Oxford Times feature article

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‘Striking the right vocal chord: the leading singing teacher Alexander Massey gives a lesson in how to use your voice’

Hugh Vickers, Oxford Times, Friday, Nov. 8, 2002

After meeting and writing about the Welsh National Opera star tenor Dennis O’Neill the other week, it was pleasure to encounter one of the best-known singing teachers based in Oxford, Alexander Massey.

Alexander is not only responsible for the vocal health of a number of well-known singers, he is just as interested in the spoken as the singing voice, and after 18 years in this field, his ‘Voice Wisdom’ classes [formerly ‘Free Your Voice’] are now attended by all kinds of people for whom vocal presentation is important, from actors to business people.

“Many people have no idea how their voice is produced, or what it sounds like, even though it is their most important tool,” he said. “Take teachers. They have to use their voices constantly, often in the worst possible acoustic conditions. They ‘soldier on’ through colds, flu, or laryngitis, rather than take time off work. Result – voice loss, which accounts for 20% of teacher absence – often just near the start of term, because of stress and the sudden extra demands on the voice. I have short evening workshops for them, with simple breathing and stretching exercises, which will get the voice back if it’s gone – and stop them losing it in the first place.”

And singers have the same problems?

“They do, and it’s all mostly caused by the wrong type of stress and tension. My lessons start from the premise that the voice is not just something you activate mechanically to produce a certain type of noise. It’s bound up with your belief systems, your emotional experiences, your whole personality. I’d even say singing is a spiritual as much as a physical thing – in early cultures, after all, singing was an important way to connect with the Divine.”

I’ve heard that you’re interested in remote cultures and peoples, the American Indians, for example.

“Yes, it’s something I share with my wife Hilary, who hails from South Africa. I’m interested in many aspects of native music apart from incantation Ð Hilary and I teach African drumming, for instance. Surprisingly enough, it’s a highly effective tool to teach team-building in business companies. Put a drum in their hands and those executives will start listening to each other as they never did in the boardroom.”

Tell me about your early musical education. Weren’t you a chorister at Christ Church?

“Yes, indeed. I was in the Christ Church choir both as a choral scholar and tenor lay clerk. Subsequently, I was also a lay clerk at York Minster, so I have great experience of choral singing.”

The three great Oxford choirs – Christ Church, Magdalen and New College – are often criticised for being beautiful, but producing that curiously flutey sound that quickly becomes boring. What do you think about that as a fellow teacher?

“To a certain extent they’re all part of that dubious Victorian concept, the ‘English cathedral tradition’ that can sometimes produce a rather impersonal, sexless way of singing which can, in its turn, stunt the development of the voice.”

Several of the students who sang in masterclasses for Sir Thomas Allen as Professor of Opera last year – many from these great choirs – struck me as sadly timid and inhibited, despite often having beautiful voices.

“That’s because in a choir you’re encouraged to blend in with those around you, and the young singers often do not have the experience or technique to do this without compromising their voices. Also, of course, there’s the fact that the soprano line is sung by the trebles. This greatly affects the tradition which Stephen Darlington (Christ Church) and Edward Higginbottom (New College) are continuing. They get great results, make wonderful recordings – and yet that unanimity of tone is largely due to the adult singers [holding back] to help the trebles.”

I’ve heard they’re constantly told to listen to what the trebles do.

“Of course. Inevitably, they [are often asked to match] what the trebles do – a traditional choir just cannot allow the body and strength of tone in the higher range of an adult.”

So it follows that when a treble’s voice breaks, and he becomes an adult ‘lay clerk’, there’s no way he can realise his fully vocal potential?

“Not exactly. The natural thing for all voices, as they develop, is really to blossom out on top. Yet the choirmaster is constantly saying, ‘No, please hold that back’. Result: the singing muscles are conditioned to contract, not expand. It’s the opposite of what is needed by an adult solo singer, and the reason why some choirboys struggle to make a singing career later in life unless they either stay within that choral tradition or the early music scene, or retrain to be able to meet the technical demands of, for example, opera.”

You’re certainly an exception. Tell me about your performance career.

“Well, considering the amount of teaching I’ve always done, I’ve managed to cram in quite a bit of solo work. I particularly enjoyed Peter Quint in Britten’s ‘Turn of the Screw’, for instance, in a special performance for the Friends of Covent Garden, and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni for Opera Nova. But I’ve also been a soloist in the St Matthew Passion at St James’ Piccadilly and the Verdi Requiem at Cheltenham. Not to mention several choral assignments very different from a church choir – the chorus of Lyons Opera, for instance, and the Edinburgh Festival Singers at Edinburgh and Salzburg.”

That much-abbreviated list would alone suggest that Alexander is no ordinary singing teacher. He must be, technically, one of the most rock-solid musicians I know. He once had to perform a recital involving Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten songs to his own accompaniment because his accompanist was suddenly taken ill on the day – but then, he does play piano to professional standard (and clarinet, and bassoon, incidentally).

A rare attainment, but then I have heard him sight-read a particularly difficult work by the modern Finnish composer Arvo Paert in Christ Church for the Oxford Contemporary Music Festival, starting with a long unaccompanied melisma for which he got the opening pitch from his own tuning fork. But, just to give an idea of his versatility, he was off to Guernsey the following week to take part in the International Festival of Folk and Blues, playing Irish whistles and guitar.

I reckon these are just the sort of widely-differing abilities which make for a first-class, thoroughly unconventional teacher. He even encourages pupils to make mistakes, so that they can see how much easier it is when you don’t. “Self-belief is what I teach”, he says. “Whether it’s singing or speaking, have faith. You can do anything.”

Marvellous. Anyone who uses their voice – who doesn’t? – would benefit from a session with Alexander. Free Your Voice [now Oxford Singing Lessons] offers one-to-one classes for anyone and his other classes range from a two-hour Voice Care session for teachers, to a two-day workshop on Voice Wisdom – the Voice and the Self.

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