Monday, April 26, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Flagpole and the Flag: A Science-based Metaphor for Balanced Phonation

Vocal scientists are very wary of visualization-based techniques because the metaphors are usually superficial and offer no common point of reference between the teacher and the student. I am not against metaphors at all, because I find that many students are very visual learners and the metaphor based on physiological substance is often the very aid they require to make a leap forward. The Metaphor of the Flagpole and the Flag has been particularly helpful in helping the student make sense of sensory feedback.

The sensations that we refer to as chest voice and head voice in my opinion can be reduced, respectively, to a sensation of grounding in the chest (I shy away from the term anchor. More on this later), and the sensation we often articulate as vibrant in the mask. These terms are often conceived as extremes from which a happy medium must be achieved (i.e. a little less chest voice yield more head voice).  This kind of one dimensional continuum is inaccurate and causes misunderstandings with respect to sensory feedback.  In terms of actual function, it might be better to conceived of a double-continuum with interrelating parts. The sensations of grounding in the chest is based on a continuum of fold depth and tensile stress directly proportional to the combined activity of the Internal Thyro-Arytenoid muscles (TA or Vocalis) and the Crico-Thyroid muscles. The most efficient fold posture for a given pitch depends on a specific relationship between these two muscle groups. Once the ideal (or near ideal) fold posture has been accomplished, then fold closure must also be near ideal in order to maintain the desired pitch. Too loose a closure would accelerate the open cycle and could cause a rise in pitch. To maintain pitch, the fold depth might change. All of this would be relatively inefficient. Yet the change might be minor. Likewise, too tight a closure would cause a lessening of the fold depth in order to maintain desired pitch.  In the best case scenario however maintaining the proper fold depth (i.e. adequate chest voice sensation, i.e. grounding) would facilitate a closure strategy whereby the folds would touch just enough to accomplish full closure during the close cycle (inertial reactance considered as part of the closure mechanism).  In such a case, the fold cover would not be squeezed against the body of the fold and would be more easily set into oscillation by a relatively small amount of sub-glottal pressure.

It is my understanding that this easy vibration of the fold cover (when phonation is not pressed) induces the sensation of mask vibration that we associate with head voice. As the flagpole is of necessity for the correct oscillation of the flag by the wind, so is the appropriate sensation of the chest voice necessary for the free vibration of the gently adducted fold cover, the sensation associated with head/mask vibrations.

The correct balance of the TA and CT is not a given. Some singers have a natural coordination on many notes in their range, but probably all singers will have to learn to calibrate this muscular coordination for certain difficult notes in their voices. This part is the training that must be accomplished and in the beginning it can feel effortful.  When the proper chest voice mechanism has been accomplished for the given pitch (i.e. the balance between TA and CT activity), then the easier phonation becomes possible. Finding such a balance on every note of the singer's usable range is the daily work that every singer must do.

In a sense, the quality of ease that we hear (i.e. the fold-cover vibration) is what we identify as head-voice content. But a true head voice is not possible without the chest grounding (i.e. the muscular grounding that yields the proper fold depth).  The chest grounding is a stabilizing factor that allows for easy vibration of the fold cover.

© 04/26/2010

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): When the Teacher Bows To the Student

At this level of teaching, certain students are so far along the path that the process becomes a growing experience for the teacher as well. That is to say, the student's needs brings the teacher to an altogether different level of pedagogy. Although the fundamentals remain the same, the question is no longer whether the student can execute them well (indeed this particular student executes them superlatively), but rather how to help the student to find the most efficient balance vocally, mentally, spiritually, particularly under less than ideal circumstances.

The student (let us call her Elsa) came to Berlin for a few days of lessons toward what was supposed to be the end of my stay. She was to fly home three days before me and we both ended up grounded by the Icelandic volcanic cloud that brought European air travel to a standstill.  During this time her agent called and informed her of an audition in Scandinavia.  Spending an entire day on the road between trains and buses to get to Copenhagen en route to her final destination, she ended up doing a fantastic audition of which her agent was justifiably proud. She was all set to finally make it home when the agent called again to let her know that she had an audition back in Berlin; this the night before. She slept little and arrived to Berlin from Copenhagen in the morning with just enough time to change her close have a quick brunch and head to one of Berlin's main theaters (I am purposefully being obtuse here in order to keep the singer's anonymity).  The way to the audition was the most normal event. She was thankful for her very caring agent who called to assure there would be a place to warm-up and rehearse with the pianist, and she expressed thanks for my presence and that it felt like the most luxurious experience to be warmed up by her teacher before an important audition.

When we arrived at the theater, she was natural and herself when the administrator came to meet us at the entrance. I am used to seeing singers get nervous before such a big audition, but this was the exact opposite.  As I warmed up her voice, I sensed the fatigue of the travel in the slight sluggishness of her middle register, which is normally fluid.  I am very adept at hiding my concern, but I did not need this for long. As we did the same basic exercises we had been doing for the past few months, the voice simply gave in to what it was used to. The sluggishness went away with each scale.  The voice did not want to go higher than a top Eb on that day. I did not force it. She only had a C to sing, and I was happy enough with a minor third above it. Still, not having her high F made me wonder about her stamina. But when we began singing through her first aria, it became even clearer that I had nothing to worry about. I also realized why her agent preferred that she begins with this particular piece. It is secure vocally, well-rehearsed because she had done it so often (so much so that she could take the kind of emotional risks I asked her for a few days before at her lessons), and it is a repertoire that suits her perfectly.  When the pianist came to work with her, I retreated to a far corner in the room and watched her take over the process. She corrected him quite naturally when he took a tempo that did not suit her, and marked through the second piece before I could tell her not to waste her voice. She knew herself! She did not need me to hold her hand.

The best was still to come. One of the stage managers came to escort us backstage. When we arrived, the preceding singer (one of three auditioning for the job) was halfway through her first aria. Her voiced sounded solid and clear. This was an experienced professional up for one more job and she delivered beautifully.  Just the previous week, I had been thinking of "honor in the art." I was interested to see how my student dealt with the fact that the singer who sang before her was of such excellent quality. After the singer finished her second piece and passed by her to exit, my student congratulated her on an excellent performance. Her fellow singer smiled thankfully. It was a beautiful moment. I was more proud of my student then than ever and I told her. She replied: "as I listened, I was pulling for her. I wanted her to do well. I am not going to get somewhere by stepping on someone else!"  Although this is my philosophy, I did not teach her this. She came already with a highly evolved spirit to her very first lesson. 

The only thing she asked of me when it was time for her to sing was that I should not watch her directly from the side of the stage because my visible presence could be distracting to her.  I complied.  When she was announced and she walked out, I still had the piercing voice of the other singer in my ear, thinking that it carried well in the hall. There was no doubt that it beamed like a laser to the back of the hall.  Still I remember thinking that as good as it was, there was something curiously common about the sound. It was correct technically, and well-produced. The singer was musically sensitive and a good actress. Still it was common. At that moment I realized I had never heard my student in a large hall. The studios I have had at my disposal were good but relatively small. When she sang the first notes of "Elsa's Dream" from Wagner's Lohengrin, I realized why I found this singer so remarkable. If the previous singer's voice carried like a laser directly in front of her, Elsa's voice radiated into every molecule of space in that hall. The completeness, the singularity of that sound! It was an entire human life-experience channeled through the most fluidly balanced voice I can remember hearing. The sound was full but never aggressive, triumphant but never violent.  I thought humbly: "...and I get to work with that!"

If I brought Elsa anything over the the past year, I would say it was the encouragement to go beyond what felt safe, without taking her magnificent instrument out of balance. No I was not overly careful! Quite the opposite! She had two nearly flawless octaves. We expanded it another octave between the high and low extremes.  Having the extra extensions gave her the confidence to try on some more challenging repertoire. Most of the work she did on her on, between intermittent lessons.  She is already a spiritually evolved person who has done a great deal of personal work before I met her. She was ready not only for the vocal challenges, but the musical discussions for each work and most important the spiritual challenge of valuing her remarkable talent. She allowed me to go that deeply. And she rewarded me today by showing me what a finished product could be like! To be so at peace and in every way so balanced for a very big audition after such a grueling travel schedule!

We don't know yet whether Elsa got the job. Before I could tell her that that part is not really in her hand, she said: "...of course I would like to get the job, but if it is not this one it will be another one!" When her extremely successful agent called later to debrief her about the audition, she (the agent) said the same thing: "Don't worry about the jobs. Just keep singing that wonderfully!" And the words of one of my early mentors came back: "Do 100 auditions and forget them! If you are singing your best, it is only a matter of time before the right person hears you and recognizes your talent!"

Before I left Elsa at the train station she made an excellent realization. "When I did this years before, it was as if there was always a wall between me and the people listening to me; as if I was not meant to go beyond that wall. Today there was no wall. Everything seemed as I would want it. The people who ran the audition were so accommodating and friendly. My agent called at every turn to assure me that everything was being taking care of and even checked to find out that my plane was delayed for half an hour. My teacher was there to warm me up. And my wonderful husband is so supportive.  One really cannot do this alone!"

And so I bow to you, Lady Elsa! In one year you have transformed from thinking that there was no hope for a career to acquiring a dream agent, and the team you need at your side to accomplishing your goals. Yes our path is an eternal process, but it is a remarkable experience to get to this level, where you can momentarily touch upon absolute balance.  It has been an honor to witness your empowering transformation and an even greater honor to be part of your team.  God Speed for whatever is to come!

© 04/22/2010

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A difference of philosophy

 A reader named Carlos wrote the following which I will reply to point by point:

First, I will post every comment that I feel is presented respectfully. And Carlos indeed makes his point in such a manner.

One of my previous comments was extensively critized by you and yet remains true.
It seems people try justifying their failures and the bankrupt of opera business with the hope of better days and their right to stay in Neverland, dreaming awake. I recall a Spanish philosopher (Ortega y Gasset) opinion on music in 20th century: "Music as an art form is dead".





Dear Carlos, not only do I criticize your comment but I am diametrically opposed to it. You have a right to your opinion, and an opinion as such is simply that. There is nothing fundamentally true about it. That you believe your comment to be true is as much an opinion as anything else you say here. And my blog is a collection of my opinions as well.  I am not here to convince you since your mind is made up and your purpose seems to be to counter the optimism that I propagate here. Your choice.


You claim you are an amateur who loves singing, but when you support your ideas by quoting that: "Music as an art form is dead," your motives are at least suspect.


Before all what is happening, the saying "there is always room at the top" sound facecious. I see some people who should have never made it for their own good, psychiatrically speaking.
And even if things were reversable, sincerely, we wouldn't be alive to see it.
As I told you before, I have known fantastic singers who didn't ever get the chance some rats have had, including scandinavian singers, who are very well-prepared indeed. By the way, I'm not a frustrated professional singer, one of those who have been dropped. I have always been an amateur with a strong love for singing and music in general and for my other profession, in which I earn life.


Where do I begin? Operatic singing requires so many skills, such that no one in the history of the art form could ever claim to have mastered all aspects of it. Placido Domingo is the most successful singer in the history of the field, yet his technique is far from perfect. Does that make his other skills unworthy? Pavarotti had the best technique among tenors of the last generation, yet he had poor language skills other than Italian and by his own admission he was physically somewhat awkward. Maria Callas, considered the greatest singer who ever sang opera might have given her life to have Tebaldi's voice.  Those who make it in this field make it because of reasons that are very logical. Sometimes, someone has a great audition on the right day and they get the opportunity even if later their skills prove unable to cope with the rigors of the field.

As an amateur, you chose not to face the tough situations that aspiring professionals do. Do you ever ask yourself why they put themselves through these rigors? They do because they are opera singers. They believe fervently that what they do makes a difference and they will fight to get a chance to do it, and in a world where people like you (comfortable in your lifestyle) find it easy to dismiss them for having the passion to fight on.


As for the singers you think should have the chance, if they did not, there is something they did not do correctly. Having a voice is not enough. Everyone does. Developing that voice to a professional standard is one part of what we do. I know singers with well-developed instruments who win competitions get jobs and then do not go forward because they only make sounds. They bring little understanding of the amazing scores they sing, they have no sense of the poetry they sing and have given no thought to their part in the dramas in which they play. A voice is like a lens to a sun of ideas. For a singer, the voice is the lens that magnifies their thoughts, emotions, philosophies, etc. Without thoughts and emotions and ideas, the lens means little. Before a singer asks why they did not get cast, I always ask them what do you think you can improve. Anyone who has time to complain is hardly asking himself the right question. We can only improve ourselves.

Most importantly, it takes courage to believe that there is a way in. The person who stays on the outside of a difficult situation and says: "It's hopeless, there is no solution," has nothing to offer in terms of helping the situation.  To believe there is a way in, one must then be responsible for that opinion. No one is daydreaming. Daydreamers do not act. People who believe in a solution work to make that solution a reality and unless you can find a way to help, you who call yourself a lover (i.e. amateur) of the art form, then leave those of us alone who are trying to do something about the difficulties of our field. To be truly optimistic one needs faith that there is a solution, requires courage to find that solution, and the patience to see it through. It is what "we professionals and aspiring professionals" do every day.

And since you have little idea about what we active professionals and aspiring professionals do, and since you do not have the wherewithal to face the music so to speak, from what authority do you speak? 


That's why, reading your post, I could not believe you were refering to this guy Kaufmann as a great singer. I heard him live in Germany and he is nothing more than a bureaucrat of singing with a faulty technique. 


I have heard him too, and like many who came before him, he is far from perfect. His vocal technique is imperfect, and I have personally criticized his choice of repertoire. But that aside, he is an inspiring musician who understands the relationship of text and music and how to imbue it with his humanity. I believe he could become a legendary singer if he had better vocal technique and if he chose appropriate repertoire. His imperfections do not make him a dilettante. I am able to criticize what he does wrong and still be able to recognize what aspects of his total package are commendable. You as a side-liner have the luxury of making black and white judgments.  Professionals who understand the complexity of the field must have a nuanced sense of criticism.



There are hundreds of those singers I call "bureaucrats of singing" in those opera companies in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, singing roles they don't like at all (or have not the voice and preparation to sing) because they have to.
Let's face it: very few are in position to chose what they are gonna sing. And being not in position to decide what one is going to sing is slavery to me. That's why I would never even think of an operatic career. And I'm happier this way. I can lead a peaceful life, with financial safety, time to travel and I can really feel free to sing with pleasure. I would never be glad to submit myself to intendants, conductors or the worse type of worm infesting opera world today, stage directors, just because I need to make money.


Your argument is at least hypocritical.  You like your financial safety and all the pleasures it brings you. Is your job absolutely perfect without any downsides? Are there not things about your job that you wish were better? Yet you do it and you revel in it. Why not allow the singers to deal with the negative issues in their own field and allow them their happiness.  No one forces anyone to be a singer. Singers who are inspired to sing chose to do their job with all the negatives that come with it.  I am a strong critic of the excesses and idiocies of opera, but I seek solutions.  I actively do several things every day to better my field. If you love this field than subsidize it in some way instead of vilifying every thing about it.


I understand being optimistic is a comprehensible necessity. Otherwise, half of global population would have comitted suicide. However, ignoring reality and fueling hopes in vain is something I cannot put up with. Let's put the cards on the table. All of them.
You show knowledge of showbusiness and you must know a handful of singers in desperation. Sometimes too late to turn the course of their lives...



Will anyone tell you how you should lead your life? What seems desperation to some is a worthwhile journey to others.  In my 25 years of teaching I have observed one rule:  I do not tell anyone they cannot.  I simply put all of the obstacles before them that they will face and I let them chose.  As I said before, optimism is not a passive philosophy. To be truly optimistic one must be willing to prove his positive vision.

This weekend I experienced two exciting musical events: 1) an operatic production where many of the singers sang poorly and the stage direction was poorly conceived. In the middle of it all there were too young professionals who sang as well as the very best in the field today.  They are both having carefully managed careers that allow them to grow (so I found out later). Every time they were on stage, the people around me sat up more attentively in their seats. They could tell the difference and they would rather (as I did) to have those two singers sing all night.  Those two singers have managed to put it all together to give breath-taking performances despite the less than ideal situations around them. They are professionals. They inspired an audience to bravos by their skills. They are optimists who made it work in a difficult situation and in the process made the audience feel that their money was not spent in vain. They got the big bravos, the rest were politely applauded. The audience understood.

2) The next day I witnessed an inspired performance of Bruckner's 4th Symphony conducted by a brilliant young conductor that I had seen before in an equally inspired performance of La Boheme in Cologne. He is consistent. As a conductor myself I recognized how well he new the scores he conducted. There are major conductors at the top of the game who do not do their homework as well as this young conductor does. He conducted a pianist who did not play so well in a Beethoven concerto. With optimism, the conductor used his skills to find a way out of that less than perfect situation.  That is what professionals do. When it came time for the Bruckner, he kept an audience of close to 3000 people spellbound.  They applauded him heartily. Their Sunday afternoon was well-spent. And this was not in a great metropolis but rather in a relatively small town in Germany that boasts an A level opera house and symphony orchestra.

These people left me inspired, Carlos. I feel inspired to go on helping great singers complete their package such that a few years from now they will be even better than the singer you chose to judge so categorically. Despite your fervent belief, the operatic field is not going to die so easily.  There are many of us who are on this journey for life. It was 11:30 pm when I read your comment and I was in my studio practicing to make myself better. We believe that the arts feed the human soul and that our work, while it may not always make us rich in money, fills our spirits in ways that you obviously have not considered.  We know the challenges we face and we are engaged in meeting them. We plan to build Carlos, and if you want to help then grab a shovel and get to work. Otherwise, do us the favor of not distracting us with your side-line pessimism.

Respectfully disagreeing with your premise,

Jean-Ronald Lafond,
 Singer for over 30 years, teacher for over 20 years, experienced professional singer and actor, stage director and conductor, who speaks 6 languages well,

BUT who (like all the real professionals he knows) asks himself every day: "What can I do better today?"



Friday, April 16, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Table Wine Is Not Chateauneuf du Pape or Honor To the Art.

So many influences contribute to this post. I have been busy the past couple of weeks, staging a short opera, traveling a lot to teach and teaching a lot.  I have much to write about sensory feedback and the language of the old Italian School.  However, each night I sit down at the computer to write a technical post, I find myself distracted by one event or another than have led me to the current post.

The opera forums are buzzing with the news of opera theaters closing. Even in Germany where subsidized opera seems relatively safe, established theaters are threatening to close because they are becoming bankrupt, and others are planning to combine with neighboring theaters to reduce cost, etc.  A recent Vanity Fair article calls the Metropolitan Opera under the new General Manager, Peter Gelb, a "...Grand Gamble," that may not pan out.

Meanwhile I have been blessed to teach some very special singers, who are defying the odds. Two that I taught today got news of important auditions and engagements. One very special singer who, by current wisdom, would be judged too old to get back in the game has been taken on by a very powerful agent who is already sending her out to important auditions. One ex-mezzo who only recently begin calling herself a soprano sent me a clip of Dove Sono, that I cannot stop listening to because of its sheer beauty. My little band of Tenors who Formally Sang as Baritones, inspire secret tears when I hear that they are no longer baritones at all but full-fledged tenors singing stentorian high Bs that would be the envy of many a working tenor today. My own process is satisfying more and more and I am beginning to think I may begin auditioning in the fall for real.

I juxtapose my little world with the wider operatic world for a reason.  It comes down to respecting quality, living by a philosophy of quality rather than quantity, fostering quality and simply not accepting mediocrity. This requires a constant re-analysis of self.  A week ago, I decided to stop drinking alcohol altogether. It is not a moral decision at all, but rather respecting a decision that my body made by itself. In a sense, that decision, brought on by an experience in Sweden in the beginning of the month inspired the title of this post.

At the beginning of the month, I made my long-desired pilgrimage to the land of Gedda, Björling, Svetholm and Nilsson.  I have loved Swedish singers for a long time and often wondered why they sing so beautifully. After teaching a dozen or so of them, I realize it is not by accident that there are so many great Swedish singers and so consistently at the highest levels of the operatic art.  During my visit to Göteborg, something unexpected happened beyond the discovery that Sweden is indeed populated with many great singers. My student Erik took me to Björns Bar, a smaller extension of the celebrated restaurant Kock och Vin (Chef and Wine), written officially Kock & Vin and pronounced like the famous French dish coq au vin--A very refined play on words. Not only was my Boeuf Bourgignon of the most exquisite quality and cuisson, Bjorns Bar boasts the No. 1 sommelier (wine steward) in Sweden, who recommended two most exquisite wines, one to accompany my delectable main course and the other to accompany the assortment of fine cheeses that came after.  The last time I had such an excellent wine with an unforgettable meal was in the mountains of Umbria when as a member of the Westminster Choir, I sang at the Spoleto Festival. A local bartender, who now owns his own bar in Montefalco, took me to a restaurant outside of the tourist-infested main street of Spoleto. Alessandro Miecchi remains a dear friend, with whom I still communicate today. 

In the Spoleto days, wine was not consumed by so many Americans. In fact it was not available as easily as it is today. There were not wine specialty stores on every sprawled corner, and wines were not being made in every state in the union (I nearly became ill at a wine festival in Pennsylvania two years ago). The democratization of all things fine, from wine, to specialty coffees to opera sought the pockets of the upper middle class and then the lower middle class and then anyone who cared to join in in habits that gave them the air of refinement even where actual refinement may have lacked. In the last decade, wine production in the American state of Washington increased by 400%. Wine exports from Australia since my unforgettable dinner in Spoleto in 1986 increased to 10,000% as of 2006. Similar rises can be found for South American (e.g. Chile, Argentina) and South Africa.  New and significant wine producers are now coming out of North Africa, particularly in parts of the Middle East. Although all of these new wine-producing regions (i.e. South America, Australia and South Africa) have produced excellent wines, the situation begs the question: "How many of these wines are simply indigestible?" What is worse, many of these bad wines will use names associated with opera.  With  bottles labeled with a beautiful graphic design, the new faux-wine connoisseur who lacks the schooled palate will fall victim to a bad wine every time, and even if his sense of taste tells him that he should throw away the bottle, he may keep drinking it until he is convinced that it is good.

I am sure you have caught on by now that I am making a parallel with the so-called democratization of opera.  Like wines, opera has become a status symbol for anyone who mentions that they go to the opera. Like the new wine connoisseurs whose palates, ruined by wine boxes, can no longer distinguish between a bad table wine and Chateauneuf du Pape, many of the new opera aficionados cannot distinguish the libretto from the programs they receive at the door; nor can they distinguish between Piotr Beczala and Andrea Bocelli. As I have said here often, The Three Tenors (and they have earn the distinction to be called such) gave the opera business an unexpected gift at the 1990 Football World Cup. With the many copy-cats that came afterward (some worthy and some disrespectful) the businessmen of opera failed to make the distinction between opera-light and opera at its fundamental core.  From the Corsican, Tino Rossi in the 1920s and 30s to Mario Lanza in the 1940s and 50s, opera light has always existed.  Whereas in the past, the stars of opera light encouraged the masses to go to the opera house and learn about opera, the non-artistic administrators more adept at public relations than distinguishing between true talent and superficiality, made the error in thinking that they could water-down opera to the superficial tastes of the masses.  Those of us who work in opera and do the trench work with the devoted artists who sweat blood for this art form, we predicted at least a decade ago on opera forums that this bubble, like the Dot-com bubble before it, would eventually burst. 

That is the reason I brought up my studio.  For better or for worse, I aspire to an ideal that maybe out of step with the times.  I expect my students (and myself) to build up their voices like athletes build up their bodies for competition. Furthermore I encourage them to be exceptional musicians (I seem to attract the brainy type), linguists, actors and philosophers.  Better said, I encourage the philosophers in them. My 27-year old ex-baritone began his journey to tenor some nine months ago. F4 was a terribly difficult note for him. Now he sings it every day as if it never was a problem. He knows the frustration he went through to own that note. He can sing a beautiful high B now. Perhaps he does not own it quite yet, but he knows it is just a matter of time. Their is a logic to his process and he trusts it.  I am now in the fortunate place to see the final product in some of these singers and to see many of them close behind and to have the confidence that those who are not there yet will soon be rejoicing as well.  After some 30 years since I had my first voice lesson and after some 25 years of unbroken teaching (I was encouraged to teach since I finished my undergrad voice pedagogy class), although there is always more to learn, the process of learning to sing makes clear sense to me.

Yet, humility before the art is the greatest gift in all of this. False modesty is a waste of time. Indeed there is a difference.  One of my most accomplished students called me "Guru" today. I cringe to hear the word because a former colleague of mine recently insinuated that he does not like gurus, a cloaked criticism of my teaching philosophy.  When I laughed she said that she "bowed to my knowledge" in the way the Indian musicians respect their teachers, and indeed the way I respect my Kung Fu teacher. When I told her I could not have any illusions of grandeur since half of my students sing much better than I do at this point. She said: "What does that have to do with anything?" Ten minutes later, an accomplished baritone student called me to ask me if he should accept two roles that were just offered him. He precised that he would say no if I did not think he could do them. This reverence I believe I have earned as these students have earned my respect. We are accomplices in this process and I will be proud to stand by them on good days and bad days.

I disagree with my honorable student though. It does matter to me that many of my students sing better than I do. I am not in competition with them certainly, but my goal is to get my own voice to the highest level. That way I too can represent them in a way that makes them proud of their teacher. I can now demonstrate much of what I teach. Some things I cannot do yet, because I have to retrain to erase the many errors I made singing the wrong repertoire for 20 years. Yet I am a long way from two years ago when I began my own retraining.  As I listen to these fine vocal wines emerging from the studio and seeing them defy age and other preconceptions to become confident and to have faith in their unique gifts, I feel empowered to write a blog post like this.

It is from those of us who are 100% committed to the development of this complex art form that yet another renaissance of opera will begin. I am not one of those doomsday types who believe that opera is done. When the money is gone and all the superficial nonsense has gone away, the real singers (the committed ones), the real directors and conductors will be there to pick up the pieces and inspire new generations of true opera-lovers.  It takes profound, developed talent to excite the average person to become an opera fan.  Profound talent is like deep tissue massage, it gets at the very essence of the person who is being massaged and probably at the essence of the masseur as well.  The teacher is masseur to the singer, and the singer become masseur to his/her listener.

And so back to why my body decided to give up alcohol.  The day after the magnificent meal and wine at Björns Bar, I woke up and did my Kung Fu exercises and did not think much of it. It felt like any other day. A couple of weeks ago in Berlin, I had a couple of glasses of wine with some friends at dinner and the next day I felt very weak. My Kung Fu exercises were next to impossible. Also singing was more difficult on that day. I felt dry and inflexible.  I spend my day with a group of amazingly inspired people who make my life vibrant and full of purpose. Every part of me now craves quality. I desire the physical strength and flexibility that Kung Fu provides. I wish to feel physically vibrant and healthy and lucid and energetic. My students, and indeed I, deserve no less. And so, I reserve the right to buy a quality bottle of wine once in a long while and savor it, perhaps at the suggestion of a world-class sommelier. Such a wine will do me good. And since such a pleasure would come only at very wide intervals, there would be no danger of polluting myself with mediocre wines on a regular basis.  That can be said for coffee, food and even relationships.

I am not a snob for desiring quality.  To be a snob is to deny the average person the same quality that I desire. It would be a great world if the average person had the opportunity to learn to appreciate true opera and a real fine wine, instead of watering down Chateauneuf du Pape because we think that the average person could not handle the bold taste of that wine.  What has the opera business done these past twenty years if not attempting to water down opera to a bland version that the average person supposedly can digest?

I will finish with current news. The New York Times hails the new cast of the Met Tosca (Patricia Racette, Jonas Kaufman and Bryn Terfel) in the Luc Bondy production that was booed last Fall at opening night.  If anyone thinks that this vindicates the ill-conceived Bondy experiment, he or she would be sorely mistaken.  Having seen these three singers live, I can understand why they inspired fevered bravos this week. And yes I got one of the last $20 tickets available for next Tuesday. I want to be inspired too and will bring field glasses if necessary. Whatever their errors, these singers are experienced, inspired artists who have done the trench work to get where they are. They are big personalities who are able to channel their powerful psyches through great voices. They would make the Met audience roar even if the stage was bare.  Great productions enhance the music rather than thinking of it as a Hollywood-style soundtrack.  As a great conductor once said to me just before the dress rehearsal of an  ill-conceived production of Die Zauberflöte: "Let's think of it as a concert version!"

© 04/10/2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): The paradox of strength and flexibility

In a yoga class some months ago, I asked my teacher what I could do to accelerate flexibility. He said:  "it depends on how strong you are."  I did not see the connection. He then suggested I lift my backpack, filled with over 30 pounds of scores (that I too often carry around, putting strain on my posture), then slowly at chest level make a large figure-8 with my arm.  It was not easy. In fact it took a lot more strength then I thought. Then he suggested I do the same with two arms.  It was much easier.  The simple principle is that when my muscles are not straining just keeping the backpack up, they can allow for easy movement.  Whatever the action is that is asked of the muscles--be it my lower back muscles that are not strong enough to allow me to bend totally forward while they are being counted by the muscles that allow me to bend backwards (most every muscle is part of an antagonistic pair) or my crico-thyroids not strong enough to counter the necessary resistance of the thyro-arytenoids that yields appropriate fold depth (and therefore correct closure and air flow)--we have to be strong.


In the beginning of vocal study, or when correcting any imbalance at any stage of the game, there must be physical challenge.  The freedom that come from balanced phonation-- (i.e. the easy flow of air that comes when the fold covers on both sides are loose enough to do the wave-like motion over the the fold body, but at the same time coming together well enough to produce complete closure during every close phase [inertial reactance included])--requires great strength. The laryngeal muscles must be strong relative to their paired antagonists in order to set the folds in the correct posture that allows for easy flow of air. The breathing mechanism also depends on a strong antagonism between muscles of inhalation and those of exhalation in order to steady the air pressure. The core muscles must be very strong in order to provide the support structure under the diaphragm that prevents loss of air pressure.

Most voices are unbalanced in some way: whether it is the young dramatic tenor who spoke very lightly as he grows up and never engaged the chest voice appropriately, or me, the slightly older dramatic tenor who spoke too low and also allowed his athleticism to slowly decay over the years.

During my development over the past two years (April 24 marks the two years since I sang my last baritone performance), I became conscious of several simultaneous muscular processes. We all desire for the work to be easy, particularly when we have heard this all our lives from teachers who do not like to see us work hard when we sing. Yet in the beginning, if you are not strong in the ways you need, true lyric singing will not be easy and it will not look easy. If it does look easy and one is not strong enough for the correct sound, then the sound will not be viable.

I have gotten to a very interesting level in my development at which I can sing an excellent Bb in a number of ways.  In a series of practices over the past three days, I tried first to concentrate of the bright tenor quality and concentrated much more on fold closure (I can always be more efficient in that regard). I had a very satisfying practice but then the next day by voice felt a little stiff and it took longer to warm up then usual. I realized then that I had been pressing and not engaging all the muscles that create proper fold posture and breath pressure.  I decided that day to reconnect fully. It was more physical work, but the vocal folds became much more pliant and I did not have to sacrifice the fold closure I had found the previous day. What I discovered was that I was not strong enough to take my support, and my fold posture mechanism for granted.

When I work hard like that in my body, it feels like the ceiling of the top is taken away and high C does not feel so impossibly high.  Some singers have a great physical constitution genetically. They do not have to work out and they look like body-builders. Most of us have to work hard to maintain our muscular toning. It is when we become strong that singing feels easy. Maestro Pavarotti said that we are athletes first. In this priceless video he says this at 4:10.







At the end of that sentence Pavarotti says: "But generally...an athlete...because we push so much".  What does Pavarotti means about "we have to push so much"?  He certainly does not mean pushing in the way we use the word in English.  I believe he means that there is extreme physical effort required in singing and so one must be in excellent shape to sing.  Being in shape of course does not mean that one has to be very thin. A sumo wrestler is a powerful athlete, but he does not train the same way a basketball player trains.  Different muscles for different activities.  Of course, it is found that cross-training also is of great benefit to athletes. Being in good shape in general helps singing greatly, but it is not enough unless the muscles specific to singing are developed at a very high level.

© 04/10/2010

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Sweden, a Goldmine of Operatic Potential

It is no secret that I have a special love for the great Swedish singers who have left an indelible mark on the operatic stage. From legends like Gedda, Björling, Svanholm and Nilsson to modern greats like the late Gösta Winbergh and current stars, Nina Stemme and Miah Persson, the Swedes have produced an unbroken line of laudable presence on the world's stages.

This weekend I had the honor of spending some pleasurable hours teaching a bunch of impressive young singers in Göteborg who are bound to follow on that Gyllenstig (Golden Path).  Indeed the consistency in the quality of those voices makes me feel that the operatic business could find remedy for much of its ills by visiting Sweden.

It is not only the quality of the voices that I found so remarkable in these singers, but how easy they were able to correct imbalances, how determined they were to sing well, how much patience they not only showed but verbalized, and their inherent, unaffected, refined musicality. In a business that is now known for hurrying young talents to their early demise, not one but three singers verbalized how important it was for them to take the time to learn to sing correctly, that they were not interested in a quick flash in the pan.  Their level of concentration throughout the hours that ended far too soon was only surpassed by their intense desire to understand and apply the concepts I was teaching them.

Sweden's Gold is not accidental.  Swedes sing! There is a widespread choral tradition that seems to have infected the lives of these northern songbirds in a very natural way. At a restaurant tonight, during a very happy and somewhat bittersweet au revoir dinner, a man at the adjacent table who figured out we were talking about singing burst out into song. Not a shabby voice either! For one to decide to become a singer in Sweden, the level must be already pretty high.  One of the singers attributes Swedish talent to the extended pitch range of the Swedish language.

This was my first visit to this wonderful place that has fascinated me ever since I became enamored with their operatic legends. Naturally I cannot really be totally certain as to why their voices are so flexible and indeed so strong. Yet, those are not the first Swedish singers I have taught. I find it remarkable that not one of the Swedes I have taught, including all of those during this trip, exhibited less than a voice that makes one take notice.  I know understand why my dear friend Martin, who contributes such wonderful nuggets of scientific information here, thinks little of his own voice, which by any measure has a remarkable quality for one who calls himself an amateur.

There is no doubt, I will return to Sweden often if I have the opportunity. Thank you so much Erik, for inviting me to Göteborg, and thank you to all the singers who trusted me with their voices and made my stay so extremely pleasurable. Your remarkable well-rounded talents inspired my teaching and my singing to new heights.


HEJ SÅ LÄNGE!

© 04/06/2010

Thursday, April 1, 2010

In Göteborg this weekend

Just a quick signal to my Swedish Friends.  Outside of the United States, the blog is visited by more Swedes than any other nationality with Germany coming a close third. I have been a fan of the great Swedish singers as you know from my blog posts. I am very excited to spent three days in Göteborg this weekend (beginning tomorrow) to teach and also to get to know that beautiful city.  I would be happy to meet any of you who follow the blog.

See you soon!

Jean-Ronald