Few disciplines require more technique than making music and that includes something that comes naturally to many of us — singing.
“You can develop talent through technique — not just how to play the notes but how to express yourself,” says Ken Cole, who is celebrating his first anniversary as executive director of Hoff-Barthelson Music School in Scarsdale. “Technique is about enabling expression, finding your voice.”
Sometimes literally. “In singing,” he says, “how do you color the voice and phrase the lines so you tell a story? Technique is about … how to take sound and tell a story.”
“It has a lot to do with early nurturing,” says Jenny Hayden, a member of the school’s voice faculty. “(Soprano) Mirella Freni and (tenor Luciano) Pavarotti both had beautiful natural instruments. But they worked hard on their technique, which is particularly true of Italian singers.”
Indeed, Pavarotti used to say, only half-jokingly, that he learned a lot about breathing for singing by embracing his frequent co-star, Australian coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland, famed for the purity of her tone and vocal pyrotechnics that included bird-like trills and running passages that were as seamless and opalescent as a string of pearls.
But technique, Cole and Hayden say, is not limited to Western classical tradition, which includes opera and the outsize vocal range it requires. Indeed, every musical genre or style — from Indian or Japanese music to Broadway to country — has a unique technique, Cole says. And that includes pop.
“Someone like Adele or of her caliber has technique,” Cole says. “Frank Sinatra couldn’t read music, but he had tremendous technique.”
Sinatra often credited his immaculate phrasing to observing Tommy Dorsey play the trombone during the two years he sang with Dorsey’s band.
Technique can help singers bridge different musical styles. Hayden points to Barbara Cook. “She really could do Cunégonde in ‘Candide,’” Hayden says, referring to the demanding lyric
-coloratura role Cook originated in the 1956 Leonard Bernstein operetta, which includes the show-stopping aria “Glitter and Be Gay.” Later, Cook reinvented herself as a cabaret singer, in which she sang more in the speaking range of the voice associated with pop singing and not in the larger range of opera, Hayden says.
Other singers do the opposite. Soprano Renée Fleming sang with a jazz trio in college but decided to remain on her classical path. Tenor Juan Diego Flórez first sang everything from Elvis Presley hits to folk songs as a replacement singer in the pub his mother managed in Peru.
At Hoff-Barthelson — now in its 73rd season, “though we don’t look a day over 20,” Cole says — there is a full complement of programs for perhaps future Flemings and Flórezes as well as avocational musicians of any age and ability.
“It’s about lifelong learning,” Cole says, whether that learner be a 3-month-old in the Early Childhood Music program, moving to sounds; one of the 750 students on site in the kindergarten through 12th grade after-school program; or an 80-year-old singer. In addition to voice, the school teaches all the orchestral instruments, plus guitar, ukulele, banjo, organ and harp.
“One of the hallmarks of Hoff-Barthelson is its comprehensive approach,” says Cole, “so you don’t just take piano but theory, composition, conducting, sight-singing (reading music off a page), chamber music and orchestra.”
Here technique is aided by technology. In the Music Technology Lab, he adds, students can play a score that is translated into musical notation on a computer, enabling them to “visualize music differently.”
But can technology — which includes passive forms of entertainment, everything from movies, TV and radio to computer streaming — impede musicianship and performance?
While Cole notes that the development of mass media in the early 20th century has created a “particularly receiving” environment — being entertained rather than entertaining yourself through your own musicianship — he takes a broader view of technology. A piano or a violin is part of technology, says Cole, a violist. On long car trips, he likes to dictate notes into his iPhone. Or he takes the Amtrak local and gets a lot of work done on his laptop in the café car.
Hayden likened technology to the two sides of a coin. On the one hand, she says, it’s helpful to record yourself so your can listen to your practice. But “if everything can be totally modulated, you can get a false sense of your technique and talent and what your actual sound is.”
In the end, technology and technique are only another T word — tools. They may not matter, she says, “unless you have a natural gift for expression that grabs people.”
HOW TO SING
A magazine article is not likely to teach you how to sing – or turn you into the next Pavarotti. But these tips by Jenny Hayden of Hoff-Barthelson Music School’s voice faculty can improve your next rendition of “Happy Birthday”:
- Align your spine – “Your spine is your sounding board and your head is your resonator,” Hayden says. She recommends putting one finger under your nose between your nostrils and one at the base of your skull and also placing your back against a wall with a slight bend in the knees, to get a sense of alignment. When you sing, you want to be tall and lifted.
- Breathe deeply – Breathe from your belly (diaphragmatic breathing), she says, not your chest. Here is where your alignment comes in. “When you’re in a tall, lifted position, you’re not so inclined to breathe up, but you breathe down and out,” she says.
- Sing on the vowels, not the consonants. Classical singing in particular uses a lot of open vowels. Whatever the word, Hayden says, “the first vowel is 98 percent of it. The consonants must be very quick, not sluggish.”
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