I recently had the opportunity to attend a vocal mastery class led by Beth Bruno. Now for those that don’t know who Beth Bruno is, she is an accomplished singer, whose career spans more than 30 years. Critics have celebrated her as one of Brazil’s greatest artists of the new generation. She has also had the opportunity to collaborate with musical giants the likes Brazilian songwriters Milton Nascimento, Djavan, Gilberto Gil, Ivan Lins, Roberto Carlos, and performed on tour with jazz icon Al Jarreau. This master class focused on a lot of important areas that every vocalist should pay attention to.
Bruno touched on many areas like passion/connection to the message of a song; pitch accuracy; breathing; and vocal technique, but her two messages that stuck out for me were about breathing and delivery. Delivery is huge for any performer, especially me, because it dictates whether my audience will stay engaged in what I am doing. Delivery has everything to do with how a song is presented. Whenever I look at who I consider to be the greatest vocalists of all time (Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Freddie Mercury, Luther Vandross, Pavarotti, Whitney Houston etc.) what comes to mind is how easy these individuals made it look. They did not let the technical part of singing get in the way of the delivery. I grew up singing gospel music so I always had a sense of style with a carefree approach because I was at a point where I did not have to think about what I could do with my voice; rather, I just sang with everything I had and left nothing on the table. I now struggle with this very principle, which on paper seems very simple. But when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of this concept, it can really be a long process.
Before coming to Berklee I attended a classical conservatory for four years and I had to switch from a genre that is free in nature to its complete opposite. Although the teaching I received was excellent, I was taught there to focus on technique, as it was deemed the most important element. Now, although I have performed for a long time it is very much a work in progress: technique sometimes conflicts with the delivery for me. I want to get every note perfect all the time. Quite often, the greatest performances are flawed but the commitment to the delivery is so strong that all the other stuff doesn’t matter anymore. Bruno played a rendition of “Silent Night” by Mahalia Jackson and her delivery of the phrases, the tenderness she used with every word, and her free approach to presenting the song in the best way she knew shows why this is so important.
Among all the fundamentals to a vocalist, breath management should be the number one area to focus on. In my private vocal lesson as a first semester voice principal my instructor [Loree Slye] makes sure that this is the first lesson that we learn. For me this is the most important because without it the continuity of a song, its intent, effect, and overall progression can and will be compromised. One of the breath exercises that we do is called the “ABC” exercise. This is where we take in a deep breath using the diaphragm and recite the alphabet. If done correctly, you should be able recite eight repetitions while staying completely in control of your air flow. This took me a while to master because I did not know the “why” behind the reasons developing the “right or deep” breath was important. Before I had a hard time with certain phrases and sustaining certain notes or doing stylized ad libs but just practicing that exercise completely changed my approach to a piece of music. The really cool thing about this exercise is that it became a fun challenge between my voice teacher and me and so it became less work and more fun without compromising the lesson learned. This for me is what I want—where practice becomes much more than work and I can apply all of these techniques and suggestions to every piece I perform without even thinking about it. I know that it seems like a lot to ask but I promise that if you take it, little bit by little bit, you will find out things about who you are and where your voice can take you. Take an example from the greatest vocalists of our generation, including Beth Bruno, who exude an understanding of the fundamentals of what makes a performer great, the ability to borrow and share technique, a willingness to experiment, and a passion to want to extend the reach of the voice well beyond the stage.
Jonathan Page is a first semester voice principal who is majoring in professional music.