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Singing lute songs


I spent much of October singing lute songs in one form or another (with one or both of my fantastic collaborators Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman). As often happens I was asked at various points along the way to give lessons and classes. This is a difficult one – I like to encourage young singers and I don’t like to undermine the teaching of my fellow performers – but there’s very little about lute songs that an intelligent singer can’t work out for him or herself. It’s mostly a question of persuading them that they already have the means to do it, and giving them permission to suspend most of what they’ve been taught.

Obviously I can’t really charge a fee to tell someone they don’t need teaching so what I often do is invite them for a coffee and a chat. It’s free, and if they learn as much as they would in several lessons (as they sometimes do) it’s worth quite a lot. The first thing I point out is that Dowland, Campion and their contemporaries didn’t have singing lessons. They just applied their rhetorical instincts to the poetry and, probably with only minimal enhancement of their speaking voices, turned the poetry into song.  Our speaking voices are unique (which is why voice printing works) – they are the audible and aural representation of our personalities. No one would have mistaken Dowland for Campion, even if they were singing each other’s songs. Today’s trained singer is likely to be a generic tenor, soprano or whatever, and the price you pay for sounding like a proper tenor is some loss of your own individual vocal persona.  There are musical implications here too: modern breathing technique is what enables the legato line that we’re all taught to aspire to. No breathing technique: no line; no line: no tone colour. Horror of horrors…

What you’re left with when you take away the taught enhancements is a direct line to the poetry itself, a direct line from the creative bits of your brain to your voice. And there’s a bonus: you find yourself entering into a completely new relationship with the lute. It becomes your equally audible partner, not your inaudible accompanist. You breathe where the poet breathed, you adapt the music to the text and not the other way round. The lute can sing too, and the two of you merge into that extraordinary synthesis of words and music that is the 17th century lute song.  And you don’t really need a singing teacher to tell you that – it’s probably what you’d do if left to your own devices.

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