Friday, July 3, 2009

With regard to singers and new music

Of all the interpreters of new music and for that matter, music in general, singers seem to be the most problematic. Now, this is not meant to be a detriment to singers. At least not for the most part. The fact is, in the general culture, singers have often been judged for being the least reliable in a rehearsal or performance situation. They seem to make the most mistakes and therefore they are considered the least prepared in comparison to the seemingly more schooled instrumentalists. If this is an issue with repertoire music, then this is an even bigger problem with regard to new music. Works that have hardly been heard before, if ever.

I remember hearing the soprano/comedienne Anna Russell in her famous skit regarding: The singer who can't count when she points out to singers: "The reason you have a big voice is because there's resonance for where your brains ought to be!".

Well...(He! He!)...... although I've always found Madame Russell's skits very funny and witty over the years, I don't fully agree with her on this. Yes, I'm aware that she says what she says primarily for humorous reasons. Still, like all comics, part of their art is derived mainly from their own life experiences. So there is clearly a feeling of critical judgement when Russell discusses the issue of singers and their frailties.

So, is any of this true? Are singers the least disciplined of all musicians? Do they lack the hard work ethic in getting the job done when it comes to performing new music? Given that I am myself, both a professional baritone and composer (by that, I mean someone who actually gets paid for it), I will say that the answer is ultimately "No"!

The fact is that all people are capable of making the same number of mistakes whether they be singers or instrumentalists. The issue of how often they mess up is solely dependent on their own personal discipline in getting their music learned before they get to the stage. Naturally, new music is generally more difficult, mainly because it is more recently written. But if a musician cares enough about the piece they've been hired to perform in, then they are morally obligated to do their best in rehearsals so that there's no major accident in performance.

But the thing that makes the singer's mistakes more noticeable than the instrumentalist's is that in an opera or any other vocal work, the singer is the main focus. The singer is the person that the audience looks at. The singer interprets the story that the work is based on and the instrumental ensemble or orchestra is behind influencing the singers performance. So since the singer is in the forefront and therefore the most exposed, naturally, the singer's fallibility is also more exposed. Ergo, the singer is the cause for the most stops in rehearsal. The instumentalist's fallibility is not as noticed because generally, the player is not as much in the forefront as the singer is.

Of course, in the latter part of the 19 century, the instrumental writing in a vocal work started to have a bigger role and more graphic part, courtesy of composers like Wagner and Puccini. But even they knew in the end that the story revolves around the singer playing his or her character on stage. Therefore the singer gets most of the glory, but also, most of the heartache when they screw up.

Two years ago I wrote an opera entitled "Redemption" with the librettist John Darrell Roberts which was commissioned by Golden Fleece Ltd. in New York. When we got to the rehearsal stage, a few singers had problems regarding counting and their singing the right notes. At the time, I was naturally fustrated and I wondered if this was happening because the singers were flat out stupid! But in the end, I realized that there were other factors to consider. The singers had to memorize their music while the players had their music in front of them. Also, the singers were using their whole bodies to get the notes out, whereas the instrumentalist has a specific object in their hands with a particular fingering that automatically brings the right pitches out. Singers do not have such an automatic system. And then, as was mentioned before, singers are in the forefront which makes for an added pressure to their performance being noticed most often. When it boils down to it, singers are as brave as soldiers at the front line in a blood soaked battle.

Singers! Take note! I am not saying all of this to give any of you an excuse to be mean or arrogant in your working with others who are working just as hard as you do. I simply want to show an accurate account of why you singers are the way you are when problems come up. The truth is, for all musicians, the buck stops with true discipline, guts and a genuine love for the music.



  1. You know, Charles, you raise a good point when you say: "The fact is that all people are capable of making the same number of mistakes whether they be singers or instrumentalists."

    This truly comes down to the discipline of the artist in question. I've worked with a variety of vocalists and some have come so well prepared as to stun me with their amazing grasp of the score, and others have come with problems and bare minimum understanding. Once, a vocalist was sight-reading, poorly I might add. It's the individual really.

    However, something else in your post stood out for me. You said that the reason modern music is more difficult is because it was written more recently. This, in my opinion, is not a strong argument. It is incumbent on all musicians to have a proficiency with their instrument, vocal or otherwise, when they are charged to be executors of a piece of music. Newness doesn't automatically imply difficulty. There are some Mozart Arias that are exceedingly more difficult than one of those lovely Mother Goose Songs for example. No. I think part of the _real_ problem is unfamiliarity with the music and genre. You can listen to 6 dozen recordings of Queen of the Night on ITunes without batting an eyelash. However, a world premiere work has to be learned from the score. Learning by Rote therefore is not as likely, and singers, many of them, do prefer learning by rote. It does take the difficulty away from reading the score of what otherwise could be a very complex work. I have been asked, several times in the past, to provide a MIDI realization of the music where the vocal part is particularly emphasized, and then a music-minus-one version. Often, in those cases, I can identify immediately if a singer knows what happens in each bar or if the music was simply memorized. Let's see a concert pianist learn a concerto by rote! Singing comes with the unique aspect of making that a possibility.

    I sort of digressed there, but I meant to illustrate that ultimately, it's the learning technique that needs to be addressed perhaps. You're a singer yourself and you are blessed with perfect pitch. Most people are not, singer or otherwise. Therefore, they do need significant help when looking at an otherwise 'alien' score.

    As well, difficulties aren't always harmonic or pitch related, or as in your case, counting. Sometimes, simply understanding what the music is trying to convey can be the challenge. I have seen a few instrumentalists who were otherwise fantastic executors choose repertoire that they simply didn't get.

    All in all, I think your reasoning is sound of course and it is absolutely incorrect to point to any group of musicians and apply a general label to all of them. There are good and bad in any group and we simply have to, as composers, be grateful they choose to work with us at all, in spite of the difficulties we pose to them.

    ***WHICH, of course, only WE as composers know about until the piece has been performed enough times by a variety of people to get out a 'good' version. No offense Charles, or any other composers out there, but, you're probably the only one in the audience at the world premiere besides the performer who knows that the Ab should have been a A natural***

    While Madame Russell's cheek may have some truth, I think the most important thing we must remember is that showing up is 9/10ths of the battle. You can't have even a bad performance if they don't show up. :-)


  2. Perfectly valid Luis Andrei!!
    We will talk more about this.


  3. My sister's experience with the New Zealand Orchestra indicates that everybody finds someone to make an "example" of. There they had a string of instrumentalists (on the same instrument) who were apparently completely insane. Although this was probably a coincidence, this instrument got the rep as something that causes insanity if played professionally.

    I think a part of the problem with singers is that soloists have a more likely chance of becoming rude divas because of their prominence on stage but that's entertainment. What gets me are conductors who walk off stage after each piece, wait a minute and come back on triumphantly for more applause. I don't remember this happening years ago. Not leave the audience free of blame, I also can't stand reflex standing ovations. I've been to some very pedestrian performances which resulted in standing ovations and encores.