What would Emma do?

As you will discover, in due course, this sentence will be the only reference to the work of Jane Austen – so put Ms Woodhouse from your mind.

Back in January, I spent a long weekend in Cambridge – which does not indicate that it was dull, far from it!  Over this weekend, the teaching of music became a major theme which this post will probably explore (or that is the plan at this early stage).

The theme started with a viewing of the film Whiplash, in which the music tuition is very fierce indeed.  By comparison with the trainee drummer portrayed, my commitment to anything in life would scarcely even be considered half-hearted – despite what I may have thought was serious application on my part.  I have also been spared any teacher even remotely so psychotic – which may perhaps explain my dilettantism, but for which I am suitably grateful,  I’m sure real drummers and jazz aficionados will find much to criticise in the film and others will object to the lack of female characters and rather limited characterisation, but the film is very powerful and gripping and I’d recommend it despite its (no doubt) numerous shortcomings.

At the end of the weekend, I saw Murray Perahia giving a masterclass with the Doric String Quartet.  In contrast with Angela Hewitt last year, Murray is not a natural teacher and much went completely over my head – but there were still some nuggets of interest which I might try and use in my own musical life.

In between these lessons for others, I tried to fit in a singing lesson for myself.  The observant reader may object that this coincided with the time of “the cough” and they would be right – however, the cough seemed to be somewhat in abeyance so I thought it was worth a try.  My voice was not at its best and the cough not as quiescent as hoped.  Under such circumstances finding pitch is quite a challenge as notes tend to be produced much lower down the octave than expected, my breath control (poor at the best of times) was completely shot and even having found a note I had great difficulty maintaining it.  Notes towards the top of my range were particularly problematic.  My performance was not unlike a teenager’s, with the pitch breaking up and down uncontrollably (so my voice, mental age and self-image were in alignment for once).  To help me obtain the best from my damaged voice, my teacher referred me to the advice of Emma Kirkby – famous soprano – as to how to manage under these circumstances.  It seems natural (to me at least) to be somewhat tentative when singing with a cough (or similar), but this makes things worse.  By maintaining good airflow over the old vocal chords, I found that production of the desired note stabilised and my voice sounded pretty good – though I did then run out of air much too soon.  Now, I had been told this many times before, but this was the first time I actually “learned” the lesson – it was instantly obvious the difference that having proper airflow made to my singing.  Today, was the first time I had tried singing since and, old dogs being hard of learning when it comes to new tricks, I started off somewhat tentatively – this is also partly to avoid frightening the neighbours or any nearby cetaceans (well I am a bass living near the coast).  This did not go so well, so I remembered Emma’s advice and went for it (airflow-wise) and my voice worked very nicely thank you.

All I need to do now is sort out my breathing – a skill which, despite having almost reached 49 (not out), still rather eludes me on an all too frequent basis.  That same weekend in Cambridge, the soprano soloist at the Deutsches Requiem was (a) very close to me and (b) wearing a dress that was tight around the lower trunk which made it very clear that she was breathing from the diaphragm (or even below) – rather than (as I do) noisily snatching breaths from the area of the pecs.  My lower trunk is rather too rigid – which is great for the gentleman gymnast and the six-pack, but not so good for proper breathing.  Somehow I need to learn to relax “down there” – something I do automatically when laughing, but can’t do on command.  If only there were more (or indeed any) middle-aged singer-gymnasts I could turn to for advice or inspiration…  Now, what would Emma do?

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