Working with singers

The following ideas have been gathered from several sources: my own experiences and thoughts, the influence of some of my teachers (Warren Jones, Martin Katz, John Wustman), from books (Gerald Moore, Lotte Lehmann, Sergius Kagen, Kurt Adler, Deborah Stein and Robert Spillman, Coenraad Bos, Shirlee Emmons amd Stanley Sonntag), and from many other fine musicians with whom I have worked.

For anyone interested in building a voice recital program, here are some useful guidelines.

Make sure singers know: who is speaking and to whom or what is he speaking, what is the relationship between the speaker and the person or object being addressed, from where is she speaking and how does she perceive her surroundings, what if anything has happened before she speaks and why does she speak now, why does he say what he does, what are the speaker's emotions and physical state at the beginning and end of the song and have they changed when the song is finished, what happens after the text ends.

Make sure you, the pianist, knows: what is the persona or personae of the accompaniment (supporting, complementing, contrasting, a dialog) and what the implications are, what is the texture (horizontal and vertical density), how tonal shifts convey changes in meaning, what is the harmonic rhythm (rate or pattern of harmonic change), how the bass counterpoint supports the melodic line, where the stresses are in the melodic line and how they relate to the accompaniment, the phrase length and resultant effect, how repeating the same accompaniment can be played differently to support changing text, and how songs in a cycle relate to one another tonally and dramatically.

In setting music to a text or poem, a composer may match the music with what he believes the poet's intention to be, or he may choose not to, "personalizing" the poem with the music. Decide what to do if the musical phrase is not in complete harmony with the text. For example, rests may break up a text that should be held together; conversely, music sometimes continues where the text is separated. Brahms and Schumann changed poetry to conform to a musical design; Schubert and Wolf retained poetic integrity and adopted the music to it. As a result, vocal rhythms reflect poetic meter better in Schubert and Wolf. With Brahms and Schubert having subordinated words to the melodic line, problems of interpretation arise from occasional awkward word rhythms.

Stress the essential elements: legato, fullness of sound, careful attention to vowels, careful attention to rhythms (particularly evenness of triplets and ends of dotted notes), and a continuing awareness of sense of direction through attention to ends of notes and movement to the next note.

Most translations are unreliable. Understand ALL the words in their native languages. Be able to mentally pronounce the words in rhythm and accompany yourself. Match your tonal colorations to the words.

Vocal inflection and rubato are of the utmost importance. Identify the smallest unit of measurement for both voice and piano parts — the text will dictate the proper inflection. Identify inflected/affected rhythms and practice accordingly. Applying text mentally where there is none will help with overall inflection. Never let fingering impede movement of the text. Focus on breathing in unsung passages. Breathe one beat before the vocal entrance — use this "spacing" note as pickup to the next phrase. Note that English, German and Italian are strongly inflected, French not as much. As always, play what you hear, not what you see.

Support for singers means, in general, a clear bass, good preparation for vocal entrances, and knowing when to lead or "conduct". Understand where to breathe with a singer and where to cover up breaths. Be aware of how much the voice is "needing" within the phrase; if a singer produces a consonant too soon he or she is probably running out of air. Be able to mentally sing along in order to anticipate what is occurring. Play "around" the voice — encompass/embrace the sound.

Tempo is dependent on properly getting out the words; it must also be right for the voice at hand even if aesthetically you are not comfortable with it. Beginning slow tempi can best be achieved by listening to the singer's vibrato and matching the cycles. Consistently waiting for singers will invariably slow the tempo — know when to lead. Know when to keep a steady tempo, letting the singer wander within the basic framework, rather than always being "with him or her"; note this can create a feeling of excitement or tension that can enliven a performance.

Spoken and sung words are not the same — sounds must be modified and adapted to the musical phrase. The way you say/sing it, including how you form it in your mouth, is the way you mean it; this many times makes the connection with the audience rather than the intellectual meaning. In English, the mouth is usually closed at the ends of words, in Italian it is open. In German, special attention must be paid to the ends of words to ensure legato to the next sound. In German and other languages where a consonant on the downbeat is deliberately anticipated, the piano downbeat should be on the vowel.

As a pianist, pay particular attention to the ensemble with the beginnings and endings of words, and to the beginnings and endings of phrases.

Know when a portamento is required. The following are acceptable, always subject to the question of musical taste: where a word ends with a vowel followed by a word beginning with a vowel, where a syllable ends with a vowel followed by a syllable beginning with a vowel, on voiced consonants (l,m,n,ng,r). Note that portamenti done on voiced consonants may require changing the division of the syllables relative to the notes.

Spanish music is frequently "dry" and guitar-like with a certain "nervous" energy. German lied is often a search for psychological meaning (a quest to go beyond what is known, the embracing and attempt to integrate opposing or incompatible elements) with strict adherence to consistency in accents between spoken and sung words. French style is based in elegance, clarity, simplicity, grace, restraint, with fluid emphasis on the word and its inflection (note the same word in French might be accented on different syllables depending on the meaning of the phrase and the attitude of the person singing it). For the pianist, color, dynamic shading, pedaling, and support of the subtlest inflections are important in French music.

Regarding transposition, original keys were chosen to best fit the mood to be expressed; different tonalities suggest different moods. Transposing a low song higher results in a "lighter" sound that can be compensated for by darkening the bass notes; lowering a key suggests lightening the bass notes.

Secco recitatives are analogous to speaking in dynamics, tempo and pauses. The dominant structure in recitatives is completed thought; don't confuse this with phrasing. Rests frequently indicate pauses between thoughts, not breaths.

Singers tend to regard every note as important, particularly high notes, and therefore stress notes that should not be stressed. Look for patterns in melodic lines, especially in Mozart, to determine the basic structure, and focus on the structure rather than on each individual note. This makes it easier to sing and more musical as well.

The piano lid issue should be addressed by taking into account the individual voice, the hall, and the pianist's degree of dynamic control. If a singer deliberately steps away from the piano you may be too loud.

Made-up introductions to give a singer a pitch should sound improvisatory and not part of the original composition.

Arias must be played as they would be conducted; excessive liberties should never be tolerated. The performance of arias should always include the recitative, the setting necessary for dramatic buildup. Smooth transitions from recitative to aria are best made by a logical continuation of how the singer ended the recit both in terms of rhythm as well as tempo.

Italian vocal music marked staccato is really "separated legato". Doubled consonants in Italian must always be doubled and single consonants should never be doubled. "R"s are flipped between vowels, not rolled.

Consonants tend to "regulate" the beat; placing them in order to elongate vowels (thereby shortening others) is a form of rubato. As an accompanist, you must decide what type of rubato is desired — strict accompaniment with vocal melodic flexibility or a more flexible accompaniment where you are always "with" the singer.

The art of embellishment was still alive in French and Italian opera at least into the mid-1800s and probably later. The Italian method of performing grace notes was to anticipate the pitch rather than the syllable; the French method was to anticipate the syllable rather than the pitch.

When preparing for auditions always ask "who are the judges, and what is the audition supposed to accomplish".

In the piano part voicing, variety, and flexibility are essential to sustain interest.

Never be a slave to what you see — the notation or tempo marking — always play what makes sense to the ear.

In singers a sense of rhythmic drive is very important; listen for the degree to which this is present. If lacking, you will have to compensate for it by stronger rhythmic playing and "conducting".

    © Copyright David Kelsey