These are my notes from the Master Class which John Oliver held on April 6, 2014, in the chorus room at Symphony Hall for selected members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with Martin Amlin the excellent piano accompanist. John went out of his way to pick younger singers, telling us that they were often the most interesting to hear but often had the most to learn.
In these notes I’ve focused on capturing the advice rather than the praise. There was plenty of praise to go around. In fact, all the singers should be commended just for standing up in front of everyone, let alone doing such a great job performing and then taking further direction.
Kendra Nutting, alto, Claude Debussy, “Beau Soir.”
- “The best rehearsal is in performance.” Everything should be louder, not pulled back because we are here in our rehearsal room. Maintain the line and the flow from the very first opening measures so you can find that resonance immediately. By example, John Oliver explained that Birgette Nelson would always be blasting away with her resonance whether she was on a stage or not.
- “Make sure the tone starts in your mind before you make a sound, so that the note from the get-go is fully resonating.”
- “Make sure this other note is ‘part of the flow of lava.'” Here John focused on a specific phrase where the upper note didn’t have as much power. Upon repeat, we heard a much stronger note that had twice as much resonance! John cautioned about not forcing the voice into something it wasn’t ready for, which is dangerous for a young voice. “But the voice is ready. You just didn’t know to do it.”
Patrick McGill, bass, Gaetono Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore, “Come Paride vezzoso”
- Tenors and low notes. As the male voice gets lower, it has to stay more open, “and your tendency is to take that tightened focus — the one you know from your upper middle range — and keep it all the way down. And that cuts you off, like in that run that goes down to the low B-flat. Experiment to get that freed up.” Upon repeat, it sounded much better. “Now, it doesn’t sound like you’re stretching to get down there.”
- Coloratura. “The tendency is to let the notes go up and down, and it’s important not to let the notes go up and down. Let one note take place after the other, let every note lead, like you have a tube they’re all going through.” On repeat, we could hear all the notes much more clearly and cleanly. When he then got to the high E, John noted that “he was already in line and ready with the proper resonance.”
Bethany Worrell, soprano, Igor Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress, “No Word From Tom”
- Horizontal, not up and down. Similar advice as for Kendra to carry the line forward. “You were all taught up and down, and that’s not it for the singing instrument. It’s flow, it’s horizontal, that you should be concerned about.”
- On maturity. “How old are you? 29? You’ve got another 10 years before your voice fully comes in in that lower range.” Don’t force the vowel… Second time was much more connected.
- Taking time with notes. “You have this facility [meaning natural aptitude.] But it’s the enemy of singing, when something is so easy. Take more time with some of the notes. We can hear them here, but in a theatre or orchestra the audience wouldn’t. Be more gracious with some of those notes, and we’ll all hear the words and expression better.”
- You can take it with you. “What are you taking with you from that F-sharp [long note] to the A? Take the vowel with you to the high note. You don’t need to re-articulate it. Then you get the full resonance.” She tried the passage again. “2 out of 4, you got it. It’s something that will require work to make it natural.”
- Get to the ecstatic. This section of the piece started right off with a forte high note. “Make sure you’ve got all your energy on that very first note!” It’s all in the mind. Be there, aligned and resonant.
- Anchored sternum. “You have a tendency above the staff to have a slight anchor right here [gesturing to his sternum] which is robbing you of the resonance you need. Stand in front of a mirror and watch.” John suggested a trick from the last Master Class, of flaring your arms back and opening your hands, to force the chest back up. “The minute that is tense in the sternum it robs the resonance.”
Adam Van der Sluis, tenor, Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Whither Must I Wander”
- Just a few lessons. John revealed later that he had given Adam a few lessons, and before that Adam had never had a formal voice lesson (and may have thought himself a bass). In just a few weeks, he was now growing into his top notes without as much reaching. “I don’t teach much any more, but here we’ve put some basic principles in place, and now he has a line and a reach in only a few weeks… and now I need to practice teaching more!”
- On maturing tenors. “Tenor usually takes a long time to mature… to say nothing of the tenor personality!”
- Don’t be a pianist. John repeated his oft-heard advice about not singing like a pianist, plunking one note after the other. “As a pianist he thinks like a pianist.” In particular, he mentioned getting into your head that “diphthongs should not be two parts.”
- Singing loudly. “In general, you should sing louder. I’ll warn you if you’re forcing it.” Just a little more volume makes the tone coalesce more. John cited another singer’s advice [I missed the name… anyone there know?] “Sing forte for the first 4 years.” Don’t spend time learning how to sing correctly, explore your voice and instrument first.
- Singing with strength. “Sing through the lower part of the passage, and don’t back off in any way, so the next high note that comes is right in line.”
Stefan Sigurjonsson, bass, George Fredrich Handel, Messiah, “The Trumpet Shall Sound”
- Tensions. You must always guard against tensions that creep in, like little gremlins.
- Popping up the sternum. “The relationship from here to here,” John said, gesturing from the sternum to the base of the ribs, “it should be inflated, with the sternum like a balloon. Good singers, when they have a high C, that sternum pops up. You have pressure downward there instead.”
- Relax the face. “Watch for tensions in your face, especially when you’re concentrating. Sure, the Last Judgment is nothing to grin about, but make it more magisterial than disapproving!”
- Hook and a string. “You should feel like there’s a hook and a string pulling your sternum forward on those long top notes. I hear a smoother legato and the high notes more connected the second time. But you should try some mirror work to say, ‘Oh god, I didn’t know I was doing that.’ “
Jon Oakes, tenor, Gian Carlo Menotti, The Old Maid and the Thief, “When The Air Sings of Summer”
[Note: Jon is a lifelong pianist but has only been singing for the last two years. I’m sure he must have felt intimidated, as I did, after some of these heavy hitter born-to-sing performers went earlier!]
- Singing is boring! “You must get tired of me saying the same thing over and over again. Singing is a boring thing, you have to do the same thing over and over again!”
- Staying connected. “You have to be connected to the air, and the words have to connect the line of tone. The way he’s currently singing is as if the violinist only played one note to a bow, instead of ten. Your musical instincts are so good that a lot of the problems it introduces are covered up. When you think of the line of words as all connected to each other, going out through these resonances here… then take another breath and keep the bow on the string for the next time.
- Breathing in the right places. John Oliver suggested some better places to breathe to keep certain phrases together, and urged, “You have enough breath to make it!” (“Do I?” worried Jon. “Yes!” answered John.)
- “Conducting.” “Now Let’s take out the conductor,” said John Oliver, referring to the way Jon waved his hands around a lot while singing. (“But I liked that!” moaned Jon, to laughter.) “You can conduct or you can sing; I advise you to choose one or the other. Look at how it worked for me!”
- Magic Circle. “It’s hard to be somebody else. I’ve said it a million times, but you have to step into the magic circle, where you and your neuroses don’t exist any more, just the composer and the character. It’s a mind trick. I read Stanislavsky, you get in the habit of becoming someone else, and you are not self conscious and not nervous.” (Jon: “I have lots of neuroses.” John Oliver: “Not to be discouraging, but I’ve never gotten over mine!”)
- Mirror work for finding your character. “The one other thing I want you to do, in the privacy of your own home: go in front of a mirror and imagine who that person is that you want to be. You could do it a million ways. Be angry, be patient, be anything but singing correctly. You can get to that character in many ways. It’s so important to learn to sing, but again, if you only focus on singing correctly you miss the rest.”
Laura Webb, alto, Samuel Barber, Hermit Songs, “The Desire for Hermitage.”
[Note: I in particular enjoyed hearing Laura go from her cute Texas twang into full kick-butt operatic diction-and-resonance mode.]
- Not trusting what you think you hear. “There’s a concept that young folk need to hear. You’re listening to your sound and you think you’re hearing it, but you’re not always getting through it to the listener. The moment you begin a word you need to have a hook on it that pulls it through your mouth. It’s the word itself; its tension is what brings it through the resonance. Otherwise, it sits too much in the inside.”
- On quiet singing. “Soft sound still has to fill all the space in the hall. It’s a problem with practice rooms… and with voice teachers, frankly.” Laura hinted that her voice teachers have told her her voice was too big. John disagreed. “Sing louder. Find your voice. Better to have too much.”
- Little notes. “When you get into little notes make sure you still have that pull on each word.
- On poetry vs. musicality. Referring to one particular passage, John warned her, “You’re singing it well for the poetry, but the music wants something different. It doesn’t have to be click, click, click… [like a metronome.] You can make space within the music to communicate the meaning.”
Meghan Zuver, soprano, Vincenzo Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, “Eccomi… Oh quante volte”
[Note: Everyone was great, but I think Meghan inspired gasps and the most hearty applause with her gorgeously enunciated Italian and her overall fantastic singing. She introduced herself by mentioning that she managed the Starbucks in Lexington Center. After her performance, John’s first words were, “Get the hell out of Starbucks!”]
- Grace notes. “Don’t skim over the grace notes too fast. It’s part of the line, it is not just a hiccup on the line. You need to take more time with it.” They worked until the grace notes sounded “properly Italian,” no longer an after thought.
- Notes above the staff. Regarding her high B: “Notes above the staff take place mentally narrower, and you took the weight out of it when you went up there. All the great singers talk about this. It’s like a shooting star coming from way up there.” Upon repeat, she nailed it by adding that brightness, using her finger to point upwards to get the right mental imagery.