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


Adam said...

TS - Good for you having the courage to post this, mid-transition.

You actually sound good, and I don't hear anything like a "lack of focus". Generally the voice sounds clear and easy, and the vibrato spins nicely.

The trick for you (based on this clip) is going to be getting away from a "baritonal approach" to the top - i.e., rather heavy, and overly darkened. Basically, don't work so hard. Being a tenor isn't about straining yourself - it's about learning how NOT to strain yourself.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Thank you Adam. Great observation and I agree totally. This is however a huge leap from what it was. Go to you can hear my baritone (bass-baritone).

As for the ideal focus, at this level it translates into "leanness" "brightness" lyricism etc. The voice basically focused, but how easily and thinly the folds come together contribute hugely to the easier approach we are looking for, this is precisely what I am working on. I believe the voice will remain baritonal in color and will probably like more dramatic rep, but believe me I am working on everything that leads to a lyric approach. I won't be happy as a tenor unless I "feel" like a lyric tenor. Every dramatic soprano I teach has a comfortable upper extension and can actually sing lyric rep even though they sound lyrics on steroids when they sing it. I don't want to be a tenor whose voice ends at Bb.

The punishment for having sung baritone all these years is that the ideal tenor configuration of the vocal folds (which produce a more top-based sound) is not strong enough yet to handle full breath support. So things thicken up a bit in this piece. This is just a transition. Of course that is no excuse, just the reality. Thank you for your constructive criticism. Feel free to make any comment any time. I am not sensitive about that which is why I put it out there.

George said...

Bravo to you for your bravery in posting this clip. What you are undertaking is a little crazy, transitioning from bass-baritone to tenor this late in life, but I admire your tenacity. I think the top sounds great. The high F#s and G#s sound good, and not like it's the top of your voice at all. The middle sounds foggy to me, and maybe that's what you are referring to about "lack of focus". It's especially apparent in the last note. Why do you think this is? Does it concern you that maybe your approach to the top is causing this, like too much pressure or something?

Best of luck to you on your journey, wherever it leads you. I have nothing but respect for your knowledge and curiosity of the human voice and would love to work with you sometime.

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Thank you George. The fuzz in the middle is expected. This is what I meant. Beginning as a bass-baritone changed the natural balance of the laryngeal muscles over 25 years. When the folds are stretched back to their normal at rest length (which is why the high notes do not sound like the end of my range)they are thinner. So they do not meet perfectly because they are used to coming in to a certain point because of greater mass. Now the inter-arytenoids must do more work to bring them close together. It is already getting better since this clip. More soon. Thank you for the encouragement. I would love to meet you any time. Warmest Regards from Jean-Ronald.