Every performer, be they a singer,  an instrumentalist, an actor, is  considered an interpretive artist.    The composer and librettist/poet  are the creative artists.    Indeed, the singer`s responsibility is to bring to life the wishes of the creative artists. But they also are able to bring a unique distinction borne of their own life experience, personality, intelligence and imagination.

No two performances of a work are ever exactly alike, even though each performer is executing what is on page.      In order to  bring  individuality to a performance   the singer must first have  a complete understanding  of what has been left to us by the composer and the librettist.  It is the intensity of this preparation that makes the difference between a merely  good  performance and a special  performance.

 Maria Callas, one of the most distinctive artists of the 20th Century,  always referred to the singer as the “servant” to the creators.  It was this approach to her craft and art that allowed her to bring such truth to every role she performed.  

“How do you find the emotional intensity we hear in your performances?” she was asked.   She spontaneously replied “I study the score”.  And study the scores she did.

WEDDING CAKE:  She would begin  by carefully  studying all the elements that go into a new opera. aria, duet, song, etc.  The various “layers” began with rhythm followed by  notes, vocal line,  key,  range, literal translation &  idiomatic pronunciation of the text.  Two of the most important layers  of the cake  were phrasing and dynamics.  By the time she brought the score to her coach, conductor, director she was already very well prepared to bring her own point of view, life experience, imagination to the words and music.   The bride and groom sat atop the many layers of learning.

In our eagerness to “sing” a new piece, we often neglect some of those layers..    Usually a young singer will  learn the notes, the rhythms, the vocal line.  But the remaining elements are often skimmed over or entirely neglected.  They are:  Language (translatIon & pronunciation),  phrasing and dynamics.    

LANGUAGE:  “Get behind the Words” (Callas).  Only then will the singer be able to get to the real meaning of the text.  This involves  an exact literal translation and an awareness of the structure (syntax) unique to the language you are singing.    Even though the audience may not understand the literal meaning of the words being sung, the  singing   voice will take on the colors and timbre of their meaning. due to the preparation done by the singer.  The classically trained voice is the most potent of all musical instruments in expressing the deepest of human emotions. 

DICTION:   Good diction in any language one sings has  two qualities:  clarity and harmonization.   This requires a serious study of diction for singers,  based on the characteristics of the Italian language (open throated singing;  pure, harmonized vowels;   voiced/unvoiced consonants, etc.)  This skill is one of the most important  characteristics of Classical  Singing (Bel Canto).   We “tell the story” through the clarity of text and beauty of voice.

PHRASING:  In all languages  there is always one stress word.  For instance we can say:       HOW are you today?    How ARE you today?  How are YOU today?  How are you TODAY?     Most composers, because they set texts written in their  mother tonuge,  build  their phrases according to the stressed and unstressed words in a sentence..   The strong word in a phrase will most likely  be on a strong beat and the weaker words on weaker beats.  The word chosen to be the most important of the sentence will very often be at the end of the long arch of the  phrase.   Paying attention as to how the composer chose the strong and weak beats in any phrase is your guide to finding the “contour” of each phrase as the composer intended.  In fact they have done the work for you.   

DYNAMICS:   The dynamics are the final  layer of the wedding cake. and often the most neglected.    The verbal and non-verbal dynamics on the printed page will only be brought to life by a singer who has carefully and patiently studied all aspects of the score.  They are a guide to the intelligent, well prepared singer. 

Only this combination of intense preparation and imagination will bring to life the intention of the creators.   It will be the difference between an “ordinary” performance, as skilled as it may be technically, to an emotional and memorable experience for the public.   















  1. Joan, I love reading your posts! Thank you for doing this–it certainly reflects your teaching and your love for good music making. Naturally, I appreciate how much emphasis you place on language. That’s the origin of this glorious thing called singing. Here’s a quote by Reynaldo Hahn: “I am only moved in the theater when there are words! It is an inexplicable phenomenon, but certain. Before a purely instrumental work, I experience only admiration, but I am not involved. A musical phrase charms and delights me but it never moves me; it is only sentiment that moves me.” Again, much gratitude to you for this initiative, and please keep up the blogs as we collectively try to keep up our spirits!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s