Vowels and consonants. In order to survive the distance between our faces and the audiences' ears, they require maintenance. Failing to adjust to performance spaces or to negotiate successfully between clarity and vocal technique is similar to misjudging stage makeup. You can either come off as looking cartoonish or pale.
But it's not always just acoustic context that should be informing one's choices. This point was never made more vivid to me than yesterday during a two-hour period of crazy rehearsal scheduling. First, a coaching with composer Chaya Czernowin on her piece 'Miniatures', a chamber work for six instruments and voice with Hebrew text. Toward the end of her piece, the voice sings an extended section of unaccompanied text. I wasn't getting the spirit of what she intended, and Chaya very beautifully modeled what she wanted, which was a sort of ghostly but warm thread of sound, the text barely articulated. Her notation is pretty detailed, and I could imitate her sound without looking at the score, but when I returned to the score, I would lose some of the character of what she'd asked for, and I initially couldn't quite put my finger on why. Immediately after this coaching, I rehearsed arias from Bach's St. John Passion. In that rehearsal, the conductor kept asking for more, more, more consonants, dramatic distinction between vowels, and intense attention paid to commas, periods, text repetition. The straight opposite of what Chaya wanted.
A big part of a young singers' early education in classical singing is diction - ironing out the unconscious tendencies of American accents and boosting articulation to account for the acoustics of large halls and instrumental ensembles. Add to this that one's articulators (tongue, teeth, lips) influence breath and resonance, and things get complicated fast. Generally speaking, Americans have to be asked for more clarity all around. I frankly recall finding this to be annoying as a young singer. The product felt artificial and over the top. Now as a teacher, hearing lots of college-aged singers, I concede. We almost always have to go farther than we think we should in order for text to be heard and for the emotional content to reach an audience.
Of course, with amplification, all of this labor gets turned on its head. And in the end, they amplified me in Chaya's piece, which solved a lot of problems. Amplification is a whole other blog. But a couple of things struck me on that day.
First, I was surprised by how disorienting it was for Chaya to ask me for less diction but more articulation. In the section of text we were working on, I was applying tenuti (slight dynamic emphases with length) to the tone and the vowels and consonants of each syllable. And she wanted tenuti on the tone, but not the language. It was more of a drone with light consonants and less starkly distinguished vowels. She didn't phrase it that way explicitly, but that's what I got that from her modeling. (She might have instead notated it like a chant, with one long note under which the text is laid and included a character indication, but then she would sacrifice the specificity of pacing she wanted.) Her model was vastly more interesting than what I'd come up with, more otherworldly. But I found it hard to make the sound she wanted while reading from the score, because, and I've conditioned myself to apply articulation markings to the diction as well as tone. A good reminder to keep thinking about each component of a sound (pitch, dynamic, articulation of tone AND articulation of language, text phrasing AND melodic phrasing) as discrete and separable and recombinable into a million possibilities, all of which are worth investigating.
Second, it was great to be in the same room with Chaya. I mean, we absolutely could have recorded our rehearsal, but getting the sound she wanted required a rapid exchange of questions and answers and modeling and imitation that would have been a pain to do electronically, except with the highest quality live online setup, which we did not have. You can't expect every encounter with a new piece of music to be ideally realized with a score and one's own wits. And there's nothing wrong with that. The goal of playing for the composer should not be to show them how clever you are and that you've completely dominated their piece without ever having talked to them. It would feel cool if you did it, but don't avoid meeting with composers because you're afraid you won't be able to demonstrate domination. And composers, don't come to a rehearsal expecting not to have to clarify your ideas. We all come to the table trying to take care of the sound, and we can help each other out. So let's get to work, mkay?