Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Training To Sing and Singing Are At Times Very Different Processes

I took it for granted for years that most singers, especially if they have sung for a long time knew the difference between training the voice and the actual process of singing.  Lately it has become clear to me, even as I read old posts on this blog, that I always knew that what makes the Kashu-do process different is that "training" in the true sense is at the center of what we do, with the stipulation that training is not singing in the true sense. Practicing volleys at the net in tennis is totally different in timing and even in technique when actually playing a game.  The practice helps develop proper reflexes and a sense of how body, racket and ball align whether on your feet or diving for a hard shot down the line.

With singing, there are several fundamental functions that cannot be taken for granted.  No singer I have ever worked with, no matter how naturally coordinated has all functions muscularly developed or coordinated in balance.

I have developed specific exercises (soon to be published on my video site) for developing the Vocalis muscle for vocal substance and its partner the Crico-Thyroid for elasticity--they must be developed in tandem; for appropriate fold closure and a sense of flow; for long breath emission without collapsing the dynamic antagonism between muscles of inhalation and exhalation; for optimal resonance space development relative to functions of the muscles of the jaw, tongue and laryngeal stabilizers (thereby developing a sense of vocalic identity); development of efficient consonant articulation relative to optimal resonance; a sense of ideal body alignment relative to stage presence, etc.

These functions can not always be worked together in exercise. In fact a singer cannot be thinking about all these different processes.  However, when all the necessary fundamental functions have been exercised and muscularly trained, a singer must learn actual singing coordination.  Singing coordination cannot be separated from the music.  Indeed the final coordination for singing begins with the imagination.  The musical phrase must be sung in the mind before a sound is ever emitted. Music making must be deliberate and specific.  In the process of making music we  often develop a sense of where the mechanism maybe weak, which in turn gives us a clear clue of how the next training session will go.

In a singing philosophy that does not include "training," the only remedy for weakness is compensation.  By the same token, singing cannot be reduced to training exercises.  There must always be a sense of "context."  An exercise cannot be created in a vacuum.  It must serve in the development of a total vocal skill.  For that reason, I believe all voice teachers must perform.  It does not have to be at the highest level, but they must understand what it feels like to sing and what is ultimately needed in terms of skills and strength to sing a short song, a long aria, a role. Whether a small concert, the reading of an entire opera with my students or a coaching session, the process of performing educates how I develop vocal exercises.

Along those lines, I discovered early that great singers have powerful speaking voices, whether they speak softly or loudly.  The speaking voices of Christa Ludwig, Simon Estes, Mario Sereni and Piero Cappuccilli in particular stuck with me over the years.  I remember how "ordinary" I felt the first time I spoke with Sereni.  His speaking voice was so powerful, I thought mine was too ordinary to be an opera singer, even though I had gotten compliments about my speaking voice throughout my life.  In truth only recently have I felt the true core of my voice and that it is indeed extraordinary.  With that, vocal coordination is so much easier as compared to before I developed "my vocal muscles."

Paradoxically, everyone's voice could be developed to sound extraordinary and if it were so, everyone's voice would become ordinary.  Ordinarily developed!  Then the criterion for being a great singer would have more to do with music.  But imagining everyone developing their native instrument would be the same as imagining everyone developing their bodies to a professional athletic level.  And that is the point!  A trained voice does not sound any more "normal" than a professional athlete looks physically normal in their task.  Yet doing push-ups and jumping rope does not make a great boxer.  It prepares the boxer's body for the skill of boxing.

The training of singing can be very complicated at times, but the process of actually singing has to be a very simple one.  The more I train, the simpler the process becomes for me.  Singing has become about emitting breath/sound/phrasing/emotion/ideas/harmony in one spontaneous deliberate stroke.  The space is already trained!  The phonation is already trained!  The vowel modifications are automatic and spontaneous!  The consonants are articulated efficiently!  When a note or passage feels routinely difficult, I ask myself: what aspect of my instrument is lacking strength and what part maybe compensating and creating an imbalance?  Then I go to my practice room, work on that weakness and then go back to my "simple process" of singing.

In my high school days, I played soccer (European football).  I scored 36 goals. Three as a right-winger and 33 as a center forward.  I still remember each one.  They were special events and they happened lightning-fast!  I had no time to plan.  It felt like instinct!  I knew when the distance was right and how hard I had to hit the ball to get past the goal-keeper.  I knew when to commit right or left to get by a defender, etc.  If was always a feeling in the body!

A month ago I spent a week in New York to do a concert with my students and was able to go to my Kung Fu school to train in preparation for my black belt.  My teacher said something so wonderful during a Tai Chi session with our more advance members.  He said: "At this level, Tai Chi is in the body more than in the brain.  You cannot be thinking about what is the next step. Your body should know it and it should know what correctness feels like!"  Singing is the same for me.  I know what the note should feel like before I sing it.  If it does not occur properly, I do not question my instinct.  I realize then that my body was not physically tuned enough to produce the sound I was sensing.  So I go train.  Just like training Kung Fu reveals that my left leg is my weaker standing leg, even tough it is my better kicking leg.  I must train that left leg to have better stances in my forms and more weapons at my disposal during sparring sessions.  Likewise, I must train different vocal functions so that in the moment of music making I have options and am not locked to "lifting palates" and "lowering larynges"!

As I prepare to teach a 7-day Workshop in France, I keep this thought of balance in mind.  When is it time to suggest a training exercise and when is it time to suggest: "Just sing!"  Like good Yoga, singing feels differently everyday.  But when well trained, like good Yoga, it still feels more or less the same.  Because of consistency of process, the daily changes do not feel so foreign. They just feel like different experiences driving the same road home.

© 03/03/2015


Friday, February 6, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Humility To Accept and Develop the Greatest Version of Ourselves

This post is almost thirty years in the making! Perhaps this more than any other article I write could represent a type of Kashu-do (歌手道) manifesto.  Some twenty-eight years ago, a coach-accompanist and gifted teacher of young singers, named Glenn Parker, was coaching a young soprano in a masterclass.  She had chosen the celebrated sacred aria "Alleluia" from Mozart's Exultate Jubilate. The singer is expected to find many different ways of expressing the single word "Alleluia" as set in variations by Mozart.  She had a lovely voice and sang all the notes, but it was static!  We were not moved.  When Parker got her to be more expressive, she protested that it was a sacred piece and she, a Christian, did not want to appear boastful, to which Parker replied: "Wouldn't a Christian want to boast about God?"  She seemed taken by surprise as if she did not expect this interpretation.  He continued and said something I never forgot, which could have planted the seeds that became Kashu-do: "You must be humble enough to be grand if it is what the music demands!"  In a sense, operatic music, always requires us to be grand--grand in the sense that we must open ourselves totally and express with all of our resources, whether the music requires us to sing softly or loudly.  We must be grandly soft or grandly loud.  In fact, soft singing requires us to give even more.

The grandest version of ourselves is the most natural version--unfiltered, without artifice.  The problem is that the natural utterance, the primal scream that comes from a baby's cry or a child's unabashed laughter-- the stuff of our vocal nature-- is usually lost so early that when we are brought back to this sound, we think it shrill, unrefined and coarse.  Yet outside of our conditioned inner ear, that raw sound reaches the innermost regions of the human psyche.  It is as piercing as it is tender, as savage as it is elegant.  It is the totality of a human being represented in sound, and its primal nature makes it immediately moving.  That is the stuff of operatic voices, the Golden Fleece of vocal music, that can make stones weep according to the legend of Orpheus, which in turn inspired the first opera.

Sounds like that require strength not overexertion! They require balanced effort not strain!  Too many teachers today are so afraid of strength and balanced effort that anything short of total physical passivity gives them cause for alarm.  The appearance of effortlessness is based on developed strength.  Indeed some singers are robust of body and have always used their voices in a natural primal manner.  So they often are not even aware how strong they are innately.  For such a singer, singing has always been an easy experience, and so they tend to further the idea that singing opera should not require effort.  A natural misunderstanding based on that particular singer's physical make-up and personal experience.  Such a singer can only teach a singer who has a similar physical make-up and vocal manner.

That is why some of the greatest singers have no idea what to do with a beginner.  The greatest singers were used from the start to using their voices in a grand manner. It felt NORMAL to them.


Singers who have always used their voices robustly and who have a body that has developed with that robust vocal habit are experienced as vocally gifted.  One of the greatest bass-baritone voices I have ever heard was housed in the frail-looking body of my old colleague Paul Adams.  People could not understand how he was producing that sound, but he did not always sing like that.  Paul once told me he developed his upper range by one half-tone each year.  I doubt many besides his teacher knew this.  Even a singer who appears extraordinarily gifted may have had a conscious "building" phase.

Personally, one of my greatest struggles is to accept my dramatic tenor voice.  Oddly enough, the best place to test this is by singing lyric repertoire and not back away from my dramatic nature.  I am currently preparing "Una furtiva lagrima" and "Parigi o cara" for a small concert.  In one practice I realized the easiest way to sing that aria musically and lyrically was to imagine it was the "Preislied" from Wagner's Die Meistersinger.  Singing "lyrically" that is without strain (as the phrase is used) is in essence to sing with one's true voice.  Forcing comes whether one tries to overexert and sing louder or with greater substance than is native to himself or one tries to reduce the voice against its nature.  The common understanding is that forcing comes from overexerting!  It takes extra energy to reduce the voice against its nature -- A kind of energy that traps the voice in a functional process that is hindered and inflexible.

Accepting the greatest version of ourselves in singing could be 1) either respecting that the voice is of smaller substance and treat it according and in so doing release the most powerful resonance conditions that the voice has available to it or 2) committing the physical effort to a voice of great mass such that it has the appropriate physical support to sound fluid, flexible and yes "lyrical".

The operatic field in recent decades has propagated an ideal of "less effort is better!"  This works relatively well for lighter voices (although not always. Some light voices don't function because they lack physical support).  Thus, the field supports lyric voices until the singers get older and then they begin singing repertoire that is too taxing for the voices and they decay in quality like a bad vintage of wine.  Those voices should flourish in appropriate repertoire that is no longer performed because the operatic machine only present operas, of which the common person in the street has heard the title.  So a lyric soprano has little to fill a career.  She must begin with coloratura repertoire that might be too taxing in the highest range and then do well in the lyric roles that are being perform and then grab on to Lady Macbeth since by Callas, it represents a star vehicle!  But I digress!

It is not going to be the operatic machine that decides for us, and perhaps not even our voice teachers.  In the studios I frequent in New York I hear great voices.  There are very capable teachers out there!  The question is whether the necessity of running a voice studio as a business in a large city, and only as a business (as opposed to an artistic endeavor as well) gives the teacher and the student the opportunity to develop the voice beyond mere function.  Does a teacher in a large city have the opportunity to get to know the person behind the voice?  How can one discover a singer's true personality when only dealing with vocal tissue?  For my part, as a teacher, I begin to do my best work when we have gone beyond fundamental function and start to deal with the singer's personality. It often takes longer to get to that point than the average New York or big city singer is prepared for.

Opera is an old school art and like any great artistic pursuit, it demands the total person!  Unless we go back to Old School principles (accompanied by New School technologies) Opera will be reduced to a mere curiosity and status symbol.  Opera is about personality and vocal personality!  Yet it is not about personality imposed from the outside! It is about liberating the person who is inside.  It is about being brave enough to present the true self, unfettered, without judgment through the medium of the voice.

How many can really dare to be vocally and emotionally naked before the music and the audience?  Being actually physically naked on the operatic stage is in fact a pretense for not being emotionally available.  I have not yet seen nudity on the operatic stage that was not self-conscious and labored. I have seen nudity on the spoken theater stage that worked well.  Operatic energy is sustained musical energy, which makes naturalistic usage of nudity banal and uninteresting.  Indeed a poor substitute for the emotional and vocal honesty that is actually necessary!

For a voice to sound naked (truly honest and unfettered) it must be unfurled, open! A naked body that is collapsed, hiding all the private parts is not the same as full-frontal! How can we expect a singer who has always used the voice in a collapsed fashion to be truly open?  We cannot!  We must first rebalanced the muscles such that the voice may take its true natural form.  Only then can the singer present the true voice!  The naked voice (to borrow the title of Stephen Smith's book)!

It takes a special kind of humility to release the true voice, which represents our grandest vocal self.  That kind of humility also recognizes the work it takes to get to such a level.  And not despair when the road gets tough.  The road will get tough! For reasons we never expect.  True Opera is not for pretenders and poseurs, of which the current stage is full.  It is for the humble and the courageous inhabiting one skin; for the doubtful who confidently perseveres; the underdog who strives for the betterment of self and through it betters us all!

© 02/06/2015


Friday, January 16, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Toward Black Sash: I can always be better than I think I can

Over the next few months I am training to prepare for my black belt test in Kung Fu.  In a way I feel I am also training for a black belt in singing!  I know what I have achieved over nearly 7 years of retraining as a tenor and I am happy, yet I am not nearly satisfied yet.  As I train more and more high level singers, I become aware of native strength vs. acquired strength! I'm convinced they are more similar than different! I teach a heldentenor who has the core strength of a Theban bull. When he first joined my studio and I would demonstrate for him, I felt like the gentler tenor next to him, now he remarks that my sound exhibits a kind of metal he associated with his own voice.  I believe I owe that to greater core strength acquired in practicing Kung Fu and Tai Chi.  Yet when we practice high Cs and above I feel he has an extra gear I have not yet reached. I sense my core buckle a little under the compression of a sustain C5 if I use greater fold resistance.  Allowing myself more and more a lyrical approach requires a gentler phonation mode and stronger core to maintain the compression of the breath.  This requires greater strength in all muscles, such that no one muscle carries the burden of what should be a shared process.

My experience with my "robust" instrument is that it require a more robust body under it than I ever imagined.  To be able to phonate gently and create robust sounds require a stronger laryngeal structure and a powerful breath source.

Many singers I encounter equate laryngeal tension with efficient closure until it stops working!  Tai Chi has taught me that fluid motion requires very strong leg muscles and my black sash training is teaching me I am not strong enough to make the most difficult things look easy.

This is an inspiring and frustrating period.  I was never interested in being just good enough! It has always been my aim to be the best I can be.  When you see the door to the next chapter of your life, turning back is no option! When you've gone way past the point of no return, you are in a scary place when you wonder if you have the strength to swim to the other shore.  What choice have you?
Mine is simple. Just swim harder!

I CAN ALWAYS DO BETTER THAN I THINK I CAN!

© 01/16/2015