Tuesday, 1 November 2016

26 March 1881 - 'How to Sing In Public' by Antoinette Sterling

Dear Girls -

Your Editor has asked me to write an article upon "How to Sing In Public." The word how, in this connection, has a far-reaching comprehensiveness. "How?" full of significance to some who are in every way qualified to appear in the concert-room. I shall confine myself, therefore, to a few suggestions upon "Singing in Public" trusting they may prove of service to some of you.

Singing in public presupposes a good voice and a considerable knowledge of how to use it properly and effectively. Less than this would scarcely be acceptable in the drawing-room when singing before friends; and if your audience consists of those who have taken the trouble to attend a public concert, they are warranted in looking for something more. I need therefore say anything about the formation and cultivation of the voice; these are matters for your master. You have been gifted, perhaps, with a voice naturally well placed and distinctly defined as to its character - something to be thankful for; his work is in this case very much simplified. There is no time lost in forming or "posing" the voice; no anxious uncertainty on your part as to whether it is a soprano, a mezzo-soprano, or a contralto. Undivided attention may then be devoted to its development and cultivation. I fear, however, that much of the natural material which falls into his hands is of a sort corresponding to the cross-grained, knotty wood upon which the joiner must exercise his patient skill.

Your master, then, is - or ought to be - the judge as to when you have reached that degree of development which fits you for singing to the satisfaction of your friends in private, or justifies you in appearing before a large audience. If you have had judicious guidance up to this point, and have done your work conscientiously, singing in public ought not to be fraught with either difficulty or embarrassment.

We will suppose that you have to sing, and that you are thrown entirely upon your own responsibilities. "Shall I be nervous? What shall I wear? What shall I sing?" These questions will rapidly arise in your mind. The fear of nervousness will probably cause you no little uneasiness. Unfortunately it cannot be entirely overcome; the most self-possessed may be overtaken by it under exceptional circumstances. When nervousness arises from insufficient preparation, or from incapacity, the suffering is just, and failure will teach a wholesome lesson. But, so far as each individual temperament may allow, this and all kindred troubles, will give way before what may be summarised in very few words - Be yourself, and be in your music. We are what we are. No one's opinion, either for good or evil, can add to or take from your talent. Likewise no dissatisfaction on your part can change the gift which has been entrusted to you. You have only to do your best, with no thought of other people or of their gifts. Herein lies your strength before an audience, because there is then on occasion to reflect upon what you might or ought to be; and self-consciousness not only conduces more than anything else to nervousness, but it is a non-conductor of the sympathy which should exist between you and your hearers. If you are conscious of yourself when singing, your listeners will also be conscious of the singer instead of the song. Therefore concentrate your attention upon what you have to say through your song, thinking neither of the audience nor of yourself.

Though music appeals essentially to the ear and not to the eye, it is desirable that your melody should be accompanied by an appearance in every way harmonious. Dress is a question of taste and expense; but whether it be a costly gown from Elise or Worth, or a simple dress made at home, it should as far as possible be the outward manifestation of the inner self - a part of you, in fact. If you feel well dressed, it not of much consequence whether people think you are or not, so far as being at ease in your singing is concerned. And, if your dress is in any sense a part of you, there is no more reason for displaying an unnecessary number of new costumes than  for the face to present a constant succession of new features.

What is true of dress is equally true of deportment before an audience, whether public or private. There should be no such thing as artificial deportment. Treat the public as you would strangers met in the house of a friend - with dignity, but with frankness. If your manner is in harmony with yourself, it can displease only those whom your personality displeases; and you must not expect to please everybody. Some will understand and like in you that which might estrange others. It is only inoffensive conventionality that successfully evades active dislike.

These, however, are mere adjuncts. Your singing is the important thing;  for the only legitimate impression made by a singer (off the stage) is that which would be produced could she be heard only and not seen - heart and mind speaking through the voice, divested of all surroundings. In singing, distinct pronunciation is a necessity; and not to make one's self understood is as deserving of reproach as incorrect spelling in writing. The intention must be strong and decisive, otherwise the effect cannot be satisfactory. The clearer your intention, the better your words will be heard. Sing the words as you would speak them, near the front of the mouth. If you experience a difficulty in doing this, you will perhaps find it arises from a false production of the voice - possibly from holding the throat stiff and swollen, so to speak, thinking to produce a "rich" quality of tone. Tone does not come from the muscles of the throat. This apparent richness quickly degenerates into guttural unintelligibility.

Your selection of songs must, of course, depend upon the occasion, but they should always be such as you feel you can do with credit to yourself. At one time, a song which gives pleasure to the few may seem most desirable; at another, the many may have to be considered. Italian music best lends itself to a display of voice; poetical feeling finds full expression in German and English songs. Do not fancy, however, that a song in a foreign language is of necessity good, and one in English necessarily bad. The Italians, the French, and the Germans, all hold tenaciously to their own songs. Why should English people be less national in their love of music? In the days of Queen Bess, England possessed musicians who were the foremost of their time. And one has but to call to mind (among many others) such songs as Mr. Arthur Sullivan's "Sweet day, so cool," and Mr J.W. Davison's, "False friend, wilt thou smile or weep?" - beautiful poetry, associated, in both instances, with equally beautiful music - to prove that vocal music of a high character is by no means impossible in this country to-day. English songs are essentially an outgrowth of the English love of English poetry, the instinctive desire to strengthen sentiments which are dear to the people. It is the singer's province to bring these sentiments home to many who may never really have felt them until thus clothed in music. It is also her privilege, and in some sense her duty, to give helpful words to her hearers. Poets and composers may feel impelled to write for future rather than present appreciation; but the interpreter's duty is in the present - one cannot sing for posterity. In choosing songs, therefore, one should from time to time endeavour to reach people of all degrees of culture, forgetting none. If in some cases the music is little more than a vehicle to convey words of cheer or comfort, shall they, because of this, be withheld from those persons who need them? A simple home song with a touch of nature in it, even one which will not bear critical examination, may still give pleasure to some, and thus serve a good purpose. But the subject, great or small, should in all cases be one with which you are in sympathy, or your rendering of it will be unsympathetic. Not unfrequently a song, from its very simplicity, affords scope for, if it does not really demand the employment of higher powers than are required for one of larger proportions. Some artists, whose means are equal to music which they consider makes far greater demands upon their artistic resources, often fail to infuse life into a "simple English ballad."

Hear all the music you can, instrumental as well as vocal. Listening to an artist of reputation is a good lesson, and need not be an expensive one; but listen with discrimination. If you hear an unmusical change made in music that should be safe from such treatment - made, perhaps, with a view to creating an effect by sheer body of tone - or a sacrifice of quality to quantity in any way; if, under the guise of a dramatic rendering, you see series of smiles or frowns or shakings of the head which are not the natural outcome of the words you have learned what to avoid. Some experience as a listener will doubtless teach you  that even the greatest singers have little mannerisms - often a slight exaggeration of really good qualities. This should not, however, cause you to lose respect for a reputation, as its possession implies the possession also of gifts worthy of respect.

When listening to artists, while endeavouring to assimilate what you can of their good qualities, be careful not to imitate. Emerson says, "The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty to come short of another man's."

Embrace every possible opportunity of hearing Mr. Sims Reeves. Listen to his pathos, his dramatic power, his tenderness, and his marvellous tone-colouring. Mark especially the variety of colour in his singing, showing how completely the voice obeys the heart and the head, and how perfectly he enters into the very essence of the poetry.

If you have not a strong feeling for words, strive to awaken it. Read the best poetry. Make the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Franz, and Rubinstein a part of your musical life - they will do much to strengthen your poetical bias; acquire a knowledge of German, that you may read them fully. Read Ruskin and Emerson; follow their teachings, for what we are in our singing depends on what we are out of it. Cultivate children - be much with them. Never repress your sympathies. Give your heart every possible outlet, and your mind every possible inlet. It is by enriching these that your singing becomes of real and living interest. Be worth the giving; then give yourself to your listeners, in all honesty and truth, for

"Truth will stand when a'things failin'."

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