Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Pavarotti Paradox: A tribute to Paul Adams

A full, brilliant tone! My operatic life may very well be defined by Pavarotti's rise as King of the High Cs. No voice more singularly sparked interest in opera as that of the great Pavarotti and in the time when I began to sing.  The genius of Pavarotti lies in the absolute abandon of his baby-like cry. His was a voice that was fully open yet never spread or rarely so.  Pavarotti seemed the singer with no  fear, yet simultaneously with near perfect control.  He was a singer blessed with a special, balanced coordination (a gift perhaps), yet he always talked about how hard he had to work to master his voice. He seemed to have had the easiest production, yet he always talked about how much of an athlete one has to be to sing.

I have worked with a lot of singers at a very high level lately and interestingly enough some relative beginners as well. Whether professional or beginner, there are two types of singers in my experience: those who aim to perfect their instrument and those who will take any trick available to have a sense of consistency. They are happy enough to sing all the notes they need. Quality is less important. I also find the latter group to be an "either or" crowd.  They navigate from one solution to another, always looking for the key to vocal bliss.  The former group, either through some early bad experience or intuitive wisdom learns that developing vocal skills is like walking a tight rope.  A great tight-rope artist falls a lot at low altitude before braving the heights.  A potential great singer realizes that singing is about coordination of several parts (i.e. breathing: core musculature and full lung capacity; phonation: fold depth and fold closure; resonance: purity of vowel concept and the reality of modification), and coordination requires strength from all elements concerned. The wise singer hears ease and understands the physical effort that produces ease. The one dimensional singer hears ease and thinks s/he has to do nothing.  Is it not obvious that if singing was about doing little or nothing that anyone could do it right away?  I maintain that anyone can do it, if s/he does the work necessary.

Pavarotti's ideal was Giuseppe di Stefano (a great artist with a great voice but incomplete technique). Pavarotti took the best of Di Stefano (the wide, open italianate vowels) and complements it with a fullness that promotes spontaneous acoustic change (register rotation in the passaggio), a necessary skill that the great Di Stefano never learned.  In essence, Pavarotti bettered his hero.  This says a lot about the man's drive and his ideals.

I often rant about the fact that active singers sometimes need to take time out to reevaluate their technique and in general they do not. But recently I have had contact with several singers who do so. I admire them very much.  They sing well but often take time off of their schedules to refine or reevaluate their skills. This takes courage and commitment to oneself and to the art.  Likewise, I had a first lesson the other day with a relatively inexperienced singer and she wondered if would really be interested in teaching her since I teach singers who are so much more advanced.  I told her that there was one criteria for me to teach someone: the singer must need to sing.  Those who must sing are not happy to be able to sing notes. They want to be able to make music with their voices.  They are usually very multi-dimensional, interesting people who sing because something inside them insists that they must.

The singers who fearlessly but intelligently go beyond their limitations, taking risks, are the singers that interest me.  The level of vocal coordination is unimportant. That is what I am here to teach. But what gets a singer from point A to point B is absolute dedication to their personal covenant relative to the art.  Some singers can learn this. Some other do not want to and this latter group is totally uninteresting to me.

This brings me to the other side of the paradox, the unknown singer named Paul Adams.  Paul Adams has a Pavarotti level voice.  He was a classmate of mine at Westminster Choir College, who, when his little body sang, had the power of an Orpheus.  He made entire audiences cry.  His singing is born of Faith, his process of Courage and his accomplishments of Patience.  Anyone who was at Westminter Choir College in the mid 1980s cannot say otherwise than that Paul Adams possesses the voice of God.  He inspired me greatly and he has a heart of pure gold.  He onced told me something that serves me until today and particularly now.  He said he gained a half step every semester. Paul did not care about singing high notes that did not sound good. He was happy to sing a fabulous Eb one semester, an E natural the next and then an F after that.  I remember when he sang each.  The role of Mendelssohn's Elijah will never have a better interpreter. He made the entire school cry at performance classes when he sang.  If Providence did not give Paul the rest of what was needed to be a top professional (he was back then the physical antithesis of his magnificent voice--small of stature and a very humble person), perhaps there is a different purpose for his substantial talent.

 I have not seen Paul in 25 years but I will never forget his voice, truly the greatest I have ever heard.  But I remember Paul mostly for his personal discipline.  He is one of those singers who valued the special quality of his voice and developed every note to match the best quality possible, not to impress anyone but because he felt he had a duty to develop his talent as well as he could.  Other things did not come easily to him and frankly I don't know how he coped or turned out.  As a teacher, I have a preference for soulful students who are more concerned about their long-term development than their short-term "flash in the pan".  I honor students who will go through tough times with principles that guide them in their insecurities--principles they do not abandon when things get difficult.  I have watched them accomplish what others might think impossible if hearing them at the beginning of the process.

 In truth, I am one of those singers. Maybe that is why I appreciate them.  I live the paradox.  I am being trusted by singers with high level careers while I build my own voice anew through an improbable change from bass-baritone to tenor. Today, I had my best practice.  I warmed up to C#5, sang Don Carlos, Max, Duca and Ottavio and all of it was clear and relatively easy. My core muscles got tired before my voice did and that was a beautiful turn of events.  My wonderfully soulful students trust me because of the principles I teach, not because of how I sound.  But they also hear my voice making wonderful changes for the better every day.  Every month I can do something I could not do before.  My change is not so easy which is why the great teacher Edward Zambara once said that perhaps one out of 50 who try the change from baritone to tenor will successfully make it.  Today I felt like the tenor that I am and there is no going back.  There will be a time soon when those wonderfully faithful students will be proud to say, you should hear my teacher sing.  Afterall, I am a singer first and like a wonderful tenor said to me today, there is nothing more frustrating for a musician than to survive a performance.  When you are born in the same country as Jussi Björling, your expectations are high.  When you were classmates with Paul Adams, your standards are also high.  Today Paul would be proud of me and so would my soulful students who make my life better every day.

My darling students, you call me, a singer in training, "Maestro". No greater paradox than that!  In my teaching I have earned this I believe, but that is not enough.  A true master must be able to do what he teaches as long as he is healthy enough to do it.  I do not hide behind my title as teacher.  I am a singer and I will sing at such a level as to make you proud. Your faith, your courage and your patience deserve no less. My own faith and courage and patience deserve no less!  I am close and I will achieve every skill I ask of you.  Nothing makes me angrier than my skills being questioned because I am going through a Fach change. I could have remained a baritone to protect my teaching credentials, but that would have been cowardly.  But nothing will quiet the visionless other than me achieving the highest skills. I am no longer a baritone and I will be angry with anyone who assumes I am still a baritone.  That time is long past. If you call me an unfinished tenor, I will smile, because that is what I am.  But I am close to finishing that job.  The Italian masters recommended 10 years to finish a voice, I am at year 3 and I believe I will have it done in less than 5.  My confidence does not come from hubris or boasting but rather from principled practicing and a deep longing to be the performer I once was. Like my very accomplished student said:  I want to have fun making music, not just survive a performance.  So this highly respected singer took time off to become the singer he wants to be and not just a surviver.  I honor him by personally accompanying him on this journey, as I do each and every soulful singer I teach who sees beyond their limitations, who dream high ideals and most of all work hard to make their visions real.

© 09/30/2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Beyond Throat Strength: The Beginning of Breath Power and Art

After writing the last post and after a rather long teaching day in Stockholm I decided to practice a bit even though I felt a little tired physically. I feel wrong if I don't practice, unless I am vocally tired. Something occurred that I have been awaiting for the last three years: the feeling of a totally passive throat. What was even more fun is that it was on a hig B that I felt I could sustain forever. Of course, my next question was (like any tenor would ask): var i helvete finns min höga C (Sorry, in a Swedish train from Stockholm to Gothenburg and I absolutely love this language)--Or where the hell is my high C.  That silly little half step should have been a cinch, but it did not want to come in the same way, so a little voice whispered: "patience!" I listened and enjoyed several high Bs and the joy of Pollione's aria from Norma.

Now with such experience one would think I was ready for prime time, right? No, not even close.  At 44 years old, I will not give anyone a reason to say: "Well it's pretty good but you don't have any experience as a tenor!" It is just beginning to be fun and it requires strength of a different kind. That is to say, it taken me three years to change the muscular balance of my throat from the vocalis-hyperactive bass-baritone to a balanced tenor (I know, seems like an oxymoron). This new laryngeal balance (we can also call it strength) yields a balanced pressure flow that makes the propogation of the tone more dependent upon management of the breath pressure at the level of the body (i.e. core muscles and volume of air in the lungs).

In a way, it is crucial when learning to sing, to understand that priorities change as we change. I felt that my strength had improved quite a bit in recent months and that I was beginning to be ready for an important next step. I did not know what.  I have talked about the importance of engaging the core musculature here a few times.  Support in singing is a question of continuous and appropriate breath pressure. This involves:

1) a steady foundation from the core musculature. Like the foundation of a house, the conditioning of these muscles contribute in steadying the air pressure and when pressure is already established, contracting them can increase pressure.

2) Standing lung pressure:  The amount of air at the beginning of any phonation should be substantial. Full lungs make for much better pressure control than partially empty lungs. Some teachers feel that when one needs to sing a short phrase or softly, they should have less air in the lungs, as if increased capacity means increased pressure. It does not!  Pressure depends on A) Diaphragmatic pressure B) medial pressure of the vocal folds C) fatty tissue in the case of substantial obesity. (That is why singers who lose a lot of weight suddenly, particularly through gastric bypass, will have support issue [i.e. medial pressure compensates for the loss of pressure that was provided by the fatty tissues]). I edit here to add that it is conceivable that the idea of less air in the lungs mean less air pressure would be logical if the singer indeed is obese.  When an obese singer takes a big breath, the lungs are pressurized a great deal from excessive fat.  This is great for big singing but not so good for softer singing.  Where the average singer needs to generate subglottic pressure, the obese singer usually has more than s/he needs.

3) Diaphragmatic movement:  The diaphragm, the most innervated muscle in the body, provides the greatest change in subglottic pressure. It is a muscle capable of both gross changes and extremely fine ones.

4) Vocal fold posture:  The valve (glottis) is the final and most important element of breath pressure.  Subglottic pressure, which drives phonation, depends primarily on how the glottis processes the air. A balanced posture provides complete closure during the close phase of oscillation (Caveat: defining full closure must take into consideration the contribution of supraglottal inertia) and an long enough open phase to allow for strong sound pressure.

Therefore, having worked on fold posture over the last three years, I got to a point whereby, lung volume as well core musculature have a palpable effect on the quality of the sound.  At this stage, the quality of my sound depends greatly on how I regulate the amount of air in my lungs and the participation of the core muscles during phonation.  The relative passivity of the throat (for me) depends on stronger core contraction and more consistent air volume in the lungs.  Some singers have powerful core muscles and do not need to think about them very much. In my case, actively contracting them provided just the amount of additional pressure necessary for the vocal folds to release the extra medial pressure that tends to happen in the upper range. The new freedom in the top does not guarantee the same in the lower range. I must lean out the lower range more consistently in order to experience the same benefit.  The tendency for the top is to be thin and that was true of my voice until recent balance has been achieved, whereas the tendency for the bottom is to be thick (loose) as would certainly be the case given my baritone past. This gets a little complex.  That is why the registers must be considered specifically in each singer depending on history.

What I aim to share here is yet another example of why correct pedagogy sometimes does not work.  A teacher might have heard some of the tension in my sound and recommend that I work on flow phonation and get the sound more "on the breath".  But it would not have worked with me until such time as the muscular balance had been achieved.

The limitation of many excellent teachers with wonderful ears is that they can easily get singers through the refinement phase but do not understand why a singer in the formative phases might not be able to accomplish their directives right away.  Sometimes they think the singer is simply uncoordinated or simply untalented. I personally begin with what I believe to be a principle based on fact.  Every voice at its most efficient, applied to the appropriate music can sound quite extraordinary.  But first the voice must be made efficient and the right repertoire must be applied.  Then of course we must find out whether the singer has real talent, which in my mind is musical sensitivity and poetic sensitivity.  But in the absence of vocal efficiency, a talented musician is not a singer. And so many different combinations make for success. A great vocal balance with basic musicality, a passable vocal balance with extraordinary musical/dramatic sensitivity, or any combination that is sellable when we includ looks and personal charisma.

© 09/21/2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Pavarotti: "We Are Athletes!"

My battles with jetlag have never been more difficult than this time.  I have felt progressively tired as I gradually acclimate to the GMT+1 time zone.  I had decided to take a couple of days off of practice because I did not like the feeling of thickness that came with inadequate R.E.M. sleep.  Without enough R.E.M. sleep, the cells of the body do not regenerate adequately.  So suddenly feeling like a baritone again did not sit well with me.  I have been happy with the consistency I have experienced of late and was in no mood for a step backwards. 

This is however where information helps.  Normally I would have invested energy into the feeling of taking yet another step backwards with every two forward.  But knowing about cell regeneration and R.E.M. sleep banished my fears that I might be slipping back. And so, aware that my fold tissues might be a little swollen from a slight systemic dehydration due to sleep depravation, I concluded that my muscular balance was strong enough to make up for the sluggishness.  To make a long story short, I sang my best ever B4 today and a very satisfying rendition of Edgardo's "Fra poco a me ricovero" from Lucia.  So the superficial fold tissue was a little rough, so I had a bit of mucous build-up during my warm-up, but the muscular strength was there to approximate the folds appropriately. 

That same basic strength and set-up meant that when I took a breath, the phonational balance of my warm-up gradually normalized my laryngeal depth. Each new breath resulted in a naturally low laryngeal position. By natural, I mean that the default laryngeal position has become optimal. A good intake of breath was enough to accomplish the low larynx without any extra effort and this position was totally conducive to the clearest vowel production (and therefore appropriate glottal closure).

Having gotten this far, I know that it simply takes further strengthening and practice to achieve a consistent high C and the sopracuti.  Pavarotti was correct of course. We are athletes! The vocal athlete must not only have strong core muscles that help to maintain consistent breath pressure by providing a floor for the diaphragm, flexible breathing muscles for both optimum inhalation and exhalation, but also very strong laryngeal (intrinsic and extrinsic) musculature to create a strong valve against the sub-glottal pressure.

As my passaggio notes begin to match my middle and high in quality (a rather advanced step), I am beginning to be able to have greater dynamic (volume) range throughout the range. Indeed to sing softly in the high range and maintain a balanced full-voice posture requires greater strength than full-voice singing. Full voice singing encourages greater pressure/flow and induces greater vocalis activity to maintain a full enough sound. When breath pressure is reduced, often fold depth decreases and medial pressure increases, unless the folds have been trained to maintain posture. 

I have seen teachers attempt to pull out their hair out of frustration when the student is unable to follow the directive: "Open your throat!" The truth is that the naturally open throat, lowered larynx, released sound (however you wish to call it) cannot happen until the student has (consciously or unconsciously) done the work of balancing the laryngeal muscles to establish a flow phonation posture.  It is nice to have a continuum of laryngeal postures in my studio--from the young singer who sings a thin top and darkens it in an attempt to correct the shrillness, to the fully developed dramatic singer who has an appropriately full fold posture throughout the range to the experience of my former self singing very heavy and loose low notes--it gives great clarity to the nature of the elements that lead to vocal balance.

It is also of great solace to me to hear the pronouncements of my yoga teacher come true: "Flexibility is Strength!" Anyone who has been to a gym knows that building muscular strength is hard work and takes time.  The results however are almost addictive.  Since starting Kung Fu anew a few months ago, I no longer suffer from back aches, I have a great deal more energy in the morning and throughout the day and in a moment of vanity, I am proud that my long-retreated 6-pack has presented itself again (no doubt about my tenor-dom now I suppose. Lord help me)! 

In a sense, the greatest lie about vocal pedagogy is that singing should be easy! At best the statement is (as always) paradoxical.  When the singer has built adequate strength (whether through unconscious good vocal habits in daily life or very hard vocalises that build strength), singing does indeed feel relatively easy. But until such strength has been trained, the singer will have difficulties and correct posture will feel like hard, physical work.  I like it when a singer says: "I am worn out in my body, but my voice still feels fresh!" But even that is a little incomplete.  When one begins to achieve true coordination of the laryngeal muscles, there may actually be muscular soreness in the laryngeal musculature.  That is totally different from the lack of viscocity that occurs when the vocal folds have experienced excessive friction from pressed phonation or irritation from loose air.  This does not mean that a singer should aim to practice until they are worn out muscularly, but it should not be alarming when the singer feels that s/he has done muscular work throughout the body and in the throat.  In good singing all the muscles of the throat are active either in an isometric or isotonic fashion. Every muscle should be appropriately active. If one muscle is underperforming, others will compensate and that is imbalance. It does not take a genius to know that in sports, longevity is directly proportional to fitness. Is it a wonder that a great majority of professional classical singers do not last 10 years when their predecessors could last 30 or 40 years? While a lot of attention is given to body fitness including my proud 6-pack, little attention is given to laryngeal fitness. 

When we listen to the great singers, the commonality between them is a strong throat that produces very powerful and steady notes.  In order to see the quality of opera singing improve overall, we must forego the myth that a strong throat is a gift of the divine.  I am a very spiritual man and believe that the desire to sing has been placed in my spirit, but the voice must be physically developed.  If the strength of the throat was a divine present, it would not go away with abuse and illness.  But it goes away under such conditions. When a student walks into my studio, I question them about their vocal history (perhaps a question or two every week as part of the normal conversation). Over a few months, I have a clear idea how their instrument was trained and why certain aspects are strong and others not. From that point I can workout a practice regimen that corrects what imbalances may exist.  For those who come with strong, powerful voices throughout their range, I query them just the same to find out how they came to their vocal strength.  There is always a training, conscious or unconscious!

© 09/20/2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Activities: A little entertainment, a little plug and maybe a little philosophy!

Internet access has been rather spotty during my week in Stockholm until an interesting experience brought me to a 7/11 in Stockholm's Sant-Eriks Plan that has "Sidewalk Express" (Internet Access). So I am taking the time to write a quick plug for my upcoming activities.

The truth is I have so much in my mind to write about that it has been difficult to know where to begin.  I decided not to write an official post (Notice this one does not bear the Kashudo logo) because the computer I am on does not have Japanese script and my Kanji script would not appear.  Still, as I write in my usual stream of consciousness manner, I cannot help but to include the little story that got me to this computer.

It started this afternoon, with the Stockholm skies mimicking an Autumn rainstorm in Haiti.  The rain battered the streets and umbrellas, but was neither cold nor warm. It felt cool and reminded me of my childhood when I would happily anticipate the coming rain so I could shower in it as the children did back then. I skipped my usual walk from Slussen Station to the studio on Fjällgatan, missing the view of the bay that made me fall in love with this beautiful city. Instead I took a bus one stop to the studio.  After teaching a few very satisfying lessons, I braved the rain again to attend a very enjoyable performance of Gounod's Faust at the Folkoperan. Some of the singers I have had the pleasure of teaching here are in the cast. At the bus station this time, I found a set of keys with a USB-stick attached.  Normally, I would have left the keys but an instinct made me take them. Having lost a set of keys in Berlin and having had to pay considerably for them, I figured I could spare the owner the expense if I could find his/her information from the USB device.  If I found no information, I would return the keys to the main Station.

Long and short of it, I found the information in a file on the USB-stick and called the owner. The chap was relieved, came to my neighborhood to pick up his keys and invited me for a beer.  The best of it is that he happens to be a published novelist, Tomas Jacobsson, and brought with him a copy of his book, Morfin. I will have to put Stieg Larsson away for a little while to honor my new friendship. Morfin might be the first novel I finish in Swedish.  Tomas ended up signing the book for me in front of the 7/11 here, where I am writing this.

The hazards of running an international freelance studio are many. Many of the students I taught here in Stockholm last time were busy with productions or traveling. The numbers were lower this time and my sleep-deprived hops from New York to Berlin (where I used my two hour stop-over to pick up mail and do some quick banking) to Stockholm left me a little less enchanted with my newly beloved city. But it takes an impromptu experience such as this to remind me of cause and effect and how my evening could have been very different, indeed much less interesting, had I not picked up that set of keys. Sweden is a special place. I keep discovering wonderful people and wonderful possibilities. I am glad I am here again!

Yes, so is singing! How would it have been, if the teacher who thought I might be a tenor years ago actually explored that possibility? How would it have been if I had studied piano at a young age? Or if I had committed all my energies to conducting? What if????

In the end, there is no what if?! Only that which is. Every decision leads to a series of events and so we have to be responsible for each of our choices. We should make them consciously.  I was irritated this time because I took for granted that the open internet connection that worked at my flat last time would work again. Well, the connection was there but it did not work, making my daily communication at least inconvenient. A lot of my anxiety over the past few days I think resulted from this inability to communicate as I am used to.  On the one hand, I am happy I could survive with less internet in my life, but then I would have liked to decide that rather than fall into it. Word to the wise: "Chose your destiny or it will be chosen for you!"

So tomorrow I will center my energies to write a good post, and I will call my dear colleague, Micaela von Gegersfeld to learn more about her wonderful skills. Right this minute I will define my itinerary here so my students and colleagues know where I will be, since I am hopping like a proverbial rabbit around Europe this month:

Now until 21Sept. midday: Stockholm
21 Sept evening until 25 Sept morning: Göteborg
26th September: Hannover (To be confirmed)
27 Sept-10 October: Berlin
10th -14th: TBA (possibly Reykjavik, Iceland)
15th-17th: Zwikau, Germany
18th-23rd: Valencia, Spain
23rd-26th: Berlin
27th Oct. - 1 Nov: Possibly Stockholm/Götenburg (exact dates TBA)
2nd November to 2nd December: New York City

One may look at this itinerary and automatically think: "Oh what a glamorous life of travel!" I love my life! I chose it. I left academia with a settled heart and I envisioned this time precisely as it is developing. But like my excellent novelist friend said tonight,"From one divorced, freelancer with two children to another divorced freelancer with two children: I miss normal. Don't you!" With complete empathy, I said: "Yes, I do! But I remember envisioning normal as part of all of this.  Whatever our normal is, I believe it will follow just as surely as our envisioned adventures/chaaos have."

For whoever choses to embark on a professional journey in classical singing (or the arts in general), realize that everything has two sides; for everything you gain, there is something you lose; for every adventure there is danger, the price of freedom is often solitude. There is no light without darkness! Chose your destiny, unless it be chosen for you!

© 09/19/2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): 10000 Voices To Mastery

It is always a time for contemplation when I leave one of my homes to the other. As I prepare to leave for Europe tomorrow, I feel a rare sadness at leaving my New York students.  This time in New York passed very quickly. 28 days felt like 28 hours and it feels like I taught during most of it. I felt particularly inspired by my group of regular students. When I decided to leave academia and go freelance a few years ago, I swore that my only criteria for teaching a student would be that the student needs to sing.  My late mentor, Glenn Parker once said that a singer is someone who must sing and low and behold I have a studio full of singers who simply must sing. This explains why they persevere when it can be so difficult and discouraging and frustrating, and why they ultimately triumph.

As some of my students who have had difficult changes begin to experience balance, they begin to have expectations about the nature of the path to their ultimate mastery. This is a new problem. One I remember clearly going through about 18 months ago. Particularly for my ex-baritone tenors, when basic coordination has been achieved and they can do tenor things, they begin (as I also did) to have a sense that they are reaching a level of functionality that might permit them to audition or perform. During this new phase of functionality there usually comes the disappointing feeling that stamina seem to be inconsistent from day to day. That certain specific notes can be easy one day and difficult the next. These are the things that vocal pedagogy books do not talk about.

Teachers often concentrate on the qualities of the final phase: pure concept of vowel, optimum resonance space, peak efficiency of phonation, perfect pressure/flow conditions, etc.  I cannot find any pedagogy book that speaks to the 10000 stages of relative vocal imbalance or tenuous balance before the true stability and strength of mastery. Among them are most notoriously the wobbly stage, the phlegmatic stage, the mucousy stage, the cracking phase, the squeezing phase, the beginning of true balance stage, the euphoric stage of first abilities, etc.  Many different voice qualities peek out during each of these phases and the student sees them all as undesirable. But they are all necessary and to a certain extent inescapable. Whether the student gives himself/herself permission to crack or wobble during the formation phase, they will crack and wobble, even if they try with all their might to avoid it.

There are more than a dozen muscle pairs that govern the balanced working of the larynx and they need to be appropriately developed to work in synergy. Yet the principle that "the larynx should be passive during singing" confuse teachers and singers into thinking that everything in the larynx should be inactive, when in fact it is the very active working of these muscles that set up balance between breath pressure and breath flow, which feels as if the larynx is not doing anything. Unfortunately, we tend to listen to singers who developed unconsciously.

Imagine a young girl in the bronx who grows up playing in the streets with her young friends always calling out to her friends from many blocks away! She develops very strong vocal muscles. Imagine in her teens she joins her church's gospel choir and sings regularly this very muscular vocal music! Imagine this young girl is then discovered by her high school teacher and taught to better coordinate her already strongly developed voice! Is it a surprise that she has a stronger voice than most of her colleagues at conservatory and ends up winning most competitions and ends up having a professional career?  That in fact is the story of many young African American singers that are often said to have special voices because of their race.  This is a wrong assumption. The girl has a powerful voice because her environment gave her the opportunity to develop her voice.

Imagine such a singer one day becoming a voice teacher because she had a good career!  What will she teach?  She never realized that her voice was being developed when she was yelling in the streets playing double-dutch with her friends. She never realized that she became a star of her gospel choir at church because of the same unconscious training in the streets. She will teach what she learned consciously. She will teach attention to breath flow and releasing the jaw, and singing intelligible vowels, but will be surprised when the students do not achieve a high levels. How could they when they did not have her muscular training? But since that training was unconscious, she never imagined that this was a factor. So she deems that her students were not very talented. They did not have a "God-given" voice like hers.

As one of my students reminded me today: "...I thought vocal study was about coordination!"  <> This latter quote is one of the biggest misunderstandings. It does not take conditioning into account. An opera singer is to the average amateur singer as an olympic marathoner is to the average jogger.  Or so it used to be.  There are a lot of current singers who have charisma, a pleasant vocal color and strong musicality but who are not muscularly fit to handle the rigors of operatic rehearsals and performances.  

Great opera singers develop in environements that train their voices before they knew they were being trained. Whether playing loudly in the streets of the bronx or being part of the choir system in Sweden from age 7 or growing up speaking Italian, great singers have an early advantage. Nowadays, most singers coming out of the conservatories and colleges come out with some basic coordination but not the muscular training to handle the requirements of opera. In order to be prepared they have to find a teacher who puts them through the paces, and makes them experience 10000 voices of relative imbalance before achieving the unique vocal quality of a fully developed operatic instrument.

I am proud of my students. They have come to realize what a fully developed operatic voice feels like and sounds like and they are dedicated to developing their own voices muscularly to that level. When so many singers are muscularly under-developed with respect to their voices, a path to success consists, in large part, of developing the voice to its fulles potential.

© 09/13/2010

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Pleasure of Palpable Progress: Say that 10 times fast!

The pleasure has been mine the past few days! Hearing and seeing the progress in some specific students has been particularly satisfying. Some students walk into the studio with what some teachers call "no voice". The obvious inaccuracy of the statement has often irritated me because it is a dismissal of the student's native worth and the teacher's lack of vision. As much as I experience great enjoyment working with my advanced professional students, I find great affirmation in the "palpable progress" of the students who have had difficult roads.

When a student who walks in my studio sounds uncoordinated and the vocal quality is poor, my first thought is to find out what kind of coordination issue, muscular malfunction, acoustic maladjustment, or baisc physical weakness is at the root of the problem. When a top professional walks into my studio the process is not much different. The difference in balance between the two types of singers is a question of degree. My hope as a teacher is to be able to envision the voice that hides behind the haze of dysfunction and weakness.

Many functionable singers have enough native strength and coordination in the vocal mechanism and complimentary skills to acquire professional opportunities. Such singers are often very protective of what got them their early adulations and are often resistent to making changes that would bring their talent to a higher level. Such singers want to improve to have better opportunities but are often unwilling to make the changes that would get them there. A quandry! Many young singers who appear to be very promising often do not achieve greatness for exactly this reason.

For different reasons, I find great similarity between top professionals and the passionate, uncoordinated beginner. Singers who deem themselves comparatively unskilled but really want to sing are willing to do whatever is necessary to acquire ability because they have nothing to lose. Top professionals are willing to make changes because most of them got to the top by being adaptable to all kinds of changes and situations. I find them open to suggestion and willing to try something that makes sense to them. Of course they are already very skilled to begin with, the changes they need to make are often not very invasive. Still, we seldom imagine that very skilled singers had to work hard in some way to be successful.

After teaching for more than 20 years, I find that the determining factors to a student's progress are more psychological than they are vocal. To what degree does a student seek to recognize the real obstacles to acquiring high level skills? The Zen concept of coming to a lesson with an empty cup keeps following me. My Kung Fu master reminded me again of this principle. Progress depends on the degree to which a student is willing to empty his/her cup and the degree to which the teacher is able to fill it.

I have also often heard the inspirational saying: "Every master was once a disaster," originated by a Canadian success trainer by the name of T. Harv Eker.  I came across it again in Kung Fu training. It is not accidental that my teacher, Sifu Romain has been so successful.  Many inspirational thoughts of this kind find their way to  his students.  These are more than inspirational thoughts to me. They are phylosophical axioms. Indeed the student who goes through all the steps, "crawl, walk, run" will have lasting skills.

Many of the middle level students I teach feel rushed by what they see as impossible expectations of the gate-keepers of our field. Ageism, lookism, etc., all give the student a sense that they do not have time to address all their issues before they can audition.  One such student returned from a trip to Austria during which she had the opportunity to observe top professionals at work.  All of my speeches about taking time to become truly professionally viable seemd to not have reached her (so I thought). But apparently my talks needed a complimentary experience to take hold. By observing that the professionals were not so perfect, she realized that she could get herself to a professional level and be viable. She said today: "Since I am committed to do this, I might as well do it in peace, without feeling rushed".  Not only had she improved extremely since we last saw each other, but today's lesson was our most effective. We were working entirely together without the pressing energy of the rigors of the professional world. When the singer has a vision of her own future, my job becomes easy. "You have no more significant obstacles that cannot be ovecome. You have eliminated the only difficult obstacle: your former doubting self!"

Another student drives four hours several times a month to come have her lesson with me.  When I think of what she sounded like a little less than two years ago when she first walked into my studio, I was humbled. She sang some songs and an aria I have deemed inappropriate a couple of months ago. Today I told her she must work on that aria.  She recognized her own progress and left charged and ready to find the next level. "Enjoy your new gorgous middle voice"!

Another wonderfully determined students who also travels from afar, walked into the studio today after losing 70 pounds (and counting) in the last year, by changing her diet and finding an exercise regimen that works for her. She came armed with questions about what her next professional steps should be. "You look fabulous"!

There are three other very special students who have dealt with extreme deficits who completely astound me by their dedication.  I find something very similar in all those successful students.  They are able to celebrate when they learn to crawl, when they learn to walk and when finally they can run.  Those who have a hard time progressing, are blinded by the ability of others to run and never learn the joy of celebrating a small victory.

Indeed the gate-keepers of our field are there for a reason. They are there to discourage those who are discourageable.  Our field is not for the faint-hearted. Singing classical music requires so many diverse skills. It is a lifetime apprenticeship. Many singers sacrifice a lot along the way, only to hate that they ever started to sing because they have not gotten where they wanted to. The difficult lesson is not to be concerned with what may come but rather with what we can do in the moment toward our goal. This particular principle permeates every aspect of our discipline.

Concentrate on the G you are singing and you will give the following high C the best chance to be great. Worry about the C and the G that prepares it will be ignored, thereby destroying any chance of that high C begin successful.

The ability to celebrate "palpable progress", finding pleasure in the smallest step forward is the hallmark of the successful person!

© 09/05/2010