Editor’s Note : Silence is Golden

Traditionally, our May issue has something in it to help focus singers’ attention on the family—and this issue is no exception. We have two articles for those of you—both men and women—who are trying to juggle family and career. We would also like to remind you again about the website operamom.org, where you can get even more support if you decide to tackle the challenge of career and family.

On another topic, I had an opportunity recently to be one of the judges for the Las Vegas region NATS competition, where I heard some exciting new talent. One young man had quite a ring in his voice—but then we realized it was coming from the cell phone in his pocket! Ah, technology.

I came away with a few pieces of advice for singers, especially the ever-present need singers have to continue learning how to use their faces and hands to express the meaning of a song or aria. As is often the case when young singers perform, the audience wasn’t sure whether some of the young singers even knew the meaning of the words they were singing, while other singers moved us to tears with their deep understanding of, and connection to, the words and music. I was impressed that some singers could move us even when their technique was not quite settled.

Another piece of advice: Learn how to use silence. Silence is a part of every aria or song. The poignant pause, for example, when you plant both feet equally on the floor so you’re grounded, and think about your first phrase, then gather your energy, nod to your pianist—and start singing when the moment is exactly right.

That critical moment of silence right after you finish singing is just as important. If you created magic while you were singing, you should hold still at the very end for just a few seconds, to allow the audience to savor the moment. Don’t move a muscle! Watch live opera and learn how great artists use silences.

Likewise, your bow afterward should include pauses. (Think: “Down 2-3-4, Up 2-3-4”!) If you miss those silences, your bow can seem ungracious and self-conscious.

In acting classes, some singers learn to write down an infinitive for every new thought. Let’s take a favorite song: “Caro Mio Ben,” for example. The first line’s infinitive could be “to plead.” The translation of the line is: “My dearest believe me at least! Without you the heart languishes!” You are speaking to someone who has been cruel to you, and you are hoping to persuade him or her that you are miserable. Think about a time when you’ve been in this situation and put that person out on the horizon. Say the words directly to him or her. Make sure your face and your hands are expressing what you would really do in this situation, but make it big enough for an audience to see. (A mirror is a singer’s best friend.)

Now comes a pause for you, while the piano plays a forte passage. That passage has meaning. Your job is to figure out why. To me it seems as if the piano represents your huge rush of emotion, caused by his or her lack of response to your plea. Your gestures and face should be right there with the rush, as if you are making it happen. Then you come in meekly (piano dynamic) to reiterate what you just said, but without so much emotion. You don’t want to scare your love off!

Think through the whole song and write an infinitive for each new happening in the music.

If you’re singing “Je suis Titania” from Mignon, you’ve got to figure out a dramatic reason for every single one of those notes and rests. Why did the composer write a particular coloratura passage? Are you laughing? Are you angry? Yes, it’s difficult to sing, but don’t show us that! (That thought comes across to the judges the minute you go into “technique mode”: Your eyes glaze over and “you” seem to go somewhere else.)

Here’s a few infinitive ideas to get you started: to flirt, to show off, to laugh, to mimic, to rejoice, to exult, to cry, to seduce, to reflect, to plead, to agonize. Every time the music or words change, there should be a new infinitive—and a new face with different gestures to match.

If you’d like to win competitions—win over the judges, or the audience—learn just how golden silences, your singing, and your art form can be! If you are still working on these aspects of your presentation, come to the CS convention in New York this May and attend any of the acting classes. They will help you, regardless of whether the instructor singles you out to sing.

I hope to see you in New York!

—CJ Williamson, Editor

CJ Williamson

CJ Williamson founded Classical Singer magazine. She served as Editor-in-Chief until her death in July, 2005. Read more about her incredible life and contributions to the singing community here.