So, can I sing?

I am not asking, “May I sing?” I am not asking, “Should I sing?” After a full year of quarantine, during which virtually all public performing opportunities have dried up, I am asking if I can still sing. Many of my artistic colleagues have asked this, as well as related questions.

We have dealt with the quarantine in many different ways:

  • In the early days of the lockdown, there were lots of Facebook-Live and other impromptu performances.
  • People created new content, often improvising new ways to collaborate safely.
  • Some of us learned new technical skills, such as using audio and video editing software, in order to package our art.
  • Artists such as Ryan McKinny have taken remote collaboration to amazing levels of artistry.
  • Many music schools and private instructors adapted to remote lessons via Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime.

Friends have corroborated that at various times over the past year, some of us simply lost the will to sing, at least for a while. Colleagues in the DC area and elsewhere have recently been posting pictures to mark the one-year anniversary of their last performances. We were still in Miami last year, and my last performances were with Palm Beach Opera in the chorus of Turandot, way back in January when we were hearing the first rumors of the novel coronavirus.

Turandot, January 2020 – Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett for Palm Beach Opera

I have loved Puccini’s final opera for many years, and had wonderful opportunities to sing its chorus music; I even sang the role of Ping in a small production. But I had always wanted to be one of the wise old men who hold the sacred scrolls containing the answers to Turandot’s riddles. So it was a treat finally to have my chance to strap on the stomach padding and don these venerable robes, and then have the Benjamin Franklin wig from 1776 affixed to my head. I was only a little disappointed not to have a wig from Best in Show like my friends Rich Hoffheins, and the dear, late Paul Edson, pictured below right.

The glorious final moments of Turandot are a nice way to bring this chapter of my career to a close, just as Wagner’s Götterdämmerung was my last performance with Washington National Opera before we left the area.

Turandot, January 2020 – Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett for Palm Beach Opera

I created a few YouTube videos last Spring, but at some point became dissatisfied with what I was hearing. Of course, I didn’t have state-of-the-art recording technology, and trained voices don’t necessarily sound great recorded up close or on smartphones. Later in the Spring we were busy with selling our Miami home and moving back to Northern Virginia, so I pretty much stopped singing for a while.

If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it. –Jascha Heifetz

Whatever preconceptions and misconceptions people may have about opera singers, the muscles in their throats, chests, and mouths are (or should be) as highly-trained as those of any other elite athlete. After even a short hiatus, most singers will begin to notice subtle differences in how their voice responds when called upon to perform.

Think of driving a properly-maintained car with automatic transmission; the car’s onboard computer knows when to shift gears based on speed and road conditions, and the experience for the driver is usually pretty smooth. If I am singing regularly, generally in good health, and well-rested, the onboard computer–my mind and muscle-memory–makes all the minute adjustments the music requires, and singing is relatively easy and instinctive.

If I’m fighting a cold, allergies, or fatigue, the experience is more like driving a car with manual transmission; I have to pay more attention to obstacles in the road, the traffic, the road conditions, and be ready to engage the clutch and shift gears to minimize the load on the engine–my vocal mechanism–to create as easy and effortless an experience as possible.

To torture this analogy further, if I haven’t been practicing or singing regularly, it’s as though the car is low on transmission fluid, and those gear shifts are rough and noticeable to me and my passengers (listeners).

Training is really a thing! –Renée Fleming to Susan Graham

And so, it’s back to the basics.

If I spend as little as 20 or 30 minutes practicing or singing (these are two distinctly different things, but that’s a topic for another post) today, even–or maybe especially–if I don’t think I’m sounding my best, I can be fairly certain that my singing or practicing tomorrow will be noticeably (to me, at least) better.

I have gained much enjoyment from singing familiar music, spending a fair amount of pandemic-practice time revisiting Schubert Lieder, Butterworth songs, Bach Cantatas, and even those Verdi baritone roles nobody’s going to hire me to sing at this point. Hey, if nobody else is hiring right now, why can’t I be my own impresario? But it’s even better if before spending time with these old friends and new ones I take even 10 minutes to sing scales, arpeggios, or whatever vocal warm-ups are part of my routine. It’s kind of like establishing a base-line to assess my vocal condition on a given day.

Now I need to publish this and go sing.

The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at age 90. “Because I think I’m making progress,” he replied.

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