This is a text I wrote in 2015 when I started paying attention to certain situations that triggered my singing nerves to sing against me.
I realise, when I write these posts, that many of them are about what I’ve learned and what I now have to re-learn in my own way. I’ve always been the good student, doing what the grown-ups told me to do and I think I now understand that I am one of the grown-ups myself, especially since I’m now the one who sometimes teaches and makes young people do what I tell them to do.
One of the things that quite strongly affect my students is Fear.
Fear of doing wrong (whatever that is), fear of being wrong, fear of giving away too much, fear of sounding unfamiliar and strange etc etc. I totally sympathise with them, even though my own fear in this area didn’t start to show its ugly face until I was older.
Before that, I just opened my mouth and my heart and sang. Almost.
The first composer that made me realise that music can be truly magical was Johan Sebastian Bach. I think a lot of musicians’ first love is Bach. It is his open, yet so clear and distinct music. The music is so strong that you can fill it with yourself and it is still Bach. I liked that! So for years I just played and sang.
And then I started hearing rumours about how strict he was and how strict the conductors that work with his music are and I kind of began to understand that there was more to it than I thought- it was not good enough to just sing as well as you possibly could. No, there was a whole universe of mathematical rules, of non vibrato rules, of tempo rules, of clear as crystal rules, and some days I must have felt it too, because suddenly I didn’t find the pleasure in his, wonderful, music any more. I just had to get through it. I felt fear! My throat constricted and my musicality disappeared. I was never as nervous as when I sang in one of the Bach Passions.
Of course, this was a conflict I had created by myself in my own head. No one is to be blamed. But isn’t it strange how some composers, or the tradition following them, trigger these thoughts? That we are not good enough for them? Even if, according to the sources, even the singers Bach had in hand weren’t good enough for it either.
But, we still have Kaffeekantata… Mmm, coffee…
Kaffeekantata is a secular kantata that Bach wrote together with a man who called himself Picander (his real name was Christian Friedrich Henrici and I agree, Picander is a lot cooler) and is a cute little story about Liesgen who, much to her father, Herr Schlendriand’s, dismay, prefers coffee to…anything. A bit like myself actually. Ask anyone who has to live and/or work with me.
Now, the habit of drinking coffee today is not as looked down upon as it was during the days of Bach. Then coffee was bad. Today coffee is normal – just something you do. And coffee is everywhere. Literaly. In our times of superabundance, the only one who can control our cravings is ourselves and if you can’t control it you are a person without integrity and the only one to be blamed. Control.
When singing the Kaffeekantata, it’s impossible to be afraid of Johan Sebastian Bach. It’s impossible to not enjoy it very, very much. Even though the humour is way out of date, it’s very funny in a strange way (”Give me coffee, or else I’ll be just like a dry old goat’s bleating”). And if I am singing in Swedish – a language I am very familiar with – it’s even down to earth and reachable. I know that the audience will meet the Johan Sebastian who could laugh at silly things. A man who set music to silly texts (even though he didn’t do it much) can’t be that scary. Not even for me.