Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Art of Practicing

The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser: the copyright date for this book is 1997 so I won’t claim it is new. It’s new to me. Subtitle: “A Guide to Making Music from the Heart.” It is written by a pianist and focuses primarily on pianists and other instrumental musicians. I am reading it to see how much applies to singers.

We continue to promote the idea that the difference between good and great singing (or good and great piano playing) lies in expression. Music cannot be great without great emotion. This is my advice to singers: try to find the expressive heights in your singing. I would have advised increasing coaching opportunities, but Madeline wants us to find expression in our practice hours, to find emotion while working alone. Perhaps this book will give us some clues.

It occurs to me that this may be wasted on a lot of opera singers. It is possible to be an opera singer and never practice by yourself. Ever. Coaches and accompanists can be relied on to pound it into us even if we come totally unprepared. Perhaps this is the problem. Why is it that the most expressive of all musical media, the human voice, is often the most monotonous in performance?

“This book is about how to free ourselves from physical and emotional tension as we practice so that we can unleash our innate musical talent.” Singers are always advised to get involved with the text, to learn all the nuances of the original language to increase meaning and expression. I insist that this is good, but it isn’t enough. There are in all types of music purely musical meanings which must also be sought out. Don’t leave it to the pianist or conductor.

Her first piece of advice is meditation. This is seen as an approach to conquering stage fright and to increase awareness of the here and now. The goal is to increase relaxation and awareness. I see no reason why this doesn’t apply to singers, too. She found that this made her more aware of both her body and the sound she was producing and allowed for greater attention to detail.

She begins with “The Starting Point,” and right at the start she is speaking to me. In the crime novel I started with the first-lesson, but she begins earlier with the student's relationship to the teacher. The student must achieve a mystical balance between vulnerability and respect. That is the student must feel vulnerable to the teacher (or no learning will take place) while continuing to feel that the teacher respects him. The student must feel that the teacher respects him. This was always a sore spot for me. In the crime novel I discussed at length my relationships with teachers, none of which was ideal. I like it that she talks about this. "Passion, confidence and vulnerability are evidence of musical talent." If a teacher criticizes and attacks your confidence, dump them. I see now how I was broken down by criticism.

In her chapter on Struggle and Freedom she advises us to try to take in the music we are producing, to hear ourselves performing, instead of constantly comparing ourselves to the ideal in our minds. This is hard for a singer because we cannot actually hear ourselves as we really are. We hear our voices minus some of the resonators, I think, but the advice can still apply if we assume it is the performance, the expression we are listening to and not the tone.

I want to discuss everything, if I can, and will cover the chapters as I read them.

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