I spend my whole life teaching singers technique, researching technique, practising technique, discussing technique. This probably makes me boring in the extreme, but sometimes, all that know-how comes in handy.
I believe in building a good instrument before you learn to play it, and as I am now older than some buildings (as my good friend Givvi Flynn is inclined to tell me) my instrument was built many years ago. It's pretty solid, and I can more or less do anything I want with it, under fair-to-middling conditions.
I usually think of technique as being two-part: firstly, it is what we use to develop a great vocal instrument, and secondly it is what helps us to achieve athletic vocal performances and the kind of fireworks that Joe Public seems to like. Sometimes, though, there's a third purpose, and that's to get us out of trouble when things go wrong, which they did last in spectacular fashion at Worcester Cathedral during a concert.
This particular concert was always going to be tricky: it was with VU, who usually work to track, but this time we were working with a single pianist, and the acoustics in the Cathedral - which is the size of a small country - are notoriously unhelpful unless you're standing right in the sweet spot, which we weren't (that had been reserved for the orchestra who had flown in from Germany - fair enough). I'd constructed a nice set, including a solo spot for me, backed by VU, just to offer the audience a different colour. After all, most people love chocolate, but that doesn't mean you're going to say no to a sherbet lemon ;-)
The solo that I picked was one that I did in a concert this Summer and which went down particularly well. It's a song called "Immortal", and was composed by the late great Eric Wolfson of The Alan Parsons Project. The song was originally sung by Steve Balsamo, better than anyone else ever will, and is a big and technical sing, to say the least of it. The bridges in the song (in the key that I sing it in, anyway) are particularly tricky, and rely on a lot of subtlety and control which can only be achieved on the mic. In other words, if I'd intended to sing the song un-mic'd, the key would have been completely different. Imagine my joy, therefore, when the PA went down just as I picked up the mic to start singing...
I had no choice, I had to sing it unamplified. No problem for the section of the song which was just me and the piano, but when a 90-strong chorus kicks in at full pelt, even my big mouth isn't enough to be heard over them. Bless 'em all they did their bit, pulled back from their usual tumultuous blast and gave me some room, but even so it was a big, big ask.
I did my job and got from one end of the song to the other - although not in the form that I would have liked - and spent 4 minutes 30 (yes, it had to be a long song, of course) summoning The Force, calling upon the help of all the gods who were going to get me struck by lighting in that venerable building and using every single ounce of technique that I have.
It was only afterwards that I remembered to be grateful that I could switch from amplified technique to un-amplified, because if I didn't know what I was doing and relied instead on opening my mouth and hoping for the best, as so many singers do, I would've been sunk.
Now, I don't want you to think that I'm saying that technique is everything. It isn't. Artistry is equally important, and most of the time, technique can be something we consign to the practise room, but when the chips are down onstage, it becomes the centre of the universe.
All of which is to lead to the question: how secure is your technique?
Well here I am on another birthday, and it's been an eventful year! This time last year I was in Dorset celebrating with family and friends. The sun was out (it was t-shirt weather, amazingly!), and a great time and much booze was being had by all. That very happy weekend set the tone for more or less the whole of the year - I've had some extraordinary experiences this year.
Yesterday, I was having lunch with a friend who is a singing-teacher-in-training, and we were talking about the power of words. Everyone says "actions speak louder" but as a teacher, that's not always true. Words carry great weight, and I tend to come down on the side of people who think that the pen is mightier than the sword. For example, you can get over cuts, bruises and broken bones, but often, we carry 'that thing that someone once said' with us our whole lives. My greatest experience this year came down to two words, but I'll come back to that. The point of yesterday's chat was that, as a teacher, you can make or ruin someone's whole day - sometimes completely inadvertently - with a single sentence. A student singer's whole experience and future development can come down to a few words. That's a scary thought, but try as we might - and hopefully, most of us do try! - we can't always know for sure what effect we're having on our students. In education, and speaking from personal experience, my world was changed when I was 14. Up to that point I'd always done pretty well at school in all subjects. I was hard working (I learned that bit early on, ha ha!) and got good grades most of the time. Then along came algebra. I didn't get it, and still don't. I realised that I didn't get it, and that this was unusual, so one day I asked the teacher to go over something again. Her response was "I've told you once!" So I was still none the wiser. Later that week, she told me that I was stupid and unteachable. I went on to fail my Maths O Level (as it was then), and I blame her entirely - she convinced me that I couldn't do it, and so I couldn't. The end. I passed all of the others, but my Dad's response, on receipt of The Dreaded Envelope, wasn't "well done for passing all of those other subjects" but "Why have you failed that one? You must re-take it." Harsh, I thought at the time, but I did re-take it and passed the second time. Different teacher, y'see. Bear with me, this will all tie together in minute :-)
So, back in birthday year 2011-12, I'm doing the typical review-of-the-year / what-have-I-done-in-the-last-12-months thing that I guess we all do, and the following things stand out:
Laat October, I met a man who has since become Patron of my college VIDLA, and more importantly, a friend. That meeting with the lovely Steve Balsamo was full of good humour, voice-geekery, 'metaphysical ponderings' as he puts it, and the playing of top-trumps-favourite-singers. Having been a fan of his since 1996, I was quite afraid that I was going to say "I carried a watermelon" on meeting him, but I managed to avoid that pitfall, mainly because he was so utterly charming. I defy anyone not to be at ease in his company.
The next highlight was in December, when another of my favourite vocalists, the awesome John Owen Jones also agreed to be a Patron of the college. I couldn't believe my luck! Two of the greatest vocalists on earth lending their names to VIDLA was more than I could ever have hoped for, and I am so grateful to both of them for their faith in me and what we do at the Academy.
In April there were two cool things to remember. The first was appearing in concert with lovely Steve Maitland and his Big Band, with VU. How we all got on the stage I have absolutely no idea. The second was a sound healing workshop with Steve Balsamo. I took a couple of friends with me, one of whom didn't really get it, and the other of whom had a life-changing experience. Again, with the teaching, you never can tell how people are going to respond! Anyway, I've blogged about that before on the VIDLA Blog, so I won't repeat it here.
June saw this year's huge VU show at The Swan Theatre in Worcester. I had the pleasure of singing alongside three great vocalists: Dan Haslam, Paul Hutton and Dean Bayliss. There's a 3-minute video of highlights from the show, which had a musical theatre vibe this year, on the VU website. It was this show that brought the biggest highlight of the year, and the thing which brings me back to the power of words in our world. I've mentioned two of my great vocal heroes, Steve Balsamo and John Owen Jones, already. The third is the great P.J. Proby. I've sung with P.J. many, many times, having toured with him extensively, but this time, he was coming to see my show, and that's a different bowl of bananas, I can tell you! It struck me as odd that my 'pantheon of vocal gods' had all made themselves present in my life in quite a major way all in the same year - synchronicity at work. It also makes me laugh that within that pantheon of gods, we have God on High (John), Jesus Christ Superstar (Steve) and The Devil Himself (P.J. ha ha! - not really - he's a fun, fun guy and great company)! Anyway, back to the point. Focus, Keen! So, P.J. has figured strongly in my life since I was a little girl. Both parents are huge fans, so I was listening to his records from a very, very young age, and one of my earliest memories is my dad bringing home a copy of the new single "Maria" and asking me if I could learn to sing it. It was from listening to P.J. that I learned subconsciously that there ain't no such thing as a note you can't hit or a style you can't emulate. The man's a genius vocalist.
So here I am, a million years later, and I'm about to go onstage and sing, and he's right there in the middle of the audience, watching a show that I've not only produced and am singing in, but for which I've arranged all the music. No pressure! You'd think that this in itself would be enough to count as the 'highlight' (and it was!) but the big thing was something much more simple. While I was waiting to go on, I dropped a text to my Dad. I thought it would amuse him to hear that P.J. was in the audience. I said "Who would have thought, when I was a little girl, that one day he'd be coming to watch me sing?!"
The reply was two words:
And there's your highlight. Because words are charged. Words are powerful. And those two tiny words made my whole year.
my castle, my game, my rules
My occasional thoughts, rants, updates and perspectives various. Definitely not the opinions of the BBC.