Thursday, August 19, 2010

Jackie Evancho--a ten year old who sings like someone twice her age

I'm sure most people today who know something about Jackie Evancho do so because they saw her perform on America's Got Talent. I'd never heard of her before, until my wife directed me to the YouTube of her AGT performance. I sure have now, though, and I wrote this essay as a review for the listing of her first album.

I will buy this album when more are made.

That said, you should realize that you won't be hearing the soulful adult voice soaring out of a ten year old child's mouth that astonished viewers on AGT. This is her voice a year earlier. Here she sounds like a gifted child--an extraordinarily gifted child with near-perfect pitch, one of the best vibratos I've ever heard in anyone regardless of age, and an exquisite musical sensibility--but a child for all that.

So if you'll only be satisfied with what you heard on AGT, wait for her next album. But if, like me, you've become a diehard fan in the two minutes she sang on AGT; if you've gone to YouTube and listened to everything else she's done--then you'll want to make the small investment needed to get this historical record of where a great star of the future came from.

What we really need is a DVD of her performing. Then you could see something that isn't fully brought across by just an audio track--which is the fact that she's "inside the music." Meaning that she isn't just singing--she's channelling the composer's soul from deep within the essence of the piece.

I don't want to go too far with this. Evancho has the strengths and weaknesses of a happy childhood with what appear to be great parents and siblings--surrounded by love and acceptance. Compare this with, say, Christina Aguilera, another very talented singer, who first started singing in her bedroom to try to drown out the screams of her mother as her drunken father beat her mother (and then deserted them when Aguilera was still young). Aguilera at age 8 was a growly blues singer with a very adult understanding of pain and loss.

What Evancho does understand, though, is soulfulness. Some call her a spinto soprano, which soprano Rosalind Plowright has described as someone with the timbre of a lower register. That is, Evancho hits really high notes effortlessly--and without having to slide up to them to find the pitch. She just nails them. Yet her vocal texture is that of a contralto--dark and rich, like a night-blooming flower. It's the difference between Placido Domingo, a tenor with the timbre of a baritone, and Pavarotti, a pure tenor.

This gives Evancho the feeling of someone who isn't just a musical athlete, producing the notes perfectly but not necessarily much more than that--and delivering a feeling with the notes that makes you want to stop in your tracks and think/feel about what's really important in life.

Another vote for a DVD is that if you can imagine Joe Cocker as a 10 year old girl, you'll get a feel for the curious facial and gestural mechanics of her amazing musical production. But this is part of her being inside the music. If she were an athlete I'd say she was in the zone--in a place where the world, the audience disappears, and it's just you and the art you're embodying, where you become a window between the audience and powerful artistic experiences.

I should add some response to the many comments I've seen elsewhere that assume she was lip-synching either herself or someone else, or that her parents are pushing her, yada yada. I understand where such cynicism comes from. I was raised by a drunk and a deadbeat, with a family life a lot closer to that of Christina Aguilera than of the Evancho household.

Being forced to grow up in a corrosive environment can easily make you cynical. But I grew to realize that my experiences were not universal, and the goodness I failed to find at home does exist in others' homes--and I'm certain that this is true of the Evanchos. I don't think they're pushing her at all. If anything, I think they're trying to make sure that someone as driven as she is is NOT pushed. And that she doesn't do a Janis Joplin to her instrument.

And though I'm not a vocal coach myself, I'm pretty sure she isn't straining or overdoing it. She's just better than the rest of us. Her whole life people are going to be attracted to her because she's so extraordinarily talented, as well as beautiful, and charming. Some people just get all the goodies when the genetic dice are rolled, and she's one of them. You can either admire that or become envious. I prefer the former. You'll live longer if you go that way, BTW.

Bottom line: buy this album, even though it's an earlier stage of her development. Her family isn't rich. Her dad has some kind of security camera franchise in Pittsburgh, so they're not poor either. But she needs the best vocal coaches that can be found to protect and develop her instrument properly, and supporting someone like her is something Jews call a mitzvah--a Good Thing. Do it.

Followup note: I just read a good explanation of how she does it on an comment thread:

Fri 10/08/10 1:28 PM

...Jackie, together with her abundance of natural talent is practicing elements of the Bel Canto technique of singing. That “creepy” sound you hear is the result of singing with the full strength that proper breathing and breath control provides. Watch her breathing in her AGT videos- her dress actually raises up four inches off the ground, no small feat for someone only about 4 foot tall. Then notice how her shoulders don’t rise nearly so much. Her diaphragm harnesses all that air into her very core. Pop singers sing with their mouths and upper chest only which results in a thin, tight sound. Controlled diaphragmic breathing allows Jackie to project her voice resulting a rich and full sound. Diaphragmic control also allows her to fully relax her upper cavity which allows her to hit very high notes effortlessly. Pop singers have to do the opposite which means tightening their throats and straining their vocal cords, limiting the fullness of sound and damaging their voice. This is why a pop singer’s voice fails after a relatively short career while an opera singer can astound audiences for decades. There is nothing “creepy” about Jackie’s ability or the amazing sound that she produces. It has everything to do with what Bel Canto (beautiful singing) is all about.
Jackie still has much to learn, much more technique to master and her body is still developing. Still, we are witnessing the very beginning of what might well be the finest vocalist of our time.

Here's another addendum from another thread that addresses her high end:

Jackie is indeed singing in a falsetto register when vocalizing many of the higher notes which she sings. She has simply learned how to “blend” the modal and falsetto registers in such a way as to all but eliminate the “passagio” (break) which would normally be perceivable by the human “ear” when she transitions from modal (chest voice) to falsetto (head voice). This is not impossible, but it is an extremely rare attribute. You are also correct in that normally falsetto voice is much more limited than its modal voice counterpart in both dynamic variation and tonal quality. Once again Jackie appears to have the very rare ability to vocalize in the falsetto voice register with nearly as much tonal quality and dynamic variation as she employs while vocalizing in the modal register. Also, as you point out, she seems to do these things effortlessly, which leads me to believe that she wasn’t necessarily “coached’ in that direction in order to achieve these amazing feats, but that she may have actually been born with this remarkable ability. Much like many of the world’s greatest painters, vocalists, composers, athletes, etc., some people have “it” and some people don’t. No matter how hard a five and a half foot tall man who can only jump a few inches off the gound trains, he will never become a legendary basketball player. It is much the same case with Jackie, except just the opposite. Jackie has innate vocal abilities which have only been present in a miniscule number of people throughout the history of the World. How far she decides to develope these remarkable abilities is up to her, up to her, but the sky is pretty much the limit for this ten year old “mega-prodigy”!

And here's what I added to the thread:

I know enough about music to hear every shortcoming in Jackie Evancho's AGT performances--more than even her critics in this thread have mentioned, actually. She jumped the gun on her entrances several times in her Ave Maria, for example. And at the end of her Time to Say Goodbye she couldn't hold the last note, sort of squeaked and then clamped her lips shut to keep more odd noises from escaping.

But. I will buy every album she ever records--especially if she can keep the record company from overproducing her--and I'd buy her Prelude to a Dream too if her father has the good sense to re-release it.

Why? Because she already has true greatness, and it transcends her tiny gaffes completely. This doesn't show particularly when she isn't performing. Then, she just appears to be an unnaturally nice person who, as Mariah Carey's husband (?!) frequently pointed out, "always says the right thing."

But when she starts to perform she becomes a vessel for her art, effortlessly wringing all the depth out of it that's there, and then some.

Of course it helps that she's pretty. This is entertainment, after all, and attractive entertainers trump ugly ones, all else being equal. That's not "fair" but "fair" isn't an inherent quality of nature.

But what helps most is that she never commits what I call the "Barbara Streisand Sin" of looking as if she's thinking "watch me sing. Aren't I wonderful?"

For example, I saw Adam Lambert singing "The Prayer" in a duet with some young lady. She sang to him and he ignored her, directing his gaze exclusively to the audience, increasing his volume so they didn't blend at all and you mainly heard him. This has nothing to do with his gender preferences, but everything to do with his maturity and humanity as a performer.

I predict that Evancho will never do that, no matter how famous she becomes.

That's why I said she's a vessel. It's not just the pipes, or the training, or the wholesome attractiveness of the total package. It's that she understands, even at 10 years of age, the inner nature of art. And she communicates that in performance.

Nobody taught her that. Nobody can teach you that. She just has it. And it will take her around the world and into the hearts of many millions of people. She won't just be admired--she'll be beloved, because she embodies not just an extraordinary talent, but our highest aspirations.

When I watch her perform I want to be a better person.