Monday, September 13, 2010

The Daily Slog

Living the life of a musician - but particularly one whose instrument is housed inside their body - is such an odd existence. "Work" as we know it as humans (and especially as Americans, who are trained from birth at the fine art of HARD WORK) is a strange way to define what we do, even though that's how we make our livelihood. My last facebook status update said, "Does listening to a recording of a coaching count as practicing?" and although it was meant to be funny, I was also kind of serious. Is it possible that something as passive as listening to yourself sing could be productive?

I can only answer for myself, but for me the answer is HELL to the YES (maybe that phrase only works as HELL to the NO - in which case, I apologize for my obvious nerdiness in trying to employ it incorrectly). I've found that when I'm learning a new piece of music, one of the single most productive things I can do is to have a solid coaching on the piece, but one where I make whatever mistakes I am apt to make, and then listen to a recording of that coaching. All I have to do is hear myself making that mistake (whether it be diction, music, rhythm, style) a couple of times, and my brain miraculously fixes it. I don't know the science behind why this works, but it's a really handy trick for singers since repeating something over and over tires out your voice and can only be done for a certain length of time. I'm always totally amazed by how much better I seem to know a piece of music after having just one coaching and listening to it a couple of times. By the next coaching I'm in a completely different place with the piece and can actually start making it my own musically and stylistically.

So last night, feeling a little sedentary in my apartment (and also feeling guilty for not having sung a note all day but feeling a little too wiped out to actually sing through anything) I donned my raincoat and walked the 25 blocks it took me to listen to my last coaching of Kindertotenlieder all the way through, and then wash, rinse, repeated the whole procedure back up to my apartment. And today when I started singing through the pieces they really felt they were in me and I was barely looking down at the score.

I'm still having trouble internalizing the texts however. The only way to memorize a piece is to know what you're singing (trying to memorize something without knowing what the words mean takes much longer) and my brain just doesn't want to KNOW know what these words mean. I mean, of course, I have translated them, and I know what the words mean, but when I try to infuse my own emotions into the texts and connect my own feelings with them, I get very upset. It's partially because the poems themselves are just heartbreaking, but it's mostly the way Mahler set them that gets to me. His music is so incredibly nostalgic - most of the songs are remembering moments from the children's lives or imagining what the world would be like if they were still there. There's this one song where the poet is talking about how sometimes he forgets that the children aren't just out on a walk, and keeps expecting them to appear from behind the next hill, and Mahler does this horribly evocative thing where he doesn't let the singer finish the phrase harmonically, but just has the vocal melody stop in the middle of the harmonic phrase, allowing the orchestra to take over and finish. It's impossibly devastating. This idea of an unfinished life, so shatteringly illustrated with one small harmonic device. Honestly, if the songs weren't so genius musically, I don't think anyone would ever be able to listen to them because the subject is so horrible. It just demonstrates how transcendent music really is.

Oh, how I long for the day when I'm just singing The Barber of Seville again, and my blog posts can be about eating sugar and slipping on the ice in Berlin!

P.S. I'm fooling with some design options on my blog, so you might see some strange stuff going on in the coming days.....


Katypracht said...

The eggs are fun. :)
I hear you about the "Kindertots" -- it's a gorgeous, impossibly emotional set which I first sang for my undergrad recital (I know, WAY too intense for an undergrad, but I was in love with them.)
I squeezed my way through "Sie ruh'n als wie in der Mutter Haus" and tears streamed down my face during the postlude of that first performance.

The second time I did them I was several years older and a little more sure vocally -- didn't change the way I felt about the text, but changed what I was able to say to my voice...much the same as talking myself out of a sneeze -- I was able to disassociate enough that my voice didn't shake or close up in the delicate, floaty high of the last song.

Most of the set is low and there are wonderful opportunities for luxuriating in the consonants -- Mahler's text painting is dreamy! I think the most helpful goal I learned from the two performances was to focus in the final song on the narrator's relief and trust rather than his personal regret and loss.

It's a really difficult but stunningly beautiful set; I'm so happy you're singing them.

In bocca al lupo!

Khooo said...

I loved this post. It's so dead on. I always have such a hard time with lied getting the text and the mood of the music ingrained in me. When I was learning Frauenliebe und Leben, it was incredibly frustrating. I kept playing different recordings of it and drilling it over and over again until all of a sudden, something just clicked and it become a part of me and the words felt like they were my own and it hit me how incredibly brilliant the combination of this composer and poet's work actually was.

No but I agree with you, practicing the right way in your head can be equally if not more valuable than physically practicing and making the same mistakes over and over again.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting descriptions of some of your working methods, Jennifer. Absolutely there are many different ways of "practicing" that don't involve using your voice! You are wise to employ a variety of tools. Quality versus quantity - just singing things over and over does not automatically solve challenges, but it can very easily exhaust the voice.

I think when pieces are as powerful as these, less is more. It is so easy to overdo the acting aspect, when the power to devastate is already in the music and the text. One doesn't want to make them maudlin and rob them of their power to move, which they surely will do with a pure approach that lets the composer speak through you. Diction is everything in this repertoire and determines the impact of a performance as much as anything.