Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Fundamental Vocal Structure 1: Why We Singers Remain Common




It's taken a long time to come up with this reductive picture of what we deal with as singers.  How many pieces are there to balance? How do we "control" these pieces?  Is there any brain power left for music making and acting and interpretation?

In the final analysis, what it takes is a clear mental/physical picture of what it feels like to sing! Knowing the pieces does not mean we have solved the puzzle.  Knowing what each component feels like when it is functioning appropriately is the first part.  The second part often evades singers.  We often think that we must reduce one function to achieve the rest. Just as we do not cut off our triceps to allow the biceps to function, we do not take away one vocal function in order for its opposite to function.  Opposing musculature in the body are meant to work as balancing structural pairs. One can function while the other remains active.  A sense of appropriate balance is achieved when both sides feel satisfying.  One of my teachers, Ada Finelli, memorably said: 

Chiaro e scuro non chiaro o scuro! 
Bright and dark not bright or dark!

This principle perhaps more than any other thought has guided me in my own pedagogy over the years.  If you must sacrifice one side to accomplish the other, neither is yet strong enough in its function.   Elasticity, which I relate to crico-thyroid function, means that one can change pitch without difficulty. From the lowest note to the highest, there is a feeling of ease.  However, the ability of the crico-thyroid muscle to stretch the vocal folds easily must not take away the thyro-arytenoid function, which brings the folds to the best possible vertical thickness for the given note.  Best possible vertical thickness refers to the appropriate contact area that is most conducive to the length of the vibration cycle for the given note.  Too thin (vertical contact area), would make the work of the crico-thyroid easier because there would be less opposition to the stretch. However, this would have the folds set up for a higher pitch, which would then require the singer to compensate by slowing down the vibration cycle.  The only way to do that is pressing (keeping the folds closed longer than in appropriate closure quotient).  Therefore true elasticity requires the crico-thyroid group to be strong enough to stretch the vocal folds easily without necessitating a reduction in appropriate thyro-arytenoid function.  Therefore balance phonation function depends on the tension between opposing muscles that thicken and lengthen the folds.  What we call longitudinal tension.  

Appropriate longitudinal tension can only be maintained for a given note if fold oscillation and breath compression are also appropriately coordinated, such that sub-glottal pressure does not rise inappropriately.  Greater compression becomes greater flow when fold oscillation is balanced for the given pitch--that it, there is no forced closure that would restrict the needed trans-glottal flow.  The folds must closed fully during the close phase of vibration but not so tightly as to produce unnecessary pressure beneath the closed folds (controlled together by lateral crico-arytenoids, inter-arytenoids and possibly a secondary function of the thyro-muscularis).  All of this happens at incredible speed. Faster than the wings of a hummingbird even in the lower voice of a male singer.  This balance is called flow phonation.

Flow phonation requires appropriate opening of the ribcage at the time that breath is being compressed. Should the ribcage collapse, there will be increased breath compression beyond the activity of the muscles of exhalation (i.e. rise of the diaphragm, contraction of pelvic-abdominal musculature, etc).  A balanced compression requires the exterior intercostals to maintain activity (maintaining the ribcage suspended/opened) while the interior intercostals and pelvic-abdominal muscles compress the air in the lungs by reducing the space around it.  Yet another muscular antagonism, this process of "breath support" is often called pan-costal breathing.  

If these three related complex functions occur appropriately, there would be little external influence on the stability of the laryngeal position, as long as the laryngeal stabilizers are balanced in their function and the migration of the tongue to articulate vowels is not impeded by the hyo-glossus muscle which is the muscle that connects the larynx, via the hyoid bone to the root of the tongue.  Flexibity in that muscle and appropriate balance between laryngeal stabilizers would permit the tongue to rise and lower as necessary for vowels changes.  Again, this presupposes that pan-costal breathing, flow phonation and longitudinal tension are appropriately maintained.

Beyond these four complex interrelated functions, we require a sense of resonating space that require only minor variations in tongue migration, laryngeal depth and buccal cavity (jaw release) for adjustments relating to vowel and pitch.  From the best jaw release and laryngeal depth, the tongue lips, velar area and sometimes jaw (for consonants that require it) will articulate to form vowels and consonants in ways that cause the least change in the volume of the resonance space, which has a direct influence on the production of the Singer's Formant (or ring in the voice).  This we can refer to as efficient articulation.

All of this is done with a muscular-skeletal system that is ideally aligned for these various functions to occur efficiently and simultaneously, providing that the general musculature fitness of the body is such that would support  optimal alignment.

In this article I have touched upon the basic structural system of the voice.  In subsequent posts, I will deal with background and training as well as mental image and aural/physical expectations, as well as external influences such as the score, the character, the text and most significantly, emotions.

After we have discussed all of these things, it will become clear how it is appropriate to call ourselves athletes (besides artists).  In truth it will become clear why the field of singing (regardless of genre) has not improved in terms of the vocal product, and perhaps in a sense not so much artistically as we would like to think.  A figure skater or a ballet dancer (close to us in many ways) or even a pianist, cannot separate their physical fitness/technical proficiencies from their artistry (at least not so significantly).  It takes many hours of scales to develop speed and coordination to play the notes on the piano, before one even begins to address the musical form.

The fact that we singers have text is at once a great advantage and disadvantage in music.  Those that relate the text to the music and the music to technical competence are organic artists of which we have too few.  When we looked at Callas at her best, the delivery of the text depended on a profound understanding of phrasal architecture (melody, harmony, rhythm, form, global architecture), which in turn instructed the technical competence one should have in order for the voice to respond immediately to the expressive needs.  Today, we separate the artists who understand the text from those who work with the music from those who have vocal fortitude. At every level we are left partially dissatisfied and for different reasons in every case.

All professional tennis players must develop the same skills.  Their individuality has more to do with individual strengths in certain areas without major weakness in others.  A player who has a great serve but no ground strokes will not advance beyond local tournaments.  Yet in singing, we are happy enough with a singer who has only high notes and a pretty face for posters, or an ability to analyze poetry without deference to the written score (and a pretty face) or a voice that sounds pretty on records (and a pretty face) but inaudible in a large hall.  Why? Because it is commercially expedient.  For expediency's sake we give up the values that make our art great. 

Gesamtkunstwerk! Richard Wagner understood this! Our inability to appreciate the colossal scope of what it is to sing opera leaves our art form in shambles. While athletes in every sport can quantify advances in their field, we cannot.  The football player, Christian Rinaldo is at such a level of physical conditioning and skill in ball-handling and precision in shooting that his legendary predecessor, the great Pélé, who is still very much alive, were he at his youthful best, would not be able to compete today.  The great Gigli could out-sing every tenor singing today and might lose only if the judgment criteria were a pretty face and a six-pack!  While every other field aspires to do better than their predecessors, we singers and perhaps by extension, all classical musicians, look back in nostalgia to a time of godlike singers! Godlike because like athletes of all times, they aspired to go beyond their limits, achieving apotheosis, a state that transforms the mere man to a godlike status--so achieved, like an olympic athlete, by developing the body and mind to levels never before imagined.

 If we are to excite audiences today, we will need to go back to values that require us to go beyond our limits.  We must achieve Apotheosis!

© 01/05/2016


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Short-term Memory and Scientific Sanctimony: A Bad Recipe For Completing the Vocal Rubix Cube

When I took it upon myself to create this blog, I wanted to do something that was never done before-- I was already a respected teacher, with a knack for common sense writing, bringing some clarity to the masses on the Rubix Cube that is vocal science. -- What I set out to do was to expose the many transition steps that a singer experiences in the difficult process of accomplishing true vocal balance.  I started to write this blog at the onset of my transition from baritone to tenor.  I said back then that I was not a baritone becoming a tenor but rather a tenor who thought he was a baritone.  What kinds of compensatory measures did I use to convince my high level teachers that I was a baritone?  To what degree did I throw my voice out of balance (believing myself to be a baritone--that's what I was told) in order to fulfill the fallacy that I was a baritone?  More importantly, how long would it take to get my voice to the highest level of balanced function? Also, what do the transition steps look like?

Because this blog has become widely read, it has become the target of a "gotcha'" mentality that exists in social media.  Whenever I put up a clip describing a specific transition step, I will usually receive commentary or emails from some trolls and at times very respected teachers about something they did not like about my clip.  On rare occasions I will put up a link to a performance that I have done to exhibit where I am in the process.  But usually my clips are about how concentrating on one element, brings us to awareness about imbalance in another element.  Like a Rubix Cube, we often have to undo what looks like a finished element to find completion in the whole.  After many rounds of functional analysis and physical growth, I am achieving a sense of balanced completion.  No, not that my voice is finished, but having a sense that I can actually experience my voice with what I perceive of as ideal brilliance, with ideal substance, with a sense of solid support and pressure-less flow with the ability to articulate text with astounding precision.

I reached the 7-year mark in my process last April, and felt I was at a new plateau--A state that promised a path to real refinement.  Not just the ability to sing all the tenor notes with balanced formant resonances but rather achieving a sound in balance that was immediately exciting to the listener and felt centered in my own body (that feeling that I was not fighting myself in any way). While teaching at Kashu-Do's retreat in Magagnosc, France (magic seems to happen here), my fiancée, herself a singer (and who rarely makes any comments about my voice, except to be encouraging) felt compelled to tell me that she was listening to my practice and it was extra-ordinary. She thought our host (who embodies the most extraordinary tenor voice we've heard) had returned from his errands and was surprised it was me.  For the first time she also made a criticism: "as amazing as it sounded I would like to hear the top begin a little gentler!"  I could not agree more!

My fiancée rarely makes comments because she has been one of the witnesses to my development.  She knows my daily practice and what I have had to undo and do to achieve a type of final product (as she heard yesterday).  Comments are often superfluous when you understand the process.  Her own voice has grown wonderfully in the past few years because she too practices daily.  This goes to the core of the issue:  those who have had certain abilities from before they were aware, have a hard time understanding that it can be difficult to achieve true balance.  And so it is easy to pick at a sound quality, concentrating at what they perceive is missing (instead of the organization of the whole) or else picking out a word or sentence in a blog post that offends their own technical ideals.

Many singers I know would rather hold on to the completion of one side of the Rubix Cube rather than undoing it in search of completing the whole!

I feel poised to release what I would consider a reliable top-level professional sound within 2016, because I have gone around the Rubix Cube so many times in literally thousands of practice sessions and tens of thousands of voice lessons making sense of this puzzle.  I have experienced students beginning with weak, uncoordinated voices accomplish just that: top-level professional sounds!  I watch with interest how these singers overcome the Opera World's illnesses the way they overcome their personal vocal illnesses.

One of the illnesses of our current Opera environment is short-term memory.  Our operatic culture has little memory of what made it great or what makes it great actually.  I cite Nina Stemme here so often because she has a remarkable work ethic, always seeking to better herself vocally, musically, dramatically.  I also applaud Jonas Kaufmann who does not let his fame be a reason for not working hard to improve.  Whether one likes Mr. Kaufmann or not is not the subject.  That his technique and artistic process help him to become more and more reliable and convincing is the more important lesson.  In his late forties he is steal peaking, and that cannot be said of many top professionals today.

It is important to remember the steps of development and not be afraid to lose a little something to achieve something greater.  No we do not throw our voices to the wind at just anyone's behest.  We take risks with the advice of those who know us and want the best for us and have the skills to guide us properly.  And we avoid the cautionary fears of bystanders and couch-pedagogues, who think they understand us better than our own teams.

Another illness is what I call vocal pedagogy in a box!  I have great respect for vocal science as is evident here, but I have less respect for the process that is employed by vocal scientists and many who claim to have a science-based approach to singing.  There is a real danger in attempting to protect one's "intellectual property!"  The kind of mentally that says: "I published this ten years ago, so I must defend it even if I discover it is not quite correct"; or the type of mentality that holds on to specific terminology the way religious fanatics quote Bible verses with literal dogma!

For all intents and purposes, I am a writer.  I have written close to 400 blogposts on the subjects of opera and voice, plus hundred of articles on classical singing forums and a few in professional magazines.  What I have learned is this:

 words are limited.  At best they crystalize more complex thoughts.  At worst they reduce complicated subjects to simplistic drivel.

I received a well-meaning comment from a very respected colleague relative to a recent blogpost.  He had issues with my usage of the term "great breath pressure" in relation with operatic singing.  From a theoretical principle of final vocal experience, I do not disagree with my colleague that the use of the term could be misleading.  Yet on the other side, some modern pedagogues (not necessarily my colleague here whom I respect greatly) fail to consider the process of the developing singer who when finally experiencing an organized phonation mode finds the body's muscular responses to be so much more extreme than s/he ever imagined.  Here in Magagnosc, a young tenor who I instructed to reduce volume but imagine a "fuller voice" had a lightbulb experience when he said:  "That is a lot of breath pressure on my body, but remarkably there is no pressure in the throat.  I feel that my body is working much harder than before but it is as if all sensations in the throat disappeared!"  So the student experience complete glottal closure for the first time and experienced a stronger breath compression than heretofore.  Simultaneously, the full closure was so gentle that efficient trans-glottal flow gave him a sensation of effortlessness in the throat.  Pressure, compression, pressure-flow balance...  It was enough for me that the student articulated in his own terminology a sense of relationship between his breathing and phonation. That will take him further than me insisting he uses a terminology he might find restrictive. It was also important to tell the student that:

"next week, the same experience might feel less effortful on the body as well.  The more developed the coordination, the less effortful it feels everywhere."

The vocal science community invents new terminology all the time to replace what was considered inadequate before.  Yet, the same people will wave the newly accepted terminology around with the conviction of religious zealots.  For better or for worse, I am a geek, in part.  I love knowledge and I love science.  But I am also a bit of a philosopher.  I do not like to be mentally restricted or restrictive.  Teaching vocal function in a vacuum does more to discredit empirical scientific information than anything else.  For that reason, I have one foot in tradition and one foot in science.  I keep my distance from zealots in both camps.

The Rubix Cube of vocal pedagogy couples empirical information relative to the efficient functions of the vocal apparatus with the uncertain physical and psychological vacillations of the human being who is inhabited by that same vocal apparatus.  The goal is to get the human being to be in synchronicity or better yet in symbiosis with the functional necessities of the apparatus inside of him/her.  For that, we need short and long term memories to understand the steps we took in the process.  This includes understand very well our necessary transitory periods of relative imbalance. For this we also need to be free of sanctimonious shackles of pseudo-science.  Imagery, imagination, even imprecise language sometimes speaks to the student more precisely than correct scientific jargon.

Scientific language, no matter how well-meaning, tends to unfortunately speak to one specific localized function without regard to the singer's experiences on a global level. yet this in no way gets the traditional teacher off the hook.  In the tradition of the most effective teachers, real knowledge instructs our process.  While we cannot absorb every piece of information out there, it is part of our job as voice teachers to be as informed as possible.  This takes an effort that too few of us are willing to make.

© 11/21/2015




Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Let it fall...Opera will survive: What If the Current World Opera Structure Were to Collapse?

In a recent conversation with a respected colleague about the problems that the operatic culture faces in our times, we came to the question that none of us want to ask:  "What if the theaters all closed down? What if the government sponsorship of opera were cancelled? "  Would our greatest fears be realized?  Would opera disappear forever?  I personally have had this fear!  My first instinct has always been to try to educate politicians about the importance of opera and why it needs to continue to be funded.  Whenever I get a chance to do an interview, which is somewhat frequent these days, I make a point of saying that culture is not a luxury but a necessity to our well-being as developing human beings.  I often will point to direct connections between reduced cultural funding in the United States to the rise of teenage delinquency and ultimately of crime in adulthood.  I believe that cultural education is fundamental to brain development and ultimately the capacity of a person to become a positive influence on society.

That said, I find myself thinking suddenly radically about the state of operatic affairs in the world.  What if state sponsorship is actually the problem?  I am beginning to believe we underestimate the public appetite for innovative, entertaining and moving theatrical experiences.  What person would not rejoice in a performance of Katharina Thalbach's magical treatment of Rossini's Barbiere, or Christoph Loy's Fanciulla or Stefan Herheim's Xerxes? What if those productions were not at state sponsored theaters ( Berlin Deutsche Oper, Stockholm Royal Opera and Berlin Komische Oper respectively)?  Would these geniuses be silenced?  I think not!  For every genius production by these stellar figures, there must be 50 or 100 productions in the operatic world that prove noxious to human senses by their lack of imagination and respect for the theatrical experience.  

We artists have the tendency to fear censorship at all costs and thereby support artistic freedom regardless of its quality.  We must realize that we do not have the luxury of defecating on the stage ad nauseum (alla Calixto Bieto) and expect the tax-paying public to sponsor it.  That is not an opinion.  It is a fact, as was proven when theater goers in Hannover boycotted Bieto's Butterfly by canceling their season tickets.  Bieto is not without talent, but it is one thing to use one's talent for the benefit of expanding the boundaries of what we thought of a piece (as Herheim does so well with Xerxes) and another to either work out one's personal psychoses at the expense of the work or for sheer shock value.  There are those who prefer shock over real theatrical evolution and will pretend that shock theater is the same as innovation.  Some of them are my friends.  And I have no qualms in disagreeing with them.

I am writing this while my students are preparing to sing their last performance of Resan till Reims,  a Swedish language rendering of Viaggo a Reims in the form of a reality show about a Trip to some non-specific place.  I sang one production of this opera and saw Abbado's production in Vienna and found both experiences boring despite the great music and the amazing voices on stage.  Boring because the story itself was limited to its time, being tied to the coronation of Charles the 10th of France in Reims.  Rossini himself never expected the opera to be produced beyond that specific connection.  This brilliant production by Sweden's great secret, the boundless imagination of Märit Bergvall, not only kept the audience in stitches all night, but it enhanced the experience of this magnificent music in a way I never fully appreciated before.  It gave the music a context we can all relate to---A true updating with panache that gave the piece a greater vibrancy that everyone, regardless of age responded to with unison rhythmic applause in a standing ovation, both nights I went.  I would be there tonight if I did not have to be on a plane writing this.

I believe artists like Märit Bergvall will continue to expand our minds about the relevance of classic operas in our times.  I don't believe that would necessarily be the case with the likes of Bieto and the hosts of pseudo-regisseurs that unfortunately inhabit so many of our houses relegating the greatest theatrical music ever written to the role of background noise.  It is sheer arrogance every time some unpersuasive director claims that the audience is incapable of understanding!  I have seen too many instances where this poor excuse proves just as unpersuasive as the failures it seeks to explain.  Why shouldn't politicians target cultural institutions as irrelevant when they take a position of intellectual superiority to explain failed productions?  At the first production I experienced in Germany (a Bohème in Köln)  I realized how fundamental opera is to the German psyche.  I had never experienced such a concentrated audience at any opera house like that.  It was as if they were experiencing something sacred to them.  People of all classes and status were hurrying from their jobs to attend the performance on that Thursday night.  I was enchanted!  Now expect these same people in a time of uncertain economical future to support something that routinely offends them and to add salt to their wounds, they are told they are not intellectual enough to understand.  It is not that the masses prefer some cheesy spectacle at the Friedrichstadt Palast (a kind of Las Vegas production house in Berlin), it is rather it makes sense for what it is and Opera is continually failing to either define itself or produce convincing results.  

Better Cheese than Feces!

A little production company I was a part of in Berlin produced 5 successful shows in a row, but in a town with three major opera houses there is not a lot of subventions left for alternative opera.  Our reviews were unfailingly positive and the work was very innovative.  I am still very proud of our production of Verdi's Macbeth and our first production, Don Giovanni, without funds.  Another such venture is beginning in Berlin in which some of my developing students are taking part. That spirit of "creating something" because there is a need is what makes me believe that the collapse of the entrenched Operatic Machine would herald a new period of innovation. Little opera companies sprout up because developing singers need experience and they are shut out of an exclusive system without any kind of oversight, whether relative to the art's future or to racism, gender prejudice or lookism.  The failure of the International Opera Machine cannot be rectified by the great work of a very small number of brilliant stage directors.  There is a lack of training for opera conductors, who, if they had been trained would have been the advocates against the excesses of unmusical and unimaginative directors.  

State-sponsored Opera for all its positives has one powerful Achilles' heel.  It is too comfortable to be artistic.  An Intendant in the German system (who is usually the Stage Director as well) does not feel enough responsibility to the people who pay for his/her job.  Consequently, they rule their theaters like personal fiefdoms.  When a new Intendant comes in, he usually brings his own ensemble with him, a level of obvious nepotism that should not happen.  This leaves singers in particular in a bind.  After a few seasons of great work at a theater, with no certainty of another position, singers are often told they simply do not have a job the following year because a new administration is coming. How is that responsible?

 The orchestra in Trier protested in the streets to keep their General Music Director, the excellent Victor Puhl, against the whims of the incoming intendant who was resolved to sack the very effective conductor, quite probably because he had some friend in mind for the job.  The orchestra was successful in fighting for their leader and his contract has been extended for two more years.  Such little revolutions against the norm give us hope--when an orchestra would take their job so seriously that they would indeed fight for someone who brought them the possibility of growth and improvement.  Bravi!

The revolution needs to be more systematic!  If theaters were not funded by the government, they would have to learn to become truly artistic.  Another colleague made the suggestion that the government should pay the salaries of the ensembles, but the production budget should come from ticket sells.  In that sense, the theater has to be responsible to its audiences, striking a balance between challenging their limits, educating them and entertaining them. Great productions often come when funds are short, because a theater is constrained to use imagination and innovation to put something credible on stage.  That was the case with the Metropolitan Opera in the 90s.  Low budget yielded magnificent productions.  The house was never more consistently full than during that period when belts had to be tightened.  The period of "my production was great but the audience doesn't get it" must end!  

As an audience member I don't mind occasionally not liking a production, but I like to feel that the producers attempted to take me on a journey that begins with a clear understanding of what is at stake artistically and that well thought-out choices are made, not convenient modern symbolism that work in one scene with the rest abandoned or shock value where imagination fails! It has become unacceptable to call crap by its name: "crap!" If anything is good, nothing is good! 

Music and probably most art forms over the last 100 years took the road to be "modern" instead of encouraging the artist's true voice. New ideas come not by a desire to be modern but by being a true witness of one's own time! Insisting that one uses modern compositional techniques is just as bad as tying him/her down to absolute functional tonality. Regie Theater imposes the same type of dogma and tyranny!  Let directors find their true voices instead of forcing them down the only road that is accepted! When shock is all that's left, we're left with stage defecation (simulated or otherwise) gratuitous violence without dramatic impact, blood and gore instead of honest poignant story-telling! It's boring, it's anti-art, it's not entertaining and not worth the tax-payers' contribution!

In such a case, LET IT FALL!  Let the opera machine collapse to cinders! From its ashes will visionaries rise like a swarm of fiery phoenixes to breath life into a new period of serious art that seeks to understand the undiscovered regions of the human psyche instead of poisoning it; mature artists that seek to challenge their audiences instead of offending them. The two are not the same! People would pay for that! And theaters would have to be convincing! Not conservative! CREATIVE! 


Those that want stage defecation can pay for it too! But it would not have to be force fed to the masses under the ruse and guise of necessary art experience! 

To my students, I will stay this:  I am not advocating being an outsider for being an outsider's sake.  I believe that it is better to try to change things from the inside.  And perhaps my thesis is a cry out from the gut to those who inhabit this Opera world we all share. But there is a point in which those who run our field in large part are not interested in change for the betterment of the field.  The goal is not to be an outsider but to be willing to be an outsider if it serves the art better.  We will walk and fret our way upon the stage, like the poor players we are, hopefully not full of sound and fury but having some lasting significance during our time on the scene.  Above all, after we have spent our hour, we will have gone.  But hopefully the art will remain!  Hence the Art matters more than we individual artists and if we are committed to it we should be willing to fight for it when necessary! Our fear of being on the outside is preventing us from finding a true place of belonging! 

© 11/17/2015