Breathe above it

Sanford Sylvan died this week. Like a lot of people, I first heard him on records—the early John Adams operas, especially—and on television, those Craig Smith-Peter Sellers Mozart operas that were taped for PBS. It was an indelible impression. When I would compose for voice, most of the time, I had in my ear a kind of generic vocal sound, but if I was setting English, particularly tricky, prosaic English, I heard Sandy singing Chou En-Lai.

When I was a staff accompanist at the Boston Conservatory, part of my brief was playing piano for masterclasses Sandy regularly gave there. Unusually for the Conservatory, the singers for the class were a mix of classical and musical-theater students, and, unusually for anywhere, Sandy’s approach didn’t vary between the two. Handel, Debussy, Porter, Sondheim, Schoenberg, Boublil and Schönberg, what have you—his coaching always orbited three centers. The text had to be crystal-clear, in understanding and delivery. The emotion always had to be active: a verb, not an adjective. And the breath was paramount.

The other thing that he always communicated to the class, mostly (but not always) implicitly, was that singing wasn’t just your talent, or your passion, it was your job—and, like any job, doing it well required its own habits and practical considerations. He encouraged and even ordered students to do all that stuff that other musicians regard as crazy-singer things: wearing scarves in summer, toting around a water bottle, being on vocal rest. If someone came in with their shirt pinching their neck, Sandy would tell them to do what he did, which was buy shirts a collar-size up or two. (Dress for the job you want, &c.) His repertoire of instructions were applicable to any singer, any style. If someone’s resonance was trapped in the back of their throat, Sandy gave them an image resonating with both forward movement and poise: Down the front steps. (I still use that one.) If the breath was getting high, the diaphragm not fully settling on the inhale: Feel the floor. (I still use that one, too.) And he was particularly insistent on maintaining daylight between feeling an emotion and portraying one. It’s not your job to feel sad, he would say. It’s your job to make them feel sad, and he would point to the audience. But often a singer would get caught up in the emotion anyway. Sandy had practical advice for that, too: Breathe above it. He had a knack for finding the one thing to fix that would fix a multitude of other things, and he had an unfailing kindness and generosity that made everyone feel like they could and would get better at the job.

I am and have always been a somewhat cynical person. That might be why what most impressed me about Sandy, what I found so gratifying, so nourishing about being around him, talking with him, randomly running into him (usually at Tanglewood) was that he seemed to be altogether free of cynicism. He wore a kind of equanimity like a scarf, a sense that, whatever frustrations and anxieties the world threw at you, you could always breathe above it, and exhale something beautiful. Another word for it is grace.

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