Sage advice for singers - and all of us!
We asked the our amazing soloist for Handel's Heroines Vania Chan (pictured here in the role of Cleopatra) a few questions, and she came back to us with amazing answers - her advice in number 3 is relevant to all of us at times!
RBE: Which piece do you think will be most challenging for you during the upcoming concert, and why?
VC: Simply because it’s the newest piece for me, I think Alcina’s “Ah! Ruggiero crudel…Ombre pallide” will be the most challenging. It has an extensive recitative that portrays Alcina’s complex shifting emotions, followed by a dramatic aria, all of which a singer has to make her own. Handel has done a beautiful job of musically setting the text, so my goal is to let the words breathe, and bring the character to life.
RBE: Do you play any instruments as well?
VC: I play the piano, and a little bit of guitar. If time permits, I’d love to pick up a Chinese classical stringed instrument like the pipa or the erhu.
RBE: What are the top 5 tips you would recommend to maintain your skills as a soprano singer?
VC: I know these tips may seem obvious, but they are tried, tested and true, and I live and work by them:
1) Know your music – be prepared: Really take the time to really learn your music. The more familiar you are with every aspect of the piece – the text, the pitches, the rhythms, the character, the emotional arc, etc. – the more comfortable and confident you will be. This automatically relieves some tension from your voice. At the same time, through meticulous and detailed study you build a strong and disciplined work ethic in yourself.
2) Practice regularly: Life is busy, but your voice is an athletic instrument that needs to be exercised regularly if not every day. Space out your practice sessions, and don’t sing for too long. Two hours of continuous singing in a practice session is the most I will do. Make a plan of what you would like to practice, so you can guide your focus.
3) Keep a Journal: Write down your goals, your progress, your setbacks, etc. A good exercise is to describe and write down what you are thinking during specific moments in a practice session. Be honest with yourself. What is your language like – positive or negative? What solutions/tactics do you plan to employ to help your vocal development?
4) Record, and listen back to recordings of yourself: We often don’t like to listen to recordings of ourselves, but it is a crucial exercise. As singers we can never really gain a true sense of what we sound like to our audience. Face the music and take the time to listen back to a recording of a lesson, rehearsal, or performance. Take time to enjoy the positive points, and then allow yourself to zero in on the things you need to work on. Once you’ve highlighted what work needs to be done, don’t beat yourself up, just do it.
5) Be kind to yourself: We are our own worst critic, so we need to be mindful about being kind to ourselves. If you’re doing your work, and you’re doing your best, then trust that progress is being made, and allow for mistakes and imperfections to happen. Being realistically aware of the current condition of your voice, even if it’s not where you want it to be, is the first step towards improving and maintaining your vocal skills.
RBE: Is there something about you that people might be surprised to know?
VC: I’m completing a PhD at York University, focusing on vocal pedagogy and its psychological implications. I’m currently balancing performance, teaching and research/writing.
On another more recreational note, I love playing video games. It’s an activity that helps me de-stress, but also keeps me actively engaged and maintains my reflex skills. I’m currently a big fan of PC games, and at the end of a long day, I like to play for a bit.
RBE: Who is your favourite Handel heroine and why?
VC: My favourite Handel heroine is Cleopatra. She is epic in her own right, a famous historical figure known for her leadership and her dramatic life story. Handel wrote some of his best music for her character in his opera “Giulio Cesare”, and it’s an absolute joy to sing her arias. Each aria showcases a different facet of Cleopatra, from playful to vengeful, and ultimately triumphant!
RBE: Any other heroines?
VC: One other heroine that holds a special place in my heart is Morgana. Her famous aria “Tornami a Vagheggiar” from the opera “Alcina” is the first Handel aria that I fell in love with, and allowed me to fully embrace my lyric coloratura soprano voice. She’s also quirky, funny, naïve, and fiery, which made her a fun character to portray on stage.