Hello everyone,

I’ve heard from Victoria this week.  She is plugging along and has learned how to do online teaching, which is terrific!  Also, Denise has decided to take her training into her own hands.  I’ve sent her one of the handouts that I made for my daughter’s choir in Terre Haute.  I’m attaching it for the benefit of anyone who wants to run over the basics again.  As always, Email me when you have questions.  I do so much better with Email, where I rarely have 16 voice mails stacked up.

So today I thought I’d take up a new thread and talk about what makes a song difficult.  There are more than the two answers (breath or resonance) that generally apply when the question is about vocal technique.  Certainly a song can be hard because of the vocal requirements.  I was at a NATS workshop in NYC a few years ago when the speaker said that we should consider opera as the Olympics of singing, and that’s certainly true.  Anyone who wants to wander in the operatic repertoire needs to bring a fairly substantial skill set:  good technique, long range, wide dynamic range (they have to be loud), long breath control, musicianship, acting skills, and often foreign language skills.  Either one loves the music enough to work on all that stuff, or one chooses other reps, which can also require a lot of these things.  So yes, a song or aria can be hard because it demands hefty vocal technique skills.

Leaving that to one side, there are often songs (and a few arias) that I will give to students that are not so demanding of vocal maturity.  Often, if a high school student is a good musician, I’ll hand him or her a song in which her or his musicianship and/or language skills will allow that young singer to be impressive in all the auditions that young voice students find themselves facing.  Blaithin was very successful with Le chapelier from Satie’s Le Trois Mélodies de 1916, and Charlie was too with Le statue de bronze from the same set.  Here’s Dawn Upshaw singing the whole set, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1OrU1yRu80.

So why are these songs hard?  Well, they are in French which is enough to make most folks unhappy, and the harmony is hardly common practice, i.e. normal sounding.  Satie was one of the wild men of early 20th century writing, although his music sounds much more normal now that so many of his piano pieces have accompanied commercials and movies.  Le chapelier takes both long breath and fairly long range, is very wordy although fast, and the rhythm is just odd enough to be tricky.  It takes a determined effort to succeed.  Similarly Le statue de bronze is fast and wordy and the poetry is off the wall.  Its rhythm is even harder, and it has range challenges, too.  Again, determination and musicianship required.  Also French. 

Probably the hardest song I ever sang was Mausfallensprüchlein, which means ”mouse catching rhyme”, by Hugo Wolf.  It is one of two that my old teacher wanted me to learn that I didn’t get to.  I did learn seven other Wolf songs for a seminar on the songs of Wolf, Strauss, and Mahler, but this one and Elflied stayed in the maybe later category.  Later was a faculty concert at Brenau for which the accompanist was the world-famous John Wustman.  Mr. Wustman felt that my Wolf group needed a flashy ending so I finally learned it.  We did succeed in performing it perfectly in the concert, and I was delighted that we did, since it’s really easy to mess up the rhythm and lose your pianist.  It’s hard to lose Wustman, but even he needed me to do the right stuff.  I could not find a handy copy of the song for you to look at, so you can only listen to Elizabeth Schwartzkopt, one of the great lieder singers of the last century:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ik7A49QIKIo.  If you want the silly text check it out on LiederNet, https://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=11688

Doesn’t sound all that hard, right?  On You Tube you can even find a young German girl, looks about 12, singing it.  My old teacher sang it to me from her bed in the nursing home.  Yeah, well.  You just can’t be late, early, or otherwise wrong.  It’s a precision piece with fairly difficult intervals and a nonsense text.  Here’s Mme. Schwartzkopf again with Elflied and a copy of the song to look at

Another one, and this is in English is "Sweet Suffolk Owl" by Richard Hundley.  Not that tough in vocal demands, but seriously difficult rhythmically, and there are traps in the text, too:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4h3UoZTs8MQ.  I picked this lovely Chinese soprano Christine Wen because she has taken care not to address a “sweet Suffol kowl”, which is how one hears it way too often.  Scott won a lot of competitions with this one, a fast Poulenc, and a soulful Gluck.  Hard rep is often good competition rep because it lets the young singer stay within his present abilities and show off his strengths. 

Similarly, I’ve burdened Will with a Bach aria from the Magnificat in D, Quia fecit mihi magna.  Here’s a sample of that one:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObP1UNC1mo4 with Dutch baritone Tom Koopman.  The first couple of phrases are not too bad, just tossing the melody back and forth with the cello.  Then JSB starts to decorate the line.  I think it’s like a game of whack-a-mole trying to be ready for each of the decorative figures as they show up.  Notice that the conductor gives him just a second to breathe in one spot.  Mercy is a good thing.

Best wishes,