Friday, October 30, 2009

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

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

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

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

Ich danke den vielen Lesern aus Deutschland!

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

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

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


Thursday, October 29, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erfolg ist kein Zufall (Success Is No Accident)!

© 10/29/2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): To be a Diva or a Shrinking Violet: A balanced sense of self

In this month's (October 2009) issue of Opera News, Brian Kellow wonders why the current generation does not like the term "Diva". He points to Frederica von Stade (one of my favorite Divas)as the anti-Diva. He berates the young lyric soprano who says: "I'm not a diva. That just isn't how I see myself," responding in parentheses in his own article: (We can discern as much from her bland reticence on stage)!

This kind of either extreme or the other approach is the very thing that makes opera a stereotype rather than the substantial art form it is! Michael Jordan flying on the basketball court requires a sense of self that is the essence of apotheosis (borrowing a thought from Dan Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbol), or man's transformation into god, or the female version, Diva.

Indeed when a human being hones a skill to the unfathomable level of a Michael Jordan, or a Leontyne Price, it is in essence a moment of apotheosis. In those moments we transcend our mortal coil to reach our highest spiritual heights, and with that inner force we bring a crowd of people to a state that they might not be able to reach on their own. A great athlete, a great actor, an inspiring teacher, and yes a great opera singer have magical powers that can transform a moment in time into an experience of mythical proportions that generations will speak of.

In one sense, Mr. Kellow is correct. An opera singer needs to know how to get to that altered state of consciousness that is necessary for the performance of magic. But there is a difference between Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, indeed between my former teacher George Shirley and Kathleen Battle or Jessye Norman, or Maria Callas or Angela Ghirghiu or even Renee Fleming.

I am taking a big risk criticizing some of the most beloved artists on the operatic stage, but assuredly not out of irreverence. Quite the opposite.

First, what is the image we have of Sinatra? This is a man who with a golden voice, fine tuned to near perfection, a sense of the weight of words so refined and a human compassion so centered that he is able to transport large crowds of people to a higher plane.

What is the image of Michael Jackson? A singer/dancer/performer with an energy so immense, a sense of timing so exact and a voice of such clarity and simplicity and a human touch so delicate that he is able to transport large crowds of people to a higher plane.

The difference between these two icon that I grew up almost worshiping is that with Sinatra, the show ends on stage. His great charisma is not different when he is offstage. But the show does not follow him. He was a normal human being at an interview. Michael Jackson's life offstage was as much a circus as it was on. The glove, the skin issues, his transfiguration through surgeries, the hats, the family issues, etc. Did we ever know who the man was? Not many people can say yes to that question. Those who knew Sinatra can talk unequivocally about who the man was offstage.

The problem with operatic Divas and Divos (if that is even a word) is that too often it becomes about the costumes offstage and not about the substance of the artist on stage.
I will never forget Leontyne Price's performance of "O patria mia" on the occasion of her Met farewell. It is one of those moments of apotheosis.

Yet, even the young singers of my generation often asked why she puts on that crazy accent. In Ms. Price's defense, she was the first Black woman to reach the level of a superstar opera singer, at a time when diction and a certain specific type of elocution were considered part of the package. She had to walk a very fine line and was charting territory that no one of her race had explored, in a country that was experiencing at the same time its most significant race crisis. Indeed Ms. Price's regal stance and even taking on that accent (which I have a hard time imagining had anything to do with her upbringing in Laurel, Mississippi or even with her ground-breaking years at the Juilliard School) may have helped her make the way for many singers of African heritage to be themselves. Would it have been wrong for her to speak the way she sang Barber's "Sure On This Shining Night" or a spiritual? That is a question I will always wonder about.

Leontyne Price is such an icon with as much influence as Callas has. Perhaps their model richly based on substance (both woman with singular vocal gifts and profound musicianship) may have spoiled the word Diva for many who followed them, because rather than following the musical/dramatic standards established by these legends, the next generations of Divas took on the mannerisms.

Even among a divine artist, such as Jessye Norman (who I fell in love with upon meeting her after a concert), it became as much about substantial headgear as it was about substantial music making. Was she following the example of Ms. Price's signature turban? Is it still an issue for black women to apologize for not having Caucasian hair when it comes to the race issue in Opera? Did Ms. Norman have to take up an accent of her own, or is it how people speak in Augusta, Georgia?

Beyond the circus outfits that operatic divas have felt necessary to parade in offstage, there is the other pejorative that is associated with Divas, namely being demanding to the point of disrespect. The many quotes from Maria Callas that have become part of operatic lore paint a picture of a woman who might have had a God complex, or a Diva complex to use the Italian feminine noun. One must argue that the great Callas was rightfully demanding, because she knew the music she was singing better than most of the directors and conductors that she worked with. An artist of that caliber deserves to have artists of her stature around her or at least close enough not to diminish her performance. But did she take it too far? Indubitably!
Rudolf Bing would not have to fire her if she was not being at least somewhat unreasonable. Whether it was an error on his part is up for debate between Callas' fans and more objective sources. At any rate, not many would say that Callas was always fairly demanding and that her unreasonable demands were always inspired by artistic requirements.

So when a full generation later, another Met Genaral Manager, Joseph Volpe fires Kathleen Battle, was he within his rights? Most reasonable people would say yes, particularly those who had experienced Ms. Battle at her less than respectful behavior. It would be blindness for one not to notice that Battle took some of her cues from Callas, down to the Audrey Hepburn/Jackie O' hairdos and ear-studs or teardrop pendants.

Among our modern Divas, the tendency is more tilted on the side of looks and offstage behavior, which end up marring performances as well. Angela Ghiorghiu saying that Callas did not understand the role of Tosca (paraphrasing) is simply disrespectful. Is it necessary for one Diva to slam Callas in order to give worth to her own views about a role? If internet forums make up a reliable pulse of the operatic audience, those commentaries fell quite flat. Renee Fleming has become the fashion plate of opera. As one who has known Fleming's pre-Diva performances, I must say I prefer the honesty of those incarnations to what I have seen of late. It gets to a point that the superficial aspects that are dictated by the advertisement machines begin to dictate how an otherwise uniquely gifted singer behaves in her performances. I say give me her 1991 Countesses at the little Spoleto theater of Caio Melisso and I will forgo the histrionics of her Thais. This is no slight of Ms. Fleming's remarkable vocal prowess, but an acknowledgement of what many have seen as modern opera stereotype rather than honest performances.

Being a singer myself and teaching singers, I cannot imagine that the singers themselves begin with such ridiculous conceptions about how an operatic Diva should be. I believe there are many idiots who have influence on the field who makes it imperative that talented people, who have the inner strength to incarnate bigger than life operatic characters, should make a mockery of their true selves by becoming one of their operatic roles in real life.

In response to the slight of Frederica von Stade as the anti-diva who has inspired a generation of insipid performers who show "...bland reticence onstage,"I say to Mr. Kellow that opera needs more singers like Von Stade (whom I playfully proposed marriage to when she visited the University of Michigan during my years there. She is that approachable) and Mirelli Freni (who entered a restaurant where I was lunching after losing a competition she judged, came to my table to console me and ate with me, and told me I was a great artist. Inspires me even today), or Kiri te Kanawa (who invited me and my students at the University of Florida to sit a couple of feet from her while she and Warren Jones rehearsed on the day of her recital there). I am speaking of one of the greatest Cherubinos of all time (who looks nothing like a boy by the way), one of the greatest Mimi's on recording history and one of the quintessential Countesses to be found anywhere. None of these women are shrinking violets. They wield incredible influence, have the power within them to experience apotheosis on a regular basis, but remain earthbound when it comes to every day life.

I will end with one more wonderful personal story. I was blessed to study voice with George Shirley for six years and consider him my most influential teacher. The actor Robert Guillaume, famous for the TV program, Benson, in the early 1980s was interviewed in the late 90s while performing the role of the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. He was asked about his substantial singing voice, to which he replied by telling the story of his participation in the Metropolitan Opera Competitions in his day. Mr. Guillaume relayed that it had been his dream to be the first black tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, but upon hearing the competitor before him, he realized that he would not have that honor. The competitor before him was George Shirley. Mr. Guillaume heard it right. Anyone who knows George Shirley will tell you that he possesses a quiet strength. He is one of the most balanced human beings I have ever met, and I still aspire to have his quiet strength. When that quiet man gets on stage, he becomes a God instantly. He transforms into something altogether grand. He was in his mid sixties when he came to Florida to sing a modern opera. I was teaching in Florida at the time and went to see him. When he walked out onstage, he gave the impression of being in his twenties and he occupied the stage in a way that stole nothing from his colleagues onstage but drew the audience's energy straight to himself.

In life, Mr. Shirley remains this mild-mannered, gentleman, that inspires so much warmth and honesty. I took a picture with him backstage at the Aspen Festival one summer when I was still studying with him. We had both performed and were both wearing the classic Aspen white jacket. Unknowingly, or perhaps consciously I had chiseled by beard to mirror his. We are about the same height and I looked like a younger version of him (I wish I had the picture with me). As I reincarnated as a tenor in the last 18 months, nothing gave me greater pleasure than the fact that I am a tenor like him, and in some way I could follow in his footsteps. If I have the opportunity to become a Divo one day, it will be in the model of Frederica von Stade, Mirelli Freni, Kiri Te Kanawa and my beloved teacher, George Shirley.

© 10/20/2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): The Pitfalls of the "Open Throat," "Lowered Larynx" and Such...

I consider myself somewhat of an expert when it comes to the pitfalls of the "Open Throat," "Lowered Larynx" theories. A student/colleague of mine recently said categorically that the open throat is rooted in dysfunction (I am paraphrasing). He is certainly not wrong. The excesses of "Open Throat" and sensations of space, etc, are legendary. But as always I would not reduce the ideas of the open throat completely to ridicule.

There are two issues that come to my mind relative to the "Open Throat" issue. And they are both relative.

1. The relationship between a high laryngeal position and, balanced laryngeal position, and a low laryngeal position as a direct consequence of variations in fold posture.

2. A use of laryngeal positioning for "coloring" the voice (i.e. seeking different timbres, i.e. varying resonance adjustments while maintaining a relatively stable fold posture. Relative to our purposes, this would be darkening the voice artificially or "depressing the larynx" with the back of the tongue.

We have already established in previous post a relationship between pressed phonation, shallow fold depth and a high larynx. The converse is also true that loose phonation (given a specific pitch) will be directly proportional to thicker deeper fold posturing and a lower larynx.

In the end, what is required is a "middle" position. Let us consider situation 1: low larynx as a consequence of loose phonation/deep fold posturing. I suppose that if excessive sub-glottal pressure causes the larynx to rise, low pressure when the tone is breathy would reduce pressure below the glottis and cause a laryngeal depression. This has been my experience as a baritone. The resultant sound is warm, hollow and lacking in presence. If we remember my old recording of "Di Provenza", that I posted some time ago:

Verdi Di Provenza.mp3

One can find the sound attractive, warm, but recordings can be deceiving. If we compare my "loose", heavier sound, to the well focused voice of Ettore Bastianini, then we have a good barometer, for Bastianini had a naturally darker voice, while mine was a hollow darkness that sacrificed efficiency for color:

Now consider the second situation! A balanced voice that is artificially colored. This is the case of the depressed larynx. Let us consider three performances on a continuum! Giuseppe Giacomini and then Corelli in two modes. One more covered and one more open. All three versions are muscularly balanced, at the glottal level to my ears, which is why the register rotations occur in the same place. However we can hear a slight darkening in Corelli's first clip and a considerable darkening in Giacomini's

It is almost silly to compare when dealing with singers at this level. However, it is small differences like those that show up down the line and shorten careers. We can hear a definite comfort difference between the two Corelli clips and a very discernible discomfort in Giacomini's performance. The lowered back of the tongue alters the natural resonance of the vocal tract causing Giacomini considerable insecurity in parts of the aria and Corelli a milder discomfort in his first clip. The ease of production in Corelli's studio recording is vastly different from the live performance.

If we were to compare Corelli's second recording, which is resonance-wise pretty pure, with say Di Stefano who we know sang a thinner production with a high larynx, we can then understand the idea of "gola aperta" or open throat.

It is a relative thing. It is possible to take the open throat too far as I did in my recording of "Di Provenza" but it might still be called "aperta". However it loses closure and therefore lacks presence. In the case of the depressed larynx as in the Giacomini clip and to a much smaller extent the first Corelli clip, we would have to assign the term "voce ingolata" or "swallowed voice." In the case of Di Stefano, his approach is called "voce spalancata" or "wide open"!

© 10/17/2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Principles of The Way of the Singer

As I have gone through the 18 months that have given me my tenor voice, I have acquired clarity about principles that I learned, perhaps long before I knew what effect they would have in my life as a whole. Recently I was thinking about what principles I found indispensible to the road that a singer must travel (indeed the road that anyone travels on the way to success). I came up quite spontaneously with the following, which I have left on my Facebook Page for the last couple of months:

Faith, Courage and Patience. Hard work is a given.

Faith: I see a great difference between Faith and Religion. I find the former indispensible and while I have respect for the latter, it has no purpose in my life. Why Faith and what is it? Faith is simply the belief that the Universe is not a random occurence, that there is a design to it and hence, a designer, and by extension a purpose to the existence of each of us.

I am awed by the fact that a hummingbird's wings may flap at 90 strokes per second. But as a singer, I find greater wonder in the fact that the world record for the highest pitch sung by a human being is C#8, which means that Mr. Adam Lopez was able to vibrate his vocal folds at approximately 4480 times per second.

I am fascinated by the fact that a baby's cry has some of the same acoustic properties that are important to an opera singer, particulary the strength of all the harmonics and most importantly that of the singer's formant.

Baby's cry spectrogram on Bb circa 487 Hz

Babys cry.bmp

Pavarotti's Bb from Celeste Aida "Ergerti un trono..." spectrogram of Bb circa 487 Hz

Pavarotti Bb Celeste Aida.bmp

It is remarkable how similar the three harmonics within the vertical orange lines (2000-3000 Hz) appear for the baby and Pavarotti. The fact that the vowel formants are different has to do with the inexact vowel of the baby's cry and the specific one intended by Pavarotti for his Bb (something near a schwa). But the crucial Singer's Formant region is uncannily similar.

What is more fascinating to me is that opera singing at its best is driven by this singer's formant region. This region happens to be the sweet spot (the most sensitive frequency band) for the human ear. Is it by accident that a baby's cry happens to match the sensitive acoustic region of its parents' hearing? Or is it so designed such that parents can hear when the child is hungry, in danger or otherwise uncomfortable. This is necessary for the propagation and survival of the species.

It is therefore extremely interesting to note that a singer is heard easily with an orchestra because of this factor. A singer who has strong harmonics around this area will strike the human ear with great intensity and will give the impression that the orchestra is softer or further away, because while orchestral instruments can play in that region, their resonance mechanisms yield a considerably weaker sounds above the 500 Hz level.

I am fascinated by the fact that my art is rooted in at least one of the fundamental primal functions that guarantee the continuation of our species.

If there is design and a designer, then my own existence and my life's work (driven by an inner desire the origin of which is otherwise unknown to me), must be a part of that design. I therefore believe that my life's work is a necessary part of a greater design. Whether this is in reality the nature of the Universe and its creator (which could be the same thing) is immaterial. The important thing is that I have an unshakable faith that my work is important, which encourages my efforts. Such belief, or faith, is indispensible when the singer goes through periods of difficulty. Without that belief, I could not have made my switch to tenor in 18 months. Obviously I do not know the nature of the Designer of the Universe and I am not prone to create fary-tales to that effect, but there is such consistency in the way things in the Universe behave.

This is not about the specifics of a belief system. I am not interested in having followers of my thinking, but rather about any conviction that gives the singer a sense of worth and purpose. In short, we must know why we sing!

Courage: Courage to me is taking my car in the middle of the night and driving 18 hours to see my best friend who called and said simply: I need to see you now! On the way, in the middle of the night, both of my headlights went out! It was 1985 in the middle of south central Ohio, when one could drive 70 miles in little back roads, without seeing sign of human life. I could have stopped. But all I knew was that my friend was on the other side of that drive and my presence was indispensible. I also knew that he would have done the same for me. There are friends, and there are the rare few that you would give your life for without much thought.

Likewise, there are jobs and there is the work of one's life. Courage is going after your life's work when the cards seem stacked against you and no one believes that you can achieve what you set out to achieve. Finding my tenor voice is probably the most important decision I have had to make in my career. Somehow I knew that the key to my destiny was beyond the dark journey (without headlights to see ahead). My true voice was over there, and a singer cannot be an artist without his true voice. If I were to die today, I would die with the feeling that I had accomplished the most important part of my journey. I became the alchemist and I changed my reality. I transformed from the limitations of my faux-baritone voice to the possibilities of my vrai-tenor voice. The journey now can begin anew and in earnest.

I will not be falsely modest here. I am sincerely proud of what I have done in the last 18 months. Yes, I have tweaking to do and I have a few notes beyond my new high C to build up, but I can pick up the tenor anthologies and sing my new arias with greater confidence and better quality than I ever did as a baritone. This is empowering and it required faith in my destiny and the courage to go at it alone because most did not believe. (I promised clips and they will come, as soon as I get over jet-lag and I can find a wonderful pianist to help me record a few arias!)

Patience: It also took patience. Patience is not just waiting. It is a strategy for waiting without despair. It is the ability to see victory in a fuzzy note, or in a note that cracks, or in what most people would consider an undesirable sound. But just like a baby wobbles when it first tries to stand up, or falls down when it attempts to walk, so is the muscular development of an operatic voice. The baby hides neither its wobbles nor its falls, but often laughs in utter triumph at accomplishing a half-step before falling. When we rejoice in enough little victories, we suddenly find ourselves winning the war. Patience is not a virtue that is valued very much in our times. It needs to be. It is the hallmark of all great achievers and their accomplishments.

Hard work is a given: When you have the unshakable belief that your treasure is at the end of the rainbow then you must walk to it. When you are willing to walk in the dark to find the light beyond it, then there is no need to fear the dark, for indeed neither exists without the other. And when you are able to see opportunity where others see barriers, victory where others see defeat, then you are able to brave roaring rapids, and dragon-fire even, to reach the goal. Hard work is the easy part. Having something to work for is what is hard to find.

So today I began my 30 day challenge for Bikram Yoga. Why now? Because I know the kind of strength and flexibility and stamina I will have through it. All these I need for the last few half steps in my upper range and the perfect balance of my voice throughout. This I do for myself because I am a singer and the work of my life must be completed. By extension, I do this for my two beautiful children (and by further extension to my students). I may give them all the advice in the world, but I know that nothing inspires more than to be the alchemist that transforms not base metals to gold, but a base life into a golden one (Something Paulo Coelho would say)! It is never too late to be the best of oneself.

And to end with another Coelhoesque axiom: One must take the journey of the Santiago trail to find his sword if he is to do the battle of life. My sword is my voice and the trail is within. I have found it and now I am sharpening it. The glorious battle, whatever it may be is at hand.

© 10/13/2009