I had a ball working with a student on “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s Candide this week. We took the song completely apart and got some fun ideas for practice when approaching an song of this technical magnitude.
Here are some of the ideas that we worked on:
- Take it apart. We took the whole song apart and worked section by section. I am personally NEVER a fan of singing a song/aria straight through until many of the technical obstacles have been solved. Working separate sections and then knitting them together has proven the best way to master a piece of music. This is what instrumentalists do, and singers should do the same with difficult music.
- Learn it SLOW. When learning a new piece, learn the notes VERRY slowly by playing them on the piano WITHOUT the voice. Go very slowly phrase by phrase, and understand the relationship between each note. Have a clear idea of every single pitch. In general, rhythms are faster to grasp than pitches. If you can recognize the song when playing it – then you are playing it too fast.
- Speed it up. The beginning of the song has a rather sustained quality while maintaining a tessitura in the realm of E5. This is not always a friendly location in a woman’s voice, and is prone to heaviness and weight if not managed well. We took the aria 2 to 3 times faster than what would ever occur in performance. This allowed muscles not to stiffen or tighten in sustained singing. Sustained singing is very physically demanding! It requires a lot of strength in the torso, the suspensory system of the larynx, and the vocal folds. It is anti-vocal to groove a sustained piece into the voice by brute repetition. A much friendlier approach is to speed the aria up so that the voice continues to MOVE. Even if the notes are not quite clear, the singer will have established a sense of ease.
- Staccato/Legato. The aria requires technical facility in legato and staccato singing. This is where vocal exercise serves the aria. You cannot learn to sing staccato from the song alone. Every song will have different vocal demands and the voice must be exercised in a way that makes the aria or song more achievable. To that end, the singer should incorporate a diet of legato and staccato exercise into the daily practice routine. The ability to execute rapid fire staccato passages is good for the voice, and helps maintain a balance between vocal elements of coloratura and sostenuto. Unlimited scales can be executed, but here are several of mine:
- A simple staccato arpeggio on ‘ah.’ in a laughing manner. This song has the soprano vocalizing almost exclusively on ‘ah,’ so exercises built on quick staccato scales work best to engender fluidity to these rapid sections. The singer should take the scales as high as comfortable.
- Staccato/Legato alternating scales. Scales that ascend staccato and descend legato and vice versa are wonderful for balancing these two separate qualities and behaviors. Octaves, octaves and a third, octaves and a fifth – all are possibilities for exercise. I often like an octave and a fifth with a rapidly executed repeat of the top fifth to the upper tonic. This is liberating and helps the singer let go – it’s very bird-like. I often use Snow White as my go to example of this work – or I refer the soprano to artists like Lily Pons, Galli-Curci, Tetrazzini, Beverly Sills, or Beverly Hoch.
- Staccato arpeggios with a repeated top note. I love this scale because it keeps the top note from becoming too heavy registrationally, and keeps negative weight out of the top note. It’s very important that these arpeggiated scales have a rhythmic swing to them, and don’t get lugubrious.
- Staccato arpeggios with a repeated top note followed by a sustained fermata tone, then descending the octave (either in arpeggio or step-wise scale). This helps a good top note come out of a well executed staccato. The legato should not feel in any way distinct or separate from the staccato. If the tone is too heavy after staccato, the singer is applying too much vocal cord depth for the pitch being sung. The resultant tone from this should have a shimmery, floaty quality.
- Same as #4, but this time the top note is sung with a messa di voce. This is a masterful exercise that will help bring in the PROPER amount of weight into the top note, showing the soprano the proper feeling of the upper notes without negative aspects of too much vocal cord too high in the scale. It can be an illuminating exercise that builds the power of the voice out of flexibility, and not just sheer volume or ‘push.’ The descent from the upper note can be done by diatonic scale-wise motion or arpeggios.
These were just some of the tools we used to groove the song into the voice in a pleasant and healthy way.
I’d be anxious to learn other fun ways of learning vocal repertoire. What are your go-to examples?