Friday, August 1, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): The First Härnösand Summer Opera Academy: A Greater Achievement Than I Ever Imagined

The Idea

The idea of yet another summer course sounds crazy with a saturated market, but having participated as both teacher and student at quite a few summer programs (when one could trust the offerings), I was very clear of what I did not want to offer.  This was not some money making venture for teachers trying to fill their summer calendars and it was not a two-week course posing as everyone's final miracle cure.  Along with the best programs I had the great luck to enjoy when I was a developing singer, I wanted to create an environment where the students and teachers could really concentrate on the "quality" of what they do and hopefully take stock of their artistic package.  

I believe strongly in imagining our objectives. I often daydream about my Scala debut, even at age 48 in a new fach and by the assessment of the pragmatists a very long shot.  But when I look at the accomplishments, which my imagination have brought to reality, I stop thinking of living my destiny based on the realities and constraints of others.  When I look at my teaching life post-academia, it is precisely the way I imagined it 8 years ago.  When I take stock of my vocal development post-baritone, it is pretty much how I imagined it would be. I have a crucial next step ahead, but I am seeing the dream become a reality.  

This summer academy also began with a thought, about six years ago, that Sweden, with its deep singing culture and operatic pedigree was probably the best place to see the philosophy of Kashu-do truly develop.  Kashu-do is no mystery.  It is simply a commitment to old school principles of developing talent by hard work and facing the paradoxical nature of life--something that requires philosophical reflection, whether we speak of chiaroscuro or Yin-and-yang.   Even as late as the 80s, the movie, Fame and television series that followed it concentrated on the importance of "...paying in sweat" for success.  

The location and support system

The correct location for a course of this scope was of paramount importance.  One day, one of my students in Northern Sweden invited a friend to one of my master classes.  It happened to be the head of the Music Department at the Folkhögskola (equivalent to a community college) in Härnösand, Sweden. I visited the school a couple of days later and soon found myself teaching a couple of master classes there and making firm plans for the summer academy.  Nothing is done alone.  My dear colleagues at Härnösands Folkhögskola, particularly the department head, Helén Lundquist-Dahlén and lead vocal instructor, Karin Bengtsdotter-Olsson, invested time, energy and heart to make this course a success.  I never felt alone in this ambitious enterprise.  

The Team

Once the location was fixed and we were committed to making the course happen the very next summer, we had work to do.  The first was building a team.  At one point one of my students suggested I bring on a famous singer and an agent, so singers would feel they had a chance to make certain career steps.  Having a big-name singer come and do a concert and speak about his/her experience is in the books for the future.  That kind of experience is always inspiring, but I did not want to have a famous teacher come to teach just because of the name.  I have seen otherwise good programs get totally derailed by famous personalities who have very little to do with the greater vision.  I have some dream people in mind and perhaps in future years they could contribute in the best of ways!  As for agents, I did not want students to feel that they were there to impress anyone.  The nature of the academy is to provide an environment where true reflection and development could occur.  If the student is ready to be heard by an agent, that can happen in a different environment.  

I decided to bring together a diverse group of people who had only one special attribute in common:  A very high standard of excellence combined with a long term view of development.  These people all achieved great things in their careers with plenty of adversity.  They are success-oriented and know that success is a developing idea.  

Katrin Kapplusch, one of my top students over the years, is an extraordinary soprano who made her biggest career strides at a time when most would consider their chances to be diminishing.  She is an active spinto soprano throughout Europe and a gifted voice teacher. 

Gabriella Sborgi, an Italian mezzo-soprano, is an artist of uncommon inspiration who has the ability to see possibilities where others see obstacles.  We encountered each other at a course very similar to this one about a decade ago.  Artistic partnerships are built often long before the partnerships take place.  She is a rare Italian who makes a career combining Mozart, contemporary music and Lieder.  With Verdi's Nabucco she recently entered the dramatic mezzo repertoire with singular flair and multi-faceted approach.  She is an experienced teacher influencing a generation of Italian singers that look beyond their natural talents to develop into well-rounded artists.

Andrej Hovrin and Alessandro Zuppardo are two pianists with very diverse backgrounds and very different approaches.  They are both ridiculously technically accomplished with a profound understanding of music as a language beyond the sum of individual notes on a page.  They meet in their passion for Lieder and mélodies and are both steeped in the art of Opera.  They complimented each other so thoroughly.  Their professional accomplishments are extraordinary. 

Karin Bengtsdotter Olsson is one of the most gifted voice teachers I have ever encountered as is evident of the extraordinary development of students at the Härnösand Folkhögskola.  Watching her teach during the two weeks has been a revelation and I look forward to learning from her and taking advantage of her vast experience. 

Helén Lundquist-Dahlén is a superior musician and a talented choral conductor.  Her teamwork with Alessandro Zuppardo lead to highly successful final concert of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle.  She is also a visionary leader who is able to anticipate problems before they happen.  Her vigilant eye kept us well-steered during a very full two-weeks.  

Two guest lectures from Professor Anders Olsson on Walt Whitman and The Hermeneutic Circle, a principle of text interpretation rounded out our process so beautifully.

Finally, the unexpected element in an opera master class ended up being the key element.  The presence of Sifu Karl Romain, master Kung Fu and Tai Chi teacher was the glue for this inspired team.  Because of Sifu Romain's presence, the course took a direction dealing with energy and balance in the context of singing.

The Result

22 Students and 10 instructors combined seamlessly to create an environment of mutual support and learning.  The students included professionals, traditional students and inspired amateurs.  Some of the professionals were amazed by the skills the amateurs displayed. Likewise, the amateurs saw the completeness that makes a professional a professional.  The gifted traditional students took attributes of the other two groups and in the end everyone became a amateur in the true sense of the word--a lover of the art with limitless aspirations.  We teachers became students as well.

For my part, I was able to see how my many experiences instructed my teaching.  Three and a half years of Kung Fu and Tai Chi have contributed greatly to my athletic approach to singing.  Students were able to see how vocal science confirmed the many traditional approaches we were steeped in and yet again Yin and Yang were complimentary and not opposite.  Through this experience I realized that my important next step was to give in to my intuition when it came to my own singing.  It is time to let go and let my voice sing.  The two weeks helped me personally to dare to take the crucial step that goes beyond understanding.  I've known from the onset that singing is a dynamic experience that cannot be put in a cage.  There is a time for structure and there is a time to just sing.  This experience gave me the courage to let go in ways I needed to and it seems that each member of this wonderful family made steps they might not have taken on their own in a different environment.  The environment invited courage because everyone felt supported.  

This was our first year and we discussed immediately at the end of the course with students and teachers about what we can improve on.  It is however most unusual that even when pressed, I could not get a negative review from anyone who took part.  This was way beyond what I expected and yet I am already working to better this for next year.


My heartfelt gratitude to the students, my colleagues, the people of Härnösand who supported our concerts heartily, the other teachers at the Folkhögskola who were always present to provide emotional and moral support, our friends and families who helped in all kinds of ways to help make this program a success.  I look forward to this program developing into a real force in the vocal/operatic landscape over the next few years.  

The following video is a small report of the academy's activities:  

© 08/01/2014

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.
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.

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 "'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