Monday, February 23, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): The Master-Apprentice and Bikram Yoga

My dear readers,

Activity in Europe has been fulfilling thus far. Encounters with very special singers, and personal development as well have been the exciting hallmark of this trip. I am barely half-way and overwhelmed by the amount of information I have amassed. I will share all with you in due course. I beg your patience because my internet access is in some ways limited because I cannot connect with my own computer on a regular basis.

Today I wish to share with you the humbling and affirming experience of Bikram Yoga. Although I studied Kung Fu when I was in graduate school, it was not for long and the priorities of life over the last 15 years have all but erased my martial arts experience. I use to take pride in the fact that at least I preserved the Tai Chi part of the experience but when a student who is studying Kung Fu invited me for a session at her dojo, I quickly realized that I had lost that too. Now in Berlin, a dear friend and student influenced me to take up Bikram Yoga. It was an attractive proposition because I always wanted to find physical flexibility. After three sessions that range from the torturous to the pleasurable, I have come to find Bikram Yoga indispensible to my work as a singer. Hence I recommend it highly.

In a Bikram Yoga class, everyone is equal and everyone performs the same exercises. The emphasis is on form. Mastery is achieved over many years of performing the same forms with increased awareness, strength, flexibility and grace. Sounds familiar?!

My study of Bikram Yoga has already made me aware of how much I did not really know myself. It is a humbling discovery of what I am not able to do and an affirming one of what I am able to accomplish. The new awareness of my body, my core strength, my flexibility (or lack thereof) all reduce me to the level of "apprentice". Yes beside being a teacher, I am also an apprentice.

Singing, like Yoga is an art of precision and discipline. Singing depends in great part on the strength and flexibility of our bodies. Having become humbled by my new physical awareness, I realize that mastery of anything is relative. Bikram makes me aware that I can breathe better. Hence I am a beginner. Bikram makes me aware that I can be physically more balanced. Therefore I am a beginner. Bikram makes me realize that I can be stronger. Hence I am a beginner.

The teacher is an eternal student of the art form. As previously expressed in the first "Kashudo" post, singing is an art that requires body, brain and spirit. In the body area, I could learn much more. The Bikram Yoga teacher that I had the first day said it was obvious that I knew how to breathe. She was not surprised that I was a singer. Paradoxically, what I learned is that I could breathe a lot better than I do.

The work never stops. The teacher must look at the least experience student as a master, because that student brings a mastery of some aspect of his/her life. The teacher also sees himself as a student of the art who realizes with each knew advancement that he is an apprentice, that the path is eternal and that joy is in the continuous humiity of realizing how infinite our potential is and how much further the objective seems the more adept we get.

I would like to thank the Soprano, Rebecca Fromherz, a uniquely gifted singer and human being, for introducing me to Bikram Yoga and thereby adding a new layer to my eternal apprenticeship.

© 02/23/2009

Friday, February 13, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道) The Singer's Way!

A series of experiences with my students this year has opened my eyes once more to the power of the human voice to convince, to inspire, to seduce and yes to combat the evils: fear, hopelessness, hate, apathy, etc. The words of Robert Louis Stevenson "ring brightly" as I relearn Vaughan-Williams' Songs of Travel as a tenor: "...Fair the fall of song when the singer sings them!" A Kung Fu master once expressed to me how my discipline as a singer prepared me for the meditations of the martial arts, that singing itself was a form of Kung Fu.

I gave up the safety of a regular paycheck when I left Academia after 11 years that seemed to have flashed by before I was aware that my temples had become gray. I knew I could teach privately and perform and thereby make a living. I did not know what awaited me would be so spectacular and I sense this is only the beginning. I have submitted paradoxically that every one (pathologies aside) has a voice that could be trained to a professional level AND not everyone is a singer!

There is the "Vocalist". One who has accomplished great vocal coordination and entertains with his fantastic physical powers. When s/he sings a high C, we are thrilled, as at the circus, when the trapeze artist makes a triple summersault before catching the next trapeze. We need thrills, and I pay to see such a performer.

There is the "Vocal Entertainer". S/he, with great vocal material or without, enjoys the gift of timing and vocal skill. S/he has a keen understanding of what vocal effect or artifice will momentarily capture the audiences imagination. Like a great illusionist, s/he will take our musical/theatrical focus to one end of our attention and then surprise us at the other end, sometimes with a chuckle, sometimes with a tear. We applaud the skill, but we do not laugh to the bottom of our bellies and we do not shed a tear that runs over our hearts. We need to be entertained, and so I pay to revel in the skills of the performer.

The word "Singer" for me is a sacred word. I am openly not religious. Despite a strong Catholic background and various other religious experiences I find religion overall restrictive in my world. Yet one of the "singers" I teach shows me how open and infinite her religious experience is, and I am humbled by it and it stirs me to contemplation and even prayer. When I say sacred, I refer to a tangible, palpable communion of the spirit that occurs in many instances in life and most certainly when a "singer" releases a song, an act that is no less than the expression of the "eternal", a revelation of that which is divine within us all, and as one of my students recently said: "the Breath of God." At such an instance, all in the world is still, and only the communion of souls exists. Even the most hardened spectator cannot deny the illumination of his spirit. Our patron, Orpheus, even in ancient times was made legend because he was thus gifted. The Bard expressed it powerfully in Henry VIII (Act III, scene 1):

Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze
Bow themselves when he did sing.

To his music plants and flow'rs
Ever sprung as sun and show'rs
There had made a lasting spring.

Ev'ry thing that heard him play
Ev'n the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads and then lay by,

In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart,
Fall asleep, or hearing die.

The singer's art depends on the facility with which his/her instrument responds to the inspiration of the spirit. It also depends on his/her thorough knowledge of his/her craft. When skill and voice have been made instruments  at the singer's command, then must s/he enter in conversation with that which drives him/her from within, receive the breath of inspiration and expire the incantations that causes the very stones to weep.

Music is not a religion, less these pronouncements be seen in such light. It is one manifestation of the divine, a gift from the creator, a reminder that we are neither alone nor separated one from the other. The separation of our bodies is an illusion made irrelevant by the communion of souls as experienced through such manifestations as the singer's voice, or a Rembrandt self-portrait. 

The singer is not concerned with his own glory but is an instrument to facilitate this much needed illumination of the energy within. Such is the type of singer that has appeared in my studio over and over this year. It is an awesome responsibility and a source of great joy!

As I prepare to teach one particular singer, I confess that I am on my own journey of a vocal change and not as vocally refined as the student that I am about to teach. I study her music with all the skills I learned as a conductor, but am saddened that I cannot execute all that I have discovered on the piano. I have performed for some 25 years as a baritone and must give that up as well for a truth greater than my accomplishments. 

I could turn myself into the semblance of a master, citing my baritone accomplishments and my 15 years of vocal science and remain comfortably in that vocal category. I have a doctorate, I taught in academia for over a decade, and have had performances with some important orchestras and sung many roles, etc, blah, blah, blah...

But none of those past accomplishments matter. I am now a tenor in training, a singer too, on the singer's way to fulfillment of a calling. Part of that calling is an understanding of the singer's way. I have been on the path for a quarter century and I understand what the singer goes through. Everything I have done, the Kung Fu classes years ago, the conducting classes, the science, the stage experiences (triumphs and abject failures) all converge to a set of skills that in all humility prepare me to face this magical singer who appears before me and tell her: "You must do this!" 

In the Kung Fu class, when the master tells the student to do a deeper horse-stance, it is the student's accomplishments that determine when the time for a deeper horse-stance has arrived. Likewise, based on the fundamental principles that guide vocal development, it is the student's accomplishment that determine what the next step is. Every next step does not violate the fundamental principles of the first lesson. Dedication to the fundamental principles is the guiding light on the singer's path. Hence the only thing that matters about my past twenty-five years of experience is whether the principles that have guided me thus far have been fundamentally sound. I believe they are. Otherwise, I could not face the magical singer who appears before me and tell her with any confidence that indeed: "You must do this!" It is those principles that made it clear that I have come to the point on the road when I was ready to develop my tenor voice. My baritone experience had reached its end. I was no longer viable in that condition. In retrospect, what I thought had been a wrong path was only leading to the truth.

As the Kung Fu master said to me years ago, Singing is a martial art. Therefore I use the Japanese compound 歌手道, Kashudo, or "The Singer's Way." As with every martial art, the greater battle is the battle within, and most singers understand this. But there is an outer battle. It is one fought with the principles that make singing essential in our lives. Mothers and fathers sing to their babies to soothe them, to calm them, to make them laugh and to make them meditate and sleep; in essence to reconnect them to the eternal consciousness that brought them here. Our weapons are the voice and the illuminated spirit which are indivisible for the singer. By finding the light in our souls and releasing it through our voices we inspire the illumination of other souls who then reject that which could extinguish their light. In such a way, we conquer our adversary by becoming one with him. 

Another magical student said to me recently, it does not matter how brightly we shine, it is important that we glow as best as we can. Occasionally, the Kung Fu master would ask the newest of the students to lead us in the fundamental exercises. Often the newest student was more aware of the fundamentals because his/her mind was not cluttered with the fascination of advanced techniques. And since every advanced technique is based on the fundamentals, the advanced students often performed their advanced exercises better after doing fundamentals lead by the least among us. 

The singer's way is one of paradoxes. We learn confidence through humility. The teacher also learns through interaction with the students.  We learn control by giving up control. Our grounding is based on release. There is a musical truth at every instant, yet is different for each singer. We walk a road that never ends. Mastery is not a point of arrival, but a way of walking the path.

© 02/13/2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Coming Soon: The terrible superficial conflict between classical and CCM vocal techniques

Reading a blog recently by a very gifted CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music) voice teacher, I became very disappointed that even the knowledgeable teachers who should know better find it easier to deepen the cavern that has formed over the past quarter century between the training schemes of classical and CCM singers worldwide. The truth is that both sides have suffered severely. There was a time when good, healthy singing was simply that: "Good Healthy Singing". Over time, the cliche idiosyncrasies of both opera and more popular singing styles became the norm that distinguishes one style from the other while the natural, primal element that is fundamental to all great vocal expression was set aside and forgotten by many. I am attempting to address this very difficult and complex issue in the next installment and it will probably take time. I ask your indulgence as I do not want to treat this issue superficially.

For my part, I grew up listening to every style of singing imaginable from Motown to Mozart and beyond. I am trained as a classical singer, but have sung my share of musicals, Tango, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Andean music, a bit of Jazz and a classic Rock standard once in a while. I grew up loving Pat Benatar and Cindy Lauper as well as Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Prince, Journey and Queen, stars of Mexican Ranchera, Cuban Salsa and Argentinian Tango, Bob Marley, Mercedes Sousa and Celia Cruz. I've recently been electrified by Portuguese Fado Diva, Mariza and count among my early influences Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf as well as Frank Sinatra and Jack Jones. A pretty eclectic collection, wouldn't you say?

I found all these performers amazingly compelling and felt that there was something vocally sound about what they did. In fact I just watched Cindy Lauper on a British television show with her clear voice unchanged, even in her fifties. In this period of world-wide financial and artistic crisis, one of the things I imagine is a renaissance of "substantial art," as distinctly different from the "superficial artifice" that bombards the air waves and pollute many performing spaces. I believe that in times of crisis, what we artists do, especially when uninfluenced by the prospects of money and fame, can save a world. For us singers, this will include defining clearly once again what it means to move people with the power of our natural soulful voices challenged by stylistic demands and not reduced by disembodied faux-sounds that have come to poorly define different genres of music.


Saturday, February 7, 2009

TS in Europe for the next two months

As so many of you follow this blog in Europe, I wanted you to know that I am in your neighborhood. I am now in London until the 15th of February and will be in Berlin from the 15.2 and 1.4. I will be in Lisbon between 2.24 and 2.28 and may take some other side trips to teach in other cities in Germany and maybe Austria. I would love to meet any of you who follow the blog. I have been touched by the many emails from you and would love to meet any of you if you are near.

All the best,


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The female middle voice, a complex and misunderstood puzzle, Part 2

This portion of the discussion is surprisingly problematic. I will deal with the range F4 to F5 inclusive. This is called the middle register because it lies in the middle of the total female range. The fully-functional female range has a modal span beginning at F3 (a fifth below middle C)and ending at F6 (the Queen of the Night's famous high F). This is controversial nowadays because not many singers access those notes. That is because the flute voice is left undeveloped and therefore a correct muscular balance in the extreme high range becomes difficult. I will deal with the female high range in a future post, but suffices it to say that the upper end is rarely fully explored.

As for the middle range, as always, we must consider both the muscular and acoustic problems.

1. Muscular: We have already established that the "real voice" (the modal dynamic that involves muscular antagonism between vocalis and CT) spans about 3 octaves. This means that halfway through that range should be the muscular shift. I have been of the mind set that the muscular shift was around F5, but this does not compute. The second passaggio (between E5-G5) is an acoustic shift where the first formant takes over the resonance again. The muscular shift probably happens around C5. A colleague of mine in my early days of teaching in Utah mentioned this once and I did not comment on it. It seemed logical then, but I did not have the information to back it up. But when we think of it, it is around C5 or there about that female voices reach a lighter mechanism. If a woman takes what she calls the chest voice up, the voice usually will crack around Bb4-C5 where the muscular shift should occur. That is why Agnes Baltsa exhibited a muscular shift around C5 in the Carmen clip featured in the previous post.

If she had gradually lightened up (and this includes managing the pressure effects of the first acoustic passaggio), she would have accomplished a smooth climb through the C5 area get through the rest of the voice (having to deal with the mild acoustic issue of the second passaggio).

Maria Ewing:

Ewing uses a very dynamic approach to the muscular shift. The first verse shows a careful expert muscular dynamic, almost textbook. As the song becomes more crazed she makes use of a heavier approach, like Baltsa, unapologetically violating the muscular shift.

Marina Domashenko:

This is a more traditional vocal approach to this vocal dare. The Russian/Slavic mezzos tend to be heavier and have natural weight in the low range and do not feel a need to add more weight for color.

Ewing was a lyric mezzo who eventually tried her voice less successfully at Soprano repertoire. This speaks to the nature of her voice (i.e. lighter mezzo). Lighter mezzos have a tendency of overdoing the low range to compensate for the lack of power in that range in order to produce sounds they feel are necessary to the role in question. Carmen poses such problems.

Both Ewing and Baltsa being such extraordinary actresses are able to make an art of the register violations. One could argue that the register violations support Carmen's rebellious anti-establishment nature. No counter-argument from me from an acting standpoint! The problem from a pedagogical standpoint is that routine register violations in a certain role makes more traditional roles that require vocal balance very difficult to sing.

Grace Bumbry:

Grace Bumbry, a dynamic singing actress in her own right gives a very balance reading here. The reckless third verse is also chestier but her natural vocal weight is heavier than Ewing and Baltsa, so the register violation is minimized.

Elina Garanca:

Of the lyric mezzos around today, I am a fan of Elina Garanca for not resorting to vocal compromise to get her dramatic effects. The voice gains in power over the years precisely because of her technical discipline. This version of the "Gypsy Song" is dramatically committed but does not violate her vocal balance. She reserves the chestier colors for the lowest parts of the range where it is appropriate and achieves dynamic (i.e. gradual) balance through the middle range as opposed to static (i.e. sudden) changes.

But today's audiences are less knowledgeable about the difficult muscular balance required to sing a strong and safe middle range. Even opera singer themselves are more excited by the dramatic though unhealthy effects of habitual register violation that produces extreme colors in the lower middle at the expense of balance and power in the A4-C4 area.

2. Acoustic (Resonance). While analyzing many voices over the years I discovered surprisingly that female classical singers do not conform to the acoustic norms that we expect in the middle range.

Ideally, F3 to E4 should be first formant dominant and it is in practically all female voices. F5 to F6 should be mostly first formant dominant and it is. F4 to E5 should be second formant dominant and in general it is NOT. And that is one of the reasons that the middle range is chronically weak sounding among female classical singers.

The one thing that separates the classical singer to the good pop singer is resonance strategy. Operatic singing requires a sound balanced between low and high overtones. This "chiaroscuro" balance requires a released (i.e. lower) laryngeal depth. By maintaining this depth (all other functions being correct) the resonance mode should change spontaneously from first formant dominance to second formant dominance. But this rarely occurs because we are used to first formant resonance and it gives the voice a sensation closer to speech. And this aspect is an acoustic determination of what we deem "popular" and not.

Opera singers have always had a desire to reach a broader audience. Tenors singing Neapolitan songs, African-American singers singing Negro Spirituals, German singers singing Operetta hits, etc. Pavarotti who defined a "real tenor" based on his ability to "cover" (accessing second formant resonance at the passaggio point)violated his rule often when he sang popular Italian songs.

Here is Pavarotti's "cover manifesto" at 3:15:

Then his register violation (in classical terms) in the beautiful song Caruso:

The acoustic problem with the female middle voice is that the adjustments necessary for the ideal second formant tuning is not so easily achieved. In fact most female singers go in and out of second formant tuning in the middle range. Because of this difficulty many singers attempt to get closer to the first formant tuning (belt tuning) or more commonly some non-resonant tuning between the two. This is why the female middle voice is so often not resonant. The best that can be found among our most accomplished operatic divas is a high percentage of second formant tuning in the middle range. Even the best singers tend to revert to 1st formant or non-resonant adjustments.

In short the best middle voice models are rarities both in terms of muscular adjustments and in terms of acoustic adjustments. When I was preparing this post, I expected to find many singers on that I could acoustically analyze to prove my point. I was disappointed. The next question then could be that my expectations are wrong. I thought of this. But acoustic theory is based on pitch level and its interaction with the vocal tract (vowels). It is a relatively simple thing to observe relative to the limits of vowel formants. Formant dominance in the male voice tends to be easier to distinguish. Male singers either correctly tune to F2 above their respective passaggio or else remain F1-dominant. They do not tend to go back and forth. The reason for this can only be one thing, namely that male voices sing in a range conducive to vocalic intelligibility. Even the F2 range for male voices requires only mild modification. Male singers also accept that high notes necessitate modification and that the viability of the resonance adjustment for high notes trumps vocalic purity. Women will conform to this in their high range but find it more difficult to accept that substantial modification of vowels is necessary in their middle range. Many women do not believe that such extremely modified vowels will sound intelligible in context. So they sabotage their own resonance viability for a feeling of vocalic satisfaction. Paradoxically, that feeling of vocalic satisfaction is precisely what hinders viable resonance and therefore any real chance at intelligibility in context.

© 02/03/2009