Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Achieving High C: A Tenor Milestone

It is so easy to say: "No you can't!"  I swore I would never tell a student that something was not possible.  I would explain why something was not attainable at the moment and what would be needed to achieve it.  But I would never say: "It is impossible!"

I have heard from many coaches and teachers that you do a student a favor when you tell them they have no talent.  You spare them the agony that they would face in attempting to reach a goal they never would reach.  Sometimes, I wish I could do that, but I find it unethical.  It is not our place as teachers and advisors to tell anyone what to do.  It is our job to present the realities as they are and let the student decide if they will chose to swim the "sea of troubles" that is the path to a professional career in singing.  The path that is unending an rewarding however is the path to artistry.  

When we tell a student that they should not sing because the world of the music business is impossible, we also tell them to stop the path of the artist.  "Cart before the horse!"  Why not instruct the student in the art of singing and music and then they can figure out whether or not they want to deal with the world of music business.  Armed with the tools of an artist, one has a chance.  Armed with nothing but fear of a nasty world of music business, one has indeed no chance.

When I started my journey to finding my true voice, my tenor voice, I decided a fully supported High C was a part of the package.  It is not that the High C is the end of everything.  It is simply something that many full-voiced tenors have accomplished and just because I began as a baritone does not mean that a high C was not possible.  So many tenors with more substantial voices than mine accomplished this feat.  Why not I?  I look at the singers of the past as models, not as Gods.  In fact the most exciting lesson is that they were mere human beings like all of us.  They practiced until they were able to do something that is indeed difficult to do.

I knew that a High C would be possible as a result of a complete technique, not as a goal unto itself.
My early clips on this blog from a few years ago show rough beginnings.  The following clip shows how far this has come.  The journey is ever-continuing, and while I enjoy my High C, the C3-C4 octave, my middle and lower middle ranges still need work.  Refining is a lifelong job.  

While practicing some songs this morning, I felt that the fluidity I had been working on through coloratura singing was bearing fruit.  My voice felt more released and flexible than it had in previous months.  As I warmed up, the top range felt a little lower, and when I sang the C in a scale, it did not feel stuck or resistant.  It was "released!"  I thought I would try it on my favorite High C phrase, the one from Pollione's cavatina from Norma:





The first try was relaxed, but perhaps a little too relaxed.  The second note of the phrase was a little unsupported and flat.  However, the balance of substance, air pressure/flow and brilliance was right and the C just released.

The second try was to prove to myself it was not a fluke.  My concentration was not as good.  It grabbed from the beginning.  Yet it still came out, though a touch stiff!

The third attempt was to regain concentration and balance.  I had to think about all the elements again and allow the instrument to function. It released again.  So it was not fluke.

The fourth try was to try to better the third attempt.  It was pretty good but not as balanced as either the first or the third.
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This is how practice works!  Mastery is not accidental.  Through repetition, we find out the difference between a stable structure and a faulty one, between excellent coordination of all the elements and "mindless hoping" that our natural inclinations might prevail and give us the desired result.  A professional does things on purpose!

How do I improve on this C?

The acoustic analysis tells me a lot about my tendencies.  If I looked at only the "spectrogram" (the scrolling history view), All four attempts look alike.  The greatest energy is carried on the 3rd and 5th Harmonics (peaks), the Second Formant (F2) and the Singer's Formant (SF).  This is precisely what we want.  However, the spectrum view (which represents a moment in real-time), when I freeze it for the High Cs, shows certain tendencies:

The first attempt was very good, but there was a tendency for the First Formant (which happens to be on the fundamental) to dominate during parts of the sustained C.  We would prefer to have a stability in the dominance of the F2.  

The spectrograph also shows us that the formant values (First [F1] and Second [F2] Formants) determine the vowel to be [ae] as in the word "cat".  This choice of vowel (probably influenced by all the tenors I hear do this piece) presents a struggle between F1 and F2, rendering the note a little unstable.  I theorized that the better choice would be the Second Formant of the vowel [a] as in father, which would focus the energy of the low formants on the second harmonic (second peak).  This lower laryngeal position would have a beneficial effect on the SF as well.

The tightness of the second attempt shows very strong peaks in the lower two formants while diminishing the SF.  This is to be expected when the tone is pressed and inflexible.

The third attempt was acoustically the best.  It showed a tendency toward greater strength in the second harmonic (which is desirable).

The fourth attempt showed again a tendency for F1 to become dominant.

Although the Cs are relatively stable and well-coordinated, there is still some polishing work to be done for the note to sound beautiful.
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Being able to sustain C5 means that I have a certain amount of flexibility (ergo strength) in the coordination of notes below that.  B4b or B4 are notes I can now trust in context and more important than that, the flexibility of my lower range is becoming a reality.

Furthermore, before a High C would be possible, I had to make friends with my "natural" voice.  Every time I would try to sound like a tenor, the voice would become tense and quickly fatigued. Whenever I allowed my voice to have the same "body" it always had in my baritone days, the ability to find the brilliance that made the voice tenor-like also became possible.

Now that I feel I have this High C, I have to upkeep it.  And I have to go beyond it!

This summer, as part of my Opera Academy in Sweden, I will be singing three concerts.  I am feverishly working of operatic arias and ensembles as well as some favorite songs and Rossini's Petite Messe Sollenelle.  It is fun to be able to really make music again!

Achieving this High C is just an example of the simple commitment to the idea: "Yes I can!  But it takes work!"

My journey is just becoming interesting!  I love achieving new abilities!  I love that I can sing tenor now when not so long ago, it was just a pipe-dream!  All reality begins with a dream, an inspiration!
I have bigger tenor dreams still, that have little to do with High Cs.  Dreams of masterful music making using this voice that is now coming into its own.

There is indeed no limit to what we can achieve when we commit all of our energy to a task!

Happy Singing!

© 05/28/2014

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): On Critics and Their Responsibility: A Response to Ann Midgette's Cowardly Postcript

In an attempt to bring some kind of closure to the entire Critics-gate debacle, Ann Midgette of the Washington Post wrote this cowardly attempt at middle ground, which does no more than to endorse this type of base behavior under the guise of a balanced view.  To Ms. Midgette, I have the following to say:

We are not simpletons! Any performer who has ever taken the leap to expose their souls on the boards, consciously takes the risk of being panned by critics. Critics play a visceral part in furthering the art by helping to remind us of the standards we should aspire to. A balanced review can critique an actor's performance without debasing the person behind the actor.

When did it become acceptable and fashionable to insult an artist in the guise of a critique?  There was a time when such behavior was considered the last resort of poor writers who lacked both skill and imagination.  A truly competent writer could manage to comment on even the physical attributes of the singer in question without resorting to downright mean-spirited adjectives for which he might be challenged by a respectable gentleman wishing to defend a maligned lady's honor, for indeed these comments go far beyond acceptable form for a learned person, let alone a writer who pretends to report on what is commonly accepted as high-class art.

Is it really a "formulaic" definition to accept that Opera is indeed distinguished by the quality of the singing? In an attempt to appear artistically liberal-minded, Ms. Midgette has done nothing more than to endorse a deconstructionist ideology that accepts any disrespect of the operatic form as an indication of modernism and/or the natural and necessary evolution of Opera.  To add insult to injury, Ms. Midgette concluded that even the praises of the singer's vocal performance must not have been warranted because "...had the singing really been as glorious as all that, they might not have focused so much on the looks." The fact that Ms. Midgette herself had not attended the reviewed performance makes that statement insulting and unbecoming of a critic of a major newspaper.  

Indeed "...it's not the job of the critic to be liked, or to pander to popular tastes," as Ms. Midgette writes.  But is it necessary for an opera critic to resort to locker-room misogyny to make a point? And what exactly is that point?  That Opera should no longer be an art form defined by high level vocal development? 

What is revealed in this equivocal attempt at finding common ground is only a revelation that Ms. Midgette had drunken the CoolAid of acceptance into the very modern operatic environment that is willing to do away with the classical vocalism that has always defined the art form in favor of more populist, if not popular values, that seem to suggest that opera will be more successful if it aspires to a status of Hollywood or  Broadway wannabe.

That which is popular is not necessarily artistically sound, Ms. Midgette.  Nor does a successful advertisement campaign for an opera company guarantee that the product that is being presented is valid for the current times or any times.  One may be able find flaws in a great production or find virtues in a terrible one.  A Gesamtkunstwerk as Wagner called opera has so many levels of skills to be considered that a singer's looks would have to be otherworldly to be of serious consequence.  This young woman is not obese by any stretch of the imagination, yet fell prey to nothing other than a modern obsession with the misogynistic, mythical size 0.  

The bard wrote it thus:

Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves, when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die. 

Such is the power of music!  And even more poignant is that power when transmitted through a refined classically trained voice at the command of a well-trained musician.  This is what vocal musicians should aspire to--to move the listener from within, reaching a part of the human spirit that perhaps nothing else can reach.  A great operatic critic should love opera and defend it with a brutally critical pen if must be to prevent it from falling to the level of the banal and common.  In an attempt to avoid being elitist, too many influential parties in the operatic world have chosen, what is easiest and superficial and giving it the name of "democratization of Opera"  Ms. Midgette has simply become what she claims critics should not do: "to be liked and to pander" to those who have the most influence in the field:  the casting directors, stage directors and agents who have made the devil's deal that opera singers should look like Hollywood movie stars, since the most important medium is now the cinema screens where the most money is to be made. 

This modern "lookism" can be used as a terrible excuse to exclude singers on not only the basis of weight, but height, race, sexual orientation or anything else that members of a production team may find subjectively not to their tastes.  Rather than attempting to understand why these reviews struck such a loud dissonant chord through the operatic world, Ms. Midgette chose to play the role of collaborator.

The final slap in the face was Midgette's conclusive Exitus autem quae sunt ad finem (The end justifies the means), suggesting that the singer in question will probably have a more important career because of this scandal. Typical!  This only proves that Ms. Midgette has very little idea what moves artists from within.  We all wish to be successful at what we do.  But it does not even take an artist to understand that the type of success that one wants is the type that validates the blood and sweat that we shed for years to accomplish excellence in our chosen fields, not the notoriety that may result from infamy.

For my part, I would prefer to go back to writing about the newest exciting discoveries in acoustic analysis that give us a real understanding of what makes great operatic voices, but how can I focus on that work when these poor excuses for operatic criticism defy the very definition of the art we chose to learn by sacrificing our life's blood? Why uncover the secrets to the greatest voices in operatic history if we are being told that a gastric bypass will serve us much more toward making a career, even if we do not need one?

This scandal struck us at our core because those critics pretty much gang-banged a talented singer with unmitigated, harsh, verbal violence.  Ms. Midgette's response is terribly out of touch and downright deplorable.


© 05/25/2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): On Critics: By-products of an Operatic Culture Gone Amuck!

I could not ignore the current waves of anger regarding the brutal, misogynistic commentary about Tara Erraught, the excellent Irish Mezzo currently singing Oktavian at Glyndebourne.  The Telegraph's review was particularly insensitive.  Scathing reviews have always existed, whether it is Rossini referring to Gilbert Duprez's singing as "The shriek of a strangulated capon" or another tenor likened to a "stuck pig" in a review I remember reading 15 years ago. We have been far from civil, constructive criticism for quite a while as those who are given the task of critiquing or better said "criticizing" opera performances have rarely had the requisite understanding of the art form to appropriately help move it forward.  I once received a review praising "...the mighty vocals of Jean-Ronald LaFond" in the role of Don Giovanni.  The reviewer was obviously using language employed in a pop music context.  What do I do with such a review?

Ideally, a reviewer should have an understanding of vocal technique to be able to comment on a singer's ability to execute what the score demands.  Long ago, reviewers began to degrade enough that even the best of them could not hold a conversation with a singer about the physical demands of operatic vocal production.  Consequently they began to compare performances with whatever was considered definitive for the day.  "Did the soprano caress the phrase: '...ma falle gl'occhi neri,' alla Callas or Tebaldi?  What a stupid question?  Callas herself would have probably berated a singer who copied her manner of singing a phrase.

But why did reviewers begin to compare performances to so-called "definitive" recordings?  The truth is that they take their cues from the supposed experts.  When coaches are telling their young singers that "tradition dictates that this phrase should be sung thus," it does not take long before a reviewer starts to "criticize" based on that ludicrous expectation.  Because of this we have extreme reactionary movements by "early-music stylists" who make up their own rules that include more and more the music of the 19th century and beyond--One Russian conductor is coming out with a recording of the Mozart-Daponte trilogy that he himself refers to as an anti-operatic recording barring all vibrato-- This also leads serious conductors to adopt an ideology of come scritta, abiding by a rather limiting reading of what the composer provides.  All of these reactionary remedies are simply means to avoid the time-consuming task of becoming an expert musician and/or opera aficionado. Since it is easier to get paid for writing superficial nonsense, why would a writer of little knowledge put the effort into learning the tenets of the art-form?

As always the reviewers take their cue from what is happening within the discipline itself.  It was not too long ago that the career of Deborah Voigt began to suffer as a result of a domino effect beginning with the ludicrous "little black dress" episode.  This of course happened at London's Covent Garden. Is it any wonder that those particular British reviewers, probably lacking the requisite understanding of either voice or music, would take the very low road and simply criticize a promising young singer's physical appearance?

For all their idiocy, the reviewers are walking to the drumbeat of "contemporary opera attempting to take a populist path!"  I commented a couple of years ago on "Opera in the Movies"and the inherent dangers.  It has come to pass that opera is indeed separated between productions meant for Mass Visual Consumption, at the movies or for a real operatic audience, in the house.  The task of developing a mighty voice that sails through a thick orchestral texture to envelop an audience in a house seating 2000 spectators (i.e. the definition of opera) is now reduced to "peacocks prancing prettily in front of cameras while crooning carefree into a microphone!"

Is opera at the movies all bad?  By no means!  HD simulcasts bring opera to the masses and make a lot of money for elite opera houses.  A great solution, if only it brought audiences to the opera house.  But it does not.  "Opera in the movies" represents a superficial reduction of the operatic genre for consumption on a medium (the movie screen) that carries the skin-deep pseudo-perfectionism of a Hollywood-produced fairy-tale.  Opera at its best is expansive not reductive.  

As mezzo Alice Coote so eloquently expressed in her Open Letter To Opera Critics:


Singers and Teachers know that being underweight is far more damaging to a singer's wellbeing and performance than being overweight...
While I don't agree that singers need to be overweight to be successful, indeed this craze toward a "size 0" (whatever that oxymoron really stands for) is very harmful to any athlete, vocal athletes included.  Not everyone is meant to have 6% body fat.  Singers should find their healthy, most natural physical condition.  Some people are healthier with a higher body fat percentage and if those people are singers, a body fat index that is lower than that would be harmful to stamina and support of the voice.  Likewise, relying on high fat index as a support mechanism is a recipe for eventual disaster.  When fat content is substituted for muscular function, the instrument will not work optimally.  I wanted to address this issue in a balanced manner...but I digress!

The point of this article is that we should see these misbehaving critics as a reflection of an operatic Devil's Deal that we all tacitly accepted: "Let's make opera popular...At any cost".  Several singers have come out in defense of the talented Tara Erraught here singing Rossini's Rosina (Indeed a very comfortable, musical, dynamic young singer with a very beautiful voice).



Is it too little too late? Or have we singers finally figured out that we actually have influence?  If we are the voices of opera, should we not set the rules a bit more?  How many singers at a high level are going to be brave enough to stand for something significant?  Alice Coote is not exaggerating!  Opera as we singers value it is in danger of going out of existence in mainstream opera houses.  Will it take opera becoming a fringe affair before enough influential singers speak against the deconstruction of the art form by those who do not value it for what it is.  Can we imagine ballet without pirouettes and grand jetés?  What is happening to our myths of glass-shattering soprano high notes and off-the-piano Bass low notes (both are possible by the way)?

For my part, I will take the voluptuous healthy beauty of this young developing talent anytime on the operatic stage before I submit myself to the antics of prancing body-builders emitting non-tones that would be overpowered by a pair of mosquitoes whining in unison.  Furthermore, it is in complete disrespect to bona fide operatic artists to constantly have the feeling that they must reduce their voices to accommodate their weak-voiced colleagues who belong on Hollywood's Red Carpets rather than an operatic stage.

This problem is systemic!  How many great singers and their talents must be discouraged? How voiceless must opera become before we "Singers" take the reigns of our own destinies?

© 05/19/2014