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Walhall of a Mess – Part Dieu

Women. Can’t live with them, can’t smite the bejesus out of them.

Normally, I’m no misogynist. I like the ladies – I’m a lover AND a fighter, after all – but I’ve been drowning in a tsunami of estrogen all day here. 

First off, Fricka, the trouble-and-strife, is back on her soapbox. Pack the bags, we’re going on a guilt trip. Again. What the hell was I thinking when I married that one? I should start calling her Fünf-Rosse, because all I ever get from her is “Nag, nag, nag, nag, nag!”

On today’s menu? My earthly children, the Wälsung twins. Obviously they’re not Fricka’s, as, to best of my knowledge, the frigid one doesn’t actually possess a vagina. Just a vicious tongue.

Remember my great plan for defeating Alberich and his damned curse? The cool-as-f**k-dead-guy-army? Well I hit a snag. Fafner (the giant sociopath who killed his brother and made off with the Ring and the gold) has gone all Hobbit/Game of Thrones and turned himself into a dragon to, literally, sit on his Ring all day. As she-who-will-not-be-ignored pointed out, I can’t simply just kill him because I’m legally bound to honour the gold as payment for our Valhalla contract.

Plan B it is then. An independent contractor/hero would have to do my dirty work for me. So, knowing that Fricka was never going to put out, I set off into the world to beget me a hero. And some action. But mostly a hero.

After plenty of arduous practice, I fathered a pair of twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. (Still wish I’d gone with Luke and Leia, but their mother was having none of it.) To protect them from the Dark Side of the Force Alberich, I separated them at birth. Siggy got the upbringing from hell to toughen him up a bit, and his sister was married off to a violent brute called Hunding. I left a lightsaber magic sword for Siggy stuck in a tree Excalibur-style and arranged for the kiddies to find each other again. Evidently they were pretty happy to be reunited as they immediately started banging the shit out of each other.

And that’s where Fricka’s meddling comes in. Apparently she’s made up some rules about marriage that Siegmund has screwed up by diddling his sister, and now I have to let Hunding kill Siegmund to make things all pretty again. No hero-son and no ring for me. Back to the drawing board. Again.

So I give my number one daughter the task of making sure Siegmund cops it in order to keep the ball-and-chain happy. Brünnhilde, man, I tell you, she was always my favourite. That hippy-hottie Erda did us right proud there.

Back in the day that little kid was a real badass. Chip off the old block. When we went hunting for heroes, she’d arrange the most hilarious battles. Irish bars were her favourite. She’d whisper in a guy’s ear, and next thing you know, all hell has broken loose and seventy drunken Paddys are trying to rip each others’ guts out over a pint of Guinness. Best ever was when she dropped a twopenny piece into the middle of a crowded Glasgow pub. It was like watching sharks in a feeding frenzy. Rumour has it that copper wire was invented that day. Afterwards we’d take the best scrappers back home to Valhalla to join the dead-guy army. Good times.

Of course that was before she went all “Cosmo” on me. Bloody teenagers. Now it’s nothing but wall-to-wall relationships, horoscopes and “10 ways to emasculate your father”. She’s become wilful, stubborn, and contrary. Turn left, you say, she goes right. Salt’n’vinegar, you say. She gets cheese’n’onion. It’s enough to drive a man to drink. Just don’t ask her to buy it for you or you’ll end up with Coors Light. Gah!

And that bloody horse of hers. Do you know how many of those things she gets through? This is the third one I’ve had to boil down for glue this week. Had to get rid of the last one because “it’s the size of Valhalla”. She’s immortal. Can leap buildings in a single bound. Can defeat an entire army single-handed. Can’t reverse park. Useless. 

Anyway, after I had to step in myself to let Hunding kill Siggy, Brünnhilde took off with his pregnant sister. Watching your boy get killed doesn’t exactly put you in the best of moods. I crushed Hunding without moment’s thought and took of after them.

Eventually, after much dramatic stomping around, I found Brünnhilde hiding amongst the rest of my Cosmo-reading brood of Valkyries. Please don’t ask me what all their names are. Who the hell knows? I can never remember. If I’m honest, I got bored and just stuck a bunch of meaningless words in a jar and picked out random pairs – Brünnterfle is one, I think… Grimgreersle?.. Whatever.

So I’m so freaking pissed at Brünnhilde now, I can’t even think of a decent punishment. You know that way women push your buttons until you’re so incandescent with rage you can’t even speak coherently? That. Eventually I get so fed up listening to how it’s all my fault, and that she was only doing what I really wanted to… blah, blah, blah…that I put her to sleep.

In a ring of fire.

Well, she’s still my wee girl, after all. I don’t want just any old Tom, Dick, or Harry to get his filthy mitts on her.

Though I pity the poor sod who does.

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God Almighty

“What advice would you give a young singer starting out on a career?” the little boy asks the mighty Odin.

He ponders for a moment.

“Get out on the stage as often as possible and build experience.”

Aaaaaaand… <scene>.

He probably didn’t know it at the time, but with these words, John Tomlinson described for me the arc that my career would follow.

Sir John is a legend.

To be honest, I could pretty much end there, having covered everything, I feel, that really needs to be said, but Twitter’s cab-driving opera-buff @Opera_Cabbie suggested to me that it might be interesting if I talked in a little bit more detail about my experiences of working with the great man.

When I joined the chorus of Opera North, I blew my whole first week’s wages on the CD set of the newly released Bayreuth Kupfer/Barenboim Ring cycle, with John in his most ubiquitous role, that of Wotan, or as we know him Odin, ruler of the Norse Gods. I fell in love with that recording – it’s still my favourite to this day – and it was all because of the extraordinary voice that was singing Wotan.

The first time I got to hear it live – actually, I should more properly say “experience”, as one does not simply “hear” such a voice, one “experiences” it – was on the 9th of June 1997, in Leeds Town Hall. Opera North chorus and orchestra were recording highlights of Boris Godunov in English for Chandos, with John singing the title role.

Like most people hearing him live for the first time, I was blown away. I’d never experienced anything like it. As he opened his mouth to draw breath for his first line, it was as if some sort of dark age mage was summoning colossal forces from the very centre of the earth. And as he sang his first line, “My soul is sad”, time simply stopped.

I was spellbound. I hadn’t realised it until that very moment, but, for me, this was opera performed as it should be – massive and visceral, yet, at the same time, deft and subtle, magnificent in scope, yet heartbreaking in detail. Opera as enchantment. Theatre as thaumaturgy.

I couldn’t help myself. As soon as they called the tea-break, I went and sought out his advice.

As a child of the seventies, the scene described above has naturally assumed a kind of Luke/Obi-wan significance for me, and whilst I have very little in common with Skywalker junior, John definitely has something of the Jedi-Master about him.

I’ve known him personally for 18 years now, but throughout my whole career, he has stood as a hero and inspiration to me, and, in more recent years, an invaluable mentor and guide.

It would be six years and, for me, 187 performances later before our paths would cross again, but in 2003, I found myself standing in an ENO rehearsal room being told to repeatedly poke him in the chest with a stick. John was playing Baron Ochs in Jonathan Miller’s Rosenkavalier, and I was the Police Commissar charged with questioning him. With every jab, I kept mumbling “Sorry..” under my breath, so disrespectful did it seem to me to be prodding an operatic legend with a swagger stick. John himself thought this was hilarious, and encouraged me to “really go for it.”

Chatting over a cup of tea, it turned out that he remembered that brash young chorister from Opera North, and was keen to learn what he’d been up to. I reminded him of what he’d said to me about building experience, and he was genuinely tickled that I’d tried to do just that.

It would be another six years before I’d have chance to work with him again, and the next time he would be the one wielding the stick. I couldn’t believe my luck when the Met asked me to sing Gunther in their final revival of Otto Schenk’s Götterdämmerung, but the icing on the cake for me was when I learned that John would be singing Hagen. Trust me, if you have to be brutally stabbed to death with a massive spear, there’s nobody you’d rather have wielding it. (That’s us in the pic above.)

We spent a great deal of time together in New York, chatting about singing, and Wagner in particular. I remember spending hour after hour in the Empire Szechuan restaurant on Columbus Avenue talking about Wotan and Sachs. John’s knowledge of this repertoire is second to none, and, some might be surprised to learn, it was he who suggested I should take a look at it. I remember laughing out loud and muttering something about how, with his booming bass register, he’d moved the goalposts of public expectation in these roles. He admitted that I, with my more baritonal range, would have to approach these roles very differently from him in a vocal sense, but he nonetheless felt that I should study and prepare them.

So, once more, I followed his advice. I delved into various bits of Rheingold, Walküre and Siegfried, and started studying the big monologues from Meistersinger.

Two months after our conversation, whilst I was in Bregenz Festival singing Amonasro, I sang bits of Wotan in audition for Houston Grand Opera. Days later, I found myself singing Wotan’s Abschied at 9.30 in the morning on the stage at Bayreuth.

Five years later, I’m singing Hans Sachs at ENO. My next job is Walküre Wotan in Houston. Then again in Leipzig, before setting off to make my debut at Bayreuth in the new Tristan production.

None of this would be happening if John hadn’t encouraged me that evening in New York. I owe it all to him.

Since 2009, we’ve kept in regular contact, and whenever I need advice, guidance, and reassurance, I know I can give him a call. We’ve worked together again a few times as well. In 2011, at ENO, I did my first Parsifal with him, and only a few months ago, at Covent Garden, I did my first Tristan with him. At the time, I was re-translating and preparing Hans Sachs, and we had several of our trademark long chats over a beer or two in the Globe.

I really can’t thank John enough for all he has done for me down the years. The only way I can think to repay him for his kindness is to do my very best to bring justice to these roles and this repertoire, of which he still is, in my eyes at least, the eternal All-father.

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Sachs-pertise

Not everyone who approaches a mammoth role like Hans Sachs has the luxury of knowing several famous exponents upon whom they can rely for advice and support.

Normally you’re lucky if you know one person with the first hand experience necessary to help you avoid the pitfalls that such vocal marathons contain.

I’m in a very fortunate position. I know several.

Norman Bailey, Gwynne Howell, Sir John Tomlinson, Bryn Terfel, and Gerald Finley are all singers I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter during my career, and all of them have offered support, encouragement and advice as I undertook my cobbling odyssey.

It’s 18 years since I worked with Norman Bailey, but his good advice has stayed with me ever since. I was then a young chorus member at Opera North in Leeds. We were doing Onegin and Norman was playing Prince Gremin. I was playing Zaretsky, and, as we didn’t share a scene onstage, our paths might never have crossed. However, our company manager announced that Norman didn’t want to stay in the tour venues and wondered if someone who was already commuting was prepared to give him a lift. My hand shot up so quickly I nearly dislocated my shoulder.

Three nights a week for the next six weeks, I drove Norman back and forth to Leeds. The world really must be a small place, as it turned out he’d attended Hillhead Academy in Glasgow at the same time as my Mum and Uncle, and they all knew each other.

We talked about many things on our commute, the most important thing being why singers should stop worrying about the German “Fach” system of vocal categorisation. He told me that he could sing Sachs and feel so fresh afterwards that he could start all over again, yet Dutchman would send him to his bed in a darkened room for a couple of days, despite the received wisdom being that the same voice should be able to negotiate both roles comfortably.

I first met Gwynne Howell when I was a Jerwood Young Singer at ENO. We were both in Tim Albery’s production of War and Peace and I had a coaching session with him on “Ella giammai m’amo” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, at that time one of my audition pieces. After the first hour, such was my inexperience, we still hadn’t made it beyond the recitative.

Years later, Gwynne and I would play the opposing kings in Verdi’s Aida. We had another session, this time on Amonasro, and I remember him effortlessly demonstrating a phrase from the Triumph Scene which had repeatedly tied me in knots. Here was a semi-retired bass schooling a young bass-baritone in easy Italianate baritonal singing – I evidently still had much to learn. Gwynne has kindly followed my career ever since, and has always been ready with a helpful word whenever it has been needed.

Everybody who knows me, or has read this blog, or follows me on Twitter, already knows the huge esteem in which I hold Sir John Tomlinson. There is insufficient time and space here to record my many encounters with him so, following the suggestion of Twitter’s lovely @Opera_Cabbie, I plan to devote an entire future blog to my experiences working with the great man. It’s safe to say, though, that no other person has had as much influence upon my Wagner career as Sir John. So if you don’t like what I do, blame him.

When I attended the dress rehearsal of Meistersinger in Cardiff five years ago, little did I think that I would find myself years later stepping, quite literally, into the shoes of Bryn Terfel. Some opera singers can become quite possessive about roles and productions, but that never seems to be the case with Wagner singers. During rehearsals Bryn checked in with me several times to see how I was doing, and his kind encouragement could not have come at a better time. I was in the grip of “The Fear” and knowing that he’d been through the same thing helped me no end. When we did the Ring in New York I got to know him a little and he has never been anything but supportive and lovely. Unless the rugby’s on. Then, if you’re not Welsh, forget it. (They won when they met Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend, but I’m not bitter. Next time…)

Gerry Finley is not only one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, he’s a wonderful singer, too. As a junior principal at ENO, Gerry was one of the regular guest singers and I looked (and still look) up to him hugely. I never really got to know him then, and, were it not for the fact that his wife and my fiancée are good mates, I probably still wouldn’t.

With just a few days to go before the premiere, I desperately needed some advice on when and what to eat and drink during a show of Meistersinger, and Gerry came to my rescue with some invaluable dietary advice. It might sound daft, but when an opera takes 6 hours to perform, knowing when, where, and with what to refuel is vital. I, quite literally, would not have made it to the end without him.

I guess the point I’m making is that young singers should never be afraid to approach more experienced singers, as, in my experience, they are usually more than willing to offer a few words of wisdom that will help you to get your head around the job at hand. Sometimes, if you’re really fortunate, they will offer an observation that seems pretty innocuous at the time, but which will bear fruit many, many years later.

As a singer who has been lucky enough to receive great advice from many great singers down the years, let me tell you this – you’re never alone. There’s always someone who’s trodden the path before you, and you’re a fool if you don’t seek their counsel.

As an embryonic cobbler, I cannot thank Norman, Gwynne, John, Bryn and Gerry enough. A more supportive (and more experienced and august) team of Schumachers I cannot imagine. It is in great part thanks to their kindness and generosity that I have felt able to take on this fabulous role.

Thank you, Masters.

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Beckmesser’s Bunker

In the finest, self-established tradition of taking the piss out of whatever show I happen to be currently working upon, I would like to present “Beckmesser’s Bunker”. I realise that I’m several years too late jumping on the “Untergang”-substitute-subtitle bandwagon, but I hope it may raise a smile or two nonetheless. If you are even slightly offended by bad language, you will have a field day with this. You have been warned. Enjoy!

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Guardian article on Meistersinger

After several months of silence, where any free writing time was devoted to the mammoth task of re-translating Hans Sachs into English, I finally managed to find enough free time and energy to put down a few thoughts on Meistersinger, which the Guardian newspaper kindly published. Here’s the link:-

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/feb/04/i-hope-our-artistic-leaders-will-heed-sachs-advice-the-survival-of-eno-may-depend-on-it

Enjoy!

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Getting it wrong

There was a moment this afternoon when my larynx nearly escaped through my forehead.

Like a fighting bull suddenly unleashed from its pen, it charged around the inside of my skull, pounding and pummelling, bruising and battering, and gleefully goring the previously proud, pompous matador of my vocal technique.

Minor haemorrhaging from ears and nostrils aside, I can’t help feeling that this is an improvement from yesterday.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Tristan und Isolde. After a decade of mucking about with Tolkien and Monty Python, I finally get to kick back and enjoy a Cornish pasty on the Love Boat.

Whereas the Ring is essentially an extended treatise on the nature of power and control, and Parsifal a meditation on faith and human weakness, Tristan is all about love – surrendering completely to passion, and throwing away everything you hold dear for its sake. It’s a wild, frantic, emotional roller-coaster of a story, and Wagner’s music certainly reflects that, nowhere more so than in the vocal writing.

Tristan and Isolde are gargantuan roles – endless vocal marathons that make near-impossible demands on the singers. Brangäne and Marke are far less histrionic, but still require greatly skilled singers who can spin out beautiful lines seemingly without effort.

Then there’s Kurwenal, Tristan’s loyal servant/guard dog. He is mostly required to exclaim loudly/bark. A lot.

52 Top Es, 36 Top Fs, 8 Top F#s, and 4 Top Gs make this the highest role I’ve ever sung by a country mile. In several places toward the end of Act 3 Kurwenal is even required to sing the same tessitura as Tristan.

It’s high altitude singing. Nosebleed territory. Earbleed territory. Punctured forehead territory.

Needless to say, the vocal carnage described above is what happens when I get it wrong.

Recently I’ve been working with a young baritone who first came to me thinking he might be a low bass in the Sarastro mould. After a couple of sessions it became apparent that there was a great deal more voice at the top of his range than he previously realised. The goal we’ve steadily pursued is to help him find a suitable support upon which to base his singing, ultimately enabling him to easily access those dizzying heights.

Over the years I’ve heard many cockamamie theories propounded by singers and teachers about how to sing high notes, but the experience of working with great singers myself, listening to them and observing their techniques up close, has taught me that they all have one thing in common when it comes to singing top notes – a bulletproof abdominal support.

It would appear that human voices are subject to the laws of gravity, just like everything else, and like everything else, from trees to skyscrapers, you won’t hit the heights without well-established foundations. If you want to build high, you’ve got to think low.

Studying Kurwenal alongside teaching my baritone student has afforded me a useful opportunity to more closely analyse my own technique, reassessing exactly how I approach my vocal support.

Simply put, all the hard work and heavy-lifting is done by my abdominal muscles. I have the sensation that they pull outwards and downwards when I sing. Every time I open my mouth to sing, I actively seek out that sensation.

That’s it. I try not to think about anything else. The moment I become aware of the position of my larynx or my soft palate, I’m doing it wrong.

That’s what happened this afternoon. I backed off my abdominal support as I went for a top F#, and my larynx suddenly made a bid for freedom. I got it badly wrong.

Getting it wrong has always been an important part of the learning curve for me. The bullfight analogy, whilst facetious, is useful insofar as it goes to illustrate that every singer makes mistakes. We’re human and sometimes we screw up, regardless of age or experience. The aim is to eliminate those errors in the privacy and safety of one’s own practice room, so that the public, hopefully, only gets to hear the polished, practiced version.

If you’ve ever watched motorsport, you can see a similar ethos at work in the minds of racing drivers. Throughout practice sessions, they constantly seek to find the very limits of control. Sometimes they get it wrong, spinning out of control and crashing, but this gives them new data that they can apply to their next run. So, too, it goes with us. With repeated practice, we each try to eliminate the faults and errors a little bit at a time, hopefully getting closer to our ideal with every repetition.

However, unlike racing drivers and their mechanics, we singers don’t have the luxury of opening ourselves up to make a few tweaks to the engine. We’re not machines which can be easily stripped down and reassembled, therefore our primary method of assimilating technical information has to be through sensation. Our telemetry is how it feels, and learning what feels wrong is equally as important as learning what feels right.

Possibly more so. Speaking for myself, the column headed “things not to do” certainly contains far more entries than that headed “things to do”.

Michaelangelo used to say that, for him, the finished sculpture already existed within the rough-hewn marble block, and that he was simply removing the excess. And whilst I’m a long, long way from being a vocal Michaelangelo, I frequently experience a similar feeling – that a particularly tricky note or phrase already lies within me just waiting to be uncovered, and I simply have to remove the excess. The mistakes.

Over the years I have come to firmly believe that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not making progress.

So the next time you’re practising, try pushing yourself out of your comfort zone a little, and you might find you’ll learn a great deal about your voice.

Go on. Get it a little bit wrong. Just for me.

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Zen, and the art of opera detox

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an opera singer in possession of a bit of spare cash, must be in want of a motorcycle.” Jane Austen, petrolhead, 1813.

I love motorbikes. Always have.

However, like most seventeen-year-olds with terrified mothers, I wasn’t allowed to have one. A car was fine, even when driven with that exhilarating mix of youthful inexperience and ill-founded over-confidence that only a teenage boy can muster. But a motorbike? “Creation of the devil,” she would say. “One-way ticket to an early grave.”

This deep-seated loathing and general distrust of all things two-wheeled was founded, not entirely unreasonably, upon a bike accident that a distant cousin had suffered a few years previously. He nearly died, and suffered some quite horrible injuries, from all of which (other than the loss of some teeth) he even eventually recovered, I’m happy to say. But that was it for bikes, as far as my mum was concerned.

And she wasn’t wrong. I proceeded to have enough scrapes, bangs, and prangs in the family car over the next year that I’m lucky to be sitting here typing this today. If I’d been on a bike instead of in a car, I wouldn’t be.

It wasn’t until just a few weeks after my thirtieth birthday that I finally sat my motorcycle test. I would have done it sooner, but one of the unforeseen consequences of pursuing a career as an opera singer is the prohibitive insurance premium.

Insurance companies class opera singers as “entertainers”, which puts you in the same risk bracket as millionaire rockstars and professional footballers. They like to assume that all we “entertainers” hang out together, constantly riding around on the back of each other’s motorcycles. If you have an accident with a famous person on the back of your bike, it could cost the insurance company millions. So, to guard against this, they load the premiums.

I call this Pavarotti Syndrome, as I was once genuinely asked, when applying for bike insurance, if, as an opera singer, I knew the big man personally, and, if I did, would I be likely to give him a lift anywhere? Despite my pithy response about perpetual wheelies, they still quoted me an annual premium of nearly £2,000.

So it was that I simply couldn’t afford a bike until I turned thirty. Apparently it’s much safer to ride around with Pav on the back when you’ve entered your fourth decade.

Having been starved for so long, and having watched, green-eyed with envy, my best mate Leigh hooning around on his Honda as we rehearsed A Midsummer Night’s Dream together, I decided it was finally time.

I signed up to Ridesure Motorcycle Training at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey (the home of BBC’s Top Gear), where I proceeded to fall off with great alacrity and abandon whilst Jeremy Clarkson was racing some hideously expensive supercar up and down the runway just a few metres away. (It was an SLR MacLaren, if you must know.) After five full days of incredibly patient tuition by Ridesure’s owner and general bike-Yoda, Trevor Wilbourn, I managed to pass my test first time. The very next day I bought my first bike.

Over the next few years, I confess, I went a wee bit bike nuts.

Desperate to sample all that the biking world had to offer, I bought four very different bikes in as many years. I signed up to a Police training course, then followed that up with an advanced motorcycling course.

I rode everywhere. Welsh National Opera tour, Glyndebourne festival, even commuting up to London to ENO and Covent Garden. In 2009, I bought a big Yamaha tourer to take with me to the Bregenz festival in Austria. Over the eleven-week period, I clocked up over 4,000 miles riding a succession of incredible alpine passes. I even rode from Bregenz to Bayreuth for a stage audition, as you can see from the picture above.

Fourteen months ago, I was forced to sell the big Yam to help pay a pretty hefty tax bill. I was awaiting payment for four completed contracts from four separate companies, all of whom decided to go on summer break without paying. Sadly such things are far from uncommon these days, but normally it’s only a single company defaulting that you have to weather at any given time. I was just particularly unlucky as things turned out, but I needed cash, so the bike had to go.

It’s fair to say I have since been pretty grumpy without a motorcycle in my life.

I’m very lucky. I have a good life. I have a gorgeous fiancée, a good job, a healthy family, money in the bank, a roof over my head, and food on the table. What the hell do I have to be grumpy about?

But that’s the thing about motorcycling. It has a pull, a magic that draws you in a way that other hobbies simply don’t. For many, that magic lies in the call of the open road, touring and camping, for others it’s in the intricate engineering, or the high performance. For some, it’s all about the polishing.

For me? It’s the peace. The calm. Yes, even the Zen.

Opera singers have busy brains. People think we just stand there and sing, but a singer’s mind is constantly multi-tasking. Words and music have to be remembered and reproduced. You’re thinking about technique. You’re watching the conductor. You’re acting and reacting to the stage drama around you. Checking that you’re well lit, or not blocking someone else’s light. Reacting quickly when something goes awry. A singer’s mind is constantly on the move.

Riding a motorcycle is also a busy mental pastime, no doubt. On advanced training courses they tell you to assume that every other road user is trying to kill you. Consequently, riding a motorcycle requires 100% of your concentration.

There’s a calm centre to that level of focus. You can’t think about anything other than riding. Everything else just melts away. Riding a motorcycle is the one time when I am completely free from the world of opera. For me, that is beyond price.

And for this reason and no other, after fourteen months, I’ve put a deposit down on a new machine.

I can’t wait.

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Acquired Instinct

If you want to succeed as an opera singer, it’s vital that you have a good relationship with your singing teacher. In that regard, I was very lucky indeed.

Jeffrey Neilson Taylor was more than just a teacher to me – he was a mentor, and, in many ways, a surrogate father. He would have been 84 years old last Saturday, had cancer not finally taken him in December of 2010. (That’s him in the painting above, playing for Huddersfield Town Football Club, as depicted by his brother, Yorkshire and England cricketer Ken Taylor.)

For nearly two decades, Jeff patiently guided, nurtured, and moulded my approach to singing, so much so that his voice remains a part of my singing consciousness to this day, sometimes encouraging, sometimes reproaching, but always with that unique blend of charm, humour, and blunt Yorkshire pragmatism that I came to love so much.

I studied with Jeff for twenty years – I’ll save the tale of how we met for another blog – and in all that time, there were no “Eureka!” moments, great revelations, or massive leaps forward, just regular, relentless hard work that led to slow, steady vocal improvement.

Looking back to my very first lesson, it’s easy to assess the technical issues facing that naive, inexperienced teenager. In later years Jeff would joke that my one great strength as a beginner was that I had none. I was a clean slate, so young and fresh to singing that I had not had time to develop any bad habits that needed unpicking.

“However,” he would take great pleasure in reminding me, his eyes creasing up with gentle, mischievous mirth, “that doesn’t mean you were a natural. Far from it.”

Most of the early vocal issues facing me were to do with breathing. As a then violinist of 12 years, I had a fair idea of how to shape a phrase musically, but absolutely no idea of how to control my breath. “Breathing with the music”, as my old violin teacher used to call it, is a far cry from literally making music with your breath.

The main issue affecting me was that my breathing was shallow. When I observed myself in the mirror taking a breath, I could see my upper chest inflating, and my shoulders rising, but the bottom of my torso, the tummy and abdominal area, didn’t move at all.

It’s probably not surprising that Jeff, a former professional footballer prior to his singing career, frequently used sport to illustrate and illuminate his teaching. Over the years it would provide many analogies that would help me to get my head around vocal technique.

He told me to go swimming. “Your problem is that you’re trying to tell your body how to breathe deeply, but your body already knows how. You’re just getting in your own way and tying yourself in knots.”

He suggested that I try ducking down under the water, blowing all the breath out of my body, and waiting as long as I could bear it before coming up for air. “When you’re starved for air,” he said, “your body automatically opens up to take in as much as it can. Try and memorise that feeling. That’s the space we’re looking for when you sing.”

When I went to the pool, I saw what he was getting at, but it took many, many months of vocal exercise and practice to apply that lesson to my singing. Even to this day, if I’m not careful, I can find my breathing starting to become shallow, and I have to actively resist it.

I also had another problem with stopping my breath. I would hold it briefly between breathing in and breathing out. Golf provided the analogy this time. “You’d never stop the club at the top of your backswing, would you? You just change the direction of the swing smoothly. It’s the same with breathing. Change direction smoothly.”

Ah, it all sounds so simple, but that little nugget of wisdom took nearly two years to be fully assimilated. Whenever I would get nervous (which was quite a lot, as regular readers of this blog will know), I would find myself slipping back into the bad habit of holding my breath.

And this is the point I really want to make here – change takes time. There is no such thing as a quick fix.

In the past few years, younger singers have started approaching me for advice, often asking if I would agree to coach them. Something that I have found with a great many of these singers is that they are seeking that elusive quick fix. They’ve started enjoying a modicum of success, and, now that they are regularly working at a professional level, they are starting to panic when they run into problems. They sorely need that quick fix in order to keep working.

I see their fear and desperation, and, as someone who’s been at this game for a few years now, I recognise it all too well, and both empathise and sympathise with their dilemma. They’ll come into a session with their particular vocal issue clear in their mind and hope that, in the space of an hour, you’ll be able to fix it for them.

But you can’t. Of course you can’t. Singing technique, at its most basic level, is a series of learned habits. Identifying the problem is only the start of a long, involved process that will enable you, with time and hard work, to let go of the bad habit and totally embrace a new one.

To boil it down into two words, singing technique is simply this – acquired instinct.

That might sound somewhat oxymoronic, but it’s entirely in keeping with the often counter-intuitive nature of singing. As a singer you don’t practice until your brain grasps the concept, rather you practice until your body instinctively carries it out. Or, as I am fond of saying, don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong.

Most of the time, it’s pretty easy for a teacher to identify a problem, and to point it out to a singer. But that doesn’t fix the problem. It’s the hours, weeks, months, and years of hard work that follow which do that. And that’s where a great teacher comes into their own. Endless patience, encouragement, discipline, focus, and unwavering support are those values that set them apart.

A great teacher will be with you every step of the way, as Jeff was with me.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-jeffrey-neilson-taylor-footballer-opera-singer-music-teacher-1-1495961

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Utopia or Never Never Land?

No, since you ask. That’s how I would be voting, in an ideal world.

If Alex Salmond achieves his goal of an Independent Scotland this Thursday, I trust that history will record that it was done by disenfranchising over three-quarters of a million Scots.

As one of those Scots, I have to accept the fact that two men, apparently on opposite sides of the debate, colluded to deny one in six Scottish-born UK citizens the right to have a say in the future of their nation.

Such an act would be decried in the court of public opinion as a breathtaking breach of human rights were it to occur in any third world country. Yet in 2014, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it happens and nobody bats an eyelid. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this is the way democracy ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.

This is no foundation upon which to build a new country, and it is important to realise that’s what the Scottish National Party are attempting to do – build a new nation.

However much they look to the past, and Scotland’s proud history as an independent nation, they are not reclaiming anything for future generations. That old country disappeared long ago, and the world has changed beyond all recognition in the intervening 307 years. That the USA didn’t even exist then just goes to prove how much. No, the task that faces the SNP is creating a new, modern Scotland from the ground up.

If we believe all the projections, estimates and promises that the Scottish National Party have made, we should have no problem. New Scotland will indeed be a 21st century Utopia, where every citizen will prosper, sharing in the great wealth that is promised to us all. It sounds amazing. I’d love to live in such a society.

Unfortunately, in the real world estimates rarely turn out to be accurate. Take the Scottish Parliament building for instance. Scheduled to open in 2001 at an estimated cost of £40 million pounds, it eventually arrived 3 years late at a cost of £414 million.

Nope. You read that correctly. Four hundred and fourteen million pounds. Over ten times the original upper estimate. And part of the roof in the debating chamber collapsed just two years later. Every UK citizen paid for the new Scottish Parliament building, not just those resident in Scotland. Had that cost overrun fallen solely upon those living in Scotland, the project would never have been finished.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/6382177.stm

That’s just a single building. The Scottish National Party, if they are successful, will have to create an entirely new political infrastructure, and it will have to be financed solely from the public purse of the 5.3 million newly created Scottish citizens, rather than the 64 million citizens of the United Kingdom. Only the most incredibly naive of us would believe that there won’t be horrendous budget overruns, the burden of which will fall upon those poor New Scots. That’s no Utopia we’re being asked to believe in. It’s Never Never Land.

“Should Scotland be an independent country?”

That’s the question that will greet voters on their ballot papers on Thursday morning.

It should really read, “Are you ready to gamble everything?”

The first question makes it all sound like a theoretical exercise, a painless hypothesis to be idly discussed over coffee or a pint. But make no mistake, voting Yes is the biggest political gamble you will ever make in your life. And, let’s be clear on this, it’s not a minor wager, it’s an all-in bet, the true consequences of which cannot be foreseen. There’s no going back.

By voting Yes, you are voting to replace an existing political system, however flawed it might be, with another which has as much basis in reality as Thomas More’s Utopia or J.M. Barrie’s Never Never Land.

Projections, estimates and promises are all that the SNP have to offer us. Nobody really has any idea what the final cost of creating a new country will be – how can they? – but there is one fact that cannot be avoided – it will all come out of your pocket.

I urge all my countrymen to consider this when they make their mark on Thursday. Don’t vote for an unattainable ideal. The reality will fall far short and you will be left carrying the cost and the burden.

Second oil-field to the right and straight on ’til morning won’t take you to Never Never Land.

Don’t chase the dream. Face the reality.

Vote No.