Singing is Just Saying

I spent the morning on Sunday at the Royal College of Music, at a Master Class on Schubert lieder given by the pianist Roger Vignoles. It was one of several events marking Vignoles’ 70th birthday, (though it seems an odd kind of celebration where he does all the work). He’s best known as an accompanist for singers, but he’s also a teacher at the College, and a soloist. My nephew, Frederic, studies the piano at the College and was taking part as an accompanist.

schubert

It was a long morning, without a break, and the seats were hard, but it was an inspiring and educative morning too – three hours of patient encouragement, explanation and constructive criticism that utterly transformed the performances, by five different baritones and sopranos, of seven of Schubert’s settings of Goethe. They were unhappy songs, mostly about unrequited love, depression, misery, loneliness, anguish, misunderstanding, hopelessness, grief and longing, indeed the full gamut of German angst. One after another the singers stood up and poured out their anguish. Three hours is a lot of anguish, especially without a tea break.

But if there was one thing that Roger Vignoles urged repeatedly, it was not to try too hard.

‘Be less musical,’ he said. ‘Don’t do too much. Don’t try too hard. Don’t feel too much. Let the music do the work.’

It was an informal event with performers and audience gathered on the stage. So informal, in fact, that the audience could even venture its own insights. A lady in front of me piped up with a very good point:

‘If you do too much with the song, you don’t leave anything for us to do,’ she said. ‘An audience mustn’t be told what to feel. We’ve got to listen and make something of it ourselves.’

It was a telling point. The more the singer expresses the meaning and feeling of a song, the less we, the audience, feel. It can be the same with emotionally extrovert music. Reginald Goodall, the slowest Wagnerian conductor in the entire universe, particularly avoided acceleration during the liebestod at the end of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, even as Isolde rushed towards her own death, and it was all the more effective because he let the music do the work.

I also remember listening to a well-known long-retired singer talking about his career (so long-retired and so long ago that I’ve forgotten his name). It was one of those ‘An Evening with…’ events at an arts festival. He spoke about how often he was persuaded to sing ‘Ol Man River’ as an encore. So often that almost no song bored him more, though it always brought the house down.

‘So full of feeling,’ his admirers would say. ‘But I was actually thinking about what I’d be eating for dinner,’ he told us, to much hilarity.

Not that singers and actors should be completely disengaged, as he was. Performers should be acutely conscious of their audience, more so than of their own emotions, and they must sing to the audience, tell them things. Singing is saying. But the fact is, a song can move an audience even if the singer is thinking of his dinner.

Roger Vignoles mentioned something David Mamet, the writer and director said – that the actor’s job is just to ‘deliver the text’, no more than that. Singers, too, must deliver the words and the notes, but as simply as possible, without overindulging in interpretation and characterisation.

Not that he could have meant this quite literally. After all, an actor delivering his text as a Dalek in a strident monotone wouldn’t, I think, be effective (unless it’s ‘Exterminate’), but I know what he means. Delivery should be simple and natural. Too much work, too much musicianship, and the song becomes the performer’s, not the composer’s or the poet’s.

David Mamet says the same of writing:

‘A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful. What remains? The story remains.’

It’s a lesson that applies to nearly everything we do. Don’t wear too many bright colours. Don’t add too much flavour to a soup. Don’t use too many adjectives. Don’t plead too explicitly when you’re selling. Don’t argue too passionately in front of a jury.

Leave something for the audience to do, to think and to imagine.

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