Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Remembering Working with Natalie Limonick

The late Natalie Limonick was my mentor. She was a coach and a guide. She was artistry and musical intelligence incarnate. The day I first sang for her back in 1980-something, she wasted no time telling me what was deficient in my technique. But she gave me very specific solutions. Diplomatically, she commented that I was very musical. That could have meant something. Or it could have meant nothing. Naturally, my ego led me to believe it was a compliment. In the next breath, Ms. Limonick told me that my Italian was awful. Actually, it seems to me that she said something more like, “Your Italian stinks.” She went on to say that it was to be expected. I was a little taken aback. But I had to agree with her. After all, I’d had one semester of Italian in college. No singing, diction or language teacher had ever worked with me on the intricacies of pronunciation.

Way back when I was in high school, I had worked dutifully through most of Vaccai (memorizing and singing one every week or two, which is not the prescription for mastering the technique they contain) with my first teacher, and had studied Italian Art Songs and Arias with her and with several other teachers. No one had every corrected my pronunciation – closed /o/ or open, and so forth. And that was just the vowels.

Suddenly, under the tutelage of Ms. Limonick, the truth about my status as a singing musician was revealed to me. Funny thing about the truth. We usually already know our truth. It’s just more convenient to ignore it and push it deep into our psyche where it’s much less likely to surface and cause us to have to acknowledge painful reality. Of course my Italian pronunciation wasn’t my worst problem. I had been singing professionally with some success, even though I was experiencing vocal problems. Top notes were becoming problematic. There was more of a break than ever in my lower passaggio. I never really had a low range – except when I sang lower pop songs, which I sang in a way that didn’t allow me to bridge into my middle range with the same quality. My voice was difficult to operate. It didn’t feel smooth. Because I was still attempting to employ a technique I had learned along the way (and that helped me to win a contest), I frequently lost my voice and wouldn’t be able to sing for a day or two afterwards. I had read books on voice production, but I was never able to apply the information from the books to my own voice production. There was a disconnect somewhere.

Working with Ms. Limonick everything that I had read suddenly made perfect sense. In short order, I learned that my concept of how to produce a free, supported tone was way off-base. My idea of what a good tone should sound like was way off. My breath and my voice weren’t even connected. Ms. Limonick introduced me to subtleties of singing that were never even hinted at by previous teachers and coaches. And, most important, she showed me how to make the appropriate changes.

One story I tell my students is my experience with learning the free, focused tone from Ms. Limonick after more than 15 years of singing and lessons with other teachers who never taught it. Ms. Limonick helped me make a few mechanical face, tongue and jaw adjustments, and she taught me a more settled breathing technique. The tone that resulted was so different. It hummed. It felt like it was completely out of my control. It didn’t even seem to be coming from my mouth at times. It was so flexible, I felt like my voice was on autopilot. This new way of producing the voice connected the voice, top to bottom. I found additional notes on both ends of my range. I took my new sound home and practiced it at least twice a day. I didn’t want to lose it! The next week, I went to my lesson ready to show off my new sound. So I thought.

“No,” Ms. Limonick said. Apparently I had lost the right sound somewhere along the way. She helped me re-establish the sound. Oh! Of course! What a huge difference! I went home and practiced. Back to my lesson. “No,” she said. We found it again, and I trotted back home to try to make it stick. This happened at least three times before I was able to produce the sound on a regular basis. When I finally could do it, I managed to do it only on an A-flat in the middle of my range. Gradually, I transferred the technique up and down by half-steps. Even after I could recognize the difference, if I didn’t practice regularly, the sound again would escape me.

Most of the singers and teachers I’ve known who had experiences with Ms. Limonick seem not to have been completely fond of her. One teacher said that she wouldn’t trust a teacher who treated singers the way Ms. Limonick had. (This was in reference to my telling the teacher of my experience with Ms. Limonick critiquing my Italian pronunciation.) I feel just the opposite way. I wouldn’t trust a teacher who would let me believe all is well, when it isn’t. These days, teachers are expected to say several good things for every one comment that might be construed as critical. It’s a formula that’s used to humor and pacify people. But, in a private lesson, when a singer is expecting to be offered thoughtful, meaningful assistance in exchange for a fee, I think that a teacher downplaying technical issues and sidestepping the truth is terribly manipulative and more than a bit demeaning. What needs to be said, needs to be said. The flow might be more skewed toward criticism than praise, if the moment calls for it. But honest criticism always should take precedence over less than genuine praise, as long as the criticism is accompanied by suggestions, solutions, and some kind of helpful, well-intended input. Praise is great, too, when praise is appropriate. Ms. Limonick never put me down or made me feel that way.

If you want me to sing like a professional, be a professional and treat me like a professional. It’s called respect.

I worked with Ms. Limonick some 25 years ago. I’ve worked with teachers and coaches since then. But none of them has come anywhere close to being as musical, knowledgeable and insightful as was Natalie Limonick.

In the film, Copying Beethoven, the composer rudely critiques the composition of his copyist, Anna Holtz. She is rightly offended, but she realizes how correct he is about her work. She meets his offensive behavior with a better composition. He acknowledges it is better, but tells her that she is copying his style of writing. If he had just left it at the comment that her work was improved, she might have gone on happily and, possibly, successfully copying the style of Beethoven, never going through the wonderful, miserable process of becoming her own artist – her own composer.

In one of her Juilliard master classes (pick any one of them for a similar story), Maria Callas told a young singer that she had no trill (an integral part of the aria), and that she had to find her trill. Callas said that she didn’t care how the girl found it, but that she would have to find it in order to sing the aria. Callas was right. But the trill the young singer was using could have been passed off as a trill. I’ve heard much less proficient and apparently professionally acceptable trilling in my lifetime. Other comments were equally cutting and true. Even the less than knowledgeable listener clearly would hear the difference in the depth and wisdom of Callas’ vocal examples, in comparison to the singing of the student. I would want to be offered awareness and given the option to upgrade my skills. I would rather aspire to a proper trill, an informed performance, precise diction, and the rest, than be patted on the head and told, “That’s nice.”

Written in memory of the great Natalie Limonick 1920 - 2007