Elizabeth Parcells Talking with Dina Soresi Winter about singing, June 2005
Dina:† Elizabeth, Yesterday I asked, what question would I ask to get you started on this topic and you said to ask about what it takes to run a Master Class.
Elizabeth:† Students respond if you take a sincere interest and they believe you see more in them than they are seeing.† If the student acknowledges you as an authority figure all you need to do is give them permission to do what they have been wanting to do which is get better.
Dina:† You told me about the troubles Maria Callas had teaching a class.
Elizabeth:† Those Juilliard students wanted adulation and Callas wanted to teach them something.† When I auditioned for Juilliard I was 19 years old.† I was told I wasnít ready for that school.† I said I thought the point of going to school was to get ready to sing.† What I realized later is that the people who excel there are Masters and post Masters students who are seeking a professional career.† They are already finished, or at least theyíve been told they are.† They are at Juilliard to make connections.
Dina:† To learn how to sing is one thing.† The other is to sing artistically and beautifully and know what you are singing and perform as an artist and then you go to the third stage?† Wouldnít you find that at Juilliard?†
Elizabeth:† A student is teachable if they think they have something to learn.† A student is not teachable when they believe theyíve got it all and now all they need is an opening.† May be the students who were chosen for Ms. Callas' Master Class believed they had reached that stage and they were looking for a recommendation from Madam.† She was there to teach them not promote them. †She came away from the class thinking sheíd failed.† She said perhaps what she does is not teachableóas a singing actress.† She wanted teach the intangibles she brought to her art, timing for instance.
Dina:† What can you say about that?
Elizabeth: †The next time I saw someone who really taught timing was Warren Jones giving a Master Class and the kids would get to a fermata and just keep going and he would pound on the piano and stand up and say, ďWait!Ē† Silence is part of music and you time that like a heartís breath and to reach the audience--also by this (quick breath) and a pause.† Whatís the rush?† The audience has paid their money.† They are not going to walk out because of a two second pause to make an effect.
These intangibles, these timing things that actors train, the way they learn to manage their dialogsóthey have no composer putting the timing in.
Dina:† But some people have this gift innately, isnít that so?
Elizabeth:† We call it talent.
Dina:† Is it teachable?
Elizabeth:† You can teach the techniques.† To teach that when they see a fermata they are supposed to wait.† Now--how long to waitóthat feel?† If you donít want to turn out a bunch of machines, eventually you have to let them in on a little secret, that it isnít all on the page.† You start there but thatís not the end of it.† One of the things that Callas was trying to teach was performance skills like timing and how to grab and hold an audience.†
Actors learn their techniques too.† They learn to keep it interesting theyíve got to do a loud bit and a soft bit and they do contrast, dramaóthe range of emotions, the range of dynamics, and the timing.† Those are techniques you learn but the mastery of those techniques means they donít feel like techniques any more, they feel like spontaneous original thought every time.† You go out there and itís like the first time.
Dina:† What Iíd like to get from you is the starting point of a person coming in for a lesson who may be has a nice voice, wants to become a singer, could become a singeróthereís something there.† How do you build this from day one?
Elizabeth:† The basis of everything is the breath.† The breath is the beginning and the end because what we just talked about is also a product of the breath. †In timing, the breath is the metronome of that and itís a living thing.† The first thing you have to do as a singing musician is to train and discipline the breath so that it will support the voice, get you through the phrase and serve the music.†
Dina:† How do you do that?
Elizabeth:† Begin with exercises like any other athlete.† If you want to be a good gymnast or a good dancer, itís all about the training.† You donít want to be a singer where the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak.† You want to make sure that whatever commands your brain is sending out the body will be equal to so you begin with a course of training.† I studied about 10 years, the last 7 years with one teacher.† I spent the first few years with several teachers.† They were all good and they all had the same message, build your breath and support the voice.†
My voice at a young age was tender, not well projected, soft--and not much range either.† So you really have to start from scratch with that.† The first thing you have to realize is that if you are working with a voice that hasnít been trained, be careful to build it appropriately and slowly.† Never exceed the capability of the voice in the exercises you assign.† Never push so far that they go home with vocal fatigue.† Remain within the parameters of the voice but keep pushing little by little.† Thatís the time consuming part.
Dina:† What I found interesting is youíve said you shouldnít do breathing exercising alone.
Elizabeth:† True.† The breathing exercises are necessary but boring.† Who wants to sit around and heave-and-haw all day?† So you try to connect the exercises for the breath to tone so that the singer has the impression heís working on his tone while heís still building the breath.† The exercise Iíve used throughout my career is simple-- 4 staccatos, then a 5 tone legato scale (demonstrates).†
Dina:† The staccatos are on one tone?
Elizabeth:† Yes.† You have to learn to attack that note again and again, so that itís the same pitch each time, which is not easy.† You are learning breath control of the voice because the staccato is an impulsive thing and voice needs to react spontaneously to it.† You learn control of the attack on the breath because you donít have time to clench and if you do, it doesnít work anyway.† Then you do a legato scale following that, which relieves that little pressure.†
A lot of times you will find a student unable to do the staccatos or unable to do the legato closely following so you might get Ďah-ah-ahÖí or you will get Ďha-ha-ha-ÖĒ.† The first thing they need to learn is the flexibility to change from the staccato mode to the legato mode very quickly.† That too is a product of the breath so the singer is pretty much obliged to draw on the breath to achieve that in the first place.† Such a simple little infuriating exercise.
Dina:† What about professional singers who come to you after many years, who have done roles, studied songs, etc. and they come in with a mature voice and a mature presence and doing a staccato is almost impossible for them and theyíve got so much pressure in the diaphragm when they do the legato that itís weighty.† Every note is weighed down with what they think is a necessary appoggio.† What do you do with them?
Elizabeth:† Tell the truth, that we are going to go back to the beginning. Back off the performance schedule until we straighten this out.† If they canít accept that, toss them out.†
Dina:† For them itís more difficult than for the beginning student
Elizabeth:† Itís far more difficult.† I love working with beginners.† Because you can start nice and clean and build them up so that the whole body language that they learn is correct from the beginning.† Itís like trying to get rid of a foreign accent when you are working with an older singer because they have done this that way for so long and their body knows how to do it.†
Letís go back to the Master Classóthe other thing you look for isóin the couple minutes I had with this person, were they able to absorb and utilize the lesson I gave.† You zero in on one thing that they need to correct and work on that one thing.
Dina:† Give me an example.
Elizabeth:† For the purposes of the class, to hold the attention of the others you might choose a different topic for each student.† Usually it will be something that is obvious, say they have a diction issue.† The first time I met JW he was singing† Da la sua pace from Don Giovani, pronouncing it Ďdah lah souah pah.chayÖí with a big diphthong at the end (laughs).† It was extreme.† I told him Italian is made up of pure vowels.† Letís work on those.† He was very apt.† The text of the piece is about those ďschwasĒ at the ends of the words.† It had to be pronounced correctly.† He learned it in 5 minutes and the next time he sang it, he didnít drive everyone from the room.†
Even when they get it in class, in front of a crowd they may fall back on the familiar and what ever you told them was lost.† Thatís why youíve got to get them young.† The older students can be coached and thereís room for improvement but if they want to change anything they have to be very determined.† Is that student coming to you for reinforcement and adulation or for true remedial help?
Dina:† If they are coming for true remedial work the question is how to help them.
Elizabeth:† The first thing to do is untie the knots.† They are usually tied up in sailorsí knots.† The first thing to start with, on the breath, is the attack.† You start looking for that pure, true tone.† You go right back down to that original tone.† You ask them to make an attack with a clean breath-meets-tone, without any coloration, without any vibrato, without anything.† Just make what you would call your ďdial tone,Ē the thing you first hear when you pick up the phone.† Often times they are so tied in knots, it takes several weeks just to get there.
Dina:† What do you think is the right vowel?
Elizabeth:† ďAhĒ will do nicely.
Dina:† Some people canít do the ďah.Ē† Would you think that an ďooĒ might work?
Elizabeth:† No, ďahĒ is the problem.† The reason they canít do the ďahĒ is because they donít have a feeling of grip on the vowel.† They have to cover it or do something to it.† The ďahĒ is a very honest vowel.† Itís difficult to sing on an ďah.Ē† You canít focus it the way you can ďeĒ or ďooĒ because itís wide open.† Your mouth is wide open and to center an ďahĒ through out the range is difficult.†
Dina:† Can you ease them into it?† Some of them just canít get the ďah.Ē
Elizabeth:† Cold turkey, because it kicks the crutches out from under them.† They have to deal with it.† They have to find the resonance points theyíve been missing.† By dulling the tone they are missing out on a lot of the overtones of the voice that should be there.† I think a problem is that a lot of singers, especially with richer voices, have a fear of their upper partials.† They think that it sounds twangy or clangy or something.
Dina:† What do you do with this absolute dependence on what they call, support?† Which is, tighten it, and grip it, and then sing?† And unless they are in this torturous position they donít feel they are working or the voice is coming out right.† Can you say, look, letís start with no support?
Elizabeth:† You can say this.† Thereís a big difference between what you are doing as a singer and what you do when you are exercising.† An exercise is an exercise!† Itís not supposed to be lovely!† So stop being so lovely when we are exercising!† We want to see your weaknesses here and work with them.† They have to see they arenít there to impress you with their gorgeous sound.† Like the spoof on the Hollywood directoróhate me, now love me.† Do the same line and hate me again.
In singing, when you are exercising you are looking for very different things from what you are when you are performing.† A singer who gets right to his repertoire and doesnít bother to exercise is more prone to problems down the road.† Youíve got to ask, do you warm-up, and with what--the trumpet voluntary of Purcell?† Do you warm-up the same way everyday?† Do you use the same combo of stuff and how long do you warm-up?† What does warming up mean to you?
Dina:† What does warming up mean?
Elizabeth:† My colleagues used to be very upset with me because it appeared that I didnít warm-up at all.† Well, that wasnít quite true.† I would do a warm-up at home before I got to the theater.† I would make sure I was in good disposition.† Just before I went on, if I felt a little phlegm or something I might do a few of my glides and a few thingsóa sip of water and I was ready to go.†
Some of these so-called dramatic voices were talking about ďDurchblutungĒ a lot.† You know the Germans and their ďDurchblutung?Ē† They had to get the blood in everywhere.† Their circulation, their ďKreislaufĒ stuff.† They were all hung up on that.† They felt that since they were so big and bulky that they had to work that much harder to get their Durchblutung going!† Iíd think thatís a funny way to sing, with all that blood everywhere.† That was their idea of warming up.†
Warming up means getting warm to the job so you arenít singing cold.† They are so afraid that first tone isnít going to hit it.† They get all puffed up and then they hesitate and the minute you do that nothing comes out and itís a self-fulfilling prophecy.† Instead of getting on the Ferris wheel and hitting the tone right at the top and just sliding down.
Dina:† So the glide, the glissando idea is one that you think is a good warm-up?
Elizabeth:† Itís vital to coordinate the breath and the tone so that they meet at the same instant.
Dina:† Without having to make it beautiful?
Elizabeth:† Sometimes we will work temporarily with the so-called silent ďhĒ so that the breath precedes the tone slightly, just so that we know that itís moving.† We need to know that the breath is the thing thatís triggering the tone and not the tone with the breath pouncing after it.† The breath needs to be moving all the time.†
A big part of the precision of singing is being able to set the note right on the beat, right where it belongs in the music so that the conductor doesnít come down with the stick and your voice comes a second later.† Then heíll tell you, youíre dragging.† Well, you thought the tone at the right moment but it didnít actually arrive until too late.† Then the singer tries to come before, so you anticipate.† Ideally, you want that tone to come right on the beat.† We go back to our little staccato exercise.
Dina:† What do you do with a student, old or young, to get rid of this idea of this ďrockĒ that has to be there, I would say, in a very uncomfortable and unnatural way which supposedly supports the tone before the tone comes out?† Another question, should a lighter voice, a coloratura soprano, have different exercises and a different approach from a Helden Tenor for instance, or a dramatic soprano or a dramatic mezzo?
Elizabeth:† Well, Iím very democratic that way.† I start them all off the same.
Dina:† What do you tell them about the ďrock.Ē
Elizabeth:† If I can tell them that tensing up all those muscles isnít productive and if they trust me on that you can begin to relieve the tension and get them to concentrate on the actual productive muscles so you can clench your fist over here and do this (relax) over there.† So that you can be singing and still walk normallyónot look like Boris Karloff.†
As Olympia Iím supposed to look like Boris Karlof.† So Iím back stage in my doll costume with the blond ringlets, in a deep voice, going ďF-r-i-e-n-d, good, good, duh...Ē† Everybody laughs.† But if you have to play the Zerbinettaís of the world and turn a cartwheel and go up a trapeze and sit on a swingÖ† The singer who is all tensed up should ask himself, am I wasting a lot of strength and energy on this while other singers donít need that.† I think that bulky approach is a security blanket in many cases.
Dina:† It prevents them from soaring.
Elizabeth:† Absolutely.† Michelangelo said he sculpts by chipping away everything thatís not a lion and eventually the lion comes out.† Sometimes with these remedial people you have to chip away what is not tone.† Alright, if youíve got tenor thumbs or buy my flowers or these other mannerisms and you want to be rid of those because the directors donít like you because all you can do is be the Incredible Hulk and you donít know how to act because you canít moveówho told you singing was so hard?† When did you get the idea that you needed all that to sing?
Dina:† Thatís what they call breath support.† This ďrockĒ is what they call breath support.
Elizabeth:† And itís a fallacy because you have the muscles tensed to that point the breath stops moving.† If the breath isnít moving, neither is the voice and then you canít move anything.† So how do you alleviate that?† First, the singer has to believe it.† He has to be willing to take a chance and drop some of that stuff.† It can be retrained but you have to back way, way off.†
Iíve had some singers like that who were very difficult to train.† You have some success but the first thing that happens on stage is all the tension returns.† They go back to the familiar.† If this thing is really ruining their career, if their voice is that locked up, they might have to take a year off.† How about swimming lessons?
Dina:† Donít you think dramatic sopranos, mezzos, basses, tenors, all have to do these fast exercises that Lamperti has in his book.
Elizabeth:† Absolutely.† When the exercises were written they were written for every voice type and coloratura was not a voice type.† It was a technique that everyone had to master.
Look at all the operas from the Baroque on up through Rossinióeverybody was singing coloraturaóevery part.† I donít like talking about vocal size.† That suggests one singer is driving a VW Bug and the otherís got a MACK truckóthat thereís something bulkier about that voice, or the volume.† I say, look, you are not a gallon jug.† You have a tone.
Dina:† And it happens to be what it is, what God gave you.
Elizabeth:† Right.† Your tone fills the room you are in.† You donít have to BE the room, you just have to fill the room.
Here is the scientific approach my teacher Mark Pearson used to give us.† Go back to the physics of acoustics, the way waves work.† Light waves and sound waves follow the same laws.† We have all these color/light analogies with sound.† A dark sound is a dark color; a light color is a light sound.† The way that sound and light reflect can be absorbed.† Light is just faster than sound.† Then look at the physics of what the breath does.† What creates the lift and the loft and the flight that drives the voice?† What are the physical laws?† Once you understand you can rely on them.
Dina:† How do you get students to experience that lifting, almost from above?
Elizabeth:† The student needs to understand that there are these physical laws that, if the breath isnít movingóif the wind isnít blowing, the flag canít wave.† If the breath isnít moving, the vocal cords canít vibrate.† How does that work, what creates a tone?†
So you go right back to a body that vibrates and creates these waves in the air which reach your ear drums, causing the ear drum to move, which sends a signal to the brain.† Thatís it, thatís all there is.† All the rest of it is dissipated so whether you make a big ďfistĒ or not doesnít change the way your eardrum reacts to the tone.† Also there are efficiency laws that opposing forces tend to cancel each other out.
Dina:† How does that work in singing?
Elizabeth:† If you have one muscle tussling with another muscle energy is wasted because itís going no placeótheyíve canceled each other out.† Energy thatís not resisted creates an effect that you want.† That energy is used not wasted.
Dina:† How would you deal with somebody who seems to have a nice voice but the tone is very breathy.
Elizabeth:† In a young singer I donít mind it because I know that will close eventually with good training.† Up to the age of 20 they shouldnít worry too much about it.† At 20-22 the voice should be sturdy enough to start making more demands.† Then you begin to balance the breath and the tone with specific exercises.
Dina:† For instance?
Elizabeth:† I like the Messa di Voce a lot for that balance because you begin with a small clean tone and you use the breath to expand it.† If the tone is breathy, you probably wonít make it to the end of the exercise.
Dina:† On one note.
Elizabeth:† Right, you crescendo and decrescendo on one breath.† That is the Messa di Voce.† It forces the student to consider his timing and how he is dealing with his breath over a longer phrase.† You make the exercise at least 3-4 seconds long.† ďone one thousand, two one thousand, threeÖ, it's got to be at least that long to do any good and as the student becomes more proficient he can sing that over much longer distance because thatís an exercise that promotes breath control.† When the student fails to make it to the end of a phrase you ask them, well, did you waste the whole top of the lung on the first part of the phrase and you had nothing left at the end?†
Through these exercises, they learn how to save a little at the beginning and have something for the end.† I love the old trick of being able to sing a long phrase then on the very last note crescendo slightly.† Wonderful effect, so impressive, because it shows that you not only have ample breath for the phrase but you have more than you need and you can afford to crescendo slightly on the last note.
Dina:† Some of these exercises, including Messa di Voce, are in the Lamperti books.† What do you think of the Marchesi books and the Concornia books?
Elizabeth:† I wish that the books had more specific information on each exercise and what they are foróto know why the teacher put it together just that way.† I think that the teachers who put those books together thought it was all self-evident.† It was the prevailing singing style of the day.† Modern singers today are dealing with numerous singing styles throughout music history.† A good singer might tend to specialize in a particular style.
Dina:† What Lamperti books do you suggest?
Elizabeth:† The two I have are Francesco Lamperti the father, which has a treatise and exercises, and thereís the book by Brown on Giovanni Babtista Lamperti the son, called Vocal Wisdom.† Those are the two that I know about.
Dina:† What about you creating your own exercise book?
Elizabeth:† It would be a very thin book because there are books 4Ē thick on singing.
Dina:† Are they good?
Elizabeth:† I donít know because I havenít read any of them.
Dina:† What about the famous story of the one page of exercises that was given by a great maestro of the past and he said take this page and do these exercises?† Thatís all you have to do and if you keep on doing them for three years you will be the greatest singer in the world and you can sing anything you want.
Elizabeth:† Well, Iíd put a few on the other side of the page too.† (laughs)
Dina:† Was there a greater instinct for singing in the past that was not pushed or forced?
Elizabeth:† We love to look back on a ďgolden ageĒ and we think that everybody sang wonderfully.† Well thatís not true either.
Dina:† Well what is true?
Elizabeth:† There were a handful of great singers in each generation, just as there are today.† And the rest of them were kind of workaday, tenuredóthe opera warhorseÖ
Dina:† Why can a great teacher of the past give one page to a student?† Would you have that happen today?† Would that happen at Juilliard or some other great university?† That teacher would say, here, these are the exercises from the greats of the past.† We will work on these only for two years and you wonít do any arias or anything else, just these exercises.† Then in two years weíll talk about what possible aria youíll sing.† You donít have that today.
Elizabeth:† I find an alarming number of teachers who donít pass out exercises at all.† One page would be useful.† If you get it down to the essence itís really rather simple.† Once you have the basic thing down everything is a variation on that.† The principles come in threeís.†
Dina:† What would they be?
Elizabeth:† The ideals of the bel canto come in threeís-- pure vowels, flexibility, and legato.† You could write a doctoral thesis on any one of those.† How do you achieve a legato?† What is a legato?† How come we donít have a word in English for legato?† There is no single word in English or German to describe it.† Thereís a typical hand gesture and thatís about it.† What would we call it, line?† That doesnít quite say it.†
Flexibility has to do with range, from soft to loud, from dark to light, from slow to fast.† Itís one of those principles that we train into the voice.†
Then the pure vowels for bel canto--from the very beginning, the language was at the center of it all.† Italian is mostly vowels anyway.†† The vowels determine the colorations in the voice.† All the variety of color you have is derived from those vowels.† We have the 5 basic ones that we exercise but if you go through all the various languages there are dozens of them.
Dina:† What about modifying the vowels?
Elizabeth:† For exercises I donít let anybody modify a vowel.
Dina:† Donít you modify it somewhat as you are going up to give it space?
Elizabeth:† You can open your mouth but the tongue position is the same.† The two formants are the lips and the tongue.† The jaw is not a formant, the throat is not a formant.† The vowels are formed only by the tongue and/or the lips.
Dina:† But as you are going up you have a low G for instance, or even a middle C, itís going to be different from a G above the upper C.† Of course the mouth gets bigger sometimes.† The E I think definitely.
Elizabeth:† The queen of all exercises is the double octave twice.† For the soprano, you might start on the A below middle C, sing the double octave up, sing it down, and sing it back up and down again.† Thatís a good breath control exercise by the way, and also for flexibility, strength of the tone.† Work on the purity of the vowels and try not to let the vowel distort too much on the way up and down.
Dina:† Not too much, you said.† Iím glad you made that somewhat modified statement.
Elizabeth:† Keep it to a minimum.† At least give the impression.† Have the vowel keep itís integrity even though you have to make certain corrections for it so that you are not singing ďuhĒ when itís ďe.Ē† It should still sound like an ďeĒ.†
There could be doctoral thesis in the subject of vowels.† Each of those three ideals is several volumes.† But how much can you be thinking about while you are singing?† Get it down to something simple and real.† Get it down to three ideals.† So weíve got the ideal of the bel canto.† How about the nature of a musical tone?† That comes in threeís also.
Dina:† The musical tone, thatís something else?
Elizabeth:† Itís another three principles.† What does a tone do in music?† It has an attack, a sustain, and a release and each of these need to be trained.† We donít want a disorganized dismount at the endóhave a lovely tone frizzle out at the end.† You have to learn how to release.† Remember that little crescendo I like at the end.† Thatís also a little double dipping there, a little trick.† The sustain is everything in between.† These are simplified concepts and yet if you delve into any one of them itís another doctoral thesis.
Dina:† Are there exercises that deal with the attack, sustain, and release?
Elizabeth:† Every time you open your mouth you are dealing with those three things.† Any exercise you do has all three.† You may be stressing one or another.† You can use the same exercise and stress a different aspect each time you do it.† Say the student is having trouble with the attack then concentrate on the attack.† Itís still the same exercise.†
How many notes do you have in your voice?† You can count them up.† You might have 25 notes in your voice.† They all become your good buddies over time.† The subject isnít endless.† Hereís the beginning of my range, hereís the end.† I have a certain duration I can sing in.† I have a certain breath capacity I can sing in and these things are finite.
Dina:† You said, when you first started you didnít have much of a range.† How was your range extended?
Elizabeth:† I had a 4 octave range when I was a little girl and the minute puberty hit the range collapsed to about 9 notes.† At sixteen, youíve got hormones raging that fog up the voice.† I lived with that until I was able to train through it.† I didnít sing high C or high D in public until I was close to 22 years old.† It took several years of training to carefully expand out to those ranges.† You begin in the middle and work your way out in both directions.† You look at the center of your voice as a youngster between F and A above middle C.†
Most of my exercises begin on an F for soprano then I transpose them for the other voice types depending on how the voice lies.† You just find the center and work your way out from there.† You may start with a Messa di Voce on the five vowels.† Itís kind of an ďe-a-e-ouĒ on one tone.† Then you begin with small intervals on a third (demonstrates).† Then start doing octaves.† That would be a nice warm-up because it draws the voice out without asking for a lot of range at the very beginning of the session.
Dina:† Thatís warming up the voice too.
Elizabeth:† Yes.† Each time you start with that little taffy pull from the center and you pull it in both directions slightly and just kind of stretch.† Itís a light stretch.†
Iíve read books teaching that vocal cords arenít supposed to move.† That is to say, the vocalis stays in one position in the throat.† Iím sure youíve heard this one.† One of the things you realize when you place a hand over the cricothyroid, which is your adams apple, and you begin this kind of rocking motion youíll notice that somethingís moving.† We are training the voice for something itís already disposed to do.† Otherwise itís like asking a horse to walk on itís front legs.† It canít, thatís not its nature.† But teach a horse to jump.† Thatís very much in his nature.† You are just building on something nature gave that beast and you are teaching him to do it on command in a disciplined way.† You are cultivating what that talent already is and thatís what singing lessons do.† You have to do things that are native to the voice.† You canít ask it to do things it was never built to do.
Dina:† Thatís why some voices are ruined.
Elizabeth:† Because they think in training the voice they are supposed to change it in some way.† You are not supposed to change it.
Dina:† Some voices are very beautiful initially and then they go for singing lessons and depending on what butcher takes over they can ruin a voice that could have had great potential.
Elizabeth:† What I tell the singers is itís buyer beware.† You are the student and nobody can rip the arm out of its socket unless you give them permission.
Dina:† With young singers itís hard.† They are under the age of reason.
Elizabeth:† I was told itís silly to start voice lessons at the age of nine.† You should start them when you are at least half way to being a responsible adult so if somebody is feeding you a line you might have the intelligence to back away from it.
Dina:† At 15 or 16 they have had no experience with singing.† It can be quite detrimental.†
Eric:† I remember reading Pavarottiís autobiography
and he talks about meeting up with Joan Sutherland and putting his arm around
her diaphragm and somehow feeling the tension and the pressure she developed
there which enabled her to soar to her high tones.† Would you disagree with that? (Eric is Dina's husband,
present to record the conversation.)
(Eric is Dina's husband, present to record the conversation.)
Elizabeth:† Not at all.† The diaphragm is a subject on which we could go on and on.† The diaphragm is a muscle, which divides the thorax from the abdomen, like a big upside down salad bowl.† It is responsible for the inhale side of breathing.† When it contracts it pulls air into the lungs.† Itís the abdominal muscles that push air out.† If you are doing an active exhale itís the lower abdominal muscles that do the pushing.† The diaphragm at that point is passive.†
In the singing tone, where the diaphragm comes in is that you donít want an uncontrolled rush of breath out of the lungs when you want to sing.† So the rather large and untalented abdominal muscles give the first push and then the diaphragm counters that with the ďne..ah-ahÖĒ.† It says, not so fast and doesnít allow the muscles to push up so fast.†† So the diaphragmís job on the exhale is control.† It isnít an active muscle during exhalation except by controlling the rate of exhalation.†
The reason to the use the diaphragm is that you donít use the vocal cords to do the job of the diaphragm.† If the breath is coming uncontrolled up against the vocal cords they are a valve and they will just close.† Their original purpose was so that you close the valve and create downward pressure through the abdomen for things like childbirth or lifting.† If you didnít have that, all the air would escape from your lungs and youíd have no leverage.† These things have their mechanical use.†
Now how do you turn that into a musical instrument?† Vocal cords can be completely open, completely closed or somewhere in between.† In speaking and singing, they are partially open.† A controlled amount of air goes through and creates this vibrating effect and the tone is the result of that vibration. The vocal cords stretch or contract back.† The vocal cords respond to the breath then, as far as pitch is concerned, they respond to the ear.
Dina:† So you sing with your ear?
Elizabeth:† Yes.† A singer with no musical ear has no hope.† You canít take their money, canít teach them a thing.† Even in most talented people the ear has to be trained.
Dina:† Recently I heard a performance from San Carlos di Napoli of Aida and the singer playing Aida was quite good.† She had a method of singing which was always this way (demonstrates), every tone.† Sometimes she freed herself and the tone would be splendid.† She trained herself to go (demonstrates).† The tenor had a similar method but less of a good voice I thought.† In her O terra addio I notice when she went (demonstrates) that first note was always flat and yet the one that came after was beautiful.† Every time she sang that tone it was flat.† You canít say she didnít have an ear.† Why does that happen?
Elizabeth:† Sometimes the inner ear--if you are modulating the vowel too much, it can become distorted.† The tone will bend down outwardly but it sounds right to the singer.† Leading tones are always difficult because they are higher than other tones.† The singer might have to sing that an 8th tone higher than usual because itís a leading tone (demonstrates).† It might seem right but it is too low because in the context of the phrase it is a leading tone.† I havenít met an Aida that isnít scared of that phrase.† Usually they try to get as far offstage as possible so they can sing it out.† Itís very exposed.† Thatís where the ton of bricks approach doesnít work.
Dina:† I believe the ďton of bricksĒ always brings down the voice.
Elizabeth:† If the diaphragm becomes too contentious with the breath then it will tend to starve the voice of air and the tone seems a little starved.† Itís hard to find the right balance.† But it is the endless practice and doing those ďbouncy bouncesĒ because one of the things the staccato does is to coordinate the abdominals with the diaphragm.† They become one reflex.
Dina:† You remind me why great singers are great, because they can do the staccato and if you canít do it something is wrong.† Itís all in Lampertióyouíve got to do staccato.
Elizabeth:† A page of exercises that includes scales, some staccato workógot to sing triplets, and youíve got to sing quads.† Youíve got to have some exercises for the various ranges, pianissimo, forte, and you have to have exercises that take you through the vowels.† You can do all that on one page.† All the other exercises are variations on that.† I remember a book where the exercises were built into these cute little arias that were written for the purpose.† I thought those were rather sweet.†
A teacher was trying to take some of the drudgery out of these exercises.† He said, if the things my students need to learn methodically are not in the music that they like, Iíll write some music with the method written right in.† That was a way of combining vocal method with musicianship and dealing with language.
Dina:† Tell me what you think about the possibility for dramatic sopranos and mezzos, the heavy voices, to sing pianissimo tones.† Does that come easier to a coloratura voice?
Elizabeth:† I donít think so.† Coloratura voices, by nature, are a little smaller.† Their voices tend to stay in the same range.† Every voice goes through a hormonal change at puberty but of all the voices the soprano stays in her same range.† Whereas many male voices start high then drop low so they have a whole different resonance point to deal with when their voices changeósay, by an octave.† The mezzo voice will tend to change by 5 notes.† Sheíll go from childhood to being a mezzo and the center of the voice might drop 3-5 notes where the center of a soprano voice is going to stay pretty much the same throughout her life.† So a mezzo has a head start.†
I think what happens is the so-called dramatic voices feel they have to color their voices.† By doing that they are burdening the tone with aesthetic demands that, for a young singer, are not appropriate.† They skip a step.† They donít ever find out where their true voice is because they are too busy coloring it to sound like a mezzo.
Dina:† I love the idea of finding your true voice that you speak of.
Elizabeth:† Well, everybody puzzles over the ďfachĒ thing.† What fach am I?† Am I a duck or a swan?† At a certain point you have to demand that the student forget all about that and say, all we are looking for is ďahĒ on concert tone.† We are looking for concert tone.† Thatís A-440 on an ďah.Ē† When you can do anything thatís on that page of exercises with an ďahĒ in concert tone you will find your voice is unfettered by these colorations.† The modulating of the pure vowels might be okay in certain situations in arias but itís not acceptable in an exercise.† You want to know where those flaws are.† How are you supposed to fix it if you keep pouring gunk on it.
Dina:† So what do you do if itís flawed?
Elizabeth:† If itís flawed you work it through.† Just about every question a student asks can be answered in one wordóbreath.† If thereís a bump in the road, letís say they have a break they are having trouble getting over--itís breath support that will lift the voice over that.
Dina:† And, by breath support, you meanÖ?
Elizabeth:† I mean that the voice is sufficiently unencumbered that it can sing a musical tone over a break.† You might have to back off a little bit.† You lighten up and go over the change.† If youíve got a bump in your voice in a certain note you may have to begin your transition two or three notes earlier.† You may have to spread the registration over several notes as you go up and down and not allow it to come to what I call a rubber band where it just snaps on you.† Where you donít allow the voice to snap back.† You keep the voice SUPPORTED.
Dina:† When you speak of support that way itís different from what many people regard as support?
Elizabeth: I donít mean the approach where they jab you with a broomstick.
Dina:† If you say more support
singers have to understand what you mean .
Elizabeth:† What I mean by support is the moving breath.
Dina:† Itís important to define the word support so singers understand what you mean and donít end up doing the opposite of what you mean.
Elizabeth:† Remember the discussion that took place when women stopped wearing corsets.† Of course, men were wearing them too.† In Lillie Lehmannís book Mein Gesangkunst, she talks about the corset.† There were singers who swore by them and others who rejected them and said, I donít care about fashion, Iím not going to wear a corset ever.† There were schools of thought on it.† Some people thought the corset was a wonderful thing to promote breath support.† But, could anything be as immobilizing as a corset?† So what do you do?† You lean on it and then you have to breathe high because you canít move your lower abs and your diaphragm is at the skinniest bit, so where is it supposed to go?† So, you expand through the top.† If you had learned to sing that way then take the corset off, you would have no support at all.
I think Madam Sutherland was unique in that she had all that flexibility, all that range but she was, as a singer, on the chunky side for a coloratura.† You look at her and you think, well this woman could sing a Brunnhilde or Liebestod and Iím sure she could have.† The amazing thing about her voice was that she could get it down to this very hot little blue flame.† There was an incredible amount of energy in that voice.† When she sang coloratura sheíd do that back off thing.† Sheíd never sing her coloratura full voice, nobody does.† But, when she was singing sotto voce it sounded like other peopleís voce piena because she was bigger in that sense than anybody else.† She was like the Niederwald Denkmal (a huge heroic female warrior statue along the German Rhine River).† She was larger than life that way.
Dina:† You said such an important thing.† Nobody sings coloratura full voice.† Itís impossible.†
Elizabeth:† Sotto voce is a very important technique.† People who arenít capable of a pianissimo, how are they supposed to move the voice around.† If they canít do those things they have lost one of their bel canto ideals which is flexibility.† Bel canto is supposed to be a three-legged stool, take one leg out and it cannot stand.† You are not complete as a singer if you donít have those three things (pure vowels, flexibility and legato).† If you are not complete as a singer then letís get to work.† If you have to come as a remedial, and you see these big suitcases coming in the door, ďhi, Iím the ton of bricksÖĒ then the first thing to work on is flexibility.
Dina:† May be thatís a good way to start these people who think they know so much, to do the fast exercises which they have to be able to do.
Elizabeth:† Keep the whip handy because they are going to be hard to motivate at first.† They are going to wonder, why do I have to do this?† Itís because you skipped it at the beginning and we are going back to it now.† You were supposed to do it 20 years ago.†
We covered the bel canto three principles and the three principles of the tone, which is attack, sustain, release.† Another set of three principles is, the voice is made up of breath, tone, and resonance.† You can get a tone out of somebody and itís not resonant so you still have to work on your resonance, to get what we sometimes call placementóand all that talk of singing in the mask.
Dina:† Yes, what you think of that?
Elizabeth:† I think itís a marker for the singer to know if his voice is resonant or not but not a reliable one.† Because certain notes will be palpable in the mask and others are not.† It doesnít mean they are not ringing.† You have to sing past the mask.† The mask to me is confining.
Dina:† Anything you box like that is going to be confining.
Elizabeth:† If you are introverting your tone to the point where you are really only thinking nowhere beyond the bridge of your nose I think you are cheating yourself.† The minute I get above a certain point the frequencies are so quick and close together I canít feel anything anyway.† If anything I just feel a kind of outward pressure around my eardrums as Iím singing.† It kind of like my head is being expanded, itís a push.† Itís radiating outward when Iím doing it right.† But itís not a vibration.† People are sitting there going ďne ne ne neĒ, ďna na na naĒ
Dina:† Every note they put there so to speak which is kind of like forcingÖ
Elizabeth: †Very limiting.† How about put it over there.† (points across the room)
Dina:† Well some people try to tell you to do that too.
Elizabeth:† How about put it in the second balcony, thatís where the dinner dates are.† Thatís what they used to say.† I loved the Master Class at the (MOT) opera house because it was a chance for a singer to get into an actual room and see if he could make the voice fly, let the room carry them away.
Dina:† Now thatís a wonderful thought that you mentioned yesterday.† That the place that you sing in helps you to find your voice as it should beóthat it can be allowed to expand in space.
Elizabeth:† Thatís the space where the voice lives.† All these are just actuators, initiators.† I initiate a tone, I get it developed.† Only after it leaves me and develops in the hall and is heard by the listener is it really the tone.† Once it gets out of me I donít have as much to do with it so I have to make sure I follow my three step plan all the way and make sure that what I put out there is efficient, fully developed, and viable.† Another three legged set of principles.
Dina:† How would you explain viable?
Elizabeth:† Well, that it lives in space, no opposing energy canceling it out.† You allow the tone to get out there but you donít try to suppress it in any way.† Any energy you put up to oppose the tone will tend to cancel elements of it out whether or not you know it.† That effect might happen after it leaves you.
Dina:† Itís your responsibility to do it right so when it does leave you it sounds right in the space.
Elizabeth:† Efficient, fully developed and viable.† Efficient means there is no opposing energy.† Fully developed means Iíve gone through all the steps.† Iíve got a moving breath.† Iíve got a good pure tone.† Iíve put a cool vowel on it.† Iíve got a good sustain going on.† Viable means the continuance right on out into the hallóthat Iíve allowed for that.† The tone is viable in the hall.† People can hear it and enjoy it.†
Dina:† What do you think of Lilli Lehmannís idea of her ladder around the headóthat was her experience.
Elizabeth:† Lehmann was a great singer and she was also a teacher and her book has been much criticized.† I read it a couple of times and I read it in the original German because I felt the English translation might have flaws.† Every time she described one of these effects she said, remember, this is how I experience my voice and you should explore your voice and you should come up with your experience.† You shouldnít begin to sing with a specific idea of how itís going to come out.† You should see what comes out then stand back and say, what was that?
Dina:† Thatís a wonderful way to put it.† Every tone has to be rediscovered.
Elizabeth:† Otherwise you are a miserable control freak.† How many times has anyone told a singer that their tone was fascinating, not pretty, not crystal, but fascinating?† Iíve been told that many times.† The tone is a living thing.† Fully developed means I have allowed it to be fully developed by following all of my steps and making sure Iíve served the tone in every aspect with the breath and the actuator here and the resonanceómake sure that it is fully developed.† Beyond that, once it gets beyond the end of my nose itís got to live in the hall and if the tone is alive that means itís reflecting, itís deflecting, itís amplifying, itís traveling around.† Once Iíve let it go I canít suddenly put a cap on it on the way out the door.† I would be like an overprotective mother who has a rambunctious natural child and heís all set to go and when he gets to the door she says ďdonít forget your scarf and your hat and your boots and your gloves and your coat.† Then he gets out there and he canít move.† So at the last minute youíve taken all the spontaneity out of it, so here youíve got this tone coming on and you say, ďbefore I let you go put this muffler onĒ because, in the last analysis Iím so self conscious I canít allow anybody to hear the real me..†
I once asked Boris Goldovski, ďwas that good, is that right?Ē and he responded in his charming Russian accent, ďdoss it haff to be bad?Ē (laughs)† Why should I have to crunch it down and cultivate it to pieces until thereís nothing left to fascinate?
Dina:† Isnít that one of the great joys of singingósinging right?† Itís a creative process and every tone is born anew and you are giving birth to the voice.† Youíre not making it you are freeing it.† If you are doing it right thereís a feeling like no other experience.
Elizabeth:† I always hope the audience will come along on my little journey.† Itís okay with me if they donít.
Dina:† When the voice is free the audience generally goes along.
Elizabeth:† Iím never insulted when somebody falls asleep because theyíve usually been dragged there by a wife after a long day at work and itís far better than to think that poor exhausted man was kept awake by shrill, awful noises.† I would rather have a soothing effect on people than to be one of these yellow canaries so you couldnít sleep in a windstorm.† When someone nods off I could say, ďshh, donít wake him, just leave him alone.† If I stop singing he might wake up.Ē† Itís all in how you see yourself fitting into the larger scheme of things.† If self-consciousness causes you to be apprehensive of the audience that can be pretty damning too.† Thatís the wrong approach.
Dina:† Isnít that the fear of auditions?
Elizabeth:† Auditions are the worst.
If you are out there trying to sell people a bill of goods and you know in your heart itís not so, if you are trying to be somebody else, trying to sound like somebody else, trying to do something that you know is unobtainable they will find you out.† In 1977, I did the Met Auditions.† I took third place in that, which, considering who was singing, wasnít half bad.† Vincent Cole got first, a wonderful tenor. Some lyric soprano was second, I forget, because it was a casting call for Barcelona, I was third place.† There was another singer who I admired greatly, she was from California, I thought she was terrific and should have placed second if not first but she didnít get the second and I picked up third but there were a couple things wrong with her performance apparently.†
Today she is an American opera iconóCarol Vaness.† Today sheís a great star.† At the time we were about the same age, in our mid-twenties maybe.† She came out in a specially made dress which was kind of a chocolate velvet and she sang Tosca, Vissi díarte.† I thought she sang very well, but what I heard floating around was that she had sung the wrong repertoire, that the jury was expecting her to choose something a little more age and development appropriate and that they took points off for that.† How could I sing anything inappropriate, the only thing I know is coloratura and I did a good job.† I think Iíd have walked off with the whole thing if Iíd been allowed to sing what I wanted, but be that as it may, she chose Vissi díarte, I donít remember what the second one was, something dramatic.
Dina:† What did you chose?
Elizabeth:† What was chosen for me was Blondchen from Abduction, and the Bell Song from Lakme.† The Bell Song is a bad piece to audition because itís so exposed at the beginning and if youíre little heart is going like this (pounding) it shows.
Dina:† And what did you want to sing?
Elizabeth:† Zerbinetta!† Which I was very strong at but they decided it was too long.† If Iíd been more assertive, I would have said, Iíll skip the first round and sing Zerbinetta for the second round.† I didnít have the nerve then, which is why the cut off age is 30, because after that you know whatís what.† Itís better to sing these competitions when you are clueless.† Carol Vaness went on to Europe and devoured all the Mozart first ladies, Donna Anna, Konstanze, all of them, and she was terrific at it.† She sang a lot of Baroque and Handel too.† Then years later she began moving into the heavier Puccini ladies and the Verdis when I met up with her it was almost 30 years later.†
I was in Houston singing an audition and she was debuting as Norma.† I went back stage to say hi.† I hadnít seen her since the Auditions.† I knew what had transpired with her in the mean time, that she was a major star at this point.† In spite of that the Auditions were still strong in her mind.† She recognized me and asked, what are you doing here?† I said Iím auditioning and I bet they donít make you audition any more.† She agreed they donít.† I said, so much for the Met auditions as far as influencing the future of a career.† That made no difference to us either way.†
Your winning ticket is you, not who you hope to be in 20 years.† The reason she didnít place apparently was that she was skipping a step.† She was anticipating.† She wanted to show them where she was going instead of where she was at the time.
Dina:† What do you think she should have chosen at that time?
Elizabeth:† Donna Anna.
Dina:† Thatís also tough material.
Elizabeth:† But it was the right type of singing for her voice at that time, in her 20ís.
Dina:† But they gave her that aria?
Elizabeth:† No, she chose it.
Dina:† They didnít let you choose your Zerbinetta.
Elizabeth:† Because it was too long.† Vessi d'arte is nice and short.† In the competition setting or any place else, honesty is the best policy.† Be who you are right now and not what you were or what you are going to be.† You have to re-evaluate yourself on a regular basis and find your true voice.† If you go out there as something youíre not, theyíll know.