Size Does Matter
Size Does Matter
(But it's what you do with it that counts)
Photography credit: David Shoukry
We are pleased to share with you a guest blog post from international soprano Rachel Nicholls.
When I was five, I can vividly remember happily singing Christmas Carols in church and the whole row of adults sitting in front of me turning round with shocked expressions on their faces. I felt embarrassed and stopped singing, I looked for reassurance to my mum. She smiled, held my hand and carried on singing. I didn't. I applied myself to working out where Orientar was and why it had three kings instead of one.
On the way home I asked mum why the people had stared. I asked her if I'd been singing the wrong tune. She said no, and that I had a lovely singing voice, and that the people just wanted to know where it came from. I wasn't sure I believed her. Interestingly, I visited my local church for the first time this time last year. On joining in the carols in a reasonably restrained way, I met with EXACTLY the same reaction. Oh well, over the past 36 years I suppose I've developed more of a thick skin in the face of adversity. I've also come to accept that people are frightened of loud noises.
Throughout my childhood, I often used to feel curiously defiant whenever it came to doing any kind of community singing. As I gained musical awareness, I realised singing was something I could do, but my voice was "different" and people would stare, and comment, and accuse me of showing off. I had occasional outings as a soloist - memorably, the annual Nativity Play humiliation of singing "Little Jesus Sweetly Sleep" with a tea towel on my head, but really I was happier playing my violin and fiddling around on the piano.
It wasn't until I was 13 that I had any experience of formal choral singing. Completely hooked from the first rehearsal, I was desperate to join any and every choir going. And in general I was welcomed with open arms. My school music teacher put me forward for (free) singing lessons. I joined the County Youth Choir and a local Youth Opera group (still going strong for singers from 15-25). Meanwhile I was still madly keen on violin and piano too, and I began lessons at Trinity College of Music Junior Department which had a fabulous choir and chamber choir too.
My experiences of choral singing up until now were absolutely 100 percent positive and I look back slightly mystified but with enormous gratitude to the visionary and far-sighted music professionals who had to put up with me in their choral groups, because, of course, I was a terrible choral singer. I'm someone who always tries too hard, rather than not hard enough. So I sang in an enthusiastic, full-bodied, physical way. I was a confident sight-reader. During the learning process this combination meant I was an asset to my section, but I had no real understanding of how to blend in a choir and in performances, I ruined the line more often than I carried it. I can only apologise to everyone with the benefit of hindsight. Sometimes I feel I should be following a 12 step programme- "Hello my name is Rachel and I am a choir saboteur".
I decided, properly, that I wanted to be an opera singer when I was 17. I mostly kept my ambition to myself after "I want to be an opera singer", elicited the response "So we think you should train as a primary school teacher" from the school's career service. Ultimately, though, I was really well advised by the people I looked up to. My first ever singing teacher told me "If you want to be a singer, keep practising the piano." I did. And, as advised, I decided to go to University before applying to Music College as a postgraduate. I also started having grownup singing lessons.
My grownup singing teacher was less easily-impressed than anyone I'd sung to before. In fact she was so unimpressed I never dared to ask her if she thought I'd have a decent stab at an operatic career. She explained that good singing was not about volume, but about vocal efficiency. She explained a lot of things about placing and resonance and "the mask". She liked the sound to be "forward". I thought she was a genius, even though I didn't understand half of what she was asking me to do.
At University, which had an almost unparalleled reputation for Early Music and Authentic Performance, the majority of the repertoire we sang in the Chamber Choir was Baroque. I adored it. It did not adore me. Our choir director let me in to the auditioned ensembles because I could sing and because I could sight-read, but thereafter he would tell me to shut up several times during every rehearsal. I tried my best. I learned about blending and managed to control my natural vibrato and sing with straight tone. He suspected that I was a mezzo and I realised pretty quickly myself that I would be more comfortable singing alto, and so I brought this up in a singing lesson. It did not go down well. My teacher told me that singing as a mezzo would only exacerbate all of the things I was doing wrongly already. It would encourage me to "darken" and "manufacture my sound". Instead, I should concentrate on keeping the sound "light and bright". She talked to me about "thick folds" and "thin folds" which I did not understand. She told me I had a tendency to push. She was determined I would learn to approach my top notes softly. I found this very, very hard, but I practised and practised and practised in the hopes it would one day pay-off.
Over my three years at University, a picture began slowly to unfold. I worked out that the more lightly I sang, the happier everyone seemed to be. Week after week, I took my work-in-progress quiet sound to my singing lesson. "No, you need to sing on your thin folds" came the response. I tried to work out where my thin folds were. I started having occasional singing lessons with an Early Music specialist. She didn't talk about thin folds or thick folds, but she was keen that I aimed for a pure, bright, ethereal sound. I auditioned for Music College with some Mozart and Handel and embarked on my postgraduate course, where I was strictly prohibited from singing anything other than Mozart and Handel. I got myself a church job singing straight-toned, of course. Chamber Choir was doing the St Matthew Passion with as little vibrato as possible. And before I knew it I was tuned more often to 415 than 440 and effectively bottling in my natural singing voice by singing from the jaw up. The head of opera told me he didn't think I'd ever have a heavy enough voice to sing Pamina and wouldn't let me on to the opera course. I knew I was doing something badly wrong.
I began to study Alexander Technique and very slowly it began to dawn on me that the Holy Grail that was being held up to me of singing as lightly and quietly as possible was effectively causing me to try and disappear up my own soft-palate. And that my effort to do it was giving me such severe muscle tension that it was manifesting as physical pain. If one of my students had talked to me about discomfort when singing, I would have done something about it immediately. Why could I therefore not do something about it in my own singing?
Many of my friends are instrumentalists. Quite a few of them are pianists. For fun, often we'd sing though pieces that my singing teacher deemed unsuitable (think any opera role whose name didn't end in ...ina). Without anyone scrutinising me for illegal "thick fold" singing, or telling me I was manufacturing my sound, I would let my hair down. Or rather I would let my larynx down, make a big space in my throat, use my body in an instinctive way and let rip. It felt wonderful. I followed my instincts and changed to another teacher.
Things began to go a lot better. My new teacher advocated "honest" singing. She allowed me to get my voice out of its box. She wanted me to sing "on the body". She talked about "picking up the lower resonances" instead of "forward placing". But we soon hit a big problem. My sound was "edgy". She wanted it to be "round". The Early Music vocal production I'd been doing had held my natural voice in to such an extent that at least it had been even across the range. This new, bigger voice was clunky and troublesome. Bits of it sounded nice. Bits of it didn't. The top of it sounded rancid. We decided to try being a mezzo for a few weeks. We decided that being a mezzo wouldn't solve the problem of not being able to sing high notes nicely. I went back to being a soprano who couldn't sing high notes.
Now from this it sounds like I was on the verge of giving up, and that everything was going very badly for me. This wasn't the case at all. I was paying my rent by doing my Early Music and ensemble singing with straight tone and teaching, while trying to develop my "real" voice with a view to the future. The muscle tension became less of a problem, because I wasn't using my voice in the same way the whole time. It was around this time that I got an agent, got booked for my first 2 contracts at Covent Garden (one as a Flowermaiden in Parsifal, singing "properly", the other as Echo in Ariadne auf Naxos singing straight-toned), got the part of Donna Elvira in the Opera School production of Don Giovanni, and came second in the Kathleen Ferrier Awards. I left the RCM with some prizes, 2 very different methods of vocal production and a full and slightly schizophrenic diary. I hadn't yet worked out how to reliably produce a good sound with my natural unmanufactured voice, which just goes to prove that you can fool quite a lot of the people some of the time!
My career developed in an unconventional way. I was consistently in work as a Baroque specialist which I found physically uncomfortable and difficult. To my endless frustration I was not consistently in work doing the operatic singing I felt my voice was really suited to. As a young singer, I didn't sound right for Susanna - the Early Music sound was too straight and laser-like, and full-voice sounded too dark and mezzoey- but I wasn't old enough to play the Countess. By the time I became old enough to play the Countess, so were the people who'd been booked for Susanna 5 years before, and they made a more convincing Mozartian sound than I did.
I asked advice from lots of teachers, conductors and coaches. Everyone had a different idea of how I could make my sound more suitable for the repertoire they thought I should be singing. Now on the face of it, that's very reasonable, but I began to be ever-more confused. I was unhappy about the idea of swapping one manufactured sound for another. Sure, I could copy Renée or Kiri, but was that really any different from copying Emma and Nancy? And all four of them seemed to be able to do something I couldn't because they all seemed to know where their thin folds were. I decided I probably just wasn't very good at singing. I found a wonderful teacher, Richard, who understood "bigger voices". I worked with him in the old-fashioned way. Going every day for a long lesson for a fortnight, then having long gaps to assimilate the information. I learned that to access notes above the stave safely and properly I really needed to access my upper register and get out of my middle voice. My voice opened out. It got bigger. If anything, it got edgier. Richard was the first person to tell me that the edge might be a good thing. With his background in Italian repertoire, his hope was that eventually I should move into the heavier Verdi and Puccini roles. The words "Dramatic Soprano" started to be mentioned. But I was only 29. You can't be a Dramatic Soprano when you're 29. You can't be a dramatic soprano until you're in your very late 30s, ideally, 40. No one will book you. I started working in earnest on Donna Anna which I felt might be a stepping stone. I auditioned with Non mi dir (channeling Renée). The casting director asked to hear Donna Elvira's Mi Tradi (Kiri). I didn't get either part.
A couple of years later, I had a new agent and feeling a lot more positive, I went to see a consultant who consults for casting directors. He told me to buy lots of new opera scores and to copy Leontyne Price. This was much more fun than copying the other people. Six months later I went back for another consultation. He listened to my Leontyne impression, then asked me to sing some Mozart (I did my Renée impression), he couldn't decide which was worse, and £100 poorer, he sent me off to work it out with my coach and accompanist, Paul. I cried, put my new scores away, and set off on a tour of Holland of forty sweaty-palmed St Matthew Passions (in 30 days) where I tried to sound like a pianissimo Baroque flute. (I developed a new technique of singing entirely on an "oo" vowel regardless of the text to stop any sound coming out). Every time I prepared to start Aus Liebe I was psyching myself up to let out just enough sound that I wouldn't crack. I came back with a healthy bank balance and so much tension in my jaw and tongue that I had to go to PhysioEd for the most painful experience of my life getting it manipulated out of me.
I felt angry with my voice. It felt like a big, hideous monster which was trying to get out despite my best efforts to strangle it. I hated it. I kept going back to the idea that singing should feel comfortable and natural. It seemed so very unfair that as a musician I was cursed with having a natural sound than no one liked, and that in order to pay the bills I had to do something so physically uncomfortable. And every year it got harder. I can now see that I was a weightlifter attempting to ballet dance, but all I could see was that it was a technical skill I was rubbish at.
It wasn't until I was 35 that anyone mentioned the "W" word. My clever and insightful agent put me up for Helmwige in Die Walküre. I assumed the audition would go the way of the vast majority of auditions where I sang out freely, as in "Don't call us!". Instead, the conductor listened to my pieces, asked me to sing another piece and then asked me to sight-read through a fourth. He offered me the job on the spot. My agent persuaded Dame Anne Evans to take me on as a student and the rest is history. A difficult history of learning to sing all over again, a lot of the time, the way I instinctively wanted to all along, which makes me feel both sad and vindicated. A messy, complicated time of trying to keep singing in both ways in order to make ends meet, and of finally realising that I could not do both. As it turned out, I had totally underestimated how much the muscle tension caused by my Baroque vocal production, and by my totally going against my natural vocal predisposition, was impacting on my natural singing voice. That, of course, is my own responsibility. Richard had tried to warn me years before that singing in a manufactured way was going to end in tears. But I began to reflect on the advice I received earlier on in my training from nearly every teacher and coach I encountered. It's very good advice in the main - don't push, stick to Mozart and Handel, keep it light and bright. Sing on your thin folds. I thought back to all the times that I had been told not to "manufacture" a dark, mezzoey sound. But my whole, natural sound when I let it out freely without holding anything back, or constricting anything is dark and mezzoey. Certainly compared to a lighter, higher voice. It's also bright. In a small space it will sound edgy and unbearable. And, once I'd gone on a course where everything was explained with models and demonstrations, I discovered I HAD BEEN SINGING ON MY THIN FOLDS. It's just that my thin folds sound different to other people's! I had literally spent over a decade beating myself up for not being able to do something I was already doing.
Going back to singing carols in church for moment, people are frightened of loud noises. We hear a big sound coming out of a young singer and we are wary. I'm as guilty as the next teacher of this. I'm currently teaching a 20 year old mezzo with an enormous, glorious voice. She brought the Sea Pictures to her lesson a few weeks ago, wanting to perform Sabbath Morning at Sea in a masterclass. My response was "I think that's very ambitious", but I let her sing it through. I then said "Well actually, no, it's a great piece for you." Despite being convinced that she was doing nothing technically to over-stretch herself, despite the demands of the piece, I was worried I would be judged as a teacher for letting her sing what would normally be performed by a much older singer. I was so very delighted that in the masterclass, she was told by the visiting baritone: "I think that's very ambitious", and after he'd heard it, "Well actually, no, it's a great piece for you."
The first 15 years of my singing career, then, were peppered with frustrations and wrong turns. But actually, I don't regret any of them. Because if you are a dramatic soprano, you do have to find something to do with yourself until you're 40. It could be anything, but at least my experience of having a performing career in a different genre meant I'm now equipped to go on stage confidently and used to singing in big venues. But my advice to any up-and-coming young singer with a sizeable voice is to make sure that nothing you do physically makes you feel tense or uncomfortable. Choral singing is not for everyone. It's wonderful for your musicianship, especially singing harmony, so give yourself a break. If it's more comfortable to sing alto, then do that. You'll only get shouted at for being too loud in the first sopranos. Be aware that people will tell you to sing more quietly a lot of the time because they think it's costing you a huge effort to make the big sound. They are worried you're working too hard. If that is your natural, unforced volume level then be brave and tell them. And if everyone turns round when you start singing Christmas Carols in church, smile and sing LOUDER.
Rachel is currently performing in her 7th production of Tristan und Isolde in Rome. In 2017 her many performances include Brünnhilde Die Walküre in Karlsruhe, Leonore Fidelio in Vilnius and Sieglinde for Grange Park Opera.