Collaborative Pianists How To Treat Them and What To Expect From Them.

A friend of mine posted this little photo on social media the other day, and it gave me the push I needed to finish writing this post that I have been working on for a while:

Collaborative Pianist Jokes

I have devoted my life to being a collaborative artist. After years and years studying by myself in a practice room to become a soloist, I eventually discovered that I don’t enjoy playing alone. I was always drawn to chamber music, vocal repertoire, and ultimately, the vocal arts stole my heart. I am very passionate about my work with singers, especially young singers and emerging professionals. It is a gratifying and exciting career.

As a collaborator, you learn to put your ego aside and work with others, some natural collaborators and some who are not. You learn to accept some personality traits that may not correspond to your own and you learn to cope with your recital partners’ stress levels as you put your own aside. You even know to be a calming force for them during their preparation or while on stage. Sometimes you play fiendishly complex music only not to be noticed even when you play it perfectly because that is what you trained to do. When a few select people notice you after performances (very often those who have studied the piano), you don’t mind not being the center of attention since it is all part of the “gig.” The rewards far surpass what some may perceive as negative experiences. I have a previous blog post detailing my thoughts on this matter: What am I?

For a long time and still today to some extent, the singer-friendly pianist is seen as someone who could not make it as a soloist or a chamber musician, looked down on by soloists. However, that could not be further from the truth. I see playing with singers as a calling. I studied languages, poetry, various styles, conventions in singing, conducting, and prompting because this is all part of this multi-faceted career. So much more is expected of a collaborative pianist than people realize. More often than not, we have to be the most prepared and knowledgeable person in the room, all the while staying modest. Having three degrees in solo performance, I don’t regret choosing to go into the collaborative arts for one moment.

Playing Together:

When playing with our colleagues, our artistic voices should unite to make a cohesive musical impression. To achieve this, the pianist must play with conviction, confidence, and a complete and deep understanding of the text. This kind of preparation adds to the depth and layers of any performance.

I have noticed that some things are missing in young singers’ overall training, as it relates to professional etiquette to the collaborative partner. I am fortunate enough to work with colleagues who teach their students how to treat a singer-friendly pianist. Still, we can’t expect young singers or instrumentalists to understand how to cultivate their collaborative partner relationships if we are not helping them learn, or leading by example. Hopefully, these following points will help put those who need it on the right track.

  1. Equal partnership: The collaborative pianist is your equal, and you should see them as such. When you are on stage with your collaborative partner, you share the performance as a team, no matter the singer’s level or the pianist; you are a team at that moment in time. We shouldn’t forget that the composers (mostly pianists themselves) gave the piano an important voice in the composition. As I always say: “You are only as good as the person you are performing with”, so it is essential that whatever you do on stage, you do together!
  2. Repertoire: When you throw new repertoire at your pianist a few days before a performance, decide to do a transposed version of your piece at the last minute, or if there is no time to rehearse together, please be aware that the pianist can refuse to do this on short notice. Performing art-song repertoire requires time, discussion, agreements. Sure, your pianist can probably “wing it” with you, but you should both want to dig deeper than that for performance. Remember that you are both performing, and both need preparation time together.
  3. Know your score: This is so important! Know your score ( I know, I wrote it twice), and by this, I mean all of it, not just your line. Take the time to look at the piano score closely. Frequently the majority of the information from the composer is written in the piano score. You will also better understand your entrances and what you should hear to draw your inspiration from to sing your phrase. Know the piano part as well as you know your part. This goes for when you sing with an orchestra as well. Keep your eye out for a future post on this! 
  4. Forget the old-fashioned “lead and follow” approach: There are times when the singer creates the moment and times when the pianist creates the moment. Performance should be musically satisfying for both artists. This is achieved by discussing the musical agreements you will make with your partner, as in rubato, ritenuto, tempo, color choices, by examining the meaning of the text and deciding what you both wish to convey. A unified idea of the piece will only make it more convincing to your audience. Of course there is always room for spontaneity in a performance, and that comes with time together and experience.
  5. Qualifications: Collaborative pianists have extensive study not only in song and opera but as accomplished soloists. They have chosen the career path of collaborating with others and are committed to doing that with you out of a genuine desire to make music with others. They can sight-read with expression; they are flexible, good listeners, and are capable of learning mountains of music in the short-term. Keep in mind that while you are learning your recital, the pianist is probably learning your program alongside several more demanding programs.
  6. Contacting a pianist: When you have the date of your performance, be sure to communicate with the pianist in a timely fashion. Provide the date, venue, and budget available for the concert. Plan a rehearsal schedule. An ensemble can only be successful with the appropriate amount of rehearsals to prepare for a performance.
  7. Gratitude is an attitude: It is always appropriate to thank the pianist after a performance regardless of how you may feel after the performance. If the pianist had not agreed to play with you, you could have not been singing in the performance, so gratitude for the service is really a good place to start.

Take note…

Here is a list of pet peeves pianists have. I wish I could say these rarely happen, but they happen more often than you think. It is just because people don’t realize that they are doing this; after all, the thing the collaborative pianist does best is “make it work.” I know there are probably different peeves that people have, but these are the ones that I feel are important to mention for now.

  • Your Score: When providing music to your pianist, please make sure that all the notes are printed on the page, including the bass line and key/time signature. I used to accept less than perfect scores and fill in what is missing or find an alternate score. These days, I am upfront if a score is not clear and tell the singer that they need to provide a better copy. I also give a better score to the singer when I have it. It is an excellent idea to keep a file of clean and clear PDFs of your scores to send to your collaborative partner. Be sure that the PDFs are the same edition you are using.
  • Nodding: When in performance, try to avoid the “nod to the pianist to start playing”. It feels uncomfortable, and it breaks the mood and flow of the performance, not to mention, the pianist also has to feel ready to start and may need a little more time to put themselves in that mind space. Discuss with your pianist ahead of time when possible what you do to prepare between selections. Usually, the pianist can tell by looking at your profile when you are ready to start singing
  • The Vanna White hand gesture: You finish singing, the audience applauds, and you bow; you turn to your pianist and extend an arm as a presentation. This is one of my personal biggest pet peeves. As partners, we should bow together. I always suggest that when the singer is done, they look over to me or wait for me to stand, and we bow together. This presentational gesture, however well-meaning may have been done in the past when collaborative pianists were not seen as equal performing partners, but is a bit out of place in today’s performance practice. 

Vanna White: is an American television personality and film actress known as the hostess of Wheel of Fortune

The Vanna White presentational arm gesture: Avoid at all costs
  • Preparation: Come to your rehearsals/coaching sessions fully prepared. We never expect to be teaching you notes, pitches, and rhythms; these are your tasks to complete even before you make an appointment with a pianist. A good performer should anticipate their entrances to prepare in time and ready to make musical decisions.
  • The “Well..on the recording” argument: Please try and avoid using this phrase. We need to find our interpretation of the piece and a tempo suitable to both of our ideas of the interpretation. We are creating a moment and should not be copying it from a recording, no matter how beautiful it may be!
  • Posting on Social Media: There is nothing more alarming than scrolling through your social media feed and seeing a video clip of yourself playing out of the blue. When you perform with anyone on stage, please make sure you have permission to publish the clip before you share it. If they give you permission to post it, please identify them respectfully in the post. It is considered bad form not to mention the other people in your clip.

What you can expect from your Collaborative Pianist:

  1. Preparation: If you have provided your program well in advance, the pianist should be exceptionally well prepared both musically and textually for the rehearsal to be productive. They should know their translation of the text and the context of the pieces you are performing. They should also have already formed an idea of their artistic contribution to the performance.
  2. Communication: Sometimes we are busy, and it takes a while to get back to messages (sometimes we need a nudge), but if a pianist constantly does not reply, move on to the next person on your list.
  3. Openness: Your sessions are filled with discussions and musical experimentations. Preparing a recital together is a two-way street, no matter the singer’s level or the pianist. You both have a stakein the process.
  4. Support: That is at the core of what we do as collaborative pianists. We are there to be with you in your preparation and on stage. You should have a good feeling when you work with the pianist. You should feel free and welcome to engage in musical discussions and choices.
  5. Knowing the vocal line: The singer-friendly pianist should be fully able to sing the score’s vocal line. It is rarely a beautiful sound, but it is part of the job. Only by singing it and playing the piano part simultaneously can you fully understand the space needed to sing a phrase or take an organic breath or how fast you can sing the text. The collaborative pianist who can do this is head and shoulders above the rest.
  6. Always gives their best:  The collaborative pianist always gives their best and treats the music with the utmost respect, even if they are playing something straightforward or a piece they have played for twenty years or more. They give the same intensity to every score they find in front of them to deliver the very best performance they can provide.

Being a collaborative artist is extremely rewarding. It is like a calling for most of us, and we would never want it any other way! It is one of the most intimate musical settings, dependent on communication and mutual respect. As a singer, you will always need a collaborative pianist, and there is no way around this. I hope these tips can help you maintain and cherish the pianists in your life and help them cherish you in return.

Do you want to learn more about preparing your score for a pianist or Choosing your vocal coach and pianist

Post Image:

Adanya Dunn, Mezzo-Soprano
Nathalie Doucet, Piano
Photo: Francoise Bolechowski

Creating Your Social Media Brand as an Emerging Artist

Social media is a big part of our lives. I would not say that I am an expert at navigating social media platforms, but I have been responsible for content for a few organizations and for my own professional use. With everyone – including colleagues and potential employers – now owning some form of social media account, how can you ensure that you effectively build your professional network and engage in exciting discussions while maintaining appropriate professional behavior?

Whatever you put on your social media accounts is a direct reflection of you – so, it is good to know how to use it strategically and responsibly. Technology is impacting the arts in much the same way it is affecting our daily lives. It is in a constant state of flux, and the adoption of multiple platforms is the driving force in marketing trends and opera performance practices. Many cultural fields that may not have traditionally engaged in technology use are now adopting and embracing it to reach, engage, and attract audiences. This fact has never been so evident than during this pandemic when social media is almost the only connection artists, schools and companies have with their audiences. Artists are caught between two worlds: A hundreds-of-years-old art form and technologically advanced platforms.

As a young emerging artist, what should you be putting out into the world? What is appropriate content? You may already have accounts, and a firm grasp of how to put yourself out there, but here are a few suggestions of how you may want to look at building your Social Media presence:

Creating a Digital Persona

Step 1: Develop your “Brand” (“branding” describes the process of creating a recognizable name or image attached to your work)

  1. Who are you? What makes you unique?What do you do?
  2. What do you want to highlight about yourself? What makes you stand out?
  3. Create a digital portfolio of your work. (Start with what you have and build on it.)
  4. A professional headshot you can use for all platfroms including your website
  5. Video(s) of a performance(s): It is important that you only post recordings which show you in the best possible light because everyone is watching. Make sure to regularly replace them with current content.
  6. Photos of yourself in action in opera productions; concerts; etc

Step 2: Research: Look around and draw inspiration from what you see.

  1. How are other performers in the arts utilizing Social Media?
  2. Whose profile is interesting and why? Analyze their techniques and what draws you to their content.
  3. What can you take as inspiration from these accounts without becoming an exact copy?
  4. Which technology platform(s) will give you access to the audience you want to engage?
  5. Watch tutorials on how to use the different platforms. Choose platforms that are interesting to you.
  6. Start with one platform and build your brand.

Step 3: Start Using Social Media

  1. Start small: choose one platform and create your account.
    • Include interesting posts and information: Save photos of your cute pets and your culinary skills for your private account. You will want to look at your professional profile as a business card-what you put out into your professional network.
    • Keep your message/content focused on a clear subject. If you are a singer, you want to be seen as a singer.
    • Numbers will increase in time: Don’t worry about how many followers you have. This takes time, so be patient!
  2. Make sure that your Brand always drives your social media presence.
    • Have an identifiable name. Choose a name that is related to your field (Many singers use their full name and voice type)
    • Each account you use should represent your brand; if possible, use the same name and photos on all your accounts.
  3. Think about the feel and look of your account
    • Use the same banner or profile images (make it easy to tell which performer is attached to your account)
    • Use a similar account name which also builds brand recognition.
    • As your account becomes more advanced, you may wish to create an email address for professional correspondence. It is a good idea to set this up initially – even if you will not be using it right away – as it enables you to create an account that matches your brand name.
    • Link accounts. This way, your audience can find you on multiple platforms. You can also encourage responses on various media platforms and engage with multiple audience groups.
    • Keep information up-to-date on all of your accounts. Refresh clips regularly as your voice grows and you become more professional.

Step 4: Keep Track of New Trends

  1. Don’t get complacent – review your numbers and decide which responses matter most to you overall.
  2. Keep track of new technology and explore new social media trends and concepts. Not every trend fits everyone, but it is good to stay informed.
  3. Regularly post fresh and engaging content but be careful not to over-post as this can make your audience uncomfortable, and eventually, they may end up unfollowing you. Posting for the sake of posting is not how you keep your content fresh.
  4. Be yourself. The things that make you unique are the things that make you stand out from the rest of the “noise” online.

Pitfalls of Social Media

The significant amount of data available via social media platforms makes it very easy for the public to develop a perception (positive and/or negative!) about a singer based solely on their digital content. Therefore, you should decide which aspects of your life you would like to share on social media and which elements to keep private. Filtering your message before posting it is of the utmost importance. Social media can influence your standing with an employer and potentially affect your present and/or future employment status. Professionalism in posted content and online interaction is essential and helps the singer retain and build a positive reputation.

A Simple Rule to Follow: Never post anything online that is damaging or negative regarding a production; performance; director; conductor; administrative staff; faculty; fellow singer; costume worn in a performance; etc. An opera company may not discuss the consequences of a negative post with you. However, posts of this nature can lead to professional disaster(s) for future seasons.

Social Media Platforms Currently in Popular Use

Facebook

It is a good idea to set up a professional page to keep private and professional posts separate. You can still post professional content on your private page, but I would discourage photos of a personal nature on your professional profile.

  • Suggested frequency of use: post content 1-2 times per week or on special occasions (concerts, events, or announcements)
  • Types of posts: Articles, photos, concert announcements
  • Goal: These posts show up on your contact’s newsfeed. Ask yourself: what would you want to see from a performer as you are scrolling through your feed? In other words, what do your followers want to see vs. what you may want to post
  • Profile: Your two photos (profile and cover) should immediately tell followers about you or your story. Ensure that the photos are related to your profession (i.e., a headshot and a photo of a performance) to let followers know what to expect should they decide to “like” your page.

Instagram

  • Suggested frequency: Every 24-48 hours or periodically
  • Types of posts: This is the visual diary of your artistic journey. Keep captions short and hashtags relevant to what is in the photo (people swipe through their feed much faster on Instagram).
  • Goal: Visually represent an emotion or an important moment in your journey. Stay loyal to your brand.
  • Instagram stories and reels: These are a more spontaneous version of your feed. Even though the stories vanish after 24 hours, be responsible and only post things that cannot come back to haunt you. The screenshot function exists, and nobody is safe from it and remember…everyone is watching!
  • Tips: IG takeovers generate more followers and can be fun. Generally, a company or an organization invites you to do a takeover as a form of promotion, so it is good that you become familiar with this medium.

Twitter

  • Suggested frequency: There is no real limit on the frequency of posting on Twitter. The platform was designed for prolific posting.
  • Types of posts: Text-focused, but also great for sharing articles and other links
  • Goal: Quick shoutouts to other artists, articles, or thoughts about your art. Mentions (@) and hashtags (#) are a huge part of building a Twitter audience.

YouTube

  • Suggested frequency: 1-3/month
  • Types of posts: This is your platform to showcase/share your performances. Your presence here is the quickest way for people to get to hear what you do.
  • Goal: High-quality videos that show you in the best possible light.
  • Profile: Create a YouTube channel with a nice photo and good content.
  • Tips: The titles of your videos let people know what they will be viewing. List your name and other vital information, for example, your pianist, your ensemble, the date of the recording.
  • Use extreme care in choosing your material. Regularly delete videos that do not portray you in your most current state or vocal and artistic development.

Be mindful of what you are posting on these platforms. The most important thing is to be true to yourself. You want to show your online professional personality, but you don’t want people to fail to recognize you when they meet you in person. Here are a few of my what-NOT-to-post tips:

  1. Copying others: Be inspired by other accounts-remain true to yourself, and do not copy other accounts. You don’t have to recreate yourself for social media, and it should not feel like a chore to create your content.
  2. Don’t post anything overly calculated: Unnatural poses and setups stick out like a sore thumb and are not your most authentic voice.
  3. Repetitiveness: Captions like “best cast ever!” get old when you use it in each and every post.
  4. Negativity: Refrain from venting about your problems on your professional feed.
  5. Consent: If you post about others or have other people in your photo and/or video, don’t post unless you get consent from the other individuals involved. That is just common courtesy.
  6. Negative or hateful comments: If you are getting these kinds of comments, congratulations, you have arrived! It is a sign of success, and the more visible you are, the more people take it upon themselves to tell you what they think. The best course of action as a young emerging singer is not to engage or separate yourself from them by blocking them if it gets too heavy.

The amount of time and effort devoted to creating a well-executed digital persona also impacts its success level. The most engaging online content consists of genuine observations, photographs of performances, and experiences that provide the audience with a real connection to the artist.

As we embrace and use Social Media and all technological advances in the arts, it is crucial to keep in mind that it will be accessible to everyone and they will all have an opinion. Content that is personalized and genuine stands out from the online “noise” generated by millions of users. Keeping a narrow and focused message format is vital to attracting people to your accounts. There is a fine line between posting content that is genuinely engaging and posting content for content’s sake. The adage of “quality over quantity” will serve you well as you work to develop a strategic and effective professional social media presence!

Tips on Learning Recitativo

I am currently working on Le Nozze di Figaro with my students. For some of them, it is their first experience singing “recitativo”. I always love this process, especially with recits as beautiful as those written by Mozart in this opera.

Recitativo, an Italian term commonly known in English as “recitative” or “recit” for short, is a style of delivery used in opera, oratorio, and cantata. In a recitative, the singer is allowed the freedom to adopt speech’s ordinary rhythm and delivery (as ordinary as it can be while singing it). In an opera setting, the recitative is where the story develops because it carries the text’s emotion and moves the story along. Whereas the aria is more reflective, telling the audience about the character’s thoughts and intentions.

There are two principal types of recitative:

“recitativo secco” or “dry recit”

  • This style of recit is sung with a free (written out) rhythm dictated by the accents of the words.
  • The accompaniment is a “continuo” (harpsichord and cello and in the baroque style, sometimes organ), which is chordal and straightforward. However, in the classical period, the harpsichordist can be invited to ornament.
  • In the bel canto period, the pianoforte is the accompaniment.
  • The melody approximates speech by using only a few pitches.

In this recit preceding this lovely duet between the Contessa and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, we find a typical recitativo secco. You can hear that both singers adapt to a more “spoken” freedom with the text, but all the while singing with their full instruments. The spoken like quality is created with the words, pauses, tempo of the text and not by taking away the vocal quality.


“recitativo accompagnato” or “accompanied recit”

  • This style of recit is sung with a stricter rhythm.
  • There is a more involved orchestral accompaniment.
  • It appears in dramatically important moments.
  • This type of recit’s character is more emotional.
  • The vocal line is melodic and typically leads into a formal aria.
  • An “arioso” is also a form of “recitativo accompagnato” in lyrical form. The words are still the driving force, but there is a more ornate and expressive melody.

In this example of recitativo accompagnato, Fleming as the Contessa gives us a fully sung recitativo with all the spoken language’s color while never compromising her voice.

The appoggiatura

An appoggiatura is an Italian term to indicate a musical ornament that consists of an added non-chord note in a melody that is resolved to the chord’s regular note. This added note is typically one degree higher or lower than the principal note and can be chromatically altered. The term comes from the Italian verb appoggiare, “to lean upon.”

In the Classical repertoire, singers are expected to add these ornaments within the body of a recitative even if they are not written in the score. Some editions give you options written above the staff but these are suggestions and you can decide if you would wish to add them or leave them out :

Remember when adding your appoggiatura to a phrase to look at the text and how the added note will affect the text. Will it weaken the statement when it is meant to be strong? Does it help your question sound like a question? The decision to add these should be text and character-driven to make it most effective.

How to Approach Singing Recitativo

A singer learns about recitative from the beginning of their formal training; however, there is often not much help beyond the basic understanding until you are confronted with performing it. At this point, the singer must find a teacher, coach, or conductor who understands and has experience with the subject. Decisions on adding appoggiatura in recitatives can help shape the text’s inflection; that being said, always be prepared to remove them or add more at your first musical run-through with a conductor. There are strong opinions and tastes regarding this practice, so it is in an artist’s best interest to remain flexible.

Tips on how to learn a recitative:

  1. Translate the text; not just a word-for-word translation, but use words you would use in your daily life. This translation is of the utmost importance because the recitative is text-driven, and your connection to the text and how you express it is based on your translation. 
  2. Make a phonetic translation of the text and meet with a diction coach. You will work on the natural pronunciation, inflection, and meaning of the text.
  3. Speak the text in rhythm until you know it inside and out, develop your muscles for the language, and you will attain a natural inflection. Test yourself by writing the text or reciting it while doing a mundane household chore, independent of the notes and rhythm.
  4. Start learning the notes slowly with the text.
  5. Take it to your voice teacher and put it in your vocal mechanism before adding any vocal “effects” . You mustn’t skip this step. Learn to sing it before you sing it!
  6. The next step is to work with your vocal coach. Your coach should be able to play and sing all the other replies so that you can rehearse your timing and entrances before going into your first musical rehearsal with the conductor and cast.

Important points

  • You will inevitably be asked to “speak more” when you are working on “secco”. Please be careful with this. The “parlando” aspect of the recitative is the last layer of your preparation. With your voice teacher and coach’s help, you should first build the recitative into your voice in a technically healthy way before adding any “speech like” effects. Be careful not to go entirely to the “parlando” side of the recitative because continually going back and forth between “speechy” and “sung” will prevent you from keeping your voice fresh throughout a performance.
  • Learn the rhythm to recitativo secco very carefully. After you have done so, you will sing it with a more natural flow, but it is always easier to loosen up when you know something inside out, but if you haven’t learned it the way it is written on the page first, it isn’t easy to go back if a conductor asks you to do so.
  • Some conductors observe all rests in recits, and some require you to go through specific musical rests that break up a grammatical phrase. While there is some truth to the fact that composers had to observe time signature, which is why some musical rests are in the bar, you should always try and adapt to the conductor’s preference, even if/when you disagree with them.

Being able to sing recitatives convincingly separates the good from the great. Try following these steps the next time you learn a recitative and try to go too quickly: “Make haste slowly!” is an excellent rule to follow when learning/preparing recitatives.

A Look at the Yod a.k.a the J-Glide

A common point of confusion in French Lyric Diction is knowing when to pronounce the -ill(es), -il(s) as a Yod [j], and when do we pronounce this double “ll” combo as just one “l” [l]. There is a method to this madness, and it is not so complicated.

If the term”Yod” or “j-glide” is stumping you, you can check out one of my past blog posts on the subject of semi-consonants to catch up!

First, we should look at when we pronounce “i” as a Yod.

i or ï is pronounced as a [j] when preceded by a single consonant when it is in front of an a, e, o, or eu. Beware: not when it is in the middle of a word -ie- in some verbs and their derivatives or as the last sound of the word -ie.

For example:

Avant de quitter ces lieux, sol natal de mes aïeux (Before leaving this place, native soil of my ancestors), Valentin’s aria from Faust by Gounod

[aˈvɑ̃ də kiˈte sɛ ljø sɔl naˈtal də mɛz‿aˈjø]

In the example above, in the words “lieux” and “aïeux”, the i and ï are pronounced as a glide. Both of these vowels are in front of eu.

But we do not make a glide in the future tense conjugation of verbs like “oublier” (to forget) [ubliˈe]

J’oublierai (I shall forget) also does not have a glide; in fact, the e vanishes in pronunciation. I often hear [ʒubliəˈre], but the correct way to pronounce this word and other words like it is: [ʒubliˈre]

When -ie- is at the end of a word, it is simply [i] unless the composer gave a note value to the schwa, in which case it will be [iə], and we should not hear a glide between these vowels.

il, ill, ll : When do these letters make a Yod?

  • il, ill, and ll make a glide when at the end of a word in the following combinations: -ail,-eil, -ueil, -oeil- and euil.
  • il sounds as a glide in the middle of words in the following combinations: -aill-, -eill-, -euill-, -ouill-, -ueill- and oeill otherwise, it is pronounced as [ij].

Examples:

Un deuil amer (bitter mourning) [œ̃dœj‿aˈmɛr]

but in the word fille, we add an [i] in front of the glide; otherwise, there would be no vowel in the word: jeune fille (young girl) [ʒœnə fijə]

List of Exceptions:

As anyone who has ever studied the French language or French diction knows, there are many rules to follow, but there are just as many exceptions to the rules, if not more.

When il(s) is at the end of a word and follows a consonant, the i is [i], and the l is sometimes silent and sometimes sounded.

The following is pronounced without an l or a glide.

  • gentil (nice) [ʒɑ̃ˈti] N.B: You should not confuse this gentil with its feminine version gentille [ʒɑ̃ˈtijə] which is pronounced with a glide.
  • fusil (gun) [fy’zi]
  • grésil (hail) [gre’zi]
  • sourcil (eyebrow) [sur’si]

The following is pronounced without a glide but with an l

  • cil (eyelash) [sil]
  • fil (thread) [fil] or fils [fil] (the plural form of thread and pronounced exactly the same as the singular form) and not to be confused with fils (son or sons) [fis], which is pronounced without an l, but with an s whether it be singular or plural.

You could memorize this list, consult a French dictionary for the IPA translation on these more special words, or refer back to this post.

The exception also applies to the ll in the following words and their derivatives:

  • mille (thousand) [milə] Derivatives: million, milliers, milliards…
  • ville (city) [vilə] Derivatives: village, villageois, villagoise
  • tranquille (tranquil) [trɑ̃ˈkilə] Derivatives: tranquillité, tranquillement

If you don’t want to forget, memorize this phrase: Milles villes tranquilles: “A thousand tranquil cities” then you will remember that every word belonging to the family of these three words in French are pronounced as [l] rather than a [j].

These tips should help you navigate the world of “glide or not to glide” when it comes to the YOd and how to avoid making mistakes while singing, or speaking!

My favorite French dictionary online

We don’t always have a dictionary in our pockets, and let’s face the fact that we are in a digital age, no matter how much we love actual books. My favorite French dictionary online is the Larousse: https://www.larousse.fr/ This dictionary has been my go-to since as long as I can remember, it has it all, and the online version is quite good to work with.

Vocalic Harmonization in French Singing

What is Vocalic Harmonization?

Maybe you have heard this term before, or perhaps it is new to you. When I coach people for the first time, it always seems like they are familiar with Vocalic Harmonization, but they are not sure how to use it. It is a term used in linguistics when applying the rhyming of closely related vowels in the same or words that follow each other. It is also known as “vowel harmony”. The practice of vocalic harmonization is most often used in the French vocal repertoire for linguistic refinement and ease of vocal production. Most frequently in French singing, we harmonize [ɛ] with [e] and [œ] with [ø]

For example:  “aimer” [ɛˈme] becomes [eˈme] or Heureux [œˈrø] becomes [øˈrø]

As you can see in the examples above, the unstressed, open vowel-sound closes to rhyme with the following stressed, closed vowel, not the opposite. Remember, it is the final syllable that is stressed in French, except when that syllable is a schwa-sound [ə] because a schwa can never be stressed. In this case it is the syllable before the schwa that gets the stress.

les, tes, ses, mes, ces…

the possibility of vocalic harmonization also exists in closing the [ɛ] in short words such as les, tes, ces, etc. (these are articles or possessive adjectives). When a closed vowel immediately follows these, they can be closed to an [e].

For example: les étés [lɛz‿eˈte] would become [lez‿eˈte]

The article “les” is harmonized to the closed [e] in “étés”

These harmonized syllables must never be accented or overly closed, and at times they only are slightly closed on the way to their closed neighboring vowel-sound, and over-closing the harmonized vowel can result in obscuring the text. The idea is that it should feel natural and sound authentic since vocalic harmonization occurs in everyday speech but not deliberately. Many native French speakers do not even realize that they are doing this.

Some French words are almost always harmonized. For example, the following words would have all open vowels in the first syllable if we followed the diction rules, but they are sung and spoken with vocalic harmonization:


aimer (to love) [ɛˈme] becomes [eˈme]
baiser (to kiss) [bɛˈze] becomes [beˈze]
heureux (or heureuse) (happy) [œˈrø] becomes [øˈrø]


Vowel harmonization should not be systematic. It is a completely optional choice left to the singer. In cases where it can help the legato line, it is recommended to harmonize the vowels as sometimes it is easier to get through a phrase with fewer vowel changes.

For example:

Let’s take a look at “Lydia” by Fauré. In this text we find this line: “Laisse tes baisers de colombe”

The “tes baisers” can be sung as all closed [e] but the “laisse”” remains an open [ɛ] because the vowel following it is not a closed vowel.

[lɛsə tɛ bɛˈze] becomes [lɛsə te bɛeze]

Speak it out loud both ways and see the difference for yourself.

I would also go further and say if you have an article or possessive adjective (les, des, mes, tes ses) and the following word begins with a closed [o] or any vowel that has a closed feeling such as [i], [ø] [õ] [y] or [o], you can apply vocalic harmonization.

Again in in “Lydia by Fauré:

“Lydia, sur tes roses joues” you can harmonize the “tes” which would typically be [tɛ] to a closed [te] to match the closed [o] sounds of [rozə]. But, the “mes” in “mes amours” in the same song stays [ɛ] because a closed vowel-sound does not follow it.

Here is the text of Fauré’s Lydia where I will highlight the vocalic harmonizations:

Lydia, sur tes roses joues
Et sur ton col frais et si blanc
Roule étincelant
L’or fluide que tu dénoues;
Le jour qui lui est le meilleur
Oublions l’éternelle tombe
Laisse tes baisers de colombe
Chanter sur ta lèvre en fleur.
Un lys caché répand sans cesse
Une odeur divine en ton sein;
Les délices comme un essaim
Sortent de toi, jeune déesse
Je t’aime et meurs, ô mes amours,
Mon âme en baisers m’est ravie
O Lydia, rends-moi la vie,
Que je puisse mourir toujours!

In this recording of Véronique Gens and Roger Vignoles, you can hear the use of vocalic harmonization as highlightede above.

Véronique Gens and Roger Vignoles

Try not to over-use vocalic harmonization. Remember, it should not obscure the text, and it should be helpful to the singing. If you are not sure if something should be harmonized or not, ask your French diction coach, or listen to several recordings to see what the consensus is. Just know that some coaches don’t apply vowel harmony and there are differing opinions on the matter. Since it happens in everyday speech, and I have seen it help so many singers in their legato and ease of singing, I generally encourage vocalic harmonization when appropriate.

Studying in Europe: Is it for you?

I have been living in Europe for over 11 years, and very often, people want to have a consultation with me to ask me questions about studying in Europe. Typically, they consider doing their Master’s degree and want to know information on schools, costs, programs, and work opportunities after their studies. Looking forward to life starting up again after Covid-19 is more under control, it is good to plan ahead, and many of you are already planning to audition in Europe (online). I put together a list of things to consider.

As a North-American singer, the idea of going to study in a foreign land can be very seductive. The rich history, the languages, the exotic feeling of living overseas-all these aspects seem like a dream, but thinking about making a move to Europe is one thing; doing it is another. By studying in Europe, you will be setting the course for your career. Living abroad, even for a couple of years, will significantly affect your future. All the experiences you will have will contribute to your artistic life and how you see the world. You will expand your cultural horizons and develop a more global mindset. You will hone in on your people skills and independence. The everyday challenges of dealing with a completely different culture and language will help you grow in so many ways. Living in a foreign country will take you out of your comfort zone by performing daily tasks such as getting groceries and setting up your bank account. These mundane chores can become mini-adventures when you live abroad. The prestige of a foreign degree can also improve your international prospects. Most European countries invest highly in their higher education systems, which lower costs while maintaining a high-quality education standard.

Tuition:

Compared to North America, the tuition fees in Europe are very low. Some European schools don’t even have tuition fees-it is free of charge! When there is a tuition fee in most countries, they are higher for international students than the domestic student, but still generally not as high as North America’s fees. Even with this as a big plus point, there are other costs to consider. Tuition fees in Europe don’t typically cover other expenses such as student insurance, books, and other supplies.

Click here for information on tuition fees in Europe.

Living and other expenses:

In addition to the program fees, studying abroad involves considerable costs:

  • Airfare and other travel expenses: Weekends away to visit neighboring countries, trips home to see family, factor all this into your budget. It can make a significant dent in your finances.
  • Student visa: Almost everyone who holds a non- EU/EEA nationality needs a visa when they want to stay in Europe for a longer time. Students are often required to apply for a student visa (or temporary resident visa for students). With this visa, you can stay in your host country for a fixed period. Click here to find out more on visa costs.
  • Health insurance: This is a must because you don’t want to find yourself sick or injured in a foreign country without health insurance.
  • Food: Although you can always find markets in Europe that have a “no frills” assortment, checking the cost of living is very important so that you are not surpised at the prices when you get here.
  • Rent: This varies from country to country (For instance, in Amsterdam, it is quite expensive and there are not many apartments available). Click here for a helpful link on housing.
  • Internet: This is a must for your school work and communicating with your loved ones.
  • Entertainment: There is so much to see and do in a new country and in exciting cities like Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin. You can catch a world-class artist performing on any given night, have a night at the opera or a live concert by your favorite band. Although there is student pricing and rush tickets, you will want to budget a big chunk of your finances for these kinds of activities. They will richly contribute to your artistic growth and are a necessery part of your training.

Scholarships:

Some schools in Europe offer scholarships, but they are not worth as much as in North America. Some scholarships may be available from your home government for students who want to study abroad. You can organize fundraising performances or crowdfunding to help out before you leave. If you think that you will want to get a side job to help cover costs, there are strict rules about that when you are on a student visa. Each country has its specific set of rules, so make sure you check what is possible before you go out and get a job. Click here for a helpful link with information.

Travel on the continent is easy:

One of the clear advantages of studying abroad is being near many of the world’s most exciting destinations thanks to cheap flights, trains and busses and short travel times. It is easy to take a train, spend a day, or make it a weekend trip, to a neighboring country, catch an opera or a concert, see some museums or soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the sites.

Building a network:

You will build a network by studying abroad, meeting people you would probably never have met at home. You will sing for people with influence in Europe. You will secure ties with professors and classmates that will undoubtedly be useful in the future. Many networking opportunities will come to you by being selected to participate in a masterclass or doing auditions. It is then your task to keep up with your network after your studies to continue to build upon them. These connections will turn out to be a valuable asset in the early days of your professional career!

Language:

Although you can easily choose to study in English, you will inevitably learn a new language through immersion. By being surrounded by a language, you will probably pick it up, but if you study the language and immerse yourself, there is an excellent opportunity to become fluent. Be sure to broaden your circle of friends and not always spend time with people who speak your native language. Most importantly, dare to speak the language, dare to make mistakes, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Part of learning a new language is all about making mistakes and learning from them. As singers, you will be so grateful that you dove into a new language; it will be an asset for the rest of your life!

Culture shock and depression

Culture shock is a real thing. It is a negative side-effect of living abroad. When you first land in your chosen country of study, there will be signs written in a very different language from English, different customs, and you will feel like you are on another planet. You will suddenly find yourself missing random things, like food that you never knew you liked so much in the first place, your bed, your friends back home. Yes, the first few months may feel like you are on an extended vacation doing some sightseeing, but then you start getting homesick, and you miss family and your culture. For instance, it is not so easy, or cheap, to fly home for Thanksgiving and so you spend it with classmates in your flat. It is fun, but you may feel an underlying feeling of homesickness. These feelings are all very normal. You may feel a little depressed, but it will pass. Keeping busy and getting to know people will make it soon feel a little bit more like “home”.

Once the “newness” of being here wears off, you may start to notice distinct cultural differences. Some you can adapt to, and others that are more difficult. Every culture is different, and although it will broaden your horizons to experience them, it doesn’t mean that you will adopt them as your own. Always remember that you are a guest in the country and it is not your job to change people around you to bend to your ways, you have to find a way to live with the cultural ways of your host country. You will also find that when you return to your home country, whether for a visit or for good, you will experience what is known as reverse culture shock, which is “the emotional and psychological distress suffered by some people when they return home after several years overseas. It can result in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar”. I have experience with this, especially having been in Europe for such a long time. When I return to Canada for a visit, I feel like a tourist.

If you can, I hope you do study abroad. There is so much to gain and so much to learn from doing so. However, if you are seriously considering this kind of move, please take your time, do your research. Don’t let the romantic idea get in the way of your reality. I recommend that if you choose to study abroad, take your studies very seriously. It is fun to be on a different continent, but the schools where I have worked take your commitment to your studies very seriously. Your goal is to be happy and satisfied with your learning and life experience while being a great ambassador for your home country!

What is Your Definition of Success?

What is success to you? We know what setbacks are, we have all had them. They are a part of being human and an important part of any worthwhile process, but why is it so difficult for us to define, or identify success? As musicians, we strive for perfection even with the full knowledge that perfection is not something realistically attainable in this field. There is no right or wrong, for that kind of absolute result, you have to turn to other disciplines. In music, sometimes the beauty is found or created through imperfection and setbacks.

Is success something that defines your happiness? Of course, we need some form of success as a motivator in life, I believe we are wired this way. What does success in your professional life look like? What does success in your personal life look like? Is being “famous” your idea of success, or is it making a good living doing what you love, feeling fulfilled and leading a meaningful life? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. It is all about self-reflection.

One of the aspects of succeeding is planning for setbacks and learning to identify them as your path to improvement and eventually achieving your idea of success, whatever that may mean to you.

Pitfalls of Perfectionism:

As I mentioned above, I think musicians have a deep desire to play or sing perfectly, without flaws or imperfections. One of the driving forces pushing us towards perfectionism is listening to studio recordings. They almost always sound flawless. Having been involved in recordings myself, I can tell you that there is so much which can be done digitally to fix even the tiniest imperfection. Even if one note is wrong in one bar, this can be spliced and replaced quite easily. This is normal, and it is part of the recording process. These recordings make for an exciting listening experience, but should not be used as the bar against which you measure yourself. This is when perfectionism becomes harmful to your process. I prefer to listen to live recordings made in front of an audience which show a true representation of what it is like to hear something being done in a performance.

This being said, just going for “good enough” does not lead you to reach the full extent of your potential. Striving for excellence can inspire greater achievements as opposed to perfectionism which is untouchable and never good enough. Seeking perfection and never reaching it can destroy your motivation and have psychological effects on your performance.

The following is a list of things I try to focus on to help me through setbacks or to help me reach my goals.

Realistic Goals:

Setting realistic goals is an integral part of any process. I often talk to my students in terms of the “short game” and “long game” Your short game goal should be achievable within weeks. Let’s say you have a very long phrase to sing. Your short term goal would be to try to do it with a few strategic breaths all the while doing it beautifully. The long game goal, which may happen in 2 months, 6 months, or a year, is to do the phrase in question in one breath. Making smarter goals for yourself will help keep you motivated and when you achieve them, they will give you a reason to be proud, and chances to succeed will grow. Many goals we set for ourselves end up as failures because they are unrealistic and we don’t give ourselves enough time to reach them. So, yes, try to get to the ultimate goal, but do it in stages with challenging and attainable goals in the interim.

Setbacks:

There is no such thing as a straight line to success. Setbacks are a huge part of the process. We learn from them, and we become stronger because of them. As you embark on your journey, accept that you will have setbacks -probably many of them. Permit yourself to fail. The only way forward is to work through these setbacks, and to not let them deter you from your ultimate goals. Maybe you sang an audition and you didn’t get the job or you received negative feedback. All you can do is learn from this, ask yourself what is constructive in the experience and what will help you reach your goals. Brush yourself off and get back to work. If you have chosen to be a singer, you have to be aware that you have chosen a highly competitive field where criticism is a big part of your everyday life. Setbacks are guaranteed. What is in your control is how you choose to react to the setback.

Goals attained?

If you have attained your goals, playing the short or long game, evaluate and ask yourself why did you achieve them, what was the formula? Sometimes this is hard to pinpoint but worth analyzing the results. This type of self-assessment can help you in setting more goals in the future. As you would do when you complete any project, write a list of what was successful, and what could be improved on in other projects. Celebrate the successes and learn from the setbacks.

You are your own success story:

Success is a personal choice and looking at it as such instead of measuring it against other’s successes, or an unrealistic idea of what success should be will help you find your path. Learn what success means to you. Does it mean a Fest contract in an opera house? Does it mean singing in a professional chorus? Giving voice lessons? Working in an academic function? A change in perspective about your idea of success can lead to greater opportunities for you, and more importantly happiness and a meaningful life. Be willing to evolve, adapt, and change your goals and your ideas of success as you go. As we evolve as people, so do our goals and our idea of what makes us happy. You may have a five-year plan set up for yourself, but many things can happen between year one and year five!

As the saying goes: “Success isn’t final and failure isn’t fatal”. It is how you choose to move forward that counts. The important thing in life is to be happy and fulfilled. As a musician, the peer pressure of being “the best” and getting a lot of work and attention can skew our perception of what success means to us. Remember that failure and setbacks are keys to your success.

A Plan To Help You Effectively Learn Music

Your voice teacher just sent you your repertoire list. Is there a better feeling? Who doesn’t love cracking open a new score? You are tempted to just start singing it or digging around YouTube for a million different versions to listen to. But what would happen if you doen’t do that just yet? Try these following steps and see if you learn more effectively!

Step 1: Get a score

There are several places where you can procure a score.

1. If you are a student, you just can go to the library and check out the score. If the library does not have it, they will often order it for you.

2. There are online resources like IMSLP, which is free, but beware, some of the editions there are not the best ones and have many mistakes, or they not legible, or in a completely different language, so if you do download from IMSLP, always check your score with a good edition to make note of any mistakes or differences. However, in a pinch, it is a great resource.

3. If you can afford it, buy your score! Start building your musical library. By buying a score every once in a while, you will see how fast your library will grow and you will have it forever.

Step 2: Translate

So you have your score, the next step is to grab a pencil and your preferred dictionary, this can be an actual book or an online dictionary (When I say “dictionary” I don’t mean that you should find an online translation. There is a lot to be said for looking up each word. It is time-consuming but we tend to connect more to the text this way), and you start making your translation of the text. Remember, the tasks that you take the most time completing are usually the ones that are good for you, so try not to cut too many corners.

There are two types of translations:

  • Word-for-word translation or literal translation: this will be the one you will want to work with. This is a translation of a text done by translating each word separately, without looking at how the words are used together in a phrase or sentence. This way, you know the meaning of the word you are singing in real-time and not the general meaning of the text.
  • Poetic translation: This is a translation that is used to sing in another language other than the original language. It is grammatically accurate and it flows but beware, the words do not align with the words in the original text. For this, only the literal translation works. The translation that you find in opera scores (see below) are poetic translations made to fit the musical phrases.
  • Phonetic transcription: Made with the International Phonetic Alphabet it sifts out the letters which are not sounded and shows you exactly which sounds you need to be singing. You want to be adding both the literal translation and the phonetic transcription into your score, not in a separate document.

This is what your score would look like after doing this:

Step 3:

Once you know your translations, start speaking the text in rhythm. No need to be singing just yet, so resist the urge! When you are singing in foreign languages, it is important to remember that your mouth and tongue are not used to making all the sounds you are asking them to make. By practicing the text in rhythm, you will have a much easier time when you get to the part where you add the melody. You can learn the melody without text, but only when the text and rhythm are flowing should you put it all together. Tip: When speaking the text in rhythm, use your supported speaking voice.

Step 4:

It is time to put it all together, start by doing everything slowly, and don’t try to do too much too quickly. This is where you have to practice patience. It will be tempting to just start singing it. Try to refrain from doing this just yet. Take the difficult passages and work on them first. I often advise my singers to start something from the end and work backward because this will feel like you are working faster. We all tend to start practicing at the beginning of a piece when we open the first page, but what often happens is that we end our practice session before we get to the end.

Try to alternate starting points:

  • Day 1 start at the end of the piece
  • Day 2: start at the beginning
  • Day 3: Start in the middle

This way when you get to the parts you know, it feels like you are learning quite quickly.

Step 5:

Bring it to your voice lesson to work on it technically. You have done all the nitty-gritty work of learning the nuts and bolts of the piece in question, now it is time to get your technique involved. Take it to your voice teacher first and they will go through the piece with you and help you with how to technically work on the problem areas, breath management, and vowel placement. As the weeks go on, keep bringing it back to your voice teacher to add more layers to the work you are doing, colors, phrasing, and interpretation.

Step 6:

Try it with piano by bringing it to your coach. They will also work on the musical phrasing, the diction, the tempo and help you figure out where to breathe as well as discussing the intention of the text and the music. The coach will also help fix any rhythmical problems with which you may be struggling.

Step 7:

Maybe now that you have made your own opinion of the piece you are preparing, you can start listening to different versions of it on recording to get inspiration, to see how others interpret the music. I had not mentioned listening to it first, because it is more likely to be your own if you don’t have a preconceived idea of what the piece should sound like. The words that make me a bit concerned in a coaching session are: “…but on the recording…” It is not uncommon for young singers to come into the studio making the same errors that they have heard so many times on their favorite recording of the piece. If it is not an error, it can be just an interpretive choice of an established, much older artist that the younger singer is just not ready to do yet.

Step 8:

You are ready to memorize. Everyone has different methods of doing this. To some, memorization comes easy, for to others, and effort. Find the way that works best for you.

  1. Memorize the text: You can do this by writing it down without looking. Make it a daily exercise. I also recommend memorizing the spoken text without the music, or the rhythm, work on it as a monologue
  2. Rote repetition: Take a phrase and do it until you can repeat it perfectly three times in a row. If you make a mistake at the end of the third time through, start again for the first time.
  3. Repeat out of context: When you feel that the memorization is working, try to recite the text, or sing the song while doing another task like washing dishes, or making dinner.
  4. Bring it to your coach: Take it to your coaching and close the score. It is a safe place to try. Ask your coach to prompt you when needed, or just to stop if you go blank and let you remember the forgotten word or phrase.

Step 9:

You are ready to perform the piece or bring it to your first staging rehearsal to receive even more information. You have worked all of it out, you know your words, your diction, and the character of the selection. If you have done all of these steps you have done everything you can do to have a solid performance.

Step 10:

Be proud of your accomplishment, even if you have a memory slip, or you make a mistake. These things happen and are forgivable. Your journey is a long one, so try not to focus on the few things that went wrong and look at all the many things that did go right!

You may be thinking that this is a lot to go through to learn an aria, a song, or a role, but in truth, shouldn’t everything you want to do at the highest level possible take this much time? Why rush it? Learning something very well will save you a lot of re-learning in the future. Keep in mind that some steps won’t be as time-consuming as you think, and once you get used to this process, it will go by quicker than you think and the music you learn will stick! The deliberate process always yields the best results.

Stay afloat

Our lives have been turned upsidedown and as we continue trying to find our way through this extraordinary time of social distancing, mask-wearing, and disinfecting, we are faced with some very stressful situations. At this point, it is fair to say that we have all experienced the sting of canceled performances and the stress that accompanies these cancellations. We are dealing with a new way of doing things online, which for artists is the complete opposite of what we normally do. The normal feeling which we once knew seems so far away as we are not capable of being completely submerged in what we are passionate about anymore. We are living for morsels of our art that we get to taste only now and then.

How do we fit into this new shift in the landscape? What are the emotional consequences of the changes in our lives and our careers?

Everyone copes differently and we are all trying to cope in the best way that we can in these unprecedented times. While it is true that we can’t control what is happening around us, or to our lives at the moment, what we can control is how we react to it.

We all have feelings

Anxiety:

I think this is the most common phrase I hear these days: “I feel anxious about the future”. Anxiety lives in the unknown or the uncertainty of what is happening, or what will happen. It seems like we have normalized anxiety, especially in these times. We live with it as part of our daily lives. Studying a new score for an upcoming contract is usually a joyful undertaking, but the anxiety of not knowing if the performances will happen, or how they will happen affects our motivation, our efficiency, and even our artistry.

Depression:

When anxiety gets worse, our mind goes to the worst-case scenarios. This is the way our mind tries to protect us from what will happen. If we expect it, we won’t have the element of shock. Expecting the worst in these times is also something we have grown accustomed to. When anxiety grows, it can lead you into a depressed state.

Panic:

When we start to panic, we can make rash decisions, or just freeze and not know which way to turn. Saying there is no reason to panic is also not helpful since for many performers out there trying to pay their rent and their livelyhood is slipping away while all the contracts get canceled is a reason to feel panicked. We are always waiting for the other shoe to drop! This panic risks becoming a lack of motivation due to a lack of goals and it is not our fault. More importantly, it can harm our overall health.

These feelings, to whatever degree, are normal. If you are feeling them, I am here to tell you that you are not alone. What can we do about it? As a vocal coach, I have to give advice all the time. If a singer is in this state, it is close to impossible to produce sound or to get through music so I find myself often just listening to problems and offering some points to consider. As I write this post, I am also reminding myself that it is OK to feel this way. Focusing on the things we can control can help us figure out how to navigate in this time. We can’t control a global pandemic, or the impact it is having on our daily lives and careers, but we can control how we choose to react to it.

  • Avoid the negative: Ok, this is easier said than done in these times because everyone, even the people who seem like they are coping well, is feeling the negative effects of this pandemic. Try to avoid taking the small problems and magnifying them because we are already just dealing with a lot, and that’s a fact! You can avoid the negative by being more discerning about what you choose to read, how much news you watch, and spending time with people you want to spend time with and who make you happy. These simple choices can help you change your outlook. If something makes you happy, DO IT! Many of my friends decided to just decorate their homes for the holidays on November 1st…if it makes you happy, DO IT!
  • Social media: I know it has been said before, but social media can affect us negatively even in good times, but in these times, it can be especially difficult to scroll through our favorite sites. Yes, we can find a community to share our common woes with, but our community should extend offline as well. Otherwise, it can take-over your outlook, and then we can find ourselves drowning in negativity. When you are scrolling, we try not to beat ourselves up if we see that some people are getting to perform and we are not. Everyone is just posting their highlight reels. Let’s celebrate that they are having a good moment. Our highlight reel will be up and running again soon!
  • Everyone is working on a solution: No matter what our situation is, if we are a working artist or a student, remember that nobody wanted this situation and everyone is doing their best to manage it. The word unprecedented is used a lot because this is a completely new situation. Once you understand that noone is doing this to you and that there are people who are desperately trying to keep things going while trying to keep everyone safe, we may find more rest for ourselves and not feel like we are alone in this.
  • Set a personal schedule and goals for yourself: Making plans and taking steps towards our career goals can be helpful to maintain hope. Everyone has the right at this moment to have some time which is not productive, and I fully encourage you to permit yourself to give your productivity a break from time to time. A bit of planning, making a practice schedule, setting our own goals and deadlines can help us feel more “normal”. I suggest that setting smaller goals that are achievable like tweaking your online presence, learning new skills, learning new repertoire or delving deeper into another language. I took a Dutch course over the course of the summer. I am fluent, but I wanted to understand more about writing in Dutch. The class was challenging and it was great to get out of my bubble fore a while twice a week.
  • Be resilient: We are open to new challenges when they come along. New ventures and a new way of doing things can be very refreshing and envigorating. Try replacing: “I don’t want to be online” or “It is not possible to do what I do online” with “Okay, let’s be creative and give it a try” or ” I want to be flexible”. You never know, you may just be opening a door to new worlds. For instance, I never thought I would or could coach online, but since I have embraced being flexible in this, I am doing a lot of online coaching from my home in The Netherlands with singers in North America and beyond. With an open spirit and some willingness to be flexible, you can always do good work, and it can be fun!
  • Breathe: Finally. I would say, just breathe, this is situation is hard and nobody is saying that it isn’t. We are all in the storm together, even if we are not all in the same boat. Breathing, taking a time-out from the difficult feelings, and the sadness of missing something that seems to be lost is so important. Whatever that means to each of us, we should remember to breathe as often as we can.

Making music and being an artist is a big part of who we are. Making music together is the fulfillment we get by connecting with others and creating a moment together through the wonderful feeling of that energy which flows between us, the performers and the audience.

I keep telling myself: “This is temporary” and I believe it is, I have to. There will be some serious ramifications caused by this pandemic, but on the other hand, I think we are also learning a lot about what possibilities we can discover when we are forced to think outside the box. The energy we long to share is still there, we just need to search for new ways to share it!

I saw this quote a few weeks back: “We are in the same storm, but not the in the same boat” I did some research to find out where the quote came from and it lead me to this poem written in the pandemic by Damien Barr. The poetry speaks of being kind to each other and to ourselves, respecting that every person is dealing with things we don’t even know about, empathy and seeing beyond what we see at first glance. It spoke to me, and I hope it speaks to whoever is reading this post. Damian Barr: We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat

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Thoughts on the French “R” in Classical Singing

The French r may be one of the most discussed sounds in the French language. It is also one of the most challenging sounds for a non-native French speaker to produce authentically. There are many ways to go about singing the French r.

Let’s look at the three most commonly used r-sounds in singing French repertoire:

  • The “rolled r“: The “rolled r” is also known by its more technical name “alveolar trill”. This is the r we are most familiar with, we use it in all other languages. It is voiced which means you should be able to sustain a sound while rolling the r. The phonetic symbol for this sound is [r]
  • The “flipped r: The “flipped r” is also known as an “alveolar tap or flap”. Very similar to the “rolled r” the flip requires just one brief flick of the tongue to the alveolar ridge. Think of saying the letter d [d]. The phonetic symbols for this vowel sound are [ɾ] or [r], but the latter is the most commonly used.
  • The “uvular r”: Also known as the “uvular trill” is the r commonly used in the French spoken language, but also singing. The uvular r is articulated with the back of the tongue (what is known technically as the dorsum) to the uvula (the hangy thing in the back). The difference between the rolled/flipped r and the uvular r is that it is the uvula that vibrates, not the tongue. The phonetic symbol for this sound is [ʀ].

So now that we have listed the three most commonly used r-sounds in French singing, which ones should be used?

Although the “rolled r has quite frequently been used in the singing of classical French repertoire, and it feels good to do it (sometimes it may feel expressive to roll an r), my advice is to avoid using it. Whenever I hear someone over-rolling an r in French music be it mélodie or opera, it ends up sounding very close to Italian. Also, any double consonant (except for a few words) should not be observed, so even if you see a double r, you do not need to roll it.

In the following clip, Chanson d’Orkenise from Banalités by Poulenc, Pierre Bernac, who was and still is an authority on singing in French, makes use of the “rolled r” (or one could argue that it is a repeated flipped r). It is still beautiful, but it has a flavor of the past mostly due to the r which is very rolled. This is a good example of how they were singing in French in this period.

Chanson d’Orkenise (Bernac/Poulenc)

The “flipped ris my personal favorite to use in classical French music. This r is a lot like its rolled counterpart. If you use it while speaking, it feels very strange and foreign but it sounds very comfortable while singing. It does not misplace the voice and it does not disturb the legato line. It is the r most commonly used in French opera and mélodie. In this recording , you hear an excellent use of the “flipped r” used by Véronique Gens.

Chanson d’Orkenise Gens/Vignoles

There are a lot of discussions about the use of the “uvular r in classical singing. While speaking French, we all use this r but should we use it when we are singing classical music? In France, Belgium and I believe in the French-speaking regions of Canada, the “uvular r” is recommended for singing in French. From a singing perspective, the argument arises that this places the sound too far back in the throat and that a “flipped r” keeps the sound more forward. In my opinion, the use of the “uvular r” gives a “pop music” feeling to the music. The discussions surrounding which r we should be using are ongoing. My advice is if you are not a native French speaker, do not use the “uvular r” because the chances are you will not make a convincingly authentic “uvular r” sound while singing.

Story time...

I once had a student who was not French, bring in a French aria he had studied all week. Before singing it, he said: “I don’t know why, but every time I sing this aria, I have a sore throat”. Alarmed, I wanted to hear it to see if he was doing anything wrong. It should be noted that this aria was very r heavy. Well, as soon as he started singing, I heard it immediately, he was using his version of the “uvular r”, but it was much too hard and aggressive, we switched to the “flipped r” and everything was solved. We had a good laugh about it afterward!

In this third recording of Chanson d’Orkenise by Poulenc, Patricia Petitbon opts for the “uvular r“. She does it with subtelty and she is gentle with the attack but you can hear that it is in the back of the throat.

Chanson d’Orkenise Petitbon/Manoff

My strong advice (and many of my voice teacher colleagues agree) is to use the “flipped r”. Whatever you decide to use, make sure it does not compromise the quality of your singing. Practice now and then with a “uvular r” in case you go off and work with someone who will have this as a preference, and it is requested of you to use it. Work it out with your French coach and your voice teacher to help you to do it healthily and authentically.