Thursday, March 12, 2009

Coaching Recitative: Subliminal Recit Technique

This useful method of both learning and coaching recitative was written by New York-based vocal coach and conductor Jennifer Peterson., who previously wrote an article here on 9 Categories of Excuses for Missed Rehearsals and Coachings. You also can also connect with Jennifer on Twitter.

Subliminal Recit Technique

It works.

It can apply to any recitative up through Donizetti, with a couple of exceptions, which I will include as we go.

Post-Donizetti (or 1830 is a good cutoff date), keep in mind that notation became more specific. Especially for anything French and for Verdi. You can still apply the technique, but the composer helps you through a good part the process.

The coach's job is quite involved, and the coach must be as familiar with the language as the singer.

It is assumed that the singer has already made their translation, and that the coach has a handle on this as well.

Step 1 - Remove Unnecessary Pauses
Both singer and coach: eliminate all rests in the vocal line when there is no punctuation in the text. This does not apply to French recitative. And some conductors may absolutely disagree with this basic principle. Nonetheless, the technique will work; your stage director will be happy; the singer can always put the rests (i.e. dramatic pauses) back in once they've got it in their mouth and voice. Connect the final pitch before a rest to the pitch after the rest. Be careful to never lengthen the note before the printed rest. If it's lengthened, it will sound like an accent. Coach: keep this in mind throughout the entire coaching process. Don't let the singer lengthen those final syllables, no matter how pretty it sounds!

The reason for killing rests: barlines were a convention that were somewhat arbitrarily imposed as notation developed. If you look at 15th-16th-17th century facsimiles of manuscripts, you will see that barlines crept in gradually. Once we hit 1600, 'common time' (aka 4/4) simply indicated 'Recitativo' -- thus there were four beats in the bar, but obviously not every line of poetry would fit into this pattern. The composer's job was to place the strong syllables on the strong beats, i.e. beat 1 as the most important syllable, then beat 3 the next most important one, then the other beats, and anything off the beat was unaccented. In order to line up the text with this rule, they added rests simply to fill in the rest of the spaces.

If you apply this rule to Monteverdi and other early Italian recitative, you will surely find plenty of musicians who will argue with you. Still, I recommend trying it. If your lute and gamba players can keep up, you are going to connect to the drama much more directly.

OK, the superfluous rests are gone. For the next several steps, it is recommended that the singer no longer look at the pitches. At all. They can look at the words, and they can glance at where the barlines fall, because the barlines tell us where the stress is. You will also notice that the harmonies land most often on the barlines, i.e. with the strong syllables. So yeah, the singer is also welcome to look at where the harmonies fall, especially if they are not fluent in the language. We're about to move to another part of the singer's brain now, so let's go....

Step 2 - Just Talk
Speaking only. Singer: read the words. Coach: read along silently, make corrections as they go. Be sure all consonants are pronounced correctly, all vowels are pure and inflected, and make sure the singer is stressing the correct syllable. You can tell because the strong syllables always fall on the strong beat. There are maybe two exceptions in all of opera, so trust the composer. The coach is looking at the singer's notated pitches, but the singer is not, at this point. NB -- If the recit is French, encourage legato, and no, in French the accents often don't fall on the beat. Keep things more even and smooth, and every word is stressed at the end of the word unless it's a mute syllable. La la la la LA.

Step 3 - Talk & Shape
Still speaking. Don't sing. Singer: read the words. Coach: read along silently and sneak in harmonies on the keyboard. (Yes, this is the first music making to happen up to this point.) Keep making corrections to the singer's pronunciation as needed. It's totally fine to repeat Step 3 until it feels like something is happening. The singer should feel like they are reciting dialogue, slightly heightened, and the harmonies will start to help them shape the direction of the phrases. Phrases of poetry, that is. Not musical phrases, because we're not making music yet. Yeah, it's fun to repeat this step, with the coach maybe giving a little extra *direction* as you feel it.

I often add a step early on for singers who don't have a great deal of experience singing in a foreign language:

Step 3a - Paraphrase & Shape
If you're interested in befriending the stage director, repeat Step 3 with the singer speaking their lines in English (or Russian or Japanese or Hebrew or whatever their first language is). A paraphrased translation works best. The coach should land the harmonies where they make sense in relation to the original. Note: With singers who have a strong acting background, it may be more effective to do Step 3a before Step 3.

Step 4 - Talk & Shadow
Still speaking. Don't sing! Singer: read the words. They're getting pretty good at it by now, right? Coach: this is where some serious skill is required, and you will get better at this the more you do it. Play the harmonies in the left hand, and lightly follow along the singer's spoken syllables with their notated pitches in your right hand. It's totally fine to skip notes in order to keep up to them. It's important that the singer still is not looking at the pitches, but using the exact same mental process they did in Steps 2 & 3, i.e. right brain. What the coach is doing is helping the singer (subliminally) shape the inflection of the text the way the composer set it. Your right hand is shadowing their line lightly, but the singer is guiding the rhythm in their vocal reading.

Step 5 - Talk & Cement
Still speaking. Don't sing. Singer: read the words. Coach: Repeat Step 4 but play their line a little more prominently, still keeping in their natural spoken rhythm. This time, do repeat notes if the composer repeated them. At this point you are cramming the notes into their brain (again, subliminally), but not into their voice. The singer can't help but look at the pitches, but don't let them sing, and make sure they don't pause for those rests where there are no punctuation. Keep giving them diction notes, like double consonants, and pure vowels. Their habits are now formed, so don't let anything go. You can repeat this step if you want, but if you made it through smoothly, it may just be time to let the singer sing.

Step 6 - "Are You Ready to Sing?"
Okay, the singer gets to sing now. But the singer still shouldn't need to look at the printed pitches. The coach won't have to tell them this, but if they totally change the way they're reading the words and slow way down and start hunting for pitches with their voice, stop them, and say, "don't look at the pitches, just read the same way you've been reading up to this point. Look at the words, not the pitches...." This is the important advantage of this subliminal technique. At no point in time does the singer have to jerk their voice around in an unnatural way trying to get all those random notes into their voice. The pitches will go in naturally if you've repeated the previous steps enough. If the singer isn't getting it, go back to Step 5 and be more emphatic with the 'shadowing.'

Coach: you're doing basically what you did in Step 5, i.e. playing the harmony in the left hand, and playing the singer's pitches in your right hand. So yeah, spoon-feeding, plunking pitches, training wheels, whatever you'd like to call it. For most singers, it's the best way to get music into their body. This is not a time for tough-love.Feed them the pitches. It's very fun to use all these repetitions to really help the singer shape the drama.

Note: 'Shadowing' and 'spoon-feeding' can be done an octave higher for male voices if it seems to work better. Try it both in his octave and an octave higher, and switch it up. See what feels good and flows into his brain the easiest. Every singer is different. For Step 6, I usually use their octave.

Play their line nice and musically so they can keep their inflections from the previous steps. Don't play wrong notes. If you do, stop, go back and do it again.

Repeat this if you think they're not secure. If they're totally going to town, then just finish up with...

Step 7 - Do It
Let 'em go. Singer: sing your recitative. Coach: Play continuo.

The singer probably has the recit memorized by now. Stage it; send them to their costume fitting.


It looks really complicated, but in my experience, it has proven to the most efficient way to get recits rolling. Now that the singer knows it, they'll never have to go back to fix things. Drilling can be done (and is recommended) at high speed up through closing night. I've fit entire Handel, Cimarosa, Mozart, and Rossini operas, the entire cast, into a 15 or 20-minute recit run call. Stick it before their makeup call if the administration of the opera company will cooperate. Some singers won't be into it, and some will love it. Either way, just do it. The audience will stay with the story, which kind of is their reason for going to the theater, no?


Big can of worms: appoggiaturas

It's a separate topic, but will come up. I won't open the can all the way. Just two points:

1. Coach: with the subliminal technique, you inherit the honor of manipulating the singer into doing whichever appoggiaturas you see fit. I'll stop there.

2. Many singers understand what an appoggiatura is, but have no clue as to why these composers didn't just write the notes they wanted sung. I won't bore you with my spiel, but if you can give them some kind of explanation which will probably involve some opera history and a brief explanation of figured bass, they will perform them with more meaning, rather than just doing something by rote because somebody told them to or because they heard it on a recording.


And a quick P.S. returning to the topic of rests in different styles of recit for a sec -- in accompagnato recitatives (while the orchestra is playing) it's usually best to observe the rests, but not always!

Have fun.

Jennifer Peterson

No comments:

Post a Comment