Thursday, 5 June 2014

Interview with Neil Semer

I first met Neil in September 2013, soon after I had moved to Cologne.  I told my friend I was looking for a voice teacher, and he said "well, why don't you try having lessons with my teacher?"  I came to watch his lesson, and then had one of my own.  Before I knew it I was hooked.  Neil was the teacher for me!  Since then I've had several lessons with Neil, both in Cologne and in Toronto.  As I've written about before, I also attended his masterclasses in Paris.  We've had our ups and downs (there was a brief traumatic period where he thought I was a soprano - I'd rather not talk about it), but throughout all of it Neil has been a wise and inspiring figure in my life.  He is always teaching me something new about my voice and myself.  So it was a pleasure to sit down to a pre-lesson breakfast with him at Maifield Restaurant in Ehrenfeld and pick his brains about life, singing, and the pursuit of a fulfilling career.

Neil Semer

Can you tell us a bit about your background?  How did you get into teaching?

I began performing, and I always just liked to play piano for people.  When I was singing with other singers on the stage I would very often just offer help, if anyone wanted to work on anything during the break or after the rehearsal.  I would just start working with people, and that was something I always did.  I never thought of it as teaching at the time, but I loved singing, and working on singing and working with singers.  So it just started there.

Can you describe your job a bit for us?  What does a typical year look like for you?

My main studio is in New York, but I teach every several weeks in Toronto and I go to Europe four times a year where I teach generally in Copenhagen, Dresden, Cologne, Frankfurt, Berlin, Biel, Paris, and London.  I do that four times a year.  One time a year I have my annual Neil Semer Vocal Institute in Germany which I've been doing now for 18 years.  Those are two two-week courses in different corners of Germany.  And I go to see people's performances whenever possible, and I have a family.  So it's busy.  It's a busy year.

What is your favourite aspect of your job?  For example, do you enjoy giving private lessons or masterclasses more? Why?

I love them both.  I guess I would have to say that giving masterclasses is really pleasurable, it's kind of like my current version of performing.  It has that kind of special kick of a performance on some level.  But I also love the intimate one-on-one, working heart-to-heart with an artist.  So I love them both.
Me and Neil at his Paris masterclasses.

What is the hardest aspect of your job?

Dealing with people's delusions.  This is to a large degree an ego-driven profession, and if a person's ego needs are not in alignment with their gifts, that is difficult.  I'm by nature a very honest person, and I really try to facilitate change and growth and really create what is possible.  But if a person is fixated on what is impossible, it is very hard to work with.

One of the unique things about your teaching is that you take a more holistic approach.  You talk to your students about their spiritual and emotional development as well as their vocal development.  Why do you feel this is so important?

Well, we're not purely physical beings.  It is foolish to think that the voice can be mastered only by looking at it mechanically.  And our spiritual and emotional issues get played out in our singing, whether we wish them to be or not.  So I address them as part of understanding vocal mechanics.  Simply because… blocked emotions create blocked breath.  The desire to be seen a particular way will exhibit itself in certain body postures that may not serve your singing.  Fears about certain things will stop you from doing some of the necessary actions to master the passaggio.  I work very clearly about vocal mechanics and I always start with that – giving a clear idea of how alignment, space, breathing, diction, resonance, passaggio events work – I deal with them very specifically and very physically, at first, to master those skills.  But once the physical skill is mastered, the ability to coordinate it and make music from it – it involves the heart.

You have the unique position of teaching regularly in both Europe and North America.  Do you notice any significant differences in the way the industry works in these two continents?

Yeah, there are specific things, sure.  America has larger theatres, so often one needs larger voices.  In Europe, the size of a small lyric house sometimes allows for a more refined music-making.  Although obviously finesse is valued in both places, the canvas on which it's drawn is a little different, because of the size of the theatres.  There are many more theatres in German-speaking countries, so that makes for more opportunity, although there are also many more singers competing for jobs over here because everyone comes here.
Culture is more of a priority in Europe, honestly, and so there's just a different feeling to the work here.  That's hard to describe, the difference in feeling, but it does feel different…
Things are actually more age-conscious in Europe, which I think Americans don't often realise.  It's not against the law to ask a person's age here, which it would be in America.  And people do get fixated on numbers here, to a degree that as an American I find astounding.  How does the person look, in terms of visuals, is all that's important – does the person look right for the role?  Whereas here actually the number itself seems to carry more weight at times than what they're actually seeing in front of their eyes, or hearing in their ears, which I find very unfortunate.

Which of the great singers do you really admire?

My ears were formed very young by people like Ezio Pinza, Cesare Siepi, Renata Tebaldi, Callas, Björling, Pavarotti, Domingo, Bastianini, Batistini, Titta Ruffo, Rosa Ponselle, Giuseppe DeLuca.. These really great singers from the past – I just used to devour their records, and really study them.  And so that really informed – does inform – the way I look at singing and the aesthetic from which I teach.  Today some great singers that I really admire include Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Florez, René Pape, the young Bryn Terfel, Cecilia Bartoli...  These are some of the people I think have something truly special at this time.

In your opinion, what does it take to be a successful singer?

Well, the obvious thing is an instrument, and a musical sensibility/sensitivity, a gift for language, a gift for musicianship… But it is also essential to want it desperately.  Lamperti said "don’t sing unless you'd die if you didn't", and I find that to be very good advice.  If you can imagine yourself doing anything else for a living, one should.  It's only for those people who can’t imagine doing anything else.  Like myself, I had to do this.  It truly felt like death to even consider not doing it.  And I think that's a good reason to be in this profession.

Francesco Lamperti, 1811 - 1892
Expert Italian singing teacher and author of The Art of Singing

What do you think is the biggest challenge that young singers face?

How to find your window of opportunity.  The place where you'll find opportunity, the time you'll find opportunity...  The ability to be lovingly, but brutally, self-critical.  I once heard Pavarotti say "I'm my own fiercest critic but I never forget that I'm Pavarotti."  And I thought that was a really excellent kind of balance, that he respects who he is and what his gifts are but is also extremely honest with himself, even when the news is not positive.

Wise words from the great Pavarotti.

What is the one piece of advice you would most like to give to the singers who are reading this?

Follow your passion.  Whether that be to this profession or away from it.

Thanks for chatting, Neil!

To learn more about Neil Semer, check out his website here.

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