Thursday, July 29, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Regeneration and Renewal: Paradise on Klädesholmen

The summer is a time of regeneration of energy and a renewal of conviction. Teachers often go to teach at summer academies or festivals. These are special times away from the routine of the mundane to reaffirm our dedication to the artform we love and hopefully to discover deeper aspects of our humanity that in turn will fuel our zeal to better the state of our art.

One of my newest students in Gothenburg has a home on the idyllic island of Klädesholmen on Tjörn (an hour from Gothenburg on the archipelago of the Swedish West Coast) and thought it might be a good idea to hold a masterclass there with a small group of students. I had envisioned a quiet, concentrated time with a few wonderful singers, hoping that the beautiful setting and open-lesson format would encourage trust, fellowship, courageous risk-taking leading to fundamental steps forward. One hopes for such things, but it is rare that our visions get realized totally and way beyond our wildest dreams.

I wanted this masterclass to be special, reflecting my philosophy of singing. Quite spontaneously, I ended up with confirmation from five very special students: 1) the student who owns the property and brought up this wonderful idea 2) the student who introduced me to Sweden 3) the American student who was looking for something special to do this summer, preferably in Europe, 4)the German student who had exactly those dates free, after a planned family vacation and just before rehearsing for her upcoming production and 5) the student for whom the trip became quite unexpectedly possible. In a strange way it seemed that this session was meant to happen for us six and I believe we were all changed by it.

Between arrival day last Sunday and departure day today we had three days filled with exercise, lectures singing, meals together and walks in what seemed a paradise on Earth.

I was determined to begin my days at 7:30 with Kung Fu practice. When the students heard of my plan, they decided to join me at the beach and everyone worked out side by side. We finished with a swim in the North Sea. We then had breakfast together followed by a lecture (Day 1 Phonation, Day 2 Breathing and Day 3 Resonance). After the lecture, we had tea together and then each student had a one hour lesson open to everyone else. Noone was required to stay, but everyone did, and everyone supported the others and the atmosphere created trust and each person became open to taking risks and letting go of what was safe for something more complete and uncertain. On the last day, we had a wonderful young coach come and the students experiences some of their pieces closer to performance mode. The pianist spent the entire last day with us and was of a similarly open, supportive and generous disposition.

Dinners were deliciously prepared and with great care by our generous host, whose heart is as huge as his Heldentenor voice. The others helped, sometimes by preparing a personal salad, or some condiment for our fantastic fish-dishes, etc. It was a time to relax and get to know each other in a very informal setting. Sometimes we talked about singing, but not so much.

The details are beautiful, but more than that I felt humbled by all my students at so many levels. They opened themselves so completely that I felt so responsible. Without exaggeration, I can honestly say that each of those five singers has a special genius and they trust me to help them make sense of it. I have been working with these singers for varying lengths of time and always avoiding false modesty, I believe I have guided them to their individual paths. Yet, it is I who am inspired. It is my sincere hope to become like them--to have a facile mind, a giant heart, a boundless spirit and the sense of truth to sing with that uniquely beautiful voice that originates not at their throats, but at the very center of their beings.

I do not have any wisdom to share today, but I think a teacher is just as much a product of his/her students' virtues as the students are a product of the teacher's experiences. After these few days, I believe I stand to benefit so much more from their collective gifts.

So I dedicate this blogpost to you Olof and Erik and Kala and Kati and Meta and Lisa. Klädesholmen is a beautiful place, but it is your outpour of love that made it Paradise for the last few days.

Jag kommer aldrig att glömma denna upplevelse. Ni är alla i mitt hjärta!


© 07/29/2010

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Of worthless coaches and fabulous pasta al ragu!

Today I arrived in Milano. My purpose for the last 10 days has been to introduce my Darling Son to not only Europe, but a world beyond his imagination. His mom asked me to show him that the world was a big place with possibilities. Today I had the unexpected opportunity to share with him some life lessons that I learned from my father. These are special moments!

France was ostentacious and fabulous! My ancestors are French from Nevers! But I am two-sided about the French. I have a beloved colleague, a conductor named, Victor Puhl. We studied conducting together. He makes being French a work of art. It turns out that he was the General Music Director in Zwickau, where two excellent students of mine sing. Through one of them I reconnected with him and I am glad. Indeed, this post is about being artists and being art peddlers. I have also met too many French who ruin my attachment to my ancestors by being typically snobish know-it-alls who chose to make anyone not born in France feel less than they--A confirmation of their hollow superiority complex--paradoxically an inferiority complex.

Thus after a stressful time in Paris, where among other things, we enjoyed the splendors of Versailles and the genius of the French Impressionists, as well as the chaos that is traffic in Paris and a brief stay in Nice, where I dreamed nostalgically of warmer times gone by and was reminded yet again why the French at their worse can get on my last nerve , my son and I arrived in Milano at rush hour. This is enough to make one wonder, as Marc Chagall often thought, whether the world has an up and a down. Christopher at one point said: "Do these people know how to drive?" Indeed, I was not expected much from Milano other than the spectacular Duomo and La Scala. I am central Italian through and through. My time in Italy was spent in Umbria, Rome, Toscana and Campania. I found the Milanese cold. But not today! Our hotel suggested the restaurant "Settembrini 18" reflecting the street address, Via Settembrini 18.

For the first time in this trip I watched my son enjoy a meal with such pleasure that I did not need to convince him that it was good. We started with Prosciutto e melone. I introduced him to my favorite appetizer in Berlin at a decent Italian restaurant. He liked it then. He devoured it today. We then had Spaghetti al ragú. He called it the best pasta he ever had. He finished off with a classic Tiramisú and caffé, and we celebrated with a proper limoncello. The service was excellent and the food exceptional. Grazie Italia!

When we got back to the hotel and I left my wallet at the desk after ordering internet connection, the hotel steward brought me my wallet. I blamed it on the limoncello I had at the restaurant and guess what! The steward, a few minutes later, brought me a small bottle of limoncello and said: "So you can work better!"

This confirmed what I told my son at the restaurant. My dad told me a long time ago that everyone can be an artist. He showed me how a taxi driver can be an artist and give his customer an unforgettable experience. So were the hotel steward, the chef and the waiters at the restaurant we ate tonight. My son now sits next to me after having maybe the best time of the trip so far. He is happy! Happier than after being impressed by the treasures of Versailles, which he loved. Happier than he was at the natural wonder of the Côte d'Azur at close sight. The Italians have the gift of human touch!

Now for the vocal part! Singers need to be nurtured in the way the Italians nurtured us this evening. They need people who make them feel they are special while challenging them. A great singer is a special person with a tremendous gift and needs to be reminded of both the magnificence of the gift and the responsibility that comes with it. The many singers I teach are so aware of their responsibilities. For that reason I make sure they realize how very special they are.

I became particularly angry on two recent occasions when a famous teacher known for her abusive nature told one of my students, a burgeoning coloratura of extra-ordinary talent: "Why would you want to be a F***ing soprano when you could be a fabulous mezzo?" I say simply: "Because she is a soprano, you idiot!" One more teacher who believes that singers are the way they are and cannot change.

A great teacher sees what a student can potentially become and does not limit them to the way they sound now!

Yesterday, another gifted student of mine was brought to tears by a coach who thought he was holier than thou. Simply, there is no room for such vile, self-depracating idiots who take out their self-hatred on the people who pay them for guidance. They should be all erased to make room for people who nurture and challenge the talented people who come to them.

A great coach does not show off by showing the student how much they don't know but inspires them by showing them how much they could learn. What appears to be a subtle difference is really a world's distance apart!

I left a hefty tip for the two waiters who pampered us at Settembrini 18. The coaches I work with are very special people who challenge me to be better than I ever imagine. Among them, the immortal Glenn Parker, the genius conductor Gustav Meier, the talented directors Jay Lesenger, Ed Berkeley and Britta Heiligenthal, the gifted writer, Sarah O'neill and the brilliant coaches, Alessandro Zuppardo, Akemi Masuko, Kanako Nakagawa and Rupert Dussmann.

As my dear colleague Cindy Sadler says: Singer's rule #1--Never pay someone to be an A**hole to you!

Singers, we have greater control than we allow ourselves. We pay coaches and voice teachers. If they are abusive, please save your money! Boycott them and give a great tip to the next waiter and chef who make you glad you have taste buds! In such a way, we can slowly get rid of unimaginative people who got to important positions by luck! With this, I am about to remove a coach from my Facebook list who should not be part of my energy circle. Life is too short! We need positive energy! I call to all my students to delete a negative energy from your circle of influence today!

© 07/22/2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Another one for the changelings among us!

I watch my beautiful 16-year old son taking a nap a few meters from me and realize how much he has changed since that first day when he seemed to fit in the space of my right palm. The preciousness of him felt so heavy although he weighed a mere 6 pounds 12 ounces then. Despite divorced parents, he has grown into a beautiful young man, full of potential, thanks in greater part to his devoted mother who spends most every day with him. My former wife and I are very different people and our combined influence and love has given our dear son a balance that neither of us possessed when we had him. He is not perfect in the objective sense, although to me he and his little sister could not be more perfect. I do believe that the balance he has achieved will serve him well in being able to make sense of his life and in facing the challenges that all human beings must face.


We are always changing, even from one day to the next. The question is whether we change in balance or in imbalance. Without over-philosophising the point, this is a vocal question as well. I received an email from one of my ex-baritone tenors yesterday and he was afraid about his first tenor role. I told him the role was just a high baritone role and he should not worry. The reason he should not worry is that he has accomplished so much in less than one year into his transition and he has grown in balance. He now sounds completely like a tenor, but maintains a certain fullness throughout his voice. He has developed top Cs but has not lost low notes. His voice now sound evenly like one voice from low to high. What lacks is the strength in the laryngeal muscles to maintain balance over time (i.e. stamina). When one muscle gets tired, it affects the balance between it and the rest of the musculature. The goal is not to sing a high C in any way, shape or form but one that maintains appropriate muscular balances through changes in air pressure, in resonance adjustment, in emotionally state, etc. He is most of the way there, but to develop in balance takes more time than to produce pitches and sounds that have no relationship to the other notes in the voice.

It seems that a good portion of the students I teach experience a change in vocal categorization of some kind. Whether a spinto who had sung as a dramatic too early, or a soprano who had sung as a lyric mezzo or a dramatic mezzo who sang dramatic soprano or a lyric mezzo who thought herself a coloratura or the baritone who sang Heldentenor or the Heldentenor who sang baritone or the coloratura who sang as a lyric...(wow! I think I covered everyone)!

But in truth, even the students who do not experience a category change are also changelings. They are changelings every time they change one note in their voices from one muscular adjustment to another. The truly successful singer goes through many periods of change relative to the voice. Being afraid of the changes is death to a singer!

Indeed, if I held my son in my right palm until this day, my arm would break and his growth would be stunted. I held his hand when he first learned to walk and ran close behind him when he first learned to run in the grass (there are pictures!). But now, in a town where he does not speak the language, I am there to help but watch him make his way. I must be more hands off now.

And so, my dear changelings, if you think that singing is difficult, well it is! But how many things can you do now that you could not before? In how many situations can you let go and let the voice do its own thing, when before you had to help somehow? Don`t worry if you have developed in balance, but rather keep the faith in what has gotten you here so far: your faith in your talent; your courage in traveling unsure paths; your patience in pursuing your dreams and of course the hard work that is a hallmark of your personalities.

There are no short cuts no matter how temptingly attractive they might appear to be. I am traveling the path with you and honor your perseverence!

© 07/18/2010

Friday, July 16, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Baby Steps!

I have the great gift of spending 12 days with my son, one of the few situations in which singing does not come to mind.  Although I have so much I wish to share, my writing in the next week will be spotty. I already write a less frequently because teaching activities have increased considerably the past few months.  I hope you will indulge me the time it takes to find new balance as I experience growth in my teaching and singing.

I will try to deals with a couple of related subjects in this short post.  Matias, my friend from Argentina wrote to ask about falsetto in Pavarotti and Kraus in response to the blog on falsetto.

Quickly, Alfredo Kraus said he could not produce a falsetto.  I would say it is an slight exaggeration. Kraus' voice was coordinated modally throughout, albeit lighter and more pressed as he got older. I recommend early Kraus, including the early renditions of Celeste Aida and Non piangere Liu.  Not appropriate repertoire for such a light voice but completely convincing technically. Kraus' high modal singing means that he could have produced a full closure falsetto much higher in the range. But this kind of singing was not necessary for him, and so he never developed it. Anyone is capable of falsetto if he choses to develop it. Same is true of females singers and flute voice.

Matias also wonders if both Pavarotti and Kraus were so properly coordinated from childhood that their voices developed in a coordinated fashion. We less coordinated ones who have had to use falsetto or extreme light mechanism to develop the CT over time may find it hard to understand how someone can develop high notes without using extreme coordinations.  I would think that Pavarotti must have experimented with falsetto-like coordination. His sopracuti (above C5) tended to be more falsetto-like.

It is also easy to confuse falsetto with a quiet modal coordination. This is the mode I would recommend: a well-coordinated modal production that may not yet be strong enough to handle strong breath pressure. I developed my top in this way. The high C I posted here a month or so ago came from that kind of practice. This has given me much better coordination up to C5 in full voice.  The quieter voice ( not so quiet anymore) that takes me up as high as G5 occasionally is inching closer and closer to full voice. I am finding a fuller and fuller light voice that permits me to sing considerably high repertoire. But this coordination does not last as long. It used to last a couple of minutes, now I can use it for 30 minutes. It helps me find greater efficiency when I sing what feels like my full voice. At the end of a practice  a week ago, I sang Ah la paterna mano from Verdi's Macbeth and shared it with one of my students who has also successfully made the transition to tenor from baritone.  I did not feel it fully represented where I am now, but my student felt it was a considerable step forward and that the blog family deserves to hear that step. So without excuses, here is the clip. I give myself a pitch occasionally to make sure I am still on, since I sing a cappella.  Thank you all for your encouragement through all the steps so far. I am now able to listen to myself and be proud of how far I have come. Sometimes, I feel the final levels of strength and coordination are one step away, but it is better to concentrate on the fact that one single baby step has been taken and simply rejoice on that.

JRL20100712Paterna Mano.mp3

Finally, I should announce to all my Scandanavian friends that I will be teaching in Gothenburg, Sweden on July 29-31 after a idyllic retreat with some of my students in Tjörn and then in Stockholm from July 31 to August 13. I will also attend some of the sessions of PAS 5, The 5th International Conference on the Physiology and Acoustics of Singing, in Stockholm, August 10-13.  I hope to see many of you there.

© 07/16/2010

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Introducing two new bloggers

The list of blogs I follow are listed on the right side column this blog. I wanted to bring your attention to two relatively new blogs from two colleagues I respect greatly.

Claudia Frielander and I were chosen for the NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) Internship program for young voice teachers, together in 1999.  We taught in each other's company for ten days straight and developed a respect for each other that remains vital until now.  I have been enjoying her blogposts extremely over the past month and feel that the readers of this blog would enjoy her insights as well. She blogs from her website under the very apt title, The Liberated Voice. Claudia is a insightful pedagogue and a very gifted writer as well.

Brian Lee frequently posts his vocal wisdom on NFCS. He inaugurated his blog in September of 2009 and routinely brings unusual insights.  I have come to respect Brian for the consistent high quality of his writing on vocal and pedagogical issues. He blogs through blogger under the title, Voice Teacher Singer Student.  


I hope you enjoy these bloggers as I do. Their writings add a lot to the conversation.

As for yours truly, I just discovered a program that encodes Youtube clips directly to wav format. This allows me to do acoustic analysis of the great singers more quickly.  I will be able to begin my series on the great singers relatively soon.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Defining falsetto and how it may be used to further balanced phonation

My voyage from bass-baritone to tenor is getting to the point whereby daily experiences are like a sequence of wonderful miracles. I say bass-baritone because at my heaviest I sang Wotans Abschied with the Salt Lake City Symphony, Sarastros arias in concert and towards the end, Germont, Macbeth, Scarpia and then I began coaching Amfortas and Hollander. But no! I was never a bass or even a baritone for that matter. The fact that judgments about voice are made often haphazardly in small, resonant, medium-sized rooms that encourage volume rather than efficiency, can lead even the most disciplined singer astray.  Being led astray in part by my remarkable ability to ape the sound of a Verdian baritone is however not the issue today, but rather the remarkable road back to truth or better said to conscious singing.

If I had to chose a single principle in the last 28 months that I would call the most significant, I would have to say without a doubt that it is the paradoxical term, full-closure falsetto. More on this later! But first, I will attempt to make sense of the term falsetto. The term has been used historically for many different situations. At one point, falsetto (literally little false [voice]) referred to the tendency for male singers to sing a little breathy in the muscular passaggio (incidentally also true of women), roughly between A3 to G4 depending on the severity of the muscular imbalance and the vocal type. This little false voice could sound less false in the upper passaggio where the activity of the external Thyro-Arythenoids (not the vocalis, which is internal) would have an adductive effect on the folds. Nevertheless this would not induce full closure. Just enough to give the sound a partial clarity due to the fact that the folds had come together enough to create some glottal resistance.
However this coordination, unlike a well-coordinated phonation, cannot endure great levels of subglottal pressure without falling apart. Thus, this false sound was also identified as less loud. This is however not a black and white issue. This falsetto can exist on a continuum of efficiency to inefficiency, meaning that it is possible to make a sound that is closer to a real sound than it is to falsetto, but is nevertheless falsetto because of its inherent inefficiency. Ergo, when one thought of me as a baritone, my hollow falsetto driven to loud levels was considered a real sound. The inherent inefficiency made the sound darker. It lacked the clarity that comes with full closure as well as the strong high partials necessary for vocal presence in an orchestral environment. In a medium, live room however, I was considered in the same category as Bastianini.  Is it a wonder that my favorite singer in my early years was the late Hermann Prey?  By my estimation, he was a tenor who mastered the slightly breathy voice, yielding enough darkness to make him viable as a lyric baritone. Had I not been able to produce very low notes, I could have made it as a very successful lyric baritone specializing in recitals.

But there is another voice quality that is referred to as falsetto. It is also quiet and unable to become very loud for reasons that are opposite to the first kind of falsetto. In this case, the folds are closed tightly. In such a posture, an increase in subglottal pressure does not get released fully in the open phase of vibration. Over time, the pressure builds up to an unsustainable level. So this coordination also remains relatively less loud, but it has greater acoustic strength than the hollow, driven falsetto. In the high range, B4b and above it could take a quality that ressembles a Rossini tenor or a haute-contre (many modern counter-tenors use this coordination). This reinforced or full-closure falsetto is not very different from a balanced modal production with the sole distinction of being pressed. Some singers are strong enough to crescendo smoothly, albeit with great effort, from this sound to a full-voiced sound. They tend to be called robust tenors after the Italian term tenore robusto  or spinto in the case of sopranos. But such terms require a post of their own.

Naturally, a perfectly balanced but quiet sound is often mistaken for falsetto, until great singers like Nicolai Gedda, Giuseppe di Stefano, Alfredo Kraus and others demonstrate how it is possible to perform a crescendo and diminuendo from very quiet to very loud and quiet again, a term mistakingly called messa di voce outside of Italy.  The problem with these singers (Gedda much less problematic in this case) is that the upper voice is often not developed fully enough for these tenors to sing with their fullest voices without imbalance. Jussi Björling, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Miguel Fleta and Gigli developed their voices more fully without losing this flexibility.  It is this quiet modal voice, mistakingly confused with the other two modes described above, that can be developed to yield the most beautifully balanced voices.  Like the specific actions of other skeletal muscles, the balance of each individual note requires a specific strategy in the recruitment of muscular motor units (fibers). It is important to know that the ability to touch one's toes comes from having muscles strong enough that can overcome the resistence of the opposing muscle groups and not from the inherent flexibility of a muscle group. As my yoga teacher always said: flexibility is strength.


The muscular function of the larynx encourages closure as fundamental frequency (pitch for simplicity) rises. Such is the function of the External Thyro-Arytenoid Muscles, as mentioned above. The reverse is also true, one is more likely to be breathy in the lower range as external TA relaxes, thereby requiring greater activity from the Inter-Arytenoid muscles to complete fold closure at the posterior end of the vocal folds. It is from this fact that comes the concept of "bringing the top down".  Bringing the top down is a good concept but does not work equally in all singers. Imbalances, when they occur, are specific to each voice. Bringing the top down or bringing the bottom up (in cases where the lower voice is more efficient from habit) will tend to get bumpy at the muscular passaggio where the intricate balance between the laryngeal musculature is most tenuous.  Patience is necessary to achieve balance on each note using the uppermost coordinaton at low volumes as a model. Over time this quality can grow powerfully with little stress and considerably less effort. In my case, I have had the most palpable success when I alternate one month from the top (sometimes singing the lightest lyrical repertoire) with one month utilizing what I think as my full voice. The two qualities have become close to fully unified and I experience greater range and greater dynamic control at the extremes. The middle of the voice still requires attention.

The important lesson here is to learn to distinguish between the three modes referred to as falsetto.  The quiet modal voice is difficult to distinguish from the quiet pressed voice that often is produced virtually without vocalis activity.

Example clips will be posted soon!


© 07/08/2010

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Way of the Singer featured in Classical Singer Magazine

Dear Friends,

My interview on Classical Singer Magazine, featuring our blog, is out in the current issue, July 2010. The dynamic nature of the blog is due to its interactive nature. And this I could not do without all of you.

A hearfelt word of thanks to all of you in more than 60 countries worldwide.

Sincerely,

Jean-Ronald