Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Brilliant Books (Part 2)

Following up on last week’s post, I thought I’d write about a few other books which I've read in the past.  Now these books are a bit less recent in my memory, so please bear with me while I dust off their jackets and recall what made them so great…

The Inner Voice – Renee Fleming

It's been a while since I read this, but I have vivid memories of being completely enchanted with it when I was younger.  A singing career is a mysterious thing, especially when you're 18 and just starting out in undergrad.  You know some people have it, but you're not really sure how they got it in the first place.  It seems to be something vaguely magical which just sort of happens to you… or doesn't.  This is why it can be so helpful as a young singer to read the biography of a successful artist – to hear it all straight from the horse's mouth.   There are a lot of opera singer biographies out there, but few singers have been as generous or as honest as Renee Fleming has been in describing how she got to where she is.

In The Inner Voice, Ms Fleming is writing directly to young aspiring singers, which I think is a lovely idea.  She wants to pass something on to the next generation, and tell us what it's really like to make it in the business.  And it's not all a fairytale.  Although Ms Fleming is now a successful international superstar, she also had her share of challenges and rejections.  She talks about her bad auditions, her year struggling to learn German on an exchange programme, and the experience of getting booed at La Scala.  Beginning with her childhood with singing teacher parents, she describes her education and career development, and paints a vivid image of a typical day in her current working life.

At times Ms Fleming's writing is a bit saccharine, but as a whole I find the book to be a charming read, full of warmth and wisdom.  If you're a young aspiring singer who wants to know what it's like "out there", then this book is definitely worth the read.

The Inner Game of Tennis – W. Timothy Gallwey

I was recommended this book years ago when talking to someone about my high notes.  I used to really struggle with my high notes you see – I couldn't sing anything above the staff.  This is actually kind of hilarious to remember, because I now sing a lot of coloratura repertoire which is chock-full of high notes.  But there was a time when my high notes were a real technical block, and I had no idea what to do about them.  It may have been partly a question of physical maturity and training, but for the most part I think it was more psychological than physical.  I was afraid of heights – I really didn't believe I could make it up there.  So my friend told me that I had to read this book.  It would completely change the way I thought about singing.

The Inner Game of Tennis, as its title implies, is written for tennis players.  However its philosophy can easily be applied to any kind of sport or performing art.  It's all about the psychology of practice, and how we often sabotage ourselves unknowingly.

As Gallwey explains, we all have two selves within us.  There is the physical, intuitive self, and there is the thinking, judging self.  Unfortunately a lot of us allow this second self to take over completely, and thus psych ourselves out of performing well.  Have you ever started talking to yourself when you're practising?  "No, not like that"  "You idiot, that sounded terrible!!"  This is your thinking/judging self talking to your physical/intuitive self.  And unfortunately, as is often the case, it's being a bit of a bully.  The truth is that if we get out of the way and trust our physical/intuitive self more, we will be amazed by what it can achieve.  It's all a matter of balance between the thinking and intuition, between mind and body.  If we overthink things and judge ourselves too much, we can interfere with our performance and sabotage ourselves.  But if we learn to work with both selves, and trust our body's muscle memory to work under pressure – rather than constantly telling it what to do – we can perform with real skill and flow.  The Inner Game of Tennis is about the "game" that is always playing between these two selves, and how to keep them balanced and working in harmony.

Apparently there is now an Inner Game of Music, which has adapted the text to be aimed at musicians.  But I don't think it's necessary to buy this rather than the original book.  It's pretty clear what Gallwey is saying, and how it can be applied to any kind of skillset.  The Inner Game of Tennis is a great little book – easy reading and incredibly beneficial for every athlete and artist.  If you haven't yet read it, you should definitely check it out.

What the Fach? – Philip Shepard

This is essential reading for any singer who is moving – or considering moving – to a German-speaking country.  Whether you're moving to Germany, Austria or Switzerland, you should consider this book your bible.  Written by an American singer who has made a successful career in Europe, this book addresses all the questions and concerns of an opera singer moving abroad.  Where should you audition?  How should you write your CV?  What are German companies and agents looking for in a singer?

Philip Shepard has been through it all, and he has lots of valuable information and experience to share with us clueless newbies.  He explains the fach system and its importance, and discusses the differences between a “fest” contract and a freelance career.  He talks about agents, contracts, and audition etiquette.  He also highlights various organisations and schemes –such as NYIOP and the Fullbright Scholarship – which give singers opportunities to live in Germany or sing for German houses.  At the end of the book, he includes a series of interviews with people in the business, which give some fantastic insight into how the German opera world works.  Don’t miss the Appendices either – most appendices are boring, but I promise these ones are incredibly useful!  Shepard includes lists of German opera studios, affordable travel companies, and helpful books for further reading.  There is a glossary of useful German phrases, from finding your way to the audition room to ordering a cup of coffee.  There is a list of American medications and their German equivalent.  Honestly, this guy has thought of everything.

If you are thinking about moving to Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, and are feeling lost at sea, you need to buy this book.  NOW.  Make sure to get the most up-to-date version, as there have been a few different editions published now.  This is the most exhaustive catalogue of practical knowledge which you can find on the subject.  It's an invaluable resource.

Well, that's all my reading recommendations for now.  But I'm sure I'll have more to share with you in the future.  Until then, happy reading!

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