Tomorrow morning I’m heading to St. Sauveur d’Aunis to spend a weekend singing Hildegard von Bingen and Gregorian chant. I’ve packed my suitcase, bought healthy snacks for traveling tomorrow, scheduled a cab to pick me up in the morning (because the trains don’t run early enough for me to catch the 6 AM train to Surgères, oy vey), made a hotel reservation in La Rochelle for tomorrow night, and sort of vaguely glanced over the Gregorian chant that I may or may not have been supposed to familiarize myself with before this weekend.
On that last point, I’m trying not to stress (because when I stress out about things I haven’t learned but was supposed to, I end up canceling auditions, like I did last night…shhhh). I’ve decided that this weekend is about learning something new, and doing something new with my voice that I’ve always kind of thought is really fascinating.
I’ve thought Hildegard was pretty cool since we learned about her in music history. One of approximately six things I remember from that class is that she was a highly-educated medieval nun, living in the 12th century in Germany, and she wrote tons of gorgeous music, for chorus and for solo voice, unaccompanied. (In case you’re curious, one of the other things I learned in that class was that Gesualdo, a Renaissance composer of the Palestrina generation, killed his wife and his wife’s lover…and went on to have a very successful career as a musician.)
This is something I know nothing about–Gregorian chant, I mean, not Hildegard (since I clearly know so much about her…)–and I’m looking forward to that. When was the last time I really stepped out of my comfort zone and did something a little different? (I mean, okay, coming to France was a big deal, but I mean vocally.) Mainly I’m taking this weekend as a bit of spa time for my voice, and a way to engage my brain with music in a way that I don’t feel like I do ordinarily. I feel like I’m coasting, and I need to really dig in. But at the same time, above all I need to relax.
If I learned anything from Thomas Quasthoff’s master class today and Wednesday, it’s that singing needs to be relaxed. As he said, “Singing has a lot to do with living. You cannot hold anything in life.” I must have written some variation on RELAX in my notes about seven times in two days. I think his most often-repeated advice to the young singers in the master class was “Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid.”
I’ve been to a lot of master classes, though amazingly enough haven’t sung in one since my freshman year of college, which didn’t really count. There have been some really great ones (Joan Dornemann and Diana Soveiro come to mind, both from freshman year, and Mark Delavan), and also some that just didn’t hit the mark (there were some people who gave the same advice to everyone–not like Mr. Quasthoff did, but without even considering what that singer’s specific issues might be). But the best master classes are the ones where the teacher is giving song and singer-specific advice that nevertheless can be applied to singing, and life. And in between telling really dumb jokes about hippos and doing a pretty excellent Louie Armstrong impression, Mr. Quasthoff did just that.
I think one of the most interesting things I took away from seeing Thomas Quasthoff give a master class is just how much of a disadvantage he’s at physically, and yet he manages to be one of the premier interpreters of lieder in the world. He was a Thalidomide baby; I’d say he stands about three feet tall, maybe less, and his arms are severely shortened with only a few fingers per hand. He told a story about having said to his first voice teacher, “I can’t be a singer, I have no gestures.” She said, “Thank GOD.” The sheer range of colors and sounds he produces (not all sung ones, some very silly voices, low notes, raspberries, among others) is astounding, and he has one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen. The fact that he can achieve that level of expressiveness without gestures has inspired me to really work on reducing the number of gestures, particularly unconscious ones, that I incorporate into my singing, and to work on showing the emotion of every piece clearly on my face.
It was amazing to me, watching this master class, how many roadblocks we all put ahead of ourselves when singing. A lot of the singers (all of whom were terrific lieder singers, which made me desperately want to sing more lieder) were pulling in their lips, making fish faces (BABY FISH MOUTH!), over-supporting, under-supporting, over-singing, under-singing, yada yada yada…and then when you watch Thomas Quasthoff demonstrate something, it’s natural as speaking.
I wonder if we’re all afraid of success, afraid of what we could be if we stopped getting in our own way. One girl simply needed to be told not to be afraid or apologize for the voice she had (which was a warm, rich mezzo-soprano, lucky thing!) for the sound to flow freely. Another girl just stood up straight, “like a queen,” and the sound was a million times better. A bass who sang “Der Tod und das Mädchen” relaxed his lips and all of a sudden he had so much more color and richness to his voice.
I think we all need to lighten up and enjoy singing, if the amount of laughter in that room is any indication. Mr. Quasthoff is German, and while he does speak fluent English, he sometimes muddles it a little. But that made it even better. Here are a few gems that I wrote down.
“Be stupid…like a tenor.” (this was in reference to relaxing the lips)
“Mahler will make no protest because he’s dead.”
“I’m sorry, but you look like a priest.” (to a very tall, black-clad bass who was singing with his hands practically in prayer position)
“Excuse me, can I have a little more enthusiasmus?”
“You have such beautiful teeth–show them!”
“Mirella Freni has beautiful lips.”
“Where is it written that I’m wrong?”
“It’s a little like a door woman outside a discotheque.” (on the aforementioned bass’ attempting to be a girl in “Der Tod und das Mädchen”)
“Don’t worry. I am der Tod, but it’s okay.” (said in an incredibly low voice…I don’t think I’ve ever heard a speaking voice as low as his!)
“Every morning, after shaving, look in the mirror and say, ‘I AM GOOD!'” (particularly funny because he was talking to a mezzo-soprano)
“Close your Kopf!”
“You should not afraid the apple, just pick it.” (“picking the apple” was a gesture used to distract a soprano while she was singing high notes)
“It’s not necessary to become kitschy.”
“Mesdames, messieurs, mon nom est JEAN-FRANÇOIS.” (there was an adorable French baritone named Jean-François, and Mr. Quasthoff spent several minutes obsessing about how sexy French names are. “After that it doesn’t even matter what you sing!”)
And honestly, sometimes he would get up off of his chair and jump around, like when he was imitating Muhammad Ali, and it was just plain funny. I would never laugh at somebody’s physical disabilities, but I think Mr. Quasthoff knows his potential for physical comedy and milks it.
I went to the morning session and then met up with my friend John for lunch at a truly stellar Lebanese restaurant where they gave me two whole zucchini stuffed with rice and lamb plus dipping sauces for 9 euro, and then I had baklava. Yum. We killed half an hour in the musical instrument museum, which is always fun, and then I went back to the master class. I have to admit that I didn’t quite make it to the end of the afternoon session (I didn’t get enough sleep last night, and I was good and full of Lebanese food).
Another interesting thought–this afternoon’s session was sold out. (Well, not “sold” out, but totally booked, as it was free.) SOLD. OUT. For a master class on German lieder. Maybe all of the people in the room were music professionals or singers or voice teachers, but I like to think that they just like music and know Thomas Quasthoff. It was a really fun crowd.
Anyway. I have to get up several hours before the crack of dawn tomorrow to get on a train, so I’d better head to bed…as soon as everybody else on my floor stops practicing!
Tomorrow night, I’ll post from La Rochelle.
P.S. A guy I met when I auditioned at Rice showed me this. It’s still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and Thomas Quasthoff is still a genius.
P.P.S. I ordered a pair of bottines from the Massimo Dutti website, on sale for more than half off, and they arrived this morning. They are gorgeous, though to tell the absolute truth I think my feet are too big to look cute in bottines. But I’ve decided to persevere. God, I feel so FRENCH in these shoes!