A few weeks ago, I had the chance to sit in on a singing lesson with a well-known voice teacher. It was like stepping back in time. The walls of her one-room studio were covered in posters commemorating performances around the world, each one boasting faded signatures and dedications in foreign languages. On the hardwood floor sat piles of sheet music, along one wall an overstuffed couch, and in its neighboring corner a bed covered in all manner of papers. From my perch on the couch, I contemplated the ceiling with its peeling paint, the result of who knows what disasters from upstairs neighbors over the years. But of course, the main attraction of this room was on the far side: taking up one whole end of the room, a fabulously appointed honey-colored grand piano, with seductively carved legs and scrolls in all the right places.
Teacher and student took their places – teacher at the piano, a young soprano at a music stand facing her. For the next hour, they did nothing but vocal exercises. Matching pitch. Intervals. Vowel sounds. Oohs and ahhs, all vaguely Italian-sounding. I caught myself holding my breath, trying to keep up, then after a while just gave in to the flow of give and take, breathing and exhaling, rising and falling of pitch, intensity and timbre. I was reminded of watching an art student at his easel in the art museum, patiently copying the work of a great artist. A student following the brush strokes of a master, learning the shape and form of beauty, although I could not fathom how.
As the lesson progressed, the teacher took pains to remind her student: remember what I told you about “forte” and “piano.” My ears pricked up – here, at last, was something I knew.
As long as I’ve played music, I’ve known that forte means loud, and piano means soft. That’s what every kid in middle school band and orchestra learns. But in this session, the teacher said something very different. Glancing up from the keyboard, she said simply: you know, in Italian Forte doesn’t just mean Loud, it means Strong. And Piano doesn’t just mean Soft, it means Gentle. It’s a matter of intensity, not volume. I want strong and gentle – not loud and soft!
Now, before all the Italian scholars in Michiana start sending me emails, I know that her translation of piano might me a little loose. Piano is more likely to mean slowly than gently. But still, her point was a revelation to me.
What a difference for an artist to think in terms of Strong and Gentle, rather than Loud and Soft. How many more layers of nuance, of texture and color, would there be in the music? That’s what this wise teacher was getting at.
A strong voice does not have to be loud. A gentle voice does not have to be soft. I imagine you could have a very quiet strong voice, and a very loud gentle voice. What matters most is the value of what is being communicated, not just its volume.
Value, not volume.
Bizarrely, I feel like this is an important insight for life right now - in our politics, our neighborhoods, our families, our passions, our common causes, our disagreements. For mayors and grieving residents, for powerful and powerless.
May every beautiful voice – gentle and strong – be fully heard.
Music: "Ruhe, Meine Seele," composed by Richard Strauss; performed by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano, with Gerald Moore at the piano.