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Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
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Tuesday, 25 October 2016

On the road to Damascus

I’m 6200 words into writing Opening Bars, a 25,000-word book about starting to take singing lessons. I face the question: what’s in it for those who may never sing to an audience?

Scroll forward to last Monday. V wants me to sing staccato and has chosen an old French drinking song. It’s rated presto (ie, crotchet = 152) which turns it into real tongue-twister. Try this at speed:


S’il est bon, s’il est agréable,
J’en boirai jusqu-à mon plaisir


V’s French isn’t too hot and I tease her, something I regret bitterly a few minutes later.

We’re two-thirds through the lesson, my voice is not only thoroughly warmed up it’s well used. We’ve dropped the French song and I’m doing Waly, Waly, half-imitating a well-known tenor I’ve seen on YouTube. V nods when I’m finished. I can’t remember her exact words (Ah, would that I could!) but this is the gist:

“Why don’t you forget every pro singer you’ve ever heard, relax, pretend you’re alone, and sing this in your own voice.”

It’s not the first time she’s made this recommendation but in the past it’s always been impossible to follow. This time the song, the state of my voice and the moment all click. I push all those “singer-ish” memories to one side and open my mouth:

The water is wide,
I can not get o’er


V doesn’t nod, she spreads her hands. “There, that’s what you’ve been looking for. Your voice. And it’s lovely.”

And I’ve got one answer to the question in my book.

15 comments:

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

I know that old drinking song: Chevaliers de la table ronde. There are a lot of "oui oui oui" and "non non non" delivered at speed. It was always sung (often with improvised lyrics) very loud by patron and customers alike at the Lapin Agile. You will need at least one bottle of vin rouge if you are to do it justice, staccato or not.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Here's a version of it, more or less as it's usually sung, though rather more soberly:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uamlJnvFM9w

Roderick Robinson said...

Nathalie: I first sang it (very badly) in my teens, in fact it was pretty well-known in Britain, even in the north. As a song it's musically negligible, as a staccato exercise it has its points. At crotchet = 152 there are no thoughts of vin rouge, only the recurring conclusion that apart from La Marseillaise French, the language, is ill-fitted for song. The consonants tend to arrive like thickets. One exception is Les Illuminations, settings of Rimbaud's poetry, but alas for the French the music was written by a Brit. And not only a Brit but a Brit called Britten. Don't get me wrong, I'm extremely Francophile (owned a house there) and have spent a largish fortune travelling the country. But despite the music, not because of it. And yes I am aware of La Vie En Rose, Je Ne Regrette Rien, Moi Non Plus and the leathery Johnny Hallyday.

Rouchswalwe said...

V spreads her hands! I can see it! Prost, lieber Robbie!

Roderick Robinson said...

RW (zS): A gentle gesture for a huge moment. As if I'd been wearing a mask since January 4 this year and was now able to discard it. Negligible for everyone else but wonderfully reassuring for me - I had become myself.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...


"...But despite the music, not because of it. "

Forget inconsequential Halliday. How about Brassens, Brel and Leo Ferre, to name but a few? Here's "Comme a Ostende":

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FmuY9hcIFk

And it's worth reading the lyrics too, for the poetry:

http://www.paroles.net/leo-ferre/paroles-comme-a-ostende

Roderick Robinson said...

Nathalie: In music there are no absolutes and it all boils down to a matter of taste. But there is one justifiable area of disagreement. In classical music, which is my main preference despite its loathsome sobriquet, the French have developed a special type of tenor voice which I and many other Brits actively detest. It incorporates a gargle, a wilful seemingly national characteristic. I think it's enough that I read and study French literature. Let's call it match null, I won't try and convert you to Roger Quilter while you allow me to remain virginal in re. M. Brel.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

OK, I wasn't arguing about classical French singing. And my links weren't to Brel but to Léo Ferré, and specifically to his version of 'Comme a Ostende' because I thought you'd appreciate it. Not to convert you, simply a small gift.

Never mind. I'll get my coat.

marly youmans said...

Oh, I expect many who do not sing would read it, as the discovering of a self is so very fundamental to why we read and why we move words around in shapes. I like that simple gesture.

Roderick Robinson said...

Marly: I had sensed identifying my own voice would be important, but not how important. There are technical benefits for one thing, certain passages are easier to sing. And will get easier. But it's the psychological advances that are massive and you are quite right to point to the links between singing and writing. Both are forms of communication and in both instances we look for individuality, not out of egotism but as a means of realising a personal truth. Clumsy writing obscures what is to be said, imperfect singing (because of music's transience) leaves behind it only an impression of the defects.

I was re-reading a passage from one of my novels (and this was, I freely admit, an egotistical act), remembering how blurry it had started out, pleased with what it had become. Writing allows this because it is amenable to memory. Immediately after the lesson I mention in the post I rushed home with my voice still properly warmed up. I recorded several songs I'd worked on. My performances weren't as good as I'd imagined but I could hear - unless I was deluding myself - that faults I'd despaired of eradicating were now improvable.

Another thing: I chose V almost randomly (ie, nearest from where I live) off the Internet. I've been incredibly lucky. Teaching singing balances straightforward instruction with periods when students teach themselves. During those latter periods the teacher drops the techno-language and resorts to gentle exhortation. V is extremely good at this.

marly said...

I can reread poems sometimes, but I really don't like rereading novels of my own. So that is a pleasure I don't ever practice. I need to get over that to deal with some reprints!

It's lovely that random choices and accident work out sometimes, and that putting in the time really does result in something more lovely. Aspiration is always interesting to see (or hear.)

Roderick Robinson said...

Marly: Straight from Opening Bars, Chapter Two. The Pleasures:

I’ve already said that a musical facility has to be bought and the price is high. This is recognisable with a violin, less so with singing. After all many people can sing and the argument may boil down, less satisfactorily, to the difference between singing well and singing badly. Being faced with an alien piece of music does, at the very least, confirm that there’ll be hard work ahead and I have faith in V’s judgment that the end result will be worth the effort.

But what about pleasure? To some extent this may depend on whether my impulse to sing is seen as serious or frivolous. Trivial goals seem to imply short-term rewards. With demanding goals the expectations are more likely to be long-term. For me music is more than an entertainment or a hobby; its effects can be profound. Something says I have to be adult about this.

I’m drowning in words....

Lucy said...

I look forward to this book.

Lucy said...

Thinking about French singing, they have a number of good early music vocal ensembles and labels. Went to see one in a church near here, a female duo, and for an encore they sang 'Au près de ma blonde' which I'd always associated with military bands and middling-to-bad Scarlet Pimpernel follow-up movies rendered in a rather jerky, inane, martial way (though in fact the words are really anti-war). But they sang it sweetly and wistfully, and got the mostly elderly audience to join in the refrain, which they did rather shyly and gently. It was a lovely thing. Some of their old hymns and carols are rather haunting too. But I do know what you mean about that harsh tenor.

Roderick Robinson said...

Lucy: The material for Opening Bars seems to pour in, my recall - down to the millimetric level - is unnervingly total.

What you describe was not a concert but an occasion with music. I'm particularly susceptible to those, with a constricted throat only seconds away. As proof I'm not entirely prejudiced I can admit to a Schoene Muellerin sung by Gérard Souzay, the French baritone. Ordered specially I should add.

In the movie An American In Paris, Georges Guètary, admittedly only a cabaret singer, commits many of the musical crimes I have in mind:

Ahh'll beeld a stairwhay to parradais,
Wiz a new step every day...