I want to be an opera singer: should I be marking?

The only time I can ever remember the subject of marking being raised during my conservatoire years was when a visiting conductor threw a bit of a tantrum about his cast not “singing out” during a stage rehearsal. His point was perfectly reasonable – they were double-cast and there was a scheduled rest day tomorrow – but it still struck me as unfair, since for many of us it was the first piece of formal advice we’d received on the topic.

“Marking” is a generic term used to describe a variety of less strenuous (or that’s the idea anyway) methods of singing a role during rehearsals. Non-singers may be familiar with the concept from the announcement made before the start of an open dress rehearsal, reminding the audience that singers may not sing the whole role pedal-to-the-metal since this is still a rehearsal; and the audience silently says yah boo sucks to them if they don’t.

For a young singer the whole issue can be bewildering – there are as many different approaches to marking as there are singers, and there rarely seems to be any guidance, official or otherwise, on when or how to do it. Here are a few subjective and unscientific thoughts on what I’ve seen and heard over the years.

If in doubt, sing out

The first piece of good advice on marking is: don’t. I can’t honestly think of a circumstance under which you’d be frowned upon for singing out, and in fact as a young singer it will reassure the people around you that you’re on top of your role. In an ideal world you’d never find yourself singing a role which you needed to mark at any point. Plus, as a young singer your voice will be at its most pliable and resilient, so can probably take you round the houses a few more times than your more senior colleagues. Singing out can feel awkward if everyone else is marking, but personally I’d resist the temptation to mark out of politeness – they have their job to do, you have yours, and marking can easily and unhelpfully spread through a cast like an epidemic.

NB: if a colleague is marking a role that you know, do not under any circumstances try to be helpful and sing it yourself. This applies even if you’re the official cover, unless you are 1000% sure that you’ve been asked to, and that everyone involved knows beforehand. Yes, 1000%, not a misprint.

Choose your moment

So in an ideal world none of us would ever mark. Now, back to reality. Over the course of your career your voice will (we hope) gain in weight and colour, but will at some point start to need more looking after, just as older athletes need more recovery time between their performances. I can’t imagine that a marathon runner would prepare for a race by running two marathons the day before. As you get older you’ll also (we hope) find yourself taking on more challenging roles, be it because of their length, vocal weight and/or dramatic content.

You will also without question find yourself facing rehearsal periods where little or no thought has been given to the vocal rest and recovery time needed by the singers.

So at some point you’ll need to think about conserving your vocal resources, and this is where marking comes in. The first thing you need to do is plan it out, and this involves getting as much information about the rehearsal schedule as you can. That’s often easier said than done – companies are, rightly or wrongly (ok, wrongly), often reluctant to release details of their planned timetables – especially to singers – until they’re 100% confirmed, which in practice sometimes means a few hours before and on a day-by-day basis. The key here is to realise that long-term schedules do exist, in some form, and if you are to gain some sort of access to this information, you need to be nice and polite to the people who have it: company management and music staff. Not just nice and polite when you ask for the information you need, but nice and polite from the very first day you deal with them to the very last – if you can be efficient and professional when they need things from you, they are far more likely to help you out when you need something from them. It helps to ask in person, at a convenient time, and to make clear that you’re asking so that you can pace your rehearsal period, rather than plan an unauthorized trip abroad to the beach and/or lucrative double-booked gig with rival company*. If you feel a more material transaction is in order, cake seems to be a pretty much universally accepted currency.

Having got hold of some sort of idea of when over the next few weeks you’re going to need to be on top form, you can then think about when you might be able to give a bit less. The sort of rehearsals where you usually can or should take it easy are initial staging rehearsals, especially ones where you’re going to go over your aria 37 times, and technical or lighting rehearsals, where you’re really only needed to stand on your marks in the right costume.

Rehearsals during which you really should be singing out are: music calls, sitzprobes, stage & orchestras, dress rehearsals – in other words, any rehearsals of which the conductor is in charge. You’d also be wise to have a word with maestro before any other rehearsal at which you’re not going to sing out, just so he knows what he’s hearing, and can tell you what he needs too.

Remember that, however you do it, marking the vocal line shouldn’t mean that you are any less accurate or energetic in terms of rhythms, entries, tempi and texts – in fact, not singing out will automatically reduce these aspects for most singers, so you should apply yourself to them with even more commitment when marking.

Down the octave

The most common method of rehearsal marking in my experience is to sing everything down an octave. This is especially tempting for a role which lies in the upper half of your range of course. It’s something I’ve found myself doing quite a lot, and the more I do it, the less I think it’s a good idea, especially in a role you’ve not sung before, because you’re not preparing your muscles for the task ahead of them – in fact, you’re quite deliberately lulling them into a false sense of security. An advantage of this method is that your text and notes should be audible to your colleagues who are trying to learn their cues (although it should be noted a bottom C is not the same note as a top C, which can be more significant than you might think, especially in less tonal music). But overall I don’t think it’s a great idea over extended periods – your voice and body need a chance to get to know the mountain they’re about to climb.

Attempting to sing a vocal line down an octave can also reveal exactly how well or otherwise you know which pitches you’re supposed to be singing in the first place. As with all marking methods, it’s best to prepare it throughly in private first.

Singing a single climactic high note down an octave is perfectly acceptable and sensible – just be careful that you approach it every time as if you were going to sing it at pitch, again from the point of view of training your muscle memory.

Don’t under any circumstances do what I have heard one or two colleagues do, which is to mark the whole role down an octave except for the climactic top C, which they then sing fortissimo at pitch. People will think you’re a dick.

The goldfish

At the most extreme end of the scale, I’ve seen singers mark a role by mouthing the words but not singing at all. In terms of vocal rest, this must be ideal I suppose. However, it’s not helpful to the rest of the cast if they’re relying on you for their pitches or cues, and even if you have an extended solo, other characters on stage are still supposed to be listening to you, and need to rehearse their journeys too. If you have a soliloquy then it might be ok, assuming you’ve spoken to the conductor and he doesn’t mind either. But bear in mind that it takes a hugely skilful physical actor to be able to reproduce the exact same line of physical action that he would execute when singing out.

Piano-pianissimo

The method of marking I try to make myself employ when needed is to sing the role at pitch but with reduced dynamics. That way, you still groove the right muscle memory, you practise the correct breath support (assuming your technique is correct), and with good pianissimo-projection your colleagues should still get everything they need from you to do their jobs. You might also discover a whole load of moments where you didn’t need to be singing fortissimo after all. (And of course, even when you’re singing out, your fortissimo shouldn’t be costing you much more than your pianissimo – ff doesn’t just mean “as loud as you can sing” but also “…without damaging anything”.)

Now, in some ways this method is just as ideal-world a solution as not marking at all, since it requires you to be in pretty good voice to make it work. If your voice is tired or “dirty”, or you’re unwell, singing piano is usually a sure-fire way of revealing the rough patches. But whether to sing when you’re not 100% is another blog in itself. The general idea is that by pacing yourself through a rehearsal process, you’ll keep yourself on top of your health and fatigue levels. The easiest way to catch a donkey is to keep it in the stable.

Plan ahead

The most important point for me when I’m marking is that it should never be a spur-of-the-moment decision – in other words, I make the decision before a rehearsal starts (preferably a few days before so that I have an overall plan) about whether, when and how I’m going to mark, and I also make time to practise how I’m going to mark. That decision can be adapted as the rehearsal evolves, but the crucial factor is that marking or not marking – and the method of marking I use – are all positive decisions, so that even if I’m marking, I’m still doing it as part of a committed physical and mental process. The risk otherwise – and I’ve seen and heard this happen – is that in the heat of a performance, a singer’s panicked brain can suddenly get hold of the steering wheel and they end up singing an octave down, an octave up, a combination of both or not at all.

As with every part of the process, the more a singer engages his or her brain during the preparation, the more freedom he or she will have on stage – and it’s that freedom, of voice, body and mind, that allows a singer to produce a great performance when it really counts.

Planning the right time to take a rest is crucial.

Planning the right time to take a rest is crucial.

* – In case anyone from Hawaii Opera is reading, I still have reasonable availability for 2016-17.

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About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at: mail@paulcareyjones.com
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