Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President Barack Obama for the Arts

Those of us who immigrated to the United States, particularly those of us who have experienced dictatorship and totalitarianism, never take American democracy for granted. As a Haitian-American, born in the first Black republic on the face of the earth, the historical fact of a first Black U. S. president is particularly significant. But what makes Barack Obama significant is the philosophical vision that guides his rhetoric and choices. His philosophy is one of inclusion and unity that takes not only broad concepts into account but also details.

I have argued all my singing life for the importance of vocal philosophy. Finding our individual vocal truths must be based on some definable objective facts, which in the face of the many uncertainties must anchor our progress. The goal of this blog has always been to unite through understanding as opposed to blindness by traditional ideology. I used to utilize the term ideology as I do philosophy. I will now make a distinction. Ideologies tend remain static whereas a philosophy is a constantly developing thing. I remain open-minded, which is why my understanding of resonance has grown with the high level contributions from Martin Berggren. Soon we will have a guest post on breathing by another colleague who is a singer and a medical doctor. I look forward to the discussion this will inspire.

Now back to Obama's details. I don't know how many people have noticed that often when Obama spoke about education he mentioned the arts as a necessary component. That kind of detail reveals the depth of this man's thinking, and I for one will watch and participate with enthusiasm in the development of a music component in an Obama education plan. But while we are waiting to see what President Obama accomplishes in leadership, everything points to his governance as one that engages the participation of the governed and indeed of all relevant participants worldwide.

The new question of our time therefore is the following: What can I do to help?
The arts, particularly singing, have profound repercussions on life. It is up to us singers to make the case for our own relevance to the society we live in. This blog is about vocal technique. It is also about vocal health, a vital component of technique. The mucosa layer of the vocal folds has profound relevance as a first alert to general health. If we are able to come up with resolutions and solutions regarding vocal health, I believe we may be able to open the discussion relative to health issues and nutrition issues, which in my thinking have a significant relevance to the state of health in the United States in particular.

I believe that the level of singing worldwide has diminished for many reasons even though our current teachers may be more knowledgeable than their 19th century and early 20th century counterparts.

Health is one major reason. While people exercise more than ever before, what we put in our bodies is decidedly worse. We face deadlier diseases now, including cancers, that are directly related to the toxins to be found in our food sources. It took years of ailments for me to realize this personally and all but sacrificed a promising vocal career by not researching fully what was ailing me. I suspect that some of the most dynamic operatic talents never get developed because of some minor ailment that causes disrepair in the first alert system, which is centered in the respiratory and digestive systems (directly reflecting in the vocal mechanism).

Discipline or the lack thereof is another reason. The lack of discipline in the operatic field that attempts to concentrate on superficial issues rather than substantial one. Lookism has trumped musical/vocal talent in many cases. Kitschy operatic compositions and superficial glitzy Broadway productions that neither challenge our artistic development nor our social discourse. Natural vocal coordination accepted as finished vocal technique and singers consequently go unfinished and suffer short vocal shelf-lives. A low bar relative to musical education, whereby under-performing music programs dare to call themselves institutions of higher education and graduating students every year as vocal performers that would be laughed off any respectable stage in the land.

In short, our culture of expedience and fast foods have turned us into vocal couch potatoes as well.

I love singing! I gave up a more profitable future in engineering for it and I never regretted it. Opera in all its complexity is the calling of my life for better or worse. When I criticize the state of our system, I criticize myself as a member of it. I can do more and this blog is one instrument of that. I figure that Barack Obama's call for participation means that we all must get our hands dirty. But not all in the same way. We must seek to improve the area in which we can be the most effective and of which we are the most passionate. I consider a three-prong approach to my participation in the Obama movement, which is really a world movement:

1) Self improvement: I am on my way to win my battle with reflux/Asthma-like symptoms/dehydration from medication. This sounds complex, but once it is understood it is not so unsurmountable. This I must do because my credibility as a singer has little to do with words alone, but with how my philosophy transforms my own singing and that of my students. I am a singer! And unless I can sing at a high level, I have little to say.

2) Pedagogy: What my students do in the world must reflect the excellence I aspire to. This is also a challenge to my students to work harder, more patiently and with a sense of love for the art form, as opposed to a worry about being employed. We all want to get jobs. But worrying about it does not help. The only way to get a job is by working on ourselves. I don't advertise in magazines and newspapers. My advertisements are my students, my singing and my writing here and on NFCS. My studio grows slowly but significantly.

3) The discourse here must take a far-reaching scope. I invite you my fellow travelers on this musical journey to be full participants here, to challenge the writing here. To make this blog yours. I started this blog and I will remain its chief editor, but the source of information is as much you as it is me. So I challenge you my friends to be more active. I imagine that we can create a corner here in cyberspace that has a profound effect on how our art form develops in this century.

A call to action is President Obama's war cry. We go to war against apathy, against sloth, against ignorance, against prejudice, against self-pity and indeed against war. Cooperation is the key. Our goal is self-realization and self-determination for ourselves, our fellow singers and our art form. In this way I believe we can have a profound effect on the philosophical health of our society worldwide. This blog will remain focused on the product (beautiful singing), but will open its scope to everything that influences beautiful, moving, profound singing. In this way, everyone will have something to say and a way to contribute.

I look forward to your advice and contributions. We may have posts in any language, as we hope to reach the world of singing. As I hope to maintain a level of editorship as to the quality of what we discuss here, any post written outside of the languages I speak (French, English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Haitian Creole) should be accompanied with a translation in one of those languages. As our community expands, we will find a manner to moderate posts in other languages.

Perhaps we would be able to have representatives from different countries with the credentials to decide on the content of posts that are submitted. As always all commentary is welcome and will not be suppressed. I have allowed all commentary to come out.

For those languages cited, I welcome a discourse immediately! I know many readers here from Germany who have lots of ideas to share. I welcome you to submit a relevant article of your choice. Same for everyone else. It would be nice to have a Swedish post from Martin or another Swede, as many Swedes read our blog.

In short, let us begin the experiment and see where it leads!

© 11/05/2008


joannakat said...

How wonderfully inspirational this post is! And how very appropriate that I, over here in Israel, should receive the news of Barak Obama's election from your blog!

I wish you luck with your battle against reflux--I just came from a doctor who has told me that I have a problem with it as well. I hope you'll write more about it. I'm also wondering why it is (if it is) that singers seem to have more reflux problems than the rest of the population?

Looking forward!

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Hello joannakat,

I am humbled. I assumed the whole world had known already, and I am tickled that you learned the news from our blog.

I am winning my battle against reflux and I have spoken at length about it here on the blog. Search through the posts and you will find a lot of information.

As to why singers have more reflux, there are a few reasons:

1) The diaphragm, our most important breathing muscle and the abdominals work a lot more strenuously in singers. The esophagus goes through the hiatus (a whole through the diagphragm) an on the other side connects with the stomach. Hiatal Hernias can happen through the constant use of the diaphragm in such an active way. The stomach can also be displaced enough to cause malfunction of LES (Lower Esophageal Sphincter).

2) The more significant part is that many more people suffer from reflux than know about it. This is called silent reflux and can cause sleep problems, ulcers and other esophageal and laryngeal damage. However many people are not aware of their illness because it does not bother other aspects of their lives significantly. Singers are more aware because their ability to sing is severely compromised.

Thanks again for your wonderful post!


George said...

I would love to hear more about what you are learning about the effects of diet on the voice. All I really know is that caffeine and alcohol can dehydrate, so I avoid those if I need to be in good voice. Also, that dairy can produce mucous, so if I already have lots of mucous I will avoid dairy. I don't suffer reflex, but do seem to always have a lot of phlegm - I assume an allergy to mold or dust? Jerome Hines outlines a pretty strict diet in his book "The Four Voices of Main" - is this the kind of thing you are following?

Toreadorssong's Vocal Technique Blog said...

Thanks for the comment George! I am talking to a couple of colleagues who will be able to address the nutrition issue more fully. I can only say that it is my profound belief that the food we acquire from our supermarkets is froth with preservatives that our digestive system was not means to process. The average person may ingest these products for a long time before he or she begins to feel the negative impact on his/her health. As I wrote, the upper respiratory and digestive systems are first alert systems. Since our voices are extremely sensitive with respect to changes in the mucous membrane that forms the vibratory edge of our folds, allergens and toxins are deadly to our vocal health. We singers tend to blame our techniques first before we consider structural damage to the mucosa.

I have undertaken a Vegan diet, concentrating strongly on organic foods. The fundamental principle is to ingest foods that have not been rid of their inherent digestive enzymes. Dairy is problematic because the dairy we get has been treated with very high heat during pasteurization, thereby ridding them of the enzymes necessary to digest them and other helpful bacteria that help maintain the digestive tract. I had avoided dairy for a long time because it caused me terrible phlegm problems. I can have raw milk or cheese at any time and I do not experience any mucous problems. I am new to this discipline and so cannot speak about it with authority yet, but I am reading like a fiend at the moment. Hines' diet as discussed in his book was undertaken as a response to his own problems with food allergies if I remember correctly. I do believe that our allergies to foods occur because of how the foods are treated, preserved and packaged. I hope to bring more information on the subject soon.