Wednesday, 13 October 2010

La Stupenda

It was with sadness that I heard of the passing of Australian opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland, aged 83 at her home in Switzerland as I drove to work yesterday morning.

Hers was the voice of an angel.

I am by no means an Opera fan, but I reckon there would be few people who have heard Dame Sutherland sing who have not been touched by her brilliance. The clarity and complexity of her voice as she hit the high notes. The preciseness of her articulation as she sang her arias. The trills, the staccato rhythms, the pure beauty.

Once described by Pavarotti as 'the voice of the Century', her death is a sad end to an extraordinary life.

Listening to the many tales of people who had seen her 'live' on the early morning chat show yesterday, my mind was whisked away to my own short, hilarious dalliance with opera singing.

I can tell you now that I have no talent for singing (any singing) and I had no idea what I was getting myself in to.

When I was studying Speech Pathology, an opportunity arose to attend a course run by Jo Estill. She is a famous 'voice trainer' whose techniques (VoiceCraft) have been widely adopted by Speech Pathologists who work with patients with voice disorders. Her philosophy is that everyone has a beautiful voice. You just need to know how to use it."

As students, we were offered a concessional course fee, so a few of us thought we would go along. After all, it isn't often you get to meet someone out of your textbook.

Like most things in my life, I did very little pre-planning. I turned up on the Monday morning, strapped in for the week and expected to be 'taught' how to 'fix people'. How wrong I was.

VoiceCraft is based on 'Six figures for voice'. It's philosophy is that people can gain greater control over the structures that help create voice and speech, and therefore change the way they speak or sing.

Had we read the fine print, we'd have realised that our course was predominantly aimed at singers, so the focus of her demonstrations was singing, the class was full of professional and aspiring singers, and there was barely a word about the adaptation of the techniques to the disordered voice.

Having never sung in front of people before (except in a school-choir), it was possibly one of the most daunting experiences of my life having to 'model' different voice techniques in front of trained and professional singers. The pure embarrassment when my 'opera' voice quality came out as 'falsetto', or my 'twang' was so loud it could only constitute 'belting'.

It was an important learning experience.

So many of my voice clients felt that same feeling of discomfort when I got them to do things with their voices that were equally as foreign to them. Their looks of 'Are you serious?', mirrored the one I wore for the entire week at Jo's course.

The VoiceCraft course did the job.

I went on to become a highly competent voice clinician. The fact that I smiled to myself every time I taught someone with vocal nodules to 'belt' rather than strain, did little to detract from my professional image.

I haven't practised my 'opera' or 'sob' voice qualities in a while but I discovered, as I drove along the freeway to work yesterday morning, that I can still get my false vocal folds to release constriction while I lower my larynx and assume a decent 'belt' voice quality.

I turned up the volume and cranked out a few high notes. Just for Joan.

Thankfully I was alone.

Do you have any operatic tales you are closeting?


Kelly said...

She had an incredible voice that’s for sure!

alliecat said...

I have no operatic secrets. However your post is very interesting, and voice clinician sounds like a very interesting job.

MandyE (Twin Trials and Triumphs) said...

When I studied in Russia, I took a course called Musical Phonetics. I'm SO not a singer, but it was such an amazing class. I don't know the "how and why" behind it exactly, but something about singing really made you focus on the phonetics in an entirely different light.

And my hubby swears I sing much better in Russian than in English...HA!

Gill@OurParklife said...

no secrets in that closet for me but i loved reading this....very interesting

singing in front of people can be terrifying...i had to do it once in front of my prac kindy class all the mums were in the room and the teacher realised i was knew the words to david bowie's "space oddity" and asked me to teach it to the kids as part of their space theme....

not really connected to your story but this was one of the most daunting 15 minutes of my life...!

life in a pink fibro said...

Great story. I did singing training with an opera teacher for a while - it was so liberating. Learning to sing from the diaphragm was the best thing I ever did in my life. I can hit the high notes now. Not as high as Joan, but nonetheless...

Maxabella said...

No Opera training, but a deep appreciation. Oh, remember when I went out with Martin for about 4 months purely because he took me to the Opera every other week? Creepy, but so worth it!! Vale Joan. x

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