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.


  1. This has come just at the right time for me, I’m in rehearsals in a medium sized role which sits comfortably until a couple of virtuoso bars in the third act, and man am I making mistakes. But your bit about support is spot on, thanks for the confirmation.

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