Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Ian Adam |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Ian Adam

Ian Adam was the ideal singing teacher. The proof lay in the fact that he could teach a block of wood to sing. I was the block of wood. Around about the turn of the millennium, in the last flickerings of my career on main-channel television, I was running short of puff. Nothing serious, but after a two-day rehearsal for a big show I would sometimes need to breathe again before the end of a long sentence. I was advised that this crimp in the fluency could be taken care of by singing training.

When I pointed out that I couldn’t sing even ‘Happy Birthday’, I was advised that the singing training was meant to help the speaking, not to turn me into Caruso, and that there was a man famous for being able to sort anybody out. I turned up at Ian Adam’s door in Chelsea to be greeted by a slightly built, cherubically smiling man who was already flattering me before the door had shut behind me. Showing me into his charming parlour, he told me that as a devotee of radio and television he has been in a state of amazement for years about the richness of my speaking voice. ‘Of course all you Australians are natural singers because your voices are placed so far forward,’ he said, ‘but your voice is something special. That lovely deep baritone, but I think you’re really a tenor.’

When I assured him that I was neither baritone nor tenor, but fell into a special category that couldn’t sing even ‘Happy Birthday’, he shook his head decisively. ‘Well, “Happy Birthday” is actually quite hard,’ he said, ‘and anyway we’re talking about the qualities in your voice that are waiting to be brought out.’ By this time he was sitting at the baby grand piano and shaping up to play a few notes that he wanted me to copy. I copied them to the best of my ability, or perhaps not even that. He professed to be delighted. He explained that although the majority of my lower notes were naturally ravishing beyond the dreams of Lauritz Melchior, those higher notes that I couldn’t hold had been ruined after my voice broke, and the way to fix them would be to add more notes on top so as to clarify the notes left below. In brief, turning me into a tenor would revive my career as a baritone.

When I said that I had understood the intention was merely to fix my speaking voice, and that I wasn’t expecting to be turned into Caruso, he assured me that Caruso, Gigli and Pavarotti had all required training and that in my voice, as in theirs, there would be undiscovered glories that only the correct discipline would reveal, starting now.

Within seconds I was matching him puff for puff in his famous opening exercise, the steam-train chuff. The first part of the steam-train chuff was done with mouth open and the second part — seemingly calculated to shift the contents of the sinuses up into the brain — was done with mouth closed. The stream-train chuff was followed by the airless clack. In the airless clack, the air in the diaphragm was suddenly expelled and the vocal cords were required to make a clucking noise in vacuo. Often, sapped by the pressure to perform, they refused to make any noise at all. Ian always confidently announced that they would next time.

Other pupils doubtless had their own private names for these exercises, of which there were about a dozen, all of them dedicated to shifting the centre of breathing downwards and the centre of singing forwards, into the ‘mask’ of the face. Ian’s devoted assistant, Kate Hughes, who filled in for him when he was away, imposed the same regime of disciplinary warm-up, so we all got to reproduce these strange sets of sounds week by week, forever. Before they got to work on that week’s song or an aria, everybody had to go through the same preparation.

And everybody meant everybody. If you arrived five minutes early, you could sit in the downstairs kitchen with a cup of tea and guess who was yodelling up there in the parlour at the end of the lesson before the start of yours. If you couldn’t guess, you would bump into them on the stairs. At one time or another, they all came through: Michael Crawford, Anthony Andrews, Kenneth Branagh, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Ron Moody, Patricia Hodge, Maureen Lipman, Terence Stamp, Helena Bonham Carter. Especially among the men, anyone who stunned a West End audience by suddenly revealing a previously unsuspected competence in singing had usually picked up an extra octave from Ian’s little academy.

People already famous for singing would drop in to brush up. You just had to get used to the traffic. At one time, waiting outside the parlour, I heard a voice coming from inside that was so beautiful I was already paralysed when the door opened and I was faced with the mind-bending presence of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who had come in for a pit-stop before she opened a new show on Broadway. Ian never stopped working with real singers. He had known them all personally, all the way back to Maggie Teyte, who had been his own teacher. In the French repertoire that he himself would later favour for teaching, she would make him repeat a phrase until he wept. (He would tell me this story while I was fighting back tears after once again making a shambles of the song by Fauré that he kept me working on for two solid years.)

It was knowing all about the real singers that made him so good with those of us who were only aspiring to that condition. And I was only one of those who never stopped aspiring: long after my breathing had been corrected, I went on turning up for lessons, still battling to get on top of that fiendish long aria in A Little Night Music that Sondheim might have designed specifically to drive the star to drink. (‘Yes, dear,’ Ian would say, ‘it is a bit of cow. Even Jeremy took a while to learn this one. Now let’s try it again. From the start, I think, don’t you? And this time try not to make it up.’)

Ian was a thrilling teacher because he himself never ceased to be thrilled by the whole business, even at the level where somebody like me was struggling to make the middle section of ‘So in Love’ sound a bit less like a cat drowning. And the great thing about his method was that it worked. As you added notes at the top, your voice really did start to clarify lower down, and gradually you acquired the ability to do that thing for so long only dreamed of: hold a tune. It took time, but who cared, when going to see him was so much fun, and he would always be there? Now that he isn’t, there will be a lot of us, for a long while ahead, who will think of him as we do our exercises, or sing anything, or, indeed, hear anything sung.

(Guardian, June 4, 2007)