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How to Win at Collaborating

No one likes to work with singers. Yes, I said it! Instrumentalists, you know it’s true, and I know that singers have heard all the comments before. What’s a singer to do? No one wants to be “that” singer… so let's dive in! These are some things that I either have been guilty of and have changed, or things I’m still working on. And I have good sources; I’m married to pianist and composer Paul Sánchez, and have been working with lutenist and composer Laudon Schuett for over a decade. These guys have seen me at my worst, know me at my best, and always help me become a better musician and singer.

First: get your music in order well in advance, and get that music to your collaborator ASAP! Let’s face it: singers have one note to sing at a time. Yes, yes, yes, we need plenty of time to get the music in our bodies, and we sometimes need to translate… of course, even singing in our first language, we may be working on Original Pronunciation… but I have to say, it’s a different practice intensity than on an instrument. So, if at all possible, get your music to your collaborator at least six weeks before the first meeting. As with most things in life, there will be exceptions; maybe you’re reading through music together, or just want to jam. That’s different! If you’re trying to get a program ready, make sure everyone has the music they need earlier than you think is necessary. And while you’re at it, make sure your collaborator has the music in the format they prefer! Lots of musicians are fine with a PDF, but some still want hard copies. If this is the case, a nice way to go above and beyond is to print the music, tape, and hole-punch it so that there are a minimal number of page turns. 

OK, you’ve got your music ready to send well in advance. Great! WAIT! Before you send it off, consider adding some markings. First, MARK ANY BREATHS that aren’t obvious! Consider adding a one-sentence summary to the first page so your collaborator has some idea of affect before they even look at, or listen to, the piece. If the text of your song isn’t in your collaborator’s first language, make sure to write a translation in. Write in a ROUGH tempo marking, and add in any dynamics you’ll be using. Write in some thoughts for possible ornaments to your own part, so it doesn’t come as a shock in your first rehearsal! These few things will take a bit of extra time on your part, but will help your first rehearsal run much more smoothly. 

Now, in order to do anything in the previous paragraph, you’ll probably notice that you’re going to at least have some idea of how the piece goes. This should go without saying, but, sadly, it still needs to be said. KNOW YOUR MUSIC. Your first rehearsal is NOT the place to be learning your music! This isn’t to say that you won’t EVER need a pitch or rhythm correction, but they should be minimal. Instead, you can start your rehearsal by checking if you’re on the same page with tempo and affect. Find out if you have the same general ideas about the text and what you’re trying to communicate, and please, be open to your collaborator’s ideas, too. What might work on your own in rehearsal may need to be tweaked, and that’s actually a good thing! Those are learning opportunities. That is where art is made! 

Another thing to keep in mind, especially when rehearsing and performing early music, is that there are lots of tuning systems to choose from! A future article will have some more nitty gritty details on tuning, but just know that your beautifully tuned Steinway grand piano (or your badly-out-of-tune Baldwin upright in the practice room!) won’t have the same timbre or tuning as, say, the lute. Or harpsichord, or theorbo, or period strings, or anything! Listen to recordings when they are available, and at the very least, know if you’re going to be singing at A=440, A=415, or something else entirely. Pro tip: if you’re singing at A=415, everything will be sung down a half step from a modern-day piano.

Singers tend to have a horrible reputation for being bad at rhythm. So prove everyone wrong, and be on top of it! Do the work to be sure that you’re comfortable with any tricky rhythms, so you don’t waste precious rehearsal time tapping or counting out loud during a first rehearsal. Knowing your rhythms allows you to be super clear with cues, too. Breathe in rhythm if you can; this will help your collaborator know when you’re going to start singing. 

This sounds silly, but it’s an easy thing to miss: make sure that you and your collaborator both know how you’re going to physically be situated in your performance space, and rehearse this way as much as possible. Will you sit? Stand? Is the singer out front (not often), behind, or to the right or left of the collaborator? How far away will you be? Be sure to iron this out ahead of time, so that you can…

LISTEN. Singers are always listening to themselves. It’s what we do! Whether in the moment, or listening to recordings of practice sessions or performances, we have to listen to ourselves to get better. Sure, there will be some of that during rehearsal, but more importantly, listen to your collaborator. Even if you really know the music, it may surprise you when your collaborator has some notes to fill in while you’re resting, or taking a breath. Don’t jump in before your time! And just as you don’t want to be covered when you’re singing low, know your collaborator’s range of dynamics and color, and work together to find a good balance. This is a partnership; make that apparent through your own dynamic choices!

Finally, don’t be a diva. The voice is a delicate instrument, but we don’t need to talk about it all the time (actually, that wastes precious voice anyway!). Have your tea, have your water, be well-rested and warmed up, eat your breakfast, and when you show up to rehearsal, don’t talk about how your voice isn’t working, or how you didn’t get enough rest, or how your allergies are bothering you. Your collaborator will be grateful, and may even put to rest any misgivings about working with a singer. Let the focus be on the music, and I guarantee you, your voice will be ready.


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