Monday, November 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 11/23/2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 11/18/2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 11/16/2009

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Systemic Impatience: The Potential Undoing of the American Operatic Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 11/11/2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond

Sunday, November 8, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 11/07/2009

Thursday, November 5, 2009

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

Dear Friends,

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

So I am able to keep both aspect.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 11/04/2009