Monday, February 12, 2018

Upcoming Kashu-do Activities

17-18 February 2018:  Berlin -- This coming weekend I will be in Berlin for two days of teaching.
email me for information and lessons!

26-27 February 2018:  Göteborgs Operan -- I will be teaching at the Gothenburg Opera on Monday and Tuesday 26-27 February, hosted by my colleague Erik Enqvist, tenor.

4-10 March 2018:  Winter Bel Canto Intensive in Nyland (Kramfors) Sweden at my house:  I will be joined by my colleagues Anna Niedbala, soprano and Brandon Eldredge, Conductor-Pianist for an intensive week of singing and coaching, analyzing Bel Canto Principles from a science-based perspective.  We will be analyzing the significance of words like Appoggio, Lotta vocale, legato, morbidezza, voce di testa, voce di petto, etc, in terms of a total philosophy and not as separate words. There are a couple of spots left for this course.   Click here for more Information!

17-19 March 2018:  London -- I will be hosted by my colleague Meta Powell, dramatic sopranoemail me for information and lessons!

4-8 April 2018:  Spring Vocal Technique Intensive in Vienna:  I will be joined by Anna Niedbala, soprano and Ekaterina Nokkert, pianist.  For more information contact: Ekaterina Nokkert

We will be offering two 2-week summer sessions 8-22 July and  30 July-12 August.  More information this week!

© 2/12/2018

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Vocal Identity: Beyond Voice Types, beyond Empirical

Teaching classical singers gets more difficult by the day.  So much so that it can become downright depressing.  We are living in a time that despises empirical evidence in favor of half-truths that further one's opinions.  The difference between teachers who respect science and those who reject it is that science-based teachers are able to say:

Science does not provide us all the information.  As voice teachers, we have to fill in the blank spots!
Whereas, those who teach based on their opinions only, will claim they have a full-proof technique that can fix all the problems.  And if they should find a student who needs precisely what they need, that student can thrive even to the highest level and then they have an example of their "full-proof" technique.

Those pedagogies are usually quite superficial and fall into two categories:  1) Bright, high and forward 2) Open throat, low and dark.

Many young students begin with one of these extremes.  Unidirectional teaching gets faster albeit incomplete results and depending on voice type, the student can become very adept at this monochromatic approach until the larynx calcifies in their late 20s.  That is often when they start to have obvious imbalances and must seek out lasting solutions. 

Unfortunately, such students face another extra-technical problem, namely that they have come to identify with the sound that resulted from a simple but incomplete approach and mourns its loss.  They often go through a phase of wanting to get that sound back as opposed to wanting to correct the imbalance that led to degradation and imminent dysfunction.  This part is psychological, and as a pedagogue, it is like going through a mine-field with a student in that state.  It takes enormous patience to steer them in the direction of a balanced approach while not deprecating the very imbalance that we are attempting to correct because the student so identifies with the euphoric memory of that very vocal imbalance. 

A generation or two ago, we could have pointed to a general acceptance of what a balanced classical voice sounds like.  Singers have always been idiosyncratic relative to their techniques, but back then,  at least to a certain extent:
All Roads Lead to Rome!

In the past, idiosyncracies could be identified as "slight departures from the center!"  Today, extremes are considered exciting in the operatic context.  Oversized leggieros sing Wagner, and swallowed (ingolato) voices are thought to be dramatic, especially when professional auditions are held in small rooms.  In a world where such extreme idiosyncracies are rewarded, anyone who recommends balance or empirical information is looked upon like a relic from a distant time.  

How can we hope to guide students in a balance direction when the professional field too often rewards imbalance?
Opera has little left in terms of musical, technical or artistic standards!  Everyone has become specialized.  But too often specialized so as not to have to deal with the difficulty of the larger concept.  To avoid the ills of excessive and irregular vibrato, some early music advocates suggest straight tone all the time.  To avoid a depressed tongue, one pedagogue advocates a high larynx, while another will accept a depressed larynx in order to avoid nasality.  The idea of chiaroscuro ( or chiaro e scuro, as my late teacher used to say) does not even enter their minds.

The original operatic aesthetic was about bright and dark, squillo and open throat (very much related to each other), power and flexibility, emotion and vocal balance, accessibility through extraordinary skill.  Today there is an expectation that Wagnerians must sing pushed and ugly, leggieros must lack in depth, popular must be superficial, balance is a matter of opinion and empirical information is elitist propaganda. 

The operatic art-form represents an ideal that parallels the Olympic spirit--By challenging ourselves to achieve beyond normal, we can momentarily touch the divine in ourselves.  Olympic:  to strive for Olympus, the dwelling of the Gods; to achieve Apotheosis (a transformation to God-like status).  Some might even refer to the idea as blasphemous.  The concept is not about becoming a God, but to aspire to a level of excellence, that to the Ancients could only be explained in terms of Gods. 

This winter, I will watch as much of the Winter Olympic Games as I can.  I am in need of inspiration and it is sorely lacking in daily life.  It is very lacking in the Operatic aesthetic.  However, what keeps me inspired about this calling is that despite the degradation of expectations in the Operatic artform, great singers are coming out.  Therefore there must be many wonderful teachers out there doing great work.  Therefore, were the Operatic business to fall apart completely, the Operatic Artform would always endure!

© 2/8/2018

Monday, January 22, 2018

Revisiting the Rubix Cube of Vocal Balance

The concept of a balanced phonation is a the heart of high quality classical singing.  What that entails requires intimate knowledge of how the instrument function or the blessings of genetics and environment.  A young person who sings early and has appropriate vocal models at an early age tends to develop a strong “sense of self” in singing.  Having an instinct for comfort at an early age tends to help the developing singer to navigate the changes in the anatomy as s/he matures.  That sense of balance at an early age, if encouraged throughout the singer’s development, can make all the difference in how easy the process of maturing occurs.  

This is why such singers are called “Natural Singers!”

As a pedagogue, it is always exciting to get the singer who comes with natural coordination.  In some regards the job is easier at first.  But more times than not, the singer who develops without conscious effort and without an awareness of the discipline needed to grow to professional levels can become very difficult to convince that it takes great concentration, great conviction, great patience and hard consistent work to develop further, especially the refinement stage.  There are always exceptions, and they often become,  because of their early advantage, the stars of our field.

I am more interested in the singer who is passionate about singing and willing to do what is necessary to become the best s/he can be.  I find the most passionate singers most often to be real musicians who lack a certain muscular coordination to perform at the highest level.  My most dedicated clients come as amateurs, college level students and professionals.  They all have the common trait of desiring to excel.  They are great listeners and they practice efficiently.—Daily, focused and concentrated.  Not two hours one day until they are tired and then must take 2 days off.— 

I research and practice almost every day—Partly for myself and partly to find more exact answers for my dedicated students.  The balance of phonation requires not only an understanding of the concepts but a feel for them.  Teaching a tenor to sing a high C for instance is an emotional experience.  While it is not absolutely necessary to be able to demonstrate it, every tenor out there know that they feel better when their teacher can demonstrate it—Well!  Because of my dramatic voices, they are happy enough if I do a great high B for them.  But it is certainly encouraging for them to hear me do the C.

Why  is a high C so important to a full voiced tenor?  Because it requires a level of correctness that leaves very little margin for error!  I have always had a Bb.  Even in my baritone days.  But singing one in the context of an aria while sustaining a high tessitura (living in the passaggio) is trying at best.

So while I can speak of the “Rubix Cube” of phonation in theoretical terms, considering fold depth (contact area) fold lengthening and medial approximation (closure), coordinating a high C requires  precise sensations relative to these three main functions.  What does a gentle (but fully compressed), clear (but not pressed) and flowing (but not breathy) onset feel like?  A gentle onset can remain superficial and not coordinate with the breath compression fully.  This will lead to an eventual glottal squeeze for compensation.  A clear onset can easily be pressed because clarity relies on both closure and fold tautness (antagonism between a sensation of singing fully and the elasticity to stretch the folds appropriately).  The appropriate stretching of the folds for a given pitch depends on the pitch itself but the quality of the tone/vowel.  The singer must want a certain brilliance while not loosing the initial gentleness.  Flow can very easily be confused with breathiness.  

Thus we can simplify the onset to gentle and full, brilliant and flowing.  Gentle and full address TA group as well as the LCA group. Brilliant and flowing address the CT and IA groups.  Both double-directives active the breathing mechanism.  One must train to take a full, elastic breath and maintain the “sensation of the intake” (never pushing outward but suspended in the desire to expand) even as onset occurs and phonation continues.  Furthermore, there is no stoppage time between intake and onsets other than the imperceptible time that it takes a pendulum between swing in one direction and then the other.  

How long is a pendulum still when changing direction?  

The fullness of the tone guaranteed breath compression.  Let us say the singer achieved the ideal onset (after many tries) but then must maintain the feeling of balance when changing from note to note.  All the parameters are changing!  If the singer were to sing a five-note scale from F-C, the folds would be lengthening, which means the CT muscles would be contracting, while the TA group would be slightly relaxing.  Perhaps!  If the singer has a tendency of relaxing the TA group too much, the correct product might require a feeling of getting fuller not lighter.  Does breath compression need to increase or decrease.  If the singer has a habit of overexerting s/he might feel a need to reduce compression.  Conversely, if the singer has a tendency of decreasing compression too much, the moment might require a sensation of increasing.  Yet what is actually happening may very well be the reverse.  By the same token, if the singer tends to press medially as s/he ascends the scale, s/he might correct by relaxing them and conversely attempt to increase medial closure as s/he goes up if the tendency is to become breathy.  It does not guarantee that one needs to either increase or decrease medial pressure as one rises to a top note.  It has to do with the singer’s background.  The process of balance relates to reducing over-compensations and correct the tendency to under-perform a given function.  

The final product depends a great deal on the singer’s sense of self.

A bigger problem is the psychological factor.  When a singer sings the appropriately balanced sound, it can be so unrecognisable to him/her that s/he may back away from it.  The greatest challenge to the singer who did not develop “Naturally” (unconscious training) is acceptance of the most efficient voice.  It often feels too much at first.  

It takes time to get acquainted with the true timbre, so as to let go of the one we accepted heretofore.  

The management of the vocal tract as resonator becomes crucial in this kind of precision singing.  While jaw articulation may not cause noticeable problems in the singer’s comfort range, a slight hyperextension or reduction of the mouth space can have a detrimental effect in a sensitive range (the high range is not always the most difficult.  Depends on the singer).  A slight retraction of the tongue could cause a wrong resonance adjustment and cause compensatory stiffness in the fold vibration.  

Too much volume may destabilise an otherwise balanced tone.  

In the refinement stages singers must be aware of their instrument globally.  They must have their feelers everywhere, but not interfere with the physical process.  The singer must have a clear idea of what s/he wants and focus on it, such that the brain sends the appropriate signals to the muscles via the nerves.  

This weekend at the Gothenburg Opera, I worked with a number of very, very focused singers.  Intelligent enough to understand the issues at hand and disciplined enough not too interfere and micromanage.  

Fear is natural, but panic is a choice!  Walking such a tightrope, a strong-minded singer concentrates on the task at hand!  S/he sings fully, but not necessarily loudly; gently but not cowardly; clearly but not stridently; passionately but not violently, etc… 

At this level, I often tell the singer:  “I may give you suggestions, but in this flight I am only a co-pilot.  You are coming to the time for your solo flight.” 

This means simply that the final step to technical mastery is taken by the singer alone.  While a teacher may always be there to guide, s/he cannot know the singer’s inner experience and therefore must come to trust the singer to take those solo steps and own their own voice and technique.  

© 01/22/2018