Thursday 19 October 2017


FOOL’S ERRAND? My  first step was to find out whether singing lessons would be a fool’s errand. When I put the question the voice at the other end of the line said age didn’t matter but desire did. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure if my enquiry hinged on anything as positive as desire or if I was simply toying with a whim. I think I was prepared to accept a professional verdict that given much of my body was inevitably octogenarian this probably also applied to my voicebox. That I might only expect to croak, a verb with two meanings, neither pleasant.

AND HEREFORD may have been significant in another way. The kitchen in the new house is large and has a fine acoustic; at lunchtime I come down from my study, look out towards the Malverns and burst into a rough and ready account of my Grannie’s favourite hymn, When I Survey The Wondrous Cross. Not from any religious conviction, although my earlier singing voice did have that authentic churchy wobble, the default sound from most men at funerals responding to a CD cranking up How Great Thou Art.

SO WHY did I forsake male teachers? I could blame Mozart. For me Figaro is the greatest opera ever written. In it you’ll find plenty of meaty singing for the men but there can be no doubt women get the biggest and tastiest slice of the brisket. Think Dove Sono, think Voi che sapete, think  Deh vieni. I may have been ignorant about teaching singing but I’m a sucker for Mozart’s heroines. I was never going to turn down an opportunity of discussing why Mi tradi is a masterpiece with someone whose gender gave her an inside track. Per-haps it was fate that a Mozart aria (albeit for a bass) was about to play a key role in this first singing lesson.

AT HOME I’d been trying to improve my tone by singing the Welsh folk tune All Through The Night with its com-fortingly narrow range and plethora of extended vowels. But try as I might the initial word in the first line (Sleep my love and peace attend thee) emerged harshly. V diagnosed the fault immediately: instead of singing Slee-p, I was singing Suh-leep. Obligingly she treated me to both versions, perfectly formed with her exact voice.

ROUTINE? Lessons start traditionally. V uses both piano and voice to accompany my warm-up as I imitate her rising sequences of notes, each sequence moving up one tone at a time to my top limit – F for those who are familiar with these things. Then I descend further than I’ve come, eventually leaving behind V’s higher soprano voice in a manner which, even now, seems vaguely impolite, as if it shouldn’t happen.

ONE OF THE delights at this stage is perceiving the nature of these phrases: some are logical and easy to assimilate yet remain fresh and unaffected by repetition. Here’s a good example from Roger Quilter’s setting of  O Mistress Mine:

“Ev’ry wise man’s son doth know-ow.”

A mere eight notes, no difficult intervals between the notes and no great range. If you’re lucky, and looking ahead, there’s every chance you’ll get it right second time round and it will stick for good.

THRO THE FAIR bothered me in other ways. One of those extended notes, accompanying the syllable “-ly” in “fondly”, not only stretches out inordinately but is comparatively high. That’s two problems in one: as spoken, “-ly” is a short i which is hard to sustain and, for singing, must be converted into a long i (ee) but not too obviously. Also, keeping this highish note going exposes the singer to wobble. Just for one note which supports half a word!

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