A little while ago I received an email from my friend Stacey Mastrian. She was giving a presentation on writing for singers, and she wrote, “I was wondering if there is anything that you wish you’d known earlier or that you have learned through all of your work with them.”
Well, of course there are plenty of things I had wish I had known earlier, and plenty of things I’ve learned working with so many singers over the years. And I thought I would share all of that here, in case it’s useful to anyone else.
(By the way, this is November 2013; I’m sure if you ask me again in a year, or five years, or fifty years, I’ll have something else to say then…)
So here we go:
(1) If you don’t love singers, and you don’t want them to sound their best, DO NOT WRITE FOR THE VOICE. EVER. Vocal music is not about the composer, it’s about the singer.
(2) Write the kind of music a voice teacher would assign to her students, not the kind of music your composition teacher wants you to write. So, yes to the 24 Italian Songs and Arias, yes to Mozart, yes to Menotti, yes to Schubert, yes to Schumann. No to Schoenberg, no to Berio, no to Crumb. I’m not saying this isn’t great music; I’m just saying these are not good models for composers. In fact, they are TERRIBLE models for composers.*
(3) If it’s a long piece, like an opera, make sure you warm the singer up properly in the beginning.
(4) Nobody wants to sing those big, stupid leaps. Nobody wants to hear them. Stop writing them.
(5) Don’t ask your singer to sing anything that you can’t sing yourself, accurately.
(6) The vocal line has to be supported by the harmony. Make sure your singer can always find her pitches in the accompaniment. She has enough to worry about onstage without trying to figure out where her note is.
(7) There is a difference between range and tessitura. (This is one that I’m STILL learning.) Just because she CAN hit those notes doesn’t mean she wants to hit so many of them over and over again.
(8) A singer needs to be able to connect to your piece musically and emotionally. And ultimately you the composer have to take responsibility for that. If she can’t understand it after she’s been working on it for a while, YOU are doing it wrong. Composers who complain about singers will never write good music for them.
(9) Always write for a specific voice. Does she have a great high Bb? Make that the climax. Does she have trouble around an F or F#? Don’t give her a long note there. Even if the person you write the piece for doesn’t end up singing it, it’s always better in the long run to have written it for someone in particular. If you’re really living on a desert island, imagine you’re writing for your favorite singer.
(10) On a related note, the best compliment you can ever get from a singer is “This is perfect for my voice.” The best compliment you can ever get from an audience member is “She sounded fabulous.” Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about the singer.
(11) Pay very, very close attention to stresses, accents, how words and phrases are pronounced, and what you want them to mean. The music needs first of all to clarify the text. A lot of that is rhythm, but a lot of that is also range and harmony. Try speaking the words aloud the way you want them to sound, and then compose an appropriate setting. If your text is in English, study the songs of Irving Berlin, who is one of the absolute masters of this.
(12) Sometimes the words are more important, and sometimes the music is more important. Decide which it is from measure to measure. If you want her to float a high B pianissimo, don’t expect anyone to understand what she’s saying at that point.
(13) Your accompaniment tells the singer a lot, including how free she can be in terms of rhythm.
(14) I said this before, but it really is the most important thing: There is only one reason to write for the voice, and that is because you love singers and you want them to sound their best. There is only one reason why a singer will want to sing your music, and that is because it makes HER sound her best.
Finally, if there were a way to sum up absolutely everything I’ve learned about writing opera and vocal music in one sentence, it would be this: Find some good singers and make them happy. It may not be easy, but it really is that simple.
*Note from November 24, 2013:
I’ve received a lot of comments about this over the weekend, so I’d like to clarify something:
I deliberately brought up Schoenberg, Berio, and Crumb because they are three excellent and highly regarded composers who have written a lot of excellent and highly regarded music for the voice. I actually had the privilege of being in Crumb’s last composition seminar at the University of Pennsylvania in 1997, and I remain a huge fan of his work. Night of the Four Moons in particular is, I think, one of the most beautiful pieces in the repertory.
But when we young composers set out to compose our first pieces for singers, we are given these 20th-century works—and often ONLY these 20th-century works, as models, which I think is dangerous and misleading. And considering the extremely conservative nature of his own Models for Beginners in Composition, I’m pretty sure Schoenberg would agree.