Friday, November 28, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): The folly of one-sidedness! 100% of both sides

How long does it take to balance a thoroughly satisfying chest voice with a totally satisfying head voice?

Will it be beautiful the first time?  Will you get a great sound the first time you try to balance two complete sides?

In breathing:  Are you a pushing out type or a pulling in type?

In resonance, do you think about "putting it forward" or "opening up the back space?"

When you do an [i] vowel such as in the word "feel," do you close your mouth?

Low larynx or high soft palate?

Full-bodied or floaty light?

One register or two or three or five?
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Either/or is the singers's Hell!  The world is full of proponents of one side or the other, which leads to a dissatisfying polarization that is just as responsible for the decay of the operatic arts as bottom-feeding agents and stage-directors who do not read music.

Balancing a thoroughly satisfying sensation of substance with a flexibly flowing light mechanism is the goal in every part of the register.  But in a world bent on immediate gratification, singers and teachers rarely allow themselves the natural process of "necessary imbalance" in order to accomplish true balance.  Singers are so afraid of making a less than perfect sound that they do not allow themselves the experience of developing true balance.

One process that begins with wobbly legs:  such as babies learning to walk!  Wobbly legs lead to perfect balanced walking, just as a true technique often begins with an unsteady voice and over time develops into true balance whereby no aspect is sacrificed.

Compression and flow are parts of one inter-dependent system.  Paradoxical and total!  The folds close gently but completely once substance and stretch have been balanced and a balance between compression and flow is a reality.  Resonance is a three part system that includes a low larynx, a tongue that is flexible and does not retract and a jaw that releases regardless of vowel.

In singing, things that seem like opposites are rather necessary parts of a more complete system.  But how many singers or teachers for that matter are patient and courageous enough to figure out ten elements that balance with each other without any of them being sacrificed?

Most singers come into singing with one or several of those parts unconsciously trained from speaking habits and early musical experiences.  Those are the parts they must reexamine!  Unfortunately these are the parts they too often take for granted and do not include in their teaching.
We must examine ourselves!  We must make sense of the total package including the parts that we did not have to struggle with.  Otherwise, we remain forever partial teachers never understanding the whole.

A great and total technique takes us through many steps without altering its principles.  The voice changes until it is balanced.  The technical precepts remain the same.  Over time, the singer manages to balance 10 elements without ever sacrificing one or the other.  At that point, true balance is achieved and the multi-faceted nature of the instrument is discovered.

Beware of one-sided singing and embrace the juggling act or the tight-rope act that is balance in singing!

© 11/28/2014

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Winterreise and My Seven Years in the Desert

7 X 7 = 49.  This year I turn 49 and I have heard that we go through a sort of transformation every 7 years, or rather that we experience a certain level of existence for 7 years and graduate to another level.  Whatever it is, it would seem to coincide with my journey to becoming a tenor...or better, a real singer.  What do I mean?  Was I a fake singer before?  Certainly not!  I was always admired for bringing a high level of artistry and interpretative honesty to my performances.  Those things were enough such that many overlooked a certain vocal inferiority...Inferiority because I believed I was something I was not.

Vocal categories are interesting but sometimes limiting.  Even now that I feel 100% tenor (that is I feel at home in the tenor tessitura in a way I never did as a baritone), my timbre has a lot of baritone in it.  It is my vocal nature:  Baritone fold thickness and tenor fold length.  As I have written here often, paradox is a word that has come to define me, my voice, my teaching, etc...

Perhaps it is for that reason that Schubert and Müller's Winterreise has been such an important piece of music in my life.  I have never found the cycle difficult to sing.  In a strange way, it always fit my spirit.  It was fitting therefore that I made what I consider my official comeback to performance (yes I have done other small performances) with this great work.  The final step to readiness is performance.  One can have all the pieces ready, but singing in the studio is not the same as commanding an audience's attention.  Preparing a work like that places a performer square before his fears, aspirations and hopes.  One must defy limitations to truly perform.  For that reason I admire anyone who prepares to the best of his/her abilities and faces the public.  Yet I am also critical!  No less than I would be critical of myself!

This is not my finished voice, but I make no excuses for it here.  The vocal product is pretty well developed...well enough to really perform this cycle in all of its complexities, taking bold chances whenever I felt up to it.  Likewise I made some safe choices when I felt the voice was not always up to the perfect pianissimo or when the lower range fuzzes out a little, or when the heavier side of the voice dominates in the lower passaggio.  But those moments were few and I never felt artistically distracted.

It was time to come out of the desert and it showed me that the process has been correct.  Furthermore, this performance also opened my eyes to how little was left to work out technically and how crucial it is to take this to its logical end!  Indeed there is no end!  But there is a level of skill that is akin to a skilled tightrope-walker!  The skill level must be extraordinarily high, yet the job of keeping once balance presents eternally changeable moving pieces that are inter-connected.  One must be conscious and one must allow balance to occur.

I travel always with a copy of Poulenc's Bleuet, the song that more than any symbolizes superior technical and interpretative achievements, precisely because I love the song and until recently never felt up to its challenges.  This next period will be the Bleuet Period.  It will be a time of refinement at the highest level and a time of intense enjoyment.

April 17 2015 will be the 7th anniversary of the day when I gave up all baritone repertoire to start training as a tenor.  It will be interesting to see where I am by then, and where I will want to go afterward.

For now, I leave you with my performance of Franz Schubert's and Wilhelm Müller's Winterreise. I hope you enjoy viewing it as much as I enjoyed singing it.




 ©11/21/2014

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Becoming Tenor 2: The Nature of Talent and the Responsibilities Thereunto

Several things inspired this post.  First, in checking the traffic on this blog, I noticed a large number of people find the blog by searching "baritone to tenor switch" or similar search titles.  Second, I feel the word "talent" as it is often used can be a preparation to disaster.  Third, and a commentary of my second reason, very little difference is made between what are genetic attributes and the skills developed relative to such attributes.

I have often said on this blog that I did not "change" from baritone to tenor.  I don't believe a natural baritone can make a change to become a reliable tenor.  To support this statement, I must define what is a natural tenor as distinguishable from a baritone.

Parameters that are used to distinguish voice types:

Timbre:  When my voice changed at age 11 or 12, I dropped from a high soprano to a low bass.  My choir teacher in middle school wrote special bass parts for me and by the time I got to high school I was the lowest bass in the section, and proud of my special "talent".  I thought then, this was the "nature" of my adult voice and my very caring teacher never said otherwise.

Arriving at Westminster Choir College (Princeton, NJ, USA), I quickly discovered there were voices that were both lower and more substantial than mine.  Nevertheless, I felt more comfortable as a bass and through my senior year, I sang bass roles even though by that point I had developed higher notes, felt comfortable performing G4 in both my junior and senior recitals and would occasionally sing the tenor Bb in the touring choir's encore number, an arrangement of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

In graduate school, at the University of Michigan, back then always in the top four music schools in the United States, I encountered very well-developed voices in my vocal category and quickly thought I was a lyric baritone, albeit with a very rich tone color.

For a total of 25 years I sang oratorios and orchestral concerts and some 40 operatic roles with middle level organizations and occasionally replacing someone for a high profile performance.  When I felt ready to take the next steps into higher level performance, it seems people became increasingly disenchanted with what was always referred to as a superior package.

At very least, we can agree that my timbre did not change drastically.

Why did I not simply develop over time as a bass?  I had both the dark vocal color and the low notes.  I can still sing C2 regularly.  Not very loudly, but respectably. Many basses I know have not developed those notes.

Let us talk about what is primarily responsible for natural vocal timbre (i.e. what nature gives us)!  I have concluded that natural color of the voice is determined by the thickness of the mucosal layers of the vocal folds (also called fold-cover), which in an ideal situation make up the vibratory tissue during phonation.

We will return to how vocal color is not a primary determinant of voice type but rather a secondary definer of sub-categories.

Range:  A singer who can sing a low C like I could would be considered a bass at first thought.  By the time I got to graduate school, my teacher, George Shirley, routinely warmed me up beyond C5. Is a male singer with a high C necessarily a tenor?  I teach dramatic baritones who can sing an easier high C than I can.  They are not lazy tenors.  I should be able to tell, given my experience!  I have dramatic coloraturas who sing higher than some lyric coloraturas and lower than some baritones.  What does that say?  It says those baritones have not explored their low range and the lighter coloraturas sometimes are happy enough to be able to touch F6.  There are notes beyond the required performance ranges.

Tessitura (Let us call it Area of Unforced Power):  In listening to my old recordings, what makes me not a baritone is that when I sang an F4 (supposedly a money note for a baritone), it does not sound very intense.  Therefore, being a sensitive dramatic singer, I knew what color was necessary for those Fs and so I unknowingly manufactured a tonal color to fit my given vocal type (my label).  No matter how convincing I could be in some auditions in a small room, those notes did not sound as exciting in a large room with orchestra.  When I would sing a third higher, my voice became effortlessly powerful.  I imagined I simply had to develop that kind of power in the baritone tessitura, but powerful F4s were not in my vocal make-up.  In student productions, yes! In top professional situations, not as good!  When you find yourself playing Leporello opposite the rich voice of John Cheek's Don Giovanni, you better be a great actor.  My acting ability made up for what was lacking in natural vocal power.  I had enough color to make Leporello work, but not the vocal intensity in that tessitura.

What then is responsible for determining tessitura?  

Fold Mass!  Longer (Horizontal) and deeper (vertical) folds have a great influence on how low one can sing and most importantly that the folds reach a strong tautness at lower frequency levels and thereby create a much more intense tonal quality at those lower frequency levels.  Long and deep folds have naturally lower notes (although many singers do not explore their low range completely. Many professional basses sing below the confines of the traditional piano keyboard).

Let us say that a natural bass with long and deep folds does not sound as rich as his dramatic baritone counterpart!  Why is that, if the bass has longer and deeper fold mass than the average baritone?  Because the baritone has thicker mucosal layers.  The vibratory body of the folds should be the mucosal layers.  However, some singers will press the folds together to induce a thicker vibration mode than is native to them.  This requires greater compression of the breath and a great deal more pressure on the larynx as a whole.  The tone often sounds hard and on the verge of instability.  Some physically robust singers can endure this kind of phonation for a long time.  But they are more the exception than the rule.  Parenthetically, our bass with the leaner mucosal layers (fold cover) would be called a lyric bass.

To conclude my story, I discovered late in my career that I had folds short like a tenor, with a very thick fold cover akin to a baritone, even bass-baritone.  The color of the voice reminds of a baritone, but its natural tessitura is higher.  The thicker fold cover provides greater resistance to the air stream and so my ability to generate adequate breath pressure must be better developed to maintain a free vibration along the fold cover.  The moment that this breath support fails, the larynx makes up for it via the inter-arytenoids that presses the folds together, reducing the breath flow to a trickle. A more intense but less resonant sound. Fold vibration frequency is constant for a given fundamental pitch.  If the breath pressure is reduced too much, maintenance of that fundamental frequency require the breath usage to lessen.  To maintain a more flowing vibration modality (flow-phonation) a certain amount of breath is necessary to keep the fold cover vibrating freely (not trapped by a medial squeeze).

Considering my past, in the attempt to sound like a baritone, I must have pressed my folds together to achieve more intensity and a thicker vibration modality.  Nevertheless, it would never sound as free and resonant as a natural baritone not pressing.

In retraining as a tenor, I had to:

1) take away the false pressure (retrain the inter-arytenoids not to press the folds together and trapping my fold cover)

2) Develop a breath support system that was equal to the nature of my fold cover

3) Develop a dynamic between fold length and depth (Crico-Thyroid vs. Vocalis [Internal Thyro-Arytenoid) that created the most efficient fold vibration (because I also sang a Vocalis-dominant sound in an attempt to sound more at home in the baritone range)

4) Develop a balanced resonance strategy relative to lower and higher formants, such that the voice sounded natural relative to its native make-up.

This was a tall order.

And now that I am a confident tenor after seven years of hard work, was it worthwhile?

To me yes!  But not everyone has that kind of patience, and not everyone can decide to let go entirely of what was working at a decent level.  I got hired by 5 Universities based partly on my ability to present a convincing performance at the audition, as well as be able to teach well--Never mind that I do not think very much of academia for the development of a singing artist. There are few schools willing to and equipped to address the dilemmas intrinsic in becoming a classical singer--

I had something that could earn me a decent living.  I was a functioning baritone, good enough for some decent name University programs and some regional orchestras and opera companies that were willing to give me an opportunity to display my talent and grow in the process. For me that was not enough.  The same thing that drove me out of Academia is the same thing that drove me to becoming the tenor that I am.  I became a singer to achieve the highest level of artistry possible.  For me...for me (not necessarily for others), I could not go on knowing that there was something better that was not being investigated.  Same is true of the academic institutions I experienced as a teacher.

Freelance teaching is not the most financially secure situation, but I managed to make a living at it at least equal and some years better than I was doing in academia.  It takes a lot more responsibility on my part and also a great deal more traveling than I would like.  But I am honestly facing my ability as a teacher and by extension I am forced to evaluate my worth as a singer.  I must be better if I am so bold as to instruct professionals and aspiring professionals and my favorites, the committed amateur who is determined to be the best s/he can be.

Did I sacrifice my professional career development?

I don't believe I did.  I don't think I could have made a real impact at the top of the field using my tenor voice as a baritone.  Some disappointing auditions, at which I was told I had a flawless vocal technique but not enough vocal power, made me begin to question.  Questions that ultimately lead me to understand (through a series of events) that I was in fact a tenor.

As I prepare for my first Winterreise as a tenor (I sang the cycle often as a baritone), I feel more empowered artistically than ever before.  My voice feels the most honest ever and I am enjoying the relearning of this cycle with a fresh feel.

With a fully developed voice (technical mastery is a lifelong pursuit of course) I have the great benefit of no longer being a victim to reflux or minor food intolerances.  If I wake up with a case of reflux, I am able to warm up, and feel functional.  The better my technical work the day before, the easier my voice works the day after, regardless of reflux, slight cold or allergy.

In short the benefits of this seven-year journey are undeniable to me.  But that is my journey.

Granted, not every tenor who starts as a baritone deals with the issues I had.  I teach a young tenor who is physically robust and always used his voice relative to its nature.  He always used his voice like the tenor he is.  But because the voice is robust, in his undergraduate years he sang baritone and bass-baritone like I did.  Yet he used his voice correctly.  When we started to work together, he did not have many bad habits to fix.  It was a matter of developing ease in the top range.  He could already handle the tessitura pretty well.
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The Nature of Talent

Relative to what I discuss above about my own journey, the nature of classical singing talent is a complicated thing.  One must look at talent not as vocal ability, but rather as the attributes necessary to get those in power to pay attention:

1) You are a young singer, 20 years old, with an even three and a half octave range that you can produce every day with apparent ease...

That is enough to get most people to call you very talented (I know at least 20 such singers).  

What takes you from interesting to earning your living in the art of classical singing?

A.  How fast can you learn music accurately without the aid of a recording? Better said, what is your musicianship level?

B. How well can you deliver foreign language text while singing and convince your listener you understand every word and its dramatic purpose?  In other words, how musical and how dramatically compelling are you?

C. How charming are you as a person?  In other words, will the person hiring feel comfortably sharing a meal with you, and will you be a hit at a party thrown by patrons of the organization?

D.  How physically attractive are you? In other words, can you fill the extremely revealing undergarment that substitutes for "costume" in the current production of the opera you are applying for?


If you can do three out the four items above well, you may be ready to have a professional career at the tender age of 20.  It has happened. 

In most cases however, it will takes 5 to 10 years of working hard to achieve the three things above.  And as you get older the expectations are higher.  

In other words, the assessment of "talent" changes depending on age!

2) If you are a true dramatic tenor, nearing 50 and you have a flawless high C and you are dramatically compelling and master all the major operatic languages and have the stamina to sing Tannhäuser, Parsifal, Otello, Samson, Radames and Cavaradossi without a sweat...

That is enough to get people to call you very talented (I don't know so many people like that)

What takes you from interesting to earning your living in the art of classical singing?

A.  How fast can you learn music accurately without the aid of a recording? Better said, what is your musicianship level?  Can we call you at 3 am and ask if 24 hours is enough time for you to learn Bacchus of book?

B. How well can you deliver foreign language text while singing and convince your listener you understand every word and its dramatic purpose?  In other words, how musical and how dramatically compelling are you? Can you move on stage in such a way that everyone believes you are 25 years old while delivering crazy difficult music with Jonas Kaufmann style ease?

C. How charming are you as a person?  In other words, will the person hiring feel comfortably sharing a meal with you, and will you be a hit at a party thrown by patrons of the organization?

D.  How physically attractive are you? In other words, how much space do you take on stage that is consistent with being a lead tenor (Meaning, you cannot be perceived as fat).  Therefore, how muscular can you be?  How much will the rich female patrons pay to see you again when you appear shirtless in your Otello love scene or in your final Samson scene? Enough to want to give a couple of million toward the next production?

When I look at that list, I imagine I have as much a chance as anyone and I've got most of this down.  But I also know that that list list of A-D is meaningless until I get the fundamental talent in place.  So that is how I spend my time.  I know I have the musicianship, musicality, language skills and stagecraft.  I know I am charming enough to be a hit at a party, particularly when I am already the center of attention at a production.  Been there done that.  Bodybuilder-type muscles have never been a priority with me, but I am a brown-sash in Kung Fu and whenever I train for three months straight I get close to the Barihunks aesthetic.

None of this is impossible!  The question is how do you want to play this game?  I chose to play it peacefully.  My blog is as much a therapeutic way of airing out my thoughts as it is an attempt at informing and instructing.  I am an artist first.  A career in the questionable world of opera does not define me.  However, like any honest singer, I want to have the opportunity to sing my favorite repertoire in a venue and atmosphere that does the art credit.  Therefore I have to be willing to play the game by meeting the challenges that the business puts before me.

I believe presenting yourself before you are 100% confident in your abilities, especially at a more advanced age, is a recipe for failure.  I never imagined becoming the dramatic tenor that I am was ever going to be easy.  The fact that there are few dramatic tenors in the world singing these roles with consistency and ease (it has been so since I saw my first Tannhäuser at age 16) made it clear to me that I had my work cut out for me.  I also knew from the start that it would be certain failure to rush into auditions half-baked.  I watched too many colleagues fail thinking that their charm and 1 out of 10 B-flats in auditions is enough to get them having a career because there are so few viable dramatic tenors.  Since there are few truly great dramatic tenors around, no one is interested in having more mediocre ones.  Like it or not, Domingo was the last undeniably successful Otello.  If you audition with that role, people will have certain Domingo expectations until someone else comes along and redefine the role.  Either you meet the Domingo expectation or you give an alternative that is just as powerful or more so!

I'm the first to to argue the dysfunctional nature of the operatic field!  The above expectations are in part laughable, but notice that many of the expectations I write here have to do with bona fide operatic skills.  As operatic aspirants, we have to play the game that is being played, but we do not have to sacrifice our values to do it.  If we can respect ourselves and live by our standards, we can pump iron and give the meat-marketers the six-packs and guns they want, because we will not be defined ultimately by the superficialities but by the artistry that we value.

© 09/13/2014