Alex Ashworth is a Professor of Singing at the Royal Academy of Music and an established opera soloist on the European circuit. A Choral Scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, he won a Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in 1999. He has since worked with some of the most prestigious houses in Europe, including Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera. He has performed at The Royal Festival Hall, The Barbican and for John Eliot Gardiner at the BBC Proms.
How did you get into professional singing?
I started as a chorister at the age of eight (though not as a professional!) What I found was that singing gives you extraordinary opportunities to travel and to meet people from all walks of life. I soon found the experience of standing and performing in front of an audience to be addictive – even though it’s a risk.
How is using your voice in public risky?
Because, in a way, you ‘expose’ yourself to others when you use your voice. In my profession, regardless of whether it’s your music or someone else’s, you take a risk with the sound of your voice, the content of what you’re saying or singing and you leave yourself open to criticism. After all, that’s what the critics are there for! And it’s exactly the same for anyone using their voice – whether you’re speaking up in class, presenting to a group or handling a meeting. Of course, the difference is that in those situations, you are using your own words which adds an extra challenge.
What’s the single most important thing you’ve learnt about the human voice?
That your voice can be a complete representation of who you are. It draws on everything – it represents your physicality, your emotional state, your imagination and your thought processes. When I started out as a school chorister, I thought it was all about just ‘getting the music right’. But now, that’s only the first step. In singing, my job as a coach is to help my students to connect with each section of the song – each phrase, each note – with personal experience they have actually had, so that the piece truly resonates with them. That way, they get get to tell ‘their story’ through the song – which is what engages the audience.”
What are the most common mistakes people make with their voices?
The biggest one is allowing the upper part of the body to become too tense. It’s vital to shift that tension away from the upper part of the body and convert it into energy in the lower part of the body – that is, down in the diaphragm area, beneath the lungs. Often, people allow the ‘unhelpful’ upper body tension to develop without even realising it.
Can you give an example?
Many young men in opera want to sound as mature as possible. To do that, they try to lower their tone, to sound as deep and resonant as possible. But this puts tremendous strain on the jaw and tongue – which can be a real problem. My challenge is to help them to release that tension – to ‘let go of it’ – and instead to find the freedom to release their natural voice.
As a professional singer, do you still get nervous?
Absolutely – and it’s very common, even for singers at the highest level! It never quite goes away. At La Scala in Milan, there’s a well known group of opera ‘enthusiasts’ who arrive on the first night of a show, ready to boo at anyone whom they feel is sub-standard. You can imagine the pressure that puts on the performers.
Very quickly, you can find yourself with tight breathing, sweaty palms and a mind full of all the worst possible things that could happen to you. It doesn’t help that many theatres are dark and dusty – and you never know when you’ll come up against a bored or hostile audience.
How do you help people to overcome nervousness and/or that tension you spoke of?
The best remedy is always to work on the breathing – especially the out-breath. It needs to be nice and long. If the in-breath is too long, you can literally see the tension in the shoulders. But if you take a short in-breath and then allow a long, slow out-breath, the body responds beautifully. And it’s all reflex! I find it helpful to ask for positive thoughts, too. If your mind is going negative, take charge of it and feed positive thoughts back in.
What’s your favourite singing moment?
Pavarotti singing with the New York Philharmonic on 14th January 1980 – his physical freedom and control of the voice is just extraordinary… and this was also long before he was famous!
Which singer do you most admire?
Simon Keenleyside – a baritone singer at the Met.
Which one book on voice would you recommend?
‘Your Voice & How To Use It’ by Cicely Berry – Director of Voice at the Royal Shakespeare Company.