Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Kashudo (歌手道): Strenghtening a weak range or why a Rossini tenor with a perfect high D finds "Una Furtiva" difficult
I am going through perhaps the most encouraging phase of my change from baritone to tenor. In the last couple of weeks I have been able to produce a mezza voce that extends all the way up to Eb5 without a break (well, most of the time). This is not falsetto but it is not my loudest production either. More interesting has been the sudden ability to sing in a production that feels like my best baritone days, but now I am singing in a tessitura considerably higher. What has happened? Now that I am singing with my old baritone weight again (or so it seems), I think: “why could I not have simply brought this color to the upper range the way I am able now?” Answer: simple. I was not strong enough!
How was I not strong enough? What was lacking? What exactly was weak? Was it a weak crico-thyroid? I doubt it. I have had the ability to sing very high in some kind of falsetto-like mix all my life. Was it a weak vocalis? I doubt it. After all I have sung roles as low as Don Pasquale and have sung Sarastro’s arias in concert. The weakness is in the coordination between them. What I have discovered over this experience is that the facts bear out. Each note should have a specific balance between those two muscles that yield a specific length and depth of the vocal fold tissue. The specific balance for each note requires the recruitment of very specific micro-fibers which we have no way of seeing or measuring. Unless we were able to insert needle electrodes in the crico-thyroids (which are easily accessible) and into the vocalis (which is not) we cannot really know which micro-fibers are recruited when. It is particularly difficult with the vocalis, which has a double structure of fibers (one group of lateral fibers similar to other muscles in the body and a spiral group that is singular to that muscle). Which specific fibers should be recruited is only important insofar as wrong recruitment yields dysfunction.
For us singers, what is important is that we recognize what correct balance of those two muscles feels like, and that we know when on a particular note that balance is not happening. And if balance is not happening, we should not panic but rather rejoice in the fact that we know that one particular note is not functioning as it should. We may rejoice because we can then address the problem. Indeed each note that we are able to correct will benefit a whole range of notes that depend on some of the same muscle fibers.
What I am beginning to experience in my higher range is correct balance on notes that heretofore could not have this coordination. So now I can sing a B4 the same way I sing a D4 a sixth lower, not the same weight but the same relative balance. A properly balanced B4 feels exactly like a balanced D4 even though the D4 has a different muscular balance. The feeling of a seamless range is, in essence, appropriate balance on every note. What is important is that the balance must be found, and strengthened on every note. Being able to sing a perfectly coordinated B4 like I did today does not mean I am ready for the stage yet. I cannot sustain a B4 for very long in this new coordination. It feels freer and totally easy for a couple of seconds. Then if I continue to sustain it, it becomes difficult. One half step lower I can sustain for much longer. Since I was not able to do this before, it only follows that my strengthening has brought me here. I must work more to achieve a totally reliable, fully extended top (dramatic tenor or not).
This brings me to this extremely gifted tenor I teach who specializes in Rossini. He has the ability to sing D5 with total balance and strength, yet he finds the aria, “Una furtiva lagrima” very difficult. The reason is that he has a vocalis weakness. His entire range in the past lacked in substance. The larynx had a tendency of going up and his best notes were the highest ones. Given that vocalis activity must reduce as he goes higher, it made perfect sense that his voice sounded more and more balanced the higher he sang. The lowest end of the range was weak. It is now stronger. The most notable problem was the following: the lower he sang, the more he had a tendency to squeeze (as we discussed here, a pressed voice is a compensatory mechanism for folds that are too thin for the given pitch). The most problematic part of one-sided voices (whether vocalis driven or CT-driven) is the area were one muscle begins to relax and the other begin to dominate. At that juncture (the muscular passaggio), the singer would experience tension (the aforementioned squeeze). It is this squeeze that would make the Rossini tenor get tired through “Una furtive lagrima”. The piece lies in great part in the unbalanced (squeezed) area for this particular tenor. As the voice gets tenser, even notes that are easier for him would become challenging (because notes preceding them are tense).
Now the tenor is much better coordinated and the aria is much easier for him. But it is not 100% reliable under pressure. The muscular coordination happens properly but he is not yet strong enough after three months of work to trust his stamina in this area.
The main point of this post is that vocal weaknesses are not simply a matter of coordination but also one of strength. In Bikram Yoga I learned that flexibility comes from strength. I did not get it before until I picked up my backpack. I am strong enough to pick up my heavy backpack with one arm and move that arm around in different ways. The student I was teaching the other day as I thought about this subject could pick up my backpack but not for more than a second or so and certainly could not move her arm around. Her muscles were completely engaged in the lifting and there was no flexibility to move her arm. The strength of the muscles determines both stamina and flexibility.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
This is a quality that I possess and that is the one thing I can hold most important in my arsenal as a singer and indeed as a human being. Some of you know my story in detail. I was supposed to attend college as an engineer but instead went to music school. As the story was told to me later, all of the teachers at Westminster Choir College when I applied for Voice Performance, except one, the visionary Daniel Pratt, thought I did not have enough vocal material to pursue a singing career. Three years later they not only gave me the voice prize but also an additional prize that I share with a soprano colleague, Robin Massie, for the most likely to have a professional career. That was a golden day when all doubts were dispelled. The freshman who began in what was lovingly called by one of my classmates "bonehead solfège" became the junior who won the composition prize that year. What is it that drives one beyond the the hurdles of what might have been called conventional wisdom? Why would a kid from an economically challenged family, born in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, challenge the professional viewpoint of 11 voice teachers at one of the best schools in the United States of America? What right has he? What makes him feel so entitled?
I have to take a page from Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant book, Outliers, which I have linked in the previous post. Despite my geographic and economic challenges, I grew up in a tightly knit, sometimes very dysfunctional extended family lead by my saintly grandmother, Marguerite, who passed away a couple of years ago. Her love and wisdom, despite a limited education, is the kind of thing that one find in books about saintly figures like Ghandi and Mother Theresa. I am not exaggerating. My grandmother was a saintly woman in every way I can imagine. I had the honor of delivering the eulogy at her funeral and was so filled with her strength and love that I had no problem singing at the funeral as well. How do you sing at the funeral of one of the most important people in your life? Her limitless love gave me the strength.
From the time I was small, maybe 5 years old, I could remember my Aunt Jacqueline telling me how special I was. She also sang a song to me that says: "unfortunate young schoolboy, be patient. One day you will be a man. Then you will grow and life will smile on you." My Aunts Margareth and Yolande, back then also told me this regularly. They expected me to be at the top of my class not as a weight on my shoulder but as a given because I was special. I accepted before I could question it that I was supposed to be at the top of my class and that it was within me to make it real. So is it any wonder that I make a change to tenor some 20 years into my career, left the academic institutions that did not value my gifts in favor of politics, and became a private teacher who seems to defy the New York challenges to have a viable studio in three years? No.
Add to that my two sisters, Karling (known to me as Peter, a biblical reference to the rock upon which Christ wanted to build his church) and Nadine (lovingly know as The Bean, for her lanky model-like figure) and my mother Nicole (known as Mouse, for her quiet strength)! These three people are the foundation of everything in my life. When I have doubts, as any human being does, they are the ones who say: "Keep going! You have come so far already!", instead of reminding me about the economic realities that dictate I should give up and do something more lucrative with my gifted brain.
Finally for a son, a father's approval means everything. When I decided to go to music school, my father expressed his doubts. I was giving up scholarships from Ivy League schools for engineering and even invitations for the naval and military academies, all because of high math scores on my SATs. To be minority, and particular black in the US and have Math SAT score in the upper 700s guarantees such opportunities. My father must have thought that I was squandering my life, but he did not let me know that. I know that my mother convinced him to support my decision, which he did in his usually theatrical way. He told me he was proud of me that I was man enough to challenge him and follow my own path. That was already armament enough. But the last thing my father told me before his brain was encapacitated with cancer was the following (and this right after expressing regret for the errors of his life): "When I came to Michigan to see you sing Don Pasquale (yes a bass role), that was the first time I saw you sing opera. I knew then that you were following the path that God set for you. No matter what anyone ever tell you, do not give up ever!"
If I express myself in bold ways on this blog or elsewhere, it is not out of some sense that I am better than others in some way, but rather out of a belief that my hard work gives me rights to an informed opinion that is as good as anyone else. I am open to being questioned and corrected, and have been by dear colleagues who follow this blog. Being corrected does not make me less, it gives me information for deeper reflection and study. This blog is informal for that very reason.
If I follow Malcolm Gladwell's theory in Outliers, then we are all products of the circumstances of our lives. This has been a theory that I have harbored for a long time. Gladwell had the better anthropological skills to prove the theory for which I am grateful because proving such a theory is not my priority. Nonetheless I am happy to be armed with his research.
The bigger question for me as a teacher (and this is a source of great agony as I feel profound empathy with my students for the mere fact that they have the courage to undergo the pursuit of a career in opera) is what Mr. Gladwell does not answer: Do we remain victims of the negative influences of our upbringing or can we escape them? My extremely optimistic view says yes! To believe this is to believe that my students can overcome any obstacle if they put their mind to it, but putting one's mind to it is only the starting point. Deciding to accomplish anything requires the commitment to see it through and when that includes not only muscular habits that need to be undone but also mental patterns, anyone can come to the conclusion that it is impossible.
In my own mind one thing overrides all other directives: I can do whatever I put my mind to and I am not afraid of the work involved.
I have had students with extraordinary talent who simply do not believe that they are good enough or worth being successful. It is supremely difficult to deprogram oneself that way. I was told by many that I would not succeed as a singer, but I was shielded by the above "prime directive". My brain does not compute impossibility. That is one of the reasons I was good in math. I do not believe a problem is insoluble and that alone gave me fuel to find the information or the teacher or the circumstances to advance to the next step of my career.
What is agonizing is that I cannot give my students my sense of belief in them. I am not just telling them they can. I truly believe it, because I do not see what it is that stops them. I made technique my priority because many believed that one either has a voice or not. The very teachers who believed I was not talented changed their minds. Everyone has a voice. I graduated from "bonehead slofège" to winning a composition prize and becoming an orchestral conductor. Musicianship skills can be learned and they are the foundation for informed interpretations. Charisma is based on a profound belief in oneself and I have seen singers who have very little self-esteem who manage with some encouragement to believe long enough to give unforgettable performances. But I have also seen the very same singers despair in the belief that they are not deserving and so perform way below their ability.
In the end it is they who have to be convinced that they are worthy of their dreams. Once that is the case, I can help them with the technical-musical obstacles and how to navigate an operatic world that makes no sense to most of us. But first they have to believe. Just as my family helped me to believe from childhood, I try to show them through their successes that they can erase the obstacles including their self-defeating beliefs. For those particular students who grew up not believing in themselves there is a difference. We have to build a new paradigm for them that overrides the old. We have to inject a brain virus that obliterates the old programing. It's like Mickey yelling in the side of the ring to Rocky "Ya gotta chew iron and spit fire!" (Not an exact quote). But in the end, it is Rocky who had the heart to stare Apollo Creed down. I can't sing for them! They have to want to sing with a rare passion such that every negating programing is rejected. They must have an anti-virus software that protects their sense of worth, for that is the "it" factor that obliterates every obstacle.
I believe in paradoxes. That has always been the nature of my world and it serves me well in the very uncertain world of music. I believe that my programming is unshakable and I believe it is positive. Yet I believe that negative programming can be erased and should be erased. I have negative programmings too. Otherwise I would have been more successful in academia (probably charming my bosses out of their jaded ways rather than challenging them). I might be more successful in my romantic relationships, etc. Still because of that "prime directive" of mine I believe that I can become more charming and I have, because I have built the working environment that is conducive to my success. I believe I will learn to be more discriminant about who I enter into a relationship with, and I have. Ultimately I believe that my best days are ahead of me.
Can I infect my students with my own prime directive? Perhaps! Is it enough to help them believe in themselves and overcome self-doubt and self-flagellation? In some cases maybe! It took more than one person in my life. It took an entire family, Mr. Pratt at the right time, the Westminster faculty became infected with the idea that I had something special and it follows me even now. Before Mr. Pratt, there was my High School music teacher, Kathy Prudon, who taught me for free every day of my junior and senior year of high school after I decided to become a singer. She was also my drama teacher my senior year who helped me overcome stuttering, which I thought was a curse, a plague back then. I still stutter, but imperceptibly and I have done musicals and straight plays all my professional life without ever stuttering not even in rehearsals. Thank you Kathy Prudon.
And so to all the families and friends of my students I cry for help. If you are the parents of one of my students, you know them best. Instead of telling them all the reasons why not, search hard and find the reason why "yes" and tell them often. If you are a friend or colleague of one my students, tell him or her how wonderful they are because you experienced something about them that is an ingredient for success. Don't lie to them. Reinforce the positive that you see and preach it sincerely! It might even challenge you to find the positive in yourself.
I will end this already long post with another idea featured by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. It is called the Matthew Effect. The term was first coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton. It refers to a passage in the Gospel accoring to Matthew:
For to all 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
Give your child the gift of self-confidence and every one who meets them will believe that they are worthy. Tell your child and friend, my student, that he or she is worth it until they start to believe it. For only when they believe in themselves will others believe in them. That is the crux of the Matthew Effect. The virus of self-doubt must be erased if we are to succeed.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
In an international competition, the cards are stacked in favor of the host countryMy student was a semi finalist in both the mélodies and opera categories. In that round as in the elimination round, each singer sings one song. However, as opposed to the four minute limit for the first round, the singer has six minutes for the second round and there was no specifics as to whether one can sing one song or two or three. When I asked one of the official helpers of the competition, he said that the jury hears one song in the semi-final round. However after she sang a stunning C'est l'extase langoureuse (Debussy), I had a feeling it was not enough. We had prepared a second piece, Fleur jetée (Fauré) but they did not ask for it. Two contestants later, a young bass presented the short cycle by Poulenc, Le bestiaire and there was no objection. In effect, if she had announced both songs totalling less than six minutes, she might have made the effect necessary to get into the finals. The singers that made it through all sang longer pieces. They were all French or French Canadian. There is a French-Quebec prize in the competition offered by one of the judges who is the director of a French Canadian Opera organization.
Know the politics of the situationThe French-Quebec prize was given to a young French coloratura. The prize is a series of concerts sponsored by the Quebec organization directed by said judge. The same coloratura was indubitably edged out in the mélodies category by a fanstastically gifted French baritone who received well-deserved bravos for his performance. However the two prizes for that category (1st and 2nd) where changed to two first prizes, and the soprano was announced first. The same soprano was also a finalist in the opera category and was given first place in the female category although a Russian coloratura with a near flawless technique edged her out, in my opinion. It might have appeared strange if she had also won the overall grand prize. That honor went to a French-Chinese soprano. The prize was announced by the mayor of the town who reminded the audience that this soprano had sung the soprano lead in The Pearl Fischers two years before in the town where the competition takes place.
International Competitions are won in the semi-final round