Monday, December 28, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Tipping point: The Paradox of Patience. The Third Principle.

There is much to write about after the drought of the Holidays. I decided to address Patience because the activities and events of the last few days point to it. I teach a group of tenors who had relatively long careers as baritones, ranging from 8 years to 25 (the latter being me). It seems in the last month we have all reached a tipping point. One of the tenors, a young Heldentenor was reported to have warmed up to F5 and according to his wife, an excellent voice teacher herself, he is feeling very confident about his development over the past few weeks. This is particularly exciting because he went through an early battle with reflux, had been diagnose (falsely I think) with peresis and experienced a difficult period with his passaggio. That was already fantastic news. Another one of the tenors came to Berlin for a few days to work with me and he obviously had his best weeks. He warmed up to some excellent high Cs and sang some excellent Bs in context. Before I had left him in New York three weeks ago, Bbs were still a question mark. Yesterday, I met with the youngest of the bunch over Skype just to have a check-up. He expected a tough lesson because things had been a little more difficult lately and low and behold he warmed up to his first C5 and sang Belmonte's first arias quite convincingly. I thanked him for such a nice birthday present (yesterday was my birthday and incidentally the blog's second anniversary. Imagine confetti and champagne)!

Today was my turn. I had been having some difficulties with my high notes and I could not figure out why. I had not changed my approach, but when I first arrived in Berlin, I was recovering from what appeared to be swine-flu, which had a bad effect on my concert (which I talked about here). Well, today was my tipping point! After teaching four students in a row, I decided to practice and found that my very high voice, what some might call a reinforced falsetto, was no longer such. It had become full. My voice did not want to sing the heavier high notes anymore. It is as if the crico-thyroids became suddenly strong enough to dominate the antagonism with the vocalis muscle while still enduring opposition from the same--That sensation of the voice being driven by the top. There was an abandon, a freedom and a sudden ability to express my feelings totally. I sang many sustained C5s and C5# and felt that the D and and Eb were part of my full-voice range (although not as rich as the C and C#. Obviously this is no point of arrival, but it is the kind of even that tenors who have sung as baritones look for and cherish. December 28, 2009 is for me the day I became a real tenor. Every time I promise clips, something new occurs. So I will not promise clips and maybe I will have something to offer soon. To the tenors who sang as baritones, Patience is indeed a virtue!

Paradoxically, my stay in Berlin this time became a tipping point relative to my pedagogy. I talk a lot about a total approach to singing, but much of my time is spent on technique (i.e. physical coordination). Of course, I have spoken about the mental part of singing and indeed the spiritual side of it, but not to the extent that I felt compelled to these last weeks. The importance of teaching singing as a total strategy became most obviously necessary this time when I began to teach two young students, a 22-year old tenor, who had an unsatisfactory experience in the conservatory and decided to seek my tutelage instead of going to a school and a 19 year old soprano who wishes to be prepared for conservatory auditions. Imagine that simultaneously I am teaching professional singers who have full-year contracts in German houses!

To me, it became clear that I had to set a path for those two young students that led their own contracts. This means multiple-lessons each week in which we get to discuss not only the physical fundamentals ad nauseam, but also what it takes to become a professional singer: that performance begins in the studio, that concentration is total mental presence, that a tone is not just a sound but an expression that requires consciousness and not a distracted mind, that an artist has a noble purpose with respect to his/her audience, that success is not happenstance but rather a willful sequence of accomplishments, etc. All this I discussed with my two young students. It became clear to me that some of my professional students needed to hear some of the same things. So their lessons became not only about vocal principles but about owning the moment, of being decisive and purposeful, that they deliver a performance; it does not happen to them. So many get to a level where they have the luxury of singing in a professional theater daily but have no conscious concept of why they got there and what they need to do to deliver their best work on a regular basis. They are not lazy! They need guidance. And I must give it to them in full, even if it is difficult.

To top it all off, I had a two-hour lunch with the great Rossini tenor, Lawrence Brownlee. I was already a fan of his work as I have expressed here on the blog. I will not quote him here because we were just having a friendly lunch, but I will say this: anyone who meets Larry (he is a very down to earth guy who prefers to be called Larry rather than Mr. Brownlee) will understand in a quick minute why he is one of the most sought after singers on the Planet. He is confident! His confidence is born of achievement, which is born of hard work, which is born of purpose, which is born of Faith. Faith that he is following his true path.

The tipping point of the ex-baritone tenors teach us the following: in everything, there comes a point when one must claim the prize. It does not mean that one has completed the journey, for indeed the journey does not have an end except for the end of life itself, but one must be careful not to turn patience into complacency. It is too easy once one learns patience to get caught in a vicious cycle of waiting. Patience is in fact the contrary of waiting. Patience is active. It is about moving purposefully in the direction of accomplishment and success with the goal clearly in sight, such that when the tipping point comes, it will require very little effort to floor that cow! (For non-native English speakers, you may need to look up the term "cow-tipping" to understand that last sentence).

© 12/28/2009

Friday, December 25, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道):The Little Voice Is the Real Voice: The Danger of Volume Before Its Time

Often, a singer will come to me and ask me to teach him to sing piano. The strange thing is that the singer often has the ability to sing a well-coordinated piano but does not realize that s/he has the ability. Our classical singing world is so driven by volume that quality is often sacrificed for it. The terms falsetto or flute voice are very misunderstood and are often so named because the singer does not yet have the ability to sing such notes with enough breath energy (sub-glottal pressure) to match the quality of the the lower voice that they summarily accept as their "real" voice. In many such cases the real voice is in fact a "pushed" voice. In other words, a voice sung with too much breath pressure, forcing the vocal folds slightly apart. In such cases the voice sounds loudly up close but because of the lack of efficient fold closure, the resulting harmonics lack in power and the voice is not heard well at a distance or with orchestral accompaniment.

Very often we hear lighter voices sounding much more present than their fuller voiced counterparts, yet the fuller voices are called more dramatic, more powerful than the lighter voices. The darker sound we associate with dramatic voices is indeed a natural characteristic of such voices. However, it is important to distinguish between a sound that is rich and has dark qualities even at its most efficient and brilliant and a false darkness that come with "loose" phonation (inefficient fold closure).

It is important to remind that the world record holder for the highest note sung is a male and he sings C#8, a half step beyond the high side of the standard 88-key piano. This would suggest that a woman could theoretically coordinate pitches in the vicinity of C#9 since male and female voices average around an octave apart.

The question therefore is at what point does the vocalis muscle really become inactive such that the sound is no longer "modal" (dependent upon balanced coordination between both vocalis and CT)? Experience shows me that the true "flute"/"full-closure-falsetto" range is considerably higher than we think.

Tenors like Giacomo Lauri-Volpi are recorded singing F5 and high coloraturas like Beverly Hoch sing A6 in performance (I have heard it live. In the following clip she sings G6). Those are modal notes, not one-sided coordinations. Lauri-Volpi was able to sing those notes probably because they were strong early in his development and he continued to develop them over time. Development is the issue. Most of us have strong lower voices because those notes are strengthened by speech. A singer who was not discouraged from making loud high sounds as a child may develop very strong high notes before ever beginning vocal lessons. Kids freely at play can develop a strong upper voice just by playing. Only this would explain a full lyric tenor with a flawless D5 and a leggiero who has problems with a C5.

The greater error is however the misnomer "falsetto" applied to soft high notes that cannot handle a great deal of breath pressure. I had an F6 even 20 years ago that was referred to as "reinforced falsetto". As I train as a tenor, I am finding that those notes have come back and they are becoming stronger. This I have also noticed with coloraturas I teach. Over time, what used to sound like a flute voice becomes gradually fuller (what some might call "real"). In short, what is often called "not real" or "falsetto" is rather an undeveloped sound. The coordination required for each individual note necessitates a specific recruitment of muscle fibers. See a simple discussion of muscular motor units here!

The ability to coordinate the two main pitch muscles (Vocalis and CT) on an individual note does not mean that the muscles are able to exhibit the same strength on even an adjacent note, one half-step apart. An individual note depends not only on increasing muscular activity of the more dominant muscle (CT for high notes, Vocalis for low notes) but also decreasing muscular activity in the more passive muscle (Vocalis for high note, CT for low notes). The strength of motor units in each of the muscles factors in. The strength of the required muscular motor units must be high enough to resist the breath pressure applied to the system (i.e. volume). The question therefore is whether the system, correctly coordinated relative to necessary motor units in each muscle, is strong enough to handle the applied pressure without the system buckling and recruiting additional motor units that are not appropriate for the note in question.

For example, if a tenor is trying to sing B5 and has a vocalis recruitment that is appropriate to Bb5, the pitch will either lower or the folds will loosen (i.e. relaxing the Inter-Arytenoids that close the posterior end of the folds. I.e. Speeding up vibration cycles to maintain pitch). The result would be correct pitch but with a kind of inefficiency that prevents the note from sounding brilliant and present.

What often sounds like a light sound is often a correct muscular set-up that has not yet gained enough strength to handle the necessary breath pressure that would result in a note that sounds "real" (i.e. matching the quality of other notes that are strong in the range).

In short, forcing a note to sound louder before its time will change the natural set-up of that note. To develop notes that sound weak, a singer needs 1) to accept the notes as weak and challenge them carefully by applying a little more volume until they develop in strength. This might take time but it guarantees the correct coordination of the laryngeal musculature.

Increased sub-glottal pressure can also have another effect. It could induce hyper-activity in the Inter-Arytenoids causing pressed voice. In such a case, folds thin out and are pressed to maintain pitch (i.e. slow down the vibration cycles). This is often the case with Counter-Tenors who often apply more sub-glottal pressure on very thin folds than the muscular set-up can handle. Over time, the hyper-function of the IAs cause a reduction of sound pressure (volume) lowering the quality of the sound. Counter-Tenors often start to sing big repertoire (for them) too early. The extreme light mechanism of a traditional male voice requires a long time to develop enough strength to sing Handel Castrato roles in large Opera Theaters with large orchestras. The tendency is to press the lower octave of the Counter-Tenor's range in order to match the thin but relatively intense sound of the upper octave. It is not unusual that the quality of Counter-Tenor voices that specialize in Opera, with large orchestras in large theaters, lowers significantly over about 10 years.

Several issues need to be reviewed.

1. What we call falsetto and flute voice is usually a weak but properly coordinated upper range that needs to be encourages and challenged carefully in order for it to develop into a full sound.

2. The lower and middle voice, often called "real voice" is often inefficient production with fold postures that are too deep resulting in looser adduction.

3. Volume must be applied judiciously in order to maintain a muscular motor unit recruitment mode that is appropriate to the note being sung. Too much volume applied too soon (i.e. singing roles that require great volume before the singer has properly developed) can ruin the quality of the sound and hinder the progress of the singer.

© 12/25/2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Why "Covering" Works Better For baritones and Basses

Before I get into today's post, a sincere word of thanks for all of you readers who wrote to me privately concerned about my last concert and how I felt about it. I love writing this blog and I am so happy to connect with such wonderful people all over this planet. I shared the story not hoping to elicit pity but rather to show that at any level, we singers are a very feeling bunch and we are vulnerable because what we do matters so much. I wrote the blog more as a reminder to myself, because I have a tendency (maybe the teacher in me) to nurture others at my own expense. It may seem noble, but it is not. Balance is important in everything. The short of it is that after I rested properly for two days my high C came back and more importantly the clarity of my middle voice returned immediately.

Now to the main issue. I have cited here often that acoustic law makes it such that when all elements are balanced, the [a] vowel will shift from first formant resonance to second formant resonance at F#4 regardless of voice type. This has proven to be true with all voices I teach, rather a coloratura soprano in her lower passaggio or a Rossini tenor in his (only) passaggio. This also means that a baritone is able to sing and "open" (first formant dominant) [a] vowel on F4 without experiencing what we call acoustically a "register violation". I layman's terms, after F4, unless the second formant dominates, the larynx goes up from a pressed phonation.

In essence there is no difference acoustically for a bass, baritone or tenor (or any voice really. But this issue is of more immediate concern to men relative to their top voices). The difference has to do with fold size and the amount of intensity on a given note depending on voice type. On F4, a tenor sound very normal singing the high note open. Accessing the second formant requires a slight rounding of the lips (this is not necessary on the [a] vowel above F4). Tenors will often round the lips (cover if you will) to induce a softer color. Sing a second formant F4 on the [a] yields a more tender sound for the tenor. But for the baritone or bass, the F4 can sound quite powerful, even violent regardless of the resonance choice. If fact the second formant resonance sound more appropriate for the baritone or bass on F4 because it helps keep a matching color relative to the lower voice. Furthermore, no intensity is lost because the baritone or bass is already in a muscular balance that yields great intensity, whereas for the tenor, this is a middle voice note. The lower the note (e.g. E4 or Eb4) the more lip rounding is necessary to access second formant resonance. For the baritone even Eb4 may be "covered" without great loss of intensity. For a tenor, covering Eb4 constitutes a major color change and is reserved for tender colors. For a bass, many Ebs are sung covered, also without a loss of intensity. A bass might cover a B3 (just below middle C) for a tender effect. That is one of the reasons why the "zona di passaggio" (the region of passage) is often said to be between B3 and F4.

It is also significant that "covering" (lip rounding that makes the sound seem like it is being retained inside the vocal tract) is a phenomenon of the [a] vowel and its gradual modification in the direction of [o] and [u] depending how low the covering is done. Vowel modification for the purpose of formant change is different in the [i] to [E] spectrum. Although lip rounding may be effectively help in accomplishing more exact formant tuning in the tongue vowel spectrum (i.e. [i] to [E]), it also has a negative effect on the other formant (the non-dominant or passive formant). Changing formant for the tongue vowel spectrum is much more effective when the tongue alone does the modification.

© 12/14/2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): The "Overriding" Fourth Principle: Hard Work Is A Given

The fourth principle that I recommend may seem over-simplified at first glance. Yes singing is hard work and so is everything that is worthwhile. But what does that mean specifically? It means something specific to each singer. The art of singing requires so many different skills and no one comes into the discipline of singing with strengths in all areas. For one person, the problem may be technical; for another it may be the courage to go on when it is difficult; for another, the patience to learn a new skill, like music learning or memorization; for another, the complete belief that s/he is meant to be a singer.

For me it is the all-encompassing self-love. The kind of love of self that makes one take care of the obvious daily needs that are absolutely essential to singing: proper nourishment, sleep, hydration, exercise, relaxation and meditation. Meditation comes easily to me. Whether total engrossment in a book or simply daydreaming in the U-Bahn, I can empty my mind and forget the world for a few minutes or an hour. Formal meditation is harder, but only because I think of it as time I could be doing something else (I'm correcting this mindset).

My Achilles' heel consists of the daily necessities, food intake, hydration and above all, sleep. I have gotten much better with water intake and since my bout with reflux, I eat better, but just not regularly. Not sleeping is the thing that affects my voice the most. It seems I require 8 hours for my voice to regenerate from the previous day. Science show that REM sleep is necessary for regeneration of cells. Knowledge is only a first step. Practicing something is another level altogether and even I, who make a life out of making sense of this singing thing we do, have my weaknesses that require Hard Work. Unfortunately, like most of us, I have to suffer some very undesirable experience for it to sink in.

Well I had my mini-debut in the Tenor Fach with the little opera organization that I work with in Berlin. We had a Christmas Concert in which I sang "O Paradis" from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine (an aria I can always get through no matter what) and "O soave fanciulla", the short Act 1 duet from La Bohème. Before my perfectionism gets the better of me, I must say, it could have been worse. To be fair, I sang as a tenor and I did not make a fool out of myself. But then I listened to my impromptu recording of "Recondita armonia" (a cappella) after a teaching day in New York and it makes me angry that I did not give myself the best chance to present my craft. On my Ipod I retain a recording of that "Recondita armonia" and one of my sustained High Cs to remind myself that I really am a tenor. Because on days like that concert, all of my scientific information and my total conviction cannot overcome the emotional disappointment that one feels after an unsatisfactory performance.

To make matters worse (I thought), my newest student was present at the concert. He stayed after to congratulate me. Before he said anything, I apologized and explained I was not fully healed from my cold and I had not slept much. He said he was genuinely impressed and he just wanted to tell me that he was happy to have come and he looked forward to his next lesson. I was doubly humbled. Not only did I need to take care of myself better in preparation for a concert, but beating on myself afterwards was another face of the same problem. This I learned from the 22-year-old junior-student in my studio.

The paradox of this is that the teacher who is supposed to know so much is occasionally the one who is supposed to learn and often from the students. I have no great wisdom to offer today. I have been the recipient of greater wisdom from my newest pupil. I am reminded of the Kung Fu master in the movie Kung Fu Panda (highly recommended) who after the tirade of the hopeless Panda who wanted to know how the teacher was going to turn him into the greatest Kung Fu master . Unlike the all-knowing Yoda character that he was patterned after, the teacher responded simply: "I don't know."

There are days when I too simply do not know! On those days, I can only look at the students I have taught and realize that the principles do embody a wisdom far greater than the sum of my knowledge, and that I simply need to continue to follow them. Especially after an unsatisfying performance when it is easy to lose faith.

I thank all my students for their faith, courage, patience and hard work. Their successes remind me of the value of these principles and inspire me to continue on my path on difficult days like these. At the end of the day, I feel I need to be the representative example of what I teach. Yet today, they carry the torch far better than I could. The humility I feel today is all-encompassing. And it is not negative but rather something to celebrate.

© 12/11/2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Patience, The Third Principle

Because I split my time between my studios in New York and in Europe (Berlin-based) I always meditate upon the previous month while I fly some eight hours over the Atlantic. The last week (particularly in New York) is always full of emotion for me as I try to tie loose ends in the hope that my students have a concrete idea of how they need to work their voices in my absence for the next month. The month usually ends up being crystalized by a word or a concept or a specific technical detail. The word this month is Patience, the third principle of Kashudo.

The opera singer's experience is froth with all kinds of uncertainty. There are great divides between school training and professional readiness, between work and reward, between reasonable expectations and harsh reality. It is not unusual that even the singer with strongest spiritual fiber ends up with periods of despair. Today, more than any other period in operatic history, the outside view of the operatic discipline is hugely opaque. The singers especially have little idea of how the motors of the power structure work. They respond to the obvious:

You are not hired because you are not tall enough
You are not hired because you can't sing piano
You are not hired because you are not Caucasian
You are not hired because you are not gay
You are not hired because you are gay
You are not hired because you are not skinny enough
You are not hired because you are not loud enough
You are not hired because you don't have reliable high notes
You are not hired because you don't have big low notes
You are not hired because your diction is not crisp enough

The singer's response in those moments is usually:

How fast can I get high notes?
How quickly can I sing louder?
What trick can I use to appear taller?
What dress can I wear to appear skinnier?
What hair product can I find to make me "pass" for Caucasian?
What muscle can I use to get low notes quickly?
What's the best language CD to get native-like diction right away?

So it is no wonder that the internet is filled with ludicrous advertisements like:

"Gain an octave in two voice lessons: full-proof technique"
"Lose twenty pounds in two weeks!"
"Become fluent in 10 languages by listening to this CD in your car on the way to work!"

And Chris Rock lampoons the two billion dollar industry that supports hair products for black people wishing to have "good hair."

What I noticed this month gives me greater hope than ever about the future of this field and encourages me to remain always truthful with students about where they are and why they may not yet see their own success.

I remember always wishing that my students would embrace patience. That they would wake up one morning and say: Enough with the short cuts! Let us face reality and really fix what needs to be fixed and then present myself as good as I truly am!

Well, they say: Be careful what you wish for! I for one am glad that I wished for patience for my students. I woke up one morning and saw my most driven student, aware of the fact that she is getting up in age, singing some amazingly difficult arias easily and she said: I got tired of forcing it and chasing it! I know it will come to me when I am truly ready.

I looked at that brilliant woman (that was a few months ago), with all her magnificent talent and a baby in her belly and I realized she had learn the most important lesson I hoped I could teach her (maybe it was her baby that spoke with her. He is now a feisty, fun, little tike. This was not a defeatist reaction, but rather one of incredible empowerment. She and her wonderful husband, who also study with me have made concrete plans for their career development.

It was as if she was the catalyst that began a movement in the studio. I noticed one singer after another saying to me: It will take the time it takes! The important thing is I am a singer and I realize that more than any job, it is a need to know that I can do this at the highest level.

What do you think gets you the job?

The greatest teaching is being an example. In that regard at least, patience, I know I have been a good teacher. Nevertheless it was surprising and humbling to hear my own secret mantras to myself come out of my students mouthes. And guess what? The improvements are palpable. The concentration in their eyes (Pavarotti's shark eyes) is born of determination and a sudden realization that their mindset plays as much a role in their growth as the many hours of practice that they put in. They seem empowered by their own sudden awareness that they have the power to transform into who they truly are.

The true self is the only worthwhile self. It is what is singular and it is what interests the listener, whether the fan who pays for a ticket or the casting director who hires. One has to have ceased the rat race to get to that peaceful place where the highest quality of self can be reached. The very quality that may guarantee being hired. For many of us, myself very much included, we don't believe people when they say we should be patient. Because we are so passionate and driven, we believe that the power of our will is enough to get us there. The power of will is important. Will is the future tense, the determinant of our destiny. We must however be in a state to craft our future properly in order to yield the results we intend. When we are in a hurry, we do shoddy work.

Worthwhile work yields a foreseeable future. When I hear one of my ex-baritone tenors sing a high B with such ease that it shocks him into a peaceful smile of satisfaction, I realize I was there some months ago and I know he sees himself as within striking distance of his coveted high C. I also hear suddenly that he does not sound like a baritone anymore. He has truly transformed.

The truly patient student rejoices in little victories because s/he suddenly has the vision to see that little victory as one necessary step in the right direction. The impatient student is only aware of how far from arrival s/he is and completely misses out on the pleasure of the little victories.

I thank my New York students for a terrific month of Novermber/early December and I congratulate them on all their victories, both little and big.

© 12/04/2009

Monday, November 23, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Breath management as a direct means of balancing phonation

The term breath management has emerged over the past half century as a non-committal attempt at avoiding the controversies that exist between different schools of vocal pedagogy. In this particular post, I am using the term to mean precisely what it suggests in the literal sense. How does a singer manage the use of the breath during phonation. I hope by now that a clear thread can be found through the many posts here. I will often relate to techniques discussed here before to illustrate how a specific function can be approached from different angles.

I have repeated here that the voice is pitch-driven and that there are three modes of phonation that represent point on a continuum: 1) Loose (relatively breathy) phonation: excessive air flow, which lowers the close quotient below ideal and require deeper fold posture to make up for the needs of the pitch (frequency). 2) Balanced phonation: fold depth is ideal and therefore so is fold closure. No air is wasted. There is a balance between pressure and flow. 3) Pressed phonation: the folds are brought tightly together slowing down the vibration cycle. To maintain pitch, fold depth is reduced and fold vibration is quickened.

If we consider the interaction between fold posture and breath, it is not only plausible but necessary to utilize the breath as the driving element of the mechanism. But first, we must have a means of sensing breath flow/closure. There are two sensations that have come down to us from traditional schools that are usually used separately to undesirable ends. One is the sensation of vibration in the lower chest. I have had two teachers who used to put their palm to their sternum as a directive to "connect to the chest". In my experience, this vibratory connection to the chest has the effect of releasing the air. The second is the concept of mask resonance, which in my experience has a direct influence on fold closure. Balancing these two sensations is a very logical and tension-free manner of achieving balance phonation. Pressed phonation (when air is not released enough) is felt directly in the throat. When air is released too much (loose phonation) the sensation of flow goes further down in the chest. Combining this sense of deep flow with the sensation of brilliance in the mask, yields a sensation of an unbroken column of air from sternum to mask, as if by-passing the throat entirely.

The sensation of deeper air flow can be simulated using [ha-ha] on a comfortable pitch (low is easier). The sensation of fold closure can be simulated using the [i] vowel. Once the sensation of balance is achieved, it becomes a single sensation as opposed to two.

It has always been my desire to scientifically back-up the proprioceptive concepts passed down by the great schools of singing of the past. It is crucial that the sensations be understood fully and not partially. A one-sided approach is what usually leads to disaster. There is wisdom to be found in the many catch phrases associated with traditional schools of singing. The wisdom is found by investigating in order to understand the complete meaning behind the catch phrases rather than the simplistic superficiality that they might suggest.

In short breath management in terms of these sensations constitute air flow as represented by the deep chest sensation and efficient release of air as controlled by the fold closure, represented by the mask sensation. For pitch to be maintained when breath flow is efficient, fold posture must be correct.

© 11/23/2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Appoggio: An Actual Support System

For the last nine months I have been practicing Bikram Yoga and through it became keenly aware of the importance of the "core muscles" in breathing. Some months ago, Martin Berggren, who contributes often in the conversation of this blog, shared the idea of keeping the abdominal muscles in during inhalation. Martin mentioned that he had read somewhere that this practice made for more efficient support (not a direct quote. Martin may comment to correct me). At any rate, between my experiences with Yoga and Martin's comment and further investigation into the Russian Ballet tradition, it seemed to me there exists some credible reasoning for using the abs as a stabilizer of the breathing mechanism. Both Pilates and Yoga affirm scientifically the importance of the core muscles in stabilizing the spine in order to avoid injury during vigorous physical activity.

Add to this an experience I had some 18 years ago with my then teacher, Ada Finelli, in Italy! In the relatively limited time we spent together, Finelli shared many thoughts, including that the support muscles were not the superficial abdominal muscles but a "...muscular system further inside that felt like a twisting column from the pelvis to the solar plexus..."

In recent months I have become aware of the spontaneous action of the Pubococcygeus (PC) muscle (the so-called Kegel muscle) when I prepare to do heavy lifting. I am not sure if this spontaneous action occurs with every one. However I was aware that this was not spontaneous in my singing and wondered if there might be a useful engagement of this muscle. I had also read often about the use of this muscle in singing particularly among women. What I have discovered has revolutionized my phonation process and provided the missing link to the rest of the process, which seemed to have developed nicely over the past 18 months. It is as if I had reached a point whereby this was necessary in order to go further. This engagement of the Kegel muscles seem to take the pressure off of the larynx (something I was experience in the passaggio) and give credence to the idea of transferring the pressure load from the throat to the body as many traditional teachers insist.

What is significant is that contracting the Kegel muscles (the action of stopping urination and defaction) also activates the contraction of inner abdominal muscles as well, possibly the obliques, transversus abdomini, the mutifidus as well as the glutes, which also get activated during Kegel contraction. A very good discussion of these muscles is found here.

When the Kegel muscles are contracted, I personally feel a column of muscles extending from the pelvic area unbroken to the epigastrium, directly below the diaphragm. In essence a column, not of air, but rather of muscle that stands firmly beneath the repository of the breath. In essence, breathing naturally against this column of muscle will naturally compress the air (when the larynx acts as the valve in the superior end). In such a system, compressed air is available and ready for phonation, making a glottal squeeze unnecessary. As previously discussed hear there are two reasons for a glottal squeeze namely 1) a fold posture that is too shallow requiring a squeeze to maintain pitch, and 2) a low air pressure that necessitates a squeeze to elevate the same. Engaging these core muscles takes care of the second reason.

Besides my own progress, I noticed significant and immediate change in the sound quality of three students yesterday due to this simple adjustment. It is because of these observations (beyond my own success with this) that I share this information on the blog.

I have advocated pulling the abs before as a means of muscular support beneath the diaphragm. With the discovery of the benefits provided by the core muscles, I also became aware that engaging the core actually pulls the midriff in. This is consistent with the contraction of the transversus abdominus.

There are those who equate the holding sensation of the contracted Kegel muscles as interfering with the natural flow of the breath. But as one of my students so aptly put it: "If I have to hold it while looking for a bathroom, I have no trouble breathing naturally!" This is quite correct. The contraction of the Kegel muscles and the inner core muscles does not interfere with the other muscles of respiration. Furthermore, the inner core muscles are designed for long-term contraction and essentially stabilize the spine when we stand or do other physical activity. I also noticed in one particular student that engaging the core muscles lifted her ribcage a few centimeters, freeing her of a tendency to bear down, which normally raises sub-glottal pressure to undesirable levels.

I must add that I began to think directly on the school of singing which advocates the reverse of this action. Some advocate the muscular action of defecation as a means of support. I am inclined to think that this is a misunderstanding of the Kegel approach, which is the reverse. As traditional techniques are passed down by word of mouth, I can imagine one teacher saying: "Simulate going to the toilet" as a means of support, as opposed to "Imagine having to go to the bathroom and you must hold it because there is no bathroom near". The former requires pushing against the abdominals, which causes a palpable heightened pressure against the larynx. The latter simply provides a substantial resistance to the lowering of the diaphragm, causing what feels like a consistent pressurization across the entire lung structure.

In all the cases I observed this week, onset of phonation was made smooth, gentle and immediate as a result of engaging the core muscles via Kegel contraction. Finally, the contraction of the Kegel muscle must be strong enough to result in contraction of the entire core system. The result is the engagement of the entire core system in a way that stabilizes the spine, provide support to the breathing mechanism (hence the term breath support) and improving body alignment.

© 11/18/2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

Kashu-do (歌手道): Extreme Art: The Discipline of Operatic Singing

For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Matthew 13: 10-17

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the book, Outliers, refers to this passage in the Bible as what was called The Matthew Effect, a term coined by sociologist, Robert K. Merton. The Matthew Effect suggests that those who have certain advantages will gather greater advantages, while those who are disadvantaged will continue be disadvantaged until they have no possibilities at all. This has proven to be true in the field of opera and is in fact one of the central premises of progression in the field. Those who have connections will tend to progress more easily. Those who are naturally outgoing tend to exhibit better stage presence and tend to be rewarded for it. Those who have excellent vocal habits, tend to develop more easily and are rewarded early for those attributes.

The most obvious advantage for any singer is having achieved an "operatic sound" at an early age, or better said, having been in an environment that did not discourage the acoustically impressive ability of creating a primal sound. All babies make that sound, but social norms discourage the kind of "unbridled" vocal expression that would maintain the voice until it is needed for operatic use. For that reason, cultures that encourage an unbridled vocal expression tend to produce great operatic voices. Latin cultures, African-American churches that have a Gospel music tradition, the culture of the Southern United States (the southern twang) are all conducive to the kind of "extreme" phonation mode that is necessary for operatic singing. Those whose every-day mode of speech is already operatic do not experience operatic vocal production as a personality-altering experience. For the average person whose vocal production is more "restrained" producing an operatic sound remains questionable. Even when the coordination has been learned, the stamina necessary in the short term to make such a sound the normal mode of expression is extreme.

For those who speak with the kind of phonation that is necessary for opera, it is hard-wired and is practically involuntary. For those who must learn to produce an operatic sound when they speak inefficiently, operatic singing usually feels like an alteration from normality. It takes an almost superhuman transformation to begin to feel that the operatic vocal mode is in fact the natural voice. It is the baby voice, unbridled, direct and extreme. Extreme only because most of us have lost our nature.

In a sense, from a purely visceral standpoint, an operatic voice brings us in touch with our primal self. It is a reminder of the most innocent, most honest, most untarnished selves. To those who have lost touch with this primal energy, opera seems extreme. It is this seemingly extreme nature of operatic vocal production that makes opera special. It reaches the listener at an instinctual level and forces him to listen.

That is why if opera is to succeed in the future, no matter what innovations are applied to it, it must remain true to its origins of vocal efficiency. With many theaters being "acoustically enhanced" (the euphemism used to mitigate the unacceptable term "electronically amplified"), many singers who do not produce a truly operatic sound are populating the operatic stages because they sound opera-like (by virtue of the very music they are given to sing). Opera-like in its superficiality does not have much to offer a modern audience. We have more popular modes of musical expression to superficially overload the senses in the name of what is called entertainment. A truly operatic experience I believe brings the listener to attention, to listen in a more profound way. That is why those who experience opera in its true form usually become lifelong opera fanatics.

An operatic fan base can only be built with the voice that accesses the listener's primal instincts. As we undergo this worldwide economic recession, the greatest asset at the service of opera companies are real operatic voices that make Opera an Extreme Art.

© 11/16/2009

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Systemic Impatience: The Potential Undoing of the American Operatic Culture

Voice Teachers and Coaches in New York City, the center of American Operatic market, get a clear, on-the-ground view of the state of opera in the United States of America. New York is where it all happens, for the most part. Most of the singers reside there, the viable agents have their offices there, and all the auditions take place there. It is also there that we have a clear laboratory of how American singers deal with the systemic problems of the art form. Particularly in the voice studio and to a certain extent in the studios of coach-pianists, the pressures that young talented American opera singers must shoulder are palpable and very much on the surface. They are also exacerbated by this uncertain economic climate, which sees the bankruptcy of one artistic organization after another.

This week in my studio, I witnessed a capsulated amalgam of the singer's story within the tragedy and chaos that is the American operatic system. I am saying nothing new when I say it makes no sense, and I am not seeing signs that anyone is interested in fixing it. The few singers who are working will not say anything against it for fear they may be blacklisted. Who can blame them? The agents change strategy with the wind. They must make a living too! They simply represent what opera houses are hiring. And here lies the disconnect! American opera producers with little exception do not believe that American audiences are intelligent or cultured enough to appreciate the art of opera for what makes it virtuous. It is believed that opera must be packaged in a way to pacify the pathological impatience of a culture numbed by Hollywood special effects and the immediate gratification of consumerism gone amuck.

Why do I blame the opera companies? Because that is where the artistic decisions are made. Whether by incompetence or by ignorance, many American operatic organizations do not work because of a fundamental truth: operatic impresarios do not believe that opera in its pure form can be sold to an American audience. So they feel they must in some way water it down to make it viable. Still, the results have been dismal.

It is not the operas, but whether the production teams that are problematic. General Directors are often bureaucrats hired to raise money, but the money they raise do not translate into ticket sales because the artistic product is not viable. Why?

I have already commented on this often. Opera is much more complex musically than the average director or conductor understands. Recently I witnessed the preparation of a production at a major opera house. It took one two-hour rehearsal to realize that the director was thoroughly incapable of grasping the nuances of the music. He was not trained as a musician and did not understand what role the music plays from moment to moment. The function of music in opera changes from moment to moment, from being atmospheric, to choreographic, to aping stage direction, to simulate the sounds of animals, to act as a protagonist or antagonist, to even a deus ex machina. One cannot grasp these nuances (and they are to be found in the most produced operas) if one does not master the language of music. Pitifully, the majority of directors do not. It is not their fault entirely. At some point, it was no longer expected of them. It is believed that a movie director with a name understood musical nuance enough to deal with the complex issues of operatic forms. It is believed that a charismatic personality is more marketable than the operatic product s/he puts out. It is believed that a director who provides scandal, whether artistically profound or banal, would help ticket sales. A knowledgeable, well-trained operatic stage director is rarely found. Where are the Otto Schenks and the Ponnelles and the Zefirellis and the Menottis and the Strehlers?

To be fair, I have had contact with some excellent American directors. My early experiences with such talented directors as Ken Kazan, Jay Lesenger, Edward Berkeley and the extraordinarily gifted James de Blasis leave me even more dumb-founded when I see one weak production after another at regional American opera theaters. What these wonderful directors have in common is musicality. Understanding theater production is not enough. One must know what brings an operatic moment to focus, and for that one must understand both music and theater and how they interact. These directors knew and understood every word of the foreign languages they deal with, another skill that is sorely missing in many directors today. How can they do anything more than skim the artistic surface of operas? I am not speaking from the sidelines. I have had my hand in direction and thus far, even in small venues with shoe-string budgets, I have had personal success. I have the advantage of training as a conductor, as a singer and the luxury of watching those top directors do their work, as well as suffering often the lack of skill of many others. Staging operas depend on understanding the material thoroughly. How can a director do a good job if they simply do not understand the work? This occurs at the highest levels. What does it take to learn all the skills that an operatic director needs? Time and Patience.

Recently at yet another production, I had the luxury of conversing with a conductor I found thoroughly fascinating. I had the luxury of watching him at rehearsals and performance of one of the trickiest operatic scores to be found, namely La Boheme. Like the great conductors of old, Maestro Alexander Joel, the current General Music Director of the Staatstheater Braunschweig, is one of those operatic conductors who give me great hope. Not only did he know every word and every note of that complex and quick-paced, quick-changing score from memory, he had a keen eye for dramatic timing. He was not just conducting a symphony orchestra. He understood the different roles that the music plays, he has a keen sense of vocal line and even a keen understanding of what makes a voice great. In a conversation with him, I was happily surprised by the depth of his understanding of what the singer goes through. he even has a strategy for helping to propel the singers under his care to higher levels in their career. One should be asking how this complete conductor got trained. I must not forget to add that during a one hour conversation we exchanged ideas in four languages. He spoke Italian, German, French and his native English at extraordinarily high levels. The state of operatic conducting has not been unsatisfactory in Europe. I have seen both excellent and weak conductors. Perhaps American conductors are at a disadvantage because of their lack of linguistic skills and the fact that opera has always been an abandoned child in this culture. Either way, the music director in the American opera house, in my experience, takes a back seat. This too needs to be remedied
It requires Time and Patience.

My heart however goes to the singer, since I have opted to make my living being their advocate.
In a way, the same skills required for operatic directors and conductors are required of the singer: musicianship (not just what is called superficially musicality), linguistic skills, stagecraft, besides a voice trained physically to win the resonance battle with a 60-piece orchestra. There is no shortage of singers with the potential to become memorable operatic icons. They have fundamental musicianship, fundamental stagecraft, fundamental linguistic skills and fundamental vocal technique. What they do not have is the time to develop fully. This is what they feel! By extension they become impatient.

These are the stories of a few singers I interacted with this week:

1. A young Canadian tenor visiting New York contacted me for a voice lesson. He has a very high, lighter voice that he had been producing without much support. Some weeks before his arrival he sent me a clip of his singing. I told him that his singing lacked support. He replied that his current teacher was working with him on that. Lucky for him, soon after that he experienced a master class with American baritone, Timothy Noble, who worked with him on the same thing. When he arrived I noticed a clear improvement from his clip, but there was still work to do. We had two 90 minute lessons in two days and the result was quite extraordinary (not blowing my own horn. The young man was extraordinarily intelligent, mature, adventurous and willing to do what was necessary for results). I believe this young man could become extremely successful. Why? Because the system currently favors what he has to offer. He is attractive in a contemporary sort of way; he has a light voice that accesses high notes easily; the light nature of the voice made it possible for him to learn to support it very quickly such that the voice becomes acoustically viable; he is Canadian and therefore already has a linguistic advantage; he moves gracefully as he sang; he is extraordinarily musical; he has a voice suited to operas that are often produced (e.g. Barbiere, L'elisir, Cosi, Giovanni, Flute, etc). In short, it will not take much time to refine his skills including his voice (because it is a lighter voice that is more easily coordinated). Therefore, patience is not an issue.

2. One of my students came to me 18 months ago as a mezzo-soprano. Yesterday, after leaving her for one month, I returned to find the last challenge of her vocal transformation met. The slight intonation problems left from her mezzo days was pretty much gone and she sang Konstanze, Lucia and Bellini's Giulietta with strength, consistency and the beginnings of well-supported pianissimo. She too is extraordinarily musical and seeing her perform lead roles in Don Pasquale and Sonnambula, she has a sparkling stage presence. Her preparation is always impeccable and she rarely misses a lesson. I have never seen her worry or despair. In my estimation, she has all the qualities to be successful. She will turn 30 soon, but she seems unfazed by what many singers see as the time limit on their operatic viability (a stupid ageism that is completely responsible for the stunted development of otherwise promising singers). I believe that in a matter of months, that amazingly powerful coloratura voice that was mistaken for a mezzo (more common than you think) will be fully-functional. Will she get cast in the United States? I doubt any director will take a change on an unknown 30-year old who has not run the YAP-track. So I recommend that when she is fully ready that she auditions in Europe where a coloratura with an even range, a high G above high C, the ability to learn music quickly and a body that matches her voice, might have a chance to be hired. She has had patience. In the end, with a calm mind and a relentless work ethic, she made an improbably Fach change in 18 months. The same it took me to make mine. It did not take so much time.

3. A very gifted spinto who like many singers of a fuller voice type require time to accomplish total vocal strength came to me a few months ago. There is no doubt that she is talented. The voice is rich. She too is possessed of great musicianship and a dramatic temperament that is unmistakable even in the studio. This is a spinto with a future. She has won an international competition and has been successful in the Yap-track. She came to me at the recommendation of a friend at the same level who works with me. She felt there were things to work out. She works hard because she is passionate about singing and in the short time we have worked together, she has made great inroads in developing her middle voice (a perennial weakness among female singers). A spinto cannot have a viable career without a reliable middle voice. She is halfway there. She needs a bit more time to complete the strengthening of her voice. Having had a tasted of success, she is particularly concerned about her age. Here is a great talent in every sense who feels she cannot afford the time and patience to finish her training. Such is the plight of dramatic voices. The system does not allow them the time to finish their training. That magnificent singer may not have the time to refine her technique to become a first rate Donna Anna because directors would prefer to give that role to a coloratura who can easily handle the soft high notes and fast coloratura even though their voices lack the substance for the gravity of that role. Will she be successful? I will do everything I can to encourage her to look beyond the limitations of the system and trust in the expanding horizons of her fully developed talent.

4. One of my posse of ex-baritone tenors was ill with a cold and lost some notes on the top. This was a reality check that he is not yet as strong as he hopes. We have to be able to sing when we have a light cold, but when we are still building a voice, a cold could be the difference between hope and despair. He too sang as a baritone for a long time, and this journey to tenor feels like finally the path to make sense of his career. Age, and therefore time, is always the driving force of concern. I honor his courage and faith and he has never flinched from hard work. The only part I hope he will embrace is patience. True patience requires taking stock of the real situation. Age is an issue in our field, there is no doubt. What is my student's choice then? Give up because of age, or believe that a fully developed dramatic tenor voice has a chance in a world where dramatic tenor roles are being sung by beefed-up lyrics? That is my student's choice. Either way, any positive resolution requires the courage to face a situation that seems dismal (because the system is upside-down), the patience to develop the talent to its highest level and the faith to know that it matters.

5. The most inspiring story this week is however the following: this singer came to me as a soubrette (as is often the case) with little belief that she would develop her top notes when I told her she was a coloratura. She has had moderate success in the Yap-track and had gotten to a point where she did not know what else to do to be successful. She had powerful teachers, is a hard worker, is intelligent, musically facile and attractive. Seemingly all the things that the business required. Well, a coloratura singing soubrette only lasts so long and only up to a certain level because a coloratura does not have enough middle voice to graduate to lyric roles at a professional level (not that it matters too much since many singer I hear in regional theaters are obliterated by the orchestra any way). Two months ago, she wrote to me saying that she was going to apply to law school and be an advocate for singers. I supported her decision and said that someone who understood the field so well and its problems would be a wonderful advocate for singers at the legal level. Well, she called me a few days ago requesting a voice lesson because she had been sick and was not sure she was singing properly. Having had the time to practice without stress, foregoing the audition season for the first time in her singing life, seems to have had a profound effect, for the girl that did not think she could develop the coloratura notes sustained a well-supported F6 and sang Konstanze with such remarkable ease that she believed herself truly a coloratura. She had not only time to develop her high notes and even out her middle range, but she had peaceful time, without the stress of the career's ageism and time limits. She was singing for herself and in peace. In truth her Ach, ich liebte, is ready now for prime time. Will she go on? I don't know! That is her choice and maybe she finds singing peacefully more satisfying than pursuing a career where the amount of work you put into it does not equate with the rewards.

Opera in America is as ill as the health care system, and the bureaucrats that run it either lack the vision, or the aptitude, or the willingness to improve it. If the requirements for true professionalism were higher, the weeding out process would be fair and transparent.

If opera directors had to really know the scores they direct inside and out, there would be a lot fewer of them because sincerely I don't think many people have the passion and staying power to become truly proficient operatic directors.

La Boheme was the first operatic score I studied under Gustav Meier and I remember how difficult that score was to master. I have not looked at it as a conductor in quite a while, and so I commend Maestro Alexander Joel for being a worthy example. If operatic conductors were truly required to have a dramatic sense, know the singer's voice and psyche, speak the languages that they conduct (or at least have a fundamental knowledge thereof), and know the score inside and out, there would be far fewer of them to chose from.

If singers had to develop a complete technique and be truly proficient linguistically and be top rate actors and have an amalgam of human experience and knowledge that made them truly believable on stage, then there would be far fewer. I don't believe that most singers have the staying power to become fully developed artists.

And finally, if the General Directors would demand finish talents from singers, conductors and directors, and produce operas within the limits of their budgets, opera would thrive for what it is, and not for pseudo Broadway musicals, with singers who look but do not sound like opera singers and directors who can read Bb from B natural, etc. But General Directors would have to know what opera really is, have an idea what a good production is, what a truly great singer is and what makes a great director or conductor. But when those jobs are left to people who not artists themselves, it is no wonder we are in the current dilemma.

As for my students in whose talents I truly believe (otherwise I would not teach them), I pray for them that they have the faith that they can will the Universe to support their cause. Only with that kind of faith can they navigate this chaotic system and realize their dreams.

© 11/11/2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Kashu-do (歌手道): A Master Class In Berlin, February 18-21, 2010: A more objective approach to vocal technique

Dear Friends,

As I have received quite a few suggestions and requests for a master class, particularly from the European readers, I have decided to offer a master class in conjunction with Berlin International Opera, a young opera company in Berlin that specializes in treating operatic masterworks in very innovative ways.

The master class will be in two parts: Morning sessions (three hours with a half-hour break) that deal with vocal science (anatomy and acoustics) and afternoon hands-on sessions (four hours with a half hour break) dealing with individual singers in a standard master class format.

The afternoon sessions will include real-time visualization of acoustic and glottal information, utilizing VoceVista that can be referred to, to complement aural diagnoses.

The class is open to vocal pedagogues and singers of all levels. Participants may take part as performers or may attend the scientific portion only or may participate in both portions.

I will be assisted by Berlin International Opera Music Director, Kanako Nakagawa, a pianist-vocal coach of the highest water, and Soprano Lauren Lee, Yoga Instructor with much experience in Alexander Technique and other disciplines, who will address issues of music and the singer's body as instrument.

Those who participate in the performance portion will take part in a recital on Sunday afternoon February 21, 2010.

The evenings will be free for optional gatherings to informally continue technical discussions and to enjoy the rich artistic and cultural life that Berlin has to offer.

Because of the international nature of such master classes, it seems practical that English should be the official language of the course. However I speak French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese and our music director, Kanako Nakagawa speaks excellent Japanese besides Fluent English and German. Between all of us, I am sure communication will not be a problem.

More complete information will be available on the Berlin International Opera website in the coming weeks. And I will continually update here on the blog.

For further information, please email me, Jean-Ronald LaFond, and please CC to

I am looking to meeting many of you in Berlin in February 2010.

All the best,

Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Nose Should Be In the Voice but the Voice Must Not Be In the Nose

I had heard this seemingly paradoxical axiom, years ago, and back then it made no sense. With time I understood there was a difference between nasal singing and the sensation of efficiency that produces a feeling of vibratory intensity in the region of the face, commonly called the mask. Yet the exact function differences that create the two results only recently became completely clear. The unsatisfying quality of nasal singing is often confused with equally irritating quality of pressed phonation. Both sounds seem to suppress low partials in favor of higher ones. At least that is the illusion from hearing.

The functions are however the opposite. A truly nasal production seems to be an attempt at remedying a lack of brilliance (squillo) in the sound that normally would occur when phonation is balanced and the vocal tract is adequately adjusted. There are three different types of fold posture/laryngeal depth possibilities: the balanced set up that produces true squillo and two others that produce an illusion of brilliance.

1. Balanced Phonation: We have already discussed the mechanism of phonation here. I wish to remind that phonation is at its simplest a two-dimensional occurrence driven by pitch. Pitch is essentially driven by the length of time it takes for one vibratory cycle to occur, which in turns determines what the listener perceives as a given pith in vibratory cycles/per minute (Hertz). Ideal fold posture includes a specific fold depth that requires ideal closure whereby the vocal folds close in such a way that breath is neither wasted nor held back (the latter would cause excessive sub-glottal pressure). Some scientists suggest that a 50% close quotient produces the most efficient results. Much higher close quotients have been recorded as acceptable among more robust voices. Indeed the distance between optimum vocal production and what is considered professionally acceptable is considerable.

2. Pressed Phonation: Pressed phonation (over-adduction of the vocal folds) occurs when the fold depth is insufficient. Too little fold depth speeds up the rate of vibrations, which means pitch would increase. To prevent a rise in pitch, the folds press together to slow down the opening of the folds. In this case the folds remain closed for long (higher close quotient) and the amount of air released is less. The result is less sound with a discernibly thin quality. It is important to remember that the shallow fold posture is not a random occurrence but rather a result of the singer’s conception of his/her own sound. Muscular coordination is a result of desire. In other words, the singer produces his/her own dysfunction without being conscious of it. When the singer then discovers that the sound is dysfunctional (whether because others do not like it or s/he begins to experience discomfort), the muscular balance had become so ingrained that spontaneous correction is usually not possible. In most cases of imbalance, a certain amount of time is required to achieve balance.

3. Nasal production: Nasal production is more complex because it is an attempt at remedying a perceive imbalance, namely a deficit in brilliance (i.e. a lack of strength in the high partials due to loose phonation). In such cases, the singer experiences a type of brightness that has no foundation in balance, but feels much more satisfying than the dullness of an unaltered breathy phonation. This kind of production gives the singer a false sense of correctness, because most of us have been told that the sound needs to be bright and forward. As I explain above, when an imbalance in the phonation process has been produced for a long time, spontaneous correction is usually not possible. However a spontaneous pacifier is possible and that is nasality. To the singer’s ear, the tone is brighter and feels more “forward” because of the nasal vibration, which the singer, who has not experienced the intense frontal sensations that accompany proper phonation, mistakes for mask resonance.

Another element in this process is laryngeal height. A high larynx is most often a result of pressed phonation, which produces increased sub-glottal pressure that the laryngeal depressors cannot sustain. However an imbalance between laryngeal depressors and levitators can produce a high larynx in the case of balanced phonation or even loose phonation. This is to say that nasality is not dependent upon a high larynx.

The remedy for nasality is better glottal closure because nasality is usually introduced to make up for the lack of brilliance that would be a normal result of balanced phonation. To induce better closure it is common knowledge that nasal consonants like [m], [n] or “ng” help bring the vocal folds closure together. A nasal vowel, for some reason does not. My guess in this case is that the nasal consonants cause an occlusion of the vocal tract, which has proven to influence greater glottal efficiency. To have an influence on phonation, it makes sense that the consonants that occlude the vocal tract must be continuants. For that reason, voiced fricatives like [v] and [z] have proven particularly effective in increasing efficiency of phonation. In the case of the nasal continuants, it would seem that their efficiency factor trumps whatever ill effects might be otherwise produced by nasality. It should be clear therefore that nasal continuants are not used for their nasality but rather for the positive effect of their occlusion. In this way, we can understand why nasal vowels do not help phonation.

It is also my observation that nasality is more common with vowels that are prone to tongue tension. When there is glottal inefficiency (either pressed or loose phonation), the tongue is often recruited (pulled back) to help reduce the resulting instability in the larynx. Because the vowel [i] is produced with a considerably elevated back-of-the tongue, it has been very helpful in inducing more efficient phonation. In other words, the muscular action innate to the production of the [i] vowel counters the retraction of the tongue that is associated with inefficiency. I should caution that the [i] vowel is not a full-proof tool. The statement above regarding a requirement of time to change imbalance is important. The [i] vowel may produce the quickest difference in the direction of efficiency, but it does not guarantee efficiency. That is why a singer can sing a very good quality scale on the [i] vowel and has a terrible time doing the same on [a]. Nevertheless, the [i] vowel over time can stabilize efficiency such that production of other vowels also become more efficient. The [u] is particularly prone to inefficiency. When dealing with breathy phonation, I would employ vowels in the sequence [i], [a], [u].

© 11/07/2009

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Way of the Singer: Official Title Change

Dear Friends,

I have thought of changing the blog title ever since I serendipitously came up with the Japanese moniker a few months ago. Yet I did not want to lose the origin of the blog, which as you all know came from posting on NFCS. Well it seems I may change the display title and keep the URL the same:

So I am able to keep both aspect.

The reason for Kashu-do (歌手道) should be clear. The Japanese script (In this case, Chinese characters transliterated in Japanese) has to do with my rather significant experiences in Japan and my long love affair with the Martial Arts, which I find have a great deal to do with singing. The great Kung Fu Masters always said that the ideals of Kung Fu are found in every discipline. Kashu (singer) is obviously one of the first words I learned when I began concertizing in Japan some 8 years ago (I only stopped when I decided to undergo my vocal change). Do as in Karate-Do (The Way of the Empty Hand ) is used for every art-form.

The Way of the Singer® is by no means an absolute or a single manner that is right or wrong. The Way of the Singer is very personal, and so each person experiences singing in a very unique way, as is the case with Kung Fu, which I practiced for a time years ago and something I wish to return to one day soon. As with the martial arts, singing is a discipline that deals with our entire being. As much as this blog began with vocal science at its center, it has expanded from that center. As I have always written here, science is a beginning. Singing is something much more.

Naturally I will continue to find clarity through science and as promised will begin a very thorough analysis of the great singers of the past (as much as acoustic science will allow). But I will unabashedly intersperse my scientific posts with posts on musicianship along the lines of the Winterreise posts (that are not completed yet by the way) and posts that address the spiritual experience of the singer.

Kashu-do seeks to explore the world of the singer in hopes of developing a physical, mental and spiritual approach to this discipline that honors it and those who practice it with an artistic rather than superficial aim. Although I am a teacher, I am only one. Most importantly I am a student of the art of singing with a finite set of experiences. And although many seek my advice, I am no Guru (some use the term derogatorily) in the sense of some all-knowing master whose principles should not be questioned. I am however one who has gone through this singer's path consciously and always questioning deeply. I started teaching very early (my junior year of undergrad) encouraged by my vocal pedagogy teacher, Judith Nicosia, who saw in me a talent for teaching. I wanted my students to avoid my errors. And as I have made many errors, I have much to offer in terms of warnings, but hopefully with my own transformation over the past 26 years, I have also direction to offer.

Perhaps I strike myself off of any pedestal so that no one else feels the need to do so. Those who know me could affirm that my own ego is the last thing on my mind. Finding some kernel of truth is the most important thing and sharing it and discussing it and debating it is my source of pleasure.

Thank you to all of you for willing to take the journey with me thus far. I look forward to our growth together down The Way of the Singer.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): The Acceptance of Alchemy in a Static World

Everything in my experience this morning in my adopted hometown drives me to philosophical meditation today. The topic is Alchemy, commonly linked with the transformation of base metals to precious ones, mainly gold. From Paolo Coelho to Dan Brown and even the non-philosophical novels that I read to keep up with my languages, all the books I have been reading lately lead me to today's post.

I woke up melancholic at the thought of leaving my city behind to go back to my other city, NY. The arrival to either place is always celebratory. I get to visit anew with the students I left behind the month before, revel in their improvements and the chance to help them get to the next phase of their personal transformation. Yet, despite my very philosophical nature, I am not exempt from the common human resistance to change.

After the melancholy of realizing that I have three more days here before heading back to NY, I woke up to Berlin transitioning from Fall to Winter. Today I witnessed the heavy wetness of Berlin's seemly eternally grey skies transform into a light space fluttering with large white flakes: the first snow! This magical transformation was accompanied by a strike of some service workers that manifested in an endless motorcade that stopped the otherwise timely buses of the city for a full half hour.

All this happened on my way from looking at my potential new living quarters. I am moving out of my current place. For one who has moved around as much as I have during my life, it surprised me that I would suffer so much pain at the thought of moving to a new place.

And so it hit me as abruptly as the snowflakes turned back to heavy rain that the one thing I hate in this life is change. I left my country of birth at 10 years of age and engaged in an endless pattern of moving throughout the last 33 years, and though filled with all kinds of wonderful adventures I would not trade for anything, there is a not-so-secret part of my soul that longs for one place, one girl, one family, one work, one regular hangout where I watch the Soccer World Cup with the same friends, rooting together for our one national team, wherever it ends up being.

Yet eternal transformation and the acceptance thereof is our destiny and the only fact of which we are certain. From our first human incarnation as a fertilized human egg, we continually transform until we leave the body we inhabit to graduate to whatever next level that is beyond this existence.

Now to the vocal point! So it is also with our voice. Not only that it changes continuously but that indeed our lives as singers, professional or avocational require a continuous alchemy of voice in all its forms, physical, mental and spiritual.

Like me, human beings do not like change, even those like me who seem to thrive on it. Thus it is not surprising that when it comes to voices, the culture of singing denies change in so many ways. "He has not much voice!" One teacher of mine, one of my heroes, would say. "He has a limited voice!" A colleague of mine would affirm. "She has a limited talent!" Another coach would claim. Maybe it is my gypsy-like existence that has taught me that everything transforms. And it is not surprising that my students talk about their time with me for better or for worse as "transformational".

Despite my instinctive resistance to change, my life remains all about change, most prominently my unlikely transformation to tenor, my alchemy from base-baritone to precious tenor. Precious because tenor is what I truly am! This week made manifest another one of my visions: to sing a sustained high C in context. And low and behold as I always dreamed, I was able to sing the high C in Pollione's aria in Norma (incidentally a desire I had long before I ever knew I was a tenor) and the throwaway high C in the third act of Otello. I always felt that note should be sung, not screamed. It has greater dramatic power when it is actually sung with rage rather than yelled on a lower pitch.

Parenthetically, if I thought my new tenor voice had completed its transformation 100%, I would be flooding the internet with my clips. But the many nay-sayers who believe in the static nature of the voice have made me less apt to put out too many clips, other than here on the blog. And don't worry, I will have them soon. I have made enough progress to warrant a kind of coming out.

The greater point here (beyond my own transformation which has probably become a source of boredom for you readers, since I mention it so much) is the alchemical nature of the voice, particularly with respect to what we start with when our soul says: "You are a singer," and what we must become vocally to follow the path that destiny has prepared for us. Our battle therefore is with a world that judges you for what you are right now as opposed to what you should become given the change to transform.

Nature gives us the dramatic example of the caterpillar who transforms into the glorious butterfly, yet we do not realize that this is as much a metaphor for our own lives.

The lies that I have ached for so long to denounce are these: "You have a limited talent!" "You don't have much voice!" "You have a limited voice!"

What makes you think you are a singer? Did some little voice deep inside of you at some point in time immemorial whisper to you that you must sing? Why else would you undertake this path that is froth with obstacles and seeming unfairness and chaos, with possibly little in return in terms of material reward in the static sense? There are two answers: 1) The universe is a happenstance experience with no purpose and we humans are the butt of a cruel joke. 2) We are here for a grand purpose that is made clear to us and the Universe will provide the means for us to carry out our destiny, which is our source of ultimate satisfaction in this existence. Whether I am living an empty delusion in believing the second answer, I find it much more acceptable and because of it spent the last 26 years making sense of that destiny.

Whichever of the choices one choses to accept, what I can be certain of is that those limiting pronouncements I denounce above are indeed falsehoods. I know for fact, I am scientifically certain that other than people born with a physical limitation, every one of us has a voice capable of the most extraordinary musical potential. The only determinant is whether the individual in question has that inner desire to transform from vocal caterpillar to operatic butterfly.

The last seven years beyond the loss of home and the routine of unhealthy relationships to at least the hope of a loving one has been the most affirming. The last five years beyond the safety of an academic paycheck have been the most fulfilling if precarious, and the last 19 months in my cocooned state have been the most transformational in every sense. Through the last 7 years I have transformed into the butterfly I was supposed to become. I only need now to break out of my cocoon and take flight. Somehow through this blog in the last two years I think I have begun the process of breaking through that shell.

© 11/04/2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): The Way of the Singer completes 100 blog posts

I am not one to celebrate my birthdays and I don't know why. However I began this blog on my birthday almost two years ago and it has been transformational. In a strange sense it has been an instrument of Alchemy. A blog transforms from being a kind of public diary to an interactive discussion when others participate. For this, I would like to thank all of you who read the blog and send me countless commentary, constructive criticism and private emails of encouragement. The openness with which I have gone through my own transformation not only from bass-baritone to tenor but also as teacher could not have happened without your participation.

So I celebrate with all of you our 100th blog (101 actually) and look forward to another 100.

Thank you to the over 2000 readers in the United States, Canada and Great Britain!

Ich danke den vielen Lesern aus Deutschland!

Jag tackar många läsare från Sverige som varit mest konsekvent och aktiv läsare sedan början av bloggen.

Agradeço aos muitos leitores do Brasil que, de repente se tornar o maior público fora dos Estados Unidos.

And a collective thanks to the readers from 47 countries on all the continents (minus Antarctica--What no singers down there?).


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Qualität ist kein Zufall (Quality Is No Accident)

After having the honor of teaching a very successful mezzo-soprano the other day, I went to my favorite neighborhood bakery. I bought a caramel-cinnamon roll (I am addicted to cinnamon and I love caramel) and for the first time in the two years I have been visiting this bakery I noticed that the package said: "Qualität ist kein Zufall". It could not have happened at a better time. Right away my mind returned to this mezzo-soprano and it was clear that her success was no accident. A singer at that level, who works quite consistently, might be tempted to take her talent for granted. However, this singer might not have gotten to the level she has if that had been her way of thinking. There are certain qualities that lead to success particularly in the operatic field and she has them all.

If you remember I cited the principles that I believe lead to success in anything: Faith, Courage, Patience...Hard work is a given!

Faith can be translated in everyday life as confidence that things are right in the universe, that our individual role in the greater fabric makes sense to us, that we accept why we are here and understand our purpose. This mezzo knows that she is a singer no matter what happens. This is clear. I have known her to handle difficulties with keen awareness and a certain dispassion. She cares deeply about the quality of her work, and when something is not working quite right she has the vision to see beyond the moment to consider what she can learn from it.

A singer who gets to her level knows courage. She like many mezzos with a great top voice was mis-Fach-ed as a soprano early in her development. She overcame those early difficulties and became the wonderful mezzo she is. I am actually more impressed by the courage that makes her affirm: "Even though I am doing well, I can be better! There are little things that I can improve on!" She also has the type of courage that helps her learn from tough times and not dwell on them. The ability to go beyond tough times may be one of the most important attributes for success.

Her patience is clear. A singer with such a voice (and it is extraordinary) and her musicianship/musicality could easily think she is ready for the biggest roles in her repertoire now. Instead, she is able to focus on roles that she masters and slowly take on those new parts that she feels ready for. Any singer who sings "O don fatale" the way she does would be offering herself up as Eboli already. But she wants to master it first.

The details of her work habits is what I have found most impressive. When we have worked together, this successful singer who is busy internationally has a pencil in hand and takes copious notes on every issue of technique that we discuss. Most impressively, she never seemed disturbed by discovering an imbalance in her voice, but rather took notice and notes on the strategy that we agree upon to correct the imbalance.

The error that we singers often make is to be so obsessed about our voices that we are easily thrown by the difficulties that singing presents, or that we behave as if everything is honky-dory because we are afraid that if we acknowledge our weaknesses others might also and we might be seen as inadequate. This mezzo stares her challenges square in the face and makes a battle-plan to meet them.

If a voice was all that was necessary to make a career, I would take the homeless man who often sang after the concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra in my college days and make him a singer, for he had a remarkably powerful voice. What makes a successful singer is the secure knowledge that s/he is a singer, period. Armed with such faith, one develops the courage to face the many obstacles on the road and the patience to go around them or over them or indeed dismantle them.

The average singer who is disenchanted with the unfairness of the music world would think me delusional when I say I do not know the obstacle in this field that cannot be overcome and at 43 I am precisely where I should be in my career as a dramatic tenor. When I played soccer in high school, I was the center striker and scored 33 goals in three seasons. The number of goals is not the important thing but what they had in common. In every case, there was a split second when I saw the path I had to take to get the ball beyond the opposing goalkeeper and into the net.
Success requires vision and there is never a lack of opportunity if one seeks it. A singer must create a path to success and be ready for the moment when opportunity presents itself.

The average singer says: "I've tried everything and I still don't have a job!"

The successful singer says: "What weakness prevented me from getting that job?"

The average singer says: "I'm 30 and I have not done a Young Artists Program. I have no options ahead of me!"

The successful singer says: "I'm 30 and have not done a YAP. What other way can I make myself noticed in this field? Am I lacking something fundamental?"

The average singer is often a victim of circumstances. The successful singer is often a pioneer of new approaches. The average singer follows the path set out by others. The successful singer takes the road less-traveled and even creates his/her own new road.

Just like quality, success is not an accident. It is rather the product of a strategic approach to realizing a vision. Vision is a product of experience. Experience is a product of practice. Practice is hard work. Hard work is a given.

Erfolg ist kein Zufall (Success Is No Accident)!

© 10/29/2009