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An inside look at the life of a music major at UNH

By Matt James

Contributing Writer

As Nathan Wotton prepared to sing his first piece at last Thursday’s Student Recital #5 in the Paul Creative Art Center’s Bratton Recital Hall, he took a minute at center stage to bow his head and collect his thoughts.  All of his preparation and practice up to this point kept him calm and confident.  Seconds before he sang though, the dreadful thought crossed his mind, “Oh God, what if I forget my words?”

As a 20-year-old junior music education major, you may wonder how Wotton could even feel this sense of doubt right before a performance.  Before you do though, try just pronouncing his first piece, “O Del Mio Amato Ben” by Stefano Donaudy.

Even with English as his native tongue, you may have thought Wotton was a talented foreign exchange student here at UNH.  This particular song was sung in Italian, followed by a second piece in French, both backed with live piano. 

So how does he do it?  Wotton takes 8-9 courses a semester, 5-6 of which are academic and 1-3 of which are ensembles in which his vocal instrument is crafted.  On Mondays and Wednesdays he is busy in class or ensemble from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m.

“The most difficult thing is the realization of how much time needs to be spent practicing,” said Wotton’s professor, Jenni Cook.  “Our students are in class many more hours than a lot of other majors.”

All this time is not just spent singing through the halls of the PCAC as many other students may think.  There are some very serious courses under a music major’s belt once they graduate that are by no means easy to pass.

One such example is the diction course for singers, or the study of “how to sing and sound authentic” as senior performance major, Colin Geaghan put it.

“Your tongue touches the roof of your mouth to make a ‘D’ sound and stays on the roof of your mouth to make an ‘N’ sound,” said Cook, giving an example of diction in singing.  “It is the choreography of movement of the tongue and jaw.”

A major part of the diction course here at UNH is the study of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).  It consists of a series of letter shaped symbols that each has its own separate sound, just like our own alphabet.  These different pronunciations of the letters, when translated from an original piece, help a vocalist to better understand how to sing and speak lyrics and letters in a variety of different languages. 

UNH voice majors have been known to sing in French, Italian, German and even Portuguese.  Activities such as interpreting IPA pieces overnight and coming into the next class with a vocal representation of them, is one way that Cook often teaches this complex, but useful system.

Understanding the meaning of the song’s lyrics besides just how to pronounce them is also an important part of the major.  For a vocalist especially, when performing, they try to fully understand the song because it is often associated with a play and/or a specific theme.  They try to capture this meaning and interpretation both physically and emotionally during a performance.

“I try to put myself in the mindset of what character I am going to be,” said Geaghan. “This person wouldn’t be nervous because they’re just living their life.”

Gesticulation, facial expression and tone all describe a particular theme or scene to an audience that may not even understand the lyrics.

Along with the study of language as a voice major, students also study the anatomy of the body, particularly the anatomy that is associated with their instrument.   Structures such as the larynx and breathing organs are essential to understanding how to get everything out of your voice that you can. 

This is the study of vocal pedagogy. 

Students study such things as how vocal cords work to produce sound and not just that, but also how organs like your lungs, diaphragm, and even the abdominal wall play a role in the process.  When it’s broken down, its actually much more complex than it appears.

“I’m teaching them anatomically what happens,” said Professor Cook about her vocal pedagogy course.  “A student playing the clarinet does a lot of study of their instrument like how to make and use a reed, and it’s the same idea for a vocalist.”

On an exam in Cook’s vocal pedagogy course, one of the essay questions consists of a two-paragraph blurb on how the body works to produce sound, describing each organ involved.  Other questions may be on such things as how tension in the back of your legs will prevent you from singing the right note.

It’s not just one thing when studying music.  It relates to a majority of different areas and takes more time to progress at than any other major may ever understand.

“It’s really cool that [music] relates to almost everything,” said Wotton.  “Language because of learning how to translate pieces, math when subdividing the meter, science when conductors are looking at a score that is essentially a graph describing what happens when, and Phys. Ed. when learning breathing techniques and muscle memory.”

As Nathan Wotton prepared to sing his first piece last Thursday, he looked up at the audience, waited for his verse to come in, and with a UNH-taught singing voice, expanded the small Bratton Recital Hall into a resonating opera house right before your eyes.  Well, at least in your imagination.

The Next PCAC performance will be on Nov. 15 for the UNH Chamber Singers in the Bratton Recital Hall.  It is free and open to the public.

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