Monday, December 28, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Tipping point: The Paradox of Patience. The Third Principle.

There is much to write about after the drought of the Holidays. I decided to address Patience because the activities and events of the last few days point to it. I teach a group of tenors who had relatively long careers as baritones, ranging from 8 years to 25 (the latter being me). It seems in the last month we have all reached a tipping point. One of the tenors, a young Heldentenor was reported to have warmed up to F5 and according to his wife, an excellent voice teacher herself, he is feeling very confident about his development over the past few weeks. This is particularly exciting because he went through an early battle with reflux, had been diagnose (falsely I think) with peresis and experienced a difficult period with his passaggio. That was already fantastic news. Another one of the tenors came to Berlin for a few days to work with me and he obviously had his best weeks. He warmed up to some excellent high Cs and sang some excellent Bs in context. Before I had left him in New York three weeks ago, Bbs were still a question mark. Yesterday, I met with the youngest of the bunch over Skype just to have a check-up. He expected a tough lesson because things had been a little more difficult lately and low and behold he warmed up to his first C5 and sang Belmonte's first arias quite convincingly. I thanked him for such a nice birthday present (yesterday was my birthday and incidentally the blog's second anniversary. Imagine confetti and champagne)!

Today was my turn. I had been having some difficulties with my high notes and I could not figure out why. I had not changed my approach, but when I first arrived in Berlin, I was recovering from what appeared to be swine-flu, which had a bad effect on my concert (which I talked about here). Well, today was my tipping point! After teaching four students in a row, I decided to practice and found that my very high voice, what some might call a reinforced falsetto, was no longer such. It had become full. My voice did not want to sing the heavier high notes anymore. It is as if the crico-thyroids became suddenly strong enough to dominate the antagonism with the vocalis muscle while still enduring opposition from the same--That sensation of the voice being driven by the top. There was an abandon, a freedom and a sudden ability to express my feelings totally. I sang many sustained C5s and C5# and felt that the D and and Eb were part of my full-voice range (although not as rich as the C and C#. Obviously this is no point of arrival, but it is the kind of even that tenors who have sung as baritones look for and cherish. December 28, 2009 is for me the day I became a real tenor. Every time I promise clips, something new occurs. So I will not promise clips and maybe I will have something to offer soon. To the tenors who sang as baritones, Patience is indeed a virtue!

Paradoxically, my stay in Berlin this time became a tipping point relative to my pedagogy. I talk a lot about a total approach to singing, but much of my time is spent on technique (i.e. physical coordination). Of course, I have spoken about the mental part of singing and indeed the spiritual side of it, but not to the extent that I felt compelled to these last weeks. The importance of teaching singing as a total strategy became most obviously necessary this time when I began to teach two young students, a 22-year old tenor, who had an unsatisfactory experience in the conservatory and decided to seek my tutelage instead of going to a school and a 19 year old soprano who wishes to be prepared for conservatory auditions. Imagine that simultaneously I am teaching professional singers who have full-year contracts in German houses!

To me, it became clear that I had to set a path for those two young students that led their own contracts. This means multiple-lessons each week in which we get to discuss not only the physical fundamentals ad nauseam, but also what it takes to become a professional singer: that performance begins in the studio, that concentration is total mental presence, that a tone is not just a sound but an expression that requires consciousness and not a distracted mind, that an artist has a noble purpose with respect to his/her audience, that success is not happenstance but rather a willful sequence of accomplishments, etc. All this I discussed with my two young students. It became clear to me that some of my professional students needed to hear some of the same things. So their lessons became not only about vocal principles but about owning the moment, of being decisive and purposeful, that they deliver a performance; it does not happen to them. So many get to a level where they have the luxury of singing in a professional theater daily but have no conscious concept of why they got there and what they need to do to deliver their best work on a regular basis. They are not lazy! They need guidance. And I must give it to them in full, even if it is difficult.

To top it all off, I had a two-hour lunch with the great Rossini tenor, Lawrence Brownlee. I was already a fan of his work as I have expressed here on the blog. I will not quote him here because we were just having a friendly lunch, but I will say this: anyone who meets Larry (he is a very down to earth guy who prefers to be called Larry rather than Mr. Brownlee) will understand in a quick minute why he is one of the most sought after singers on the Planet. He is confident! His confidence is born of achievement, which is born of hard work, which is born of purpose, which is born of Faith. Faith that he is following his true path.

The tipping point of the ex-baritone tenors teach us the following: in everything, there comes a point when one must claim the prize. It does not mean that one has completed the journey, for indeed the journey does not have an end except for the end of life itself, but one must be careful not to turn patience into complacency. It is too easy once one learns patience to get caught in a vicious cycle of waiting. Patience is in fact the contrary of waiting. Patience is active. It is about moving purposefully in the direction of accomplishment and success with the goal clearly in sight, such that when the tipping point comes, it will require very little effort to floor that cow! (For non-native English speakers, you may need to look up the term "cow-tipping" to understand that last sentence).

© 12/28/2009

Friday, December 25, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道):The Little Voice Is the Real Voice: The Danger of Volume Before Its Time

Often, a singer will come to me and ask me to teach him to sing piano. The strange thing is that the singer often has the ability to sing a well-coordinated piano but does not realize that s/he has the ability. Our classical singing world is so driven by volume that quality is often sacrificed for it. The terms falsetto or flute voice are very misunderstood and are often so named because the singer does not yet have the ability to sing such notes with enough breath energy (sub-glottal pressure) to match the quality of the the lower voice that they summarily accept as their "real" voice. In many such cases the real voice is in fact a "pushed" voice. In other words, a voice sung with too much breath pressure, forcing the vocal folds slightly apart. In such cases the voice sounds loudly up close but because of the lack of efficient fold closure, the resulting harmonics lack in power and the voice is not heard well at a distance or with orchestral accompaniment.

Very often we hear lighter voices sounding much more present than their fuller voiced counterparts, yet the fuller voices are called more dramatic, more powerful than the lighter voices. The darker sound we associate with dramatic voices is indeed a natural characteristic of such voices. However, it is important to distinguish between a sound that is rich and has dark qualities even at its most efficient and brilliant and a false darkness that come with "loose" phonation (inefficient fold closure).

It is important to remind that the world record holder for the highest note sung is a male and he sings C#8, a half step beyond the high side of the standard 88-key piano. This would suggest that a woman could theoretically coordinate pitches in the vicinity of C#9 since male and female voices average around an octave apart.

The question therefore is at what point does the vocalis muscle really become inactive such that the sound is no longer "modal" (dependent upon balanced coordination between both vocalis and CT)? Experience shows me that the true "flute"/"full-closure-falsetto" range is considerably higher than we think.

Tenors like Giacomo Lauri-Volpi are recorded singing F5 and high coloraturas like Beverly Hoch sing A6 in performance (I have heard it live. In the following clip she sings G6). Those are modal notes, not one-sided coordinations. Lauri-Volpi was able to sing those notes probably because they were strong early in his development and he continued to develop them over time. Development is the issue. Most of us have strong lower voices because those notes are strengthened by speech. A singer who was not discouraged from making loud high sounds as a child may develop very strong high notes before ever beginning vocal lessons. Kids freely at play can develop a strong upper voice just by playing. Only this would explain a full lyric tenor with a flawless D5 and a leggiero who has problems with a C5.

The greater error is however the misnomer "falsetto" applied to soft high notes that cannot handle a great deal of breath pressure. I had an F6 even 20 years ago that was referred to as "reinforced falsetto". As I train as a tenor, I am finding that those notes have come back and they are becoming stronger. This I have also noticed with coloraturas I teach. Over time, what used to sound like a flute voice becomes gradually fuller (what some might call "real"). In short, what is often called "not real" or "falsetto" is rather an undeveloped sound. The coordination required for each individual note necessitates a specific recruitment of muscle fibers. See a simple discussion of muscular motor units here!

The ability to coordinate the two main pitch muscles (Vocalis and CT) on an individual note does not mean that the muscles are able to exhibit the same strength on even an adjacent note, one half-step apart. An individual note depends not only on increasing muscular activity of the more dominant muscle (CT for high notes, Vocalis for low notes) but also decreasing muscular activity in the more passive muscle (Vocalis for high note, CT for low notes). The strength of motor units in each of the muscles factors in. The strength of the required muscular motor units must be high enough to resist the breath pressure applied to the system (i.e. volume). The question therefore is whether the system, correctly coordinated relative to necessary motor units in each muscle, is strong enough to handle the applied pressure without the system buckling and recruiting additional motor units that are not appropriate for the note in question.

For example, if a tenor is trying to sing B5 and has a vocalis recruitment that is appropriate to Bb5, the pitch will either lower or the folds will loosen (i.e. relaxing the Inter-Arytenoids that close the posterior end of the folds. I.e. Speeding up vibration cycles to maintain pitch). The result would be correct pitch but with a kind of inefficiency that prevents the note from sounding brilliant and present.

What often sounds like a light sound is often a correct muscular set-up that has not yet gained enough strength to handle the necessary breath pressure that would result in a note that sounds "real" (i.e. matching the quality of other notes that are strong in the range).

In short, forcing a note to sound louder before its time will change the natural set-up of that note. To develop notes that sound weak, a singer needs 1) to accept the notes as weak and challenge them carefully by applying a little more volume until they develop in strength. This might take time but it guarantees the correct coordination of the laryngeal musculature.

Increased sub-glottal pressure can also have another effect. It could induce hyper-activity in the Inter-Arytenoids causing pressed voice. In such a case, folds thin out and are pressed to maintain pitch (i.e. slow down the vibration cycles). This is often the case with Counter-Tenors who often apply more sub-glottal pressure on very thin folds than the muscular set-up can handle. Over time, the hyper-function of the IAs cause a reduction of sound pressure (volume) lowering the quality of the sound. Counter-Tenors often start to sing big repertoire (for them) too early. The extreme light mechanism of a traditional male voice requires a long time to develop enough strength to sing Handel Castrato roles in large Opera Theaters with large orchestras. The tendency is to press the lower octave of the Counter-Tenor's range in order to match the thin but relatively intense sound of the upper octave. It is not unusual that the quality of Counter-Tenor voices that specialize in Opera, with large orchestras in large theaters, lowers significantly over about 10 years.

Several issues need to be reviewed.

1. What we call falsetto and flute voice is usually a weak but properly coordinated upper range that needs to be encourages and challenged carefully in order for it to develop into a full sound.

2. The lower and middle voice, often called "real voice" is often inefficient production with fold postures that are too deep resulting in looser adduction.

3. Volume must be applied judiciously in order to maintain a muscular motor unit recruitment mode that is appropriate to the note being sung. Too much volume applied too soon (i.e. singing roles that require great volume before the singer has properly developed) can ruin the quality of the sound and hinder the progress of the singer.

© 12/25/2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Why "Covering" Works Better For baritones and Basses

Before I get into today's post, a sincere word of thanks for all of you readers who wrote to me privately concerned about my last concert and how I felt about it. I love writing this blog and I am so happy to connect with such wonderful people all over this planet. I shared the story not hoping to elicit pity but rather to show that at any level, we singers are a very feeling bunch and we are vulnerable because what we do matters so much. I wrote the blog more as a reminder to myself, because I have a tendency (maybe the teacher in me) to nurture others at my own expense. It may seem noble, but it is not. Balance is important in everything. The short of it is that after I rested properly for two days my high C came back and more importantly the clarity of my middle voice returned immediately.

Now to the main issue. I have cited here often that acoustic law makes it such that when all elements are balanced, the [a] vowel will shift from first formant resonance to second formant resonance at F#4 regardless of voice type. This has proven to be true with all voices I teach, rather a coloratura soprano in her lower passaggio or a Rossini tenor in his (only) passaggio. This also means that a baritone is able to sing and "open" (first formant dominant) [a] vowel on F4 without experiencing what we call acoustically a "register violation". I layman's terms, after F4, unless the second formant dominates, the larynx goes up from a pressed phonation.

In essence there is no difference acoustically for a bass, baritone or tenor (or any voice really. But this issue is of more immediate concern to men relative to their top voices). The difference has to do with fold size and the amount of intensity on a given note depending on voice type. On F4, a tenor sound very normal singing the high note open. Accessing the second formant requires a slight rounding of the lips (this is not necessary on the [a] vowel above F4). Tenors will often round the lips (cover if you will) to induce a softer color. Sing a second formant F4 on the [a] yields a more tender sound for the tenor. But for the baritone or bass, the F4 can sound quite powerful, even violent regardless of the resonance choice. If fact the second formant resonance sound more appropriate for the baritone or bass on F4 because it helps keep a matching color relative to the lower voice. Furthermore, no intensity is lost because the baritone or bass is already in a muscular balance that yields great intensity, whereas for the tenor, this is a middle voice note. The lower the note (e.g. E4 or Eb4) the more lip rounding is necessary to access second formant resonance. For the baritone even Eb4 may be "covered" without great loss of intensity. For a tenor, covering Eb4 constitutes a major color change and is reserved for tender colors. For a bass, many Ebs are sung covered, also without a loss of intensity. A bass might cover a B3 (just below middle C) for a tender effect. That is one of the reasons why the "zona di passaggio" (the region of passage) is often said to be between B3 and F4.

It is also significant that "covering" (lip rounding that makes the sound seem like it is being retained inside the vocal tract) is a phenomenon of the [a] vowel and its gradual modification in the direction of [o] and [u] depending how low the covering is done. Vowel modification for the purpose of formant change is different in the [i] to [E] spectrum. Although lip rounding may be effectively help in accomplishing more exact formant tuning in the tongue vowel spectrum (i.e. [i] to [E]), it also has a negative effect on the other formant (the non-dominant or passive formant). Changing formant for the tongue vowel spectrum is much more effective when the tongue alone does the modification.

© 12/14/2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): The "Overriding" Fourth Principle: Hard Work Is A Given

The fourth principle that I recommend may seem over-simplified at first glance. Yes singing is hard work and so is everything that is worthwhile. But what does that mean specifically? It means something specific to each singer. The art of singing requires so many different skills and no one comes into the discipline of singing with strengths in all areas. For one person, the problem may be technical; for another it may be the courage to go on when it is difficult; for another, the patience to learn a new skill, like music learning or memorization; for another, the complete belief that s/he is meant to be a singer.

For me it is the all-encompassing self-love. The kind of love of self that makes one take care of the obvious daily needs that are absolutely essential to singing: proper nourishment, sleep, hydration, exercise, relaxation and meditation. Meditation comes easily to me. Whether total engrossment in a book or simply daydreaming in the U-Bahn, I can empty my mind and forget the world for a few minutes or an hour. Formal meditation is harder, but only because I think of it as time I could be doing something else (I'm correcting this mindset).

My Achilles' heel consists of the daily necessities, food intake, hydration and above all, sleep. I have gotten much better with water intake and since my bout with reflux, I eat better, but just not regularly. Not sleeping is the thing that affects my voice the most. It seems I require 8 hours for my voice to regenerate from the previous day. Science show that REM sleep is necessary for regeneration of cells. Knowledge is only a first step. Practicing something is another level altogether and even I, who make a life out of making sense of this singing thing we do, have my weaknesses that require Hard Work. Unfortunately, like most of us, I have to suffer some very undesirable experience for it to sink in.

Well I had my mini-debut in the Tenor Fach with the little opera organization that I work with in Berlin. We had a Christmas Concert in which I sang "O Paradis" from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine (an aria I can always get through no matter what) and "O soave fanciulla", the short Act 1 duet from La Bohème. Before my perfectionism gets the better of me, I must say, it could have been worse. To be fair, I sang as a tenor and I did not make a fool out of myself. But then I listened to my impromptu recording of "Recondita armonia" (a cappella) after a teaching day in New York and it makes me angry that I did not give myself the best chance to present my craft. On my Ipod I retain a recording of that "Recondita armonia" and one of my sustained High Cs to remind myself that I really am a tenor. Because on days like that concert, all of my scientific information and my total conviction cannot overcome the emotional disappointment that one feels after an unsatisfactory performance.

To make matters worse (I thought), my newest student was present at the concert. He stayed after to congratulate me. Before he said anything, I apologized and explained I was not fully healed from my cold and I had not slept much. He said he was genuinely impressed and he just wanted to tell me that he was happy to have come and he looked forward to his next lesson. I was doubly humbled. Not only did I need to take care of myself better in preparation for a concert, but beating on myself afterwards was another face of the same problem. This I learned from the 22-year-old junior-student in my studio.

The paradox of this is that the teacher who is supposed to know so much is occasionally the one who is supposed to learn and often from the students. I have no great wisdom to offer today. I have been the recipient of greater wisdom from my newest pupil. I am reminded of the Kung Fu master in the movie Kung Fu Panda (highly recommended) who after the tirade of the hopeless Panda who wanted to know how the teacher was going to turn him into the greatest Kung Fu master . Unlike the all-knowing Yoda character that he was patterned after, the teacher responded simply: "I don't know."

There are days when I too simply do not know! On those days, I can only look at the students I have taught and realize that the principles do embody a wisdom far greater than the sum of my knowledge, and that I simply need to continue to follow them. Especially after an unsatisfying performance when it is easy to lose faith.

I thank all my students for their faith, courage, patience and hard work. Their successes remind me of the value of these principles and inspire me to continue on my path on difficult days like these. At the end of the day, I feel I need to be the representative example of what I teach. Yet today, they carry the torch far better than I could. The humility I feel today is all-encompassing. And it is not negative but rather something to celebrate.

© 12/11/2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

Kashudo (歌手道): Patience, The Third Principle

Because I split my time between my studios in New York and in Europe (Berlin-based) I always meditate upon the previous month while I fly some eight hours over the Atlantic. The last week (particularly in New York) is always full of emotion for me as I try to tie loose ends in the hope that my students have a concrete idea of how they need to work their voices in my absence for the next month. The month usually ends up being crystalized by a word or a concept or a specific technical detail. The word this month is Patience, the third principle of Kashudo.

The opera singer's experience is froth with all kinds of uncertainty. There are great divides between school training and professional readiness, between work and reward, between reasonable expectations and harsh reality. It is not unusual that even the singer with strongest spiritual fiber ends up with periods of despair. Today, more than any other period in operatic history, the outside view of the operatic discipline is hugely opaque. The singers especially have little idea of how the motors of the power structure work. They respond to the obvious:

You are not hired because you are not tall enough
You are not hired because you can't sing piano
You are not hired because you are not Caucasian
You are not hired because you are not gay
You are not hired because you are gay
You are not hired because you are not skinny enough
You are not hired because you are not loud enough
You are not hired because you don't have reliable high notes
You are not hired because you don't have big low notes
You are not hired because your diction is not crisp enough

The singer's response in those moments is usually:

How fast can I get high notes?
How quickly can I sing louder?
What trick can I use to appear taller?
What dress can I wear to appear skinnier?
What hair product can I find to make me "pass" for Caucasian?
What muscle can I use to get low notes quickly?
What's the best language CD to get native-like diction right away?

So it is no wonder that the internet is filled with ludicrous advertisements like:

"Gain an octave in two voice lessons: full-proof technique"
"Lose twenty pounds in two weeks!"
"Become fluent in 10 languages by listening to this CD in your car on the way to work!"

And Chris Rock lampoons the two billion dollar industry that supports hair products for black people wishing to have "good hair."

What I noticed this month gives me greater hope than ever about the future of this field and encourages me to remain always truthful with students about where they are and why they may not yet see their own success.

I remember always wishing that my students would embrace patience. That they would wake up one morning and say: Enough with the short cuts! Let us face reality and really fix what needs to be fixed and then present myself as good as I truly am!

Well, they say: Be careful what you wish for! I for one am glad that I wished for patience for my students. I woke up one morning and saw my most driven student, aware of the fact that she is getting up in age, singing some amazingly difficult arias easily and she said: I got tired of forcing it and chasing it! I know it will come to me when I am truly ready.

I looked at that brilliant woman (that was a few months ago), with all her magnificent talent and a baby in her belly and I realized she had learn the most important lesson I hoped I could teach her (maybe it was her baby that spoke with her. He is now a feisty, fun, little tike. This was not a defeatist reaction, but rather one of incredible empowerment. She and her wonderful husband, who also study with me have made concrete plans for their career development.

It was as if she was the catalyst that began a movement in the studio. I noticed one singer after another saying to me: It will take the time it takes! The important thing is I am a singer and I realize that more than any job, it is a need to know that I can do this at the highest level.

What do you think gets you the job?

The greatest teaching is being an example. In that regard at least, patience, I know I have been a good teacher. Nevertheless it was surprising and humbling to hear my own secret mantras to myself come out of my students mouthes. And guess what? The improvements are palpable. The concentration in their eyes (Pavarotti's shark eyes) is born of determination and a sudden realization that their mindset plays as much a role in their growth as the many hours of practice that they put in. They seem empowered by their own sudden awareness that they have the power to transform into who they truly are.

The true self is the only worthwhile self. It is what is singular and it is what interests the listener, whether the fan who pays for a ticket or the casting director who hires. One has to have ceased the rat race to get to that peaceful place where the highest quality of self can be reached. The very quality that may guarantee being hired. For many of us, myself very much included, we don't believe people when they say we should be patient. Because we are so passionate and driven, we believe that the power of our will is enough to get us there. The power of will is important. Will is the future tense, the determinant of our destiny. We must however be in a state to craft our future properly in order to yield the results we intend. When we are in a hurry, we do shoddy work.

Worthwhile work yields a foreseeable future. When I hear one of my ex-baritone tenors sing a high B with such ease that it shocks him into a peaceful smile of satisfaction, I realize I was there some months ago and I know he sees himself as within striking distance of his coveted high C. I also hear suddenly that he does not sound like a baritone anymore. He has truly transformed.

The truly patient student rejoices in little victories because s/he suddenly has the vision to see that little victory as one necessary step in the right direction. The impatient student is only aware of how far from arrival s/he is and completely misses out on the pleasure of the little victories.

I thank my New York students for a terrific month of Novermber/early December and I congratulate them on all their victories, both little and big.

© 12/04/2009