MAR 2021: In conversation with Malcolm Martineau

This month renowned accompanist Malcolm Martineau shares some preparation and performance advice…and his thoughts on the importance of song to singers working today.

What would you say are the essential ingredients for a career on the recital platform?

The recital platform requires a love for words and an ability to switch quickly from one style to another. An opera role sits within the same repertoire style, whereas an evening of song can be infinitely varied.

Within a three-minute song, a singer must be emotionally connected with every phrase. Never ask ‘What’s normally done here?’ Think of a back story and remember that any great art has a myriad of ways of commenting on a poem.

Be respectful to the composer and poet in the choices you make. Read the score!

Trust that your instincts are fine and don’t imitate…YouTube and Spotify can be a curse! You need to find your own voice and what you want to say and never need to sing anything you don’t like.

There’s no alternative to memorising. You can’t be imaginative and emotionally expressive if reading from a score…you cut off your ability to use imagination if absorbing information. Audiences can also feel short changed. If there’s no time to memorise, don’t do it!

Often based on poetic text written centuries ago, how do you make the Lieder recital inventive and relevant to audiences today?

The things that happened to people four hundred years ago are the same as happen to people today…we all appreciate nature, have best friends and experience death, unfaithfulness, lust and longing.

You need to make sure your emotions are real. The singer must find something relevant within the text themselves. Otherwise, the audience never will.

As an accompanist you feed what you feel into the phrase, how you hesitate or push on. When you know a singer well you can help advise and it’s interesting when they’re convinced with what they’re doing. If it’s fake it won’t work.

It is essential that a singer can put together a recital programme. This may feel like a jigsaw but remember that singing solidly for 2 hours can be hard, even with an interval. Think practically and be certain about the songs you present at the beginning. Start with something undemanding, rather than something which requires unflinching technique.

What are your top practice and rehearsal tips and how do you continue to keep ‘match fit’ and motivated?

I always practise six weeks ahead of the repertoire I need to perform. Don’t practise to get it right, practise not to get it wrong.

In lockdown there’s been a permanence of uncertainty, but there have been advantages too. Not practising to a deadline ensures bad habits are not ingrained. It’s slow work, but with no end gain you build a physical pattern of practice and a ‘non-panic’ button.

Don’t give yourself any additional reason to panic in performance. Nerves are often about not feeling prepared.

Finish a rehearsal on stage with the first song (do it again if you’ve already rehearsed it).

With such an international following as an accompanist, what performance advice would you give to singers working today?

Start building song repertoire through performance when you’re young. Opera can take over quite quickly and the intimacy and detail of song will feed precision in your opera singing.

Don’t let a mistake in performance affect the rest of your programme…that’s live performance and audiences like human beings. Remember that 98% of the audience may not even notice your mistake and those who do probably won’t even care.

With song it may be less important to make a beautiful sound all the time, as audiences will be listening to your voice and not to what you’re saying.

Where possible, endeavour to schedule your work so you have a block of opera and a block of song as both are very different. You ideally want to perform songs more than once, as you never really know a song until you perform it. By communicating through performance, you access more of your emotional self and can find something you may not have found before, learning too from the energy and reaction of the audience.

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