Recordings/Discussions
Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Singing Bach
Discussions - Part 3

Continue from Part 2

Off Topic: Singing Bach Arias

Jean Laaninen wrote (November 4, 2007):
Learning to Sing Bach Cantata Arias

Next spring I will be hosting the email discussion for ten weeks, and since there is a possibility that I will be busier then than I am now, I prepared the discussions in advance. I sent them to Aryeh as a back-up since they were ready, and because this will be my first time as a contributor, I was glad that he read a couple of them and gave me some feedback. Following, he asked me if I would include something in them about learning to sing the solo arias from the solo cantatas since my topics include four solo cantatas.

In return I mentioned to Aryeh that quite a bit could be said about learning to sing Bach arias (not only by me, of course) and that I would think about approaching the topic.

After thinking a while I decided to write off topic about this now since to lengthen my already long introductions might be over-load.

I learned my first Bach aria my senior year at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. I don’t remember anything unique about the training then, except to say that my professor, Dr. Elmer Copley was a kind of pied piper style teacher. We didn’t have a lot of information about technique as we do today, and because of the limits my Dad had placed on what I could become I was not headed for the big stage. So I followed every suggestion Elmer made, and while his wife Ruth accompanied me, did a reasonable enough job of learning to be able to get through the final recital and sing “My Heart Ever Faithful,” for a number of worship services following. However, my tempo was a slower Lutheran style as befitted the Midwest, and not at professional tempo until a few years ago.

When I returned to school to study music about thirty years later, I first worked on renewing some Messiah (Handel) solos, and actually sang “Rejoice, Greatly,” with an orchestra at Victor Valley Community College in California, but it was not until I came to ASU to work and continue with some studies that I began to really get serious about the arias. That was a result of knowing my friend David Britton, and learning about his career as a Bach singer. David found me a teacher from among his graduate students, and she began to train me in the direction that would allow development of the recitative style I’d learned earlier on. She also introduced me to Wagner.

My next teacher at ASU gave me special exercises for 16th note groups of four (melisma is the term) taking short passages and singing them up and down the scale as vocal exercises.

When Yen-Yu Shih became my teacher I told her at my first lesson that I mainly wanted to sing Bach and French. She didn’t want to teach me either, but she did go along with the Bach and especially enjoyed teaching me about recitative singing. In Bach, she explained, the recitative is all about you – the singer. If you happen to believe in the text you bring a little something of your own spiritual or emotional interpretation to the text, or if you are not a Christian, you strive to at least understand the meaning in context and introduce elements of the story through your presentation. A singer has certain liberties with timing and emphasis in a recitative form. When you move to the aria you really join in more with the ensemble and the continuation of a message and many times, if not most, your tempo increases, is strict, and there is less opportunity for personal interpretation. In Baroque music every instrument is somewhat equal and that includes
the singer. However, the words must come through so precise diction is critical and words that repeat (as they often do) must maintain the same precise diction every time. I have done a lot of listening, and of the best sopranos who record, their ability to maintain this verbal accuracy is close to astonishing. I cannot tell you how much work it took for me, coming to this late in life to establish that consistency. But, by the time I knew BWV 51 and BWV 52 I had the words to these numbers locked in. Repeated words also mean that even if the tempo is fast subtle difference that relate to interpretation need to be in place to carry the message. All the repeated words cannot sound exactly the same in terms of color.

After my studies with Yen-Yu I decided to learn the two cantatas. The first one, BWV 51, took eleven months to reach a level that was worthy enough to share with friends and family. I have since shared it with a few other musicians, and they have felt that my pitch and diction were good. But I still think that my consonants could improve to a degree, and I think a few rhythmic patterns could yet be a little more precise and expressive. Cantata BWV 52 took only a month to learn since having spent a year on these daily I was in a good groove.

A great deal of focus and intellectual comprehension is required to sing these works.

At the present time my teacher is Courtney Piercey. She has studied in Boston and New York, and has been a professor in Michigan. Now she is working on her doctorate at ASU and I am taking two years (year around) of lessons singing only French works. I haven’t forgotten Bach, and sing Bach daily for my own development, but I am of the opinion that the best Bach singers are also those who have achieved the best French diction, too. French requires a great deal of dexterity and a natural quality in breathing. Courtney tells me that the Germans have fifteen different methods of breathing, and in French, there is one. The French method is called natural breathing, and it is through the mouth, allowing the soft palate to be raised sufficiently for the attack. The attack is very important in Baroque music. But French lessons also offer opportunity to learn a whole variety of exercises that allow the melismas to become beautiful and very accurate. French singing also helps the singer to learn to keep the tongue out of the way because of the beautiful legato quality. By way of contrast, French singing uses vibrato, in the style of the Romantic Period.

I asked my friend David Britton what he thinks about vibrato, only a few days ago. His comment was that it belongs in some music and not in others. If a person is well trained he or she will be able to turn it off or on depending upon the style of the music. Courtney also explained vibrato to me in lengthier technical terms. She told me that my natural voice has a hint of vibrato, and in my last lesson showed me how to bring out that quality. When I sing Bach I try to avoid vibrato, and in the lessons I am taking now I will ultimately learn how to shut off the vibrato for Bach, but open it up to create something appealing for Faure or Debussy or Hahn, for example.

Some phrases in Bach are very difficult. Although I do not do this kind of exercise for other composers, I notate hard Bach passages in Finale and turn them into wave files, and practice, practice, practice until I have the passages down. I don’t know if I will need this technique after a few more years of training or not, but the method has taken me this far.

In the process of learning Bach I have also spent many, many hours listening to Julianne Baird. I am primarily in the voice category of lyric soprano with a range of about three octaves. Courtney is currently working to strengthen the lower end of my range in the mezzo or alto area, because that will give me even greater quality and dexterity when I go for the high Cs. Right now I can tell from my own recording that the highest notes could be richer without being heavy.

I think that concludes the major part of my contribution to this topic, and if there are other Bach singers, or those who aspire to sing Bach arias on the list, I would truly appreciate hearing some of their thoughts.

Conductors, too, have many thoughts regarding qualities they like in soloists. I’d be interestedin comments from conductors on their work with singers, and especially what dictates their choice of singers and how they work with them.

Within a year or two I will be adding sound recordings from documented public domain scores to my website. It is exciting and invigorating at this stage in life to be able to still strive for something noble and worthy.

For a discussion on the topic of singing Bach, see my web page of writings (scroll down) for comments by my friend David Britton. http://sopranojlaaninen.homestead.com/page04.html
Home page: http://sopranojlaaninen.homestead.com/

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (November 4, 2007):
Jean Laaninen wrote:
< Learning to Sing Bach Cantata Arias
In Baroque music every instrument is somewhat equal and that includes the singer. >
Yes. Indeed, when I perform with my ensemble, I stand among the instruments rather than out front - continuo on my left, other instruments on the right. But more importantly, ever since I was a teenager, if I was not 100% satisfied with my articulation in the melismatic passages of Baroque arias, what I did was pretend I was a violin. This produced the results I wanted more or less instantaneously. Nowadays, I've refined it so that when I sing, I physically feel 'fingers' dropping on 'strings' (or 'being picked up' from 'strings'), in the same way that one places or lifts fingers on a violin to produce the various notes.

< A great deal of focus and intellectual comprehension is required to sing these works. >
One could say that it helps to have a 'mathematical' turn of mind to sing them.

< I asked my friend David Britton what he thinks about vibrato, only a few days ago. His comment was that it belongs in some music and not in others. If a person is well trained he or she will be able to turn it off or on depending upon the style of the music. Courtney also explained vibrato to me in lengthier technical terms. She told me that my natural voice has a hint of vibrato, and in my last lesson showed me how to bring out that quality. When I sing Bach I try to avoid vibrato, and in the lessons I am taking now I will ultimately learn how to shut off the vibrato for Bach, but open it up to create something appealing for Faure or Debussy or Hahn, for example. >
I think that if we try to always turn off vibrato in Baroque music, this can be a bit of an oversimplification. Vibrato apparently was used, but more as an ornament. For example, while holding out a long note, one can use a nuanced vibrato along with nuanced dynamics to ornament that note, so that it will not be boring, so that it will 'go somewhere'. But no, the sort of 'automatic' vibrato that is in use in music from later times was not present, so one does indeed need to be able to turn it off.

< In the process of learning Bach I have also spent many, many hours listening to Julianne Baird. I am primarily in the voice category of lyric soprano with a range of about three octaves. Courtney is currently working to strengthen the lower end of my range in the mezzo or alto area, because that will give me even greater quality and dexterity when I go for the high Cs. Right now I can tell from my own recording that the highest notes could be richer without being heavy. >
I'd say that for a soprano, the thing about working on your low register - and the lower you go, the more this applies - is that it forces you to use your vocal apparatus very accurately from a technical standpoint. If you don't, the note simply won't come out. The nice thing is that this accuracy will carry over to other registers as well.

Working your low register can also add a darker element to your voice which can coexist with any brighter elements that are present (and sopranos basically by definition have such elements). And the larger your chest cavity (i.e. resonance chamber for low notes), the more this will apply. This will add interest and depth to the tone quality across your range.

Nicholas Johnson wrote (November 5, 2007):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] I am amazed at how difficult these arias must be for a singer. We instrumentalists simply play the note on the score while the singer is frequently on her own. The soprano aria in BWV 99 Erschüttre dich nur nicht Bar 58 has the singer singing C sharp against a D, and D sharp against the flute's D natural. Perhaps one of the most dissonant arias is the famous alto/solo violin Erbarme dich bar 21 where the singer has to struggle to place that A sharp. How do you do it? Perhaps play a C major scale while you sing the C sharp scle !

Jean Laaninen wrote (November 5, 2007):
[To Nicholas Johnson] Cara's technique of thinking of herself as an instrument--the violin, is really a neat concept. And Nicholas, I think you are on target here presenting a point about a passage in BWV 99 that really illustrates how complex such work can be. I find that playing Bach with my flute is a bit easier than singing an aria, where the details that matter are frequently more than an instrument must produce. I think that is one reason I am so amazed at the high level of criticism sometimes directed toward professional singers with simply astonishing voices. Until you've actually worked on something like a Bach aria to the point of achieving some fairly fine tuned results you can't really comprehend how much detail is involved. Some voices have greater beauty than others, and some voices even get on my nerves, but I have such an appreciation of the work effort put forth by professional soloists, along with so many beautiful results. If a person were to pick a single aria, sung by an outstanding voice and listen to it even one hundred times, there would be new elements in the voice to recognize over and over again. That this is so has something to do with the development of a musical ear I imagine, and I'm glad this point of discussion came up. Thanks.

Nicholas Johnson wrote (November 5, 2007):
[To Jean Laaninen] Yes, voices differ greatly. For my money I would take Agnès Mellon under Philippe Herreweghe singing the penultimate aria in BWV 93 with baroque oboe. Just a little vibrato as the occasional ornament. I'm afraid the boy sopranos and altos can't cope outside an English cathedral. Bach is to hard and their voices are out of tune.

I once heard a gypsy contralto sing "out of tune" with a French symphony orchestra which was wonderful. She was using a non-westernised scale with what sounded like quarter tones.

Cara's idea of the voice as an instrument reminds me of a soprano who was first a superb violinist and then began singing.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 5, 2007):
< I am amazed at how difficult these arias must be for a singer. We instrumentalists simply play the note on the score while the singer is frequently on her own. The soprano aria in BWV 99 Erschüttre dich nur nicht Bar 58 has the singer singing C sharp against a D, and D sharp against the flute's D natural. >
I see the spot in the Bach-Gesellschaft, top of page 269 at the words "Kreuzes Kelch", but frankly I don't see why it would be especially difficult. The basso continuo is solidly in A minor for the whole bar. The flute is twiddling also in chord tones of A minor, where the fast occurrences of D are merely neighboring tones decorating the A minor harmony without changing it. And the singer is going C-C#-D-D#-E-F#-G up the chromatic scale, also firmly underpinned by that A minor, and indeed hitting chord tones from A minor on beats 1 and 3 (the C and the E, the same accented beats where the bass line is playing A, A). It's incidental, yes, that the flute is twiddling onto D at the same micro-moments when the voice has the C# and the D#, but it's merely neighboring motion and passing motion.

Also, at least in this score, it's for tenor rather than soprano....

Granted, it's rather odd to have chromatic passing motion in a vocal part at all. But paying attention to the dirof that line, and its harmonic structure underneath, I don't see how the short crunches against the flute an octave away present any extra problems.

And then the next whole bar is firmly based on a diminished-7th chord A#-C#-E-G, while the flute is still twiddling some extra Ds into it, but again so what? Why would the singer need to pay any extra attention to the flute and its non-harmonic ornamentation in this passage, other than keeping track of where his own vocal line is going both melodically and harmonically?

Interesting example, anyway!

Jean Laaninen wrote (November 5, 2007):
[To Bradley Lehman] Your point is well taken, regarding the chromatic line...a singer should be able to do it. And, any singer coming to this work without preparation would be ridiculous, but as you say in the end, what Bach has done in the score is interesting to say the least.

Julian Mincham wrote (November 5, 2007):
[To Bradley Lehman] Yes it is a tenor not a soprano aria and i agree there's a lot of stuff more tricky than this example. The point is that Bach's lines have such a clear sense of direction (voice leading) so powerfully underpinned by the harmony that they are not easily deflected by the momentary dissonances produced by the other parts. Although often these passing dissonances provide one of the 'engines' which drives the music foward.

An excellent example (if not vocal) is the first bars of the second theme of the last movement of the Italian Concerto. Play the two parts slowly and you can hear that there is a dissonance upon nearly every crotchet beat. Played at speed you don't notice them consciously but they push the music forward.

The other interesting point abut this discussion is the comment on the rare uses of chromatic scales in Bach's vocal lines and usually when they do occur they have symbolic meaning--the cross and crucifixion often being part of the imagery.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (November 5, 2007):
Nicholas Johnson wrote:
< Cara's idea of the voice as an instrument reminds me of a soprano who was first a superb violinist and then began singing. >
I don't know that I'd call myself a superb violinist, but I definitely am a violinist and was doing that long before I started singing seriously (started playing shortly after my 8th birthday, started singing Baroque solo repertoire when I was about 16). Which is I guess where I got the idea.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (November 5, 2007):
[To Nicholas Johnson] I think in some measure one has to learn to separate out what one is singing, concentrate on one's own line, balance that with the need to listen to other people's lines in the counterpoint, but eventually over a time of singing various things with various intervals both consonant and dissonant, people get used to what a given interval should sound like, and so when they come to a dissonance, it sounds right, they aren't thrown by it. They can even fiddle with it to get 'just the right dissonance', the same way they would fiddle with a consonant interval to get 'just the right consonance'.

Nicholas Johnson wrote (November 5, 2007):
[To Bradley Lehman] I am no singer (bath time - sometimes)

But I have just tried to play the flute part whilst singing the tenor line.Very difficult.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 5, 2007):
< I am no singer (bath time – sometimes) But I have just tried to play the flute part whilst singing the tenor line. Very difficult. >
How about an even tougher challenge? Not only singing and playing the flute at the same time, but also playing that aria's basso continuo line on organ pedals. :)

Nicholas Johnson wrote (November 6, 2007):
[To Cara Emily Thonton] I think I follow you. My point is that a singer has a much harder task. For example a good amateur flautist can sightread any Bach aria up to speed.

You are speaking as a professional singer who prepares an aria in depth, an oboeist doesn't need as much preparation plus the singer is sometimes up against 2 obligato instruments as in the greatest (in my opinion) aria Bach ever wrote - BWV125 for alto.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (November 6, 2007):
[To Nicholas Johnson] Actually, I find it easier to sing in tune than to play the violin in tune [smile]. I also probably spend less time preparing a solo voice part in an aria than I would preparing a solo violin part. The vocal instrument is somehow less complex than the violin for me. Or maybe I just know that instrument better, being I've lived in it 24/7 and walked around in it for nearly 43 years...

At any rate, I certainly don't think of myself as up against my [non-vocal] instruments (except maybe when I'm trying to sing and conduct them simultaneously[heheheh]). And as for my being a professional, actually, I'm technically an amateur because I don't take money for my services. Not that I'd complain if someone wants to pay me, but I choose not to be financially dependent on my music. I worry it might suffer deleterious effects from such dependence...

Aaron Sheehan wrote (November 6, 2007):
This is actually my first post to this group, but one that I actually think I could give some good advice.

As someone who sings Bach professionally a lot, I think that a singer who specializes in this music really learns to enjoy the disonances that occur throughout not only Bach's music, but a lot of Baroque music in general. I find the the harmonic "crunches" that occur to be one of the most satisfying characteristics of Baroque music.

I find that when I sing Bach, I have to approach each aria differently. Some arias seem purely instrumental and the voice needs be attentive to that, for example "Frohe Hirten" from the Christmas oratorio (BWV 248). Some arias are clearly more vocal, and the voice can let loose a little more, such as in "Ich Habe Genug".

I clearly find it easier to explain myself by demonstrating, but alas, that isn't possible here.

Anyways. I am enjoying the discussion.

Jean Laaninen wrote (November 6, 2007):
[To Aaron Sheehan] Thanks for your comments. I found some of your sound samples on the web...nice work.

Would you please tell us about how you became or chose to become a Bach soloist.

Thanks.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (November 6, 2007):
[To Aaron Sheehan] Welcome! Sure you can demonstrate. I'm not sure of the details, but I'm sure if you write to Aryeh, he will tell you where to upload your 'demonstration' files. Then you can just write an e-mail and comment on them :)

 

Singing Bach: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Introduction | Cantatas | Other Vocal | Instrumental | Performers | General Topics | Articles | Books | Movies | New
Biographies | Texts & Translations | Scores | References | Commentaries | Music | Concerts | Festivals | Tour | Art & Memorabilia
Chorale Texts | Chorale Melodies | Lutheran Church Year | Readings | Poets & Composers | Arrangements & Transcriptions
Search Website | Search Works/Movements | Terms & Abbreviations | Copyright | How to contribute | Sitemap | Links



 

Back to the Top


Last update: ýNovember 7, 2007 ý09:46:15