Sunday, April 03, 2005


They always wore the most flattering shades of lipstick and the sexiest, must-have-been-bought-abroad shoes. Their necks never without a prettily patterned scarf, they spoke of where to go for perfectly plucked eyebrows or fresh lemon wedges and curative cups of tea. Singers. So bee-yoo-ti-ful…but not without a bad rap: can’t count, can’t read music, and completely paranoid about the “health” of their instrument. Accompanying my way through their enviable repertoire of art songs, I developed a quick “like it” or “don’t” response to vocal quality, to the tone of individual voices, but I found it more difficult to articulate what, exactly, made one singer so musically convincing and another one just kind of fumbling to the end of the song. I allowed the superficial veneer of “being” a singer to entertain me for many, many years, but I think I’ve finally pierced through all that and begun to appreciate a key technical point of singing with intention, or, of not singing, intentionally.

Good singers, smart singers, will take their editing pencils to the scored notation, subtracting beats here and there and replacing those sounded moments with rests. Sometimes these rests indicate an actual physical breath, but at other times they simply give a precise, rhythmic finis to the sounded note and articulate a silence before the next phrase begins. The contrast between the articulated silences and a sung phrase of music, when well-executed, never fails to delight me. Like a Gothic cathedral’s stone carvings, a song can build its drama in the relief (or bas-relief) of singing and not singing: meaning and tension exist in the contours between what is sung and not sung. This sort of sculptural singing, sculpted by the breath, is a subtle technique that can be easily mangled. I’ve never heard singers discuss it as an authentic technique, but I hold in high regard the ones who can pull it off.

Consciously or unconsciously, art, music, theatre, and sport needs to breathe. A “good, solid” performance transforms into something memorable and electrifying when it breathes. Conversely, when the breathing lags or occurs in a “wrong” place, the performance loses its focus, becoming muddled or aimless. Attention to the breath is really a silly paradox, a tool used with great intention but which we hope goes unnoticed. Again I’m reminded of sculpture, but vocally, with the lifts and cut-offs shaping the overall musical vitality as much as the actual notes. Perhaps, too, in “being” a singer, the scarves and shoes punctuate a dramatic persona in artificial relief to the more natural acts of singing and breathing. There is sculpture and artifice, yes, but involuntarily, everything must breathe.


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