23, April 2009 § Leave a comment
“Melody is the golden thread running through the maze of tones by which the ear is guided and the heart reached.” – Anonymous
The journey began in Italy during the fall of 2008. Then followed a blur of training, technique exercises, rehearsals, foreign languages, music notes and performances! It is now springtime in Paros, Greece, 2009 and it’s all coming back to me.
This past fall I had the opportunity to sing with The Aegean Center’s Vocal Ensemble and had an incredible experience performing on the island with fellow students and a number of locals (including John Pack’s lovely assistant, Stella Skordalellis). This spring I am back to singing with the ensemble and am also taking individual vocal training with Orpheas John Munsey, the ensemble’s director. This means that not only do I have a handful of choir concerts to perform at the end of the semester, but there will also be a solo concert in which I will be performing two baroque arias (Marco Antonio Cesti’s “Tu Mancavi a Tormentarmi”, and a gorgeous Handel aria), and three Francis Poulenc pieces (“La Reine de Coeur”, “Montparnasse” and “Hyde Park”). All are very different in feel.
The Handel piece is exquisite and wonderful to sing, but takes much technique and support “from the gorilla!” as Orpheas tells me. By this he means to sing higher notes from the lower half of the body – to get grounded in that primitive, muscular half of our form and allow its strength to support the air and diaphragm as notes jump up and down. So began the process of being trained to effortlessly and automatically draw from that incredible support when I sing.
It started with a heavy metal folding chair: as I approached a high note I was having difficulty supporting, I was instructed to slowly raise the chair with my arms out in front of me until it was at its highest point as I hit the highest note. This process engages abdominal muscles and forces these muscles and the diaphragm to work together to support the air that produces sound, my sound, a sound that, with the help of a chair, miraculously, became much easier and free flowing.
Another similar technique I was introduced to, one which I prefer, is even more entertaining. I place a pillow between my knees (this sounds interesting, no?) and as that familiar high note approaches I squeeze the pillow as hard as I can, really engaging the powerful, supportive lower half, and out comes a beautiful sound – a note that flows from the toes and effortlessly fills the room.
Physical technique issues aside, I have also discovered other, more artistic difficulties – the expression of the music itself. Once the technique is there, what’s left is the interpretation of the music and lyrics and the task of conveying to an audience the emotion and feel of a piece. Each song is like a piece of theatre and a new character has to be embodied and expressed accurately with feeling.
As I mentioned before, the Handel aria is an exquisitely beautiful piece, but it is also quite difficult. Singing gorgeously the praises of love, this piece requires a great deal of support – I think this song is the reason for that pillow – and resonance. Down right screechy at first, I’ve now managed to get the sound to seem more natural and supported, but a lot more work is needed before I will be able to do the composer any justice at all come May.
The gorgeous “Tu Mancavi a Tormentarmi” is a lament sung by a haunted and heartbroken woman. It’s a challenge technique and performance-wise (the pillow often comes into play here!)
“La Reine de Couer” is smooth and sultry, and is a lot of fun, though not easy, to sing. The text is a french poem by Maurice Careme and Poulenc has beautifully interpreted its calm, seductive feel. My challenge lies in giving colour to the text and the higher notes as well as maintaining breath through the phrases.
“Montparnasse” is an imaginative, almost dreamy poem by Guillaume Apollinaire and is the longest of the Poulenc pieces. It is very artful, full of odd dynamics and phrasing such as building up to a high note, only to pull way back at the last moment to sing as softly as possible.
“Hyde Park”. Honestly, it’s crazy. At about two and a half seconds long, it is probably the most difficult piece I have, seeing as the vocal line, full of odd, jumping notes, tends to go where ever it likes while the piano does its own thing underneath, all at a breakneck pace. Another poem from Apollinaire, it’s supposed to remind one of a bustling street: cars driving and honking, people walking briskly about. Well, Mr. Poulenc, success.
With only about two months or so to performance time, I’m feeling the pressure and believe it’s time to get to some serious business. To be honest, I feel like I have a lot to do on every single piece I have and it’s a bit overwhelming at times, but I try to remember that this is why I am here, why we are all here at the Aegean Center – to be pushed to grow and learn. As anxious as I am about that night in late May, I am also very excited, excited to finally see all the hard work pay off and to be back here on Paros, doing what I love.