”Aspire with realism” – Sue McCulloch

Being objective about where you are in the profession, is something which most singers find incredibly daunting.  We were fortunate to have a couple of talks led by Sue McCulloch on vocal health, and ensuring you are well prepared.

Marketing yourself

  • Keeping your database of contacts up to date is important, as are the methods which people will use to find you; your website / linkedin / social media spaces should be relevant, up to date and contain valid contact info. Remember – you are marketing yourself!

Prepating Repertoire

  • Write out the text
  • Do a word for word translation (never trust editorial translations, invest in a decent dictionary and put in the work yourself)
  • Speak the words in a declamatory manner (See Masterclass notes on this: Masterclasses: Chris Purves, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Ann Murray and Toby Spence. ) and understand the structure of the poem / text.
  • Familiarize yourself with knowledge of the grammatical structure of each sense – how will this affect which words are given additional emphasis?


‘Everything that we are is our instrument’

  • Try to be up and awake a couple of hours before vocalising.
  • Hydration: Aim for 2-3 litres of water each day.  Your body takes 4 hours to hydrate from the moment you drink, so try to take this into consideration.
  • Stretch and become mentally aware of your surroundings before launching into practise.
  • Keep your body fit and agile – exercise which encourages deep breathing (such as pilates, yoga, dance etc) are all recommended.  Avoid exercises which encourage over-development of the neck and abdominal muscles.
  • Maintain good oral hygeine – consider your colleagues!
  • Avoid asprin – it thins the blood and can cause haemoraging of the vocal folds.
  • Avoid unnecessary coughing / throat clearing.
  • Steam and gargling salt water are the best for any cold viruses or sensitivity.

Foods etc

  • Lessen dairy products where possible, and keep citric and menthol products to a minimum.
  • Slow release carbs on rehearsal / long days are great for keeping sustained: wholemeal pasta, wholemeal bagels, bananas, basamti rice etc.
  • Teas: honey, lemon, ginger, liquorice are all great.

Masterclasses: Chris Purves, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Ann Murray and Toby Spence.

For a week in July, singers, tutors and pianists descended on Radley College near Oxford to take part in the Abingdon Summer School for Solo Singers.  For 3 consecutive days, we were extremely fortunate to have Christopher Purves, Ann Murray, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Toby Spence hold masterclasses for all singers involved in the course.

I sat in as many of these classes as my schedule would allow.  I hope you find this conglomeration of points useful:


  • Recitative: what is the reason for your recit? Why do you need to get someone’s attention enough for them to listen to you?
  • What do you want an audience to feel about your character at the very start Vs at the very end of a piece? How can you ensure that this is applied to your interpretation of the piece?
  • Become accustomed to speaking through your recit and aria in a declamatory spoken voice – notice where you breathe, and where the natural stresses fall in the text.
  • You should be able to recite the text to both recit and aria without requiring the music.


  • Breathe with intent – this includes the use of expressive breaths, especially if they fall within a long phrase / section of coloratura.
  • Remeber to empty the breath before starting a new phrase, allowing you to resonate and not hold on to unnecessary breath. Similarly, do not hold your breath during long phrases – allow your sound to spin naturally, and trust this (and your support) will see you through.


  • Sing from the moment a phrase begins, no creeping!
  • If you encounter long phrases on one vowel, practise alternating the vowel, to keep the sound boyant.
  • Singing a phrase on rolled ‘R’s is a useful means of assessing how much breath you need to take on a phrase.
  • The ends of phrases are important! Ensure you end a phrase with equal purpose and spin; think of a phrase in it’s entirety, and do not allow the ends to drop. Never drop the intensity of your line.
  • If you have an idea of how a piece should be interpreted, commit to it.

Christophe Rousset – ‘’Every style is perfect in its own way’’

IRSSWhen I saw that the International Rameau Ensemble Summer School (https://rameau250.wordpress.com/summerschool/ ) would be featuring Christophe Rousset this year, signing up didn’t take much persuasion.


A brief background on Christophe (more detailed information can be found on the website of Les Talens Lyriques http://lestalenslyriques.com/en/les-talens-lyriques/christophe-rousset ): he first made his name as a harpsichordist with a recording of Rameau’s flamboyant Pièces de Clavecin, and then championed the works of François Couperin and Domenico Scarlatti – music that is courtly, worldly, ebullient and laced with discreet eroticism. Rousset subsequently formed Les Talens Lyriques, an ensemble dedicated to performing some of the more flamboyant operatic and orchestral works from the 18th century. If, like me, you were fortunate enough witness the collaboration between Les Talens Lyriques and Ann Hallenberg bringing Farinelli’s vocal pyrotechnics to the Wigmore Hall last May, it will have gone down as a concert never to be forgotten.

Let’s face it, the opportunities to go and see French Baroque opera performed in the UK are rare, however with Sarah Connolly bringing Charpentier’s Médee to ENO, and featuring recently in Glyndebourne’s production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, attention to the beauty of this French repertoire does seem to be on the increase, and rightly so.

My current Baroque repertoire focuses mainly on Handel, Bach and Gluck. As a native French speaker, widening my range of repertoire to include Rameau and Lully has always been of interest to me, yet tackling it is a very different kettle of fish; the ornamental styles and expected performance practises are significantly different, as is the feeling when singing the music. With so many stylistic uncertainties, who else would’ve provided a better source of guidance than Christophe Rousset?

During my 30 minute open masterclass on Thursday, I took the Phèdre’s aria “Cruelle mère des amours’’ from Hippolyte et Aricie by Rameau. The aria opens Act 3; Phèdre (who harbours an illicit love for her stepson, Hippolyte) is bargaining with the Goddess Venus and imploring her to make Hippolyte receptive to her feelings.



French vocal music is about text. The text and the music are serving the libretto, so it’s not about singing, it’s more about the declamation;

  • Why are you singing – what is the intention?
  • Why do you stop? Use your pauses to allow the audience to witness development of thought.
  • Do you allow anyone else to talk?
  • Show your engagement to the music prior to you singing; your impulse to sing must be in response to a sentiment.
  • The words should be expressed more than the ideas themselves.
  • You must be constantly active /engaged, whether vocally, or in thought.


‘Playing’ sadness is weak. A character may be rejected, angry, bitter, abandoned, and vengeful – but sadness should be avoided because it is a ‘flat’ adjective.

  • Make clear what emotional state you are in.


Directly translated as ‘unequal notes’, it reflects the conscious distortion of the rhythm from its written values.

The main function of notes inégales was to grace passages, most of which are melismatic in character i.e as a form of embellishment for passages that are primarily step-wise and predominantly legato. It was not used to tamper with the essence of the melody, but more as a means of emphasis and embellishment. These ‘notes inégales’ were rarely notated, yet it was expected that the singers abide by this practice (or alternatively, it was written predominantly in the instrumental lines, but never in the vocal line – to allow the singer the freedom to select which sections they would apply this practice to).


This practise was so much a part of the manner of playing in France, that playing in an equal style was often indicated by vertical slashes over the notes, staccato marks, slurs over more than two notes, or the word marqué written under the music.

I found singing in this style a revelation, and such a helpful tool in emphasising the text one step further without feeling bound by what is printed on the page.


  • French music is about text, declamation, grammar, theatrical gestures and of course the inventive 18th century dances in Rameau; invest in ensuring you fully understand the historical, musical, and theatrical aspects to the opera before you even attempt the individual arias.

The two day course culminated in an evening concert of pre-selected operatic scenes and chamber ensembles – a perfect way to put into practise what had been so thoroughly and enthusiastically explained by Christophe, leaving us all looking forward to applying these new skills to our personal repertoire.

I look forward to seeing what the IRSS have planned for 2016/17!

(Photography credits to: http://www.robtysonknights.com/ )

Landscape | Bloomsbury Theatre, London

At the very start of ENO Opera Works, we were told by the lovely Lucy Roberts (Opera Works alumni) that one of the best things to come out of the course is the bond we make with our fellow singers. I looked around the room and thought ‘nah’…..I was wrong.

Just over a year ago, 20 of us met for the first time during our ‘working session audition’ with Martin Constantine, at the ENO Lilian Baylis House. It was definitely the first time I’ve ever done an impression of a deranged cat (there were even more impressive creature creations, trust me) infront of complete strangers, and for a split second I’ll admit that I did  ask myself if perhaps I’d thrown myself into something I wasn’t ready for. These feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty are the exact sentiments which the course has enabled me to push to one side, and to allow myself to enjoy the ‘what ifs’ of performance.

The 13th May was our performance of ‘Landscape’ at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London.   Each weekend leading up to our 3 days in the space was rammed with devising (if I never see a devising room again, it’ll be too soon!), dancing (breakout Macarena providing a constant source of much needed chuckles) and creating – all the while using the tools we’d gathered right back at the start of the course with Input Weekend 1. Throughout Opera Works my lovely colleagues have always been a source of strength and motivation, and production week was no exception.

Here are a few images taken during the dress rehearsal of Landscape:


Photos: With thanks to Rob Tsyon Knights Photography (http://www.robtysonknights.com/)

I feel incredibly lucky to have shared the past year with this great, supportive team of cagoule-sporting beauts, and I look forward to us seeing each other next week for our final Opera Work instalment – singing an aria on the Coliseum Stage.

Watch this space!

Module 3 Response weekend – Final audition preparation

Probably one of my favourite weekends to date – we got to ‘play’ around with one of our chosen audition arias using the tools worked on in our previous input session with Barbara and Paul. It was a weekend which also explored the culmination of months of input sessions – deciding what works for us as individuals, and seeing just how differently we approach our arias.

Sunday we were joined by the lovely Jayke Branson Thom ( https://thalieknights.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/module-2-input-weekend-jayke-branson-thom-leah-hausman-and-olga-masleinnikova/ )  who provided us with some last minute tips which could be incorporated in our mental and physical preparation when faced with any stressful situation. Below are a few points which struck a chord with me:

  • Take your time prior to entering the room, and likewise take your time walking to the panel, to the pianist, and to your standing position. Time will inevitably feel like it’s rushing past in such circumstances, so really try to ensure you slow yourself down, and make the room your space.
  • Ensure you have eye contact with each member of the panel as you talk.
  • Set the agenda of your audition – smile, and be approachable.
  • Don’t stand with your knees and feet locked – this prevents you from moving instinctively if you wish to do so.
  • Arm movements. Yes? No? Fundamentally – if they are part of your character portrayal, ensure that ANY movement carries a sense of energy and purpose.
  • Who are you talking to / singing too in the room? Are they on stage, or in your mind?
  • If you get something wrong during your aria, move onto the next character’s thought.
  • There must be a need to sing the start of each phrase, and equally (especially in Baroque music) there needs to be a reason behind the B section and the da capo.
  • Sustain a thought, and enjoy making the text yours.
  • The walk out of the room is just as important as the walk in – you may still be being watched, so try to avoid showing any negative signs of how you felt you performed (I always save this moment of wallowing for the train ride home, with a giant slice of cake!!!)

Notes from the pianist:

  • No loose sheets! Tape all your music together – don’t leave anything to chance.
  • Mark your breaths and any cuts clearly in the music.
  • Don’t feel apologetic about talking to your pianist and securing your tempo – this is your time to make the most of a situation, so give yourself every advantage.


I don’t know where time has gone! This time last year my lovely Opera Works buddies and I had anxiously submitted our course applications, and now we’ve just completed our final input weekend. Geeze louise. Here are a few personal observations on the weekend, which went from the deadly serious to the totally ridiculous in the flick of a switch!

On Saturday we were met with great enthusiasm by voice and text specialist Barbara Houseman (http://www.barbarahouseman.com/) I always love the start of sessions when the visiting professional asks what individual things you’d like to focus on. Not only does this make you feel like the weekend work isn’t generic, but it’s refreshing to discover that so many of your peers also ‘suffer’ from similar issues. We covered a vast range of exercises to take away with us, ranging from tension releasing exercises, mental preparation for auditions and method approaches on how to support our voices even when speaking. A couple of points which I found useful were the following:

  • If you find your breathing becomes locked under pressurized situations, focus on the out-breath prior to your in-breath.
  • Imagine that your voice and its support are coming from your belly button. My teacher will no doubt roll her eyes when I mention this, as she’s mentioned it over 1000 times to me…
  • Practise singing to an object, even if it’s a plant pot (or in my case, maybe my unsuspecting kitten)! Don’t wait until the audition situation where you find yourself resembling a rabbit in headlights as your mind flicks between ‘should I look at them? Are they looking at me? I can’t find anything to look at!’
  • In an audition scenario, remove all negative attention away from yourself (and your inner critic) and practise observing the room. For example, what are the panel wearing? Do they look happy to see me?

Try to find ways to shift your negative associations into a constructive process, such as ‘I’m going to try and make the next two arias pleasurable for myself and the audience’.

We also spent the afternoon reading a section of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: firstly in strict iambic pentameter, then taking the text apart and seeing how it was structured in a way which required little interference from the reader. This work provided us with a refreshed approach to how we might tackle our arias:

  • Don’t just sing the music – say the words. Talking through the text will provide you with a natural indication as to where the stresses are, and which words are ‘unimportant’.
  • The singing will be kept active if you continue to keep the thoughts of your text active.

Sunday was spent focussing on all things ‘play’, with Paul Hunter – Artistic Director of ‘Told by an Idiot’ (http://www.toldbyanidiot.org/taught/ )  His style of working is mainly comedic, and he also encourages communication with the audience wherever possible – providing natural and spontaneous experiences for those on stage and in the audience.

We did a few exercises covering the idea of how we can reveal our character’s vulnerability, without showing the audience. For example, a lady has purchased a pair of shoes which she believes are the most beautiful in the world. However they only came in 2 sizes too small. Therefore, on the surface she seems like the happiest woman in the world, but there’s a small subtle sign of increasing pain in her eyes. Such emotions are often more effectively portrayed to an audience, as their subtlety has a greater impact.

Playing with such ideas allowed us to think about how we can incorporate this into a scene – is there an opposite physical journey in your scene, to your character’s expressed objective?

It was definitely an eye-opener of a weekend and I don’t think I’ve chuckled so much in one session. ‘Homework’ for our next response weekend now seems to be a never-ending array of suggestions and bullet-points, but given it will be focussed on our individual first-choice arias, I think we’ll all be looking forward to seeing how we can tailor what we’ve learnt, and apply it to our own characters.

ENO Casting Q&A session

With our final consultations looming, last Friday we met with Sophie Joyce (Casting and Harewood Artists Manager) for an informal approach on the ’do’s and don’ts’ of auditioning. Refreshingly, it was a very informal chat which provided us with useful insight from both sides of the coin. I’ve put together some of the main points, which I’m sure each singer could use as a healthy check-list to ensure that you emit the impression of being well put together.

What you can control

  • What you sing, and how you sing it
  • How you look
  • What time you arrive
  • How you present yourself AND your music!
  • Ensuring your CV is up to date, and you take a spare copy with you.

What & how you sing

  • Ensure what you are offering is something you’re confident you would be cast as now. Avoid repertoire that you think could show a role you may sing in 5 years time – trust that the casting department will know that certain roles will potentially lead to others. Focus on the now and show that you are sure of what fach you are, and what roles you are aiming for.
  • Your starter aria should be something you can sing with bells on, even if you’re not feeling at your best. Practise your auditions arias in succession, so you become used to one following the other: there is nothing worse than the starter aria being EPIC, and the second aria letting you down because you’re knackered and can’t make you way through another 4minutes of singing. This starter aria should be the same one you present 95% of the time.
  • If you don’t get a run through with the pianist, take 30 seconds just to establish correct tempo. Take control of the situation.

How you look

  • Hair off your face
  • No short skirts or anything too clingy – you don’t want to be drawing attention away from your singing.
  • Ladies – try to wear heels.
  • If possible, ensure that the cut of what you are wearing shows your general physique.
  • Ladies – no big, awkward earrings. The panel don’t want to sit there focussing on your jewellery, and last thing you want is to resemble this lady… !!

Small things which can make a difference

  • Practise introducing your arias. Nerves often get the better of us at the worst time – don’t be that person that forgets what they’re singing / who the composer is etc.
  • Knowing that you are fully prepared makes a big difference. For example, knowing that vocally and technically you would be ready to perform 12 shows provides you with the confidence to know that you have worked towards the correct stamina level to see you through.
  • If the panel are within walking distance to the door, shake their hand as you go in.
  • Regarding Chorus work – this is often a common way for emerging singers to gain experience and make contacts. If you don’t intend on remaining in the chorus, set yourself a 1-2 year plan.
  • Your CV is an insight into where you are currently in the industry. Keep it 1 page long. Don’t just accept work in order to fill up your CV. Sing things you want to sing, make contacts, and invite people to hear you sing. Networking is key.