If you can imagine standing at the side of a stage. One world is in the dark, and cosy and warm and all the rest of the things you know, and all of a sudden you cross a line , and go out into what is absolutely the unknown… You have a house full of strangers and, in front of those strangers you are required to strip naked.’ Janet Baker, In Her Own Words.
Despite being considered last century’s greatest soprano, Janet Baker stopped performing at age 48. I’m sure that every performer I work with can empathise with this decision and has considered it themselves.
Night after night, day after day, you aspire to be your absolute best, then to elevate that even further, to touch ‘that place.’ The one where it all comes together and time stops and you step onto the wings of your art.
Despite days of clunkiness, and insecurity, fears and failure, praying for jobs and feeling inadequate, there will have been moments when the past and the future disappeared and there was only that moment, that note, those sensations, the shared experience of you and the audience.
You will have touched that because, if you hadn’t, then why would you have dedicated your life to this crazy overpopulated career where there are a thousand of you to every job, and the jobs out there barely pay enough to keep you living during the job, let alone to account for the inevitable times in between.
So, you have other jobs, day jobs that you spend the majority of your time doing because you know, you know that that other place is there and worth fighting for.
I know that the singers I work with can find that exhausting at times. Sometimes there are days when the lure and comfort of the dark of the wings is bigger than the audience waiting.
Is it any wonder than many singers decide one day that it’s taking too much?
As well as having an astonishing talent for singing, Janet Baker manage to commit to every performance with every cell of her self - connecting to something deep in her audiences. To do that, she had to access a deep, fundamental parts of herself each time, parts with most people don't have to share day to day, especially not with thousands of people who grow to expect it, and need it from her.
I know that artists need to be able to access that deeper place that engages their entire being and that’s exhausting but vital. They are amazing and we need to support that and help them sustain it without losing too much.
I believe deeply in artists and their ability to let the rest of the world know we’re not alone: The singers who bring us into the present moment or allow us to feel something amongst mundanity, the performers who show us their truth and vulnerability in a world surrounded in social media shininess, who can reflect our inner feelings when we feel alone. I believe in music’s tangibility to affect and transform. We need art, we need artists and artists need to be artists.
In a world of mobile phones, any performance can be captured and shared. There’s little room for artistic exploration in case of public failure.
So rather than giving up, how do singers manage these delicate balancing act: of growth as a performer under a public gaze?
What do you do with the exhilaration and adrenaline that keeps you flying for hours after a performance? If you give your soul to a show then what is left afterwards? Does the joy and commitment to your job and craft balance within family, partners, children and the wider world? Is there space for both?
This is why my aim, as a vocal coach, is to breakdown and demystify the voice. To clarify what we mean by technique, how the the mental state affects the voice, or what terms like “belt” or “light” or “on voice” or “twang” really mean!
I want to help singers understand when to engage and when to step off the wings and appreciate the beauty of reality around them as that too will feed into their work as an artist.
My theory of the 'six fundamentals of a singer,' aims to do that. We break singing down to six simple yet crucial aspects: breath, adduction, resonance, jaw release, tongue root release and a free larynx, then every exercise, technique or warm up applies must apply to one of those. For instance, a lip trill works all six if you do it correctly.
But, more compellingly, we can also include all the more illusive parts of singing including: meditation or mindfulness, finding your 'self', using primal sounds, using your emotions, imagery and sensation. These, too, can connect into the six fundamentals - usually engaging your breath support, resonance awareness and adduction whilst often also release tension.
This is for singers like I used to be when I was performing: who feel inconsistent and confused about their voices, or, who aren't sure how to be performance or audition ready.
On those big days, I'd wake terrified and spend the day until performance or audition in a strange state: numb, tense, distracted, jittery. I'd warm up all day long and try everything. If it went well, I'd surge out of the room, on top of the world, but if it didn't it was like stepping into a hidden pot hole and continuing to fall for days after.
Using the six fundamentals, a singer can become aware of what impact each part of their body and mind has on their instrument so you can ready yourself and know that it will get you to the place you need to do.
I'm in the process of creating the optimum warm up: from some brief cardio to get your heart pumping, to some stretching and meditation to bring yourself into your body, then a fifteen minute warm up that really focuses on each of the six fundamentals, releasing the parts that need releasing and strengthening the parts that need strengthening.
Each day, in anticipation of next week's Masterclass at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and courses at The Actor's Centre, I interrogate this regime and tweak it - trying it out myself , exploring it will my students - so it's nearly ready to share!
Watch the the Janet Baker documentary on BBC iplayer: