Robert Dean, who led our amazing Belshazzar’s Feast workshop in October last year, shares some thoughts and advice from his experience of the covid crisis and the impact on his students and teaching, with some helpful hints and a link to an excellent resource at the end….
LOCKDOWN! Isn’t this the worst term for any singer to contemplate? It goes against the whole ethos of what we as singers do and what I, as a teacher of 30 years standing have been constantly trying to discourage as the antithesis of the necessary liberation of breath and body if we are to sing with our best tone. The performance of Elijah we gave on February 29th this year was the last live music performance in which I was involved. Looking back now, it seems in some way fitting that it was the story of a good and visionary man (for which read ‘an everyman singer’) who was crushed by those who hated him but who despite adversity, rose once again to even greater glory. Covid the enemy has almost sapped the life blood out of us all and in particular the performing arts. Sadly, singers have come under particular scrutiny, the experts warning that singers pose the greatest of dangers with their droplets being dispersed much more readily in the air whilst singing loudly rather than softly. The answer? We all have to sing quietly! Now we all know how technically difficult this is and how that simply wouldn’t work in a performance of “Elijah”!
Watching the BBC Singers on TV in a live Prom, sing in a socially distanced way in an empty Royal Albert Hall was a dispiriting experience – taking away the joy of performance for the online audience as well, I imagine, as a true sense of ensemble for the singers themselves. If anything needs to be recognised, if the thrill of live music making is to be regained, it is a reminder that the communal act of being together is what makes it so satisfying; which might also mean standing right next to your fellow singer even if they are singing the wrong notes or are sounding terrible! Whilst I am delighted that so many online opportunities in lieu of the real thing have found a place in singers’ lives during this pandemic, it can be nothing more than an inadequate and lonely substitute for doing what human beings do best – social undistancing.
Once I recovered from having the virus myself in March (the finger points to a student at the Guildhall – or was it that workshop I gave on the Brahms Requiem the week before falling ill, where I was encouraging the singers of the choral society to sing lustily but healthily in those fugues?), I was faced in my teaching life with two problems. Firstly, so many of the singers I work with had their work – and as a result their livelihoods – taken away from them overnight; and secondly, the young students I work with at the Guildhall were at a loss as to know how the School was going to continue their musical education. The depression and lack of motivation in the former group was most distressing. All I could offer was to give them their lessons via Skype for free (a surprising number did not take me up on this) and to keep encouraging them by telling them this was not going to last forever. But when work is taken away, and even the future work you have been booked for might not happen, why bother to open a score and learn a role that you may never be required to sing?
In the second group all lessons were moved to online – and something startling began to happen. Without exception, all my young students began to make excellent progress! Without the continual rushing around between classes, and with many of the outside pressures removed, the young singers with my help became their own teachers in their living rooms and bedrooms; and were able to concentrate and learn during the course of a lesson in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Inevitably having to sing continually into a computer screen made them much more self aware of bodily ticks and tensions, and the screen became something of a friend as well as a harsh critic. However much I as a teacher disliked hearing and seeing them electronically (and by the way it is so much more exhausting teaching this way), I could not deny that they embraced the compromise and made it work for them with enthusiasm.
Now, six months down the line we are taking tentative steps to get back to some sort of normality. I have once again opened up my studio to singers replete with a 7 foot perspex screen for them to sing behind and with proper health measures in place on arrival. This week I heard live singing for the first time since March 13th and I was deeply moved but encouraged by the thought that there is nothing quite like it. Even if one listens as I do to recordings of many great singers, nothing can replace the sheer visceral quality of a live singer or singers in full flood, right in front of you – LIVE!
So it seems apposite at this point to give you a pointer to a website, the creator of which – Deborah Miles-Johnson – was my co-director at the Philharmonia Chorus for 10 years, and whose vocal exercises I can heartily recommend; along with some tips on how to keep your voice shipshape for that time when we shall all be back together again, singing our hearts out. “THEN DID ELIJAH THE PROPHET BREAK FORTH AS A FIRE”. Like the Prophet, let’s look to the day when the singers of Oxford Orpheus and of choral societies throughout the land most certainly will be back and now, with the added realisation of what they have been missing, they’ll be singing better than ever and with even greater enthusiasm!
Tips before you use the exercises:
· Remember to breathe before you sing – don’t overfill the lungs, just breathe comfortably and in a natural expanded way, letting the abdominal muscles naturally move outwards but not locking; lifting the soft palette as you breathe gets you into a place of openness at the throat.
· Feel this space as the gateway to your breath and so sense the lift occurring internally whilst making sure your neck, jaw and tongue are relaxed as you take the breath.
· Feel the vocal folds come together as you precisely sing the vowels a – e – i – o – u on a comfortable middle pitch keeping that space, even increasing it as you sing the sequence.
· Use your hand on an inward gesture on each one to help with this. The idea is to invite your voice onto the breath and therefore the body.
· Then try out some of Debbie’s exercises – they are gentle but effective.
Remember to sing every day if you can – the muscles like to be used and become more toned and efficient the more you use them. There is no such thing as lockdown in this way of singing!!