms another 6 inches and problem solved. So learning things off by heart is definitely the better proposition.

The concert was being held in a large room of our local museum. Carpeted with a lowish ceiling. I figured this would swallow the sound, especially when filled with an audience, but it was actually very nice acoustically. When it was my turn I stepped up to the piano (teacher accompanying) and discovered that a) the lighting was feeble and b) my folder clearly didn’t have non-reflective plastic. Nothing to be done but soldier on. 

Fortunately I had the opening couple of pages off pat so things started well. Just as I was mentally patting myself on the back for putting my glottals in the right place and actually making the trill sound like a trill instead of a wobbly vibrato, disaster struck! I glanced down at the page to pick up the next lot of words and couldn’t see them properly. Have you ever tried making up something on the spot in a language other than your own? Me either. But I did. It’s entirely possible that instead of saying Sollten ja sich Blicke finden (If you should catch his glance) I said something like  Meine Katze sitzt auf einer Keksblume (My cat sits on a biscuit flower).

The rest of the aria passed without incident. So here’s what I learnt from that experience:

1. If you’re going to make up words, do it in front of an audience that neither knows the language you’re singing in nor the aria you are singing.

2. Don’t let any flicker of panic cross your features and no one will be any the wiser that your cat sits on a biscuit flower.

3. Avoid having to do 1. by memorising the dang aria!