Your Questions answered... about Singing
Why do you have to warm up your voice?
We’ve all been in that situation: you receive a phone call in the morning, at a time when by all accounts you should be out of bed but in fact you’re very much not. You try your best to sound bright and chirpy, but the deep growly “Hello?” that comes out gives the whole game away, and the person on the other end (hopefully not your boss) asks “Oh, did I wake you up?”
This pretty much explains the necessity of warming up the voice! Though it takes only about an hour (and that all important cup of tea!) before your speaking voice sounds normal, the singing voice demands a whole load more flexibility from your vocal cords, so they have to be a lot more awake and warmed up. Just as you stretch your muscles before going for a run or a workout in order to avoid injury, the voice muscles have to be warmed up in the same way.
The better your technique is (and therefore the ‘fitter’ your vocal muscles are) the shorter time it takes to warm up, but I know few singers who don’t have to warm up at all, especially in the morning. You start with small and quiet exercises in the middle of your vocal range, gradually getting higher and lower and louder and softer until the whole voice feels warm and supple, all croaky bits have been smoothed out, and you're ready to launch into song!
What is vibrato? Can you learn it?
Vibrato is a regular pulsing up and down of a note (oscillation). It adds a shimmering quality and a warmth to the sound and allows it to travel further.
Depending on what type of music you’re singing, vibrato is considered to be stylistically appropriate or inappropriate - Renaissance music (music composed between 1400 and 1600) is widely believed not to have been sung with vibrato, and instead uses a ‘straight’ sound. The jury is out on the extent to which Baroque music (music from 1600 - 1750) involved vibrato - many argue that it was used during this time as an extra feature, added sparingly here and there to add a special flavour to the music. The Classical and Romantic musical epochs (1750-1820 and 1820-1910 respectively) use vibrato extensively, and this is where the stereotypical big wobbly opera diva sound comes from.
Too much vibrato can be overwhelming and arguably pretty ugly - the voice wobbles up and down so much you can’t really identify which note they are actually trying to sing. But a tasteful use of vibrato can be that extra touch that really pulls at the heartstrings.
Learning vibrato is a tricky one. It's not really something you can learn, but rather something that naturally develops over time when all the different aspects of your voice are in place and working properly. It requires the right balance between muscle tension and muscle relaxation. Imitating vibrato or trying to add it to your voice when it’s not occurring naturally can damage the voice, and also doesn’t sound authentic. Yes, if you wobble your jaw or wobble your stomach while you sing, you might feel like you’re singing with vibrato, but you’re not! It’s best just to forget about it for the first few years of singing training, and at some point it starts to occur naturally, and from then on you can start to try to control it, and shape it the way you like.
What languages does one have to sing in as a classical singer? How well do you have to speak all the languages you sing in?
In classical music there are four main languages that you find yourself singing in: Italian, German, French and English. Less often but also important languages are Russian (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev) and Czech (Janacek, Dvorjak). Oratorio and sacred music will often be in Latin, which can be sung with either Germanic or Italianate pronunciation.
When you’re singing in a foreign language, do you have to understand everything you sing?
You don’t have to be able to speak all these languages, but you have to sing in them as if you do! During your singing studies at a conservatoire or university, you’re taught the basic pronunciation rules for the various languages so that you can ‘fake it’ as well as possible! Whereas in jazz or pop, people find a foreign accent charming (think Beatles ‘Michelle’ or David Bowie’s ‘Helden’ - the german version of ‘Heroes’), classical singers spend hours trying to imitate as authentic an accent as possible.
Every piece you sing has to be translated word for word into your mother tongue so that you can really get in touch with the meaning. It often helps to recite the text as if it were a poem before attempting to sing it. During productions, there are usually language coaches on hand, fine-tuning the pronunciation throughout the rehearsal process. I’ve just spent three weeks singing a recording in Czech... or attempting to... and we had a language coach sitting in with the sound engineer throughout, as we struggled to navigate our way around Czech consonants! You can watch the video here :-)
‘Why bother?’ you may ask - why not translate the music and sing it in your own language? This of course has its benefits, allowing a local audience to understand the text more easily, as well as being simpler for the singers! But something is undoubtedly lost when you take a piece of music out of its original language. A Rachmaninoff song needs to be sung in Russian to achieve that immense, grandiose sound, and a Debussy song needs to be sung in French to convey the delicacy and intimacy that the french language provides. Though it can be frustrating in the early stages, I find singing in different languages very rewarding, and it opens doors to learning the languages properly.
Having said that, the text you end up learning isn’t always the most practical - an C18th italian song comparing your lover’s eyes to a sunset is not quite as useful as a phrase like “Where’s the train station?” but it's a step in the right direction!
Do you have any rituals that you do before going on stage?
If I have a big concert, I’ll try to keep the day as free as possible beforehand, so that I can keep a clear head. Getting a good night’s sleep, doing some yoga to wake up the body but not exhaust it, eating a good healthy meal a few hours before the performance - those are all things I try to do. I will usually do a short 20 minute warm-up earlier in the day, just to check the voice is “there”, and then do a proper warm up an hour or so before the concert starts. Giving yourself time to get into your concert outfit, do your makeup and have a natter with your colleagues also helps to get you into “the zone”. Whatever helps you feel the part will help you sing the part!
It's been a few years since I’ve sung an opera role, but when I did I used to go through the opera in my head beforehand, thinking through or even walking through the stage directions and the scenes. When you’re on stage, you want the movements to be as automatic and natural as possible, so that you can concentrate on singing and communicating the words to the audience.
If you’re singing sacred music so often and performing in churches does that mean you and your colleagues are religious?
In a word, no. I know many people who make a career out of primarily sacred music, and for whom a church is merely a place with a nice acoustic. Having said that, there are also those for whom performing religious music acts as a pathway into religion. I often perform religious music alongside colleagues of various different faiths, from Jewish to Buddhist to Muslim to Christian. The appeal of music is universal, and performing religious music in a church can be a ‘spiritual’ experience, whether or not one adheres to a particular faith.