Vocal Workout. And physical. And spiritual.

Jack is originally from California but he has lived in the Lot – where I live and work – for ten years. He is 76 , practices yoga on a daily basis, makes his own Bulgarian yoghurt and is an avid swimmer.  He used to be a windsurfer, which he enjoyed well into his fifties. Today is his first singing lesson and he is completely fascinated by the concept of breath support. For a good part of the lesson he compares breath control with yoga breathing and under water swimming, and his happy conclusion is that singing is basically a sport. ‘So I got a new sport now!’ he chants.

We set to work. Scales and other singing exercises are produced and pursued with gusto. The results  are a bit wobbly at first, which is normal,  particularly since  Jack has never ‘really’ sung before. As the lesson continues, his tone becomes firm as he becomes more aware of what is happening in his body and how the ribcage (for breath) and the head (for resonance and vowel formation) are connected. ‘Wow!’ he exclaims. ‘This feels real good! You know, this would be great for everybody?’ He then explains how he sometimes feels sad when he sees how people of his age – and much, much younger people too – walk around slumped, as if gravity was something they can’t deal with. He demonstrates this by  walking around the room and, as he walks he morphs into an old man. Shoulders  bent forward, belly outwards, he exudes an aura of utter exhaustion.  Then, suddenly, he jumps up again. ‘It’s so imPORtant to breathe well, you know, and stand straight!’ he shouts. ‘Look at Freddy Mercury, or Mick Jagger!’

Mick and Freddy! Now there are a few favourites of mine. Check them out on YouTube and watch how they move on the stage. (I have to say I prefer Mick because he looks more human.) It’s not so much about the way they dance, but rather  how they carry themselves, so the best way to study these  singers’s attitude is when they sing a ballad. It becomes especially interesting if you mute the sound. No distractions. Just watch, like a research scientist. Ask questions. What aspects of the posture make the guy look strong and dynamic? Check out: movement, head, jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, spine, arms, legs, feet, and more movement.

Even if you don’t have an athletic figure like these guys, or like Jack, for that matter, I cannot stress enough the importance of good posture. I love to think of this Buddhist monk who interrupts his teachings on how to meditate every now and again to remind us: ‘Spy stay!’ Meaning ‘spine straight’. Meaning, in the words of the eighteenth century singing masters in Italy, the noble posture. The noble posture enables you to breathe deeply, which stimulates blood circulation, which stimulates oxygen distribution in the body, which nourishes all vital organs, which improves health, which improves happiness, which improves good posture, and round and round it goes.

Singing combines all that, and more. To sing is to play. To sing is to express your true self. To sing is to be a vessel that carries art: the visionary art of composers and songwriters, whether you sing Cohen or Mozart, or one of those folksongs that have resonated through the hills and valleys of the British Isles for a thousand years. To sing is to resonate with your body, almost effortlessly making it more healthy.  No running or weightlifting involved. Your voice asks only one thing of you one: a proud and noble posture. ‘Spine straight’. Many of us have un-learned that posture somewhere during our lifetime. We tend to breathe superficially and bend our shoulders and back forward. Perhaps it is because we have been told not to appear too proud. Or maybe just because we have spent too much time in front of a computer or the telly.

So if you want to do your body and soul a big favour, play a little. Stand in front of a long mirror and do a Freddy or a Mick. Stand tall, chest lifted, shoulders low. Spine straight. Exhale through the mouth. Wait a few seconds, let your mouth drop open. Then inhale through the nose, your mouth still open, lift and spread your arms out from your shoulders. This is the ultimate alpha male or female posture. Keep standing like that for ten seconds, breathing comfortably in and out, keeping your chest high. You will notice that it is in fact possible to breathe without letting your chest drop completely.

Feel good? Feel better? Great. Keep playing. I wish you happiness.

The secret power of songs

As long as I can remember, I have been passionate about singing and writing. I can’t choose between the two, so I combine them. When a friend encouraged me to start writing about music history, at first I became nervous because I really did not know where to start. Music History is so HUGE! So I tried to my way into a format that I enjoyed and thought other people would enjoy reading. What came up was the song. The song throughout the centuries.

I could have known this! Songs of literally all periods have always made their way into my heart and soul. I don’t particularly prefer one period or one style and you can see that in my programming. And there are links between songs. Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher based a lot of his extremely hot guitar licks on baroque chord progressions. The make-up of The Stones’ Paint it Black is entirely classical, modulating from the minor D to the parallel major key of F. The Elizabethan bard didn’t differ that much from today’s singer-songwriter.

Songs want to be heard. They surface in the soul, not tied to any boundaries of time. They work their way into the mind and settle there so comfortably we call them ‘ear worms’. It’s those ear worms that demand to be admitted to a concert programme. Often, they present themselves through somebody else so I get emails with Youtube links and messages like ‘Ooh, can we do this?’ or ‘I have always loved this song, can you make us an arrangement?’

Songs also want to be written about, with a little bit of information about their surroundings, their family, their time. Or they want to be linked to songs of later periods who are their brothers and sisters. So that is the work I have to do and I shall do it, she said dramatically, blogging on this website.

So you see, songs have a very strong will of their own. I wish you Happy Reading.

The hippie hymn and the handsome priest

In Holland there is a famous hymn called ‘Spirit from above’. I loved singing it as a child because of its beautiful melody. Only years later did I find out that in the Dutch church we sang the song about three times too slow. The melody is actually a dance song from the early baroque era, a balletto. I think this is quite surprising as the Dutch protestant religion is famous for being stern, strict & sorrowful. On the other hand, I just checked my little red Dutch book of church hymns and the lyricist turns out to be a 20th century poet who was particularly active in the sixties. There you go. A hippie hymn.

But what a hymn it is in the original language! Thank you Giovanni Gastoldi (1550-1622) for Linamorato (‘the suitor’). The happy and bouncy ode to the god of love has a churchy vocabulary about it, so that may be why it attracted the Dutch church fathers’ attention. There is, for instance, a sentence that recurs at the end of each verse in a slightly different form: ‘Let’s give praise to such a Lord’- Signore in Italian. If you write Signore with a capital S, it would become God. If not, it can refer back to the subject of the poem, Amor the god of love.

Before you continue to read, it might be an idea to listen to the song. I found this delicious version on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwRxJNqPvqk. Close your eyes and enjoy.

Finished? Good. Music history lesson continues. Gastoldi was a sort of best selling artist in his day. He was tremendously popular in the Netherlands also, and apart from the 20th century hippie hymn mentioned above, his works were translated into Dutch even during his lifetime. Apart from being a dance song, it is also an example of a subgenre of the madrigal (lit.: song in your mother’s tongue) with the nonsense syllables falala to serve as a refrain. That is why we call these songs falalas. Hugely popular during the late Renaissance period,  a group of English composers published a special edition of madrigals, amongst which are a lot of falalas, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I who loved music and was an accomplished musician and poet herself.
Back to Italy. The poetic idea of this brilliantly happy and energetic song is ‘Life is short, so let’s enjoy life, and to live is to love.’ Perfect. What more would you want than to hear these words pronounced in the most beautiful language in the world? Here we go. The lyrics are below.

Now play a little. Read the words out loud, slowly, deliberately, in your best Italian. Even if you don’t speak Italian, just go for it and have fun. For an accent, think of Pavarotti speaking English. Italian is easy to pronounce. The r is rolled. And much unlike English, each vowel has the same pronunciation, always. The syllables with the ridiculous surplus vowels have the stress.

L’inamorato

A lieta viiita, Amor c’inviiita, Fa la la
Chi gioir braaama,se di cor aaama,
Donerà il cooore a un tal Signooore, Fa la la

Or lieta homaaai, scacciando i guaaai, Fa la la
Quanto ci reeesta, viviamo in feeesta
E diam l’onooore a un tal Signooore, Fa la la

Ne fuggir giooova, ch’egli ognun trooova*), Fa la la
Veloci ha l’aaali, e foco e straaali
Dunque s’adooore un tal Signooore, Fa la la.

*) best pronounced as [kel-yon-yun troooova]

Translation: To the happy life Love invites us. One who delights in desire, if he loves from the heart, Will give his heart to such a master. The hour of happines is here, driving out trouble. Whatever remains of our lives, we live it celebrating, Giving praise to such a master. Happiness is fleeting, as everybody finds. It is fast, and it has wings, fire and lightning bolts, So let’s give praise to such a master.  What an explosion of joy! Of course this song is also on the programme of our July Singing Holiday.

Now all this talk about that fun-loving Italian God of Love on the one hand and the stern religion of the Low Countries on the other, is doing something to my brain. I keep being reminded of a calendar I once saw. To be quite honest, the kind of particularly inspiring calendars like the type that grace the office walls of car workshops.  Only in this one the models had clothes on and they were Italian men.  The fascinating thing was that they were all Catholic. Priests, to be exact. No, I haven’t smoked anything, thank you. For several years now, the Vatican has been issueing the so-called Calendario Romano, popularly known as the “hot priest calendar”. All the models are genuine priests, photographed in the streets of Rome during the Holy Week. The Vatican insists that it is purely, I repeat PURELY intended to promote the city of Rome and the Vatican. To account for this, the line-up of extremely handsome young men ends with a few pages of insignificant morsels of historical information about the Vatican. Indeed. Google priest calendar rome, and enjoy. A lieta vita.