Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Developing into the teacher I want to be and the one my students deserve

These past few weeks have been demanding on my psyche in many challenging but extremely positive ways. I dealt with an upper respiratory infection for a month and a half that might have been strep-throat or could have been bronchitis at the end or both. Who knows? The diagnosis was inconclusive. So it is with a freelance artist who hopes that the new American Comprehensive Healthcare Package will have the effects our visionary but cautious president foresees. But that is another matter entirely. I find without fail that illness is often a cocoon phase for necessary transformations. I have experienced such a transformation on many levels:

A) Physical--After the the illness, I find that I can sing with my full voice. The baritone depth has returned to my voice but without the excessive weight. My fold closure is much more consistent throughout (although I feel a little fight around Bb3-C#3). My top notes are much easier. I have now a ringing B5 and the C and C# are much more consistent in warm-ups.

B) Psychological--I have become adamant about not wasting time with negative energy. I avoid situations that suck out my energy. I do not indulge a student's negative attitude. What we do is too difficult to deal with a victim mentality. That is to say, we all have fears and deficiencies to overcome. But do we concentrate on solution or do we concentrate on helplessness? The answer should be obvious.

C) Philosophical--I have been wishing to return to Kung Fu for 15 years, but it seems I was not ready for the teacher I wanted until now.

The aims of this specific post are several. Despite my desire to write more technical posts, the philosophical has ruled my mind in recent weeks. I will attempt to organize my thoughts about these aims:

1) It has become evident to me that my students benefit a great deal from me demonstrating for them. This was not so necessary in the beginning. But in many cases we have arrived at a point whereby the issues are very subtle. It is no longer about gross motor skills but rather about fine motor skills. One particular student had a hard time singing a high C. When I demonstrated, he nailed it. He said to me that hearing me do it awakened in him a kinesthetic sense that made him feel it was possible.

So there is a huge advantage for a teacher who can demonstrate. Indeed "Those who can do, may be able to teach better" providing they can actually teach. (This deserves a post of its own). This is of course why students are attracted to singers who have had big careers. They assume that this person can show them how to do it. However the ability to do it does not mean that the singer knows how s/he does it. So the attributes of the ideal teacher are many. The knowledge of the instrument, the ability to find a language that works for the specific student and the ability to demonstrate that the technique indeed works because the teacher himself/herself is able to show the results of his/her own training.

Now that I have a teacher, I am reminded how important it is that the student has a teacher who inspires him/her. My Kung Fu teacher is a a world champion, one of the most respected martial artists alive. To make the inspiration even more palpable, like me, he is Haitian-born.  My own career as a teacher has developed steadily. And my reputation has grown exponentially in the last few years. I am responsible for guiding working professionals and professional aspirants. And I feel very able to do the job. But even my most faithful students need all the encouragement they can get. So once in a while they need to see the product of my own training. Having to make the transition from faux-baritone to real-tenor (inside joke for my tenor students) has made my path as a teacher a little more challenging. I am not the first teacher a career-minded student will seek. Most students want the quickest fix they can find. It is often when those quick fixes have been exhausted that they come to a teacher like me for real foundation work. Still, in my own soul I want to be the first teacher a student seeks.  This has improved greatly. I am more often a first choice now than I was three years ago when I first began teaching in New York. The word gets around. Still, even before I met Sifu Romain, I always wanted to be the teacher who teaches from experience and wisdom, not only from laboratory knowledge. I sang professionally for some 20 years at various levels, sometimes high levels. But the fact that I am now a tenor means that I have to achieve again, as a tenor. I have to because it is important to me.  I aim for my students to achieve their goals, if they are worthy of them. The students I teach regularly have shown their metal. They have exhibited the fundamental principles that I find indispensable as a teacher: Faith, Courage, Patience. Hard work is a given. As their teacher, I must show them that the principles lead to the achievement of the very aims they have. And so I must walk the path I ask them to walk.  Yes I have walked it as a baritone, but because I was not truly a baritone I could not take the path to its most challenging and rewarding points. As a tenor, I must.

I tell them that age does not matter. And so I will prove it. The voice is more or less trained now. I need physical strength and stamina, and believe you me, Kung Fu provides it.

I tell them that race does not matter, and so I will prove it.

I tell them that ours is a hero's journey because it is challenging and requires all the attributes I mention above. Thus I must take that journey. Usually a teacher takes that journey first. I did. Now I must take it again. Once more on the Santiago Trail, as Paolo Coelho might say.

2) Thus is this post mostly one to honor my students. Those who have trusted my teaching despite the fact that I have not sung at major opera houses. I do not doubt what I teach. I have watched it take me in two years from a faux-baritone laboring with Abs to a tenor who right after a cold and an hour practice can still sing pretty good Bbs and, with due humility, some awesome Abs. This is not about proving my technique. I see the growth of my students and they are 100% with me on this journey.  But they have taken a journey on Faith as well. And so I must honor myself and them by taking the challenge alongside them.  When I return from my trip to Germany/Sweden this time, I will begin learning roles with a coach. I am now ready to study full length roles. I need to in order to grow to the next step. And then soon I will do the head shots again, and audition for agents again, and so on.

Those that I can call MY students (that is those with whom I have taken a substantial journey), those who have decided to pay me (help me make a living) on faith that I know what I am doing, I thank them and I honor them by name. They have made ugly noises because I told them to. They have done strange exercises because I tell them too. They make lists of their positive attributes because I ask them too. They take Yoga classes because I suggest it to them. They treated me with the reverence of a teacher. They have traveled from Sweden and England and Sri Lanka and throughout Germany to Berlin and from Trinidad and Toronto and throughout the United States to New York in search of their path and have trusted me to be their guide.

Thank you in no particular order: Adam, Rebecca, George, Ross, Beth, Jenny (and Ewan), Sara, Amber, Nadine, Kala, Patrick, Dawn, Danielle, Katy, Katie, Deirdre, Erik, Yuri, Melody, Amelia, Ulla, Zach, Tatyana, Jared, Leah, Shauna, Emily, Miles, Eva, Eva, Krzysztof, Christian, Christian, Peter, Meta, Brittany, Hari, Cheron, David, Juliana, Risa, Cindy, Sharmila, Katherine, Nathalie, Lucy, Murat, Rachel. (I am sorry if I forgot anyone. I'm writing from memory).

One of my students currently singing in Germany told me in 2003 "...You are an amazing performer, but I think your major contribution will be as a teacher".  One agent I work with recently said to me "...Your kind of special talent as a performer must be enjoyed by others". I wondered if I had to chose. With all humility, those desires were put in my heart to complement each other. I am a performer first and foremost. It is because of my commitment to my craft as an artist that I have something to say as a teacher. By pursuing my ideal as far as it will take me, I will be able to honor my students better by being the type of teacher that they can recommend without reservation. Would I really aspire to less than that?

3) The journey thus far.  Two years ago, I sent a clip of myself singing Dein ist mein ganzes Herz to some tenor friends. The answer was mostly, " are a baritone trying to sing tenor." I found that clip in my email archives (Thank you Google Mail).

jrl Dein is mein ganzes Herz.mp3

 and compared it to my practice two days ago of Addio fiorito asil (again recorded on my Google phone that has a condenser microphone, which discourages the buzz produced by the singer's formant. Sorry for that, but the quality is still clear enough).
My Bb was a little thinner than usual. I attribute that to coming out of a month and a half of not singing because of that respiratory infection. The comparative ease of the Abs convince me at least that I had made significant progress since that other clip. Certainly I don't get tired singing up there any more.

I have secured a pianist in New York and will be recording my coachings and will be sharing more frequently here. I don't have to hide my process any more. I have work to do still, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

© 03/28/2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Everyone Needs a Teacher: My Return to Kung Fu

Some 18 months ago I began teaching a student who was simultaneously studying Kung Fu. The subject often came up because I studied briefly 15 years ago but was not able to continue. Over the years, I sought often to find a school that embodied the values that were important to me, indeed the values I profess in my teaching and singing and that appear on the title box of the blog. Courage, Patience, Faith. Hard Work is a given. These are the principles that lead to excellence.

All of the principles I value are so evident at Sifu Romain's Kung Fu school. My first lesson with him revealed wisdom, knowledge, experience, respect, and he requires a commitment from the student. Kung Fu is challenging physically, mentally and spiritually. My first private lesson with Sifu Romain was not surprising. I knew what I was in for the moment I saw him. Quality shines in a person. His quiet confidence exudes strength that goes far beyond ego. It is about respect for the experiences that led to his success. He embodies what I value and I barely know him. All that I needed to know was so evident in the process of our first lesson. I trust he will help me in my path.

Today, inspired by my first lesson, I got up earlier than usual and ran two miles. I had limited my physical workout to Yoga, and it was clear that it was not enough. It was not easy for the first half mile. The air burned in my lungs and reminded me that I was out of shape. But my breathing technique was strong and soon the fire calmed and I finished a little more than a mile then I jogged back home before beginning my day.

Tonight I had my first group class with one of Sifu Romain's other teachers. The process was the same. Respect, knowledge, experience, wisdom. My arms burned during some of the exercises but there was something wonderful about the encouragement of my classmates. I was the newest student, the rookie, alongside more experienced little girls on one side and very strong looking men on the other. I am inspired to excellence. Tomorrow I have my next private lesson with Sifu Romain. The school is 3.5 miles from my house and I intend to run it.

Suffice it to say I have found my teacher.  At this point in my training, I do not need a voice teacher. The process of building my voice alone has been extremely satisfying. But being a singer is much more than a vocal  pursuit. For this voice to be strong, it must be supported by a powerful body. The musical, emotional and dramatic experiences are there. I put great value on what I have achieved in that regard. But over the years I have let my body go. In presenting myself as a singer I must be proud of all of me, mind, body and spirit. I know that the challenge that Kung Fu will present will prepare me well for my journey as a dramatic tenor.
I have to be up before 6. am to be certain I can run 3.5 miles and get there on time. So I will stop here and go to sleep.

© 03/22/2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Hit the long drive and then learn the chip shot

George Shirley, my very wise teacher, often used the golf metaphor that titles this post. Mr. Shirley felt it was necessary to sing before one attempts to control the sound. It is important to learn to be a singer before one attempts to behave as an artist. It can also be said that the quality of the art is strongly influenced by the quality of the voice.  A great part of my music education was spent at the crook of the pianos of some legendary collaborative pianists. One of the things it has taught me is that their influence is indispensable when the singer is technically ready for it and most often frustrating when the singer is not..

Conductors and directors are very similar to collaborative pianist in that they all expect the singer to deliver expressive results. They are often the bane of a voice teacher's existence when the student that goes between them is not ready technically to execute correctly what the coach says. I work with advanced students for the most part and most of them are ready to enjoy the information a coach has to offer. Some do not.; particularly with respect to soft singing. There are many ways to execute soft singing badly. Singing piano correctly is the most difficult thing to do. It requires greater strength. The great singers often said so. But today, particularly in the performance of art songs, singers are willing to sacrifice quality of tone in order to croon the poor semblance of a piano. I did the same for years: trying to make what feels like artistic choices but with no true vocal substance, a concept one of my students aptly calls "polishing turd". (I think he said he picked up the term from one of his former teachers).

Few singers executed as well-supported a piano as the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda, so deservedly celebrated for Lenski's beautiful aria from Chaiskovsky's Eugene Onegin.

Leontyne Price's immense control is captured in this historical farewel performance of Aida's O patria mia. How many singers today exhibit such control at any point in their career let alone at the end.

Franco Corelli, here in Japan displays remarkable control for such a large voice in a spellbinding rendition of the Tosti Neapolitan setting, A vucchella.

In truth, the size of the voice does not matter as to whether one can sing a truly supported piano or not. The only advantage for lighter voices is that they have smaller intrinsic musculature to develop and they more often than not develop the instrument fully and consequently they also develop the flexibility and control that comes from a fully developed instrument.

As the possessor of a more dramatic instrument I understand now how truly difficult it is to develop a dramatic instrument. I am reaching full development of my instrument and it is both satisfying and challenging. The security and control of  this big instrument requires STRENGTH.  For lack of strength, I was trained as a baritone and used all kinds of tricks to get my voice to sound viable (unbeknownst to me at the time of course).  After a month and a half of an upper-respiratory infection, I had lost some strength. But not much. Coming back to singing the past few days, I realized that I had lost some stamina and the voice requires a little more time to recover from a 90 minute practice session. After such, I need to take the next day off. But I am now singing with my entire voice and I have not lost my top. Quite the contrary, the fullness of the voice makes the top that much easier.

For the strength and stamina I will need, my entire body will have to be in the game. To sing softly in a supported manner and controlled does indeed take a lot more strength, as all the great singers often said. That strength will come in the form of the physical rigors required by the art of Kung Fu. After a 15 years absence from practice, it has called back to me, and has brought me to the teacher I was looking for. That subject requires a post of its own and it will come later today.

The purpose of the present post is simply to reiterate that to sing softly one must first learn to sing fully. The way the vocal folds are set-up in a well-focused, full tone, is precisely what is necessary for soft singing.  That set-up (the fold posture) must be very stable in order for the singer to maintain it while changing breath pressure/flow. The folds react to reduced air pressure by medially tightening slightly. That is logical. To send out the same number of puffs of air while reducing volume, the folds must allow less air for every vibration cycle. This will increase sub-glottal pressure to a certain extent. For the laryngeal musculature to remain constant in their balance while sub-glottal pressure rises, they must be very strong. Otherwise, the fold posture will change, usually the folds would thin out and press to maintain pitch. This we do not want. The other alternative is cracking. We also do not want that long term (some cracking is part of training).

The building of vocal musculature is gradual and it changes the way a singer feels certain notes as the strengthening process occurs. I have witnessed the change in different areas of my voice during these past two years. There were times when high notes were easy and middle notes were difficult. Than two months later it was the reverse. Now finally all parts are nearly equally strong. A new level of strength and balance requires further training to become stabilized.  I look forward to the next few weeks. Beautiful pianissimi will not come from me yet. For those we have to go to Youtube and enjoy Gedda, Price, Corelli and company.

© 03/22/2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): The "IT" Factor: Met Competition Grand Finals and The Singularity of Flicka

I have had so much to write about lately, but every night I find myself subdued by the upper respiratory infection that does not want to completely go away. So today I decide to write during the day when I am still energetic enough.

Yesterday I attended the Grand Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions . Any voice teacher who teaches aspiring professionals should see this competition in the house of the Metropolitan Opera. Not even the documentary film "The Audition", which indeed goes behind the scenes of this very competition gives an adequate view of what is expected by those who are hiring young opera singers today.

The Metropolitan Opera is about history and pageantry and this event is no exception. The Grand Finals of this year's competition was to be framed on one side by the official retirement from the Met Stage, of the legendary lyric mezzo-soprano, Frederica von Stade (Flicka to all of us who adore her) and on the other by current lyric mezzo/sensation, Joyce di Donato (the announced maîtresse de cérémonie), whose flight into New York was canceled due to bad weather. Not to be undone, the Met found the perfect substitute in Marilyn Horne, a legend in her own right, the other lyric mezzo/sensation who shares so much history and friendship with Flicka.

From Marilyn Horne's entrance and her playful banter, it became totally clear what "The Audition" is about. It is about personality first and foremost. But personality may be defined in many ways. All of the nine finalists chosen acquitted themselves commendably, and if any American singer who understands the cultural weight of a Metropolitan Grand Final, then it should be a given that it takes incredible inner wherewithal to not make a fool of oneself in that situation. All of these singers show remarkable talent in certain aspects of Opera. They are not at the level of the legends, but it is obvious that with proper guidance they could become great operatic personalities.

After Marilyn Horne kept the audience captive with the easy grandeur that made her so irresistible in her many roles, she was not suddenly missed when she ceded the stage to the young competitors.  As a voice teacher, I take notes on technical achievement and deficiencies, but as a singer I am interested in the ability to command an audience's attention and these young singers did not disappoint. I was thoroughly entertained and sometimes genuinely moved during a nearly three-hour program that seemed to fly by like the wind that kept New Yorkers captive inside their homes this weekend.

The "Pageant" began with Korean soprano leggiero, Haeran Hong who delivered Manon's Je suis encore tout étourdie with rare musical elegance and a voice of uncommon purity and beauty. A very attractive young woman, down to how she enters and left the stage, she was a total package. In the second half she delivered a flawless rendition of Susanna's Deh vieni non tardar. Why she was not chosen as a winner is beyond me.  The only thing I can think is that they thought her voice was too small. Yet her voice carried more clearly and consistently than any other. Granted, her repertoire did not require heavy accompaniment. That however was the only mystery of the day.

The Israeli mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani gave hints of a profound artistry in her hauntingly touching rendition of Adalgisa's Sgombra è la sacra selva...Deh proteggimi!  In both this aria and Carmen's Séguédille in the second half, she appeared slightly uncomfortable and under-energized.  This could have been a bad day for her. Nevertheless, the talent is substantial. She has a dark-hued voice that penetrated the orchestral texture easily. She simply did not shine on this particular day and consequently did not win. A fair adjudication.

Soprano Rena Harms showed a quick, lively energy in Nedda's Stridono Lassú and later a heart-felt tenderness in Liu's Tu che di gel sei cinta.  Unfortunately in both pieces her voice did not ride easily through the thick orchestrations of Leoncavallo and Puccini. She had the most memorable dress of the evening. Still the voice lacked thrust and this validated the judges verdict. She did not win.

Tenor Nathaniel Peake will need to work on his lower and middle range, but when you deliver the best top notes heard on the Met stage this year, there is no problem winning the Met competition.  It is important to understand that we are in a tenor-driven operatic culture. Mr. Peake delivered very good renditions of Macduff's Ah la paterna mano and Vasco da Gama's O paradis! His acting was slightly awkward and the musicality rather common, but the moment the first A-flat of Macduff's recitative came out, it was clear why Mr. Peake was there. The audience rewarded him with hearty applause for both arias.

Soprano Lori Guilbeau showed an excellence sense of line in Elisabeth de Valois' Toi qui sur le néant, but it was in Cleopatra's (Barber's Antony and Cleopatra) Give me Music that she claimed her prize. While the voice seemed too thin for Verdi's Don Carlos, she released a balanced full lyric soprano in the Barber. Her English diction so perfectly intelligible made up for and accentuated the weaknesses in her French.

Korean mezzo-soprano Hyo Na Kim delivered a very impressively musical rendition of Dorabella's Smanie Implaccabile but dropped the ball in Léonore's (Donizetti's La Favorite) O mon Fernand.  Oddly enough, just two days before I was having a conversation with veteran mezzo-soprano Cindy Sadler who commented that young singers should not sing this aria. Remembering Cindy's rendition of this aria two days before, it was thoroughly evident that her assessment was correct.  Ms. Kim will sing this aria and the role wonderfully someday, but this is not an aria to offer in a competition unless one has a giant voice. She could have been a winner had she chosen a different aria for these finals. But according to the documentary, the staff of the Metropolitan Opera who prepare these singers advise them on repertoire.

The personality of the day was soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen. Not only does she look like Renée Fleming, she also sound somewhat like her. Beyond those similarities though, she exhibited her own grand stage presence, first in a dramatically and musically faultless rendition of Elsa's Einsam in trüben Tagen and then in an equally impressive interpretation of Fiordiligi's Come Scoglio. This is a young singer who comes alive onstage. She received the longest applause from the capacity audience, and well-deserved. She is an artistic personality of a substantial kind. At 25 however, both pieces revealed her weaknesses. The voice is not fully developed enough to handle neither the low reaches of Elsa's soliloquy nor the punishing lower passaggio of Fiordiligi's tour-de-force aria.  Still, there is no denying the immense talent of this young singer. Of course she won.

Elliott Madore is charming in the way 22-year old lyric baritones who win the Met auditions are. He has the courage to deliver muscular power in the high reaches of Oppenheimer's Batter my heart from the recently premiered Doctor Atomic by John Adams. He also has the stagecraft to give a playful rendition of Figaro's Largo al factotum. In the first aria, his high notes betray the sounds of an undeveloped tenor, yet the precariousness of the top Gs in the second aria is probably due to the beefing-up of the voice to make it sound more baritone-like.  At 22, it is difficult to know where this voice will go, and we have to trust the Met staff who got to know him that he has revealed something remarkable during his days in New York. This brings up ageism in competitions such as this. Should a singer's youth be a reason to pardon his lack of technical accomplishment? I say give him an encouragement prize and reward the young soprano Haeran Hong who did sing flawlessly and was at least equally charming. The commentary from the lady next to me was: "He is cute but I can't hear him".

Leah Crocetto soprano exhibited the highest decibel levels, yet she never pushed her voice. This singer, like the tenor, Nathaniel Peake, had voice.  Ms. Crocetto needs to continue developing the lower half of her voice. The entire range could benefit from a bit more warmth. The lower sections of Ernani involami reveal that she still has work to do in the lower half of the voice.  But the top more than makes up for this. She might have given Maestro Marco Armiliato a couple of heart attacks with the liberties she took with the high notes of Magda's (Rondine) Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta. But the audience loved her for it. This is the kind of luxuriant top voice reminescent of Caballé.  She also won and deservedly.

While the judges deliberated, Marilyn Horne introduced her friend and colleague Frederica von Stade who was showered with bravos (including from yours truly) before she sang one note. She delivered  a spell-binding rendition of Charlotte's Va! laisse couler mes larmes, which won her the Met auditions more than 40 years ago. Flicka's voice is not the kind of voluptuous sound one thinks of when one thinks of opera. It is as if her entire gentle, tender, hearty humanity transferred with all of its energy through her voice. She has been one of my very favorite singers over the years and her performance here reminded me why.

I first became aware of this magnificent artist when I received a ticket from one of my teachers in college who could not attend a performance of Idomeneo one Saturday afternoon. She did not miss much as I practically fell asleep part-way through. Then the silvery voice of Idamante played by Flicka woke me from my boredom. The next monday morning I wrote to her agent expressing how moved I was. Two weeks later I received a card written in her hand thanking me for my letter.  I wish I was one who collected such things. But alas, that card was lost during many moves over the years.

Well it was only three or four years later when she visited the University of Michigan and spoke with the voice students about her career and answered our many questions. The next day I spotted her driving to the music school to meet her pianist who teaches at the University and I followed her.  When I with uncontrolled excitement introduced myself to her, she picked up on my accent and addressed me in the most perfect French. Over a ten minute conversation about this and that, I jokingly proposed marriage to her.  She answered pleasantly that she was currently married but should it not work out, she would keep me in mind.

Opera singers have the power to enchant a young person for life. When I think of happenstance meetings with the likes of Flicka or Freni or Corelli or Cappuccilli and most notably for me, Mario Sereni, what stays with me is not their voices per se, but the person who comes through the voice. Even recently spending time with two of the Rossini tenors in the Met's current production of Armida, the same quality is there. They are truthfully themselves. They are uniquely charming and in a strange way, curiously vulnerable.

I recently spoke to two students about the "IT" factor. What makes an audience want to hear a singer has first and foremost to do with presence. And that is a loaded word.  The inner self shines through when the singer is proud of what he or she has to offer, so proud that s/he can not wait to deliver it to the audience like a carefully crafted and wrapped present. If the singer does not value his/her true self, then their skills, no matter how magnificent will be transmitted through a weak lens that does not magnify.  All the winners were proud of their individual gifts and offered them up unabashedly.  It is different from delusional self-aggrandizement. It is simply valuing who they are and what they have worked to accomplish.

To all these young artists I say, thank you for a wonderful afternoon. It was a well-spent $45 and that is a lot more than I can say for some professional performances I have paid for at top houses around the world.

© 03/15/2010

Saturday, March 6, 2010

kashu-do (歌手道): Focus and Airflow: Paradoxical Compatibility

A while back, I wrote a blog-post on phonation in response to a question on the coup de glotte as interpreted by Miller, Stark and others. The original question had to do with finding a happy medium between a glottal onset and a breathy one and that the middle ground as suggested by Vennard and Miller and others was often not satisfactory.  In the post I brought up supra-glottal inertia as a possible explanation for why a smooth onset did not have to be breathy.

Recently in a voice lesson a student seemed confused about my request for both air flow and focus (let's call this glottal closure). In her mind the two were difficult to reconcile because when she tries to achieve good glottal closure, she felt she could not release her breath well and vice versa.  Sometimes a simple mental picture based on facts can free the singer to allow the incomprehensible.

My suggestion was the following: Imagine that there are two part to vocal fold vibration namely an open phase and a close phase. During the close phase the folds come together completely (we may also interpret completely as almost touching and having closure completed by inertial reactance of the vocal track) and produce what we experience as clarity or focus because complete separation of the each glottal pulse makes for a clearer definition of the tone.  That focus may be experienced as a distinct clear point on the hard palate or the bridge of the nose (many other possibilities). During the open phase the breath is released and this may be felt as a vibrant, flowing sensation in the chest. The interesting part is that these open and close phases are occurring hundreds of times every second.  Our conscious thought cannot perceive the open and close phases as separate events because they occur simply too quickly. Therefore, we experience them as though they were occurring simultaneously.

Suddenly my student was able to conceive of a tone with more than one dimension to it. In my years of study, I also struggled with finding a happy medium between closure and flow. That did not work very well. In the end conceiving of the two extremes as necessary to each other and that like a good tug-o-war, balance is achieved when both ends of the rope are being pulled with equal force providing a kind of isometric stasis.

Instead of a compromise the coexistence of opposites seems to yield a better balance. In truth, the vibration cycle alternates between full closure and full opening allowing each, focus and breath flow, to dominate in turn.

© 03/06/2010

Friday, March 5, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Epilarynx and Pulse Skewing in reference to Squillo: Reply to Martin Berggren's comment

In the last post, I dealt with neither the Aryepiglottic Fold (epilarynx) nor inertial loading that causes the pulse skewing that Martin Berggren referred to in his excellent comment.

For simplification, the ratio of the diameter of the aryepiglottic fold (sometimes called the collar of the larynx) and the vocal tract must be approximately 1:6 in order for the Singer's Formant to provide enough of an energy boost in the 3kHz region.  The scientists agree that this is an independent frequency that is not based on the the vowel formants, although it may cluster with the upper vowel formants (cluster because they occupy the same acoustic space).  It also says that the 1:6 ratio occurs when the aryepiglottic fold narrows and the vocal tract widens by lowering the larynx.

This is one of the instances where I think the scientists make a crucial error.  The quality of a vowel and the frequency of its formants is strongly affected by laryngeal depth. So to say that the resonance of the epilarynx is totally independent of vowels is at best inaccurate.  Scientists must define their terms very narrowly. So I suppose that vowel alteration constitutes a perceivable difference on how the vowel is recognized rather than the alteration of the vocal tract. But in singing when we talk about vowel modification, we are indeed talking about minor alterations that may not affect vowel recognition at all but simply renders the sound production more efficient.

Efficiency also touches upon pulse skewing as related to supra-glottal inertia.  The way I look at all of this is that it is all interdependent.  The lower larynx that creates the conditions for inertial loading and the resonance of the epylarynx that yield the Singer's Formant cannot be separated from fold posture.  The proper mechanics of phonation lead to the kind of laryngeal depth that produces the 1:6 ratio that produces the SF. These mechanics also influence inertial loading.

The central issue I believe is whether the laryngeal musculature can maintain the configuration necessary for the 1:6 ratio.  I am certain that adequate fold depth sets up a balanced fold posture that has a direct influence on laryngeal depth. If the larynx is depressed without balanced fold posture, I believe the results will not yield the beneficial acoustic results we speak of here.

Vocal tract adjustments, including vowel modification will have an effect on the laryngeal oscillation and consequently on laryngeal depth.  From the pedagogical point of view, the question is "how do we achieve the 1:6 ratio?" I have been able to ascertain that vowel modification alone does not alter the formants significantly enough to alter resonance strategy unless fold posture is adequate relative to the specific voice.

© 03/05/2010

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Squillo, a symbol for the mythology of vocal pedagogy

Few words are thrown about in vocal pedagogy as much as squillo. Like all the Italian catchwords that make up the large lexicon of terminology attributed to the Bel Canto Tradition, this word too is equivocal and only symbolizes concepts that are much more profound than its literal meaning.

Squillo: Suono acuto e brilliante. [A high-pitched and brilliant sound] (From the Italian Dictionary Online).

I have felt inspired to address this issue due to a very thought-provoking thread on NFCS (The New Forum for Classical Singers), mainly because the discussion reveals the level to which this word, and by extension vocal pedagogy as a whole, is unclear to us, the very people who practice it. Perhaps anyone profoundly invested in any discipline would say that the more one learns, the more one realizes how little s/he knows.  The difference in vocal pedagogy is that nothing can be taken as a given other than that ten pedagogues may have different opinions on a vocal issue, each passionately defending his/her view and rejecting the others, without any empirical basis. Even among the performing and fine arts, singing is singular in that regard.

When we consider Ballet or Figure Skating or even playing the cello or piano, enough research has been done on the biomechanics of skeletal musculature that a committed pedagogue could point to specific research that supports his/her approach. Indeed there are articles on carpal tunnel syndrome that speak to anatomy of the hand and its action relative to playing the piano or cello.  In singing, the intrinsic musculature of the larynx that drive vocal fold posturing and consequently vocal fold oscillation have not been studied, cannot be studied during the act of singing.  In fact this is the missing piece that scientists should work to find answers about.  

The great majority of vocal science is done relative to the study of speech and vocal disorders, in short observing and studying the vocal mechanism during average and sub-par function.  Operatic singing in the traditional sense requires a near-perfect balance between the intrinsic muscles that sets up the vocal folds into vibration in a specific morphology that yields a vibration pattern that addresses the most sensitive acoustic range of the human ear. In my opinion, this is specifically the acoustic patterns we see in the utterances of newborn babies before their expressions become educated. This specific acoustic pattern produces an intense sympathetic vibration in the aural cavities that the Old Italian masters of vocal pedagogy refer to as Squillo. The Italian masters realized that this “ringing” in the ear is produced by a voice that is operatically viable. It is this ringing that makes the voice more audible to the listener than other sounds in the immediate environment. This realization however does not tell us what makes the ringing or whether it is intrinsic to some voices and not others. This mystery is but one among many mysteries that drives the dark art of operatic singing. Dark, because many practitioners within our field are content to have it exist in the shadows of mythology rather than in the inexact world of partial knowledge that is its true nature!

The questions are the following:

  1. Do some voices produce squillo and others not? The answer seems obvious.  Yes! That part at least is obvious. No is the more complete answer.  The superficial answer is what we can observe. We can certifiably observe that certain voices produce the ringing in the voice that is synonymous with the kind of acoustic pattern that the human ear is most sensitive to, and that many other voices do not.  This could lead one to believe that squillo is a special occurrence in voices gifted by Providence to sing opera. Yet every crying baby produces the sound we experience as the ring in the voice. Babies crying can be heard over operatic divas and full orchestras. The logical answer is that all of us had squillo and some of us lost it as we grow up. Not every singer that has squillo in the voice has the necessary other components to become an opera singer (e.g. musical sensitivity, emotional expressivity and linguistic facility at least).  Operatic talent requires so many different skills. It is a complex talent. Those who are lazy about how to select operatic talent might take the easy way out by saying that those without squillo cannot develop it and therefore should not sing opera. That is a lie. Squillo is a prerequisite for singing opera viably and experience has shown me that anyone can develop it (or better said, recover it).

    Those with some acoustic science information will call it The Singer’s Formant. But that too is inadequate.  The Singer’s Formant is only the clustering of the upper three vowel formants and lies between 2500-3200 Hz. But this does not mean that the bandwidth of the singer’s formant is 700Hz.  It is much narrower than that. It is simply that the exact frequency of the SF varies between singers and indeed between voice types. In the high female voice (higher than D5), the SF falls too far between the harmonics to even have an effect on them. Yet the high soprano voice often exhibits squillo despite the fact that the SF does not apply.

  2. Is squillo the same as full glottal closure? Certainly not! But glottal closure is one component of the necessary fold posture that results in squillo. There must be enough fold-mass for the given tone to produce a tone rich in overtones.  Strength in the 2000-3000 Hz area is not enough for squillo.  A voice that has strength in this frequency range will be heard, but the kind of sound pressure that squillo provides includes strength in vowel formant areas as well. In other words, a voice may have strong high harmonics and still not have squillo. It can be heard but may sound tight and lacking in vibrancy.  The presence of strong lower harmonics in addition to the high ones guarantee that the glottal tone is produced in a way that allows for strong breath release during each glottal cycle. The high frequencies alone only show discouragement of the lower frequencies in favor of high ones. This can be accomplished with pressed voice. Therefore glottal closure alone is not enough to produce the kind of presence associated with a voice that is squillante.

  3. Can a voice be heard without squillo? Yes. It depends on the acoustic environment.  If the orchestra has a lot of doubling of the singer’s part, as is common in the music of Puccini and Wagner, then the singer needs a coordination that is close to what produces squillo in the voice. Even if the ring is not perceived, the sound pressure may be close enough for the singer to be heard, but that does not mean that any voice without squillo can be heard.  In fact my personal point of view is that the singer must become aware what a squillo feels like in the voices of other singers and should seek it in his/her voice. That should be the goal. And if the singer gets close most of the time, then the voice will have no problem being heard in the house. A well-produced opera voice should exhibit squillo throughout the voice most of the time, for that is what makes it possible to sing without a microphone when accompanied by challenging accompaniment that doubles the voice part.

  4. Is squillo tantamount to pressed voiced? Certainly not! Squillo cannot be produced in a pressed voice. But when squillo is equated with brightness or fold closure then certainly the perception of squillo could be that of pressing. Unfortunately this is the view of many teachers who promote loose phonation to avoid the pressing they associate with a voice with squillo. Those who have not been able to distinguish between the ringing in their ears and sheer loudness will fail to understand the subtleties.

In short squillo is the confirmation that the voice is at or near peak balance in terms of phonation, resonance and breath pressure. Quite often a singer has the correct laryngeal set up but the squillo is missing because the vocal tract shape (vowel) is incompatible with the glottal tone and suppresses certain harmonics that would contribute to squillo. Vowel modification is important as a refinement tool to achieve squillo. However, tracking formant resonances through vowel modification alone will not produce a squillo. The source tone must produce a rich spectrum of harmonics. This cannot happen when the fold mass is too little or when glottal closure is not efficient.

The tendency to oversimplify is what keeps vocal pedagogy in relative darkness and the complexity that lies below the simple Italian definition above is true of every Italian catch word that has come down as singer’s jargon. Voice teachers are a very opinionated bunch and to do the job well they have to be.  The problem lies only in stating an opinion as fact and shooting down anyone who disagrees for not understanding the principles of Bel Canto.  The term Bel Canto itself is thrown about as a shield against any suggestion to have a logical discussion about what we know and what we don’t know.

The voice teacher is in a very preacarious situation. S/he must make educated guesses because the vocal map is not complete. Scientists can only help us by giving us more information, but they are bound by the scientific process and thus in the absence of complete information they cannot make determinations. Singers cannot be so limited.  Despite incomplete information, we must deliver a product.  Yet the singer/voice teacher cannot fly totally blind.  If we use all the information the scientists provide, we can viably fill in the blanks.  Without using the information we do know we are likely to take the student on wild goose chase without any results to show for it.

The exercise that has kept applied vocal pedagogy in the dark is the following (often true in academia): two teachers with little empirical information will defend their diverging opinions with great passion, considering the other a quack. To keep the peace, they will agree in public that there is more than one way to skin a cat (i.e. that both approaches can work).  Often, neither approach is complete enough to yield consistent results.  It would have been prudent to consider a synthesis of the two approaches, which might indeed have produced a more complete regimen.  Unfortunately, on the surface, the two ideas seem opposite and neither teacher could conceive that an approach that seems so divergent from his/her own could actually work. 
When considering words like squillo and Bel Canto and appoggio, etc, it is important to realize that they are symbols for principles that touch on all three main functions (breath management, phonation and resonance).  The discussions that are sparked by these words provide much more complete information than any one opinion. A good teacher should always consider that what s/he dislikes most about a colleague’s approach might be the missing link that might make his/her approach more complete.

© 03/04/2010