Thursday, May 31, 2018

Tradition AND Science --Why an Either/Or Approach is Ill-Advised

In traditional teaching, the teacher who learned a complete technique attempts to pass along his or her experiences in the process of developing the student's voice in balance.  In the best case scenario, the teacher has had to solve all relevant technical issues in his/her own instrument and is aware of how the different functions work in balance.  However, developing a proprioceptive awareness in the student is challenging if the student is not already coordinated, to begin with. We also know of the many excellent singers who developed unconsciously and have no idea how they developed balance and often simply tell their students what they were told, to very inconsistent results.

On the science side, teachers learn the structure of the instrument and attempt to balance the instrument based on keen anatomical and acoustical knowledge and principles.  At best, the teacher uses both ears and scientific tools to determine when the student has accomplished the desired results.  Still, a student will not make wonderfully coordinated sounds without a physical experience of proper function.  Knowing is not enough.  The teacher needs to develop a means to cause the desired function and the student needs to develop a proprioceptive awareness of correct function.  For example, knowing that the vocal folds must resist the breath stream efficiently (i.e. without loss of air or excessive subglottal pressure (associated with pressed voice).  Glottal resistance is dependent upon multiple functions.  The student must be guided to balance those functions in order to achieve the correct form of glottal resistance. 

The point of contention has to do with resonance feedback.  Science-based teachers are very resistant to the suggestion of specific resonance sensations.  There is no empirical basis for suggesting that any part of the anatomy should be associated with vibratory sensations relative to efficient and balanced function.  Yet, students have been relying on resonance feedback through bone-conduction since the onset of classical vocal technique.

I have been schooled by both science-based teachers and traditional teachers.  There is much that they agree upon but their jargons are so different that they often do not find a common point of reference.  When the traditional teacher says to a student: "place it in the head,"  confusion may ensue if the student has not yet developed a source tone that produces such resonance sensations.  Likewise, telling a student to adduct the folds more can be just as limiting, because glottal resistance is not one-dimensional.  Longitudinal tension, which impacts both CT and TA groups, has closure properties.  Medial activity alone is dangerous.  All the more reason to be able to ascertain what kinds of resonance feedback seem to be consistent with balance phonation.  Scientists hate this because they cannot put it in a box.  As much of a nerd as I am, I realized a long time ago that in art, often 2+2= 4+.   The goal, therefore, is to connect scientific information with proprioceptive experiences.  In this way, the singer processes singing in the way singers always have--proprioceptively! But improving on the past, the process can be buttressed by an objective process connecting tone production to resonance feedback.  The danger is that similar resonance sensations are difficult to distinguish.  Aiming for a resonance sensation without a relationship to how the source tone is being produced is like sailing in the open ocean without a compass.  The same can be said of source tone manipulation without a sense of how it relates to resonance sensations.

© May 31, 2018

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Jantelagen 2: The Case For Mediocrity

I conceived the handling of this topic in two parts.  It is worthwhile to read Part 1 before reading the present blogpost.  This is not a topic to be taken lightly.  I wrote the first part from a very personal point of view because any philosophy can only be experienced through our own lives.  Telling our own stories without fear of being judged (although we are more likely to be judged) is more likely to have resonance.  The previous blogpost was meant to show the challenges that await anyone who wants to achieve anything beyond his or her immediate horizon.  The dreamers are derided for being fools who think the impossible.  They are derided until they prove to be visionaries. To dream requires courage because those who will want to help a dreamer on his/her quixotic quest are few.  To achieve any dream, one needs help and encouragement because it is always easier for those around us to discourage us into aiming a little lower, dreaming a little smaller, aim for what is visible and proven, such that they may feel ok with their own lot.  Watching someone else achieve makes us wonder if we could.  It inspires those who dare and is a slap in the face to those who would not want to try.

Among singers who have had to overcome Jantelagen (the Law of Jante), Birgit Nilsson comes to mind.  Her biography is very discriptive of those in her town who would say: "who does she think she is to aspire to the Opera School in Stockholm?" Well, she went way beyond that and became arguably the greatest dramatic soprano in the 20th century and perhaps beyond.  The number of Scandinavians who have achieved greatness in the world is extraordinary.  In the world of Opera, they are legendary.  Among the Swedes, there is an unbroken line of world-class singers that stretch back since before the second world war and further back when we think of Jenny Lind.  Yet the social norm is to not dare!  In truth, this can be said of pretty much every country.  Those who dare to go beyond normal expectations are always derided.  But there are always a few who defy the low expectations.

On the other hand, when I have visited the poorer countries of the world, I rarely hear of dreamers being derided.  It is often the reverse.  In places where resources are few, those that can are encouraged to seek their fortunes elsewhere.  It is not unusual for people to migrate to more prosperous lands to seek opportunity and then send money and goods back to their country of origin.  As the world's powers are now innondated with asylum seekers and immigrants, racist and nationalist views become more popular.  This is an expected consequence!  A certain level of comfort is in danger of being lost with mass migration.  Scandinavian countries are the last to have their social comfort threatened.  Are those countries ready to produce on a greater scale? No reason they should not!  But there may be a tremendous adjustment to be made.

Whether a Scandinavian achieves or not, there is a social net that will prevent abject poverty.  Why would the average person want to achieve beyond what they need to benefit from that social net?  I have heard the term Jantelagen used often as a reason for why one does not go beyond his/her comfort zone.  Someone with my philosophy of pushing beyond boundaries is an anti-thesis to that.  I imagined as a teacher that those that chose classical singing as a path are already unusual types who would not need much pushing to work hard.  Yet we live in a world of immediate expectations and through Pop-Opera artists and contests like Eurovision, superficiality is often not distinguished from true competence.  Although I have experienced this lackluster attitude in many different countries, the combination of social comfort, the laziness instilled by pop culture, and this ideology of Jantelagen  in Scandinavia create the perfect storm for underachievement.  Finland has decided to halt its program of providing every citizen with a basic living income. It had proven very costly and created an atmosphere of non-productivity.  Finland is also revolutionizing its educational system, which hopefully will have a positive effect on the rest of the region.

Opera at its best is a discipline of Olympic-level difficulty.  To become truly competent one is challenged physically, mentally and spiritually.  Yet while Olympic athletes have a platform every four years where they are celebrated and pitted against their colleagues worldwide and dared to achieve beyond themselves, Opera (which used to be have that spirit of excellence as a given) is not relegated to a platform celebrated by the entire world.  Singers with weak voices and armed with a microphone will produce an inferior similitude on Eurovision, which gets a great deal more attention.  Eurovision is enjoyed even by classical singers for its sports-like format.  The classical arts are not celebrated anymore for what they can contribute.  At best, they inspire us to greater heights of physical coordination and strength, to greater mental development and to deeper spiritual questioning.  In short they inspire.  They also require greater effort, which unfortunately is not compatible with a world bent on minimal effort and the excuse of Jantelagen for not daring to achieve.

There was a time when it was accepted that greater effort yields greater achievement.  Now the world is run by realists who proclaim that it does our children a disservice to tell them they can achieve anything they set their minds to.  It is easier today to say: "You are not all that!  You are not special!  You're just a normal kid who can only achieve normal things. Don't fool yourself in thinking you can ever do anything special."

I would have never gotten this far if not for my crazy teachers who told me that I could go further, that I can achieve more with greater effort.  Not getting to the stage of the Metropilitan Opera has not discouraged me in the least.  Quite the contrary!  I look at what I have achieved and I tell myself:  "Just one more step!  And another, and infinitum!" Who knows where I might end up?

My average college-age student sees me as a relic from another time, who dreams big with no sense of reality!  Maybe it was always like that!  Maybe it was always only a few that took the Quixotic path because they were instilled early on with a sense of possibility.  

In one of my favorite movies, Le maître de musique, the protagonist, Joachim Dallayrac, played by celebrated opera singer, José van Dam, took on two students: one rich and talented soprano and one poor thief of a tenor with a raw voice.  He was thought to be insane for taking on only two students. But he saw something in them both.  A passion and dedication in one who was rich enough not to need it, and a resillience and daring in a poor young man who would not be denied.  Alas this movie was made when I was a young singer, at the same time that movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid were worlwide successes--a time when the impossible was considered merely a barrier to overcome and not the implaccable pronouncement of fate that condemns the realist to stagnation.

Regardless of what I say, the inspired will be further inspired and the fatalist will have already given up.  The challenges of our times are great, but I would not compare my lot with those who lived the great depression or faced Nazi Germany on the battlefield.  Jantelagen is the excuse of the privileged and the reason of the lazy.  Achievement is not measured by how high you climb, but by what distance you have covered.  The fact that many have a headstart on us is no reason for us not to take the road.  The race is not against others, but with ourselves.

I write, and speak, and teach in the hope that I might provide the necessary push for someone who may be at a tipping point, the flicker that might ignite the ready wick, the thumb that may tip the scale, in the direction of hope, of possibility of inspiration, just as it was given me.  For those who would take it in derision...I don't have time for you!

© May 19, 2018

Jantelagen: Not Just a Scandanavian Principle

Jantelagen or The Law of Jante is the description of a pattern of group behavior towards individuals within Nordic countries that negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. The Jante Law as a concept was created by the Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose,[1] who, in his novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor, 1933), identified the Law of Jante as ten rules. Sandemose's novel portrays the small Danish town Jante (modeled upon his native town Nykøbing Mors as it was at the beginning of the 20th century, but typical of all small towns and communities), where nobody is anonymous.[2]

Used generally in colloquial speech in the Nordic countries as a sociological term to describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, the term refers to a mentality that diminishes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while simultaneously denigrating those who try to stand out as individual achievers.[3]

The preceding comes from Wikipedia and is a term that has resurfaced in conversation often since I made Sweden my home.  Having lived in several countries, I can guarantee that this pattern of behavior is far from restricted to Scandinavia.  The Scandinavians give it a name more than likely because the Nordic countries are largely rural, with the exception of a few larger cities.  In smaller social contexts, this tendency is much more noticed.  And even in situations where the principle is considered to be limiting, the habits are difficult to undo.  

For better or worse, I have always aspired beyond my current state.  My schooling with little exception was done in very inspiring situations that extolled personal development to the highest level possible.  I began formal schooling at École Jean-Marie Guilloux, a school founded by four Catholic priests over 150 years ago and even today considered the best school my homeland has to offer.  It was an honor to be there.  As with all such schools in Haiti, at the end of each month, report cards were given and students were announced in reverse order of their standing in each class.  The top two students were given medals, which they wore to school for the entire month until report cards were given again the following month.  I wore those medals several times and I remember the names of the students who often wore them.  We were three who most often wore the medals and I remember being very sad to fall to 6th one month.  The school was demolished during the earthquake of 2010 and rebuilt in 2011.  I'm glad that piece of my history still exists even if in a different form.

After I left Haiti, I spent four years in American public schools through the first year of my secondary education.  I achieved highest marks, which caught the attention of my guidance counselor, who then recommended me to the small private school, The Vail-Deane School, at the time located in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  My 10th-grade class had 13 students when I joined the school.  We were 9 when I graduate first in my class.  Because I stuttered and struggled hard to overcome it during my high school years, many of my classmates hoped I would make a fool of myself when delivering the valedictory speech.  That is Jantelagen!  I delivered the speech without a single stutter, thanks to hours of preparation with my then music teacher. However it took me a long time to learn to forgive my classmates.  I had to understand why my success and drive was such a challenge to them.  The School closed a few years after my graduation due to financial difficulties.  It formed in large part the person I would become.

Right after Vail-Deane, I began my education at Westminster Choir College, when it was a school guided by principles.  Our dean, who taught freshmen music history, on the first day of class pronounced that we would not be musicians until we could see what we hear and hear what we see.  This remains the principal guideline of my personal musical development.  I am humbled by the directive every day of my life.  I hear more and I see more, but I will never see or hear everything.  This humility also drives me to better myself every day.  I began in what my colleagues called Bonehead Solfège, the lowest sight-singing class.  My third year I received the composition competition prize.  I began with 11 out of 12 teachers doubting my talent.  My third year, they named me along with a soprano colleague, most likely to have a professional career and awarded me the voice competition prize. This school shaped my musical philosophy.  It is in danger of closing from financial difficulties.

At the University of Michigan, my next destination, I began my first year with a less impressive voice than my voice performance colleagues.  By the end of the first term, with the help of my teacher George Shirley, I was cast as Count Almaviva, a role coveted by every baritone in the school. The competition was high.  It was a major personal achievement.  One black colleague, who had hoped to be cast as the Countess but was not, told me as I was reading the announcement on the Opera Board, that I only got the role because 'I could pass.' She meant that I could pass as white!  This is my first memory of black on black racism.  This too is Jantelagen.

Graduating with my doctorate from one of the most respected music schools in the United States, achieving high competence in singing, orchestral conducting and composition and having mastered five languages by that point, somehow I still did not think very much of myself.  I took the first teaching job I was offered because I had just become a father and was thinking of being able to provide for my son.  With my many experiences, in retrospect, I should have waited for a better offer. Underachieving schools are such because they have underachieving leadership.  I did not allow myself the benefit of the doubt.  I did not apply for any other position.  I was recommended by a colleague, I visited the school and was offered the job.  I did not research it to find out if it was commensurate with my values.  I judged myself from within as not worthy of more.  This too is Jantelagen.

I have continued my life in a similar pattern.  Taking on often what seemed promising but in a way was rather expedient.  Despite my own rigorous training and continuous pursuit to better myself, I kept settling for what came easily.  The pressures of life often cause us to make the choice for less--An eternal denial of what we ultimately seek for ourselves.  In essence, a waste of our natural resources in pursuits not worthy of our personal investments.  Most social environments are controlled by the Law of Jante.  Societies would have us grow in their environments in ways that benefit the environment even at the expense of ourselves.  Therefore, it is important to seek an environment that benefits from us developing into our best selves.  Or perhaps, some of us need to go at it alone.  

During my time in Sweden, I have not found it any more limiting than other places I have been.  Whether this remains my final destination is yet to be determined.  There is a lot of potential here.  Whether this potential becomes realized and whether my own personal development matches with it will ultimately decide whether I remain here. For I refuse to ever become a victim of the Law of Jante, whether from within or from without.  

I find it sad and unusual that the three schools that shaped me the most to expect more of myself are all in danger of extinction.  Were it that Kashu-do could eventually develop enough to continue these lessons!

© May 19, 2018