Tuesday 16 June 2020

Turn your ears off: I sample Thomas Elwin's on-line singing lesson for English Touring Opera

English Touring Opera: Adults Singing Lessons - Thomas Elwin
Many people have been intending to use lockdown to do all those things that we have always intended to do but never have. Judging by activity on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, many have succeeded (has anyone managed to read Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past yet?), but many of us have failed dismally.

But, there to support and encourage us in one area are the artists of English Touring Opera (ETO). They should have been touring performances of Handel's Giulio Cesare, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and Bach's St John Passion (on cancellation of the tour, ETO made a commitment to pay all 67 artists for all 52 performances). Instead, the singers have been creating a series of films of singing lessons for adults, and for children, which ETO has been releasing weekly on its YouTube channel.

With the adult singing lessons we have reached week nine, and so far there have been lessons from Stephan Loges, Jenny Stafford, Frederick Long, Edward Hawkins, Thomas Elwin, Susanna Hurrell, Themba Mvula, and Paula Sides. I decided to sample what was on offer and dropped in on Thomas Elwin's lesson, Turn your ears off.

Most amateur singers that I know have had singing lessons at some point in their careers, but whilst some do so regularly others, like myself, always mean to do more and never quite have the time. So lockdown is an ideal time for this. Admittedly, video is not quite the ideal medium as it lacks the interactiveness of real interaction, with the teacher listening to you and telling you what you are doing wrong. But there again, with only your own ears as critic, the results are perhaps less cutting.

But, in fact, the upshot of Elwin's lesson was that we should not trust our ears, and the nub of the lesson was a fascinating sequence about feeling the effect of the voice with the body, rather than listening to what you are singing. All singers are taught not to listen to themselves, but it is very tempting and Elwin's lesson was very salutary.

Of course, he didn't start there. All singing lessons start with a warm-up, and the fascinating thing is how different teachers vary it in different ways, so Elwin's warm-up was familiar yet different. And as anyone knows, singing is something of an imprecise science. If you are learning to play the violin the teacher can tell you where to put your fingers, how to hold the bow; but in singing, the instrument is to a large extent invisible and all a teacher can do is use analogy. And each singer, each teacher is a little different, using different analogies. Which, again, adds to the interest.

Then at the end there was the homework, each lesson begins with the teacher recapping the homework set previously, and then at the end giving you more, so that you have things to practice during the week. I suspect that following this activity might work better if there were more than one of you, a couple singing together for instance.

I have to admit, there is something slightly unnerving at having a singing lesson with the teacher staring at you intently from your computer screen for 20 minutes. And of course, there are 20 minutes of listening to yourself trying to emulate the wonderful sounds emanating from the computer's speakers.  And then there is that sense of unsatisfied curiosity, what is the music on the piano, what is it that you can see just round the corner in the window, what is that picture just glimpsed off camera; the endless fascinating of eavesdropping in someone else's house.

ETO's Adult Singing Lessons are available via the company's website, and via its YouTube channel, and there Kids' Singing Lessons too, so all the family can join in.

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