I recently attended yet another “operatic” master class lead by a noted Metropolitan opera mezzo. At one point she told a young soprano “Don’t act on the high notes, just focus on singing them, and then go back to acting after they are over”. Well, I guess it works for her.
She said some other pithy things like start your support before you begin the note. (huh?) Maybe contract your abdominal muscles before you make sound? Who knows? She was big, as are so many others, on “singing as if you have no jaw”, a comment I detest. First of all, we can’t possible imagine that. Second, the poor people born without jaw bones (there are some) have to have serious surgery, or surgeries, as it is nearly impossible to function without one and third, if you had no jaw you could not articulate or even speak intelligibly. Really, a stupid thing to tell a young singer.
Then she said things like “sing freely” but “don’t move anything”. (Again, huh?) She suggested that the vocalists had to release from the roof of the mouth (the hard palate), and, since this a boney structure, you simply cannot do that. Never mind, she wanted that from several people.
This is what I wrote about a while back about “losing common sense” when it comes to singing. What the instructor has learned to do, she has labeled, probably because she got the labels from her teachers. What she thinks she feels and what she is actually doing may have little to do with each other. Then, she teaches that. OK, right. Master teacher. Master.
I also observed several other less formal master classes and in at least one the master teacher had very little to say to the lovely young soprano other than general platitudes and asking for a lot of repetition of the high phrases. I remember that as a teaching tool……having me sing the high phrases over and over doing a little crescendo here and a little less consonant there. Never taught me a thing, since I could already sing high notes easily and had quite some variability up there, even at 18. I remember singing in a master class with a very famous teacher (big voice) who told me that the soft high notes I was singing were very difficult. She did not ASK me if they were difficult, she told me they were. Since they were not and had never been hard to do in any way, I thought she was giving me very odd instruction. Was there something about what I was doing that was hard but I couldn’t tell that it was hard??????? Perhaps I had not yet learned how to make them hard. I needed more skill!! Crazy making. I actually spent a few minutes thinking maybe she was right. Then I woke up. You would know this woman’s name if I printed it here.
There’s nothing to do about these situations except sit there and be polite but it is galling to think that the young people are not being given real information based on how they sound and how they look or even how they are communicating in such displays. The teachers do mean well, but good intentions are not good teaching.
I have seen some pretty amazing master classes in my day. Scotto, Arroyo, von Stade, Hakegard, Horne, but you could make a long list of the ones I have witnessed that were either useless (Wustman, Curtin) or actually frightening (Schwartzkopf, Kraus). We don’t have too many master classes in other styles, so I can’t comment about them, but it’s likely that they are no better, because it reflects the state of the art of the profession as it is.
As for me, I intend to “act” on the low notes, the high notes, the middle notes and the breaths and the silences. Save me, please, from all things “master” that are not.