Finding a singing teacher can be a tricky business, because even if there is one in your locality, so much depends on how you get on with them. There is no instrument to come between student and teacher: no piano, guitar or oboe. As a singer your instrument is you, and consequently it is important that you are able to forge a good relationship with the person who will be helping you ‘play’ that instrument.
Fortunately I was very happy with the first and only singing teacher I went to in London (Elizabeth Puritz, whom I wrote about on 17 March). It was less easy to find someone in Southport, and for a while I went for lessons with a man in Liverpool, about whom I can now remember very little. Then I heard about Barbara Dix and her husband, the pianist Alexander Abercrombie.
Looking back over the years when I went to Barbara for lessons, I’m amazed at the range of singing experiences I (and others) enjoyed. Taking the Associated Board exams was not my favourite sort of experience, I must admit! But I did do one or two. Some people might work well without exams, but I like having something to aim for, something to measure myself against, and the pressure of a looming exam forced me to practise. Besides, there were plenty of other singing opportunities that offered pleasure rather than pain.
One experience that was new – or almost new – to me, was singing in music festivals. But that is a subject in itself, which I shall save for another time.
What I most appreciated about Barbara and Alex, I think, was that they were so enabling. Under the rather grand ‘brand’ name, The Mastersingers, they presented semi-staged operas, and this was the sort of solo singing I most enjoyed, for opera gives you a character to inhabit. The staging was simple, but we had costumes and lighting, and we were performing as a group within the framework of the opera’s story. It was a very different experience from just standing on a stage or platform as yourself and singing. I remember being involved in performances of The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, and Ravel’s unusual and magical L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. But the part I loved singing was that of the Princess, Sister Angelica’s severe, unfeeling aunt in Puccini’s Suor Angelica. One could speculate at length about the reasons, but there is without a doubt great pleasure to be gained by singing (or acting) an unpleasant character!
Another memory I have of an occasion that was out of the ordinary was singing one of Webern’s songs. Alex, a brilliant pianist, musician (and mathematician) was giving a series of lectures, and wanted a singer for one of them. I don’t know if he was unable to find a suitable recording, or whether he preferred to have a live performance, but at any rate I was excited by the challenge when he asked me to sing. And it certainly was a challenge! These miniature compositions in twelve-tone music don’t offer any obvious melodic line, and even if you understand the principles of twelve-tonal composition, that doesn’t make it any easier to actually pitch the notes. But with Alex’s help I did my best. I don’t know to what extent I actually sang the right notes when it came to it, but at least the audience would not have known either!
Barbara and Alex have left a legacy from their days in Southport. Not only are there many singers who owe their training to Barbara, but the Mozart Singing Competition (originally Mozart Competition) is still running. They started the competition in 1987, but by that time I had decided that I was probably better suited to being a choral singer than a soloist. I am still keen to improve my technique and welcome opportunities to learn new things, but there comes a time when you have to recognize your limitations. For me, choral singing offers immense pleasure – without the stress and anxiety of singing on your own. But I am indebted to Barbara and Alex for widening my singing horizons and for providing a foundation on which I still try to build.