Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Rewards of Patience: Do the Right thing, even when results are not the best

There are singers who can make a pretty reliable noise and are happy to go to market with that product.  Combined with great presence and musicality, and a dash of good looks, often more is not necessary to have a pretty decent career in Opera.  When asked why not develop the voice to be more beautiful, better balanced, the answer is often: "I have a good voice! A reliable voice! But not a beautiful voice.  One must be practical and accept that!"

How do you know how beautiful it can be?  How do you know how far you can stretch a voice that seemed common in the beginning?  

We don't know!  Therefore we must persevere and push ourselves beyond what we are now in the hopes of finding a better us.  The artistic goal is not to get on stage!  It is rather, what happens once you get onstage?  Can you open your mouth and make an audience absolutely still and listen?

Such did Nadine Weissmann at Bayreuth in 2015 when she brought a rather noisy audience to absolute attention and silence when she sang the first phrase of "Weiche Wotan.." at the end of Das Rheingold.  She is a singer dedicated to becoming better every day.  A true artist in the best sense! In her own words:

"On the worst day, this is still the coolest job in the world!"

That sentiment means a search for constant improvement.  A desire to be true to the art and challenge oneself to go further than our predecessors did if we cant. I am inspired personally by such artists and what they signify in a world of easy achievements and immediate gratifications.  The "sweat and tears" required to become exceptional in any discipline is the badge of honor, for the results ultimately transform not only the artist but the audience as well--As I have been transformed by the great Italian baritone, Lucio Gallo.  He becomes greater with each passing performance.  I have been watching this singer for years.  It is remarkable that he has quietly made his way to become one of the greatest singers around, musically, dramatically and vocally.  Totally inspiring!

I celebrate today in feeling myself fully transitioned to a "real" tenor!  It has taken every ounce of courage and determination I could muster to accomplish the journey. But it was all worth it!  What I've learned makes me a far better teacher than I was before, and more interestingly it has made me a far better and happier singer.

Practicing for one of my Academy concerts to take place 8-20 August in Northern Sweden, I felt overjoyed.  I am about to share the stage in the Riddle Scene from Turandot with Meta Powell, one of the greatest sopranos I've ever heard and I am looking forward to it.  A year ago, I was a bit skeptical of my ability to sing with such a singer, but now I can't wait.

Progress is "progressive!"  Not sudden!  The turbulent 8 years that have brought me to this level have been a gift of the most humbling and noble kind.  Singers, especially do not like to make ugly sounds. It somehow psychologically reflects on the person and not merely the instrument that needs balancing.  So many singers fear the uncomfortable transition periods when nothing sounds good.  Those periods are important because they are periods of building dynamic muscular strength.  They are necessary, like a baby must fall when learning to walk the first time.  Avoid the falls and the baby's growth is stunted.  Many singers never achieve strength beyond what they had when they began to sing consciously.  This is because traditional vocal pedagogy is about coordinating what one has even when proper coordination is impossible--Impossible when proper muscular development has not been address.  In such cases, the technical approach is about all kinds of muscular compensation  in order to create a false sense of stability.

To get to this point is a joy!  I had to go "through Hell and back" in order to achieve my true vocal possibilities.  I will be always saying it's not finished yet.  At least now I can say, this is a good balance by any measure.  Yet I will continue to get better!

Riddle Scene phrases

The prospects of how much better I can become is even more enticing!

© July 14, 2016

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Understanding Muscular Training: Be Ready Before Entering the Jungle

One of the reasons I advocate Tai Chi and Kung Fu Training for my students, although most do not understand it until they are mature enough to see beyond the satisfaction of the moment, is that we as singers need another physical activity that we are less "obsessed with," so that we can learn crucial lessons like patience and how to learn.  Having a secondary instrument can also be a great means of learning lessons for the fun of it instead of rushing towards the next audition or opportunity.

Obviously Tai Chi or Kung Fu are not necessarily the only means, but having an physical activity from which relevant lessons can be learn is important in vocal study.  Here is a typical scenario:

Teacher gives an exercise to two students.   Student 1 thrives! Student 2 has difficulties and becomes frustrated or bored or both.  What is the matter with Student 2?

It is possible that Student 2 is not muscularly predisposed to do well with the exercise because certain muscular pairs are out of balance.  Therefore other exercises to strengthen the flexibility between those unbalanced pairs are necessary before the original exercise can be successful.

Another possibility is that Student 2 is a little weaker and the exercise is "appropriately" difficult and needs to be repeated until it becomes easier "over time."  But who's got time?  This is a culture of immediate gratification.  The right exercise should yield immediate final results.

Although the italics may appear to be facetious, it is in fact the mindset of many students in these times of immediate gratification and no patience.

In my early years as a singer, I was taught that anything that felt effortful had to be wrong or pushed.  So I avoided anything that felt effortful, until I came to a school full of talented students with powerful voices.  I had to learn.  But part of me is always afraid of committing to that little effort that produces the better tone.  In time I learned to give that effort sparingly and then more and then more until I felt it was ok and then until I felt it was a better coordination.

Granted sometimes it is better to "take it easy" because it is not a good idea to exert too much intensity when we do not have the means to safely do that.  It is another when a fear of pushing paralyzes the singer so they never develop the muscular tonicity to sing a viable operatic tone.

When the voices of Golden Age singers feel totally foreign and unachievable, it probably means you are not muscularly "toned" to sing opera yet and need to find a means of training.  Small or large voice, great singers make intense sounds in flexible ways:

There is such a similarity in the intensity and balance of these two voices at opposite sides of the weight spectrum.  Balanced strength has a particular quality that both of these great singers exhibit.

Likewise, Garanca is a more lyric Carmen than Obratsova but the fullness, brilliance and directness of the voices reveal very similar type of intensity.  Admittedly Obratsova's tone is more "in your face" in the middle range.

Too much falsetto singing pass for opera in an age of "pretty" digital recordings.  Those voices end up being ruined when they have to face the rigors of a large opera house "sans microphone."

Training is sometimes effortful and difficult!  Once trained, difficult things sound easy! Unfortunately there is such fear of appropriate effort even in the best situations that singers end up either never achieving muscular balance or hurt themselves from not knowing the difference between full singing and pushing the voice beyond its means before one has the wherewithal to sing strong tones.

These are dark times!  And I am in awe of any singer who manages the uncertain paths in the jungle that is modern Opera Business!  If you have to go in the jungle to hunt, at least be physical strong and ready!  If the wild animals don't eat you, the jungle will!

© June 17 2016

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Aging Operatic Voice: Baseless Discrimination Because It Is EASY

We are living in dangerous times when discrimination of all kinds are becoming easier.  An American Presidential candidate rises nationally by inciting racism, sexism and xenophobia in such overt ways that only a few years ago would make the average fair-minded person cringe.  Similar right-wing zealots are rising to power worldwide. The "ARTS," which are supposed to inspire us to higher thinking should be the last refuge from such ignorance, yet we should be very mindful today that the business of art is not necessarily art.

There was a time when people aged in preparation for death.  I have been reading some 18th and 19th century novels lately which unabashedly support this.  After a certain age, one would wait to die and reduce any kind of activity that would be considered strenuous.  Today it is commonplace that older people maintain physical and mental fitness in ways that prolong their abilities by decades, beyond what was generally accepted as a time to slow down only a few decades ago.  I know for fact that I am in better shape now at 50 than I was in my 30s.  Taking up Kung Fu and Tai Chi have certainly improved my general fitness and health extraordinarily.  I feel stronger and have more stamina now than I did 20 years ago.  Being younger is not necessarily being more fit or more energetic.  I know young people in their teens and 20s who are physically weak and yet it is taken at face value that younger is stronger.  I have been an athlete in my life and I know that tissues wear out over time and the kind of fitness that a top level athlete must maintain becomes difficult with age.  But whether that is because of physical wear-and-tear over time or that tissues are weakened with age is still a question to ponder.  At very least, it is proven that those who stay physically fit can do a great deal more as they age than those who do not work on their personal physical fitness.

The question with respect to opera is does a singer's capacity to produce top quality operatic sounds diminish with age?  Does one necessarily lose range, flexibility, beauty of tone and/or stamina with age?

After 30 years of teaching (I began teaching at age 20) it is my experience that not only do voices not need to diminish considerably with age, voices that have diminished can be revitalized.

To what degree one maintains the voice has everything to do with understanding the physiological functions of the voice and how the respective musculature and tissues need to be maintained relative to the aging process.  One needs to consciously do more to maintain the body and the voice over time.  I can state with great certainty that imbalances in the singing voice take time to become debilitating.  When we hear a voice begin to wobble,  we should listen to recordings of that voice in the past and ask ourselves what dysfunctions were already at play before, which over time lead to wobbling and other irregularities.  It is also important to understand that wobbles occur because of muscular imbalances (not just in the throat but relative to breathing as well) that can be remedied.  However, such remedies require time and patience, which have become luxuries that the business of singing does not allow.

Muscles that are pushed beyond their natural functions will eventually give way to instability.  However, muscles challenged to achieve and maintain their natural functions will remain stable, given that supporting musculature also function properly.  Longevity in singing requires global physical health, not just the health of the vocal folds.  The process of singing involves pretty much all muscles of the body in some way.  Those that produce a healthy, balanced tone and sing repertoire that is friendly to the specific voice type will tend to last longer, all things being equal.

This woman, Fausta Truffa, (by all accounts so far an amateur singer) is the most talked about classical singer in the past few days because of this video.  If she is able to maintain her voice to this level in her 80s why can't others?

Her colleague in this choir, Ignazio Del Monaco, an octogenarian tenor is also causing a lot of opera fans to consume a lot of online time:

The retired soprano, Lina Vasta, produced this in her 90s:

Last summer, at the Härnösand Summer Opera Academy and Festival, tenor George Shirley at 81 years of age sang a concert that we are still talking about for his steady, beautiful and resonant voice and his refined artistry.  Yet there are singers in their 30s and 40s whose voices have lost all semblance of balance but because they had an early start to their careers, they are still hired because of name recognition.

But in the age of the internet when a video like those above can go viral in a matter of hours, could that tool be used by opera houses to get the word out about new talent, younger or older who have something special to bring to the stage?  Their names would quickly be recognized and they would fill seats.  I would go to Italy and hear Fausta Truffa sing.  That is an elevated musical soul carried through a gorgeously balanced voice.

More importantly operatic voices need time to achieve true balance and singers need time to understand their voices so they can determine early when the voice is ever so slightly out of balance.  Small imbalances become severe problems over time.  

Longevity in singing depends more on how balanced the voice is used. 

One of the great problems with operatic singing is that lower quality singing can lead to high level careers.  What is considered operatically viable today is not always depended upon voice.  Looks and charisma are dealt with as separate issues and not necessarily how they may combine with the voice to create a stage charisma.  Singers are recruited today more based upon how they may appear on a poster or video than what they actually sound like in the hall, with an orchestra.  It is not enough to make a pretty sound.  It is crucial to make a sound that is very visceral in the hall in the presence of an orchestra.  For this, the voice needs to be used optimally.  Optimal and truly visceral is not always "pretty" particularly in a small space.  I use the word pretty here to mean superficial, bland, inoffensive and lacking in personality. Those that make decisions about vocal quality too often hear singers in small rooms and are often not aware that the penetrating quality that transforms well on the operatic stage with a substantial orchestra accompaniment often sounds piercing to the ear in a small room.  

The previous article about Squillo addresses the global functions of the voice that lead to that special resonance.  It is this totality of functional balance that creates the special quality that is experienced as a visceral vibration in the house.  It is this quality throughout the vocal range that brings an audience back and that keeps the voice in shape.  An operatic sound requires concentration in a way that commands the attention of those listening.  There is a difference in a sound that is loud enough to be heard and a sound that seems to vibrate inside the listener's body.  Of the former there are many, of the latter not so many.  Not because some have it and some don't, but rather because it has to be trained.  Furthermore it has to be maintained in order to last.  All the bodily functions that lead to this special vibration must be maintained and so the individual singer must understand how s/he needs to eat, drink water, sleep, stay physically fit, etc.  And those issues are not the same for every singer.  Each person must find their personal routine for keeping in shape.

The process of selecting singers for an operatic career makes no sense relative to the visceral art form that is opera.  Opera is being packaged as the sophisticated person's musical theater and it is not.  Great operatic voices reflect the physical and psychological make up of the specific person who is singing.  It is much more than mere entertainment.  It is a transforming experience when it is being done by voices that are trained for it.  A trained operatic voice is the equivalent of a baby's cry or laughter if it were emanating from an adult.  In polite society, the natural voice is suppressed at an early age.  Opera is highly elevated music sung by the most primal voice.  And primal does not mean aggressive or violent.  It means the way nature meant for the voice to be used.

The previous three paragraphs address a systemic problem that confuses the process of selecting singers and by association also contributes greatly in redefining opera for the worse, not better.  If a non-operatic voice that sounds pretty in a small room can be hired professionally, then it follows that the field will become saturated because underdeveloped voices are admitted for other skills that though important do not translate in the house when the voice is not viable.  A great artist without a voice is like a great orator whose microphone has been turned off.  What if Martin Luther King's Dream speech was made while his microphone was off.  Would we get the message through his gestures and his obvious passion?  And do not take this to mean that we can fix opera by putting microphones in the houses, because the operatic voice not only transmits audible sound waves.  The coordination that produces an operatic sound also carries emotional information.  For that purpose microphones cannot replace an operatic resonance.

Because the training of an operatic voice requires time in order for the entire range to be properly balanced, singers, especially those with more substantial voices, need to be in their 30s before they are truly ready. Therefore competitions with age limits of 30, leave out a great number of superlative artists who are still trying to get their voices together.  An age limit of 30 also does not take into account that the winners, though impressive may not be physically aware of what makes their voices work and can falter very early in their careers.  Raising age limits brings more physically fit singers and therefore a better chance for longevity.  If all singers have time to grow, even the coloratura who may be coordinated at 20 may not sound so extraordinary when she faces a 32 year-old competitor who is not only coordinated but truly understands how to use the instrument.  The coloratura of 32 may end up lasting longer because she would have a better idea how to manage her voice in difficult situations.

The truth is opera is not a kid's game.  A voice can be coordinated at a very young age but the time it takes the muscles to grow in strength and stamina is another thing, and a young singer who starts a career early needs a teacher around all the time until s/he figures out how the voice functions and understands signs of problems before they ever become apparent to others.  Constant travel makes that kind of access difficult even with tools like video-conferencing.

The younger generation of singers needs to hear older singers who use their voices successfully at a high level with great artistry, so they understand what they are aiming for.  When we stop having great singers who have made long careers, we also lose mature interpretations of roles and songs that can only get deeper with life experience.

To bring another matter to rest, there is nothing that concretely proves that a post-menopausal woman must lose her voice any more than she would lose her ability to walk straight.  The rate of muscular degeneration more than likely depends upon the degree to which muscles were weak before menopause as opposed to that they rapidly degenerate afterwards.  Scientists have a tendency of observing a group of people and decide that certain trends prove the fact.  The two women above certainly go against the idea that you must lose vocal ability post menopause.  A random Youtube search for 90-year old opera singer yields also the following:


I am particularly aware of the flexibility of Maestro Loforese's breathing.  Released after each phrase! And I get the sense that his entire core musculature is compressing the sound.  Not just isolated muscles.

A healthy voice does get older and with extreme age, it is understandable that one will lose some muscle strength both in the laryngeal and breathing musculature.  However the degree of strength loss depends greatly on the person and how well they keep in shape.  Regular practice of balanced singing can keep one in great vocal shape for many years beyond what was considered possible.  In our times, the Age of Physical Fitness, it should be considered possible for singers to last a lot longer than their predecessors, not shorter.

The current ageism that is rampant in the field in the guise of dramatic realism is appalling!
There are well-meaning people in the field who have simply drunken in the fountain of modern operatic marketing and take the words of those who run the business as opposed to really thinking through the complex issue of building operatic audiences.

Size zero sopranos usually don't have the voices to sing Tosca or Turandot and tenors who sing in reinforced falsetto will not last long.  So why don't we just get real and sell opera as opera.  Begin with truly great voices that are accompanied by passionate souls and great musicianship and build from there! Age is the last thing on my mind when I go listen to opera!  I am usually more concerned for a young singer who lacks the physical strength to sing opera than I am for an older singer not looking the part.  If they are great singers, the moment they open their mouths one forgets what they look like!  Looking the part should be seen like a bonus that we are happy to have.  But without a voice, George Clooney attempting to sing opera would suddenly look extremely unattractive!

© May 24, 2016