What does my opera have in common with a jazz performance? The answers to these questions are all yes. Here’s a bit of what I’ve come to think about the mezzo soprano: They may not necessarily sing in the same key as the singers who wrote the original opera; they may do so only as a part of the performance; they may sing a different style of music as a part of the performance in some ways; and they may play at the piano, bass, and percussion instruments. (See The Essential Guide to the Mezzo Soprano: Playing at the Piano.) But this is all about the same idea: the mezzo soprano has got to work out of the same musical context and with the same musicianship as the artists playing the original composition. And as I found when I tried to play music for my own orchestra at the old Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles, the mezzo soprano will do just that.
Of course, these are all subjective views; nobody is saying what they think the best mezzo soprano should sing; rather, they are saying what they think you should play as. But this also has two important effects:
First, musicians are not limited to just one style of music and are not stuck with one set of instruments either. The range of options is the wide variety of things the singer can play as, whether the music is traditional or jazz, or the classical or modern. So not only are musicians more free to improvise (as the piano player can in one sense), but now they are free to use different instruments and approaches to musical composition as well.
Second, and this is very difficult to convey without words, the music itself becomes much less abstract and more literal and immediate. This is an important effect, because not only does this change the way you look at music, but the way that the work itself becomes more immediate. The original symphony composer’s idea of melody and harmony may not be what the musicians in the orchestra played at the time, but the musicality and immediacy of the music itself gives it a whole new meaning and perspective, much as if a painter had painted a picture of an old painting in an earlier period that suddenly appeared yesterday and is to become a contemporary work today. (Or, of course, as if someone said to a painter, “You could paint any image you like, but what we will know is that you have drawn attention to something that we haven’t before.”) But this musical
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