This week we have had the privilege of a brief residency with internationally renowned vocalist Denyce Graves. Let me begin by saying that her performance yesterday was among the finest live vocal performances I have ever experienced. Ms. Graves is the real deal. To repeat a phrase she used today, she is a “singing actress” of the finest quality. During the masterclass she offered for Claflin students this morning, she demonstrated that she is an equally good pedagogue.
As a matter of priority, Graves shows how deeply she cares for young artists. Her approach to positive reinforcement is textbook: she puts praise first and emphasizes the positive so that musicians can build from strength to strength. All the same, she does not spare the rod. Graves hears through singers like most people see through glass, and then she polishes them. She refuses to stop until the particular aspect she is working on with the student reaches sufficient levels of both sound and understanding. That also means that every session ends as strongly as it begins. Any good musician will tell you that this pattern resembles a successful practice session. In the form of what she does–as much as in its content–she shows students this consistent approach to excellence.
She speaks to students in beautifully illustrative metaphors. To get the sound she wants, she speaks of the “core sound” of a singer’s voice. She compares it to perfume, noting that audiences don’t want eau de parfum or eau de toilette when they can have the real parfum. The comparison works perfectly for getting students to think about space and overtones or vocal formants. She instructs students to “stitch vowels together” by allowing [i] to “inform” [ε], [a], [o] and [u]. If that makes little sense to readers with different musical or linguistic backgrounds, think of it this way: she’s telling a singer to keep the long horizontal space in her vocal cavity equally long even as she opens up the vertical space for other vowel sounds. She compares this “spatial crescendo” to the feeling of taking a quick breath right after a peppermint.
Part of what works so well about all of this is that the students come prepared. Dr. Lori Hicks has worked overtime with many of these students for the love of singing and teaching. The students, for their part, know the technical language and the repertoire well. That eases Ms. Graves’ task, allowing her to use these pithy metaphors as illustrations that students can use to remember the sensation of good singing when they get back to the practice room. As she puts it, that sensation is so much important than sound; for as singers know, sound changes with the room, the time of day, what foods we eat, the season of the year, and even our seasons of life.
This is a promising time in the life of the music department at Claflin University. It was a tremendous pleasure to hear our students sing today, and it was an even greater pleasure to watch this master at work. I hope all of our students, whatever their instrument, can find something useful to take from the experience.
[A note to long-time readers (all dozen of you): the time has come for this forum to adopt a fresh angle. In the past, I have done many artist features. Now those features will serve–along with other aspects of this blog–as means of tying what has been primarily a research and reviews blog to my teaching at Claflin University. I hope this new breadth will continue to engage current readers and begin to connect them with a new readership among this university community.]