– being a singer and a composer




In der Mitten sieht man alles

Setz dich in Mittelpunkt, so siehst du alls zugleich,

Was jetzt und dann geschicht hier und im Himmelreich.

                                                            Angelus Silesius


6.4.. Singing with a composer’s ear playing a synthesizer or piano?


            Singing colours is not imitating musical ideas. If one wants to truly find his voice, one shouldn’t aim to ‘have’ many voices, but to always sing on one’s ‘own’ voice, in different ways. With an instrumental analogy again, a pianist can sit at a synthesizer, and play a flute melody with fake flute colour, and change to brass sound to play two horns, but could also play on a piano with a fuller, richer sound the horn, and play flautando, dolce and light flute solo.


            Healthy singing should always come from a healthy bodily feeling. Once one starts to build up an inner feeling of these technicalities, one can always return to this as the ultimate basics, and take it as the starting point of one’s healthy singing (as Noa expressed in Chapters 3.2.4. and 3.2.5.). Years later, when I started feeling that I am already doing this subconsciously, I remembered the critique of singing too much with my ‘composers’ ears’ and not really finding my inner voice, and its natural colours according the different initiatives in music. Also, for similar reasons more teachers suggested I continue my vocal studies in the first few years only in my male voice, as they find that more communicative and naturally coming from me, and leave my falsetto / head voice for a few years, although it has a unique, crystal quality. They were concerned that training both at the same time might interfere in a negative way – especially in the part of the voice where the tenor stretches further and opens to head voice and the falsetto relaxes down to reach low notes – as shown in the next paragraph in the attached piece written for me by my old teacher, Gyula Csapó.


            This advice – although in the beginning difficult to commit to – later achieved its effect, and gave me much more stability as a tenor in my ‘mixed voice’ and heroic (still bit too chesty) full high sound. Last year I could return to observe how the falsetto is behaving now and what is its relation to the chest voice (when I read through the alto arias from Bach's Mattheus Passion for example).

6.3. Private or personal


            The above-described effect could be further thought through. I wanted to achieve it so badly, that I underestimated how much the body reacts to our intentions. If you are in pain for example, and while expressing this pain you allow your body to indeed feel pain, your body language would immediately take the state of pain, in which you can’t properly sing. The old discussion about art being related to ‘artificiality’ showed itself – this time from the performers side. Keeping a healthy boundary of how much one could go into the ‘pain’ let’s say, determines if one’s communication is successful or not. If one cries so much that we understand none of the words, the message isn't conveyed. One is too busy with his own pain and cannot get over it to the level that one can formulate his words and pronounce them at least on the minimal level of understanding.

Over the years I had to learn to not be so expressive, so that it doesn’t interfere with my vocal production. Getting your message through can be achieved best in a calm way, keeping the body opened and on airflow – then it reaches its audience better. This learning process is far from finished. As a classical singer, in any repertoire, one has to ‘protect’ his own instrument, and with singing one’s instrument is one’s own body. Thus preserving the calm of the body is my number one priority – all the intentions have to go through it, thus not letting the body collapse in a physical state resembling the emotional content, and not putting intentions in externalized gestures. As a performer I had to learn to not want to be so personal that I become private (as my coach- pianist, Phyllis Ferwerda tells me always). This also changed my expectations from singers, and how I compose for the voice as well.

6.7. Becoming fluent in changing sides


            By being both composer and singer, I can also see on which side

communication becomes stuck, and then correct that side by earning the trust of that colleague (as I understand his/her wish and work to achieve it). By coaching my own compositions, I gained the routine of working with singers in different groups. Giving private lessons in singing and supervising composers gave me confidence in dealing with both sides. After a longer ripening process I am finally able to pinpoint the misunderstanding, and make both sides be more flexible and come up with alternatives in the search for solutions. Time then to put this knowledge and skill in experiments to mediate between the two worlds!

6.1. My own singers’ ideal as composer before starting to learn singing


            As a composer I always had a special connection to the voice. I was also looking for this pure, honest sound, the most human instrument, the teller of stories, conveying a message, using text – to express a subtext. And my ultimate favourite: more voices melting together. I used the extremes of the voice, to get the singer out of a routine sounding, perfect, ‘artificial sound - as what they teach in the conservatories.’[1] I was in love with heights, etheric, light, crystal clear sounds.

Diversity of styles and genres was important to me, reflecting on our every day life, which contains so many different influences and is on its primal level multicultural.

Expressive, free, and unique sounds – that’s what many of us composers are looking for. Here an example of a piece I wrote for some singer friends of mine, who studied both classical and jazz singing, and besides several methods, also Libero canto – a very special singing method based on relaxation and warming up with using also the extremes of the voice.


[1] From the interview with Martijn Padding

6.2. Voice – the subconscious connection


            In 2014, at the TENSO Young Composers Meeting, we discussed a topic with James Wood (composer, conductor and percussion player) that I found very important: the difference between an instrument and a singer. The human voice always contains elements that are remains of our animalistic communication: gestures that stand above the learned rules of our society, above cultures and languages. They are biological, so to say. These messages are received on a subconscious level, and give us basic information about the speaker’s / singer’s physical and mental state, his or her surroundings and a potential imperative reflection (there is food, attack/defend yourself, let's flee).

            In alternative (pop)music, many singers sing so expressively that it overwrites the importance of other parameters: intonation, timing, balanced colour, etc. The voice contains more of the ‘message’, it conveys the subtext better. So how can we, or can we even, achieve this intimacy in a classical singing idiom? Is this what the modern composer is looking for?



6.6. The last scene of Twin Peaks – ‘Second years’ Vocal Project’

I had a similar feeling to a bizarre David Lynch scene, when in the second year of my Bachelors I was on the singers’ side in a Vocal Project. In this project, second year composers write a song for a second year singer. This is called Vocal project, because it is mainly he Composition department’s project, and to distinguish it from other projects, they always name the type of performers. But whenever I talked to my singer peers, and I mentioned ‘the Vocal Project’, they always looked at me like: but Georgi, all the projects we do, are vocal! We are singers! So I realized, now I'm on the other side of the mirror, here it is: the Composers’ project! The initiative of the project is great, and exactly addresses the lack of teaching of vocal composition techniques. The students must visit each other’s lessons. Or at least, the composers must visit singing lessons, learn about the voice, and see their singer in light of other repertoires that they are studying with their teacher. Unfortunately however, many times this compulsory work is skipped, and the singer gets a score two weeks before the premiere, and there is not much that can be done anymore.


Although we tried to work together with my composer, the piece I got wasn’t suitable for my voice.

-       the tessitura was uncomfortable

-       my dynamic nuances were not available in that range, so the balance with the accompanying English horn wasn’t always achievable

-       some passages were too difficult to maintain and were tiring etc. 

-       there was no text or expression markings, so it was very abstract to build up a character, or find honest initiatives, which made the voice flow even less

These uncomfortable details and my own not yet fully developed technique made me into the nightmare composers imagine when thinking about working with singers.

I was:

-       complaining about what I don’t like

-       holding notes shorter when it wasn’t comfortable to hold them longer

-       I sung other notes much longer, even if they didn’t match the accompaniment

-       I used vibrato where he asked me not to

-       I wasn’t able to phrase, on either a micro and macro level. The piece didn’t go anywhere

-       It wasn’t an inspired performance, there was no energy or flow

-       Thus, the subconscious information in my voice was somewhere between boredom, annoyance, feeling of punishment and pure shame.


I realized, I became a typical, bad singer.

Later I realized, I wasn’t even one.

Luckily, I was still just on the way.


6.5. Composing with a singer’s ear – after tasting your own pudding


            From early on it was clear, that when I have to sing my own pieces, I am not on the level of singing yet that I would wish for as a composer of the piece. Of course I loved to use my special extension in the falsetto, and write pieces with big range and many coloors. Once my basic technique started to stabilize however, I got more and more into situations where I realized: a passage within a piece of mine that I’m struggling is vocally uncomfortable not because I am not developed enough for it as a singer, but because it is written not fully vocally. My perception changed a lot about how to use the voice, how to think of heights being relative in the motive that they are placed in (and how they are prepared in the motive!), and how to use special effects and respect the limitations they bring. Writing pieces or transcriptions for myself where I can show the full potential of my voice made me a sought after singer for composers who would wish to observe the diversity of a voice. I generated interest not just in my peers, but also in established composers.

            Discovering how to use my own voice flexibly in many ways and registers made me also a performer who can make their own choices about the above-mentioned parameters, even when not specified. For example, in Gyula Csapó's Trilce V, which he wrote for us (with multitalented and astonishing guitarist Katalin Koltai), he uses my full range including falsetto extension, but he doesn’t specify in mid-range the register changes. Thus I made my own choices when to use which voice production – and he was very happy with the result. See video attached. As observing my activity as a singer of new music is not the subject of my research, I won’t go further in observing this topic here. Nor is the special case when I perform my own music the subject of this project, because if that would be my main focus, my research would address fewer people, and people who have the same experience as me (being both singers and composers).

Gyula Csapó: Trilce V. , dedicated to Katalin Koltai and me

When I was 7 years old, I watched a few episodes of Twin Peaks (thanks to having ultra-understanding, hippy parents). In the last episode, the main character wakes up of a long (psychedelic) coma and goes to brush his teeth alone. Thinking that all is fine already and all scary moments are gone, the viewer gets calm and even happy. Yet, suddenly the man in the mirror grabs the original guy and ‘pulls him in the mirror’.

For months I couldn’t wash my teeth alone, one of my parent had to come with me.

An example of a piece I wrote before studiyng professionally classical singing: an almost 3 octaves range (e3 -d6), colors from plain to jazzy and folky, with the musical language also having various influences.

Short story about private or personal (Scrolling)

Short story about my minor singing exam (10 out of 10)

and my entrance exam - being seen differently (scrolling)

In a drama class once we had to choose a text and explain why we chose it.

We were allowed to say the truth or lie, the assignment was to be credible.

I chose a text about death taking away life and beauty – and explained that coming to The Netherlands to study had a second motivation (beyond the musical atmosphere here) – my mother is struggling with Multiple Sclerosis, and she can get better care here. And that death is inevitable, but how we spend our time alive can be tainted by our mortality. At this moment a loud laughter filled the room. One of my fellow students started laughing out loud on how much I’m overacting. She shared her observations on the request of the teacher (David Prins): I was holding the book of the quote in my hand as a little teddy bear and my whole body language was of a 6 years old boy. My voice sounded extra pathetique and the whole scene felt very overacted. The teacher avoided asking me if the story was true or not: I failed the task of seeming genuine and communicating the message of my choice of text.

Suddenly the girl got very nervous, started mumbling and apologizing while blushing: what if it is a true story? Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to be rude etc…I learned at that moment that putting private emotions on stage ‘unfiltered’ creates a repulse in the observer, as one cannot relate to ‘drama happening real life’. I failed in being convincing because telling the truth made me too close to my message and I didn’t communicate it well anymore. As an audience, to observe situations and get to an inner conclusion about them, we have to have the calm and distance that the action is not happening now or not happening for real – then we feel secure enough to let it in, and experience it. That is how art can enrich our life experience with situations we (luckily) didn’t have to live through, and prepares us for challenges we or our surroundings can meet during our lifetime.

In classical vocal training we spend so much time creating a technique that we can count on at any moment, so that when we go to the opera we can't detect that the singer has a bad stomach, some personal life problems, or has a glaring light in his/her eyes, making them unable to focus. We want to hear him/her sing gorgeously, according to the canon of classical sounding (operatic) voice, and conveying the feelings and thoughts associated with what we expect from his/her character on stage. Sometimes in this way however, the personal ‘truth’ gets lost, even though the true artist put in a lot of their persona, it still remains an ‘imitation’ of the truth, evoking a feeling in the audience, rather than experiencing it. ‘Art is artificial’ – says my coach, Phyllis Ferwerda. No one brings his/ her own self on stage. In modern aesthetics many times we would observe a ‘real situation,' as in a documentary – thus really see people cry instead of their art making us cry as an audience. In one example, a mother singing a lullaby to her child can sound much more genuine then a trained singer.

In my singing minor final exam I sang a confusing program with diversity not just in composers, styles and periods of music history, but also in voice types (Dowland as mezzosoprano, own pieces in Japanese as a sopranist, Stravinsky songs as a tenor, a Spanish folksong arrangement as baritone, and an own folk song arrangement in Bulgarian throat voice).I got a 10 out of 10 and everyone was very happy. A few weeks later, with almost the same program I went for my entrance exam for the singing department. They were very confused. 'Well, you have vocal talent and you are a great musician – but what can we do with you? Which is your voice-type? Or which one do you want to train in?' (This already seemed so conservative at that time to me! Why use these predefinitions and train into an expected direction, because of certain repertoire that was written for it? When defining voice types, we also return to the period when music was written for that voice-type - for example Rossini tenor - and if one is devoted to performing mostly modern music, one doesn’t have to specialize in any exclusive traditions, musical paradigms and vocal expectations of specific times, just of the composer’s desires.)


They said they accepted me because of my sight-reading. Well, not because I could sight read the excerpt perfectly (I am a sight reading champion since I was 13, I was the second best in Hungary) but because they heard my real voice, without preconceptions of how it should sound. And that the voice that they heard there excites them, and they could imagine working on it. IF I am interested in that (and that they can’t help me with Bulgarian throat voice!) I replied that for me having a basic technique would be the goal, I know that I have a vivid (musical) imagination and that I am adventurous enough to experiment later on with extended techniques – but for that one needs a basic technique. 



The last episode of 'Twin Peaks'

Working on my piece 'Angelic books', coaching the 

participants of the project 'Meesters en Gezellen 2018'