Master Class: No Not Opera!
For details on my upcoming December performances, please see the previous post!
You know I am a trained classical actor (American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco) with a lot of performance experience unamplified in outdoor and daylight situations where vocal demands are paramount. So, most of the improvement to my God-given vocal technique (which at one time was very breathy and squeaky) was as a speaker of dramatic verse. However, I worked at improving my singing technique also, through the years off and on, with several very good teachers.
At Western Michigan University I worked one on one with Dr. Elwin Carter who was the vocal director for University Singers, In Ashland, Oregon; I studied with Cornelia Clemens (the widow of Hans Clemens, a well-known German tenor). She introduced me to several of the basic concepts of Italian bel canto singing. I proceeded to working on art songs with Cornelia before my departure from Ashland.
At ACT in San Francisco we worked with the remarkable Steward Brady. Stewart had been a child prodigy as a singer and began teaching when he settled in San Francisco. He mastered a very free and open interpretation of vocal production which I thought was compatible with what I understood of bel canto. I worked with Stewart privately when I could afford it. After that I worked with one of Stewart’s protégés, Derek Winterbottom. And there were other singing teachers I tried studying with from time to time. My last teacher in Michigan pointed out to me that I had a very pretty “light” tenor. I was shocked to hear anyone say that my voice could be optimized and be “light.” But I took the observation to heart and have been trying to understand it ever since!
I’ve studied with my current singing teacher, Mr. Matthew Ellenwood, for over a year now. Matthew has a very organic (and scientific) understanding of vocal technique which is founded (it seems to me) on the principle that there is one voice for singing as well as speaking. He not only knows what’s happening in an optimized technique for various styles of singing but can communicate his knowledge in practice. My most valuable lessons from Matthew so far are getting a better grasp of the “light” voice used on microphone for pop and cabaret, not to mention amplified theatre singing.
This past weekend I enjoyed attending a Master Class with W. Stephen Smith of Northwestern University at the urging of my SongShop coach Claudia Hommel. It seems to me after this experience, that Steve has a much deserved reputation for an organic approach. His book is called “The Naked Voice” and his exercises are focused on removing what he calls “entanglements” or things that stand in the way of natural voice production. He celebrates “pouring oneself out” via breath and sound as the singer’s ultimate goal. In the short time we spent with Steve he demonstrated two of the three main exercises he uses for getting beginning singers on the right track with vocal technique. Then we had an opportunity to sing for him and receive critiques. His criticism was constructive throughout and he was very generous with his time.
After class one of my colleagues said that my singing sounded “operatic.” Oh, no I thought, that’s not what I want at all. Steve’s technique is intended to free the voice that you have been given by nature and optimized for the use of expression. Well, it is true that I’m a great big tenor and I do have a big, big sound. My challenge in cabaret is to not over use the fortissimo, but rather to fortify the freedom with which I express myself. No, not operatic my dear, but rather open in heart and soul. There may be times when the forte comes in handy, but I don’t want to lean on it ever: over the freedom and expressiveness that I’m beginning to learn.