McCray Studio https://mccraystudio.com International Studio of Vocal Arts Thu, 07 Sep 2017 08:08:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.2 https://mccraystudio.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/m.png McCray Studio https://mccraystudio.com 32 32 103074262 How to deliver your best performance https://mccraystudio.com/how-to-deliver-your-best-performance/ https://mccraystudio.com/how-to-deliver-your-best-performance/#respond Thu, 07 Sep 2017 08:08:19 +0000 https://mccraystudio.com/?p=25643 McCray Studio
How to deliver your best performance

Performing is not an easy thing to do, especially with an instrument as fragile as the human voice. So, how do you make sure you're always at your best?

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How to deliver your best performance

What is the key to delivering your best, most masterful performance?

 

What every potential performer learns very fast about performing is that 100% in a room usually means 80% on stage…if you’re lucky. Another analogy (given by a colleague singer) is that in a high-stress situation you will perform about 6 months behind in where you actually are in your development. Which of course matters a great deal when you are only starting in this profession.

Aside from a few tips on how to manage stress here are a few more things you could find useful.

Know Thy material

Whatever the piece you are performing is and no matter how long it is, make sure you know it well. Memorise the music and the words. Check your pronunciation, and the meaning of every word separately and as a whole.

Make sure you are familiar with the language of the composer you’re singing

It’s easy enough nowadays to go to youtube and find many recordings of an enormous variety of composers and performers. While I do not recommend to young singers to immediately go and find THE exact piece they are singing I would suggest listening to great recordings of other works by the same composer to better understand the style.

Audience is your friend

Remember: the audience is NOT all knowing. The average person listening to you can not tell the difference between your 100% and 70% performance simply because they do not have the knowledge or ears to do so. They will most probably be able to tell if you give a really bad performance but in general, they come because they love the music and they want to enjoy it. Of course, this doesn’t really count for auditioning panels but even they are not “out for blood”: they want you to succeed because then their job of finding a right person for the role/concert/spot in the school or competition is finished. So since the audience is not something to be wary of:

Love your audience

Singing is a performing art. That means you do NEED an audience to truly make it work. Making music is communication of something deep and spiritual from within you and when given the opportunity for communicating that use it and love every minute of it. Make sure when given this opportunity you make the most of it by having something to say. Most of the time strangers around us couldn’t care less about our emotions and most heartfelt, honest, spiritual parts of ourselves but in those moments while performing your audience is witnessing all of it and willing to appreciate and love you for it all. Yes, it’s a bit scary at first but it is also the best feeling in the world.

Don’t get stuck in your head

Make sure you’re thinking slowly enough to experience everything. If you’re not aware of little details happening around you, that means you are not focused, you are in your head and if you’re just in your head (and not “in your body”) mistakes happen. Noticing things around you doesn’t mean you focus on them instead of on your own singing; it means you are open and aware of them all. You are in what some call active zero. Peaceful and collected and ready to spring into action. This too comes with practice and experience and will get easier with time.

Start from a solid base

Last but not least: start from a solid base! Make sure you find a good teacher and work long hard and with patience on your technique. Without it, all of the things mentioned above are utterly useless.

Final thoughts

As usual, like with most things in life, there’s no real shortcut. No matter the number of tricks you can learn, I strongly believe that without a solid base you will not be able to go far. However, tricks are there to help us make that technique shine and ultimately serve its only purpose: a means to make music.

Do you have any suggestion you’d like to make? Please let us know in the comments below!

Cover photo by Ryan Tauss

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Can I become an opera singer later in life? https://mccraystudio.com/can-i-become-an-opera-singer-later-in-life/ https://mccraystudio.com/can-i-become-an-opera-singer-later-in-life/#respond Thu, 17 Aug 2017 09:27:32 +0000 https://mccraystudio.com/?p=25613 McCray Studio
Can I become an opera singer later in life?

For anyone considering to become a classical singer at any point in their lives, one question applies: ARE YOU CERTAIN YOU WANNA DO THIS?

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Can I become an opera singer later in life?

Becoming a singer at a later age

For anyone considering a career in classical singing at any point in their lives, one question applies: ARE YOU CERTAIN YOU WANNA DO THIS?

I do believe everyone should sing and everyone should learn to sing to some extent. Many medical studies prove it’s incredibly healthy. It releases stress, increases joy, even lowers the chance of heart disease. This is why, I assume, most people do sing during their lives at least in the shower where most others won’t be able to hear them. But choosing to sing for a living is entirely a different thing. In wise words of a well-known singer and vocal teacher G. Stapp:

If you are determined to be a singer, pause for a moment to consider this advice. If there is anything else that you can do well and that you enjoy, choose that as a career and save singing for an avocation. Unless the very essence of your being demands that you sing professionally – don’t do it. Get a life instead!

Seriously, too many people lose all enjoyment in music as they vainly struggle for professional and financial success. And no matter what, be sure to plan for an alternate career, too. After all, one is more likely to be elected to Congress than to ever earn enough money from singing that it’s necessary to pay annual net income taxes.

Is there a simple answer?

Armed with hopes, dreams and often illusions of a grandeur life, many young and not so young singers set out to become professionals unaware of the challenges and perils of the task. An even bigger amount of individuals and, sadly, institutions, big and small, profit from nurturing these ambitions in their students; out of self-interest and without introducing them to the truths and realities of such carriers.

Now: if you’ve informed yourself properly and you are still convinced this is a path you want to proceed on – I wish you the very best of luck. Along with a solid vocal technique and hard work, luck will be your most important factor.

But what if you are in your late twenties, thirties or even older: is it too late to realize your dreams of becoming a professional opera singer?
Let me disappoint you right away: the answer to this question is not a simple yes or no.

For many reasons, the world of opera is suffering a crisis. There are many things that plague the art form. From general lack of funding, through different, often ill conceived approaches to “modernize the form”; from the recording industry controlling a big chunk of the market to the lack of respect towards the old masters and traditions (composers, singers, conductors stagings); to a general demand of perceived realism (younger, faster, prettier) which most commonly leads to empty, uninteresting and inadequate.

Most singers, nowadays obtain their bachelor and master degrees by the age of 24. Their diplomas might not help them to acquire the job within the industry but the fact remains they have, at least to a certain extent, been trained in music theory, singing, acting, movement, some stage experience and all other traits one needs to become a classical singer.
The people with a late start tend to lack some or all of these at the age of 25.

Training? Yes, please.

There might be many reasons why one (re)discovers a passion for singing and desire to become a professional classical singer at a later age.

  • Late discoveries. For some singers, it was only later in life that they discovered that they had viable instruments. In (church) choirs where they were heard by conductors and encouraged to explore their voices more.
  • Dramatic voices often need longer to develop and mature and sometimes they go through fach changes which in turn require more time spent on technical work and learning a lot of new repertoire both of which are time-consuming. This implies, of course, that you know what your voice type is.
  • Singers who once had early aspirations for singing careers, but put them on hold because of competing priorities like raising children or simply putting food on the table.
  • Musicians who played an instrument who discovered they had fantastic voices
The singers from the last three categories mentioned above have some advantages. They all had previous music training which after years of “neglect” probably needed to be brushed up intensely but not learned from scratch. For the first category, regardless of age, perseverance and determination are the most important tools. If you plan to “catch up” you will need to work faster, harder, better, smarter and more efficiently than anyone younger than you to close the gap. You will need to build stamina and learn how to deal with stage fright, most likely to kick in given the lack of experience. I’m not trying to discourage you and I do believe that if you really want to do it then you will, but there’s no point in beat around the bushes. After all, you have no time to waste, do you?

Final thoughts

In some cases, age itself might not be a problem. If you happen to be a bass baritone or a dramatic mezzo your mature looks and gray hair won’t be an issue, as these voices usually portray aging characters. The experience might be a bigger requirement if the character in question is the lead but if you don’t mind singing a wide spectrum of supporting roles (and possibly work your way up) this might be a great opportunity.

Last but not least: set realistic goals. Treat this like a business that it is! Know your specific product and do your best to understand how it fits into the market. Focusing more on oratorio, lied performances, semi amateur productions etc.
Produce your own projects, collaborate with other artists of different genres, look at the Internet and new media as channels for creativity, and never give up on your passion and dreams – even if your path is not always linear.

An older singer might have to just accept this reality. Part of being a grown-up is not being cared for but learning how to take care of oneself. Therefore, the grown-up must create his/her own support system. Even the extremely young people face many trials and tribulations. In a graduating class of 15 people within 10 years chances are only a handful will still be singing actively and only 1 or 2 (if any) might “make it big”. This is the nature and reality of the operatic world, no matter the age.

Credits:
Cover photo by JC Bonassin
Background photo by Simon Wijers

About the author: Violetta Lazin

About the author: Violetta Lazin

Soprano

Violetta Lazin, soprano, is a former student of the McCray Studio. Violetta lives in The Hague, Netherlands and is the co-founder and Artistic Director of ARTax Music.

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Why should we transpose operatic music? https://mccraystudio.com/transpose-operatic-music/ https://mccraystudio.com/transpose-operatic-music/#respond Thu, 10 Aug 2017 11:36:42 +0000 https://mccraystudio.com/?p=25589 McCray Studio
Why should we transpose operatic music?

Are there any reasons not to transpose some operatic music? Why should singers not be allowed to transpose an opera aria?

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Why should we transpose operatic music?

Prologue: the transpose post that stirred too much trouble

A few years ago I accidentally caused a storm on a social media group: a young tenor who got hired to sing a well-known role in an even better-known opera in a small private company in Europe was having issues with singing an aria and was on a forum seeking advice on how to replace, modify or, his ideal option, transpose a particular phrase because of a high note in it. I’m not known for being very subtle, and I suggested, in firm but kind words, he should consider returning the role when he clearly couldn’t sing all of it.

On the same forum, I made a separate post explaining my outrage at such a question from a young professional and at the fact that people were getting out of their way to “help” him out. A debate which lasted for days, eventually died down only when the post was removed by the admins: not because I was called very abusive names (including bitch and nazi to name a few) but because it was “stirring too much trouble in general”. Whatever that means.

So Why do we NOT transpose operatic music?

It’s very simple: if the composer wanted it performed in another key, he would have WRITTEN IT IN ANOTHER KEY.

The old masters knew their craft well. Most people would agree they were geniuses and created things that shouldn’t be “messed with”. This goes for all classical music. No one in their right mind would suggest transposing any symphony or a concerto for any instrument, or piece of chamber music, no matter how easy it would be to perform just a part of it in a different key; would you transpose Chopin’s etude op.10 n.5 so that you don’t need to play it all on the black keys? Or a Mahler symphony? Or Mozart’s Requiem? I don’t think so. And yet, this is somehow acceptable when it comes to Opera.

Yes I know all the arguments :

Transpose Puccini? Would he agree....?

1. The classical songs are performed in different keys by different voices

Yes and no! First of all not all, art songs were intended for transposition. Certain Mahler and Strauss song cycles quickly come to mind but even masters like Schubert, Schumann etc. wrote songs in a certain key for a good reason; the old tradition suggests that the transposition in 1 or 2 specific different keys to accommodate all voice types was often suggested by composers themselves, again indicating that they had a pretty good idea what kind of sound and effect they wanted.

Yes, there are exceptions to be found. Made by famous singers of a certain era who really wanted to perform a particular cycle and therefore had it transposed to best suit their voices. Those are still more exceptions to the general rule than anything else. Earned by respected musicians who did their best to keep in the style and wishes of the composer. Despite the artistry of the performers, even such performances, while beautifully sung, still fall short of their target.

2. The pitch nowadays is higher than it was when the music was composed.

This is a fact within itself indisputable. However, so is the fact that we do not transpose the instrumental pieces of the same composers on the basis of this argument. Weather on 432, 438, 440 or 443 A flat minor and A sharp minor still have very different colors and are better in depicting certain type of moods/emotions. The tuning fork was invented in 1711 so, before that, people tuned to whatever A was available to them. Evidence shows that as early as 1836 the Paris opera tuned its pianos as high as 441 as so did Dresden Opera in 1859. While Verdi petitioned the National Music Commission in 1884 favoring the 432Hz to the already fairly established 438, he did not alter pitches of his earlier operas and there is no evidence he adjusted his later operas to “fit” the higher tuning frequencies either.

Higher tuning of the orchestras is not preferable to singers and is causing many negative side effects, such as casting lighter voices for dramatic roles because they are more likely to sustain the tessitura on a higher resonance without noticeable effort. The fact/argument that at least some of the noticeable effort was anticipated by the composers – who knew the “instrument” they were writing for very well and wrote particularly demanding phrases exactly so that they can “simulate” the tension (whether lyric or dramatic) in that particular moment in the opera – is, however, a topic for an entirely different article.

3. Voice is a live instrument

Agreed, voice is a “live” instrument and as such, it can not be replaced when broken like any other instrument or part of an instrument. Which goes back to the evolution of the human species. Humans are faster, have more endurance, live longer than ever before. Many sports competitions lower their age limits admitting that younger generations are more advanced and should be let in to compete earlier. Evolution interested the vocal chords as well, but the operatic world is going backward.

Pieces by J.S. Bach performed on today’s pianos were intended for an instrument very different in feel and therefore requiring a very different skill set for a performer (i.e. less strength in pressing the keys), but no one is transposing them to make them easier to play. You can either play it or you can not. In order to play it you need a certain talent and very good technique – if you do not have it you can’t play it.

Why is singing opera any different? Why is it that young instrumentalists are allowed and encouraged to venture into great music famous pieces as long as their technique and their musicality can follow but singers are not? Advised ages for performing certain roles or even composers are going up suggesting all singers should spend half of their careers singing nothing but Baroque or Mozart. But what if your voice is not really well suited for it? While in favor of being mindful of your voice and career, saying someone is too young for singing Verdi being 25 and having a solid technique is being hypocritical at best. Don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely against children singing operatic music, but I do believe that with proper vocal development and given you have a certain type of voice with good training you shouldn’t wait till you’re 30 to sing a Verdi role (which is not Gilda).

4. Other music styles (like pop jazz or musical) allow transposition: opera should just be less “old fashioned” and allow it as well.

Please do not even start me on this one. Aside from all the arguments above, comparing it to cooking it would be like telling a person they can substitute apples for oranges and in many cases apples with green beans or okra. You get the point – not an appropriate comparison.

Transposing chauvinism

Aside from the fact I am a strong believer that operatic music should be left as it is unless indicated otherwise by the composer (which is practically NEVER), there is yet another side which makes my blood boil in the whole matter. The chauvinism of it. I have no doubt that if the tenor from the beginning of the article was somehow a soprano or a mezzo asking what’s the best way to transpose her aria the general response on the forum would have been quite a bit different in intention and tone.

Have you ever heard of a soprano being allowed to transpose arias of Queen of the night, Turandot, the battle cry of Brunhilde from Walkure?

Neither have I. But I’m sure you have sat and even applauded to a tenor singing “Di quella pira” in any key that he could master to sing it in, from A to B natural, without a pardon; against the very wishes of the composer who was quite specific that the high notes could be added only if the key in which it is sung remained unchanged.

It is most commonly the tenors who seem to be granted this outrageous “privilege”: from Trovatore to La Bohème to Othello and Siegfried. From semi amateur productions to grand productions in famous opera houses across the world in which such things are kept under the radar but happen just the same: and I’m not talking about a one time thing which happens because the singer in question is very ill and there is no adequate last minute replacement, but about entire productions.

Final thoughts

Making a parallel with Paganini’s Caprices for violin or Ligeti’s etudes for piano or any other notoriously difficult pieces written for any instrument, the artists who can not perform them “come scritto” don’t play them “come possibile“: they simply don’t play them at all outside of their practice room. So perhaps the singers should take a cue of the majority of their music colleagues and, instead of trying to put blame on the pitch, concentrate their efforts and endeavours on becoming better and more confident with their own technique which, in turn, will make singing certain roles perhaps not effortless but certainly possible and in the spirit of their creator, not to mention to the absolute joy of the audiences all around the world.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below. This post will not be deleted because it’s stirring too much trouble…

About the author: Violetta Lazin

About the author: Violetta Lazin

Soprano

Violetta Lazin, soprano, is a former student of the McCray Studio. Violetta lives in The Hague, Netherlands and is the co-founder and Artistic Director of ARTax Music.

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Lyric or dramatic? How to determine your voice type https://mccraystudio.com/how-to-determine-your-voice-type/ https://mccraystudio.com/how-to-determine-your-voice-type/#respond Wed, 02 Aug 2017 10:09:27 +0000 https://mccraystudio.com/?p=25522 McCray Studio
Lyric or dramatic? How to determine your voice type

Likely the most important decision in a singer's career: what's your voice type? Are you a lyric voice or a dramatic voice? How can you determine it?

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Lyric or dramatic? How to determine your voice type

What’s your voice type? Lyric or dramatic?

Let me start with a rant. There is a statement that makes my blood boil every time I hear it:
“In The McCray Studio they train only dramatic voices”

Utterly wrong!

It has become a common practice, in colleges and conservatories around the world, for teachers to become extremely fearful of “pushing” the young singer. While it’s quite understandable to have a regard for lyricism in singing, it is equally dangerous, if not more dangerous, to try squeezing a big voice into a lyric mold just because the singer is young. Vocal strain when told to “lighten up” on the voice without the technical knowledge and ability of HOW TO DO IT might cause physical and psychological (permanent) damage to the singer and his/her instrument.

If such teachings are combined with the now common belief that singing opera should be as easy and effortless as speaking you might witness (as we often do in McCray studio) students with years of study behind them and no vocal development. Those voices sound very fragile and are led as lyric but they just lack basic vocal development. Only when one’s voice is developed can there be talk about its quality as potentially lyric or dramatic.

The young singer who’s voice can be described as dramatic has somewhat greater challenges. An operatic sound is an extraordinary vibration. A lighter-voiced singer singing a fully supported tone is already impressive in any room. The lighter-voiced singer, however extraordinary, sounds human. When we think of voice types, it is the lighter voices that are considered typical. To most people a voice of a tenor sounds like Nemorino or Rodolfo, not so much like Siegmund or Otello. A soprano sounds more like Pamina and Musetta rather than Turandot or Ariadne.

Dramatic challenges

The difficulties for the heavier-voiced singers typically begin early. Already in early training, most heavier-voiced singers are often told they sing too loudly or too heavily because they are naturally less coordinated in relation to the necessary breath compression. Such large voices must also become psychologically comfortable with the taking of greater personal space because of the natural power of the voice. Even speaking softly, a fully supported heavier voice will have a dramatic impact on the average listener. Those types of singers often reduce themselves to fit in and that is where technical problems begin.

The proper training and choice of repertoire for singers with a “dramatic” voice might sometimes be more challenging and time consuming for both the student and the pedagogue but much more productive, efficient and healthy for the singer in the long run.

Internet? Thank you, but no, thank you!

Use of internet to determine your lyric or dramatic quality or voice type often proves quite perilous. Weather you are a young teen, elderly singer or an amateur considering more professional approach please remember: you will NOT find the answer to those questions online whether it is in a form of an article or a chart. There’s a number of charts online stating such qualities for each voice: how is anyone supposed to know to get these right without proper training?

Vocal range, determining voice tessitura and voice quality (weight) are things to be worked on and developed with an actual voice teacher, in person.

If you look for the explanations for lyric voices, there are many extremely confusing statements on the internet, like:
A lyric voice is light, agile and usually pretty!” Aside from the fact that all these things can be extremely subjective, if you assume that dramatic voices are opposite to the statement above, they should be: big?! ugly?! inflexible ?!?!
I think not!

Coloratura

First of all let’s explain the term AGILE.
In most cases this term is associated with one’s ability to sing coloratura.
Coloratura (from Italian term colorare which means to color) is first and foremost a technical ability required by all voice types very much like the ability to sing forte or piano, to perform portamentos or staccato notes.

When used in English, the term coloratura specifically refers to elaborate melodies, particularly in vocal music and especially in operatic singing of the 18th and 19th centuries, with runs, trills, wide leaps or similar virtuoso-like material. Its instrumental equivalent is ornamentation. It is also now widely used to refer to passages of such music, operatic roles in which such music plays a prominent part, and singers of these roles.
So, if agility is not the term by which we should judge this, what is?

In layman’s terms lyric and dramatic most plainly refer to the “weight” or “true nature” of one’s voice. Dramatic voices are by nature darker, often described as powerful and richer, with a metallic quality (spinto) in contrast to Lyric being described as brighter, lighter and sweeter.
To avoid confusion with regard to “jargon” it is important to define the terminology in a manner as empirical as possible.

The native structure of a given singer’s voice is based on:

The length of the vocal folds, which tends to determine basic categorization (bass, tenor, mezzo, soprano)
The thickness of the vibrating superficial layer (generally referred to as fold-cover), which determines how substantial, thick and rich we perceive the native tone to be (i.e. the size of the voice).

The role of the music…

But there is another lyric and dramatic aspect when we talk about the voices: the lyricism and the drama of the music itself.

As mentioned above all professional singers regardless of the nature of their voice must be able to express lyricism or drama inherent to the music with their voices.

The issue is: same phrase sung by a lyric or dramatic voice will and SHOULD sound very different. It will probably have a small difference in tempo and phrasing as well. This is often a matter of taste. Not everyone agrees on casting of certain roles. The teaching school of “natural singing“, with the aid of the recording industry whose technical development enables it to record the most delicate of vibrations, has brought up a trend of casting voices more lyric in nature for roles that they would have never been considered for only 2 decades ago. In turn the operatic fans and even conductors mourn the loss of dramatic voices in the industry while they themselves partially helped to eliminate them.

Misunderstandings and wrong interpretations

Lyric or dramatic - Mirella Freni

1. Lyric voices are small! Not actually true. Thanks to the often metallic and dark quality of dramatic voices, the latter are more likely to penetrate larger orchestrations of (post) romantic composers like Wagner or Mahler; however, no one in their right mind would (or should) call a voice who sings Mimí (lyric soprano) or Liú (lirico-spinto) which goes through the thick Puccini orchestration a small voice.

One of the greatest lyric sopranos of all times, Mirella Freni, had a voice which, even though lyric in nature, was everything but small.

2. Lyric characters are always young people so all young people should sing these roles.
Wrong again! As mentioned on the beginning of this article, insisting that a young singer should excessively begin with lyric roles might bring the same danger as pushing a lyric voice into more dramatic repertoire too soon. Try walking in shoes several sizes smaller and see how your feet feel – same principle applies to a voice!

3. Dramatic voices are inflexible and can not sing soft.
Another misconception.
Great Bulgarian dramatic soprano Ghena Dimitrova one of the most celebrated Turandot of all times insisted that singing the belcanto repertoire (roles like Norma, Abigaille, Odabella, Lady MacBeth etc.) helped keep her voice agile and young.
This misconception mostly comes from the fact that, on average, young dramatic voices often struggle with mastering their voice a bit longer than their lyric counterparts.

Through practice and proper technique managing coloratura passages in their repertoire becomes as easy as with lyric voices. However, dramatic repertoire with extensive coloraturas is not so common for all voice types alike.

To conclude:

    • Terms Lyric and Dramatic can be used when referred to a character of the singer’s voice but also to the Lyricism or Drama within the music. While not mutually exclusive they do not mean the same thing as all singers regardless of the nature of their voice should be able to deliver both lyric and dramatic lines of music convincingly.
    • Training lyric and dramatic voices does not mean training them differently but it might take a voice dramatic in nature more time and effort to properly develop to its full potential.
    • Training and developing any voice requires: time, effort and personal interaction with a voice teacher. One can not determine such things using charts on the internet.
    • While some things might be or sound easier to deliver for a voice of a specific nature, both lyric and dramatic voices must be able to perform all technical and musical aspects of the given music. Having said that: if we take into account the size and ease with which dramatic voices penetrate orchestration and travel through space it is only natural that the pianissimo of a dramatic and lyric voice won’t sound exactly the same – nor should they!
Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

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How to sing high notes? https://mccraystudio.com/how-to-sing-high-notes/ https://mccraystudio.com/how-to-sing-high-notes/#respond Thu, 20 Jul 2017 09:40:08 +0000 https://mccraystudio.com/?p=25496 McCray Studio
How to sing high notes?

How do I sing high notes?! Is a question that rates number 1 on most singer forums. There are too many theories on the topic. Do be careful....

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How to sing high notes?

Within the 1st week of getting to know James McCray back in the late 90s, I became his translator during many lessons he was giving at the opera house in Serbia to singers who weren’t sufficiently proficient in English, Italian or German. I was a 16 years old singing student and I was more than happy to put my solid English skills to good use while learning about singing at the same time.

One day a well known singer, who was more interesting in a short consult than taking lessons, asked him to give her a technical tip on how to sing a high C. At first James didn’t seem to understand the question. After I assured him of the validity of my translation he smiled and asked her if she was a coloratura soprano. After a negative replay on her behalf he sad:
There is no much philosophy about high notes – you do your best to make sure everything up to that note is working as it should…than you open your mouth – and you pray!”

I must admit, at the time, I was as puzzled and unsatisfied with his answer as was the singer who asked the question (who left shortly after thinking he was just holding on to a key piece of information out of sheer spite towards her), but in time I learned to appreciate the subtle simplicity of the answer.
Here is why:

How do I sing high notes?!

Is a question that rates number 1 on most singer forums. There are thousands of (blog) posts about it and probably just as much pseudo “quick solutions” to be found on forums, YouTube etc. The sad truth is: in 99,9% of cases there is no quick fix or solution. Our (in)ability to sing beautiful, stable and long held top notes that excite us probably as much as they excite the audience tells us plenty about our vocal technique and (vocal) health.

While the obstacles in performing them might be divided into two categories: physical and mental ones – more often than not, over time it becomes a combination of both.

High notes: physical obstacles

They can be related to many things. Most common ones being insufficient vocal technique and being improperly led as a voice type.

Aside from those two, it could be that the singer has an actual physical issue as folds are not being able to properly close and phonate. This can occur due to weakness of the muscles surrounding the folds, an actual obstacle like vocal nods/lesions, insufficient blood flow trough the folds or acid reflux (which leaves the throat inflamed/burned and raw).

Singer could also be putting to much (or not enough) energy into producing a note causing the muscles in their throat and body in general to be too tense (or too relaxed) to aid them it their attempt.

High notes: mental obstacles

These are almost always connected to the physical ones. Over time, being faced with failing in their attempts (no matter what they do) singers develop a belief that they cannot do it or that is very very difficult to do it.

Depending on their negative experiences they develop fears of high notes. Of them cracking, being out of tune, or not arriving on them at all – which in turn can lead to stage fright as well. Sometimes getting over the mental hurdle might prove more difficult even after they have resolved their physical/technical issues as there is no teacher who can make a person believe they can do something when they are sure they cannot.

However, solid technique and successful repetition over a longer period of time always helps!

Further confusion on the subject is created by people professing success with quick fixes like: press your abdominal muscles like you need to go to the bathroom, open/close your anus, warm up with a song, use twang etc. You might laugh – but these are all google search “solutions” I found on internet (often within the 1st page!!!) and many desperate singers and singing students have tried some or all of them mostly to feel like even bigger failures for not “getting it right” afterwards.

My all time favorite is: “singing (high notes) should be as effortless as speaking” (which is total idiocy). It’s like stating that running a race is as effortless to a professional runner as walking!!!

To sum it up

James’s remark – “make sure everything leading up to high note is as it should be than open your mouth and pray” – is actually quite right. Of course you need to keep in mind that he was talking to a well rounded singer with no vocal problems and years of experience on stage singing leading roles. That singer knew how to sing and had no trouble doing so – she was just curious if there was a way to make it even more effortless and James, in his delicate way explained it is not possible to do so. And THAT is what most people fail to see. Where singing an isolated high note should not “cost” you much effort (it can be ALMOST as easy as speaking) a same note within a phrase in an aria (or a whole opera) will probably require a bit more effort. As it’s MEANT to be the high point and it’s for that very purpose put there by the composer.

Singing (opera) is top sport and as athletes in our field we need to train our specific muscles and body in general to the best of our abilities. keeping in mind that our body IS our instrument and as such susceptible to all sorts of environmental, psychological and physical conditions.

So if you thought this was another 10 tips on how to sing high notes, you might find yourself very disappointed as the main conclusion of this article is: there is no substitute to solid vocal technique and good vocal, physical and psychological health.

About the author: Violetta Lazin

About the author: Violetta Lazin

Soprano

Violetta Lazin, soprano, is a former student of the McCray Studio. Violetta lives in The Hague, Netherlands and is the co-founder and Artistic Director of ARTax Music.

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How acoustic affects a singer’s performance https://mccraystudio.com/how-acoustic-affects-singer-performance/ https://mccraystudio.com/how-acoustic-affects-singer-performance/#respond Wed, 12 Jul 2017 11:30:27 +0000 https://mccraystudio.com/?p=25452 McCray Studio
How acoustic affects a singer’s performance

How does the acoustic of a room or hall affect your voice? How can it affect your performance while auditioning or in concert?

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How acoustic affects a singer’s performance

Acoustic and voice: how does it concern you?

Classical singers’ perceived singing effort has had a statistically significant relationship with preferred room setting. In addition, it has been found that there is a relationship between preference and background in vocal studies, which means that while experienced classical singers prefer dead conditions to live conditions, inexperienced classical singers prefer live conditions to dead conditions. It has also been found that, according to perceptual responses, experienced classical singers exert less singing effort while less experienced classical singers exert more singing effort in same acoustic conditions.

Introduction

When speaking or singing in a room, the room returns the sound of one’s voice to the ears. This acoustic feedback contributes to the impression of the room environment, affects the difficulty (or ease) of speaking or singing, and affects how the voice is projected. For rooms that are designed for critical speaking and singing tasks (e.g., classrooms, lecture theaters, court rooms, conference rooms, control rooms, music practice rooms, music auditorium, etc.) the psychological and behavioral effects of the room acoustics on a talker or singer can be sufficiently important to warrant consideration of how such rooms are designed and/or used.

In this article I will try to answer the many questions regarding the acoustic of the practice/rehearsal rooms and auditioning spaces. How it influences our performance how we perceive it and what, if anything ,we as singers can do about it. But first a small reminder on the voice itself, its production resonance, registers etc.

The human voice consists of sound made by a human being using the vocal folds for talking, singing, laughing, crying, screaming, etc.

The human voice frequency is specifically a part of human sound production in which the vocal folds (vocal cords) are the primary sound source. The mechanism for generating the human voice can be subdivided into three parts:

  • the lungs
  • the vocal folds within the larynx
  • the articulators

The sound

The vocal folds, in combination with the articulators, are capable of producing highly intricate arrays of sound. The tone of voice may be modulated to suggest emotions such as anger, surprise, or happiness. Singers use the human voice as an instrument for creating music.

The sound of each individual’s voice is entirely unique not only because of the actual shape and size of an individual’s vocal cords but also due to the size and shape of the rest of that person’s body, especially the vocal tract, and the manner in which the speech sounds are habitually formed and articulated. (It is this latter aspect of the sound of the voice that can be mimicked by skilled performers.)

Humans have vocal folds that can loosen, tighten, or change their thickness, and over which breath can be transferred at varying pressures. The shape of chest and neck, the position of the tongue, and the tightness of otherwise unrelated muscles can be altered. Any of these actions results in a change in pitch, volume, timbre, or tone of the sound produced.

Sound also resonates within different parts of the body, and an individual’s size and bone structure can affect somewhat the sound produced by an individual. Singers can also learn to project sound in certain ways so that it resonates better within their vocal tract. This is known as vocal resonation. The end result of resonation is, or should be, to make a better sound. Major influence on vocal sound and production is the function of the larynx, which people can manipulate in different ways to produce different sounds. These different kinds of laryngeal function are described as different kinds of vocal registers. There are seven areas that may be listed as possible vocal resonators. In sequence from the lowest within the body to the highest, these areas are:

  • the chest
  • the tracheal tree
  • the larynx itself
  • the pharynx
  • the oral cavity
  • the nasal cavity
  • the sinuses

Acoustical aspects: nothing works as expected…

Now as a young singer after a long time of practicing your technique and repertoire you embark on your first audition. Often it is close to home so you had an opportunity to warm up either in your usual practice room perhaps even with your teacher and everything seams fine. Then you enter the unfamiliar space of the auditioning room or stage and as soon as you open your mouth (even to speak) you notice that your voice sounds different. You tried to adjust and you end up having a terrible experience where “nothing works as expected” – sounds familiar?

Here is why:

In order to explain this I need to introduce you to the 5 acoustical concepts

  1. reverberation
  2. cubic volume
  3. absorption
  4. reflecting/defusing sound
  5. presence/envelopment of sound
1. Reverberation – the persistence of sound in an enclosed space – affects the character and quality of music. It’s measured in seconds, from when a sound is generated to when it becomes inaudible. Room size and the absorptive characteristics of interior surfaces affect reverberation, along with the absorption provided by people, chairs and other furnishings.

Relevance: Excessive reverberation (in bear spaces big and small like some churches for instance) can interfere with accurately hearing definition and detail as the sound keeps bouncing back and forth from different surfaces creating a cacophony.

2. Cubic volume – is the floor area multiplied by the ceiling height.

Relevance: Cubic volume is the single biggest factor affecting rehearsal room acoustics, for better or for worse. Cubic volume is often insufficient, frequently caused by low ceiling height. Adequate cubic volume helps dissipate loudness while providing an area large enough to slightly delay sound reflections off the walls, floor and ceiling. This delay allows the human ear and mind to process the sound, resulting in an ability to accurately hear the entire spectrum of musical sound and generating the “presence” mentioned below.

3. Absorption of sound – is the reduction of sound energy that occurs when it contacts surface materials. Hard, solid surfaces like concrete reflect most sound energy back into the room, providing little absorption but a lot of reverberation. When sound energy hits thick, fibrous surfaces, it attempts to pass through the material and essentially loses energy by friction.

Relevance: Rooms with little or no absorption can be overly loud, making hearing difficult. Excessive reverberation also makes clarity difficult because the truly balanced sound required for critical listening is lacking. In many cases poor absorption causes acoustical anomalies such as flutter echo: a prolonged buzz caused by sound energy bouncing between parallel hard surfaces.

4. Reflecting and Diffusing Sound – The concepts of reflection and diffusion go hand-in-hand with, and in some ways are opposite to, absorption. Reflection occurs when sound strikes a hard, dense surface and is reflected at the angle of incidence, like shining a flashlight into a mirror. Diffusion occurs when the shape of a hard surface scatters and redirects the sound so that it is heard in other parts of the space, like shining that same light at a mirrored ball.

Relevance: A good choral rehearsal room should have ample diffusion so that all sound can be clearly heard throughout the space. In performances, diffusion helps audience members hear accurately. Historic theatres, for example, often feature extravagant plasterwork and ornamentation with irregular angles and curves. Along with offering aesthetic benefits, these architectural features enhance diffusion by creating acoustically reflective surfaces.

5. Presence and Envelopment of sound – Presence is a general term musicians use to describe the positive acoustic attributes of a space. Envelopment is the sense of being immersed in, or surrounded by, the music.

Relevance: When musicians can hear their sound “out in the room” it allows them to better focus on phrasing, intonation, and communication with other musicians.

Final thoughts

In layman terms: rooms vary greatly in quality of their acoustic and are fairly unpredictable. Also worth knowing is that often in large rehearsal rooms or on stage presence and envelopment we as singers hear might be (and often is) very deceiving. Meaning that while we experience the space as dead and dry with sound falling “dead before our own feet” the experience the audience has is quite the opposite.

Of course a great deal depends on our training. The singers trained in mostly baroque style with emphasis on little to no vibrato might thrive in overly acoustic churches and bare rooms where singers trained to sing bigger repertoire opera will have a great difficulty working/performing in such environments, as the sound will simply bounce off the walls creating an unpleasant experience for singers and audience alike.

As singers we rely on the panel we audition for to provide a space in which our voices and their quality will be adequately represented and the fact that people on the panel should be very skilled in knowing the difference of how a voice in a room might (or might not) sound on stage (and with orchestra), but this is not always the case. Often the rooms are too small or extremely dry in which case the only thing which will save you is your technique and calm nerves. Make peace with the fact this is something that is always “out of our hands”. Be prepared to relay solely on your inner feeling rather than the acoustic of the room. To train for this, try performing in as many different spaces as you possibly can.

Trust me: like most things it gets easier with time. Practice Practice Practice!

About the author: Violetta Lazin

About the author: Violetta Lazin

Soprano

Violetta Lazin, soprano, is a former student of the McCray Studio. Violetta lives in The Hague, Netherlands and is the co-founder and Artistic Director of ARTax Music.

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How to audition successfully https://mccraystudio.com/how-to-audition-successfully/ https://mccraystudio.com/how-to-audition-successfully/#respond Wed, 28 Jun 2017 06:55:46 +0000 https://mccraystudio.com/?p=25339 McCray Studio
How to audition successfully

Not sure what to wear or what to say? Feel the pressure? Here are quick 10 tips to make sure you are successful at your audition.

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How to audition successfully

Let’s face it- It’s nerve wrecking. Auditioning. That time when we get an email or a phone call confirming our time slot for the audition. Years of training, singing lessons, coaching, acting – all summed up in the next 10 minutes on the day of the audition.

Introduction

 

Before I offer a few advice on do’s and don’ts of a successful audition you need to know one thing: the auditioning panel WANTS you to SUCCEED. I know it most often doesn’t look like it but you need to consider a few things: the panel members are there morning to evening often for days, they get not enough air and too much coffee, they have heard the same piece 20 times just today, they too need (bathroom) breaks and they never have quite enough time for them due to things usually running late and they are constantly watched as much as you are in your 10 minute time slot.

They are human and as all of us prone to headaches, personal issues etc. But they want you to succeed. Because if you prove to be the person they are looking for it means their search and pressure to find that person is over and they too have done their job and done it well.

10 tips to a successful audition

That said, it also doesn’t mean that if you have done an amazing audition, feel good about it, the panel seamed very excited and enthusiastic about your performance and you still don’t get the job – that you weren’t any good. It’s the complete opposite most of the time. It just means that you aren’t quite what they were looking for to complete the cast they (for instance) already have.

So, take a deep breath, try to calm those nerves, keep your focus and do your best by:

1. Be confident. NOT arrogant just confident. When you enter the room, smile, speak clearly and concisely, make eye contact, wear appropriate attire (don’t wear a “costume” or show too much flesh for auditioning for Carmen) do not wear short trousers or very short skirts, do not go crazy with colors. First impressions count a lot so, if you are not naturally confident, practice your entrance with colleagues, family and friends or, even better, consult an acting teacher. If you suffer from performance anxiety, follow these tips. You don’t need to entertain the panel, be super funny etc. but you do need to show you are able to properly communicate with people in the production and creative team.
2. Arrive to your audition early and ready to sing. That way if they have had any last minute cancellations you can fill in the slot without feeling rushed. I know this is a standard but the opposite happens more often than not: always inform yourself about the show you are auditioning for, so if you are asked question you can answer them properly. Know your music inside out. Sing with proper pronunciation and know your text word for word. Use proper ornamentation for the period.
3. Have a proper CV and photograph. You don’t have to spend a fortune on it but make sure the spelling is correct, all your information is on it and up to date and please don’t use your holiday photo as a picture on your CV
If you do these things it will show the panel that you take the audition and potential job seriously, that you are professional and smart.
Tip for audition: have a proper CV
4. Always start your audition with the aria that is the most solid in your voice and heart. Something that really shows off your personal talent your, voice technique and unique personality. A piece you have performed before and are very much at ease with. Of course that is not always possible. The panel might politely ask/insist you start with a different piece from your list in which case you will have an opportunity to show them who you are.
5. Congenial. If asked to perform a piece from your list which you weren’t intending to start with, do not make a scene. Smile politely take a few moments and DO it. After all the piece requested IS on your list so you were prepared to perform it. It will show the panel that you are willing and able to compromise, which is a good trade in any potential coworker.

If the panel request a piece that is possibly not on your list but it is on your repertoire you will have to think quick on your feet and decide if you are willing to sing it. It probably means they are interested in you doing that piece but if you are not comfortable doing it decline as politely as you possibly can. Do NOT lie and say you don’t have the music with you as it might happen that they have the music on hand or the pianist knows the piece by heart which will put you in more trouble.

6. Choose your repertoire wisely. Know what you are auditioning for. Your list will vary depending on if you’re auditioning for a position in an opera studio or you are auditioning for a specific role. Houses under the “German system” are quite set on staying within one FACH. Make sure you take up the advice of your teachers and coaches on this – they have a lot more experience with it than you do.
7. As I mentioned above it often happens that the panel hears the same piece over and over again. After a while all the interpretations blend into one so make sure yours is a unique one. That doesn’t mean you have to stand on your head while singing a very difficult passage, it means you have something to say a little bit different form the others. It is your unique point of view on the same pages of music that will separate you from the others and make a difference of possibly getting the job.
8. Pianists are your partner on stage and the best friends you can have. Make sure it remains so. Have your music properly copied, bound and marked and recheck it before every audition. Have your cadenzas written out, if your tempo varies from the standard make sure you marked it with the closest metronome marking you can. Mark beginnings and ends (sometimes they vary).

Mark CUTS and do your best that the music that is cut out is not on the page or is clearly unreadable. If you are bringing really difficult contemporary pieces make sure to contact the panel ahead of time and inquire if you should send the music. If you are bringing Nixon in China, Wozzeck or something similar ask your own pianist to mark the score with some things another pianist who is reading the score for the 1st time will find helpful.

You might not have the opportunity to have a short rehearsal with them beforehand and you really do not want to have the panel waiting while you are going trough the whole aria with a pianist on stage. Make sure you thank them before and after and consider that, if you are singing a contemporary piece, the panel might have not heard it before and might not be sure that you are singing the correct notes. Pianist are often a point of reference for the panel as well.

Last but not least:

9. Do not under any circumstances badmouth your colleagues and people you have worked with in an audition room. This world of music is very small and you never know if you will offend someone’s feelings. Besides it is highly unprofessional!
10. Very last and most important: have fun!

What about you? Do you have any particular tips?

About the author: Violetta Lazin

About the author: Violetta Lazin

Soprano

Violetta Lazin, soprano, is a former student of the McCray Studio. Violetta lives in The Hague, Netherlands and is the co-founder and Artistic Director of ARTax Music.

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5 Tips to win stage fright https://mccraystudio.com/5-tips-win-stage-fright/ https://mccraystudio.com/5-tips-win-stage-fright/#comments Thu, 08 Jun 2017 12:06:29 +0000 https://mccraystudio.com/?p=25161 McCray Studio
5 Tips to win stage fright

Stage fright? Performances anxiety? Fear of audience? Problems common to most performers that can be easily solved. Tip: let’s start with a few check points

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5 Tips to win stage fright

How to deal with and overcome stage fright?

Performance anxiety, commonly known as “stage fright”, may be observed in people of all experiences and backgrounds, from those who are completely new to being in front of an audience to those who have done so for years.

Many people with no other problems in communication can experience stage fright. Quite often, stage fright arises in a mere anticipation of a performance, often a long time ahead. It is commonly known among everyday people and may, for example, affect their confidence in job interviews. But it also affects actors, comedians, musicians, politicians and people of other professions commonly used to speaking/ performing in front of a “crowd”.
When someone starts to feel the sensation of being scared or nervous they start to experience anxiety.
Anxiety usually has physical symptoms that may include a racing heart, a dry mouth, a shaky voice, blushing, trembling, sweating, lightheaded-ness, impaired vision and nausea. Being the center of attention and having “all eyes on you” can be stressful. Your body reacts to this situation in much the same way as it would if you were being attacked.

Your body’s “fight-or-flight” mechanism kicks in, which is why symptoms of stage fright are similar to symptoms that occur when you are in real danger. Confronting your fears and vulnerabilities, accepting yourself for who you are, and not feeling like you have to prove yourself to others, is the first step toward overcoming performance anxiety.
The second step is learning how to redirect your negative thoughts, beliefs, images, and predictions about performing in public. Doing this is not as difficult as you might think.

Let’s start with a few basics check points
Under the assumption you actually enjoy singing let’s start with a few basic check points

01.

PRACTICE.

Are you feeling well prepared for a task at hand? You can keep up a brave front for your colleagues teachers audience or auditioning panel but you can not fool yourself. Is the piece you’re about to perform something you feel comfortable and secure performing while “just practicing” ? Is it well rehearsed?

If the answer to any of the questions above is NO then I strongly suggest the old road to Carnegie Hall of PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. A general rule is that 100% in a room usually amounts to the max of 80% on stage so if you’re particularly nervous about some phrases or high notes I would strong heartedly suggest you pick a piece you feel more at ease with to perform in public. Hoping that a particularly difficult phrase will somehow magically work on stage when it (almost) never worked in rehearsal/lesson is just inviting anxiety in. Be realistic. And if the performance goes well you are already building extra confidence to take on a more difficult piece.
Do youfreeze in front of audience/auditioning panel despite the fact that your lessons/rehearsals are going well?

02.

START SLOW.

Ask a supportive friend or a family member you are otherwise very comfortable around to come and listen to a rehearsal/class. Organize a mini performance for your friends and family, volunteer to sing a nice song at your cousin’s small wedding, try finding a venue that hosts try-out concerts where, for a small fee, you can try out a piece or two in front of a friendly audience. Work slowly on increasing your audience so that your confidence can grow accordingly.

For auditions ask more experienced colleagues to “play out” a commission for you in a room. Practice going out on stage, what you will say and rehearse a couple scenarios where you need to state which piece you will be singing etc. Consulting/working on this with a stage director or an acting teacher might be money wisely spent if you are going on professional auditions and will help you reduce stage fright as well as save you some unpleasant surprises and disappointments.

03.

EXERCISE.

In order to learn how to redirect your negative thoughts and beliefs, common sense also applies.
Performing at your best level is often a “top sport” activity so adopting a healthy lifestyle is a good place to start. Exercise, eat a healthy diet, get adequate sleep. Practice controlled breathing, meditation, biofeedback, yoga and explore other strategies/methods to help you relax and redirect your thoughts when they turn negative. It is best to practice some type of relaxation technique every day, regardless of whether you have a performance, so that the skill is there for you when you need it.

04.

BEFORE THE PERFORMANCE.

On the day of the performance avoid excess caffeine, Eat a sensible meal with complex carbohydrates a few hours before you are to perform so that you have energy and don’t get hungry. Take a (short) walk, jump up and down a couple times or shake out your muscles to ease your anxious feelings before the performance.
Shift the focus off of yourself and your fear to the enjoyment you are providing to the spectators. Don’t focus on what could go wrong. Instead focus on the positive. Learn how to visualize your success.
Makes yourself look good – you will feel better. (This doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot of money on your wardrobe. It means to dress according to the occasion in an outfit that you feel good in).

05.

CONNECT.

Once on stage – connect with the audience. Smile (this too will help you relax),  make eye contact and if you opt for actually keeping your gaze consciously at the audience make sure you connect with the friendliest member you can find.

Keep in mind that stage fright is usually worse before the performance and often goes away once you get started.

Should I use medications for stage anxiety?

There are many young singers asking questions about medication to “control anxiety” in particular Beta blockers.
First thing you need to know about beta blockers is: they are prescription cardiac medication! Their main purpose is to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Beta blockers work by blocking the effects of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, therefore the physical symptoms of stress response are reduced.

However the side effects of this medication commonly include dizziness, headache, fatigue, diminished concentration, nausea and in more extreme cases and cases of unmonitored or prolonged (ab)use: cold extremities, fainting, depression, sleep disturbances, nightmares, hallucinations, short term memory loss, high or low blood sugar, stomachaches, flatulence, constipation, diarrhea, dry mouth, vomiting, heartburn, bloating, impotence or decreased libido, difficulty urinating, bronchospasm, cough, joint pain, and muscle cramps, rashes and anaphylactic shock (sudden unconsciousness or death) .

The reports on using the beta blockers as a performer are mixed. While it’s a (fairly common) practice for performers, sportspersons and politicians at a very top level you should keep in mind that those people are under a strict medical supervision. Taking prescribed medication without actual prescription is not only illegal in most countries and potentially very dangerous for your health but, when unsupervised, it could also negatively affect your important performance or audition if you decide to just try it out there and then.
If you have explored every other option (and I doubt you truly have) I recommend talking to your doctor and see what are his thoughts on the subject. Be very careful!

Final thoughts

On a final note, a documentary on the subject by American filmmaker John Beder came out in fall 2016: through the lens of professional classical musicians, “Composed” explores the many ways we experience and can address performance anxiety. Christoph Eschenbach, interviewed in the movie along with many others, put it this way: “The film explores what without exception all of us, performers, have experienced and known well – first, love for our craft and stage, and then performance anxiety at the other end of this beautiful and exciting spectrum. Congratulations to the director John Beder and his team for completing this project and for inviting all of us to a meaningful and necessary conversation.” Andrew Hitz, host of the popular “The entrepreneurial musician“, interviewed John in the 83rd episode of his podcast. Definitely worth listening to!

These tips should help reduce performance anxiety. But if they don’t, talk to a counselor or therapist trained in treating anxiety issues. Confronting your fears and learning ways to reduce and manage anxiety can be empowering. It will it make you feel good about yourself and become a more confident performer, too.

Do you use any particular method to get rid of stage fright? Do you have any questions? Do let me know in the comments below and if you found this post useful don’t forget to share it!

About the author: Violetta Lazin

About the author: Violetta Lazin

Soprano

Violetta Lazin, soprano, is a former student of the McCray Studio. Violetta lives in The Hague, Netherlands and is the co-founder and Artistic Director of ARTax Music.

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Israel https://mccraystudio.com/israel/ https://mccraystudio.com/israel/#respond Tue, 01 Dec 2015 17:55:42 +0000 https://mccraystudio.com/?p=83 McCray Studio
Israel

In July of 1966, my family and I moved from New York City to Tel Aviv, Israel, in order for me to rehearse the tenor role of Riccardo in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Un Ballo in Maschera“, for the opening of the Israeli National Opera’s 20 th anniversary season,

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Israel

How it all started

In July of 1966, my family and I moved from New York City to Tel Aviv, Israel, in order for me to rehearse the tenor role of Riccardo in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Un Ballo in Maschera“, for the opening of the Israeli National Opera’s 20 th anniversary season, directed by Edis de Philippe, under the musical direction of George Singer, and with Netania Davrath as my partner, Amelia.

This was the beginning of three of the best years of my life. Living on the sea in Israel and singing over 300 performances of the operatic repertoire I loved, not only in Tel Aviv, but Beer Sheba, Jerusalem, Haifa and several Kibutzim.

Then, my wife was Simona Pekelis: an Italian Jew, born in Florence, whom I met at The Mannes School of Music in Manhattan.

Her father was the great Russian zionist Aleksander Pekelis, who is mentioned in David Ben Gurion’s book, and was tragically killed in a plane crash in Shannon Ireland while returning home to New York from the Basel Conference in 1949. All the indications at the time, where, that he would have been one of the first cabinet members of the newly founded state of Israel.

Interestingly enough this was not the reason I went to Israel, but it was a part of the reason I came to love and respect the land of Israel.

An Irish catholic, American, married to an Italian, Russian, Jew, who takes her to the land of her forefathers, because The Metropolitan Opera recommended me to Edis de Philippe, the founder of The Israeli National Opera, as a young tenor, who needed experience on stage. And that is how it started.

Moving to Israel

Simona alerted her family, the Ottolenghi’s of Ramat Gan and soon we had a small house in Herzliah Pituach next to Simona’s cousin Memmi, owned by a great soldier, Colonel Ben Dov.

He actually reduced the rent after the 67-war.

The opera season opened, and from the few reviews enclosed one can see what a success it was. A scheduled 15 performances of “Ballo” became 42 because Netania and I were a great pair, and the public didn’t want it to be over – neither did Edis or myself or Netania.

One of the several anecdotal episodes which occurred during the first season was a Bar Mitzvah. In The Opera House working on the side of the stage as stage manager was a marvelous man named Rosenblatt. In New York I was very familiar with recordings of great cantors including Yoosele Rosenblatt. I asked Mr. Rosenblatt if he was familiar with the great Polish tenor who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. His reply was “he was my uncle”. Well, the next spring, 1967, I sang at his son’s (the great nephew of Yoosele Rosenblatt’s) Bar Mitzvah 2 Italian songs with violin and accordion.

And of course that spring was also the overture to the 6-day war.

The 6-days war

No one could convince me to leave Israel at that time, and Netania and I often sang for the IDF. One evening in Beer Sheba we sang Tosca for the troops on a large platform outside under the stars with costumes, but no sets. They kept us there long past midnight.

A few days before the war began , I was interviewed at home by one of the newspapers. My 6 year old daughter, Lisa, was asked what she thought about the Impending war. Her reply was: “If there is a war I wish it was yesterday”. This was the title of the article.”Let it be yesterday”.

I don’t know how many people remember that on Sunday evening June the 5th, 1967 we performed Carmen at the Israeli National Opera, and the very next saturday Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci. I sang Don Jose in Carmen and Canio in I Pagliacci.

In fact I came to a scheduled rehearsal on the morning of June the 6th and was told by the doorman that Edis had cancelled the rehearsal. I telephoned her to say that I thought in order not to frighten some of the foreign singers we should rehearse. And we did.

After the rehearsal I brought the rehearsal pianist home with me for the day.

I hear that now Aaron Charlof is quite an important Israeli composer and my student Edna Prochnik recently sang one of his compositions in Tel Aviv.

Moving on

In September of 1967 Edis de Phillippe produced Samson and Dalilah and I sang the title role. At the premiere, in the first row on the balcony I was very proud to see Moshe Dayan, whom I had met earlier that year at his home. I spent a great evening with him, as he showed me his ancient artifacts, and in particular his hermetically sealed workshop where, when he had time, he repaired these magnificent objects.

During the 1967 – 1968 season I added 4 new roles to my repertoire, and continued to sing an average of two performances per week. During this period my wife’s cousin Memmi began bringing her small children to the opera every Saturday evening when I was singing, which was often.

In July of 2001, when I attended my son Daniel’s wedding, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, after 33 years I met these 4 children (now adults of course). They were very excited to see me again and explain that because of those years, they, and several of their friends attend the opera very often.

The 1967 – 1968 season brought me again 4 new roles, including Enzo in La Gioconda. It was also during this season that my wife Simona announced that we would have a Sahbra. Our son Daniel McCray was born on april 21, 1969, one day after Hitler’s birthday, which all the nurses had prayed for, and then applauded at his, and our luck.

I received the news at my favorite Arab restaurant on Arlozorof street. The son of Arlozorof was coincidentally my next door neighbor, and his son was my daughter’s playmate.

The same season brought me an offer from Julius Rudel to return to The New York City Opera, which I reluctantly accepted, having fallen in love with Israel.

Footnote

In 1979, due to several circumstances, in my personal life, including divorce, I decided to return to Israel. I phoned Evan Zohar, the husband of Eris de Phillippe and a very powerful man in his own right, being one of the founding members of the Histadrut. He was a real character and carried his own weapon (silver plated) instead of using a body guard. I told him I wished to return to live in Israel. He was delighted and then spoke to Edis who was out of town, and phoned me back to say that she was very happy her favourite tenor would return, and that we would make Otello together. In those days she was in the hospital for some check up, the reason she hadn’t spoken to me personally.

Four days later I received a phone call in New York informing me of Edis de Phillippes death on the operating table.

The end of my Israeli story – I thought.

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The art of training and developing the voice https://mccraystudio.com/the-art-of-training-and-developing-the-voice/ https://mccraystudio.com/the-art-of-training-and-developing-the-voice/#respond Tue, 01 Dec 2015 17:55:17 +0000 https://mccraystudio.com/?p=85 McCray Studio
The art of training and developing the voice

How to train the human voice - vocal technique to develop a complete operatic voice: from mask to breathing, from the larynx to chest voice

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McCray Studio
The art of training and developing the voice

Developing an operatic voice: misunderstandings and technique

This article is quite lengthy and for better reading purposes it has been divided in the following sections:

  1. How to train the human voice
  2. Singing in the mask
  3. The position of the larynx
  4. Breathing
  5. Chest voice
  6. Exercises
  7. Final thoughts

How to train the human voice

There seems to be at present, and indeed for several years now, a great many misunderstandings, about how to train the human voice. One of these is attempting to train it by way of the effect, rather than the cause. Quite clearly stated, we sing with our vocal chords, and the result is resonance in the pharynx, and of course the bones of the head.

When I began to study at the age of twenty-three in New York City, this was made obvious by most teachers, even though there were different approaches, and each one had a specific vocabulary. At that time, it was clear to everyone that the Italian School of Singing was the only one; after all, the Italian School was the beginning of it all. Today this is not the case, and many people ignore, or are not aware of this traditional, and indeed productive approach to the voice. Modernization is not always preferable, since most of the great classical music was written many years ago, and in order to fulfill its demands (and I know from my own personal experience) the so called “old fashioned” approach is the best one; in fact the only one for a singer to realize his or her full potential. At present, I will not go into how many sins some of the current stage directors have committed against some of the greatest operatic masterpieces ever written, under the guise of modernization.

Each singer must produce his or her voice from inside and never copy someone from just listening.

Some years after World War II, Western European singing was greatly influenced by certain singers speaking the text, rather than just singing the word. Although, it is beyond me how this became a standard for the study of vocal technique. These were artists whose personalities and of course great expressions moved audiences.

By no means can this be imitated as a standard for singing, as it is also impossible to copy other great singers. Each singer must produce his or her voice from inside, and never copy someone from just listening. Although a certain amount of listening is essential, it is impossible to understand what a great singer is doing inside to make it sound like the voice is flying. One cannot and should not try to guess what he or she is doing.

When the vowel is sung properly with the right amount of energy, the consonant is then carried by this energy and the diction is practically perfect. The key to this is the sung vowel and a rather dark-ish vowel at that, pronounced with the muscles at the back of the throat, not the lips. Brightening the vowel and putting it forward only inhibits the resonance and of course, diminishes the sound of the voice, making it practically impossible to sing with an orchestra. The other effect of the forward approach is the issue of finding the pitch: the problem is technical. If the voice functions as it should, pitch is never an issue.

After working with hundreds of singers such as my first students (Anoosha Golesorkhi, Jaco Huijpen, Frank van Aken, Eva Maria Westbroek, Violetta Lazin and Bastiaan Everink), I have never had one with a “so called” pitch problem, once the voice is trained to a certain level.

Singing in the mask

One great misunderstanding is the use of the phrase, “sing in the mask”. One of the first people to utilize this phrase was the great polish tenor Jean de Reszke (1851-1925) in his teaching, but he also said at the same time, that “the larynx must be low to achieve the resonance of the whole mask”, and not just sing in the nose, which causes many problems. By the way, Jean de Reszke was the leading tenor at the Metropolitan Opera before Caruso’s arrival on the operatic scene. There are no recordings of him but for example, at the Metropolitan Opera in one week, he would sing the leading tenor roles in Lucia di Lammermoor, Aida, and Tristan. No simple achievement!

Jean once said to his brother Edward, a great basso, about Enrico Caruso:

“Edward, one day this young man will be my successor.” Caruso’s reply was: “If I can only do half as well”.
The closest I ever came to this feat was, as a young tenor in Israel, when just before, and right after the Six Day War in 1967, in a period of ten days, I sang the leading tenor roles in Lucia di Lammermoor, Tosca, Carmen and I Pagliacci. I was too young to realize it should have been difficult, and in fact, it was not.
Another issue that I feel I should address is controlling of the voice, in order to keep it “equal”, as the voice goes higher on the scale. I have spoken about developing the lower and middle parts of the voice and then the higher part. When this is achieved and the voice obviously starts to be freer, hence more intensity of sound, it must be left alone to make this climax. All vocal climaxes are made on higher pitches. This is quite simply how music is written, and to deny it, with some sort of manipulation of the sound, goes totally against the true nature of a voice, and why the composer wrote it that way in the first place.

 

The position of the larynx

Position of the larynx! Contrary to different opinions today, the larynx should be relatively low in order to achieve the best vocal sound. Of course some languages and how people speak have an influence on the larynx. It cannot be pushed down but it definitely can be trained down. I do this with my students every day. The reason for the lower larynx position is to open the pharynx, thus increasing the resonance and producing the freest sound possible. The vocal chords and the pharynx resonate almost simultaneously, and then “with a little luck”, the voice blossoms, or explodes into the head, depending on the nature of the instrument.

Years ago there was no dispute about this.
But today???

Breathing

Breathing is of course one of our body’s most automatic functions. Breathing for singing is exactly the same function, except there is more air involved, because singing is more sustained than most speaking. All of the muscles involved in this process (diaphragm, etc.) react automatically if the larynx, and the vocal chords are functioning properly. The most efficient way of breathing is through the mouth and the nose simultaneously, which is also the most natural way! It also lowers the larynx, at least temporarily! The same thing happens when we yawn, but this function is also temporary.

When the great Caruso said a good high note feels like going to the toilet, he meant after one achieves the note, perhaps it feels like this, although I would not count on it. But he certainly did not mean to push down with your muscles before; this will constrict the sound. Caruso also said that one of the most important elements of singing is the proper closure of the vocal chords, which is obvious to most real singers.

Chest voice

In my own feelings as a dramatic tenor, all of these various sensations that singers say they feel, are more or less simultaneous with the emission of the sound: this is assuming the voice functions freely and naturally. Perhaps the most singular destructive misunderstanding of our time concerns the chest voice (voce di petto). I prefer to call it the chest register, and it is as essential to both male and female voices, as is the head register. No voice will reach its full potential unless both of these registers are properly trained. As far as the female chest register is concerned, the current theory about it being dangerous, could not be farther from the truth; it is truly dangerous not to develop it, and of course it should be used when singing. Without it no voice is complete.

I could make a very long list of the female singers who have used their chest registers with great expressions and success, but I will keep the list short with four that I knew and heard very often, having sung with two of them: Eileen Farrell, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo.

Exercises

One aspect of teaching I only began to realize over the last few years, was the therapeutic value of these very old Italian exercises, I learned over fifty years ago, and that I now teach to my students. As a matter of fact, I learned these exercises from the great English basso Raymond Buckingham, who had studied with the legendary Italian baritone Riccardo Stracciari, in London. My great loving mentor when I was a young student in New York City, at the Mannes School of Music, was the extraordinary singing actress Patricia Neway. She was the original “Magda” in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul. Madame Neway was having some vocal problems when I worked with her in the opera workshop at Mannes, so she began to do these vocal exercises with Mr. Buckingham. Her career began again, and she sang many operas such as Tosca, Cavalleria, The Consul, and she was the original “Mother Superior” in The Sound of Music on Broadway; I was very proud to be an invited guest, and more than happy to have played a part in her return to the stage.

My first experiences in this way were with two male singers, each with a polyp which of course interfered with their singing. After just a few months, both men were back to normal, having only concentrated on certain exercises. My latest surprise was practically eliminating the stuttering problem of a young Dutch female singer. I had heard over the years that singing could be helpful to someone who has a stuttering problem, but such a dramatic reduction was indeed a very pleasant surprise for both the singer, and myself.

Final thoughts

I never had any plans to become a teacher, but thanks to the urging of my wife, Prizrenka Petković McCray, a voice teacher herself for these last thirty-nine years, the last twenty years have been deeply rewarding, having many successful singers not only in Europe and The Netherlands but all over the world, and indeed in many theaters where I myself have sung. However, as much as I have enjoyed writing down some of my ideas, the only true test remains: the results of the singing. The combination of the teacher and the student determines the ultimate success.

P. S. Great vocal music has inherently many vocal traditions; they should be treated with respect and not like mathematics.

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