Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): "Sing on the interest!" But there is no interest without principal!

If we follow the money managing metaphor that is often used in singing, indeed principal is necessary in order to generate interest. That is also true of singing. But let us define what is meant by the use of this metaphor!

When one is said to be using his/her vocal principal or capital, it is meant that the singer is singing in a way that does not promote longevity, that the voice is being used in a way that will ultimately harm it. It is also meant that the voice is not being used efficiently but with bad tension that will ultimately hurt it.

But there are some who equate vocal ease with vocal balance. However not all vocal ease is a sign of good vocal technique. Singing a breathy sound can also feel easy on the throat but it is not what we ultimately look for in vocal technique. Some even advocate avoiding the chest voice altogether, as if chest content were tantamount to wasting one's vocal capital. This is misguided thinking.

It is crucial to understand vocal sensation in order to make sense of these metaphors. What we need to understand is the nature of phonation. As with any physical action, phonation begins with a desire--in this case a desire to produce a specific pitch with the voice. Indeed pitch is the driving force of vocal technique as a whole. A specific pitch can be created in three essential ways. The vocal folds can set up a pitch in the following ways: 1) too deep and breathy (they go hand and hand), 2) too shallow and pressed or 3) appropriately deep and most efficient closure.
Pitch is driven by a combination of the depth of the vocal folds and how tightly they close, which together determine how long it takes the folds to complete an open-close cycle. A pitch is determined by how many open-close cycles occur during exactly one second of time (e.g. A 440Hz is equivalent to 440 open-close cycles every second).

The depth of the vocal folds is determined by the contraction of the vocalis muscle. How deeply the folds are set up is felt by a proportional sense of connection to the chest. The correct amount of connection yields the ideal amount of medial closure to produce what is called a "focused" tone, somewhere between too thick and breathy and shallow and pressed. The precise amount of depth and closure also yields a balance sensation of being "grounded" and "suspended" that is neither rigid nor precariously loose. In essence, the balanced flow that gives a feeling of "height" or "suspension" depends upon the right amount of chest voice, not the absence of it.

Following are models of balance in each voice type:

Kurt Moll

The last time I saw Kurt Moll live was in a Met Zauberflöte. The performance was lackluster until he walked in and merely spoke and then sang "O Isis und Osiris". It was like going to church. Everything became still and it was indeed a prayer. The honesty of the voice speaks to this balance. It is grounded but not heavy. It is focused by not pressed. Chiaroscuro throughout.

Piero Cappuccilli

I chose the next video for Cappuccilli as an absolute example of baritonal balance. I had the rare pleasure to spend two weeks with him once. We spent the entire time on breathing. This duet from Verdi's Don Carlos is one of the finest examples of Italian singing in the last third of the 20th century. Yet what I wish to compare is the excellence of Bergonzi to the near perfection of Cappuccilli. Only next to such absolute efficiency could Bergonzi's little faults be evident. I often say: "Ground, not round!" If you listen carefully, you will hear Bergonzi's production to be a touch "thin" (I used the term shallow earlier), and as a result he had to round his vowels to prevent sounding strident. Compared to Cappuccilli, the voice is a little less present.

Jussi Björling

There is reason why Björling is considered to have produced the most efficient, most balanced tenor sound ever. Again, one can hear clearly the chest connection and the absolute clarity of the tone without pressing. It is a joy to hear these singers in their own language.

Bruce Ford

Rossini tenors should take a page from tenor Bruce Ford's book. Again he exhibits an elasticity of incredible proportions in this aria that challenges in giant leaps the way only the impetuous young Mozart would do. Once again a real model of balance. No note is ever falsetto and no lower note is ever one-sided. The presence of the upper voice is felt even in the lowest notes. I look forward to Mr. Ford's return to the Metropolitan opera in 2010 in Rossini's Armida.

Olga Borodina

Few female voices are so well balanced as Borodina's. Even in the treacherous first passaggio where most women resort to driving the chest voice, Borodina remains attentive to balance.

The result is powerful presence without vulgarity.

Eleanor Steber

I would go as far as calling Eleanor Steber the pride of American vocal technique. The full evenness of her entire range is evidenced also by her well-supported piano. Here she sings the Czardas from Die Fledermaus in English, with sustained high D at the end.

Diana Damrau

A singer who gives the future much hope. She does not resort to flute voice production in the upper end and only uses a loose chest voice for dramatic effect in the opening of this treacherous difficult aria, Marten aller Arten. The difficult downward scale to the depth of her lower range utilizes a more balanced approach.

No singer is perfect and being an opera singer is a complex package. However at the root of this art should be this kind of balance that is exhibited by too few singers in our time. We are at the end (I like to believe) of a decadent period of history that leaves its traces in economic excesses and downfalls, in environmental excesses and disasters. Excess is more expedient. The last generation of singers has also shown a tendency toward excess. Raw chest voice and flute voice are utilized in parts of the range where they do not belong. Yet this has been rewarded. The evenness of a balanced sound is conceived as boringly monochromatic by some who do not understand that this balanced sound is the quality that travels through an orchestra and that the extreme sounds, though interesting in small audition rooms will not be heard once a few orchestral instruments are in the mix. For my part I prefer the boringly rich and efficient chiaroscuro of a balanced tone. But then again, the singers featured hear are everything but boring.

© 09/30/2009

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): On Operatic Legends: Honoring their strengths and acknowledging their weaknesses

Opera, like life remains eternally paradoxical to me. Oddly enough, while the movers and shakers are trying everything possible to "modernize" opera, they too often underestimate the cult-like nature of the relationship between opera fans and singers. This cult-like relationship also exists between young singers and the idols who inspired them. No singer grabbed my imagination the way Franco Corelli did when I first discovered him in earnest. I immediately began practicing "Ah si ben mio", which was the first track on my Corelli recording. I was a baritone in graduate school and was able to sing that aria. It should have been a sign! Eventually I discovered the acoustic analyses of Richard Miller who explained why Jussi Bjoerling was a superior singer based on spectrographic analysis. I was up in arms because I considered Maestro Corelli the quintessential spinto tenor, practically without peer on recording. My mind was not changed as to Corelli's worth but it did make me realize that my idol was indeed not a god! He was a human being who had flaws, even vocal flaws.

This sobering moment marked the beginning of my vocal pedagogy. If Corelli was human and flawed technically then it was necessary to understand what those flaws were. Only by understanding these flaws could I be certain that I address them in my own singing and in that of my students.

Not unlike the dangerous post Sept 11 patriotism that threatened anyone who spoke one critical word against the American government, there exists an unwritten rule among many operatic fans that the legends of opera are untouchable. Surely the legends of opera deserve our respect and honor. Yet they are also subject to our criticism if the operatic art form is to go forward. They are not gods. They are extraordinary artists and to understand what they do, it is our duty to dissect what they have left us of their skill in order to really emulate it, indeed to better it.

In the same December 13 1994 Met broadcast of Pavarotti and Domingo's silver anniversary performance and interview referred to in the previous post, Pavarotti spoke of Giuseppe Di Stefano, the idol of his early years. Apparently the young Pavarotti had been contracted to sing his first Cavaradossi in Germany somewhere and upon Di Stefano's advice cancelled that engagement and did not sing the role of Cavaradossi for more than a decade. This is the respect that Pavarotti had for the legendary Di Stefano. Yet in a different interview Pavarotti said that unlike his idol, he learned to "cover the voice". It is widely accepted among aficionados of Italian operatic tradition that Di Stefano's voice was ruined because of his practice of singing the passaggio "wide open" or "uncovered". In that sense one could say that Pavarotti lived the paradox of his relationship with Di Stefano. His admiration of the elder tenor did not prevent him from seeing the fatal flaw. Being able to assess his idol's error, Pavarotti became a modern symbol of Italian singing. Had he followed Di Stefano blindly, he could have suffered a similar end. Their voices were in fact very similar in size and elasticity. They both had facile top notes but approached the acoustic passaggio very differently.

Recently, I discovered some clips on youtube of the legendary Leontyne Price and was surprised that there were moments in which her voice did not respond as perfectly. My two live experiences of Ms. Price left me so stunned that I doubt in those days I would have had the presence of mind to be aware of any flaws. But indeed she is human and she had bad nights, and she made repertoire choices, particularly in her choices of concert repertoire that were not always ideal. In a sense I am glad. Because it gives us a glimpse into how the masterly soprano dealt with difficult moments.

Whether it be the tendency of my idol Hermann Prey to sing flat or my other idol Sherrill Milnes' inability to deal with the passaggio recognizing the human frailties of these singers make them that much greater not less. It brings light to the fact that they were singers just like us in the beginning, who dealt with their short comings and managed their remarkable assets so masterfully as to leave an indelible mark on the history of our great art. I intend to analyze the voices of the great singers with emphasis on what they did so well technically. We will indubitably find a common thread in what made them so technically secure. I will also analyze what did not work and why they may have experienced problems at certain points in their careers.

Why should I chose to do this at this point? We are closing upon my 100th post. I have dealt with many technical issues in the past 21 months. Dealing with those issues relative to how they were approached by our greatest singers is an interesting next step. I believe it will offer a glimpse into why the past generations were indeed better at this art form, as well as understanding why singers of our times, by and large, have more fragile instruments than their esteemed predecessors.

There was a time when it was absolutely clear that operatic singing was something very different from other genres of singing. In the process of attempting to democratize opera (a good thing) the business has managed to reduce opera itself to something that "anyone can do". Well, not anyone can sing opera. Opera is the vocal equivalent of Olympic sports. In high school I could run very fast, but I could not enter an Olympic event and expect to win. Far from it. But I think if I had been trained, I might have developed the strength and technique to become an Olympic level winner. Likewise, many people develop very strong voices by virtue of the environment they are in and certain anatomical genetic gifts. It should be understood that no one is born with a perfectly developed operatic voice.

Paradoxically babies come with vocal instruments perfectly ready for operatic production. If we continued to use our voices in the way that babies do to express their primal needs we might develop spontaneously like lions who produce deafening roars or like the neighbor's dogs who are able to bark incessantly keeping us awake at night. But our civilization for all its positive aspects robs us of much of our primal instincts including vocal expression. The physical, "athletic" part of operatic training is essentially the achievement of the strength necessary to produce a primal sound consistently. That primal utterance is what carries to the human ear with natural efficiency because the human ear is designed to hear that primal sound. No orchestral sound reaches the human with the same intensity. In terms of the physical training of the instrument, how many singers in our times produce a primal sound on every note of their voices? What does that mean and how can we judge? How do I determine that operatic singing is primal? All of that will be explained in the discussions that will ensue.

© 09/27/2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lawrence Brownlee and Juan Diego Florez: A comparison for our times

The two reigning tenors of the Rossini repertoire have been the talk of internet forums for at least a couple of years. We may be seeing a rivalry (not between these two fine singers and gentlemen, but as usual, between their fans) reminiscent of comparisons between Callas and Tebaldi or Pavarotti and Domingo. I am uninterested in rivalries of any kind as I find both artists remarkable in their vocalism, musicianship and stage presence. It is however of great interest to comment objectively on approaches to vocal technique.

I was recently stirred by a phrase which Luciano Pavarotti often used. On two occasions that I can document and others that I remember but cannot find on the internet, Maestro Pavarotti used the term "real tenor" to 1) describe his own voice pertaining to performing the famous 9 high C aria from La fille du régiment and 2) referring to the need to "cover" the voice on F4 (3:10 in the following clip).

I believe it is on December 13 1994 that Pavarotti and Domingo celebrated their silver anniversary at the Metropolitan Opera. On that night, they were interviewed together regarding important events in their respective careers. When Pavarotti was questioned about his Met performances in La fille du régiment that earned him the title, King of the High Cs, he commented that it was the first time that the aria was sung on key (at original pitch, untransposed) by "a real tenor voice". Yet, there are performances by Alfredo Kraus of the aria that precede Pavarotti's performance. Was Pavarotti determining that the legendary Spanish tenor was not a real tenor? Whether he was or not, it cannot be determined on that statement alone. The other time Pavarotti refers to the real tenor voice is in the sessions with Richard Bonyngue, Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, referring to Bel Canto techniques. In that occasion, Pavarotti insists that a real tenor must cover the voice at F4 and that it could take as much as 10 years to accomplish that skill correctly. For tenors who learned to "cover" the voice in their first or second year in college (sometimes earlier) this might sound exaggerated. Yet, a very careful observer of Luciano Pavarotti, I have learned to take him at his word. Of course, given that Pavarotti speaks in a language that is codified in Italian traditions of vocal training, it is important to decipher what he means.

A few facts must be considered, but we will begin with a supposition. Suppose that Pavarotti, in his own meaning, considers Kraus "not a real tenor" as compared to himself! Why would he say that? Let us take Maestro Pavarotti's clear statement: that a real tenor covers the voice on F4 and that it could take as much as 10 years to accomplish that skill! First of all, we must make a slight correction. Maestro Pavarotti is correct that any voice (particularly important for the tenor whose top depends on appropriate treatment of the acoustic passaggio) has an acoustic shift from first formant dominance to second formant dominance on F#4 on the [a] vowel (other cardinal vowels turn earlier), regardless of weight. I have experience this phenomenon with tenors of all ilk that I have taught, be it a Rossini tenor or a dramatic. In order for the larynx to maintain its natural position and not rise, when singing the [a] vowel, the acoustic shift must occur at F#. With vowel modification one may chose to do this earlier in the range for specific vocal shadings, but it should not be done higher.

Indeed in the early years of his career, Alfredo Kraus' voice did experience a register rotation on F#4. However not many years into his career, Kraus' voice took on a less "deep quality" and progressively became thinner. I believe this is due to the larynx climbing. The larynx climbs when the folds are pressed, and pressed phonation occurs when fold depth is too shallow. In short, Kraus sang progressively thinner and to maintain pitch had to press the folds together to slow down the vibratory cycle (thin production raises pitch unless pressing compensates). In turn, the pressed phonation yields excessive sub-glottal pressure, which in turn raises the larynx. A higher laryngeal position also raises the first formant and keeps the voice in first formant dominance higher than is appropriate. sometimes up to or beyond Bb4.

The following clip of Kraus in 1970 (one of my most favorite performances of him) shows the voice considerably deeper than in the later clip of the Regiment aria.

The relative amount of pressing for thinner folds may not be problematic. The lighter the voice, the greater a small amount of pressing has an effect. It is also true that a lighter voice singing a high C is not under the same kind of sub-glottal pressure that a larger voice is. A lighter voice can get away with singing what sounds relatively healthy even when the voice is mildly pressed. In any case, such a voice would be "thinner" throughout the range, lacking in depth, exhibiting a sound in the upper extreme close to falsetto (lack of vocalis activity, flute voice; not the kind of breathy production in the middle voice that is also called falsetto). The acoustic proof of this would be the inability to make the acoustic shift on the [a] vowel on F#4 as expected.

To express this in the positive, fold depth must be exact in order for the exact number of vibratory cycles to be produced for a a given pitch. When that is the case, no extraneous muscular activity is necessary to make up for the imbalance in pitch production. That exactitude of glottal resistance yields a sound that has both brilliance and depth --the famed Italian chiaroscuro. If this were Pavarotti's aural point of reference, then in his way of thinking, Kraus would have been a tenor whose production was more falsetto-like in the top range and therefore not a real tenor. It is certainly a different production to produce a full-voiced High C, a coordination that indeed takes time to train. This coordination depends on greater fold-depth. This means that crico-thyroid muscles that stretch the vocal folds would experience greater resistance from the vocalis muscles than in pressed phonation. That means that the crico-thyroids must become stronger. This production would be appropriately thicker and would yield an easier pressure-flow balance than inappropriately thinner folds. Such a coordination would require strength from both sets of muscles and depending how unbalanced the singer's phonation was at the onset of study, it could indeed take as much as ten years unless the training is targeted. (I began working with a contralto whose voice was either pure chest in the low end or flute voice in the upper. It has been a few months and she has achieved balance throughout the range, albeit the new balance cannot endure great breath pressure yet. So the sound is good but not very powerful yet).

If we consider the preceding set of principles, we can view the approaches of Brownlee and Florez very much in terms of Pavarotti and Kraus respectively. Acoustic signals of the four tenors singing the same aria speak for themselves. Whereas Brownlee-Pavarotti alternate between the two vowel formants with F#4 as the axis point when singing the [a] vowel, Kraus-Florez have a single-formant model, a single color that is easier to manipulate but robs the voice of depth. Subjectively one could say that the Kraus-Florez model yields a sound that is "purer" in a way "more innocent", where as the Pavarotti-Brownlee model is more complex and in a way more difficult to master, yet richer, more imposing, more "heroic".





It should be very clear to the ear that is a "chesty component" in both Pavarotti and Brownlee. Whereas both Kraus and Florez exhibit a "purely heady" quality. Looking at the acoustic analysis, the second harmonic (first formant of the modified [o]) is dominant (the tallest peak on the right of the picture) for Florez and Kraus, whereas it is the third harmonic (second formant) that is dominant for Brownlee and Pavarotti.

All four singers sing the sustained G4 on the second syllable of drapeau at the end of the second vocal phrase of the aria. The samples are taken with the corresponding clips above.

Objectively I prefer the Pavarotti-Brownlee model, yet when we speak of musical interpretations and vocal facility, at this point it seems Florez is more at home with his simpler acoustic approach. I find great charm in both singers. My experience tells me that with time, Brownlee will gain greater strength and control of his already magnificent instrument. His approach requires greater physical strength in the short term but greater power and facility in the long term. This premise is in agreement with Pavarotti who in the same clip with Bonyngue, Sutherland and Horne says that the singer is first an athlete.

When we speak of lighter voices such as those of Brownlee and Florez, the difference is minor. However if the voices were larger (greater fold mass), the Kraus-Florez approach would not work very well. That is why spinto tenors and dramatic tenors almost uniformly abide by the Pavarotti model. Indeed most of the tenors we consider legendary uniformly exhibit the acoustic shift at F#4. It is only in rare occasions that they allow themselves to "open" F#4 on the [a] vowel. In the case of Pavarotti, he does this in rare dramatic moments when he resorts to a yell for effect or when singing popular songs, the stylistic traditions of which require such an approach.

It should be pointed out that I am not making a judgment against the package that is Juan Diego Florez. He is a refined, charming musician with a considerable stage presence. I have enjoyed every performance of his that I have seen live. Objectively however, the Brownlee approach is in keeping with the tradition of the great tenors of the past and indeed consistent with what we know about the muscular and acoustic nature of the vocal instrument.

© 09/20/2009

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.

© 09/13/2009

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Mental Strength, a singer's greatest weapon

When people speak about that "it" factor that propels a singer to success they often speak about "it" like a mysterious component that can only be described unspecifically as "it". I dare say that the undefinable does not help any singer to go forward, except to imprison him/her in the thought that this undefinable "it" may be the missing link that is keeping him/her from success. Wether that "it" is defined as faith or mental strength or self-control or self-confidence, those that have it know precisely what it is. It is an absolute belief that what they have to offer is valuable, of a desirably unique quality and positively good.

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
taken away.

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.

© 09/09/2009

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Winning International Voice Competitions

I just came from watching one of my students in an international voice competition and without any self-agrandisement (none really since I was not singing), she should have won this competition hands down. Several of the competitors approached me, knowing that I was her teacher, and expressed regret that she was not a finalist. She was dropped at the semis. A very nice lady, apologetically approached us at the final party and said that my student was the singer that moved her most profoundly and that she found her voice unusually beautiful. So what was the problem?

As her teacher, I was disappointed that she did not get into the finals, because she was by far the best singer there in terms of technique, musicality and soul. Yet I was not surprised that she was dropped in the finals. She did make a small error. After singing a flawless pianissimo crescendo high B in Depuis le jour, coming down to the G below, she lost control of her breath and cracked the G a little. After so many sustained high notes (what seems like a thousand high As in succession and a bunch of perfectly controlled pianissimo and forte Gs) there was no question that this was an accidental error. But this is a French competition and my student is American.
That makes her a foreigner. That is reality number one:

In an international competition, the cards are stacked in favor of the host country
My 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.
Reality number two:

Know the politics of the situation
The 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.

Now none of this makes the competition unwinable. In fact an American soprano that I currently teach won the competition the year before (the opera category, of course and she won it before she started working with me). But one must know how to win these things. Reality three:

International Competitions are won in the semi-final round

Remember my student's experience in the semi-final round of the mélodies catergory? She sang beautifully, but her song was not long enough and so by comparison it seemed as if she sang an easier piece even though it was not an easier piece compared to the others. It was just shorter and more subdued in style. No excuses! One should get informed. I was itching to have her change her piece, but she was already backstage and then she sang and I felt she did well enough to advance (particularly after hearing everyone else). But she did not advance and they post the results right after. This was actually helpful for us, because this gave me time to make a correction in the semi-final round of the opera. I took away her more subdued Dove Sono and replaced it with Depuis le jour. Her stunning performance of that piece should have advanced her if not for the aforementioned cracked G. Lesson: Take no prisoners. Have a competition piece in every round. Other than the most important competitions where the judges really know singing, a beautiful artistic piece that does not have vocal fireworks (either big and loud or high and fast) is not going to get you past the second round.

A competition is about not giving the opponent a way in. To that effect, I had a conversation with the young Russian coloratura I thought had a near flawless technique. She did not win any prize and I thought of those they chose as finalists she was vocally the healthiest and most solid. Perfect intonation, amazing control in the high register, beautiful high Es and a warm middle range. Totally old school. I approached her to say that I was sorry she did not win. She looked at me with the strongest diva attitude and said in a very strong, Russian accent with as much hubris as with charm: "Do you see a funeral here?" I looked perplexed and then she said: "This is my 22nd competition in the last four years. I did not win anything in the last four, but at every new competition I improve something. Sometimes you are what they look for and sometimes not. All in all, I was very happy with my performances. My teacher would be happy." So I said to her that I was certain that she would have a great career and I believe she will. This girl feels that she is born to be a great singer and that feeling of entitlement is crucial in the success of any singer (to that effect, I recommend the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, an indispensible read for anyone who wishes to be successful).

I believe that the Russian coloratura in question will become an international sensation. She is a fearless performer and a very careful technician: an indispensible paradox for a singer. She knows how to win from what I saw of her three opera rounds, but even more important she knows how to take defeat and see the positive in it.

My student came out of this competition (our second together) a much stronger competitor than before. So I agreed that she should do another competition right away. A part of becoming a viable opera singer is to face the fire often. Audition and do competitions often and plan to win. Win or lose, you do end up winning if you can see what you take home with you after the experience. If not the prize, take home the confidence that you wowed a lot of people. I don't think my student will forget the audience member who sought her out and spoke for five minutes about how deeply she was moved by that Depuis le jour! That was for me as an audience member one of those performances that I won't forget. I am teaching a pretty gifted singer. But as this competition shows, singing is only a part of winning a competition. When you think of competition, think of olympic gymnasts and figure skaters. You must have flawless technique, vehicles (routines, songs for us) that feature your greatest strengths and a competitive spirit that says I need to sing this piece now to force the hand of the other competitors. Most of all you need the confidence of a young Russian coloratura who says when she is being pitied: "Do you see a funeral here!" And just like her teacher of her, I am proud of my student. Next competition, she sings to win. It is not an unreasonable expectation. She proved she can win. Now to make it a reality!

© 09/02/2009

PS The Koreans and the Chinese travel in teams to international competitions. I think it is a very wonderful support system when the participants like each other. Since I teach a bunch of sweet people, I recommend that we plan a series of international competitions as a team.