27 June 2011

Language in two masterclasses

The masterclasses keep coming! This week we had two additional classes, each dealing with text and language.

On Thursday, Erie Mills gave class at Old First Church to some of our Little Women cast members with a focus on [American] English diction and, more accurately, phrasing. Far from spending hours nitpicking at vowels and consonants, she urged the performers to sing their text, not as a series of syllables, but as full phrases, concentrating on prosody. This is the same work that we must do in a general musical sense: seeing beyond the collection of individual notes to the phrases they make up. The former instance turns syllables into sentences; the latter pitches into melodies. In both cases, the result is actual meaning.

Looking for fluidity and strength.

Her insistence that the singers approach their pieces naturally and organically extended to the technical issues she addressed as well. Mills urged them to use their entire bodies to support their sound, thinking of a breath's trajectory as going beyond just mouth to lungs and back. Her approach was both energetic and relaxed as she reminded the performers to pace themselves and not to attempt super-human feats: "Remember you love to sing." "Human beings breathe. It's okay."

This emphasis on "humanness" in singing is one I take fully to heart. Yes, we are training ourselves to do extraordinary things with a body part that most people take for granted. But we must also remember that our voices are natural extensions of ourselves after all. Why not approach them in singing, both physically and psychologically, more like we do in familiar, spoken territory?

French vowels.

Marcie Stapp's class on Saturday night in the Southside Theater at Fort Mason dealt with more of the nitty gritty aspects of languages. She tackled major themes of diction in Italian, German and French, each language represented by two performers. But although the focus was on very specific pronunciation questions, Stapp's aim was very similar to Mills': making the text come out, naturally, easily and with the character of its language in mind. The adjustments she made to the singers' approach to sounds were not meant to add more rigid rules to the task of singing, but rather to make singing less difficult. As in Mills' class, the ultimate goal was to communicate humanly, and to do so with as little interference as possible.

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