Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Exercise videos on Demand: Kashu-do Vocal Conditioning Site

For many months I have been working on a series of exercises I consider fundamental to vocal structure.  These first exercises in a series that will probably go on for years and years are "training" exercises.  What I have researched for the past 25 years is basically what the components are of a fully developed operatic voice.  Most teachers apply coordination and refining exercises to instruments that are already basically structured.  Those exercises are great as long as the muscular balance of the phonation and resonance structures are prepared.

The state of a singer's vocal structure (the larynx, the vocal tract, the breathing apparatus, body alignment, etc) depends primarily on the way the singer uses his/her voice on a daily basis: mainly how the person speaks spontaneously.  This has all kinds of cultural influences and ramifications.  If this default posture is not optimum for singing, the singer will have to train the instrument to assume a better default state.  Many singer's have poor speaking habits which effect at least the speaking range.  If the speaking range is poorly produced, it will malfunction in singing (this is one of the most determining effects on the female lower passaggio for instance).  When that region malfunctions, it has a profound effect on how the singer goes from that area of the voice outward (lower or higher).  Consequently, the singer must learn some way of finding balance beyond the malfunctioning speaking range and then these compensatory methods will come define the singer's conscious technique.

The ideal is that all the components of the muscular and acoustic systems of the vocal mechanism are developed independently and then in relationship to each other such that the instrument is able to respond with little effort to our desire to utter (speak or sing) a certain sound.  The default speaking/singing sound must be the optimum set-up of the singer's very unique instrument.  In truth, no teacher really knows what a singer's ideal sound is unless or until the instrument is fully developed.  What a singer identifies as their sound is simply what they are used to producing and in most cases it is incomplete and therefore not the true quality at all.  One of the greatest challenges for singers is making friends with their developing vocal quality.

After so many years of study, I now precisely how my own voice should feel! I know how full (not how loud, but how substantial) it actually is at its best;  I know what my ideal resonance space should be; I know how brilliant and how warm it can be;  I know I can sing C2 (bass low C) to C5 (tenor high C) every daily if I am basically healthy.  My falsetto range goes quite a bit beyond that.  Despite this low range (which I developed thinking I was a bass in my early singing days) I know my voice peaks in the way that a tenor's voice does.  F4 despite the substance of my voice, does not produce the intensity that is required in important moments.  For a baritone this is a note for important moments.  For a tenor it's just a passaggio note.  So it is for me.  In short, after doing these exercises for the past 6 or 7 years, I know my voice!  I know what is now strong and what is not yet strong.  I can warm up to C#5 or D5 on a good day, but I know that the highest performable note I have right now is a B4.  Good for a Heldentenor, but I want more.  There is always better.  Beside these exercises which I do regularly for developing and maintaining muscle tone, I also do coordination and refinement exercises (coming very soon)!

This recent In fernem Land from Wagner's Lohengrin (First reading of the aria with my pianist) is light years from when I started to make the tenor transition and the early clips I posted on the blog several years ago.  This summer I have planned performances of scenes from Siegfried, Turiddu, Otello and Manrico. What is remarkable is that none of it is difficult to sing.  The work I have to do is musical, interpretive and working on beauty of tone, legato, consistency, etc.  This is how it should be. The work of preparing for a performance should not be about hoping that the notes will come out.  The notes should be there! The work of performance preparation should be about refinement, not basic structure.  We build our structure so we can begin to perform.

I know I am a perfectionist!  And it's been the most difficult thing for me to do to expose the different phases of imbalance that I went through to make this tenor change.  It was very important that I do this and continue to do it even as I achieve levels of a professional quality.  We are never done!  As long as we chose to sing we must aspire for something better.

Likewise, I struggle with the idea of putting out these exercises.  I wanted them performed at the highest quality, but then I thought: No! I should perform them in my current state.  It is important for singers to experience these training exercises done by different levels of performers.  Some of my top professional students have agreed to record the fundamentals as well as more advanced exercises.  So we will in a very short time have many examples of these and other exercises by many different types of singers, male, female, lighter and heavier voices, etc.  I recorded these videos about one year ago. So I am also much better now than I was then.  Nevertheless, I am in a strange way happy that these fundamental exercises are performed well but that there is room for improvement.  I wanted the singer using this not to feel intimidated.

We are, all of us, always developing! Otherwise, we are just stagnating and getting worse.

Editing these videos so they are presented with some level of explanation without overdoing it was the goal.  The production values will improve as well as I have more professional level filming.  Nevertheless after so many emails from you, the readers asking about my exercises, it was time I just put them out.

The videos cannot be downloaded for obvious reasons.  After spending literally a year putting the videos together, I did not feel I should open them to those who do not pay for them and the internet being what it is, people will still find ways to share the material with friends who do not pay for them.  I am not charging some crazy price.  The full one-hour video can be accessed for a low rental fee and limitless streaming (lifetime) for a higher price.  In the next few weeks, there will be a monthly subscription option and exercises will be added weekly.

We plan to have a series on developing coloratura abilities (fioratura, speed of articulation, brain-voice coordination, etc...) as well as classics like "Turning the Voice" (cover, girare), learning to develop top notes, the female lower passaggio and middle range, etc.

The perfectionist in me will always say: "It can be better!" But the human being in me has accepted that: "It is pretty good...for now!"

As Vimeo asked for a trailer, I let myself go totally Hollywood with iMovie.  Forgive the gratuitous blockbuster effects.  It will at least make you smile a little since we are at the beginning of the summer Hollywood Blockbuster season.


Kashu-do Vocal Conditioning Video - Trailer from Kashu-do Video on Vimeo.

I am always in search of improvement and I know you are too.  I will be working to edit at least one exercise video a week.  We will record a lot of material during the Härnösand Summer Opera Academy and Festival, and so I expect early September to see great amounts of video released on the site.

View Kashu-do Training videos here, on Vimeo!

I hope you find the exercises as rewarding as I have.  The Kashu-do Website is being updated with professional singers who use these fundamental techniques as an integral part of their vocal work.

As with all "exercises," there are good ways and bad ways to perform these exercises.  Short and frequent sessions are better than long and tiring ones.  Be diligent about your comfortable range.  I perform the exercises as high as I was comfortable on that day.  I believe I only perform one high C on the lip trills and go to F in falsettone.  Do not feel compelled to take these exercises too high.  The principles are more important than how high or how low.  Loudness is not helpful to an undeveloped voice.  Appropriate challenges yield good results.  Overzealousness only yield fatigue and potential harm.  Practice safely! Practice happily!

© 06/17/2015


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Achieving Black Sash: The Beginning of Real Training

On May 29th of this year I passed my Black Sash Test in Kung Fu at the Edgewater Kung Fu Academy. I spent the previous 5 years learning fundamental skills and the last 6 months training hard to really hone in those skills. Yesterday, I celebrated with my fellow Black Sashes at our yearly Black Sash Graduation. The Black Sash Test was truly a challenge and not everyone passed it. It was difficult for some that trained hard the previous 6 months but had not mastered the material well enough to move forward. Our teacher, Sifu Romain, told my class five years ago that Black Sash training began on our first day as White Sashes and that "A Black Sash is a White Sash who never quits!" Setting a goal like that and working hard every day to see it through is something that will serve for the rest of my life! It is also a discipline that has helped me hone in my skills as a singer and definitely as a singing teacher. What is a Black Sash? A First Degree Black Sash is a beginner! Perhaps in a sense we are always beginners, because every level opens a new kind of awareness and wisdom.

THIS USED TO BE THE PRINCIPLE BY WHICH THE GREAT TEACHERS OF THE BEL CANTO FUNCTIONED! YOU STUDIED FOR MANY YEARS BEFORE YOU WERE READY TO BEGIN STUDYING REPERTOIRE!

THAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF KUNG FU/TAI CHI IN MY VOCAL TRAINING

We live in a time of immediate gratification.  Children under 3 years old are often babysat by TV screens and Ipads and develop a relationship of immediate gratification from very short video events. This makes our youngest generations mentally wired for very short attention-spans.  The Arts and Sports (particularly non-commercial sports) are the last resources we have for teaching traditional values of discipline, process-oriented work and long-term strategic planning.

The Art of Operatic Singing, unfortunately has gone the way of the dinosaurs in the West (where it began)! Extinct! The truly formed voices are coming from Latvia and East.  Because Eastern values are compatible with Old School operatic training. Musical training of a profound sort has little place in the conservatories of the West now.  Singers for the most part (instrumentalists are different because they must learn to play an instrument outside of their bodies) get a superficial, rudimentary level of preparation in their first few years of study and then they have to play catch up for the rest of their singing lives.  The expectations for what we call "operatic singing" are very low today.  A pleasant sound is not necessary operatic, but if accompanied by a physically attractive, charismatic personality, it is accepted at the highest levels of opera .  A traditional operatic voice is visceral, powerful, and intensely resonant to the ear at close range.  Opera is meant to be sung in a large space with an orchestra and no electronic amplification.  What is often accepted as operatic today is the equivalent of playing football (soccer) with a balloon, or baseball wit a whiffle ball, or Formula 1 with a go-cart.  

REAL OPERATIC SINGING IS INTENSELY PHYSICAL. WHEN ALL MUSCULAR SYSTEMS ARE STRONG, THE VOICE WORKS SEEMINGLY EFFORTLESS, LIKE A POWERLIFTER LIFTING 100 KILOS AS EASILY AS YOU AND I LIFT A BASKET OF CLOTHING.

THAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF KUNG FU/TAI CHI IN MY VOCAL TRAINING. IN KUNG FU, GRACEFUL, FLUID, TENSION-FREE MOVEMENT COMES FROM YEARS OF DEVELOPING APPROPRIATE MUSCLE STRENGTH AND FLEXIBILITY. 

The core strength and flexibility I have developed in the last five years of Kung Fu/Tai Chi training have given me the basis that resulted in a successful transition from my false baritone past to my confident tenor present.  Kung Fu even helped develop my vocal musculature.  When we count our repetitions we are expected to count with a strong, present voice.  I, the professional singer, had problems with this when I began five years ago, two years into my baritone-to-tenor transition.  Now I am the most authoritative voice there (as it should be, since I am a professional singer) and I can get up and sing the American National Anthem with full operatic resonance for Belt Rank graduations without any concerns and people are impressed every time.  

To become a successful and lasting operatic singer is a long road with many challenges.  One of our Masters, at graduation yesterday, said the following to the graduating class.  I paraphrase:

Becoming a Black Sash is a long process.  Your teachers broke the process in many smaller manageable pieces and after years of taking care of the little pieces, your goal of becoming a black sash is a reality.  How do you eat an elephant? One small bite at a time!

AN OPERA SINGER HAS A MULTIFACETED LONG-TERM TASK IN FRONT OF HIM/HER. MOST ARE SO OVERWHELMED BY THE MAGNITUDE OF THE TASK THAT THEY DO NOT EVEN WANT TO CONSIDER HOW THEY WILL GET THROUGH IT.  INSTEAD THEY SEEK OUT PEOPLE WHO CONVINCE THEM THEY ARE GREAT AS THEY ARE SO THEY DO NOT HAVE TO CONFRONT THE SAD TRUTH THAT THEY ARE NOT YET COMPETENT AND  THEY DO NOT SEE HOW THEY CAN EVER MASTER ALL THE SKILLS NECESSARY.

THAT IS PERHAPS THE MOST IMPORTANT REASON WHY KUNG FU/TAI CHI PLAY SUCH AN IMPORTANT PART IN MY VOCAL TRAINING AND TEACHING. WHEN A SINGER (BEGINNER OR PROFESSIONAL) LEARNS THAT A BIG TASK CAN BE BROKEN DOWN TO MANAGEABLE BITS, THEY QUICKLY "LEARN HOW TO LEARN" AND HOW TO PLAN FOR SUCCESS. CONFIDENCE COMES FROM HAVING A VISION OF THE PROCESS OF DEVELOPMENT. WE DO NOT GET THIS FROM OUR CONSERVATORIES AND MUSIC SCHOOLS IN THE WEST ANY MORE.  NOT COMMONLY! THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS!

The process for each student is very individual.  Although the fundamental skills are the same for all, not every singer comes from the same experiences.  Some come with native, genetically pre-disposed strength and environmental conditioning (both good and bad).  Others come with great learning skills and and a conditioning for not giving up and persevering.  These things must be taken into account when a teacher constructs a process for a student.

Yesterday I received an additional honor that I did not expect.  I was honored with the title of Si-Hing, which in our system means I have been elevated to the status of "First level teacher!"  As I look forward to continuing a working relationship with the very special Opera Studio at Härnösands Folkhögskola in northern Sweden, I am overjoyed that my colleagues there made Kung Fu and Tai Chi a required part of the curriculum beginning this fall.  

In the last year, I have walked down the streets feeling a physical robustness and vigor I have not felt since I was playing football and tennis in my high school years.  I feel this vigor also when I sing, as if there is root and grounding to my voice in a way I never had before.  I am preparing scenes from the roles of Siegfried and Turiddu and Otello and I feel that all the notes are comfortably there, steady and reliable.  And so I went to one of my old teachers to work on ease and lyricism and beauty of tone, a work that did not make as much sense in the past because I had no real physical-vocal core before.  

In a sense, I realize that I have accomplished not only my Black Sash in Kung Fu, but if there were a system in Operatic Singing that were similar, I would be getting my first degree Black Sash in Singing:  The beginning of the path to true vocal mastery!  I achieved a certain level of musical and theatrical mastery years ago, but the voice was not up to that level since among other things I was singing the wrong repertoire.  I have not in my vocal life been so excited about any period of development.  I will be 50 years old in December and I feel younger than singers 20 years younger than me.  It is not a boast, but a realization commensurate with the work I have done in the past 7 years between my own technical theories (incidentally being proven true by current research) and my physical and mental work in Kung Fu/Tai Chi the past five years.

I have so much to write about and I hope I will return here more often to share my experiences with both my students and my own singing.

Black Sash is a beginning!  I thank all my teachers both vocal and in Kung Fu for the wisdom they have brought me, which leads me evermore to greater humility.  The day after the Black Sash test, we  began a new form in preparation for the next test one year from now.  In my singing, I began right away to dedicate myself to the process of vocal ease, and beauty of tone and flexibility of expression, which will require more precise balance and trust and courage and patience and faith.  We all need guidance and a certain self-determination. In balance!

My eternal gratitude to my Kung Fu Master, Sifu Karl Romain for showing me how Kung Fu relates to every aspect of life:



Kashu-do (歌手道) is The Way of the Singer!  Not my way!  It is the complete process, the complete technique of which each of us understands a part.  In Härnösand, all our students work with all our voice teachers.  No one owns any student.  We are there for them.  Very much like in our Kung Fu school.  We learn from all the teachers.  Sometimes one specific teacher says things in such a way as to bring clarity to a specific student in ways that another does not.  We leave our egos at the door and we do the great, beautiful work of teaching and learning.  

I have always aimed to make a difference in my field.  But like Kung Fu, the best way to teach is to be an example of what we aspire to for our students.  To make a difference we must begin with ourselves.  Only then do others who doubt begin to see that the long road difficult road begins with one single first step, and then the next.  We need an environment of committed fellow roadies! One of my colleagues who began around the same time as I did and has been an exceptionally great role model and fellow student was also honored with the title of Si-Hing.  He already teaches a few classes at our school.




In a school, there should be common purpose; a philosophy we can all aspire to; a fellowship and support system that takes us through difficult time; a caring for the individual as an integral part of the greater whole.  Schools used to be that way!  Today rarely!  That is why a traditional discipline, like Kung Fu has direct relevance to our art form!

We also need colleagues more advanced than we who inspire us to greater heights! Our Kung Fu school has many of those.  Our teachers call themselves fellow students, and they inspire us to reach their heights!




These two especially have been my constant teachers along with my Sifu (Master)!  Without their inspiration and encouragement as both my teachers and fellow students, I would not make it to Black Sash!  This school is so very special!  I am not leaving it, but rather extending the principles I learned there to my new home in Sweden.  Kung Fu is not "fighting"!  It is a way of life.  It means "great skill."  One can have great skill in anything if one approaches that thing with passion, discipline and respect.

Our Ying-Yang symbol is about interdependent parts--Paradox remains my favorite word.  This point of arrival is a new point of departure.  Tying the Black Sash the first time is both a celebration of an arrival and a preparation for the next part of the longer journey.

video

Not accepting mediocrity is not a judgement of others but rather an assertion of personal values!  If we as singers wish to enjoy our art form in the ways we imagined when we first began, with a sense that anything is possible, we must search deeper in ourselves for the answers we did not get in the course of our studies!  I have had great singing teachers throughout my studies.  It is not their fault that the systems we went through, even the very best ones, do not meet the rigors of an average martial arts school.  It is my believe that we need to use every new technology that is available to us, every possible experience that is accessible today to further the Old School principles that developed great operatic artists.  Among these principles are Faith in our destiny, Courage to pursue our dreams and Patience to see our hard work yield fruit!

A Black Sash is a White Sash who never quits

© 06/14/2015



Friday, March 20, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): 10 Reasons Why Jonas Kaufmann Is the World's Top Tenor

When a great opera singer is at the top of the food chain, everyone wishes to criticize!  Naturally this is good.  We should have an opinion and if we have real reasons for our opinions we should state them and hopefully our criticism will be constructive instead of jealousy-ridden and destructive.  As I begin to work out the final details of my own tenor voice coming from baritone, I grow more and more respectful of this great artist.  No I do not think he is perfect. No one is!  I prefer this post to be about a few of his great attributes.  If there is a full-voiced tenor who can top him in these categories, then he would probably be the one everyone is seeking out.  None of us who is not doing this on a daily basis can possibly understand the expectations for a singer of this level.  In a period in operatic history that is defined by rushing and superficiality, Kaufmann is able to meet the demands of the market and remain a superior musical and dramatic artist to rival some of his greatest predecessors.  I am a fan and every time I hear him live, I feel I have something to work on in the practice room.  He is a multi-faceted singer who embodies opera in as complete a way as we can possibly hope for.  Whether it is his excellent diction, or his legato, or his movie-star good looks or his profound interpretations, everyone can find something they enjoy in his performances.  Keep challenging yourself Mr. Kaufmann and challenge us in the process!

Here are my 10 top reasons why Jonas Kaufmann is the world's top tenor!  My apologies to the other great tenors I love!  They know who they are!


10.  The most varied repertoire since Placido Domingo.













9.  Looks of a movie star.  The kind attributed to his predecessor Franco Corelli





In fact his bone structure reminds of Corelli













8. He can control softer dynamics anywhere in his range




7. One of the leading Lieder interpreters around today (Honest music making...No tricks)!




6. Morbidezza (elasticity/flexibility)




5.  Excellent French diction (Not a given for a non-French tenor)




6.  Speaks native level English, excellent Italian!




5. A very thoughtful and profound interpreter.  Nothing superficial about his interpretations




4. A very consistent and reliable technique (Above videos demonstrate this)

3. A very comfortable and natural actor who understands how to use the music as impulse without getting into stock gestures or attempting a naturalistic acting style not suited to an operatic environment





2.  The physical constitution to handle a very demanding schedule! Few in the dramatic tenor category have been able to be as consistent in their appearances as he, and he sings song recitals as well as orchestral concerts.  Old School!

1. And of course!  Although his repertoire does not always demand it, he commands a good High C!









© 03/20/2015