We’ve asked singers, teachers, students, parents, and judges at the Classical Singer Convention in Chicago, IL this weekend to write about their experiences. The following is from Darin Adams of Bridgelight Arts, the voice teacher of Competition Participant Vincent Grosso.
Here’s something you don’t expect to see in a master class at a classical singer convention: the instructor kicking off her shoes for a little one-on-one “air basketball” scrimmage with a student as he sings Schubert’s Ständchen. Nor would you expect to see a group of young opera singers freestyle dancing around the room as the instructor does the twist, and what I’m pretty sure was that strange dance from “Pulp Fiction,” with the soprano who is singing “Una Donna a quindici anni.” You wouldn’t expect it, but when you heard what the instructor, Dr. Diane Reich, was achieving with the student’s voices through all of this seeming craziness, you’d love it. I loved it…and so did everyone else.
I came to the convention with my student Vincent Grosso, who is a 17-year-old bass-baritone from New Jersey. As any teenage guy would be, Vincent was a little skeptical about a master class that emphasized dance and movement as part of the vocal training process, but after meeting Dr. Reich, he said that he was game…and we’re both thankful he was. Dr. Reich quickly identified that Vincent was somewhat confined by the sensitive, legato nature of the piece he was singing (Ständchen by Schubert). The voice was getting a little bit tight and held in the throat, particularly through the passagio and in the upper register. She had him sing the song again as they literally dribbled, shot, passed, stole, and ran with an imaginary basketball. At one point, she boxed him out and made him shoot a three-point jumper as he sang the line “jades weiche hertz” which took him up to an F. The voice floated over the top with unexpected strength and freedom. After their scrimmage, which I’m pretty sure she won, she had Vincent stand and present the song again, this time visualizing their game as he sang again. He was able to maintain the sound quality and vitality of the basketball-inspired version while standing quite still and relaxed. Dr. Reich attributed this to sort of mentally-accessed muscle memory. It’s the same principal, she explained, that downhill skiers use to hone their performance by visualizing the run…which apparently has measurable influence on the actual muscles they use when skiing. The theory certainly seemed apply in obvious ways to classical singing, and not just for Vincent. One after another, every singer in the class demonstrated real audible improvement when working through both physical and visualized movement with Dr. Reich.
It was fascinating to see the different facets of this technique applied by Dr. Reich to address different vocal issues. Elisabeth Yates, a young, energetic soprano with a clear, flexible voice, who was singing “Spring” by Argento, received almost opposite physical movement coaching from Vincent. Her first performance of the piece was beautiful, but lacked grounding and a solid connection to her core support. Dr. Reich had her practicing a form of Tai Chi on the second pass, while providing physical resistance to Elisabeth’s movements as she sang. Suddenly even the staccato and fast moving sections took on greater tone, depth and stability. The dance party I described at the top of this piece to Mozart’s “Una donna…” helped Melanie Ross loosen up her physical gestures and the voice became more vibrant and energetic. Gabrielle Johnson was made to stand like a pyramid doing quad exercises while singing the haunting “Solvejg’s Song” and what had previously sounded a little thin on the lush melody suddenly, and without strain, became more mature sounding and appropriate to the style of the piece with a more even vibrato. Dr. Reich had a keen sense of which way to go with the movement for each student, again, taking a more dance-inspired, active approach with Elise Trejo who was singing Handel’s “As When the Dove.” Elise, who was presenting the piece beautifully with her eyes and facial expressions, would leave certain arm gestures and stances frozen in time. As a result, the support would get a little stagnant allowing air to creep in to the tone. When she danced (surprisingly well) the extra breath went out of the tone and her support became dynamic.
Needless to say, the class was a hit and the students were thankful that Dr. Reich was willing to shoot hoops, run around the room, dance the tango, and perform martial arts moves with them in order to get them singing stronger, cleaner, healthier and more expressively. I don’t know why I should be so surprised by the endless number of fresh and innovative ideas coming from the master classes at the Classical Singer convention. When you pull this much talent and creativity into one place at one time, there are bound to be some real singing “aha moments.” Dr. Reich certainly delivered hers with an extra bit of flair and, if I’m not mistaken…jazz hands!
Darin Adams is a singer, composer and voice teacher in New York City. He currently has students in nearly every Broadway show and National Tour. Darin runs a non-profit company called Bridgelight Arts that provides faith-informed mentorship and training to professional artists and faith-inspired production in film, theater, recording and other media.