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Monday, 4 January 2016

No longer just a listener

LITTLE DEWCHURCH SINGING LESSON This morning V (my teacher as opposed to VR my wife) asked how and when did I sing? Instinctively as I enter the kitchen because of its hard acoustic. Alone in the car.

Why did I suddenly decide on lessons? Not sure about “suddenly”; as to “Why?” possibly through amateur envy. I was prepared to compromise (ie, Might there be a partial way? Might minor improvement be enough? Would an expert’s opinion of my voice alone be useful?).

I admitted to being opinionated but insisted I was in V’s hands; I wanted to learn.

V played ascending triads on the piano, singing along; I copied. This established my range (an octave and a bit). At first I doubted my ability but all went well; it seemed I wasn’t solely listening to her voice, rather throwing my voice instinctively where it ought to go. I was less competent with a three-note turn which preceded the descending series.

I was told to open my mouth wider, to increase the volume, to stop moving my body and my bottom jaw. Then came the first real revelation. V syncopated the sequences of triads (ie, jazzed them up) so that they resembled primitive tunes; these I followed more easily and freely.

V said my singing voice resembled my speaking voice (This was a surprise!) and had a rich quality. I always reckoned it nasal but no, I am a fledgling baritone. I warned her that as an ex-journalist I tended not to respond well to compliments but she was proved right by what followed.

Sarastro’s bass aria, O Isis Und Osiris, from Mozart’s Magic Flute, is short and I know it fairly well. But having V accompany me vocally and on the piano meant I could use the score as a rough guide to the details. This is how V got round my inability to read scores.

Then something utterly marvellous happened. One line in the aria goes:

Stärkt mit Geduld sie in Gefahr___

That final word – Gefahr – is based on three ascending notes, the last two linked, and is a Mozart thumbprint; an effect he uses over and over in his vocal music. As V sang I recognised it immediately. Next time round, guided by the score, I launched myself into the effect and it worked for me as it had for all those famous basses I’ve heard over the years.

Suddenly my throat contracted. On the verge of tears I had to turn away from V. I was following what Mozart had written! Damn me, I was singing Mozart! Good or bad didn’t matter for the moment; I was giant steps away from being just a listener. It was almost too much to bear.

I booked this trial not knowing the outcome. Now I realise I can profit from V’s instruction, that it will be a joy to do so, and that doing so touches on something that has been latent for many years.

How did V know – because she did know – I’d respond this way to this aria after a mere two or three minutes on the phone. (I didn’t send her the note I blogged; I didn’t have her email address). Perhaps that’s real teaching.

PS: Twenty-four hours later. I see the jargon might put some people off. But music has to be technical if one is to progress. What I should have stressed was the sheer fun of singing with an expert; the exhilaration of the noise we were making.

NOTE: This post exceeds my normal 300-word limit. It needed to be complete; it might help readers take the step I took.


  1. I'm so glad it went well. I YouTubed up the aria...it sounds difficult to sing. You had chosen "An Die Musik" as a goal, an ode to music itself, so you were clearly primed for an emotional moment. Now music has deflowered you from another angle and you must learn to thrust back properly.

  2. MikeM: Thanks for your good wishes. You have put your finger on a significant matter.

    I've been singing An Die Musik to myself for years now; it's a deceptively simple tune. Only in the final week when I tried to concentrate by myself, without any real technical skills, on getting the final 10% right did it all become a lot harder: notably trying to resolve the way we instinctively regard the words as whole things versus the way the music breaks them apart.

    Typical example in the first line: single word wieviel (how many?) is sung as wee-ee # feel with "feel" attached to next word grauen (grey).

    Having heard the opera Magic Flute a dozen times I was familiar with the aria Isis und Osiris, recognised it as a lovely tune, but never saw it as simple, never tried to sing it. So I was in at the deep end in the lesson. But my familiarity, however vestigial, did help me with certain parts and eventually (thanks to V's skills and persistence) I managed to string together a hideously imperfect version and lay myself open to being deflowered in the way I describe and which you have identified.

  3. I'm happy and exited with you dear RR. I looked at Schubert's score for An die Musik on You Tube earlier and understand why it's difficult to sing.
    Good on you.

  4. Ellena: Thank you, dear Ellena. It's silly, really. In musical terms this is a tiny step forward; in personal terms I'm transformed. I knew all sorts of theoretical stuff about symphonies, quartets, sopranos and counter-tenors but nothing beats looking at a score and realising that parts of it are there to help me. And can! No doubt I'm being elitist, a boaster, in fact my normal self, but music (unlike the written word) has the power to creep up and unman me as the lesson showed. Writing I'm inclined to play the boss, music I'm willing to be its lowest apprentice.

    The more I learn about An Die Musik the harder it gets to sing it. Which is as it should be. Nothing that good should be easy. Today I may even book an appointment and get my wild bohemian hair trimmed a little. I don't want the show of being artistic, I want to do it even if it's at the lowest level. A monk's habit awaits.

  5. Wonderfully vivid account of what must indeed have been a moving experience. V seems like an excellent teacher and obviously in tune with your particular musical interests.
    I look forward to further reports of this new journey.

    I love Magic Flute - do you know this version?

    If his low notes were any lower they'd have to be dug out of the ground with a crane!

  6. Mein lieber Robbie! Natalie has described my feeling, too. "Wonderfully vivid account of what must indeed have been a moving experience." Might I add that V is very lucky to have you. She can be her best with you from what I glean of this experience. (I am applauding with gusto)

    Ich freue mich für Dich! ♪ ♫

  7. Natalie: Thanks for your comment; the need to share what happened is almost unbearable. It was moving then and even more moving later.

    Having worked hard at home the rest of Monday committing the full detail of the aria to memory (singing along on YouTube with the great and much missed Marti Talvela, then singing alone depending only on the score) I woke up on Tuesday having seemingly forgotten everything, being forced to listen to Marti again.

    I didn't want to, I had hoped to go it alone. Reluctantly I switched him on (His voice was described as "comforting" by Peter Ustinov many years ago) and it started to come back, then it came back in a rush. And I found myself blubbering with relief at the computer as I reproduced the lovely phrases of the song in my far from perfect voice.

    Quite a coincidence about the clip you provided. VR and I saw exactly that performance of Flute streamed in the local theatre two or three weeks ago (it was in fact recorded way back in 2008). René Pape is fine but his tone is very slightly harsh whereas Marti is eternally musical despite his being able to plumb those same remarkable depths. Also, alas for René, he was required to sing in English (and not at all a bad translation) whereas Marti and I are both singing in German which is the language Shikaneder used for Mozart, another German speaker.

    V is a very good teacher and knew exactly how to tease me into better and better efforts. Ignored my claims that I was an absolute beginner (as a singer that's true but I do have more useful theoretical knowledge and experience than I realised) and got me to do things she knew I'd enjoy. I'll be writing about her later.

    RW (zS): When I turned away, full of emotion and tears, at the sudden if fanciful thought that Mozart - one of the greatest of my heroes - was communicating directly with me V shrugged away my apologies and said something like: It's supposed to do that. And from the start I did what I was told without a trace of self-consciousness and/or embarrassment; that's the sign of a good teacher.

    What astonished me was the urge, despite an inadequate voice, to engage with the music as music and not as exercises. An entirely physical feeling. Much gratitude for your enthusiasm.

  8. Your enthusiasm, emotion and pleasure come throughout this post RR. Very, very well done and an inspiration to us more mature readers to never say die.

  9. Dearest Bonden,
    I had tears in my eyes reading this post.
    May I say how proud I am of you? Well I am, so there!
    Susan ( HHB).

  10. Avus: The older we get the rarer the likelihood we do anything that is truly new. Or that affects us as deeply as this did me. The strange thing is I realised afterwards it was something I had wanted to do for decades. Theoretically this makes me a fool for letting it go for so long but I'm glad to say I don't see it this way. Even if it had happened on my deathbed the sense of transition would have been just as rewarding. I do not expect to become a great voice and in any case, however eloquent I am here, the progress remains both small and personal. Many people sing (properly) and I have merely added my name to theirs at the bottom of the list.

    Nor is it all shooting fireworks. I have spent the week going over and over Isis and Osiris, with the somewhat childish aim of rendering it a capella at my next lesson, proof of how grateful I feel to V. But music is a skittish mistress and one problem of pitch and phrasing returns and returns. If I were a fool I'd despair that I could ever resolve this; but despair doesn't fit me now. There is work to be done, work I can glory in. No achievements are guaranteed and the effort itself must be the initial benefit.

    Anon (Dear HHB): You've very nearly brought tears again to my eyes but I'm a stern pragmatist these days; I need clear eyes to be able to read the score and to see the whites and blacks on my adjacent keyboard as I try to resolve the pitch/phrasing problem I mention to Avus.

    Don't get me wrong. I am irresistibly warmed by your comment. Perhaps my greatest achievement is that you, technically a stranger but actually nothing of the kind, feel proud about what I have done. Yes, those might well be tears.

    My memories go back to that photo you posted of your bookshelf because those book titles told me concisely about an aspect of who you are. Not that I was in any doubt. Always a friend and a friend who independently shared my bit of the world. Bless.

  11. Nothing much to add to what all the others said. I would be happy to know any such epiphany might still await me in life. Look forward to more about the adventure.

  12. Lucy: It's hard to pick out one moment from many but how about this? I stood by the piano in the approved position ("No hands in pockets.") and V began to play and sing the mini-scales known as triads to "loosen my voice". For two or three seconds I faced the task of duplicating these quite rapid sequences of sounds with my voice; there seemed no guarantee that I could; the noises I was hearing sounded more like theories than music and my ability seemed even more theoretical. And then I was away and that was the last time doubt put in an appearance.

    I made many many mistakes but none meant a damn. I knew now I'd made the right decision. When I got home I yearned for VR to be able to join me but she said, quite quietly, she had no voice. I'd yearn for you to have this experience assuming you wanted it, as I would for any of my friends. But if it doesn't tempt then it won't work.

    If there is an epiphany lying ahead for you I suspect its roots will be deep-seated, sub-conscious for most of the time. Also that it will involve a real-time projection of yourself, thus writing and/or painting won't cut it because of their slowness. Some form of speaking might. Other than that I wouldn't wish to speculate.

    Is there any sense of incompleteness waiting to be made complete?