Front edge

Pandemic blogging. I’m going to decide that’s exempt from consequences– as opposed to pandemic pet adoption, for instance. Being at the front edge of something without knowing what the shape of the whole is is NOT a safe place for a classical singer. I emphasize to my students that we build an instrument that’s customized at the outset for the style, the intent, the frequency, the length of vocal gesture. It’s possible to just sally forth with a functional default setting, but that’s a version that belongs to the process, not the rendition you’d declare a final product, the work you’ll sign your name to. And my name is already affixed to this, before I know what it consists of. Contrary-wise.

In teaching my Art Song survey course for the masters students at the Jacobs School of Music, I share a recent NYTimes article by airline pilot Mark Vanhoenacker that considers the connotations of take-off, compared to connotations of landing, and whether it’s possible to declare oneself to be a takeoffs person or a landings person. I’d tag myself a takeoffs person for sure, with the asterisk that the nature of the trip, including its duration and its destination, are impossible to guarantee. But a musician has rehearsed the piece to be performed; I know, when I prepare to sing, what syllable I’m preparing, and whether it’s an /a/ vowel that will then become “A… wand’ring minstrel I” or “A….vant de quitter ces lieux” or “A…ch, wende diesen Blick.” Not only do I know the shape of the phoneme to follow, but I know the motivation of the person who must speak, who must sing what they’re about to sing.

I suppose this is like knowing how the controls in the cockpit are going to function, how to activate them, and a certainty that I will indeed get this aircraft aloft. Is it important, in learning classical vocal technique, and learning the particular piece of music, to also remember that the nature of the trip is impossible to guarantee? Singing is risky; a singer is vulnerable. The risk has to be acceptable; we need to be certain that the plane will take off with no loss of life. And additionally, professionalism assumes a commitment to a high level of mastery. Is this contradictory? As a professional singer begins “Piangerò,” there is a negligible amount of risk that they will now segue to barking like a dog, or ranting about filibusters, or imitating Bob Dylan. We embrace the variety of nuanced interpretive choices that lie before us, but the implied contract to actually sing this Handel aria within a classical aesthetic is not in danger of being broken.

At some level, though, that’s also not guaranteed. The moment we find ourselves in, living at a distance from each other, with an undefined moratorium on interactive music-making, makes it painfully clear that there are no guarantees. Choosing to write a first blog post is free of consequence. Choosing to set aside singing, because we don’t know why, or when, or how our lives as musicians will continue, is consequential. I hope the singers in my studio, at my school, and everywhere, will take the risk of being takeoffs people. We have a mastery, we have an aircraft that will fly. That has to be not merely a temporary compromise, a stopgap measure for challenging times. We can acknowledge that singing has never been, will never be, possible to guarantee– not in the middle of an alarmingly long phrase; not as a career. It asks us to be brave, to be adventurous, to savor the moment, to perform the aria without being entirely certain what lies ahead.