Monday, June 30, 2008

Those who can’t do, teach: an issue of inspiration

There is no phrase that has irritated me as much as the title of this issue, with the possible exception of: “This singer has no voice.” I do not believe that those who can’t sing are able to teach it. But of course none of my articles are that superficial I hope. What do we mean by “those who can’t do?” Is it that they never learned how to sing and pretend to know how it works? Is it that they have sung and do not anymore because they are older, or may have lost their voices to abuse, or an accident? It took me facing that unlikely scenario to become less judgmental.

To say that those who cannot sing cannot teach is the same as saying that those who sing well can teach and we all know that this does not necessarily follow. The key here is not to lump all teachers in one basket no matter what the criterion in question. I’ve studied with teachers who had careers and are wise. They stopped their singing activities for various reasons, one because she was such a gifted teacher. That teacher, Lorraine Nubar has the most amazing ears of any teacher I have ever met, and the knowledge to make wonderful changes in all of the students she teaches. Additionally she is one of the most amazing performers I have ever had the pleasure of hearing, and this only a year ago in a concert we did together in Japan. She has not only a flawless technique, but impeccable musicianship, bewitching musicality and a limitless dramatic imagination. This is a singer, who would command any stage she sings on, but she was inspired from very young to teach and we see why. At the other extreme there are people who are truly inept, who have never experienced what it is to perform have never produced a viable vocal tone but often have the salesman’s gift and in such a manner are able to convince the desperate farmer to buy fertile land in the open desert, or in our case, the gullible student that he or she will become a star.

The proof of a good technique is in the results that come from it and so I am beginning to ask my students for before and after recordings of themselves to place on my website. Yet my standards require more. I am first and foremost a singer and am judged by this. It does not help my students if I cannot sing at a high level. It does not matter to the critics who like to put people down just because they can. Nor does it matter that I sang as a baritone for 20 years and am in the middle of a Fach change to tenor. And so even though my students are progressing the way they wish, I feel a personal need to be the true representative of my technique.

I cannot ever forget one particularly challenging soprano I taught during my years as a university voice teacher. She was singing Marguerite’s aria from Faust and I asked her why she did not do the long trill. She answered quite firmly that in most of the recordings that she heard the soprano did not perform a trill consisting of two distinct notes the way I was asking, and furthermore she believed that some people have a trill and some do not. So unless I could prove to her otherwise, I could not expect her to comply. Needless to say, I was miffed. But she had a point. I could not sing a sustain trill then, and I decided to make her a deal. I told her that I will give her the same amount of time to sing a sustained trill that it takes me to learn to do it. She agreed. The following week I came to her lesson and performed the very trill in Marguerite’s aria that I asked her to do. When she panicked, I told her that I only expected her to try her best and I would teach her how I learned to trill. It took the next year and a half, but she learned it and became a very determined student. Her challenged taught me much and I thank her for it.

In that spirit, I challenge myself to become the singer that I always wanted to be. I sang my last baritone role (Macbeth) with the little opera company in Berlin last March. The day after, I began my tenor training in earnest. These have been the most challenging three months of my singing life. I am far from my goal; however I have been forgiving of the process enough to know when I have come to an important point on the road. Those of you who read my blog regularly have been waiting quite patiently for something. Well, today after a two-hour practice I sang “Deposuit” from Bach’s Magnificat. It is unaccompanied but uncut and not tampered with. This is what I sound like now. The voice is not consistently focused. It cannot be perfectly focused right now without me thickening the vocal folds against their nature. I cannot perform a high C yet, but I’m on the way. I believe this art form should be about something honest and profound, an expression of our inspired triumphs against our fears. As always, words are cheap. So I begin with myself.

© 07/01/2008

Friday, June 6, 2008

Pavarotti’s Legacy, Part 1: Shark Eye

From the point of view of technique, the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti was the most significant voice of the second half of the 20th Century. Pavarotti did not accomplish a full understanding of the mezza voce and he favored the widest version of the vowel that was within resonance correctness, which contributed to his singularly bright, if sometimes monochromatic sound. Aside from these two minor shortcomings, I am hard pressed to find anything technically significant that Maestro Pavarotti (may he rest in peace) did not master.

I begin with Luciano Pavarotti’s almost unshakable concentration in performance (and this includes interviews). A number of years ago, while watching a live Pavarotti performance, a friend turned to me and said: “I have a hard time looking at him sometimes. If I close my eyes, I hear an emotional intensity that is so penetrating. But when I look at him, I only see his cold, shark eyes.” I observed Pavarotti’s intensely focused eyes and I replied: “He does look very distant, I admit. I wonder though whether those intensely, seemingly cold eyes aren’t the secret to his amazing consistency!” She (my colleague) then observed that the intensely concentrated eyes happened most consistently at the approach to a high note. We were both Domingo fans, at a time when it was an either/or argument among college voice students. Yet none of us could ever deny the singular ease and consistency of Pavarotti’s voice among tenors of the time. I never forgot that conversation, and over the years, as I became more and more a fan of Pavarotti’s and a student of his recordings, I could not shake the importance of those shark eyes. Bear with me! Let us take an excursion of a couple of paragraphs into my world to make sense of those shark eyes!

Over the last four years, while dealing with a serious acid reflux problem, I became intensely aware of my body and how it responds. The first thing that I did when my voice, that used to behave relatively naturally, became difficult is panic. However, once I became aware of my condition, I went into analytical mode to find an answer. If I have one overall talent, I would have to say it is my ability to make sense of a complex situation. I seem to have this uncanny ability to be aware, even when I am actively engaged in something. My analytical mode seems to bring me to an altered state of reflection, of calm. However, I was known as an expressive singer first and foremost and I was afraid of trading that for the ability to calmly get a better vocal result. As the problem persisted, I became aware that this ability did not prevent me from being expressive, but rather placed the desired expression in my conscious control. From this calm place I could release precisely the level of intensity I wanted while maintaining an awareness of how my voice responded to the directives. When my voice was affected by reflux, it was more difficult to be as emotionally free as I wanted, however I was able to deal simultaneously with the vocal issues and the emotional release of expression from what seemed a quiet place. Through this awareness, my panic was gone. However, I would often walk on stage with this feeling of insecurity, not knowing what would ultimately come out of my mouth. I never considered myself a person who had stage fright. In retrospect the reflux problem caused me what would be considered panic attacks, but no one could ever say they saw me panic either before, during or after a performance. In the most difficult moments, I went into analytical mode, that peaceful central place from which I could observe the chaos that the other, the active part of me, was experiencing. Furthermore, in those moments, I felt my eyes become intensely focused and I sensed they might have been akin to Pavarotti’s shark eyes.

A couple of weeks ago, two days after I had increased the dose of my reflux medicine (Prilosec) considerably to 60 mg from 20, I experienced a type of clarity in my voice that I had very seldom felt in the last four years. I had this wonderful sensation that the mucosal fold cover had finally become healthy and properly hydrated and flexible. Suddenly, I was not dealing with any physical restrictions and I sang Nessun dorma and other arias with an ease I never consciously expected from my own voice despite the conviction that I am in fact a tenor after all those years singing baritone. I had a moment of hubris like tenors are prone to when I thought briefly that perhaps Pavarotti had left me something of himself. It quickly went away of course. After all I was a baritone for 24 years. Unfortunately this was an impromptu practice session at New York’s 72nd Street Studios where I often teach, when one of my students had to cancel. I was in New York for two days without my recording equipment. Unfortunately, a couple of days after that session, my voice became difficult again and it took me several days to figure out, that the medicine that had cleared my voice was causing me extreme dryness and causing a consequent build up of thick mucus that made the voice much less responsive. Here I thought I had finally resolved my problem and could seriously think about making big plans. It was a crushing fall from such heights. My analytical calm took over, skipping the entire despair stage as had become my practice over the last two years. I had to admit that if I could accomplish that clarity for two days then I was certainly very close to a practicable solution for this problem. I could not give up now, and besides, I had the remarkable experience of hearing my voice resonate back to me in room 4 at 72nd Street Studios, and it was such a sound! I had strong incentives to continue the quest.

As I prepared to board the plane from Montreal to Berlin, it was time to take my daily dose of Prilosec. I decided to desist with Prilosec for a few days to see what kind of difference it made. I arrived in Berlin two days ago and yesterday after little sleep I sang some of my pieces and was pleasantly surprised. The voice was clearer and easier, but not yet what I had felt and heard in that practice room in New York. Later in the day, I fell asleep for a few hours (a rare, but mild experience of jetlag). When I woke up I went to the kitchen for a glass of water and decided to sit quietly for a while. The residual effect of the Prilosec overdose was still with me. I had a difficult time singing softly (an important sign of vocal health in my book). I found myself in that meditative state that had become my friend. I breathed deeply and basically willed my voice to phonate gently and softly. This was a slightly different but significant subtlety. In my previous experiences with the analytical self he was an observer. By simply being in that state of calm, my voice generally worked better. This however was a willful directive. I experienced a kind of conscious split whereby the calmer part of me, the observer directed the active doer to accomplish a specific task. In the next few hours before I slept again, I experimented with releasing back pain and muscular tension. It all worked as long as I was in this dualistic state whereby I could clearly distinguish between the observer and the doer. Before I went to sleep, without taking any reflux medicine and deciding to lie flat without raising my bed, I returned to my meditative state with the goal of teaching my digestive system to maintain the peace and balance I had felt throughout my body in the last few hours. The directive was to maintain this balanced state as I slept. I woke up a few hours later (the window had been left open) stirred by the cool morning breeze and a couple of beautifully-sounding but irritating birds. I could not sleep anymore, but the calm balance was maintained and I experienced no heartburn or discomfort as would be the case after being welcomed to Berlin the previous night at this nearby American bar with a classic dinner of chicken wings, fries and beer. That combination is lethal to reflux sufferers and I should be in serious discomfort as I write this blog edition. I vocalized softly on the vowel [u] and the voice was relatively easy. A major victory of mind over matter! The awareness of our conscious duality is nothing new. We only need to open The Inner Game of Tennis to find the philosophical discussion of Self 1 and Self 2. I began playing tennis around the same time that I started to take voice lessons some 26 years ago (how time flies). Therefore I was aware of the basic ideology. However, it is one thing to understand a principle and quite another to experience it.

I hope that the relationship between this experience and Maestro Pavarotti’s shark eyes is clear. Remember that I stated having observed Pavarotti equally at peace during interviews! What I began to consider is that Pavarotti’s shark eyes was only one symptom of his relatively calm center. Who knows how one comes to this sense of balance! I was not a particularly peaceful child. In fact leaving my country to come to the United States as a child was a traumatic experience that I remember with some sadness. But it seems the many difficulties I have faced have helped me to find the means to deal with them and ultimately to find a balance in life. The quest goes on! One of my close friends here in Berlin also observed that this meditative quality had a notable effect on the quality of my speaking voice. This is poignant! In my more despairing moments (I obviously do not maintain this state all the time), she noticed that my voice lowered and became less balanced even if I were not excited. In observing Maestro Pavarotti, I believe she is correct. His speaking voice never goes out of line. It maintains a quiet, gentle clarity, a child-like excitement and an impish satisfying smile. Are the observable shark eyes of Maestro Pavarotti an anomaly or one symptom among many that reveal a well-centered human being? Forget the tabloids! A man, who can climb to the top of the operatic field, became its most famous icon and managed to maintain an unsurpassed technical quality in his time is not the product of spontaneous happenstance.

I will write further about my own battle with reflux. I do not believe I have found a miracle that will fix all my problems. This is only one further step in the direction of balance. I will give up my Prilosec for a period of time and see how well I can effect a change in my body without them. Perhaps I will find a substitute that does not interfere with the natural acid balance in the stomach. In that regard, the product called Prelief begs some research. At any rate, this edition is the first in a series of articles that will deal with Maestro Pavarotti’s legacy. A careful analysis of what he has brought to vocal technique might be one of the things that save our art from a steep decline.

© 06/06/2008