I finished my last performance of La Cenerentola last night in Fort Lauderdale (where Florida Grand performs their final shows) and I have to say, I had a great night. Few things are more satisfying for a singer than figuring out how to solve a vocal problem and finally nailing what has been difficult up to that point. Sometimes certain aspects of your voice will give you problems, but you will occasionally do those things well by accident, and not really know what you did. However, last night I was actually able to solve a problem I’ve been having with a certain note, and I’m certain that it was not an accident, but that it came from hard work, good advice, and staying calm under pressure. And I thought they were going to have to tie me down after the performance so I wouldn’t float away from sheer joy.
As I have chronicled on this blog, I have found the final note of both Non piu mesta, Cenerentola’s final aria, and Una voce, Rosina’s entrance aria, challenging. I used to be a soprano, and when I first switched to mezzo, I had high notes for days. However, as my voice matured and I learned to sing with my true sound (and not just the tiny part of my voice I had been using as a soprano) I had to learn how to sing high notes in a completely new and integrated way, and gradually my voice has become one sound from top to bottom. Except those pesky high b naturals at the end of those two arias, which for some reason, although I could always sing them in practice sessions and in my dressing room before a performance, remained inconsistent in performances and I could not figure out why. The problem was that when I would sing them on my own I wouldn’t know what to fix, because they would be fine. So I had an idea.
After the third performance of Cenerentola, I just wasn’t happy with the final note. It wasn’t terrible, but I knew I could sing it much better. But again, I had sung 64 beautfiul perfect high b’s in my dressing room at intermission that night and was in great voice, so I had no idea what was going on. But there was someone who had watched me sing every rehearsal and performance from a mere few feet away, and who happens to sing a lot of great high notes himself every night – the tenor singing the Prince, Frederic. So I decided just to ask him to tell me what he observed while standing beside me every night while I sang my aria, and he kindly agreed to talk to me about it. He said that as I sang the first of the three high b’s (there are two lead ups before the final climactic note) he noticed that my shoulders were coming up almost to my chin, and that they kept coming up there for the rest of the high notes. He noticed that my body looked tense. Why didn’t I try a different physical gesture other than lifting my arms and shoulders?
Oh my god, I realized, this is my answer. What is different between the dressing room and the actual performance? I get so excited and hyper while singing that my shoulders come up, I hold a lot of tension in my upper body, including my neck, which is almost certainly constricting my larynx, and making the high notes tight and squeezed. Could this really be it? Could this be the key to years of frustration with this note?
Later in the week we had a brush up rehearsal, and I decided to try this new theory while singing the aria. When the aria gets fast and full of lots of coloratura, I focused on keeping myself relaxed and not using my upper body as any kind of a crutch. When the two first b’s came around, I forced myself to keep my shoulders down. It was a little scary – I was accustomed to bringing them up, but I kept them firmly down and the notes came out anyway. Then when I tacet for a couple of bars while the chorus sings, I walked around in a small circle (which is something the director had said I should do anyway – to regard everyone onstage with me in a final moment of joy), which relaxed my body even further. I turned around and sang a slightly different run up into the high note, kept my shoulders out of it, and BAM it was THERE in spades!!! It definitely didn’t feel like a mistake, I felt like I knew what I was doing – but – things are always different in a rehearsal and in a performance, so still had to find out whether I really had solved this problem.
Fast forward to last night, and I did exactly the same things I did in rehearsal, although understandably, I had a bit more adrenaline and excitement. However, when I did the runs up to the high note and started singing it, even I was surprised by how easy and free it was. I held it for what felt like a long time, and when I finally finished singing, I can tell you that in the final moments of the opera, there was no need for me to act – the joy Cenerentola was feeling at having become the princess was nothing compared to the joy Jenny was feeling at having sung a fantastic high note. “GREAT B!” the tenor whispered to me as the lights went out. “GREAT ADVICE!!!” I practically screamed at him as I all but skipped offstage for my bow. I think I might have even done a victory dance.
Am I crazy for being so happy about a good high note? Absolutely. But striving to improve is one thing that makes every person happy, and the journey is what connects all of us. And maybe relaxing my shoulders can be a metaphor for solving all my problems in life. Or maybe just this one - but that would be enough for now.