FIFTEEN TRANSFORMATIVE LESSONS FROM MAESTRA MEZZO-SOPRANO JOYCE DIDONATO
Updated: Jun 4
Opera singer Joyce DiDonato, a mezzo-soprano,
is a miracle maker.
In a 45-minute Mistress Class mezzo-soprano
DiDonato transformed a young opera student, Narea Son,
into the believable, excruciatingly tragic figure of Cleopatra
in Handel's opera, "Giulio Cesare."
Son was singing the aria “Piangerò la sorte mia,” concerning the moment when all-powerful and entitled Cleopatra had been seized and imprisoned. DiDonato showed the young singer how to inhabit the role, that is, not pretend, but "be" Cleopatra by feeling and overtly expressing the chain of various emotional reactions that one might expect happens as a queen realizes the spot she is in, and envisions her eventual death.
Every single time, Son courageously tried and succeeded in implementing what DiDonato suggested. Surprisingly to me, right from the start tears welled up in my eyes! Even Son's short trial re-singing of parts from the aria affected me deeply.
What was happening -- and how did DiDonato work her magic? That is for experts in the art of opera to say, and I am certainly not that!
However, I know pure magic when it happens,
and that's when I see and hear an actor, singer, or musician
inhabit a role in voice, words, body, and soul,
someone who makes me believe -- and feel deeply.
I do know that DiDonato offered both specific and compelling verbal and physical feedback, such as touching Son's midriff and making directional motions with her hands to "pull" emotions out of Son's body and voice, or when she pointed toward the imaginary villanous person who emprisoned Cleopatra, urging Son to move forward with vengeance in her whole demeanor and voice. I shivered in that moment. These were only some of the emotions of agony and shock upon being imprisoned, including Cleopatra's devastating resignation to her ultimate fate of death, that Son began to personify.
After watching the Mistress Class two times through, I reflected on one of the significant lessons I learned in Noa Kageyama's zoom class "Psych Essentials" that I had recently completed. In order to iron out rough passages in a piano piece and secure it, I learned to set up a 5 x 8" card with three columns. In the first column I write a few specific goals before I play, then I play the tough passage, then write down where and what I messed up. Next I think "what else?" I can try to sort out the problem, then implement those strategies or techniques, and continue the process for a round or two more.
This type of practice was first called "deliberate practice" by psychologist Anders Ericsson, and I just ordered his 2017 book "Peak" to dig further into the concept. I think DiDonato was teaching "deliberate practice"!
I listened intently to comments DiDonato made in her coaching process, and fairly soon began to see their applicability to me, a budding pianist. There appear to be some universal principles regarding how to reach goal excellence that apply to all of the arts, not just relevant to singers.
DiDonato's lessons are now written on a small, decorated "flash card" I keep to the side of my music stand, so that I can (and often do) read them before I practice. You can see one example pictured.
A while ago and as reinforced in Noa's class, I started to keep negative thoughts away from my mind and set up for success by making and occasionally reading one or more of these flash cards that focus on meaningful and critical goals or principles. Recently I added one that lists three occasions where I felt proud of myself because I performed or practiced well. I know that I must use a "good habit" or positive prod to preempt and occupy the mental space where a negative thought or unhelpful habit might be creeping in. I now have other flash cards that repeat generous, encouraging comments from a few "in-the-know" talented professional and amateur musical friends in my life.
Below I list the main messages I took away from DiDonato's coaching session. I intend to watch every single one of her Mistress Classes on YouTube. I'm certain that the below list will grow and require me to make a few more flash cards!
The comment by DiDonato that I most love is:
1. "You are going to the naked place when you are playing (singing)."
I feel that truth. Unless I prevaricate, which I don't, or perhaps unless I am exhausted when I play or practice The Duchess, which is mainly never, I am always naked. That is a prerequisite to play music on the piano and likely on any instrument. Otherwise, it is not music, but something else.
I think that is why a piano teacher has to be incredibly patient and sensitive, if he or she is certain that there is a pure love affair with music going on for the student. That type of student has trustingly put their aspirations to express their love, into the teacher's hands to honor, nurture, and develop. Teaching from ego, habit and rigidity ("Do it my way or the way I was taught") must be the most dangerous of things for a piano teacher to have, at least if they desire to teach me.
So here are the rest of the lessons I gleaned from DiDonato, the magician:
2. It's about my best, the music, and the composer -- not about me.
3. The music deserves everything that I am.
4. Don't act -- feel it, think of the tones I choose to play.
5. Technique has a purpose: to tell us something, to help us excite others when we play.
6. When I let it go, everything I've been searching for starts to arrive.
7. When the thought comes to us, that is usually where the composer wrote a rest in the score.
8. Fuel your tone with the thought.
9. The body is so smart! Listen to it; awareness is my greatest friend.
10. There is a "wonderful opportunity 'to die' on that note!
11. Don't pretend, don't fake it; present it "from my inside."
12. Make the music happen.
13. Don't play the piano; tell a story.
14. It's not giving more tone or dynamic or melodic line (voice), it's about giving intention.
* * *
One cannot force piano love
because it may turn to hate,
no more than one can force a cloud
to change where it navigates.
One cannot make the sun to shine
or the rain to stop its patter,
though some may believe a magic wand
is the trick that will really matter.
I’d be a fool to ask for love
if you’ve nothing left to give,
just because it feels down deep
that without you I cannot live.
Since melody resides in willing hearts
that open to the music,
let go, accept, and remember hope–
those love bring, if you believe it.
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