Last week I sampled two small slices of the Emma Kirkby master class, on Purcell and his predecessors, held for two days at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.
The second was much more to my taste, as it was undiluted by the extensive coaching of the instrumentalists which spoiled the first day, and sometimes left Emma with nothing to do. To all intents and purposes, the second session was a singing lesson, which is what it was supposed to be. Lovely.
Emma, charming and polite to a fault – always beginning with “ Sorry, …” – obviously knows this repertoire inside out, and it showed, even when she was not that familiar with a particular piece.
Hearing her sing even a snatch of melody in her immediately recognizable, undiminished flutey tone, was pure joy; and seeing how she could help others to make this music really speak was quite extraordinary.
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Her comments about where to breathe, singing from your core, and her emphatic and exemplary Italian and French pronunciation were as appropriate as you would expect. In each case, Emma understood completely what was going wrong and knew instinctively what to suggest. It was striking how much changed in the students in the course of the class.
Creating the right mouth shape is key, as was shown in Barbara Strozzi’s Le Tre Grazie a Venere, the all-girl trio with a rather racey text, in which the merits of clothes and birthday suits are compared. Though still “half-cooked” (Emma’s description), and accompanied in the rehearsal room on a Taskin copy, it was a delight, and just got better with each repetition.
Pulling a face, though, even for your art, comes at a price. I was reminded of hearing Emma speak previously about the horrific snapshots taken of her in full flight, where – as ever – she was focusing on getting the right sound and making sure the words were understood, rather than being early music’s poster girl.
As one of the students commented, it is all about expressing the meaning of the words, and not just singing the music on the page. Obvious, really.
In everything she said, Emma was very kind, encouraging and supportive of the choices made, even when rather artificial-looking French rhetorical hand movements – which seem currently the flavour of the month here – threatened to scupper otherwise good performances.
Of course it is very hard to change the way in which you’ve practised a piece. Standing stock-still won’t work either, as was ably demonstrated in a Purcell number about a jilted lover. “An angry, complaining hand by your heart, makes it easier to sing”, she said.
The rule, with movements – according to Emma – is eye … hand … voice, and going with what feels natural.
Speaking of the same piece, she also said “ take time over these ingredients”.
Although she is a most definitely a prima donna (see also this article), there was no trace of ego or of affectation of any kind. Her genuine, down-to-earth teaching style was as pure as the quality of her voice.
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