WARNING!! Serious tech talk within. Enter at your own risk!
Yesterday I had a voice lesson with Carol Vaness. She is good friends with Vinson Cole, who I call my teacher, even though I’ve had only four lessons with him over the past two years, and she was in town to see Vinson in dress rehearsals for Les Contes d’Hoffmann at Seattle Opera, which opens this coming weekend. (Looks like there’s an interview with Vinson on the the SO homepage; very interesting, and good prep for those of you who will see the opera.) I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was very excited to sing for her – and to have some “hands-on” help with these damn high notes!
We met at Vinson’s beautiful Capitol Hill apartment, where she was finishing up with another student. When it was my turn, we settled into some chairs for a few minutes and she asked me to tell her a bit about myself. It was at this point that we also talked about our love for cute cheap shoes and the gorgeous greens that are in fashion this season. Fabulous! We talked a bit about my move into Coloratura Land, and she understood my hesitation immediately. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but coloraturas often get a bad rap, viewed as the pretty little songbirds that aren’t too bright. Not how I want to be viewed! But she reminded me that the great coloratura roles – Lucia, Zerbinetta, Adina, even Norina – are not cutsy. They are fierce, strong, wily, and smart. Yeah, yeah, I know all the bel canto ladies go crazy when they lose their loves, but still! She joined her voice to those others who have been telling me this for a year now, and, slowly but surely, I’m starting to believe it myself. I can be a smart coloratura!
She led me through some vocalises, not to warm me up, as I had done that before I came, but so that she could start to get a sense of my voice. After a few exercises going up, we turned around and headed down the keyboard. Somewhere around A or B below middle C, she asked me if I ever used my chest voice. I don’t really, although when singing low I imagine adding on a lower resonating chamber; I just never settle my voice fully into my chest cavity. Carol said, “If you’re going to sing Lucia, you’ll have to use your chest voice!” So we worked a tiny bit on that part of my voice, singing gentle five note scales (do re mi fa sol fa mi re do) starting at the bottom of my range and heading up. She spoke to me while I was singing, guiding me through the passaggio (literally, “passage,” or the section of the voice where you move from one resonance to another; most voices have three or four) between chest voice and lower head voice. Fascinating. We went all the way up without changing exercies, and when we stopped she talked about how different my voice was when I allowed the colors of my chest voice to permeate the rest of it. (Wow, this is hard to put into words!) Basically, she encouraged me to not cut out any part of my voice, not to disregard it. Of course, that doesn’t mean I should start belting my way through Mozart. Rather, simply let my voice sing with all its colors.
When we moved on to repertoire, I knew exactly what I needed help with. I told her that, while I knew I was a coloratura, I was still terrified of my highest notes. Right now, I can sing up to the Queen’s high F’s, but it scares me, which inhibits singing, right? Right. So I started singing. I could go on and on (as I already have, a bit!) about how much she helped me with the Vengeance Aria. She got me to let go of the consonants and to really sing on the vowels, she helped ground my body so I wasn’t getting caught in my shoulders, and (drumroll, please!) she helped me find those F’s! For the first time, I sang all four with no fear, and even I could tell that they were great. Again, it was all about the vowel. Even though I sing an “ah,” if I think “oo” it flips the high notes into the magic spot, and they are easily right on pitch. So great.
We also worked a bit on another Mozart aria, Durch Zärtlichkeit from Abduction, which I would be singing that evening at an audition. It has three high E’s at the end, and she helped me gain confidence here as well. Her tip? When you get to the difficult phrase, disengage and go into robot mode. Don’t try to act, don’t try to color it, just let it come out. Trust your technique to get the notes right, and trust Mozart to get the emotion/acting/interpretaion to come through in the music. She assured me that my E’s were great, but that I was judging myself so harshly that, even if the first one was great, I assumed it was bad and tried to mess with the next two. And let me tell you, at my audition, I was able to put her words into action. When I got to that phrase, I put my hands on my hips (a pose very appropriate for this character!), and “disengaged.” Hell if it didn’t work beautifully! After those notes were out of the way, I was able to really get back into character, because there was no voice in head saying, “those E’s were awful.” It was a great feeling.
Carol will be coming to Seattle semi-regularly for the next few years, as she will be an adjunct professor at UW. I can’t wait to work with her again.