I purchased a Zoom R8 digital recorder recently. I've been wanting to get something like it for a long time, so I'm thrilled to have one. The challenge now is to work out how to use it well, so that's a project that I'm very enthusiastic about and I can't wait to get started. I'll be posting the results of my labours soon!
I got the urge to do some composing again, so I came up with this little ditty that I thinks is rather wistful and delicate. I like the hint of oriental percussion chugging away in the background as it helps remove the piece from any specific genre or place. Enjoy!
I have been working on composing music for some video projects that I'm undertaking this weekend, and I morphed into doing some variations of nursery rhymes that I have been teaching Year 1 and 2 students. I think that they have been churning around in my subconscious, trying to get out and be heard. I'm building things up in layers and adding different sounds as I go, just working in my sequencing program on my computer. I'm not trying to write anything down at this stage. I want to see where this style of composing leads.
2. I started with my new teacher, Florence Taylor, in 1977, and had a lesson per week. Eggs Benedict was going strong, and I was given quite a bit of extra work with the opera company, so I was busy with playing guitar, acting, and doing singing practice. Late in that year I was asked by Charles Colman to audition for the Leonine Consort, an 8 voice ensemble that he was starting in 1978. Charlie knew my parents, so I guess he took a punt that I would have inherited a bit of musical skill from them. My audition was ordinary, but he gave me the job anyway. That put me in the position of having to decide whether I wanted to pursue either singing or guitar playing. I was aware I couldn't do both because of the demands of both professions, so I chose to sing.
I was quite a good musician already from learning various instruments and dabbling with composition, but nothing prepared me for the shock I received on the first day of rehearsals with the Leonines. After introductions and a bit of a chat, we all sat in a semi-circle and Charlie handed out a pile of music that we would start rehearsing. I was completely at a loss as my sight singing was not good, and I was in an area of music that I knew nothing about. Talk about being embarrassed! I felt like a complete dolt and just wanted to hide somewhere fast. I don't think the other group members were very impressed either. They had all been singing choral music for years and could sight read easily, were familiar with most of the repertoire that Charlie had chosen, and knew each other fairly well. Oh yes, it was a real baptism by fire.
At the end of that first day I headed home with my tail between my legs and then sat up half the night trying to learn the music I had been given. I worked very hard over the next few months, and by the middle of the year I could sight-sing anything that was put in front of me. Naturally this skill engenders great confidence and has stood me in good stead ever since. One of the regular comments that reviewers and critics have made of me over the years is that "Stephen Bennett was his usual reliable self". Not flattering, but much better then being considered unreliable I suppose.
The Leonine Consort were booked by Musica Viva on a regular basis to do school concerts all over the country, and also organised a tour of South East Asia for us. We made a number of recordings and gave concert recitals. I loved the work and was fascinated by the range of music written over the centuries for a capella vocal ensembles. We were on the road a lot, which was fun at my age, and paid very little for the job. I thought of it as an apprenticeship, and bided my time. After a couple of years of this I was invited to sing solos in oratorios for various choirs and orchestras, and so began my career as a soloist. I found the demands very different to singing with a group, and became aware that if I wanted to continue as a soloist, I would have to stop singing choral music. There is a large difference in vocal technique between blending your voice in an ensemble, and projecting your voice as a soloist. After 4 years with the Consort I'd had enough, so I left the group and went to study at the NSW Conservatorium of Music with Valerie Collins-Varga as my new teacher.
1. It has occurred to me that the whys and wherefores of how I became a singer may be of interest to some students who hope to join the profession themselves. Obviously everybody's journey is different and unique, but sharing the story of the uncertainty and struggle can be of interest, and hopefully of help. I'm always curious to read about other's life paths and how they ended up doing what they do, so this is the first installment of mine.
My parents are both musicians. Dad is a violinist and mum is a cellist. I grew up surrounded by musicians and music in the classical genre, so I unwittingly absorbed an enormous amount of first rate string music, from Bach's Sonatas for solo violin, to the string quartets of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and so on. My parents were always practicing, teaching, rehearsing, or listening to great music. I was lucky in retrospect to be surrounded by such an amazing auditory experience, even though I ignored it most of the time, but it must have sunk in to my subconscious and helped me develop the all important musician's ear and innate understanding of the musical language.
As a kid I tried the piano, cello, double bass, and very briefly the bassoon, but I gravitated to the guitar, becoming obsessed by the age of 15. I practiced for hours every day, playing scales and exercises in the hope that I would develop a phenomenal technique. Strangely, by then, I was mad about Frank Zappa, King Crimson, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I'd moved on from classical music and wanted to be a rock star. A friend and I formed a band and started doing gigs around Sydney's North Shore. We played covers of the above groups and some of our own compositions. I enjoyed this thoroughly, but was quietly worried about how I'd make a living from music. The gig payments to the band barely covered the cost of the equipment we had to hire so that we could perform, and I was realizing that I would never be good enough on the guitar to satisfy my longing to be a guitar hero. I thought I might try my hand at acting, so I started having lessons and tried to get an agent. I went to an appointment with an agent who told me that the Australian Opera Company was looking for extras for a forthcoming production of Verdi's Aida. I duly presented myself at the Sydney Opera House and was chosen as one of many spear carriers. I'd inadvertently stumbled upon my life's path. I found myself standing on stage in the middle of the most amazingly powerful and emotional music, next to these singers who were deafeningly loud without a microphone and P.A. system! I started trying to sing some of the music that I had heard and wondered if my voice was any good. I was 19 years old at this stage and had never really tried singing before in a serious way.
My parents were very supportive of this new endeavor and asked around to find me a singing teacher. Unfortunately the guy they picked was a bad teacher, although he was a good singer himself. He did harm to the top of my voice that I never recovered from in the 3 months I studied with him. He thought I was a high baritone, when in fact I'm a lyric bass, so he had me screeching out top notes in a very dangerous and damaging manner. I would have a sore throat after every lesson, so when I expressed concern to my parents, they pulled the plug on those lessons and found me another, safe teacher, but the damage was done psychologically in those 3 months and a fear of high notes stayed with me for the next 35 years of singing.
The vital thing needed for producing optimal vocal tone is correct resonance and placement. Without these the voice will never sound consistent or at it's best. Every time I sing I immediately "place" my voice in it's spot. This might sound nebulous, but it's all about sensations so it's hard to show or demonstrate. Imagery is the best way to help singers find their optimum placement and resonance, along with a fair amount of experimentation.
Physically my most resonant position is behind the sinuses and above the hard palate. I like to think of two knitting needles driven into the middle of my skull. If one was located through the bridge of my nose, and the other through the temples, where they intersect is about where my ideal placement resides. You can manipulate this placement of the voice easily, and that's why it's hard to get it right. Try pushing forward into the nose and you will feel a very frontal, thin placement. Try taking it back and you will experience a hollow, throaty sound that has almost no resonance. Move between the two until a blended sound is achieved. You want the hard, nasal resonance mixed with the hollow, spacey sound to achieve a fully rounded, resonant vocal tone. Eventually, with the help of your singing teacher who will give feedback as to when the sound is at it's best, you'll lock in your placement and it'll become a powerful muscle memory, and therefore easy to replicate at will.
Think of an apple. It has a core and a round body. Your voice should have the same.
If you love music and you want to participate in it’s making, then make the effort to learn to read music, at least to a basic level. I come across many singing students who can’t read music and believe it to be too time consuming and difficult to learn. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and I don’t know how they come to that conclusion. It’s a very easy and logical language to learn, and there are many and varied tools available to help you. One method that I recommend to all my students is the “Essential Music Theory” course by Gordon Spearritt. It’s extremely well devised and you can work through on your own without any problems. It’s available in most music stores in Australia, or easily found online. You can also find online courses for free, or some for a small fee, and there are phone apps and computer programs available to help you as well. It’s fun and empowering to discover how quickly you can get the basics down and immediately apply them to the task of learning new songs. You don’t have to go into advanced music theory unless you’re interested, as the basics are all you need to get you going well enough.
Another area of musicianship that is a valuable skill is the ability to sight read. The best way to learn to sight read is to do it, so once you have enough basic skills to confidently read music, try sight reading a different song every day. You only need to spend 20 minutes a day at this task, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your skill improves if you keep it up.
When I started my professional singing career in 1978 as a member of The Leonine Consort, I was a good enough musician, but I couldn’t sight read very well. I’d never sung choral music, so I was thrown in very much at the deep end and received a nasty shock when I realized how hopeless I was compared to the other members of the group. On the first day of rehearsals we started with Britten’s 5 Flower Songs, which are horribly difficult to sight read, and I was totally at sea. Spurred on by my embarrassment, I studied all the repertoire I was given at home in the evenings and made rapid improvement. After 6 months of this I could read anything that was put in front of me, and my sense of competence was thankfully back again. This has stood me in good stead for my entire career, given me confidence that I could learn anything, no matter how difficult the music, and also given me the reputation of being a reliable and good musician; an accolade not often associated with singers.
To reiterate: it’s not difficult, so get stuck into it today!
When I started taking singing lessons I was playing guitar in a rock band. I remember all the fuss of looking after my fingers and my hands, trying to warm them up when it was cold, trying to stop them sweating in hot weather, avoiding doing things like gardening and handyman work, and so on. It occurred to me that a singer would be free of all that nonsense, and wouldn't that be a relief. No more lugging guitars, amps, pa, lighting and general heavy gear to gigs. I'd just have a briefcase with my score in it and off I'd go, free to do lots of manual things that I enjoyed without a care in the world. If I got stiff or cut fingers, too bad! They would heal up in due course.
What I didn't reckon on was the constant problem with colds, vocal fatigue, sore throats, draughts, air-conditioning, humidity, dryness - the list goes on. The more critical the singing job, the more I felt I had to wrap myself in cotton wool. No alcohol, no smoking (I didn't smoke anyway), eat the right foods, avoid dairy products, don't talk too much, get plenty of sleep, constantly monitor the state of my voice... I longed for the simplicity of just worrying about my hands. Too late though - the guitar playing door was by now firmly shut in my face and I was committed to being an opera singer.
The voice is such a small, delicate instrument and reflects your general well being in an instant. Many times I'd be singing away happily and confidently and suddenly it didn't want to work any more. Not such a problem in rehearsals, but horrible in performance. I'd have to shepherd my voice to the end of the show as best I could, which was highly anxiety provoking and stressful. Sometimes I'd have to transpose high notes down when the top of my voice failed, which was deeply embarrassing, but fortunately not fatal.
Managing your instrument becomes and obsession and can rule your life if you're not careful, so you have to accept that things go wrong and do your best to cope when they do. That's what a rock solid technique helps with. All those hours working on your voice and building stamina will usually get you through with nobody the wiser but the conductor and your. The conductor never misses anything. Apart from that you have to find out what triggers allergies, excess mucus, blocked sinuses, vocal dryness, unusual frequencies of coming down with colds and chest infections, and any other thing that stops your voice from doing your bidding.
Here are a few things that helped me:
- Never take anything other than paracetamol for headache or pain if you have to perform that day. Things like Neurofen+, Sudafed and Panadeine dry you out and also force your muscles to relax, which generally affects the way your vocal chords phonate.
- Avoid alcohol and cigarette smoke.
- Drink plenty of water to stay properly hydrated.
- Stay fit doing sports that are voice friendly, eg. bike riding, walking, golf, jogging. I found that if I went swimming in a public pool I would frequently end up with a cold.
- Try not to talk too much, and don't shout at all.
- The best lozenges that I found are Vocalzone. They helped me through many a scratchy performance, as did diluted apple juice.
- Get proper sleep.
- Don't sing too soon after a cold, it can make things worse if you get inflammation from singing on an already slightly inflamed throat.
Good luck, and remember, your voice is delicate, and if you abuse it you could very quickly and easily lose it.
Young singers, no matter how advanced their technique is, or how mature sounding their voice is, must learn to be patient. If you want a long, fruitful career that is. I started singing professionally when I was 21, but I didn't start singing opera until I was 26, and not full time until I was 29. It's true that the lower male voices take longer to develop and mature, so basses and baritones have to be even more patient than the higher voices. I have had students who are in their teens who are in a hurry to become professional singers with big, full voices. That pathway leads to misery and a short career in most cases. I can't remember the number of my young colleagues whose careers were severely truncated by taking on roles that were too big, too dramatic, too high, too low, or just too much.
The problem is it takes years to develop a reliable, sound technique that will see you safely through thick and thin. It's all very well to have a natural talent and exploit that, but when something goes wrong and the wheels fall off, you don't have the experience or the technique to save yourself in a difficult situation. It only takes a tricky performance with a head cold to set you back months, and in some cases it can be the end of your voice and career due to damage sustained from that one performance.
Sadly for all those desperate to climb the ladder quickly, it's a big risk to do so too early. My belief is that a minimum of 5 years of technical study, regular practice, stamina building, becoming a better musician and an educated student of your area of interest is necessary. That includes language study and a lot of listening to the best in the world in your vocal type as well as other types. Learn what the standards are and try and figure out how some singers do what they do. At some stage you will be ready to work professionally, but don't be tempted with roles that are wrong for you. It's better to say no than do a bad job, which can damage a fledgling reputation before you even get started. Song recitals and concert repertoire are ideal for young singers. You learn a lot about performing under pressure, performing with an orchestra, and feeling very alone and naked when it's just you and a pianist. My advice is to leave the pressures and stress of the opera world until you are in your mid twenties at the earliest.
So the time has come when you feel you are ready to start doing auditions for professional or amateur companies. The best way to train for the particular stresses involved is to go in as many competitions as possible before you attempt to do an audition. It's essentially the same thing and invaluable experience, plus you might win some money in the process! Both auditioning and competing are not the same as performing in a live show. They are a learned skill that you use to achieve your goals and nothing more. Some folks audition really well and others don't. There's no sense to it at all, and it's definitely not fair, but it's reality, so there's no point in getting upset about it if you struggle during an audition, even if you're confident that you can come good in a performance. Just keep practicing and fronting up to do your best. It will get easier in time.
Here are the important points to address for an audition.
- Dress neatly in smart, casual clothes. You don't need to dress up like an opera diva - it makes you look rather desperate. Hair neat and tidy too, and ladies, keep your makeup subtle. Just normal street makeup is enough. Guys, no makeup at all! Do not turn up in shabby, grungy, dirty shoes and clothes. You will not be taken seriously.
- A big no no is to come dressed in costume and acting your socks off. Save it for the show. The panel may be amused or bewildered, but they won't be impressed. Keep movement to a minimum and don't gesture too much.
- Have a good publicity photo, a copy of your music, and a brief CV for the panel. They like to have this sort of information to read while you are singing.
- Make sure you choose your music according to their guidelines. They will not be impressed if you sing something that they don't want to hear, or something that is inappropriate for this particular audition. If you are auditioning for a role in a Mozart opera, they don't want to hear you singing Verdi or Wagner.
- Present music that is consistent with your vocal type, or fach, and that you can sing well and confidently. There's no point in attempting something that is presently beyond you as it will only make a bad impression. Don't attempt to sing something that you don't know backwards. Nerves may well play havoc with your memory, so you may need to be on autopilot.
- Speak when spoken to, and be pleasant and intelligent in your responses. Big egos don't go down well, so if you have a surfeit of self confidence, keep it hidden for now.
- If you are sick and can't sing properly, it's better to cancel than turn up with lots of excuses, spluttering and coughing and potentially sharing your germs with the others in the room. They will not thank you for this! They will also remember if you sing really badly, even if you are sick. You need to be in the best possible condition vocally.
- Be philosophical if they are not interested. Sometimes they need to hear you over a period of a few years before you register on their radar.
It's not much fun at all really, just a necessary part of the business, so use it to toughen yourself up and polish your skills. You need a hide of leather in this business anyway. Above all remember that whether or not you are successful is not a reflection on you as a person, it is merely a business decision from the point of view of the panel, and they can be brutally unsentimental about the whole business.
Today is the final day of Scarlet's 30 day creative challenge. It's been a very interesting, challenging, and sheer good fun month. Some days I was too busy to do anything very meaningful, and others were devoted to the task. I had a pretty clear day today, so I undertook an interesting and confronting challenge. Some of my students have been singing "If I can't love her" from Beauty and the Beast, written by the incomparable Alan Menken, and I have become rather fond of this song, so I decided I would have a bash at recording it with my limited setup. I don't have anything like a recording studio, so this was a rather ad hoc affair to say the least. I spent a bit of time first tweaking the sequence to make it more like music, then I played around trying to get the balance and reverb right. A few takes later, and a bit of amplification and EQ in Audacity, and here it is. I must point out that this is the first time I've ever "performed" anything from the music theatre genre. I've been a straight classical singer all my career - Bach, Handel, Schubert, Mozart etc. So here I am at the ripe old age of 57 making my debut in a new genre and getting in touch with my inner Beast.
This composition is for guitar and percussion, based around a chordal pattern that I came up with on the guitar, with melody for tuned percussion devised to fit over the relentless semiquavers. A couple of un-tuned percussion instruments and an organ drone rounded things off nicely.
I find myself becoming completely engrossed in the process of composition, losing track of time and the daily must dos. I guess that's what being in the creative zone is all about. I never experienced this feeling when I was performing as a singer, but I recall I was aware of this condition when I first tried composing in my late teens. For me, I'm convinced, the demands of the classical interpretative singer quashed my creative urge. I'm so glad to have my urge back again, to quote Kath and Kim. It makes me feel very cheerful and energetic.
Today the muse hit me in the afternoon and I happily settled down with a sheet of music manuscript paper. I decided to base this short piano piece on eighth notes, using 3/8, 4/8, 5/8, 6/8 and 7/8 variously throughout. This was to create a lopsided effect with the um-papa bass line. I started by writing the top line in E Major and the bottom line in C Major. Predictably this sounded like rubbish, so I combined the two lines into the top line and added a different bass part. I then worked on developing a melody of sorts, and added a brief reprise to finish with. I tweaked the middle line a fair bit to ensure it didn't compete with the melody, and voila!, another short piece for piano that I quite like.
To illustrate this music I ferreted out some photos of a ferris wheel I made in Melbourne in 2009 with one of my plastic cameras. I found the negatives and scanned them, then combined them into a little composite, hopefully giving the feeling of a clunky old piece of unsafe machinery that echos my latest micromusic.
This evening I managed to do a recording of sorts of my first song, The Awfulisers, with text by Michael Leunig. This is the first singing I've done with intent since I retired from performing a year ago. It was a bit of a shock to the system I must say, and I'll need to start practicing again if I'm going to start recording myself. So be it! I think it's a worthwhile project and should be a lot of fun. The piano part is my trusty computer playing a midi file through a Roland sound module (obviously), but if I get serious about this project I'll hire a real pianist to record with me. All in all I'm quite pleasantly pleased with this first attempt and look forward to setting more of Leunig's wonderful poems to music.
Today was the day to attempt writing a song, hopefully the first of many. Michael Leunig's work has always appealed to me on a visceral level, so I sought out some of his poems to set. I came across this wonderful piece about horrible bureaucrats making such a mess of things the world over, so I attempted to make musical sense of the emotional image that the poem creates for me. I also decided to try and write a vocal line that was simple with a narrow range. I've discovered that there is not nearly enough music for teenage singers studying in the classical genre, particularly males, who tend to have a limited vocal range. Keeping the music simple also allows the student to concentrate on technical matters without the distraction of negotiating musical complexity.
I let the text suggest a melodic line and went from there, filling in the accompaniment to support and amplify the simple melody. All things being equal, my plan is to record this song and post it tomorrow. I just have to work out how to multi-track on the computer first! That shouldn't take too long - maybe morning tea to lunchtime?
Here's an attempt to make a visual expression of the music.
My lovely wife Scarlet requested a quiet, thoughtful short piano piece from me a few days ago. I've been too busy to get to it, but tonight I managed in spite of being ready for an early bedtime! I hauled myself into the music room and started to write a fragment of a melody that was in my head. It turned out to be in G minor, so I took it from there. I just wanted to try something simple and transparent, so here is my effort below.
No time today for my own things, I had to get a piece of music transposed for a student. I use Coda's Finale for the job, and have done for the last 24 years. It's a fantastic program and I love to use it. You can solve just about any notation difficulty with it, and you end up with a lovely piece of highly legible music, much better than my handwritten efforts of yesteryear.
The piece is Memory, from Cats, by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I have a young soprano singing it, but it's too low. Once I have it in exactly as printed it's very easy to transpose into any key you want, and this needs to go up about a minor 3rd. I used to use a midi keyboard to enter the notes, but this time I just used my computer keyboard and mouse, which isn't quite as fast, but I'm getting better at it. The key thing is to learn and remember the shortcuts, and then you can fairly whip along.
Guess what, writing a 4 part a capella piece for vocal ensemble is not as easy as it looks! The first travesty of an attempt was lost when my notation program crashed, so I started again and came up with this parody - Adversus solem ne loquitor. I've sung a lot of this type of music over the years, so I had a pretty good idea of the rhythmic look of the thing, but the harmonic structure is at present beyond me. I guess I'd better get out my Dulcie Holland harmony and counterpoint books and disabuse them of their virginal state.
My wife refused to pose with her mouth open above the music, so Chester's aid was enlisted to perform the function of a choral member. I think he did a pretty good impersonation.
PS. The English translation of this particularly deep and sensitive poem is: Don't speak against the sun.
Phew! I found a spare hour in another day of dramas, doctors, vets and rushing around to finish a short piece I started yesterday. I wanted to try and write something for solo acoustic bass guitar exploring the instrument's harmonics. I found a nice little accompaniment with just harmonics, but couldn't find a melody that sounded right. I put the accompaniment into my sequencing program and put it on loop while a fiddled around with melodic ideas high on the neck of the bass. Nothing came to pass other than working out that D major and A major scales worked with the chords. I then came up with the idea of using the Lydian mode of both scales over the appropriate chords, resulting in the following effort. I imagine the 2nd part played on bass guitar using the harmonics only, and the first part on a high wind instrument - maybe the soprano sax. We'll see what works. It's so interesting observing my brain trying to invent something new each day, and the various little excuses it comes up with for maybe abandoning the project for the day and substituting a photograph instead. I'm finding this whole composition process exciting and very difficult at the same time. It's turning out to be a very interesting challenge.
Order reared its ugly head today as I felt I should compose something with more structure and less randomness. I like modes a lot, so I decided to write a 2 part invention for piano using the G Mixolydian mode plus an F natural, for reasons of flexibility and semitone clashes.
It's just 45 seconds long - a page of music, and I'm quite happy with the result.