Thursday, November 16, 2017

Time Is On the Side of the Persistent

There are too many axioms that advise patience and persistence in the pursuit of an objective.  That should be obvious and commonsensical to anyone who takes the time to think.  However, it has never been the habit of the common man to be patient.  Otherwise there would not exist so many philosophies suggesting that longterm accomplishments require time and hard work.  Our societies, if not at their onsets, then certainly the more they develop, have aspired to make quick use of the few who by happenstance have acquired certain competences, rather than invest in the seriousness of those who engage their pursuits with commitment, regardless of how long they take.

After some 30 years of teaching singing, it has been my observation along the way that those who have had an easy path find it difficult to face challenges because they were not trained for them.  The number of singers who have a brilliant start and end up as "a flash in the pan"are too numerous to mention and in fact even useless to spend time on.

There is a well-known saying:  

"You can take the horse to water, but you cannot force it to drink."

The saying should be updated to say: 

“You may take the horse to water but do not expect it to drink!”  

I would never tell a student “you cannot.” But occasionally it might be a good idea to test a student’s resolve by saying so and see how they respond!  Then again I’m not one for head games and there are enough people in the word who revel in discouragement. Students will not lack for opportunities to be discouraged. Whether our students take our teaching and advice seriously is not in our control.  We must use our limited time on those who are serious, determined and engaged.  They will reveal themselves.

And so I celebrate some students this week who are enjoying the earned fruits of their hard labor.  I am proud of them and celebrate our teamwork.  It is the most extraordinary experience to watch the moment when a singer resonates with his/her unique vibration.  It’s like meeting a hiker who was lost in the woods for years and kept looking for the path home and found it. In essence, the path to excellence is a search for one’s personal truth.  We teachers are Tenzing Norgays guiding a new climber to the top of Mt. Everest.  It’s an exhausting climb and we cannot waste such energy on the “weak of heart.”  Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to make it to the top of Everest could not have done it without Tenzing Norgay, who worked as a lowly porter on several expeditions.  However that experience prepared Norgay to be a proper guide and partner to Sir Edmund.  Norgay’s remarkable training was necessary for success.  Yet Norgay’s skills would not have been worth much in that expedition if Sir Edmund were not committed and prepared.  The recognition was given to both equally.  But it is not about recognition from the outside.  I would have been interesting to see how the two men interacted.  There must have been an extraordinary level of trust between them.

In honor of those who persevere and take the road less traveled in search of their truths, and out of respect for my own time, I must say no to the uncommitted.  I will invest in the “Amateur” but not the “Dilettante.”  The unfortunate fact is that the vast majority “prefers” to believe they are inadequate out of fear of failure rather than that they have it in themselves to achieve! 

Finally, I honor the most accomplished among us.  There are some fortunate ones who have had a relatively easy path in their early stages, leading to early successes. Instead of resting on their easy laurels, they challenge themselves to reach ever greater heights.  They are the few who end up inspiring millions. Unfortunately only a few will act upon that inspiration.

©  11/16/2017

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Legato: A more global concept

Legato: (mus) Un gruppo di note eseguite senza interrompere il suono tra l'una e l'altra (A group of notes executed without interrupting the sound from one [note] to the other).

This is the musical definition from the online dictionary of Italy's premiere newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera.  It is a fair definition.  The discussion continues however when we ask ourselves:

"how can there be interruption between one note and another?"

 1. The obvious is that there is an actual silence between notes (staccato--detached).

However, interruption can be also perceived:

2. When an unvoiced consonant appears between vocalic sounds and vocal fold vibration is perceivably stopped, or

3. When a voiced consonant is experienced as remarkably less vibrant than surrounding vocalic sounds, or

4. When resonance is lost or reduced from one vocalic note to another.

When we analyse a vocal line in that way, it becomes immediately clear that legato is not only a musical concept (e.g. think of the direction of the phrase) but rather a technically global concept that will be effected by breath management, phonation and resonance issues.

In other words, "interruption" can be perceived as not merely an interruption of sound, but also as a change in the quality of the emission (e.g. intensity, resonance balance or even vocalic integrity when one vowel is sung over several notes).

This should serve to explain that the Italian Bel Canto Tradition has left us a number of words that symbolise vocal technique in a global and organic manner.  Taking words like legato, appoggio, morbidezza, squillo, etc, in literal and one dimensional terms is tantamount to a misapplication of the greater philosophy of Bel Canto.  All the pieces are interrelated!

© September 27 2017

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Education or A lack thereof: An Unsuccessful Attempt at Dismantling Traditional Vocal Pedagogy

The great tradition of classical singing was always based on disciplined long-term development, unrelenting work-ethic and a thirst for knowledge.  Before there was much empirical information, voice pedagogues and students read voraciously in the search of enlightenment, relative to both the physical act of singing and the artistic performance thereof.  Today, my colleagues and I at the Opera Studio in Härnösand, Sweden labor daily to instil in our students a fundamental respect for knowledge, objective information, dialogue and debate based on accepted factual information, including "music as a language!"

1. Music:  Everything we do as classical singers must have "musical literacy" at its core.  Music is hardly abstract.  It is no more abstract than a foreign language.  However, a foreign language is literally "gibberish" to someone who does not speak it.  Just as some singers sing words they do not understand and try to cover their ignorance by silly facial expressions, so do they sing harmonies with no idea of their "weight" and "significance" in a musical phrase, and make inappropriate nuances with their voices to cover their complete lack of understanding.  Where the honest singer will feel gratification when a teacher instructs them about musical and textual phrasing, the lazy singer will continue to develop subterfuge to disguise their abject musical illiteracy.  Posturing is a common and overused manner of hiding a fundamental lack of knowledge.

2.  Pedagogy:  Unfortunately, in a world strongly influenced by one's ability to manage quick soundbites, the illiterate singer (sometimes armed with a good native vocal material) can quickly become a master of subterfuge, knowing just what "button word" to use to give a false impression that s/he is knowledgeable.  Such poseurs can become very influential in a world where "fact" is labeled "fake news," "real knowledge" is labeled "elitist cult," "experience" is labeled "obsolete" and "manipulation of ignorance" disguises as "pedagogical pedigree."

I see too much of this and it makes me sick to my stomach!  Especially when experienced masters in our field are thrown to the wolves by narcissistic anarchists who can only achieve influence by destroying the reputations of people who have worked their entire lives to contribute to our field in substantial and undeniable ways.  Those of us of conscience must do everything we can to expose such malignancies in our midst. 

Yet, we must not despair!  At The International Congress of Voice Teachers (ICVT 2017) in Stockholm in early August of this year, I left inspired and optimistic about the future of singing as a whole.  I met many wonderfully knowledgeable people who are passionate about learning and passing on information, who have real skills and share them with generosity of spirit.

I was able to see a remarkable presentation on the state of modern vocal pedagogy by three next generation pedagogues.  Drs. Noël Archambeault, Blake Smith and Doctoral Candidate Joshua Glasner were not only informative in their presentations but articulate and organised.  Talking with them afterwards was revelatory.  Knowledgeable people do not need to posture.  They have answers and yet are always humble before the elemental proportions of our discipline.  What I constantly find in people who cherish knowledge is their fundamental awareness that they are trying to understand something that is practically limitless in scope and therefore they must revise their understanding every time they come across new information.  That is the nature of education.  Meanwhile the lazy ones hold on tightly to whatever small amount of palatable information they may possess and repeat it ad nauseam while avoiding any new information that may question that little bit of knowledge.

I also met two of the most extraordinary Western overtone singers in the world: Wolfgang Saus, whom I had briefly encountered several years before at PAS5 in Stockholm, and the Youtube phenom, Anna-Maria Hefele.  What was extraordinary about them both was their passion, their understanding of vocal acoustics and their eagerness to share their knowledge.  I was fortunate to have several discussions with them, which resulted in a mutual desire to deepen our combined knowledges and create a bridge between traditional classical singing and overtone singing.  I have committed myself to learning overtone singing because of them.  We remained humbled by the infinite possibilities.  They are not just a curiosity in a world fixated on novelty.  They are on a journey towards understanding and their passion is infectious.  I am eager to collaborate with them. While classical singers hope to have an effect on the various formants, these overtone singers understand them so well they can control individual formants in opposite directions to one another.

Kenneth Bozeman, another extraordinary American vocal pedagogue gave a mind-bending lecture on applied vocal acoustics that I found stunning.  This was a lesson on how what one knows can be seen from a totally different angle and renders everything that much easier to understand.  Mr. Bozeman is one of the truly great vocal pedagogues around and I am determined to find ways to collaborate with him.

There were elegant and instructive masterclasses by Janice Chapman, George Shirley and David Jones, among others.  It never ceases to amaze me how much experience open our horizons.  These people have been at it a long time and they have true wisdom to impart.

I encountered my dear friend from Barcelona, Dr. Patricia Caicedo, who has made Latin American and Iberian classical songs her passion.  She continues on her path with even greater vigor and passion than ever before.  Lifetime commitment and growth is our inheritance in the classical singing world.  We must not allow it to be obliterated by a few who seek to gain influence by undermining a tradition of personal investment with a false promise of immediate gratification covering superficial drivel. 

I encountered a number of wonderful young performers in the field of popular music, who despite their extraordinary voices and stage presence wanted to understand the voice from the classical perspective.  Swedish jazz singer Emilia Mårtensonn, Italian pop singer, Emilia Zamunder and Dutch pop singer, Kim Beemsterboer made an indelible mark on my spirit.  

At home in Sweden, at least two interesting connections were made in Stockholm.  On the last day, I spontaneously started conversations with Helene Lux Dryselius, whose openness of spirit inspires collaboration.  I am looking forward to sharing information with her soon.  Finally, after many years of passing each other in the halls of various and sundry voice congresses in Europe and the United States, I finally had the courage to approach the legendary Johan Sundberg, who presented some very informative and entertaining sessions.  Our talk lasted close to an hour regarding, among other things, the subject of my presentation with Dr. Katherine Osborne, on the acoustics of the female voice.  He was immensely generous, and has already taken a look at our work since.  He is passionate and ever searching for new information.  He was genuinely interested in what we have found out and was eager to help us understand the greater ramifications and how we should proceed.  I look forward to meeting him again, as soon as time allows.

In the middle of a world that constantly falls for the promise of easy success--we see it in the posturing of the American president as we do in "Talent" shows promising quick fame to an ever gullible public--We must maintain an unwavering optimism, because in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse of Lazy Singers and False Prophets, promising rain on the moon,  there is genuine artistry and profound pedagogy all around us.  

1. Great pedagogues never claim they are the only answer to your problems because they are aware of the fact that there isn't one of us who command the full scope of the monumental challenge of teaching a human being to discover his/her true vibration.  

2.  Great pedagogues never promise to make your career, because they know that only you can navigate your own path.  But they will do everything they can to help you make the next connection.

3.  Great pedagogues do not put down other pedagogues, because they know that fundamental disagreements usually stem from not seeing where two paradoxical concepts intersect.

4.  Great pedagogues do not envy the success of others but rather celebrate it and attempt to learn from it.  Your failure does not make my success.

Kashu-do, The Way of the Singer, seeks to create a body of open-minded, truth-seeking, collaborative teachers, who can proceed from established and newly discovered facts, in order to understand how their apparent differences come together to form a more complete vision of our beloved discipline.  We welcome collaboration, when we can all agree that we are little compared to the enormous nature of vocal pedagogy in its unlimited facets.

© September 24 2017