3.3.3.   ‘Tailored for my voice’ – collaboration with a composer


            When I ask Noa to talk about her collaborations, from the many to choose from she immediately mentions Chaya Czernowin: “She is a very demanding and very… I don't know how to call it… she really is not interested in anything that was heard before… so maybe it's a bit exaggerated, but she really goes to the extremes. She's a very personal composer and she tailors her pieces to specific voices. She listened to I don't know how many recordings of mine, she asked for how many telephone calls to listen to my voice, to hear different things, to create it together with me. And when the piece arrives, I always say that I would never chosen these specific notes, that (it’s) not what I would choose out of my voice…but it's like on every note it says: for Noa Frenkel. It was addressed to me; it was very clear! So that is a very good collaboration.” In such way therefore we can also ‘teach’ the composer—maybe not in terminus technicus, but after detecting what the composer wants to achieve, we could offer alternative options that would fit our voices better, and explain how and why these solutions are more vocal.

3.3.5.   Singing everything – the sports analogy


            Nowadays there is a need for diversity. While we need to be a specialist in everything we sing, we also need to be active in many styles and genres – thus also sing everything. Coming from a theoretical and composition background, I underestimated the bodily element of singing. Realizing this more and more through my learning process of classical singing made me think of it as sports – you need very specific training and clear rules of your chosen discipline to achieve your maximum potential. What happens when you mix different sports? You have to be able to combine them all, in a very well thought out training system. Triathlons are not randomly-combined swimming, running and cycling activities – they are well chosen, complementary disciplines. Imagine the ridiculousness of a heavy weightlifter doing light gymnastics for example.

            Nowadays a singer however, even without doing modern music, has to combine already so many different ways of singing – solo and ensemble, early music, lied and opera, oratorio and chamber music, unamplified and amplified (even in opera singing, like at galas for example), not to mention many other genres and traditions. As Noa says, it is a gift, that some are better with changing fast and having diverse options. Realizing this and making it into your main strength that you build your carrier on is always a difficult decision. You have to, at the same time, serve all these diverse demands, and stay humble by avoiding some of the too heavy genres (as Cathy Berberian did for example). Yet still give the respect to those who specialized in more exclusive ways of singing (like Wagnerian singers) – as once you develop certain muscles over a limit, you cant just ‘lose them’ afterwards. Think of body builders who when they grow older and get out of shape, still have the same body mass but not the same strength. One has to find one’s strength and build on it – and going back, to where this chapter started, getting over your boundaries (with singing modern music) will help you to define yourself better.



3.2.2.   Difficulties


            “First of all sometimes the material you get is something very difficult to learn.

You you do a lot of work for very often one performance because that's what's there. I actually think it's also beautiful that you need to know how to teach yourself, how to learn.” Noa then mentions her excellent solfege skills, as the first and biggest requirement for dealing with modern music. Next to this, knowing one’s own instrument and how to experiment with it in a healthy way is more than beneficial. “I need to have a fabulous technique… to the best of my technical ability to sing these crazy jumps. So classical training is crucial! And I would say classical training has to be classically trained voice with fantastically trained solfege. Because it's not one without the other!”

3.2.3.   Benefits


            Next to all these challenges, what attracts singers still to performing modern vocal music? “I wouldn't replace it for the world. I think … it also fits me personally. You are really a creator. I don't think that you are as a singer a creator in all possible activities. You can be an amazing executor, you can be an interpreter, you can be sometimes an actor in an opera production, but you're not a creator. The creative part of you creating something together... if somebody writes to you something for world premiere, there is always a mutual work. It's never absolutely hundred percent just a composer. And even if it is, when you are forming the part for the first time things will come up and then there will be a mutual work. It's... I love to be... I need to be a creative artist. I love to explore different parts and sides of my voice.” This creativity can then be brought to any other musical style, period and genre: "It's not my words, but these are great words. When you go back from modern music to learning classical music, it's not a museum piece anymore, you know? It’s not something that you say "this is how you do Brahms, this is how you do Mozart" it's alive on the page.“ Thus the freedom also of being the first performer of a piece, and not being compared with many recordings, aesthetic treatises or unwritten rules of the canon, can be transformed back to a freedom in looking for own interpretations of classical vocal repertoire.

3.2.4.   Different genres, different techniques?


            Noa explains: “How I keep myself healthy is by keeping my technical capability as a classical singer, with bel canto. I do my scales, I work on my breath, my air, and I take care that my posture is fine, so that I can always go back to that. But if I have to sing non-classical, then I can loosen it up. (…) If I do distortion, I put some vocal fry into that and I go from there, it creates a distortion. So that's not per se classical music technique.”

            Composers however also often think that a singer can sing anything that they’ve heard on a recording. One can certainly go with one’s voice, in a direction, just by listening to a recording, or reading technical explanations about it, but it cannot replace years of practicing or devotion to a certain culture of subculture.

One has to be open and experiment until one finds a solution to the desired sounds. “There is the exception, (where I say) I cannot do this. Because I was a tenor, I'm very careful of one effect only, which is dragging my voice up belting - because as a young girl singing tenor I thought my highest notes were high G… you know, you have to sometimes say I cannot do that and I do. I had a hole in my range. I had to solve huge technical problem afterwards so I'm not going to return to that. (…)  I'm not a hard rock or a metal death singer for my living, and I want to be able to combine it with my Bach and next week with my Brahms you know?” “Also, it's really true that, if this instrument breaks, we can’t buy another one in a shop. I'm not going to lose my voice, I can’t break it on anybody's piece”. So, it is one’s own responsibility to take care of one’s voice, because no one else will. Yet, keeping singing healthy sometimes reads as inflexible, old fashioned singing with too full a sound and large vibrato. “Yes, of course you get remarks like that. And over the time you learn how to work with them and also when you are going to listen and we're not, you know? You need to find out how to interpret the remarks in a way that will make you survive.”


3.2.5.   Thinking and singing – how to prepare modern music?


            Noa's suggestion is: “First of all, you have to read, what is the (musical) language that is used, and as you know there is not a unified language. So you have to understand first of all is there a legend? What is written there, what are the signs? Then, is there text in the piece or not? Is it a pitch oriented piece? Is it graphic score, is it more a performance piece, more theatrical, is it Cage…? And then you, I always take things to the simplest building blocks I recognize ... So first, if there is a rhythm I will learn the rhythm. If there are pitches, I will know how to go from one pitch to the other. Maybe the pitches are with breaks of a lot of noise in between, but still if there is a progression of pitches happening in the piece ... The building blocks: rhythm, pitches, words, are the same. Music is music. “


Make your own simple version when studying.


3.3. Collaboration with composers


3.3.1.   ‘No,no,no’ – why am I here then? Limitations or opportunities


            “If you hire me, you hire a classically trained voice. Again you're not hiring a traditional Chinese music singer. Or Indian music singer… Or Arab music singer...” When changing our sound in new ways, we also might encounter limitations. Composers often forget these, which they would probably respect with an instrument (as mentioned in chapter 1.1.3.) If composer doesn’t describe or notate correctly what he/she intends, try to translate intention into technicality. For example, the ‘No vibrato’ indication is often related to using less resonance, projection, exaggerated text annunciation, etc.—parameters that are usually associated with operatic singing. Composers sometimes don’t even distinguish between these differences, and they are unaware of the many interesting colours different combinations could give (like projected non-resonant sound for example). Or they try to scale other parameters that are seemingly more technical, but that are not resulting in the effects they imagined (for example they define larynx position as a certain effect, that doesn’t modify the sound as much as changing the formants of the articulation).

3.3.2.   ‘Not well written’? - Problems with notation and/or not vocal writing


            One of the biggest issues is still notation. A colleague of mine was saying: “I'm not angry anymore, I'm just sad.” And I'm talking about somebody who is doing contemporary music all his life, you know? Sad, because when you again have to say (…) that it's impossible for me to read it. Then I'm sad you know…”

Lets observe some of the most typical problems here. In many cases, singers get scores which are notated in an overly difficult way, with many parameters on maximum complexity, with too much instructions at the same time, and with explanatory text in-between, under, before and after the vocal lines etc. In some cases, instructions can be contradicting, or asking for impossible combinations. Many effects also have no standardised notation yet, but often composers ‘reinvent’ already existing signs and symbols, which confuses the performer further. Including a legend in the beginning of the score is great, but a reminder on each page that an effect is used would save a lot of time and frustration to the performer.

            In some rare cases it can even happen that the singer gets a text on a separate piece of paper than the musical material, and then the singer has to make up his/her own combined version of the two because it is simply impossible to follow more than one visual input at the same time. Badly placed text (see Chapter 7.3.2), wrong prosody, or avoiding any text altogether for unconvincing reasons also gives complicates the understandability of vocal music. Expression marks, additive information about the context of the text or descriptions and suggestions of ‘how’ to sing the given phrases could be very useful – yet is lacking from most modern scores. Another problem can be that while making a vocal score, composers don’t include all singers, or use a piano reduction. A singer always needs to see the full picture, and know at least what other singers are singing – plus get all the information available about references in pitch and rhythm orientation.

            In general, it is wise to observe that notating music is giving an ‘instruction’ to the performer, with which the composer invites him/her to create the music in an own way, or notating is describing the ending result of a musical process. The most typical example for mixing these two attitudes is using in the same score both relative and absolute dynamics – one being an invitation for the performer and one describing the created sound. In some special cases – for example, in extended techniques – composers notate both how this effect should be made and how it should sound, but the two don’t always match. Especially in vocal composing, experimenting with some extended techniques can be too fragile, as some effects are too ‘personal’, and thus would sound always different from singer to singer.

            Think of what a Chopin Prelude would look like when precisely notated, in a ‘modern music style’ – it would be very scary to read. Instead, it is notated in the most simple way, counting on the performer's taste and sense of style to perform the agogic nuances, the slight changes in tempo, and the colour and character that the piece has. On the other hand it is understandable that when a contemporary composer is creating a new language, he/she cannot count on an already existing understanding about his/her gestural system, nor can they rely only on live interaction with the performer (as in many cases that is not even possible) – thus the composer has to notate every parameter of his/her music as precisely as possible.

            Sometimes of course, even after resolving notational problems, the vocal line is still not vocal enough. Some musical gestures might still not ‘make sense’, combinations of ranges, colours, rhythms or text wouldn’t be possible to achieve, some lines might contain too big jumps, too fast passages, or a vocally tiring way of writing. Not to even start talking about the most typical problem – over-orchestrating, and balance-problems in vocal/instrumental relationships. Some misunderstandings come from the great initiative that composers should sing their own lines first, when composing (as many teachers say to their students: if you can’t sing it, how could the singer do it?) Yet, in terms of vocality of course a classically trained voice works quite differently, and certain effects don’t translate in the same way on an untrained voice in comparison. For example, a typical mistake with male composers writing for female singers is not understanding why she can't sing a very high note non vibrato pianissimo when he can – forgetting that he is changing to his head voice/falsetto, that he is not trained to use vibrato, and that his passagios are in different spots. In many cases however, the solutions a classical singer might offer to solve these problems could be seen as old fashioned, inflexible and exaggerated, as Noa explains: “Because there is no other field, that is so stigmatized, than classical music singing… classical singing equals romantic opera…and romantic opera is a lot of vibrato and melodrama, which is not even true about romantic opera. It's very degrading to me… a stereotype, and they want to break it, but they want to break it for the last hundred years, and… some of the breaking was important and wonderful, and some of it is you know… I think, it's time to stop that - and there are beautiful definite possibilities.”


3.3.4.   Subtext, intention, character


            Usually if you detect the intention of a phrase and you connect to saying the text with that intention, many technicalities ‘solve themselves.' The body needs simple tasks after which it can execute these simple tasks through very complex processes with great precision – much more complex ones, than what could possibly be described. Turning that around, making the brain think a lot while singing makes the air restricted and stuck, so, as mentioned Chapter 3.2.5., all thinking should be done before starting to sing – with the right intention. A singer should always find their personal connection to the text, or, a subtext – even if there is no text, gibberish or just ‘ah’. If provided, an explanation about the creation of the piece, or contextualizing the lyrics and expression markings, or notes on the musical character of the piece, can all help one to discover the connection between text and musical gesture, resulting in the most genuine and convincing way of singing.

3.1.2.   The classical vocal training – what is a classically trained singer?


“When you have to do things that are outside the norm of classical singing it's not that it harms you. It defines what is classical singing better. I mean, you have to define for yourself. What does it mean when I sing now?” Thus, according to Noa, leaving the borders of classical singing behind by performing new music helps you redefine what classical singing is. So how do we define classical singing? Can we use the synonym ‘bel canto’? She gives me an answer of a choice – when talking about it as a style, it is Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. In a wider sense, it is singing that is based on compressed air and is using resonance and projection consciously.

3.2. Modern vocal music – similarities, difficulties, preparation


3.2.1.   Where and when does modern music come in the picture?


            As Noa observes: “My beloved friends in the Tel Aviv Academy of Music and my friends until today were almost always composers and instrumentalists, and less singers. And the composer's asked me to sing their pieces and for me it was not a different thing, it was just another piece, but written today. And I was naturally good in it so I started doing it…I was busy with contemporary so it it became natural.” When a classical singer finds modern music, or in Noa’s case the other way round, one always wonders, if the contemporary piece wouldn’t interfere with their classical training, especially while it is still developing. So could the teachers and the basic technique itself be helpful? “The world of my teacher was very, very closed. She was not against me singing contemporary music, but she knew nothing about anything before Mozart and after Mahler, was not in her scope, so I didn't bring it (to the lessons). I was totally on my own.” Often, therefore, one has to learn and discover solutions for oneself: “For example... If you just take the whole area of from speech to singing and back… it's a beautiful challenge. But it was not taught to me in any traditional vocal training. So you have to research it yourself, or find other help…it's a lot of willingness and playfulness and improvisation skills and you know, curiosity.”

            So it does not fully prepare then singers for the challenges they will meet in modern music. But does it go against classical training? “Singing contemporary music, you know, never contradicted singing romantic music. But I would say, the one thing that contradicted the others, was - specifically again for me - singing in an early music ensemble…I also heard as a criticism from other people - and it was right - that I'm closing my voice. It never happened when I was on my own singing solo early music or contemporary music… But it did happen, at the time, when I sang ensemble and I had to make a choice: what is the direction I want to take?” 


3.1. Interview subject: Noa Frenkel, the modern classical singer


3.1.1.   Introducing Noa


When I thought who would be my ideal subject to portray the modern classical singer, I immediately thought of Noa. She is a new teacher in the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and an expert in modern vocal music, with a classical background and experience in various styles and genres, singing 60/40 modern/classical repertoire. We worked together in Vivier: Journal, a 45 minute choir odyssey, filled with very diverse musical gestures and extended techniques, where she was the alto soloist and I sung in the choir. I even had the honour to compose for her years before that, in 2007, when MAE ensemble gave a concert in Budapest (see video attached)


Find a short bio of Noa here (link to website)


She was brought up in a quite hardcore musical background in Israel, studying philosophy, choir conducting and singing at the same time, slowly focusing only on singing. She first sang tenor (!) in a choir, later of course she developed into a classically trained alto, with a three octave range! She cannot stress how grateful she is for her strict solfege professor, from whom she learned so much – and we agree, that that is one of the main tools a singer should have to be able to sing modern music. Attached you will find the list of questions I asked Noa. In this chapter I focus mostly on the answers that brought me further in this research project.

Interview questions - The Singer (scrolling)


Again, this could be a research project on its own, and I had to narrow down my focus, but one important topic was the aesthetics of an ‘ensemble-singer’ being closer to the ‘modern vocal ideal’, than soloistic singing).

About you

What musical background you come from?

What kind of music do you sing mostly?

Would you say you got a classical vocal training?

You do a lot of modern music. What excites you in it?

What do you find difficult with it?

How would you describe the ratio between modern and classical singing projects you do? 



When in your studies you encountered first contemporary music?

Did you feel it complementary to your studies or going against it?

What are the biggest differences?

What are the challenges that modern music asks for that are not in the classical training?


Singers education

Does it prepare u to sing modern music?

What does it lack?

What are you incorporating in your teaching from it?


Working on modern

How do you prepare for modern pieces? Is it different?

Is your classical training helping? (In big jumps, sustaining extremes of the range, flexibility of colors and dynamics, coloraturas etc)

Is your classical training sometimes in the way? (too full and trained voice, vibrato, etc)

What technical challenges does one encounter that was not in traditional vocal training? 

When u work on extended techniques or sound colors, distortion etc...

do you still use your basic technique or do you believe there is other techniques?

When u sing in different genres, do u really ‘go there’ or you just imitate?


Collaborations with composers

Please mention some of your good collaborations

And some of the bad ones :)

Secret is in Communication- do u manage to translate what the composer wants and how can u achieve it?

Do you find it crucial to know your needs and protect them and know how to explain them to the composer?

Do you recommend a book, article or writing to your composers that can teach them about the limits of voice beforehand?


Composer preparation

Do you think vocalists should be treated different when composing for them then instrumentalists?

Did you also experience that composers often dont know that much about the voice then about the instruments they compose for?

Did you also encounter the attitude that composers respect the limitations of physicality with instruments but not with the voice?

(The Cathy Berberian could song everything- effect)

Would u agree that nowadays most composers prefer lighter non dramatic sound (higher voice and female voice) mostly?

Why is that you think? Why did the aesthetics move away so much from a beautiful projected bel canto singer? (non vibrato etc…)

Should a singer be able to sing all kinds of music? (Sports metaphor)


‘Coaching’ your composer

When you can influence a composer when he is composing for you, what things you tell before

Do you explain classical technical things? Tessitura, passagio?

What else do you tell about your voice beforehand?

When you have a conflict of ‘unsingability’ how do you justify yourself?

When you have a conflict of ‘style’ (vibrato etc)


Do you know some famous singer-composer couples of the past? (stories?)


What would u change in the attitudes and or education of composers?

What would you (are you) changing in the education/preparation of singers?

Here is an example, as an easy ‘recipe’ for

how to simplify a difficult passage, in steps:

- Put all the lines in one octave (no jumps)

- Create a diatonic version, with ‘no accidentals’ in the closest key

- Practice that melody on the sound ‘v’ then on a vowel, then on the vowels of the text, and finally put in the text

- Learn the ‘altered notes’

- Practice an easy melody you already know, with each note in different octaves

(to train connecting notes in different registers smoothly)

- Practice your simplified melody in different octaves (with keeping an easy feel)

Most importantly, hear the ‘simple version’ in your inner hearing, never sing without an imagination of what you should sing (and how it will feel in the body) before you sing it.


An old piece of mine from 2007 on dadaist text, observing different delays, written for MAE, where Noa is the singer.

Almost above each line there was some character or expression marking that invited her to use different colors,

so you can hear quite some of her palette.