“Lead by example” they always say. Not that anyone is asking me to lead anything but if a young singer came to me for advice, amidst much spluttering and umming and aahing I’m pretty sure one of the things I’d say is “make you sure you sing at least twice a week, just to keep everything in shape, especially when you’re not working.”
Yes, well, easier said than done. Especially at my age when, idle for a morning, listening to some cricket on the radio is infinitely more appealing that sitting down for half an hour with Mr Vaccai and his worthy but dull exercises. And once the rot sets in and you find you haven’t sung a proper note for two weeks, the task seems pointless, uphill and Herculean. You’ll get back on the horse in time for the next job, you tell yourself.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m not working (by which I mean actively employed in singing) I have a million other things to do and the days fill up with so much stuff that I wonder how “normal” people, with regular jobs, can possibly get everything done and spend all day at work. It beats me.
So it is that the last two months have been filled, not with warbling, but with accounts, a fair amount of writing, some archiving and some major cleaning out of boxes of old books and papers in the loft. Have you ever cleaned out the loft? It’s a dusty job. Old books and papers can be quite hazardous, filled with spores that can cause all kinds of respiratory nastiness. Certainly after I’ve worked through a box of my father’s old papers my voice feels tight and hoarse, but that could just be psychological.
So it was that I was at my desk two days ago, boxes stacked all around me and not having uttered a note (except for a couple of times in the shower) in two months or more, when the phone rang. Someone had fallen ill, could I sing a brand new solo piece in ten days time? Yes. Good, first rehearsal is in 24 hours. “Tomorrow?” “Yes, with the band.” Rashly, I accepted. I wasn’t worried so much about learning the piece. I was more worried about how I’d cope with singing anything at all at such short notice. It was like being asked to run a marathon after two months of being a couch potato. This is not to say I am a couch potato; though not a fan of the gym I keep in fairly decent shape by walking and general activity. But vocally I felt rustier than a damp bag of old spanners. And I had only myself to blame.
I’m not writing this as any sort of excuse by the way. I’m just describing how it is to climb back on the horse to anyone who thinks that you just pick up where you left off and that singing is, well, just singing and a bit of a doodle.
The score was emailed to me and I printed it off. 75 pages. A 35 minute piece in which I sing nearly the whole time. Brand new. Not exactly atonal but melodically obscure (to say the least). Vocally not extreme, thank god.
I did a quick bout of warm-up exercises and some Vaccaj to rouse the sleeping cords in my neck. Oh boy, this was going to be interesting. I plugged on, note-bashing, working out the very complex rhythms. Rhythm would be my first priority; in my experience conductors mind much less if you sing wrong pitches than sing in the wrong place. Getting the rhythmic structure wrong messes it up for the band (who frankly haven’t a clue if you’re singing the right pitches) and wasting orchestral time is a cardinal sin.
That afternoon and evening I did about four hours at the piano. My voice grew tired after only half an hour. What else could I expect? The voice is governed by muscles and if you don’t use them… After an hour my back was aching fiercely as my support muscles groaned about their newly-enforced labour. I went to bed exhausted and woke tired and with a range that started at a basso bottom C but which barely made it above the stave. Not much use for a tenor. After breakfast I went back to the piano for another two hours.
In the afternoon I took a train to Birmingham, feeling as if, given the choice between singing for three hours and juggling with chainsaws, I’d be seriously examining the juggling option.
It didn’t go too badly under the circumstances, but when you’re out of practise, finding pitches that are tricky to begin with is even harder. You have no muscle memory to rely on. You’re just foggy all round. If it had been a performance, it would have been embarrassing. As a first rehearsal it was good. Besides, I was bathed in the bonhomie generally conferred on someone who has turned up to save the bacon. I came away from the rehearsal with a better idea of what to expect and how to spend the next seven days, before rehearsals resume in earnest, learning the piece properly. Thank goodness I have that luxury. As I said on Twitter (albeit in shorthand), if you’re lucky, learning a new piece can seem like painting a picture. You sketch it out first, build up layers, then work on sections piecemeal until the whole work is complete. In a hurry, as I was yesterday, it becomes a process of trying to clarify what needs to be done in order to see a way through. It felt like wiping at a filthy window with an oily rag.
By the time I got home last night I was very tired, vocally, physically and mentally. Today I feel a wreck, my whole body aching, as if I’ve gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson. If I had obeyed the age-old advice and kept myself in vocal shape I would feel fine.
So let that be a lesson to me and to any young ‘uns. Don’t stop when you have a quiet period, as you undoubtedly will. Sit down for an hour, twice a week, and keep yourself in shape. Actually, it’s advice probably more useful to the ageing hack like me, whose body is more sluggish to respond to change.
And for any “civilians” reading this, you see, being a classical singer isn’t about popping on a nice frock and singing the national anthem for Her Maj or going out clubbing with the Beckhams. It’s physically and mentally demanding and involves hours and hours of solitary drudgery.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to the piano.

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