What's This?

Life from the contralto side...

Just brief thoughts on matters mostly musical as they flutter across my contralto consciousness.

Little mental mouthfuls, for you to savour.

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Artistic Aspirations


What are they, then? I'm still chewing over ideas which drifted into my head during the Florence Foster Jenkins film. It was interesting how reaction shots were essential to direct the cinema audience to find the appropriate bits of classical-style singing amusing. We later get a glimpse of the heroine's own imagination of her angelic singing and guess what? It's musical theatre style, not classical. However, back to Aspirations. A performance takes place when one or more people set out to communicate a thought/joke/idea/story to one or more others, right? If the audience considers the experience to have been worthwhile, it must have been a success. The performer needs to assess the audience’s expectations, so he/she can form a view as to the performance’s success. Of course we always do our best, but our best changes with circumstances, doesn’t it? My inner perfectionist is always surprised by the kind appreciation of audiences. Performers benefit for taking time to be audience for the live performances of others, experiencing the relaxed, recipient side of the exchange.

Grade exams - what for?


Quite a question.

There are fine singers who have never taken an exam and there are also well-qualified singers who cannot be relied upon to turn in a satisfactory performance. It seems to me that whatever grade exams are measuring, it's not performing ability, nor is it technical prowess (discussion with one exam board is pending…). As the examiners only get a snapshot of a candidate's singing, consistency cannot be taken into account. After quite a chew, I've come to the following possible reasons for doing grade exams:

1. To meet the requirements of some other desired goal - e.g., college entrance

2. To provide a needed target/delivery date to stimulate work!

3. To stall independent learning and avoid taking more responsibility for one's singing development!

These are perfectly valid reasons, and for some singers, grade exams are helpful milestones along the way. Developing one's musical skills is much broader than passing exams, though - it is unfortunate when exams themselves become the goal.

Sing Safe, Lifelong!


It was wonderful to hear yesterday that a new Vera Lynn CD is being released , on the day she turns 97! It made a great headline, but I later discovered the new disc comprises tracks recorded years ago, including some dating from the 1950s which have never yet been released. There is no news of Dame Vera having recently been in the recording studio. 

Singers in the pop field often move their songs to lower keys as the years go by. Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Billy Joel are examples.

Many singers have continued their performing careers well beyond standard pensionable age. Operatic tenors Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, who continued singing into his 80s and  Angelo Loforese into his 90s. Tenor Hugues Cuénod made his debut at the Metropolitan at 85 years of age! Baritone Lucien Fugère was still on the operatic stage at 85, after his debut 63 years before. Fugère is quoted as saying, "If a man doesn't sing well by the time he is 83, when will he, I'd like to know!"  Bass Mark Reizen performed Prince Gremin's aria (Eugene Onegin) at the Bolshoi  Theatre, Moscow in 1985 at the age of 90. Remarkable sisters Lata Mangeshkar (above)  and Asha Bhosle who have each held the Guinness record for having recorded the most songs, numbering into thousands, mainly for Indian films) are both still active in their 80s, the beauty of their voices undimmed by age. 

Developing longevity in the singing voice is of great importance. We are all ageing: experience tells me we can all keep singing. Barring unusual injury or disease, the singing voice reflects the general state of our health. My choir (the Ghyll Singers) has active members ageing from 20s to 90s, all enjoying their singing and giving pleasure to our audiences. Research and common sense encourages us to sing safely to avoid injury / abuse of the vocal system. 

Easy tips to Sing Safe: 

Keep your system hydrated (nervous little sips just before singing are no good!)

Warm up before a big sing

Breathe deep

Don't strain - stay in control

Sing clearly and openly, so you can express different emotions.

"Never sing louder than lovely" (to quote Isobel Baillie)

Innocent voices


Young performers are a delight: they are fresh and energetic, don't have to work at looking great, and they tend to bring audiences to shows in the form of mum and dad. They generally lack experience, so they don't challenge directors or refuse to do things. 

I am concerned by the recent drive to license modern rock musicals for schools. At a recent conference on health and well-being for musicians  (thanks Naomi!) I talked at length with a teacher colleague who shared this concern. I have had the experience of a wonderful 12-year-old singer's grade 4 performance being seriously compromised by the demands of a school show - a week's run performing the low-pitched female lead in the Disney Beauty and the Beast, with additional daytime performances to students, and the rehearsal demands of non-specialist teachers - at age 12! Singing Bernstein's 'I feel Pretty' in an exam just a few days after the show was not going to happen! I was horrified to hear my colleague's experience with a 13-year-old  who was close to needing surgery for nodules. We compared notes and agreed on the most problematic shows. They were all written for adult professionals and licensed for school use with no adjustments in consideration of younger voices. 

Musical lead rôles are written for mature, developed, adult voices. More recent shows follow the fashion for a full, belting sound in the female roles. It's obvious in Disney songs: just compare the range, tessitura and registration of Some Day my Prince will Come (Snow White, 1937), Colors of the Wind (Pocahontas, 1995) and Let it go (Frozen, 2013). When most teenagers attempt this material, they find they do not have the vocal resources - even the potential for chest voice generally develops later. Same problem with much contemporary pop - kids end up bellowing: it's ugly and can be damaging to their voices. 

The human voice is quickly tired, especially in teenagers. That rapid physical growth takes time to adjust to. Teenagers cannot have had much time to develop their vocal technique: they are vocally innocent and vulnerable. When a youngster has a passion for musical theatre, they throw themselves in and spend hours practising. I often prescribe rest to such students. When the material selected for them to sing is blatantly unsuitable and even potentially dangerous, it's a much more difficult situation. At the recent conference, some  vocal injuries were described as 'potentially-career-ending' with calm precision. What I'm concerned about is such damage being incurred before a student has even had a chance to train, let alone have a career!

A recent Economist article entitled 'Who will sing Aida?' discussed the pressures on young opera singers to commit to big roles in the big Italian repertoire that requires huge voice, strength and stamina. Yes, I'm talking Verdi here. And Puccini. The opera audience wants their Rigolettos, Calàfs, Mimìs and Aidas. The directors like a fresh young face and a big contract is hard to refuse. Fair enough. It's given rise to some interesting comments  but it's a very old problem. I've already discussed the balance of youthful freshness opposed to experienced maturity in The False Fountain of Youth below. What's new is school provision of potentially-voice-wrecking performance opportunities, often overseen by enthusiastic teachers who simply do not realise the damage that can be caused. 

What's the solution? In the short term, make adjustments, transpositions, encourage your principals to use marking (quiet, gentle singing) in rehearsals. In the long term,  different material! Composers - there is a need for musical theatre pieces in contemporary style specifically written for young voices. There are lots of well-written 'school shows' available but they tend to be aimed at primary schools or, sorry, lack the marketing/publicity/glamour to grab attention. Please, someone - there's an opportunity here!

Trip to Mrs Wilson's

Criffel Street, Silloth - Version 2

It was great to go up to Silloth for the opening of Mrs Wilson's Coffee House. The Mrs Wilson in question is 1930s Silloth resident contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, who started taking her singing seriously when she was living over the bank in Eden Street. There comes a point in most people's lives when they look around at their current life and realise it's not all perfect. At that point, what do you do? Shoulder a bit of depression and carry on as you are, or make some changes?

Things were changing for young Mrs Wilson - Silloth in 1935 was a little seaside town, bustling in the summer and quiet in the winter. Kath was sporty and must have known of local golfer Miss Cecil Leitch who won 3 British Ladies championships between 1914 and 1921. In Miss Leitch, Silloth had already produced a brilliant talent and nurtured it to the top level.

When she won the Carlisle Festival singing prize in 1937, Mrs Wilson must have been encouraged to continue developing her singing. She made her first radio broadcast as a singer two years later. Another two years after that, she was touring nationally as a professional singer with CEMA. 

It strikes me that Mrs Wilson must have made a decision when she was living in Silloth to  'go for it' with her singing. The town's community provided opportunities to present herself as pianist, actress and singer and also to develop her healthy physique with golf, tennis, cycling, swimming and, crucial for a singer, wonderful air, and lots of it! Yet, without the inner drive to progress to a bigger platform, Mrs Wilson would have remained a local musician and the national and international career of Kathleen Ferrier would not have happened.

As a teacher of singing, I encounter fantastic singing talent all the time. Indeed, Britain's Got Talent! We are all talented: naturally suited to certain tasks, whether by physical build or intellectual bent. Experience tells me that talent does not make a top level musician, commitment does. When I encounter a student singer with determination to put in the necessary hours and transform their potential into real skill, then I get excited. For a professional singer, the necessary hours will number in the the thousands, but a lifetime commitment to singing can also fit in with commitment to other things, such as caring for dependents, employment and so on. It just takes a decision to 'go for it' and see it through. 

Young Mrs Wilson in Silloth did not have the obligations of job or children to balance, but she still didn't have to commit to the demands of vocal development - she could have read novels or worked on her golf handicap instead. It was her choice, and she made it in Silloth. It happens to have led her to international fame. We all have choices, wherever we are. Go for it!



La Scala or nothing - What is success?


I was thrilled to be able to get to Carlisle Cathedral last Friday to hear Christopher Fifield speak about contralto Kathleen Ferrier, having edited her letters. I can overlook his mockery of that fine artist Clara Butt, because his enthusiasm for the contralto voice and Ferrier in particular was charmingly evident. He observed that if Ferrier's marriage had worked out, we wouldn't have gathered there to hear him talk about her.  Later on that same day I was talking to the mayor of the little town of Millom about my plans to celebrate Kathleen Ferrier's centenary in a couple of weeks' time. I was planning to mention to her how Ferrier had been successful at the Millom Festival in the 1930s, when Her Worship interrupted to tell me about the Millom contralto of that era who she was convinced had been at least as accomplished as Ferrier, but had never got further than Millom because of other obligations. Full of enthusiasm for Ferrier, I was rather taken aback!

This is not a unique experience  - I have been told of other contraltos of the 1930s and 1940s whose options were limited by social factors and whose beautiful voices and fine artistry therefore never travelled very far. One of these was my mother-in-law, Emily Bailey, whom, sadly, I never met. Her parents turned down the offer for her to remain in school at age 12, when she would have begun teaching(!) because family tradition required her to work in the local cotton mill. Her musical activities included the methodist chapel, Stockport Choral Union and singing lessons from a local choirmaster. As with Ferrier, marriage followed for my mother-in-law, but unlike Ferrier, so did children and the extra responsibilities of motherhood. 

The professional performing ambitions of many of us are restricted for all sorts of reasons. This isn't necessarily a personal tragedy: it's just how things turn out. Other activities can take a lot of our time. For many of us, caring for dependant relatives or friends takes priority over chasing performance opportunities. Those of us who are musicians through and through will find our own way to exercise our music. Musical artistry blossoms everywhere, not just in the big cities. 

JUST SAY NO to backing tracks


OK I feel it's time for a rant: are you sitting comfortably? 

Many of you will be aware that song books nowadays often come with a CD, either to help you learn the song or to serve as accompaniment when a pianist proves elusive. Even every singer's beloved 'yellow peril' now comes, at greater cost, with a CD. Producing backing tracks is a growth area among the big music publishers: Music Sales' website says while they are not recruiting composers or arrangers at this time, they may be interested in employing people to produce backing tracks.


Pre-recorded tracks are NOT accompaniment - they do not adjust to fit the  performance. Interpretation is then not an option: the performer is not free to make music. All the performer can do is accompany the inflexible tempi and style of the CD. This is a travesty of real music, which happens in one place and one time, its transience being part of its value. Imagine actors going down the same route, with Hamlet or Portia fitting their lines into a pre-recorded play!

I experienced a music competition a few weeks ago where the adjudicator congratulated one young performer for using a backing track, thus adding variety of sound to the performance. Sigh. I also recently sat through the finale of a what had been a fabulous concert.  Backing tracks came out for the finale, killing the joyous vibe. 

My plea is that we all treasure our accompanists, pianists and otherwise, and use them. A good pianist does not necessarily make a good accompanist, though a good accompanist must be a really good player, and a far better musician that the solo pianist needs to be. An accompanist often plays much more difficult music than the 'soloist', while constantly adjusting, catching, retrieving and smoothing the way. 

Less experienced performers are in the greatest need of skilled accompaniment, as it boosts their confidence and sets the stage for them to do their best (see previous blog entry - Karaoke Musical Theatre!). It is at this early stage that CDs are really becoming a menace. 

The Associated Board now produces books of grade exam songs and instrumental pieces with CDs. In his work as a professional accompanist, my husband often has to spend time undoing the damage caused by these CDs straitjacketing performance: 

    "Where did that rallentando come from?" 

    "It's on the CD." 

Let's hold out against these wretched things - they kill self-expression!

[Rant over.]

Ferrier centenary - contralto coverage


Thumbs up to Woman's Hour for another contralto-related feature on Friday 2 March, Kathleen Ferrier's centenary: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01cks49#p00pn7z6  and good luck to Kathryn Rudge & James Balieu with their Manchester centenary recital of Kindertotenlieder, which is happening as I write.

It is interesting that presenters on this mainstream radio channel and other commentators have expressed such interest in the relative absence of contralto singing from our concert platforms. I recall recent mentions in features on Karen Cargill; Clara Butt's diamond brooch was one of the 100 History of the World objects (click here for details); a recent Clara Butt tribute recital; a Times column in 2010 (see blog entry of 2 June 2010)... The contralto voice appears to be of great general interest!

Is the contralto voice really rare? Maybe. As a teacher I have in ten years worked with many soprano and mezzo voices but only one contralto serious enough to pursue her singing into higher education. My friends and family have experience of glorious contralto singers who have become just another mezzo on the advice of college and opera house experts, losing the sumptuous qualities of their contralto singing. 

It's true that there are fewer opportunities for contralto singers, but there are also fewer of us! Surely there's no real problem. I wonder if the contralto has any more of a repertoire problem than the Queen of the Night soprano. If one had to be limited to just one opera role, Erda's pretty hard to beat! OK, it's not a huge part, but if I want to sing all evening, I do a song recital.

While pay has never been equal between voice types, one doesn't commit to a career in classical singing to make a load of money anyway. Surely the enduring love of the public for Kathleen Ferrier's recordings is priceless. What makes her sound special? Warmth of tone and directness of communication. Imagine the loss to musical art if she'd been trained upwards at music college and become yet another steely mezzo-soprano or soprano.

Singers - glory in your strengths! Make music as only you can! Be yourself, not a pale shadow of somebody else! 


Having seen the lineup for Voices Now at London's Roundhouse on 4 March, I wonder how it is that the event lists itself as "a day showcasing some of the UK's best choirs", when the participating 12 ensembles are all based in England, one from Birmingham and the rest based in London or the home counties! 

It'd surely be better to drop any reference to the UK, wouldn't it? It'd be only slightly more ridiculous to say Voices Now 2012 will showcase some of Europe's best choirs, or the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy's best choirs. 

Voices Now has taken a practical route, using choirs based near to the Camden venue. There are school choirs from 4 schools around Harrow representing youth, a Georgian choir based in Highgate and a choir formed from outreach to homeless peaple, so the event organisers score highly for social diversity. Maybe they got no interest in taking part from choirs further afield.

It is a tedious business to organise group trips, and many choirs don't tend to travel much. Most choral singers have busy lives and cannot often allocate extra time to their choir activities. This fact should not be taken to imply anything about their choral standards.  

Best of luck to the Roundhouse event, but I hope they cut the meaningless claims of "some of the UK's best". Also, we should not scorn a local choir's abilities for reasons of snobbery or other prejudice. Excellence can be encountered all over the UK.

April 2018