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 don’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.

What Are the Takeways of Singing in a Masterclass

Series: Frequently Asked Questions-Part 1

I have reached out on the social media platforms for singers to ask me their burning questions. From these, I will create the “Frequently Asked Questions” series. If any of you have any questions, feel free to send me a message and maybe they will appear in a future post!

Question: “Should I apply to sing in masterclasses? What can I expect?” -Anonymous Soprano

What is a Masterclass, and why take part in one?

In the world of music, we love masterclasses! A masterclass is essentially a class given to advanced students of a particular discipline by an expert of that discipline while fellow students or an audience observes. The main difference between a class and the masterclass is how it is set-up. It is a cross between giving/taking a lesson and performing. In a singing masterclass, the student will typically perform an aria or a song, and then the master will share advice on how to sing the aria or song.

When the masterclass is open to a general audience, the master can give more “general-public friendly” advice to the singer. The goal is to simultaneously entertain an audience who is made up of fans of the master and singing aficionados as well as give the singer nuggets of information that they can take with them. A private masterclass given at educational institutions, with students in the audience is less about the “show” and more about the work.

There are several reasons singers choose to participate in a masterclass.

  1. You are a fan of the singer/coach/director/conductor giving the class: You admire their work, their career and, you identify with them on an organic level. You genuinely want to learn from them.
  2. Networking: Although this should not be the main reason to participate in a masterclass, it is a significant consideration. A high profile masterclass can put you in a spotlight, suddenly singing for a vast audience that may include future employers. Beware: If the masterclass performance goes well, that is great, but if it goes badly, it just happened in front of that same audience. Nota bene: These days, masterclasses can be streamed online or filmed and distributed.
  3. It is something singers like to put on their résumé under the title “Masterclasses”: To be quite honest, when I read a résumé, I am not entirely interested in your masterclass experience, so I don’t consider this section too much.
  4. Requirement: You are asked to sing in the class by your studio program or your institution

If you don’t want to sing in a masterclass, or maybe you are just not ready yet to be selected, attending it can be just as rewarding if not more because you don’t have to cope with the pressure of performing and you can absorb all the information. As an auditor, think of doing the following:

  1. Bring a notebook and write down notes, advice from the master and points that can help you in your journey.
  2. Learn repertoire, note the pieces performed, maybe even find repertoire you aspire to sing.
  3. Let the atmosphere inspire you and leave the class motivated.
  4. Connect with like-minded people.

How to prepare to sing in a masterclass

After being chosen and deciding that you want to sing in a masterclass, you should consider the following to be adequately prepared. Remember that although you are there to learn, you also want to do everything you can to show yourself in the best possible light.

  1. Choose repertoire you know well: Polish your selection and make sure you have had a lot of experience singing it. Being in a masterclass situation can sometimes throw you off. You don’t want the extra pressure of singing an underprepared piece.
  2. Know your translation: Be capable of fluently translating the text starting at any given point of the piece.
  3. Be prepared to stop at any time. The master will (hopefully) stop you often. Make sure that even if you are stopped after every two bars, it doesn’t throw you off.
  4. Be prepared to take criticism: This is very important. Although masterclasses are meant to be a learning environment, this does not mean you will only get positive feedback from the master. Be prepared to take this criticism gracefully. Be open to try new things suggested by the master, and do it all with a smile even when you disagree.
  5. Don’t expect to retain all of what you have done in your 20-minute session. Although you will hold on to some tips and information, many of the new concepts that worked in the moment, might not work again unless you apply it long term with a teacher. They will be in a file stored away in your brain, and perhaps they will pop out of nowhere when you are ready for them in the future.
  6. Most important: Already have a solid grasp on your vocal technique. While the master teacher gives their pointers and advice, the expectation is that you can produce a change quite quickly without completely unraveling, and this can only be achieved, if your technique is solid enough to try new concepts.

Things that can happen in a masterclass

  1. While singing in a masterclass you may have the lesson of your life; the master gets you to sing as you have never sung before. In 20 minutes, they say all the things that get you to make the most wonderful sounds you have ever made. Afterward, you take this to your teacher, and you are not able to reproduce the sounds you made before. The reason for this is simple enough: the concepts introduced to you in a 20-minute session with a master need to be followed-up weekly to integrate it into your vocal technique. In the class, the master is helping you along, coaching you through the concept, but unless this is followed-up long-term, it will probably not stick. If your regular teacher is attending the masterclass, they can help you translate this concept into your current technical journey.
  2. The master may tell you that you are not the voice type you present yourself to be, maybe not directly, but a statement like: “Are you sure you are a mezzo-soprano?” or “I think you are potentially a dramatic soprano voice” and this raises many questions for you. Just because a master says this, does not mean you should run out and change your fach. They may be right, but you should discuss it with your voice teacher and your coach to see what they say about this. They are your team, they see you every week, and they know your voice inside and out. They will guide you through this. While in the masterclass, accept these statements without too much comment (the last thing you want to do is start a discussion because it will eat into your allocated time) and then speak with your trusted team afterward.
  3. Although masterclasses are generally positive and very worthwhile experiences, the master teacher may be very demanding, and they can seem impatient. It is important to keep your composure at all times. Years ago, I played for a masterclass where the master teacher was not particularly interested in one of the voices. He was very hard on the student and it did not yield good results-in fact-we were all uncomfortable. The singer, however, never lost his composure and gained the admiration of the audience.

What you can expect to take away from a Masterclass:

I often give masterclasses and I have also played in hundreds of them. They can be a celebration where singers and singer friendly people come together to explore new things:

  1. Nuggets of valuable information: You will retain many of the concepts presented to you, such as stylistic advice, diction advice, and technical tips. This information from people at the top of their field will be with you forever! I suggest making notes immediately after the class so that you don’t forget what was said. Nota bene: recording is sometimes prohibited, so always ask the organizers if you may record the session.
  2. An unforgettable experience: Meeting and singing for someone you respect is a surreal experience. It can feel both wonderful and crazy. You may catch yourself thinking: “I can’t believe I am singing for [insert name]” the whole time.
  3. A performance opportunity: This is simple enough. In any masterclass situation, you get to perform in front of an audience.
  4. Inspiration and motivation: If the master teacher is good, you will feel inspired. They will bring out things in your singing and artistry. It will then motivate you to work on them. After inspiring masterclasses, the students run to a practice room to continue the work.

All conservatories, universities, and summer programs have some form of masterclass series. Even in this present time of the global pandemic, Masterclasses survive online, and it is even easier to get top-level people to give the classes. An online experience can be just as informative and exciting as it is in person.

It is important to connect with people at the top of their profession such as elite singers, teachers, coaches, directors and conductors. You will learn so much by singing in this kind of situation about where you are in your current journey. You will also learn by auditing a masterclass about how you will handle it when you participate in a masterclass in the future. The reward is what you make of the experience!

Gambling With Your Repertoire Choices: Is it worth the risk?

One of the biggest dilemmas a young singer faces is the dreaded aria list! What should you be keeping in mind when preparing to audition? Is there a strategy? When deciding what repertoire to bring to an audition, you must always be realistic: sing what you sing well! If you are not certain that a specific piece suits your voice, or that you can sing it well under ANY circumstances (i.e. not having the time or a place to warm up; you’re feeling a little under the weather; having a pianist who doesn’t know the piece; etc) then leave it off of your list. The most important thing is to show yourself in the best possible light.


When you sing/work on your aria list with your coach and voice teacher you can trust their opinion on what suits your voice best. They can certainly advise you on your fach (your specific voice type) and keeping the chosen repertoire within the guidelines of the fach. More importantly, however, you should propose repertoire for your list on the basis that you can sing it well. You may have an ideal list for your fach, and it may look great on paper – however, make sure that you can also sing every single aria that you present extremely well. Also, sing through the roles to know that if a panel casts you based on a certain aria, to be sure that the role is well within your capabilities.

Depending on where you are auditioning, you may be asked to present a list of between 3 – 5 arias in different languages and styles. The arias should also be diversified in terms of showing everything your voice can do at that particular time in your development. I would advise against including any “work-in-progress” arias as these tend to always sound unfinished and depending on a panel’s imagination (or lack of imagination in many cases) may not always work in your favor. Remember, you are applying for a job, show your potential employer what you can do at this moment.

Normally, in an audition situation, the panel allows you to choose which aria you would like to sing first – however, that is not always the case. In my experiences both playing for auditions and sitting on audition panels, I have seen instances in which the singer announced at the start of his/her audition: “I would like to begin with [enter aria title]”, only to have the audition jury say: “Actually, could you please start with this other aria instead?”

There are various reasons for an audition panel to do this: you could be the 20th soprano of the day who wants to start her audition with “Adieu, notre petite table” from Massenet’s Manon and the audition panel just can’t bear to hear one more performance of it; or, they might prefer to hear you sing something else from your list because they will be producing/casting the opera from which that specific aria comes and they would like to know if you could be a contender for a role in their production; or, the aria you chose to start with is exceedingly long and the audition panel is simply pressed for time. And, the list of reasons goes on…

Fortunately, this does not occur that frequently, and, audition panels usually let you sing through your first-choice aria out of courtesy. Generally, audition panels know quite quickly-sometimes within the first few bars of your first selection- if they are interested in you or not so don’t be alarmed if you are only asked to sing one aria. Sometimes, if time permits, they will ask to hear a second aria. If you sing only one aria, this does not mean that you did not sing well, so don’t despair! I know many singers who have gotten a job by singing only one aria in their audition. It is not a good idea to try and over-analyze their choices, doing this will just give you far too much anxiety. Just as I have seen singers get the role from one aria, I have seen singers not get the role after singing two or more.

If you did not necessarily sing well in your first aria, and the panel decides to hear a second aria, it is certainly possible to turn your audition around – so, always do your best and leave your mistakes in the past! If you get the opportunity to sing three arias, this is generally a good sign: they liked you and were intrigued by what you had on your list and what you could do vocally and artistically. However, this does not necessarily mean you have landed a job – it can simply mean that they wanted to hear your voice in different musical settings, or to see if you would become a bit more comfortable the more you sang.

IS THERE A STRATEGY?

No, there isn’t. You can always try to guess what the audition panel will want to hear, and many singers try to do this but don’t count on your guessing to be 100% accurate. Strategizing your audition will not help you feel more comfortable, it will just add to this already stressful and unnatural situation. Your best plan is to be excellent in all aspects of your singing and preparation.


1. The Gamble

So, you have your arias (in the following scenario, three) picked out, and you think to yourself: “Well, if I start with this aria which is fast and in Italian, they will most likely want to hear that other one as a second selection because it is slow and in French. My third aria is also Italian and fast, they will most definitely not want to hear it.” This is a dangerous approach. It is like gambling: You place your bet, sometimes you win, but most often, you lose!

Storytime:

I was once in an audition in which a singer put an aria on their list that they did not know from memory. I think we would all agree that this was not a good plan; however, the singer assumed that the audition panel would never ask for that aria, since it was similar in style and tempo to the aria the singer had chosen to sing first. Well, the audition panel asked for the unprepared aria and the singer was caught redhanded. This is not a position you want to be in. Needless to say, the singer did not get the job.

2.Playing the “long aria” card:


If you decide to put an aria on your list that is extremely long, for example, Zerbinetta’s aria; Anne Trulove’s aria “No Word from Tom”, or Tatyana’s Letter Scene, please be prepared to sing it ALL. It is not wise to put long arias on your list and assume that the audition panel won’t ask for the entire piece simply because it is long. They can ask for a part of the aria, or indeed, the full aria.

Storytime:

I was playing for auditions and as I was rehearsing with one of the singers I noticed that she had Zerbinetta’s full aria (which is at least 13 minutes) on her list. I suggested that we just start each section to briefly set tempi, to which she replied that she did not think they would ask for it all. Surprised by this, I said: “Well…you never know, so be prepared!”. We then just started each section of the aria. Sure enough, much to her surprise, the panel asked for the full aria. Luckily, she did an amazing job with it; however, it could have gone the other way.

Sometimes, auditions are running on time – or, the audition panel has extra time because of cancellations and they would enjoy hearing these longer arias. These arias are wonderful and show a great deal.

If you only want to sing one part of the aria, you should make note of that on
the handed in repertoire list by writing down the text of exactly from which point in the aria you would like to start.

For example:
Zerbinetta’s Aria “So war es mit pagliazzo” Ariadne auf Naxos R. Strauss

This way the panel knows that you would like to perform from this point in the aria until the end, and not the full aria.


3. Sing as if you have all the time in the world!

If the full title of the aria is on your list and the audition panel asks for it, my advice is just to sing it and let them decide if/when to stop you. If they ask to hear your very long Händel aria, I would not advise you to say the following: “It is quite long, do you want to hear all of it or should I just start at the B section?” Of course, you are trying to be helpful by doing this, but trust me, if you are auditioning in reputable houses, the chances are very good that the audition panel knows the length of your repertoire, so, please let them make that decision themselves. Assume that they want to hear you sing the full aria and sing like you have all the time in the world. If they decide to stop you, you will know it. I have seen singers start an aria, and just wondering after every phrase: “Is this where they will stop me?” At times, even if the panel says that they will stop you, they often don’t, take it as a compliment, they are enjoying your performance!

What about video auditions?

We all have to do video auditions, but especially now during the current global pandemic. When making pre-recorded video auditions or live auditions via Zoom, I would advise that the same advice applies as above. However, with a recording, there is a bit more control. You can re-take if things don’t go so well, you can fix your hair if it looks strange, or you can just scrap it all and do it on another day if you are having a bad singing day!

Aria choices for your video recordings

When recording, I don’t recommend choosing excessively long arias. Singing on a recording requires very different energy and mind-set than doing a live audition. When singing live, we know that once it is out, there is no going back, but the knowledge that we can go back on a recording makes it very difficult to be happy with what we have done. Not to mention, the more takes you have to do, the less fresh your voice will feel and sound. Choose arias that show all of your voice, but that are shorter.

For example:

Mimì’s act III aria “Donde lieta uscì” From Puccini’s La bohème

This aria is short and has a lot of “bang for your buck”, as they say. It has legato lines, a great opportunity to be expressive, and some beautiful high notes. Best of all, it is short, clocking at approximately a little over 3 minutes, so even if you have to do several takes during a recording session, it is not going to exhaust you too much.

Another important point to remember is that a panel listening to your video audition is probably not listening to the full arias. When you are auditioning live, you have a captive audience. Sure, they can be writing down comments or looking in their files while you are singing, but they are in the room and you will finish at least one aria. With video submissions, panels are at times left on their own to listen to hundreds of video recordings, or sometimes they do it as a group, either way, in all my experiences doing this, it is common practice to listen to big sections, but not necessarily the full aria. They know the spots they want to hear, and they generally click around the take to get to the good stuff.

5.Aria order

Just as in a live audition, order your selections on your video audition file in the order of what was the best take of the best aria. Always put your best foot forward. The first notes a panel hears will determine a lot. Even if all your takes were amazing, you know there is always one that you like better than the others. If you are not sure, or if you are the type of singer who just cannot listen to themselves, ask your team. Your voice teacher and your coach will be honest with you and you trust them not to let you send something out which does not show you at your best.

In Conclusion

Auditioning is almost an art form, the more you do it, the better you become, or at the very least, the better you learn to cope with it. The people on the other side of the table, or at their screens, all want the same thing: to be moved by your singing. Don’t try to strategize and cut corners, do your best, trust yourself and your team to help you along! Remember that you are selling yourself as a product – believe in your product, and they will too!

The French “h”: What’s the deal?

One of the most frequently asked questions I get during a coaching session on French repertoire is: “What do I do with the “h”? My regular students can recite this rule at any time in any place. It is one of the rules that I drill into them!

The French language went through changes phonologically between it’s origin, Latin, into what we know now as Early Old French. One of the major changes was the loss of the “h” consonant. It briefly made a comeback when germanic words were introduced into the French language, but the aspirate h ceased to be pronounced once more in either the 16th or the 17th century and this hasn’t changed since then.

Since the phonological behavior of aspirate h words cannot be predicted through spelling, usage requires a considerable amount of memorization or a bit of research. In the past, the misuse of the “h” was often used to size up someone’s education and social status. In modern usage, the knowledge of how we treat the “h” in “liaison” is more indicative of formal French, but it is not so present in less guarded speech. In general, the use of “liaison” is also losing ground in the less formal or slang use in the French language all around.

Interesting facts about the “h”

  • In all French words that begin with h, the following letter is a vowel.
  • Most aspirated-h words are derived from Germanic languages, for example, La haine (hatred) [laǀɛnə] Note: a tiny stop is recommended before the word “haine”
  • The h is generally not aspirated in words of Latin and Greek origin, for example, hystérique (hysterical) [histeˈrikə]
  • There are numerous exceptions, and etymology often cannot explain them satisfactorily. This makes it very difficult to find a pattern.
  • When in doubt, look it up in a French dictionary. When you do, you will see an asterisk (*) next to the word, and this indicates that the “h” is aspirate.
Dictionaire Larousse en ligne

What is the difference between aspirate and nonaspirate

It is important to note that the “h” is never sounded in the French language, not in speech, and not in singing! So why do we have to know if it is aspirate or nonaspirate? In French, the letter “h” permits or forbids “liaison” furthermore its presence can mean a slight soft reattacking of the vowel-sound.

Example:

Qui dans les halliers humides te cueille! (Who in the damp thickets gather you!)

IPA: [ki dɑ̃ lɛ| aˈliez ͜ yˈmide tə kœjə]

Note that before the word “halliers” there is a slight stop and no liaison because the “h” is an aspirate h. Before the word “humides” there is a liaison because this “h” is nonaspirate.

Sound file

As stated above, in normal everyday speech, a native French speaker would probably opt out of using a liaison, and most words which are nonaspirate, as they already instinctively recognize them and link them. While singing, however, it is very important to use the appropriate diction. When in doubt, just look it up in the dictionary for the asterisk (*), and remember the rule: It is forbidden to make a liaison on a word beginning with an aspirate “h”!

The French Semi-Consonants

What is a Semi-Consonant?

When you speak (or in our case sing) in French, there are 36 sounds to master:

  • 15 vowel-sounds
  • 18 consonant-sounds
  • 3 semi-consonant sounds (also sometimes called semi-vowels or glides)

In today’s post, we will focus on the semi-consonant-sound.

The Semi-Consonants

Semi-consonant [ɥ] 

Model word: nuit [nɥi] (night)

The corresponding sound for the [ɥ] is the phonetic [y] as in the word “lyne” in French

The Yod [j]

Model word: Dieu [djø] (God)

The corresponding sound for the [j] is the phonetic [i] as in the word “midi”. We often refer to this one specifically as a Yod. Think of saying the word “you” in English, that first glide is our [j].

Semi-consonant [w] 

Model word soir [swar] (evening)

The corresponding sound for the [w] is the phonetic [u] as in the word “tout”. Think of saying the word “we” in English, the first glide is our [w].

All of the French semi-consonants have these three things in common:

1. They are always before the vowel-sound of the syllable.

In French syllabification, each syllable can only have one vowel-sound per syllable, some vowel combinations make a vowel sound

Example:

  • aimer (to love) has two syllables ai/mer. The first “ai” makes one vowel sound and the last “er” make one vowel sound and they are seperated by the “m”
  • In the word “nuit” (night), there are two vowel sound and no consonant seperating them, also, there is not combination of “ui” which makes one vowel-sound, so there is no syllabification. The semi-consonant is created: [nɥi]

2.  They are introductory closures that open into or glide into the more open vowel sound, which in turn occupies the duration of the note-value.

You should never sing or elongate the semi-consonant, the glide should be made swiftly as you always aim for the vowel following the glide. If we look at the IPA for “nuit” [nɥi] the most important vowel to sing is the [i] which comes after the glide.

3.  They never, in themselves, constitute a syllable.  When they become vowel-sounds (and/or when they are assigned a note) they lose their qualities as semi-consonants, each being transformed into a particular vowel-sound.

Because we never elongate the semi-consonant, it cannot be a vowel-sound UNLESS they are assigned a note in the text:

In the example above, the first “curieux” has two notes, and clearly, you would have to use the glide to get to the [ø]. In the second example, the [j] loses its glide quality and becomes a vowel thanks to the composer who gave it a note value.

Be careful not to add a glide when it is not supposed to be there!

In the spoken French language, when a word ends in a vowel + mute “e” (a.k.a schwa), we do not pronounce the schwa.

For example “joie” (joy) is spoken without the last “e” [ʒwa], but many French composers gave a note value to the schwa, so that when you sing the word “joie” you would have to sing this otherwise mute “e” [ʒwaə].

Setting the mute “e” as accurately and elegantly as possible was always a goal for the French composers:

  • Setting the mute “e” on the weaker beat
  • Setting the mute “e'” on a lower pitch
  • Giving the mute “e” a shorter note value than the preceding syllable
  • Sometimes suggesting that we drop the mute “e” by setting it on a note tied to the preceding syllable.
  • The music determines whether or not we sing the mute “e”

So when you sing the aria “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” from Roméo et Juliette by Gounod, you will see the following:

Looking at these two excerpts from the aria, you notice a note value given to the schwas in the words “proie” and “joie”. The danger here is the temptation to insert a [j] between teh [wa] and the [ə].

The correct way to sing this is as follows:

Laisse-là ces oiseaux de proie, Tourterelle qui fais ta joie

[lɛsəˈla sɛz‿waˈzo də ˈproiə turtəˈrɛlə ki fɛ ta ˈʒwaə]

And not

[lɛsəˈla sɛz‿waˈzo də ˈprwajə turtəˈrɛlə ki fɛ ta ˈʒwajə]

Believe it or not, I hear the addition of a Yod quite often, and sometimes from established singers. It is probably not because they mean to do it; gliding cleanly between these vowels takes a lot of practice. Not to mention that if you glide between the vowel and the schwa, you will create a stress on the mute “e” which is not allowed…You have all seen the meme:

Be like the schwa…never stressed

Adding a glide between these vowels, creates confusion because it does not sound like the right word, and it is a dead give-away that you are not French. The transition between these vowels must be seemless. Happy gliding!

Make Haste Slowly

Make haste slowly

“Make haste slowly”

This is what my mentor and teacher, the late Dixie Ross Neill used to repeat to me when I was studying with her, but Caesar Augustus is said to have first adopted the motto: Festina Lente. Make haste, slowly. It took me a while to understand what it meant. I think that when I was a student, I was impatient and maybe a little result-driven. Imagine, back in those days, no social media or profiling trends were pushing me to show my results to the world. Fast forward to 2020, we are the age of social media, instant fame, and being discovered on big platform talent hunts. How does a young aspiring singer get to their desired result while fighting the temptation to skip steps?

I work with singers, and a big part of my work is training young singers who are more than aware of their online content. Knowing how to brand yourself, is an important skill, but the question is, are we skipping important voice building steps in the rush to get “there” faster? Some go into the process, they lay down the base for a great technique, let the voice develop, work on their languages, musicianship skills, bodywork, all of which make someone into a complete artist. Then, there are some who lack patience and are always running after results. They put in the work, but they always try to skip steps because they want to get there faster. With the latter, you can feel an actual sense of panic, which some may confuse with ambition. Skipping steps can make them feel like they are getting there faster, but the truth is, they will inevitably have to turn back and redo the steps they have skipped.

What does it mean to make haste slowly? Let me use the following metaphor: A pianist, while learning a difficult musical passage which is at a high level of technical difficulty is tempted to just play it at tempo, just do it, get it on the first try. There may be a slight chance that they get it right on the first try, but what about every time after that? What will happen to the consistency of their playing? How will they know if it was just a fluke (which it absolutely was)? They now go back, dissect the passage, play it slowly, practice with different rhythms, build up tempo, work on the fingering, and put in the necessary amount of time to learn it from start to finish. Instead of doing it instantaneously and risking that it is just a fluke, the goal now becomes not only to do it right but most importantly, to learn it so that you never do it wrong.

Building your career as a singer is a lot like that pianist working on the difficult passage. Just because you are talented, have a beautiful voice, and sometimes you get it right on the first try, does not mean that you are ready to hit the ground running. Like the pianist working on the passage above, you will want to take the time to establish the foundation on which you build your voice, and that will, in turn help you achieve your artistic and professional goals in the long run. Even if it seems that everyone around you is posting concert photos or doing exciting things; stick to your lane, keep your eyes on your ultimate goal, and eventually you will pass them.

The thing to remember is that we are all learning a craft. Whether you are a pianist, a singer, or any other kind of professional. Knowing everything you can know about what you do is very important. As a young singer I suggest studying where your art comes from, listen to all the great recordings available, examine how the technique and the esthetic have developed over the years. It is a good idea to take note of different styles and conventions of the repertoire so that you can implement them in your singing, or respond to a coach or a conductor when they request them. As you are absorbing all this, also explore listening to all vocal repertoire, not just your voice type, but every voice type, other instruments, and orchestral works. Educate yourself on what you need to know so that once you get out there, you don’t have a lack of knowledge. All this information will most definitely influence your singing and artistry.

As you are doing all of this, be curious and insatiable when it comes to your vocal technique. Whether you are a singer, a pianist, a violinist, or any other musician, technique is the absolute foundation of artistry. Without technique, it is not possible to achieve your musical goals. Imagine doing something incredibly musical: a long phrase, a triple piano on a high note, a lightning-fast coloratura passage, and making it look effortless. Now, imagine that you had the technical knowledge to do this, every-time, without fail. That is what technique means; it is a vehicle for artistic choices. How long does it take to get the technique of a high-level singer? You will probably be working on your technique for the duration of your career, as long as your voice changes with your body. Many of my friends and colleagues with elite careers, still seak help from their voice teachers regularly. When you are a young singer, you lay down the foundation of your technique which hopefully will take you throughout your career. The foundation is the most important part, of course, just think of what happens to a house when the foundation starts failing: it crumbles.

During the spring semester, we were pushed into a different situation in all training programs and education due to Covid-19. We had to go online. It was not ideal, and nobody wanted this, however, I do feel there were good lessons to be learned if you were willing to look for them. The singers that I have heard or seen since have made remarkable vocal progress which in turn has made them much better artists. The focused and meticulous work they did during this time has given them more vocal freedom. They were also free from deadlines and pressures of getting to the result which became somewhat less important for a while. Consequently, they improved quicker than they thought they would. It has been a dreadful time for everyone, but what we can draw from these positive points is that process means progress. In the age of “get there fast”, the part where we slow down to figure things out, is something that most of us have forgotten how to do in this age of “high-speed”. It may take time to get your result, and that is OK. In the words of Caesar Augustus or the great coach and pianist Dixie Ross Neill, “Make haste slowly” and you will get to your result better, stronger, and yes, faster! The quickest way to accomplish something is to proceed deliberately.

How to Sing the French Mixed Vowels

The French language has fifteen vowel-sounds. I say this every year at the start of my French Lyric Diction class as the students’ eyes widen. I can almost hear them thinking “Fifteen? How is that possible? How can I sing fifteen different vowel sounds?” That seems like a lot and it can be quite daunting if you are a singer starting out singing in this language. The three vowel-sounds that I would like to focus on in this little French Lyric Diction post, are the three mixed vowel-sounds [œ] [ø] and [y].

When I say “vowel-sound” I don’t mean a pure vowel. The vowels we all know from when we first learn how to read are a, e, i, o, and u. Think of all the french vowel-sounds as derivatives of these. Some vowel sounds are even based on the derivatives of the derivatives. A mixed vowel is when you take two characteristics of two different vowels and as you combine them you create a whole new vowel. They are called “mixed” because their formation is dependent on the simultaneous positioning of the tongue and the lips.

In the chart above, we see the vowels in the tongue position, and the vowels in the lip position, in the middle are the mixed vowels.

The Phonetic [y] vowel-sound:

  • Phonate the [i] sound, as in the French word “midi” [miˈdi] (noon) or if you wish to come from the English language the [i] in the word “we”.
  • Now, sustain this [i] sound, as you do so, form your lips to the shape of a closed [o] as in the word “rose” [rozə] in French (or English) all the while not changing your [i] tongue position.
  • You now magically have the phonetic [y] vowel as in the French word “lune” [lynə] (moon).

The o-slash vowel:

  • Phonate an open [ɛ] as in the French word “tête” [tɛtə] (head) or from the English language, the word “feather”
  • Again, sustain this [ɛ] and as you do so, form your lips to the shape of a closed [o] while not changing your tongue position.
  • You now are making the sound of [ø] as in the word “feu” [fø] (fire).

The o-e vowel is a little different:

  • Start out in the same way you did with the o-slash: phonate on an open [ɛ].
  • While sustaining this vowel, you will form your lips into an open [ɔ] as in the French word “homme” [ɔmə] (man) or from the English you can think of the word “on”. So this is less of a closed [o] formation than we used above. (If it starts sounding like [ø], turn back you have gone to far towards a closed vowel with your lips!)
  • You now have a perfect o-e vowel, and you can now perfectly sing the word “coeur” [kœr] (heart)
  • Nota bene: the Schwa [ə] sound is equivalent to the [œ]. They have the same sound, the difference is that the schwa can never be stressed while the [œ] can be stressed. Example: émeute [eˈmøtə] (riot) while singing this word, the stress is on the o-slash and you would sing the schwa unstressed if it has a note value.

As you sing, if you think about the vowel that you are making with your tongue and just adjust your lips, you can avoid going too far between sounds, and your singing and legato will feel easier, especially depending on the tessitura in which you are singing.

Example:

Intonate these words, all the while keeping your tongue in the [i] position while forming your lips into a closed [o] when reading words with [i] or [y] sounds.

Tu dis qu’il a une fille unique. (You say that he has an only daughter.)

[ty di kil a ynə fij ynikə]

Looking at the phonetic transcription, you have only 2 vowels ([a] and [i]) and two vowel-sounds ([y] and [ə]). The [y] and [i] are the ones you want to practice here. Glide to and from these vowels, see how it feels to not change the tongue position. Try it on different pitches to practice. Do the same with the other mixed-vowels until you master singing them, it will feel easier and your voice will most definitely respond!

Singing in French can be a very scary thing. I am not going to lie to you and tell you that it is easy. But with a few tools, it can definitely be more singer-friendly and as you practice, you will really learn to enjoy singing in this beautiful language.

Choosing Your Vocal Coach-Pianist

Singers, maybe more than anyone else in the performing arts, are bombarded with people giving them their opinion on the way they sing. Everyone seems to have something to say, and they regularly voice their opinion to the singer whether or not the singers wants to hear it. Because singers are not technically able to hear themselves when they sing, it is easy for them to fall into the trap of believing all these opinions. All day long, singers are put in situations where they are set up to receive feedback. The conductor gives them comments, the stage director and/or the stage manager gives them comments, the diction coach gives them comments, the coach gives them comments, the teacher gives them comments, and when they perform, the audience and the critics give them comments. Those are a lot of COMMENTS. This is just a normal day in the life of a singer. It is important for singers to surround themselves with a team of people they trust completely to help them weed through all of the comments and all the outside “noise”. A good coach is a great help in figuring out which feedback is useful.

The coach

What is a pianist-coach? A pianist-coach is a skilled pianist who specializes in vocal coaching. Mostly we know them as coach, opera coach, vocal coach or collaborative pianist. You see your coach regularly, you trust them, you let them see you in the beginning of your process and they stay with you until you are ready to step onto the stage.

There are different types of pianists who specialize in working with singers. You can collaborate musically with a pianist by being both equal partners, you share your musical vision, prepare recitals and recordings together. This is when when the pianist plays the role of a “collaborator” or a “recital partner”. There are also “rehearsal pianists” who you call when you want to run through repertoire without much or any input. You just want to repeat things ad nauseum until you feel ready. Sometimes, a coach can play that role as well, mostly after the preparation is complete and the singer is about to start the job. A coach is not someone who will teach you your notes and rythm. There are pianists who do that, and sometimes singers do need this kind of help, but this is not a coaching, it is more like a practice session, or what is commonly called a “note-bashing” session. Most coaches do not want to do this. “Spoon-feeding” is considered a waste of resources, so don’t just show up expecting your coach to do this. If you are a singer who needs this from your session, you can kindly ask the coach first if they would agree to doing this kind of work, and if they don’t, then ask another pianist you know for a session (often younger pianists or students do this for extra earnings).

When you properly work with a true coach you can expect a more of a teacher-student type of relationship. They provide you with valuable feedback and information. You go to a coach when you want to prepare roles, work on recital repertoire in detail, work on language and text, work on your audition preparation, get to the finer points of character and the music.

Some things to consider when choosing a coach:

  • Your relationship with your coach is an intimate one, so most importantly, find a coach that you like as a person. The work you will be doing will be intense. It demands a lot of trust from both sides. You should feel comfortable making mistakes, and they should make you feel comfortable about being corrected.
  • Find a coach who meets your skill level. If you are an experienced singer, find a coach who has been working in the field for at least the same amount of time as you have, but preferably they should have more experience.
  • When you sing repertoire which is advanced, you want your coach to be able to play it (or at least sight-read it well) and make comments on what you are doing in order for you to improve. If a coach does not know your repertoire, they should not pretend to know it. When I am confronted with unfamiliar repertoire, I am honest about it, I still work on it, but the next time I see the singer, I have learned it. If you are doing something that you suspect is unknown, giving a heads-up is a good idea.
  • A coach, should have excellent pianistic skills, they should inspire you to sing and make music, and if you are singing opera, they should be able to conjure up an orchestra from the keys! My favorite compliment is always: “You play like a full orchestra!” This does not mean loud and “bangy”. Playing “like an orchestra” is about the texture of the sound and supporting the singer fully.
  • A coach should have quite advanced language skills, they should be able to speak or at least have a firm grasp of the lyric diction in a minimum of four operatic languages: French, English, Italian and German. Their ear should be developed enough to hear even very subtle language inaccuracies.
  • Find a coach who understands style and tradition, as well as current trends in performance practice. Whether you bring bel canto, baroque, romantic or contemporary music, your coach is well versed in all of the styles in order to guide you.
  • If you are preparing a role, it is of the utmost importance that your coach is able to play the score while singing all the other parts. It does not have to be beautiful singing (trust me!) but it should be audible. If your coach can’t do this, and you have a role coming up, find one who can.
  • Your coach is not your voice teacher. A coach can support your vocal technique, but please do not go to a pianist to learn how to sing, or to get vocal technique. This is what a voice teacher is for. Confused? See this previous blog post: A Voice Teacher and a Vocal Coach-Why you need both! A good coach who has years of experience working with singers will be able to point out something that needs technical attention, and then suggest that the singer address the issue with their voice teacher.
  • When you work with a coach, they can also be your collaborative partner. If you have musical chemistry with your coach on all levels, then by all means collaborate with them on stage, too!
  • It is important that a coach treats you like a person. Yes coaches teach, but you should feel comfortable in your session, not only with the singing, but with making a contribution to the session. A good coach asks questions, wants to know what the singer’s opinion is on the music, text and character, after all, you are the one who is singing it! If you feel like your coaching is a one way street, find a coach who lets you get a word in edgewise.
  • The coach you work with makes you feel respected. They are on time and they should not cancel at the last minute (unless it is an emergency…it can happen…but not regularly) and you should do the same for them.
  • Look for a coach who has worked with great conductors, organisations, opera houses and singers. They will have first-hand knowledge of what is needed in the world in which you aspire to work. That being said, do not expect that by working with someone attached to a house, that they will get you auditions, work or any kind of exposure to where they work. When singers come to a coaching with the idea that they can get a contact, audition or a job from the coach they are working with, it is very obvious. Believe me, we spot it from a mile away.
  • Finally, the coach (or coaches) you choose to work with are accessible, you should feel like you can approach them for advice and have confidence that they will be honest with you. A coach who only tells you what you want to hear is not a coach you need. There is no time to waste and honesty will help you improve, even if it doesn’t always feel great to hear the truth. A good coach will tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear!

Coaching fees-How much should you be paying?

I think every coach needs to come up with a fee that represents what they think their time is worth. Other than the points mentioned above, the following can help you along as you are considering hiring a coach:

  1. Level of education and/or experience: The longer someone has been working as a coach, the more knowledge they have to share. You are basically paying for their experience and knowledge. As you record your session (always ask first if it is permitted. If not, take tons of notes!), you will be able to refer back to the session for the rest of your life. You will, in turn, most likely use the acquired information in your own teaching and get payed for it yourself in the future!
  2. Repertoire: With experience, comes a vast knowledge of repertoire. Imagine how many hours the coach in question has spent behind the piano learning repertoire over the years. There is no way they are really breaking even financially!
  3. Supply and demand: Prices can vary depending on if they are in demand. Some coaches prefer a lower fee and work with many singers, and other coaches like a higher fee and fewer singers.
  4. The bundle: Some coaches like to bundle, meaning that if you take several sessions, they will give you a lower price. You can ask if they have something like this available where you book a certain amount of coachings ahead of time.
  5. Student prices: If you study at a school, hopefully they provide a coach, if not, ask about a student fee. Most coaches won’t charge a student the same price as someone already in the profession.
  6. Online sessions: With the corona-crisis, we are now being more open to the possibility of online coaching. This means that coaches can open up their studios world wide. It is still early days, but maybe there is a different fee depending on what is offered. As the technology develops, we will see how far this can go, but it is an exciting development. It means the planet is a little smaller and you can work with people who are on another continent!

You are paying for advice and expertise and you want the best help you can get in order to do the best you can do. If it feels too expensive, then find someone that is more affordable for you. Ask around and see what the rates are. Every country, city, region has a going rate so answers will vary depending on where you are. I don’t advise haggling on the price of a session. Everyone who offers private coaching has thought long and hard about their fee and it is not customary to try and bargain.

As you go on in your professional career, you can and will work with more than one coach, you can have a list of different coaches for different aspects of what you are working on. Some coaches have specific strenghts that stand out of their vast skill set. When you are a professional singer, you will sing everywhere and have a list of coaches for all the cities where you work-a set of ears you trust everywhere you go!