Choral Holidays - Singing in wonderful locations

Posted under: "Music Related Blog"

Feb 25, 09:38 AM

Changing the mind of the singer

“Change the mind and you change the man.” This was the principle behind the experiments of Dr Jekyll in Robert louis Stevenson’s classic novel. Dr Jekyll, according to the story contended that, if you could alter a man’s mind, you would also change his physicality.

How far one can take this in the realms of science is obviously up for question and I’m not about to challenge the theory here. However, what I will say is that, if you can alter the thought process of a singer, you can alter what is emitted by that singer and the effect it has on both singer and listener.

One hears many singers who create “colours”, in order to create a particular effect. In some cases this is sincerely done, but, in many cases, the singer will decide on the effect they want to create and choose to make or imitate a sound which creates that effect, rather like an artist choosing exactly what shade he wants to put on his canvas. Sometimes the effect works but it’s an effect chosen with calculation and, to my mind, is often used because the singer doesn’t have sufficiently good technique to express themselves clearly without recourse to effects. I even heard of one quite prominent singing teacher who contends that one should not use moods and feelings but simply try to adjust the position of the larynx to a different position according to the mood one is trying to convey.

If, on the other hand, one listens to certain singers who are fully in command of their instrument, one hears something rather different. I’m thinking of three singers particularly who I have heard either in opera or concert recently; Soprano Sophie Bevan, Tenor Jonas Kaufmann and baritone Simon Keenlyside. In each of these three cases, the singer has been so in command of what they were doing that they were able to sing with complete freedom. None of them used any “effects” as far as I could tell, but rather, their command of their voice allowed them just to express pure feelings.

When one is singing in that way, the voice is less altered than when one is using different effects, but the honesty with which the singer bares their soul is far more compelling than any premeditated colour could ever be. A small change of thought or of mood results in a change of what is projected by the singer, without the need to change the voice. Listen to Jonas Kaufmann in his recording of Die Schöne Müllerin. He sings the parts of last song at an unbelievably quiet dynamic and yet, where others would attempt to make a beautiful, dreamy head tone, he maintains a full open throated sound, which is at once miraculous and devastating as there is no self protection going on, just pure projection of what he is feeling.

For me, this is when singing is thrilling, that ability to be completely open at all times so that the merest change of thought os picked up by the listener without the need to make effects and telegraph that a change of mood is required.

Can this be achieved chorally? I believe it can. If one has a group of singers who are willing to go beyond learning notes and blending with others, and who are prepared to take the risk that in projecting genuine feelings, they will be exposing themselves, it can be achieved.

In a recent performance of Acis and Galatea which I conducted for Uxbridge Choral Society, they really went for it, particularly in the “Mourn all ye muses” section. They allowed themselves to really feel grief at the death of Acis and to risk going too far as they not only sang Groans, Cries and Howlings, but actually Groaned, Cried and Howled. The effect was extraordinary, the sound far bigger than they normally make but, at the same time, more beautiful.

So what am I trying to say with all this. Basically, if one takes away effects and colours and sings with genuine, open technique, the merest change of mood or thought will project in a way far more compelling than is usually achieved by using premeditated colours. But also, chorally, if one can change the way choirs usually think about getting notes right and singing the dynamics as written, if they are prepared to sing as an individual within a group and dare to really express themselves, then the music will be transformed and will become electric. This, for me, is what making music is about.




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