Saturday, November 27, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Debunking The Talent Myth: A Must For the Pedagogical Contract

I may never write a more important blog post. I sit on my bed with my netbook on my lap, doing meditative breathing to keep my mind clear and my emotions controlled.  Shakespeare wrote: "Nothing is so common as the wish to be remarkable!" I reply, nothing is more uncommon than the will-power to turn what is common into what is truly remarkable. The challenge to transform from common ability to true expert is what defines the human journey. Whether a young child who shows early scientific aptitude becomes a Nobel Prize winner or a two-year old little girl who sings the notes of a song more accurately than she speaks the words becomes an operatic diva depends far less on these early advantages than it does on how these early manifestations are fostered.

A remarkable article from the Harvard Business Review of July-August 2007 speaks uncontrovertibly about the myth of innate talent. Research has been done and confirmed that have debunked our common accepted misconceptions.  Scientists as early as 1985 have proven that apparent early aptitude does not guarantee high levels of expertise, but that three factors are common among people who have achieved uncontrovertible expertise, whether in science, sports or the arts, namely 1) targeted, frequent and long-term practice 2) the presence of a dedicated and capable mentor, coach or teacher and 3) the support and encouragement of family and friends.  The article also speaks of sacrifices made in terms of finances and time.  Is it not obvious that these are perfectly true of singing?

1) Targeted practice for success is defined in the article as practice to develop skills that are lacking, rather than practicing skills that are already acquired.  This is where many singers and teachers fail.  Too often singers practice only the things they do well, they do exercises that are easier to do, exercises that yield a feeling of immediate accomplishment.  How often do we hear even professional singers say: "I don't have a High C.  It's not in my voice!" or "I have a big voice that is not made to sing softly!" or "I have a dramatic voice that is not meant to sing coloratura!" or "This is a light voice meant to move not to sustain!"  If I were to find 10 clips on Youtube that disproves all of these myths, I bet that the majority of professional singers and teachers would say that those examples are exceptions to the rule.  In fact, these so-called exceptions would be the remarkable people who took the time to develop the skills they did not have, thereby becoming real experts through guided and targeted practice.

The culture of classical singing teaches the singer to believe that their abilities are given not learned, and so most of the singers I meet think that a good teacher is someone who provides a magic pill that help them coordinate their gifts to the best effect, rather than that the missing skills require targeted training of muscles and the learning of analytical skills.  Singers who believe they are specially gifted and who have had it easy in the beginning only begin to consider that learning to sing requires time and training when they cannot find any more immediate solutions.  Truly accomplished singers are self-critical.  They know what skills they want to have and work to accomplish those skills. There is another group of singers with easily developed coordination who never go beyond what seemed to have come to them naturally. Believing in natural talent or being gifted prevents a singer from believing they can develop beyond their gifts.

How many tenors are told they are baritones because they have no high notes? Is it a wonder that spinto and dramatic tenors are not in abundance in the professional world? This is a direct connection!  Dramatic tenors are usually trained as baritones because they do not exhibit ease in their top ranges at an early age. Few teachers can recognize a tenor when the high notes are not easy. Fewer know how to help that tenor acquire the skill of singing high.  Here is the biggest error in vocal pedagogy: to believe that a skill can be acquired immediately if the singer coordinates the voice properly.  Where does the teacher go wrong?

To answer, I give the following scenario:  A singer has what appears to be a natural ability to sing high notes.  S/he finds a good teacher who help him or her to refine those notes through better onset, better vowel modification, better breathing, etc.  The singer becomes a successful professional and later becomes a teacher.  S/he encounters a student who sounds like a tenor but has no high notes. S/he tries the techniques that s/he had learned.  They do not work. The student cannot sing high notes. So the teacher believing his/her technique to be proven and correct determines that the singer has a limited voice and is a small voiced baritone.  S/he determines that his/her easy top notes is a gift.  Furthermore she is part of a discipline that is built on the myth of given  talent. What did this teacher not consider?

The teacher did not consider that high notes are not always spontaneous in a young singer. The teacher did not realize that perhaps his/her easy top range was a result of muscular training through excellent speaking habits and mimicking at an early age, that s/he had developed a coordinated modal voice early without knowing that s/he was doing so.  The teacher did not realize that his/her own easy top notes had been trained unbeknownst to him/herself.  So s/he never considered that the young tenor could develop those top notes with guided and targeted practice. But this would require this teacher to acquire enough knowledge about vocal anatomy to know how to target the muscles that need training. How many teachers feel secure about that knowledge? What if the tenor had found a teacher who had trained to develop his/her own top notes?

This brings us to No. 2

2) A knowledgeable and dedicated mentor:  We are in a field where the authories and so-called experts are too often not competent to diagnose what is lacking in a voice. They are often limited by what they needed to complete their own training but never studied to understand how to help a singer acquire the skills they themselves take for granted.

 If I believe that my ability to learn languages quickly is a gift, could I ever teach someone else to learn a language quickly? Certainly not.  That I can function in 8 different languages does not mean I have a special gift.  I tell people this all the time.  As a Haitian-born I had one specific advantage that many saw as a disadvantage.  I consider French to be my first language, my mother-tongue.  But in point of fact, I grew up speaking Haitian creole, which has a different grammatical syntax but that has a largely French-based vocabulary.  At home and at school I was encouraged and then required to speak French because it was considered the language of the educated elite.   I grew to speak it better than Creole and considered it my mother tongue.  But unlike a native French who speaks the language before they understand grammatical structure, I learned my mother-tongue grammatically and purposefully.  Every time I learn a new language, I learn its grammatical structure first. Vocabulary comes later. When I began to learn Japanese, I was able to construct grammatically correct sentences very early, to the point that strangers assumed I was fluent when I was not.  Since Italian grammar and vocabulary is very similar to French, with the help of a dedicated teacher who conversed with me every day, I became a fluent speaker of Italian in three months.  I picked up Spanish from friends and later from a girlfriend who is a Spanish teacher and became fluent in that language.  German took considerably longer because the syntax was vastly different but I had learned English growing up in the United States and could use English vocabulary as a basis for learning German since the two languages are of the same family.  I learned to write Swedish in a matter of weeks taking German and English and the other languages I speak to construct an understanding. But Swedish speaking poses difficulties because consonant combinations are constructed between words and when listening I cannot decipher where a word ends and where the next begins.  I am remedying this by reading Stieg Larsson novels in Swedish with the audiobook simultaneously, to hear how a native Swede pronounces what I am able to understand from reading.  This suggestion I took from a Swedish student of mine who had done the same when he learned German.  When you look at it as I just described, it begins to look like I developed a skill and that my so-called linguistic talent is not a gift.  If I have a gift, it is simply a love for languages, which I developed traveling early in life.  To call my linguistic ability a gift is to diminish the work I have done to acquire this skill.  Furthermore, by treating it as some inexplicable talent is to deny someone else the possibility of acquiring the same skills.

It goes further!  If I were to become a language teacher, I would not allow myself to be limited by the method I had developed, but would also consider learning languages the way that children do, by imitating.  The company, Rosetta Stone, arguably among the top language skill developers in the world bases its products on this premise and it has merit.  I would say to master a language, both my analytical approach and the natural approach should be used.  Developing a feel for the specific student's mode of learning would also instruct my pedagogy and would help me tailor my teaching to the specific student's needs.

To become an expert singer or singing teacher requires the same fundamental attitude, namely developing skills that are not there to begin with.

The paradigm that Classical Singing goes by is the following:


If you have it, we can help you make it better. If you don't we can't do anything for you.  

The paradigm undermines both the haves and the have-nots.  The haves believe they are limited by what they have and the have-nots believe that they can never have.  It creates a class system between those deemed talented and those not.  The paradigm should be corrected to:


Whatever you have, you are not complete. We will help you complete your training, whether to develop the last 1% or the remainting 99%.  

This validates everyone and builds a culture requiring work from everyone, with no illusions but a clear path to expertise.  What determines if a singer becomes an expert when s/he is 99% untrained hangs totally upon that singer's determination provided there is a teacher who is committed to the student's journey.  The third part is whether the student has the support of family to deal with the costs, the setbacks, the fears, the doubts, etc.

So 3

3) A team of good-wishers that provide encouragement, psychological and financial support. Most singers training in New York City have a day-job.  They come to their lessons after eight hours of work and must find the energy to practice, and they have to pay their teachers in excess of $100 for an hour's work.  No matter how you cut it, that is an unsustainable paradigm.  Personally as a teacher, I work with my student's financially. They count on my guidance and entrust me with their dreams.  I must become one of their team of good-wishers. I must invest in them. When they cannot afford a lesson, I work with them to make their lessons possible.  I recognize that I am able to make a living because of my students. The social contract means they invest in me as I in them.  It only works if we are of the same mind about the process.  Rocky and Mickey are inseparable, Daniel and Mr. Miyagi, Luke Skywalker and Yoda, etc.  The relationship when it is correct goes beyond finances, but for the relationship to work, there must be trust that both sides are responsible and dedicated.  I like to meet the families of my students and feel that they are also invested.  It is crucial.

All three elements are necessary.  It is difficult for a singer to progress when their family believes they are wasting their time.  It is impossible to succeed if the singer is not committed to his/her absolute excellence and a teacher who asks for less is no friend.

I don't know any singer who is more dedicated to his own excellence than I am.  Some may be as dedicated as I am, but none more.  I had great supportive teachers who have taught me a lot and I have had a very supportive family.  So what went wrong with me? I was in a long relationship who did not believe in my dreams. So there were sacrifices made to keep the relationship together. But lucky enough, my teachers gave me the means to continue my education.  I also have an unusual voice. A tenor voice that was developed like a bass-baritone from childhood.  I copied my father's low-speaking voice developing an easy low range when compared to my young peers.  I have had to retrain as a tenor, further slowing down my progress.  Then I had to deal with acid reflux.

Still, my difficulties gave me reason to develop my expertise as a singer and teacher.  I see my technique develop into a predictable cause and effect model. Of course success depends first and foremost upon the student's staying power, which depends in great part on how they are supported by their loved ones.

So, operatic success is teamwork.  My success as a teacher means little without worthy students. I have worked with students who needed 99% and those who needed 1%.  What they have in common is their commitment to a process that I make clear from the beginning.  They witness gradual and constant growth and they want to see their way to the end.  I have helped other student's acquire certain skills but then they could not commit to finishing the job.  They thought they might get quicker answers from more famous teachers after we had made enough strides for them to access those more famous teachers.  I say that not with bitterness but with sadness because I know there is no shortcut to muscular training.  It is also difficult to convince a student s/he is not ready when they hear professionals who do not sing as well.  It is also hard when the singer can get work by compromising their ultimate excellence, their expertise.

I teach more than 100 students worldwide, not all of them regularly. But I have a core group of about 35 students that I consider my students. I know them, I know their support groups, their families, etc. I know their dreams and their struggles.  They believe as I do that there is only one thing that makes sense in this crazy business of singing.  Be far better than the average in every sense.  They want models on stage, we go to the gym.  They want believable actors, we take acting classes if need be. They want high Cs, we work for high Ebs.  The business of singing may appear to be warped. Some accomplished stars at the top are beginning to complain.  But a finished singer is a money-maker to even the most jaded of impressarios and managers.  As a teacher I am more interested in the student's passion for excellence than how much voice they come with. It is that staying power that constitutes any guarantee of success.

On this Thanksgiving Weekend, I am extremely thankful for my family that has always been supportive of me, no matter what the circumstances.  I am thankful for my teachers. I was lucky enough to have really dedicated ones. What they could not give me in vocal technique they gave me in the means to find my own path. I am supremely thankful for my student's, especially those that take the process of learning to sing as seriously as I take it.  We are engaged in a project bigger than ourselves, very conscious of the realities of the world but not impeded by them.  They have faith in their talents and in my teaching, they have the courage to go after what they envision and the patience to see it through.  They are special people and I am honored to work with them.  Changing the field we love begins with holding ourselves up to high standards.

What people call talent is what we have constructed when they were not there to see us construct it.  What they do not understand they think is a miracle, a gift.  What the most jaded of singers and teachers will tell you is that the business will give you nothing. You must sweat for every crumb. There I agree! So stop calling people's achievements a gift. My daughter learned to match pitch when she was less than three months old because I sang lullabies to her every night.  Nice little skill.  She has a nice singing voice and she loves to sing. If she ever becomes a singer, her success would not be based on that skill.  It would be based on what she makes of that early advantage. I have known singers with world-class voices who never make a career. For one reason or another, they could not finish the job.  Success in anything requires hard work. Period!

© 11/27/2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Supporting the Consonants: An Issue of Efficiency

I find myself repeating to several singers this week: "Support the consonants like the vowels!"  The student would often look at me perplexed until s/he realizes that s/he was giving up all vocal coordination between vowels. This is particularly significant when singing voiced consonants but unvoiced consonants can have a similar adverse effect on the following vowel if not sung with the same intensity.

The issue is one of breath control. As my friend, Jack Livigni so expertly explained on his recent posts on breath coordination, the emission of breath is not automatic with glottal opening.  It is the desire to make sound that activates the diaphragm, given that the core muscles provide a floor and the external intercostals remain active to prevent uncontrolled realease of air.

A good consonant requires excellent breath pressure and articulation. In that sense it is not so different from a vowel.  An unvoiced consonant differs from a vowel only by the point articulation (or contact).  The goal, with respect to an unvoiced consonant, is to generate a level of air pressure equvalent to what will be necessary for the following vowel. For voiced consonants, the problem is more complex. A voice consonant has a double articulation, one at the glottis to produce a tone and one the buccal juncture (specific to the given consonant).
This means that the breath pressure must be high enough to vibrate the vocal folds and the transglottal flow must be high enough to produce enough supraglottal pressure for the consonant's articulation juncture.  In order for the following vowel to be produced adequately, the glottal resistence (producing subglottal pressure) must match that of the preceding consonant.

Very often, problems in tone production are due to uncoordinated articulation of the consonant that has a direct effect on the quality of the following vowel. Some singers are very skilled at recovering from a bad consonant.  They manage to adjust the vowel adequately despite poor consonants. However, the effect of legato is lost.  Often the quality of the vowel sound degrades because of the preceding consonant.  But because the consonant is so short as compared to the vowel, the singer or even the teacher will more than likely find fault with the vowel without being aware of the influence of the consonant.

Obviously consonants are not always at the root of a phonation problem, but often they are and unfortunately their influence on the vowel sounds is too frequently ignored.

© 11/21/2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): Language, a Point of Pedagogy

An extremely accomplished young coloratura soprano came for a lesson yesterday, having specified when we talked on the phone the day before that she wanted to work specifically on breath support. I told her that breath support, as such, cannot be addressed without phonation.  I am not sure she completly grasped my meaning but I assured her I would be clear about my explanation at the lesson.

When I meet a singer for the first time, I will have him/her sing something immediately to see what the habits and instincts are.  She sang "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio..."  from Verdi's Falstaff with notable musicality, and a fresh, supple voice of remarkable flexibility.  From the piano, I kept checking in the mirror to see how she breathed.  Her intake of air was always full and relaxed. Her legato was flawless and there was no hint of register breaks of any kind. Yet I felt that (as is often the case with coloraturas who are high-note conscious) that she was not singing her fullest sound. And here was the answer to the support problem.  And I am glad I had told her the day before that it is not good to talk about support without phonation in the mix.

When working with singers who have a sound technical foundation, cause and effect is immediate. And so it was in this case, but it was necessary (and is often the case with singers who already sing well) to be crystal-clear about what the problem is.  A singer who already sings really well is naturally protective of his/her vocal technique.

Among other things, she had mentioned feeling tense, getting tired easily and not feeling the type of vocal ease she observed in her vocal idols.  I had determined that the problem stemmed from too "thin" an approach and explained to her that she probably expected her sound to remain the same as it was when she was a few years younger and that her voice had matured and she needed to allow her adult sound to emerge. I further explained the mechanics of fold vibration  using my hands as models of the vocal folds, and explained further that pitch depends fundamentally upon the amount of time it takes for one vibration cycle to be completed and that the length of the vibration cycle depended upon contact area and closure. By watching my hand simulate the vibration she understood the logic of it. She understood that there were three options: pressed and thin, loose and thick, or balanced and full.

Now it was time to correct the problem and give her sensations that she can associate with the new balance.  I recommended lip trills. Her instinct was to do them "lightly".  I recommended fuller lip trills on a chromatic scale and then repeated the scale of [za]. The lip trill induced easier airflow and a more appropriate fold mass.   The [za] scale kept the occlusive influence of the lip trill by means of the [z] and the resultant sound on the vowel was fuller and freer.  This did not feel like a big change to her.  But when she sang a very easy sustained F, she knew something was different. She concluded the fuller sound included a slightly greater chest component. She was correct.

After having addressed the fold posture issue, the breath coordination part of support had to be addressed as well.  We spoke about the necessity of maintaining constant air pressure, that it does not require a lot of air to sing, but that the lungs had to be full of air in order to geerate adequate and unbroken air pressure. The first part of good breath management therefore is to take a full breath.  (I will go on record as against the idea of taking a small amount of air because the phrase is short.  One takes a full breath not because one needs a lot of air to sing a phrase, but rather to generate constant air pressure).  The we spoke about maintaining a solid tower of core muscles on the inside and maintaining elasticity in the abs on the outside. During phonation, the inner tower is generated by a sensation of resisting the need to "go to the bathroom" (the resulting support can be felt subtly at the epigastrium directly below the sternum) but the lower abdominals continue their elastic inward and upward movement. During inhalation, complete relaxation of the external abdominals and inner core mucles must be achieved in order for intake to be complete.  We worked on a pattern of

1) Deep relaxed intake (I prefer nose breathing when possible)
 2) engage the core muscles but slightly resisting the need to go to the bathrrom
3 and 4) Onset with a balanced sensation between chest engagement (fold depth) and clear brilliance (closure)
5) the expectation of a clear, intelligible vowel sound, not artificially colored (when all elements are balance, vowel modification occurs spontaeously. Certainly the case here with such an advanced singer)

We then went back to the aria working on maintaining a full sound and doing the required diminuendi without losing fullness (i.e. the feeling of support, connection to the body, etc).  In some cases we sang the note louder and then doing a diminuendo without losing quality.  At this juncture it became clear that it is possible to sing a full sound quietly and that full is not necessarily loud and quiet is not necessarily thin. Indeed, a coloratura voice does not have to be a thin voice. It should be appropriately full.

What made me particularly proud about this lesson is that this very advanced singer came with a specific need in mind. We addressed it and also made it clear that no one aspect of singing is independent of the rest. Indeed we addressed phonation and resonance on the way to the support, the task fo the day.  More importantly is that we used language that was logical and clear.  Talking about fold contact area in the abstract could be off-putting.  I sensed that this was not a singer who had been taught with scientific language. But talking about fold vibration concretely, using my hands as a visual aid, gave the singer a sense of understanding of how her instrument functions and then a clear idea of the process I was about to use to get results.  After she sang easy high Es and Fs, she understood the relationship between what she had just changed and the results. Cause and Effect.  She was then open to a language that was logical and immediately understood.  It was not necessary that she learned my abstract language over months before understanding what I wish her to accomplish.  The sensations I helped her feel are anatomically direct.  We spoke about brilliance and fullness.  That she felt a connection with the chest and a sense of forwardness simultaneously are also direct. There is a direct sensation in the chest when there is a balance between pressure and flow, and a direct sensation in the front of the face of complete fold closure via bone conduction.

So when we use words like support, appoggio, focus, light, bright, open throat, etc, what do we mean exactly? Teachers with a great ear for the correct sound are often obstructed by a vocabulary without definitions that they inherited from their own teachers.  In no discipline is language accepted so abstractly as in singing! This is the cause of great misunderstanding and frustrations for students who on the one hand are perplexed when they are expected to make sense of terminology without context: "You need to support better!"  What exactly does that mean?  Whatever the language, the teacher must have clear definitions.
I sometimes use imagery because certain students are visual lerners.  But if I speak about "a ping-pong ball on a fountain," what is the ping-pong ball and what is the fountain? What keeps the water pressure of the fountain  such that the ball keeps floating on top of the stream? At some point one has to explain what is actually happening.  I think my personal growth was stunted, so to speak, because I was taught early to dislike the word, pressure. I was made to understand that subglottal pressure was evil.  What I understood later is that subglottal pressure is the driving force behind vocal function.  Too much pressure is a problem. Not enough pressure is a problem. But pressure  in and of itself is not a problem.

I am not one to insist that everyone should use scientific language when they teach, but if one is going to use a jargon, let it be one based on the true function of the instrument and not on beloved terms without context.  In studying Kung Fu, I have observed how jargon could be dangerous if not understood.  Kung Fu is based on poetic language as well. When Sifu was teaching me "parting the horse's" mane, he explained specifically the movement associated with that term.  The phrase guides my practice. I have a notebook full of Chinese descriptions and their English translations and an explanation of what movement is associated with them.  That jargon works because it has exact meaning and application.  I can perform "playing the lute" much better because I also know its application.  My teacher is gifted because he understands how important it is to be clear. He gives general principles and then specific details over time.  The same is necessary of any pedagogy.

In short, successful teaching happens when there is clarity of language.  Whatever language you use, let it be in context of a system that the student can follow without too much effort.  The challenge for the student should be in attempting to perform the task well, not in trying to figure out what the task is.

© 11/17/2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kashu-do (歌手道): A tribute to Ada Finelli: A Bel Canto Manifesto

In 1991 I was singing Conte Almaviva in Nozze di Figaro in a small production in Rome, Italy.  The last minute Cherubino who showed up after we lost the original one was warming up in the same room as I was and totally blew my mind.  After the premiere, she introduced me to her teacher, an imposing woman in her early sixties who told me with a voice that was as tender and caring as it was direct and uncompromising: "Lei ha un talento enorme, ma purtroppo solo un terzo della sua voce esce fuori!" (You have an enormous talent but too bad only a third of your voice is coming out!).

She then invited me to take part in her masterclass in Città di Castello, where I was put through the rigors of understanding the importance of the paradox "chiaro e scuro, non chiaro o scuro!" (Bright and dark, not bright or dark!).  Halfway through this masterclass my voice began to do amazing things. The great baritone, Mario Sereni visited and inspired me to no end. His magnificent baritone speaking voice should have made it clear that I was not made to sing Macbeth. But he said I sang the aria, Pietà, rispetto, amor..."  better than most baritones he had heard (I am sure he was just being kind to a young singer. Nevertheless I was making some impressive sound during those weeks). 

One of the greatest pleasures of that class was the opportunity to sing duets from Lucia and Traviata with a supremely talented soprano...Let us call her Lulu. Lulu was statuesque and a vision of Classical Roman beauty.  She was possessed of a voice reminiscent of the best of Anna Moffo, rich like a lyric with an unending top voice and the smoothest transition from the low into the middle voice.  When she sang for José Carreras that year, the tenor told her he had nothing to say except go out and sing! According to him she had the most beautiful and technically refined voice he had heard in a long time.  

Signora Finelli said more than once: "Se l'avesse sentita tre anni fa quando aveva appena un fil di voce!  Abbiamo costruito sta voce da niente! Sono molto orgogliosa di lei ma è difficile convincerla che non sia più la cantante che era all'inizio ma invece un talento completamente sviluppato e pronto per il teatro!"  (If only you had heard her three years ago! She barely had a thread of voice! We have built this voice practically from nothing. I am very proud of her but it is difficult to convince her that she is no longer the singer she was at the beginning but instead a fully developed talent and ready to take her place in the theater). 

It is important that Signora Finelli said we. She was clear about the result being a product of the relationship between teacher and student.

Signora Finelli believed that Lulu was the norm rather than the exception--That every singer came to her with specific degrees of imbalance and that it was her job to teach the student the skill sets necessary to progress in the art of singing and therefore in the business of singing.  I also became aware that all of the female singers in the studio had this uncanny ability to go from the lowest chest tones to ridiculous top notes without any audible break in the voice.  I asked Signora Finelli whether the girls were singing with chest voice all the way up. She said confidently: "Ma certo! Chiaro E scuro, non chiaro o scuro!"  Their voices also always sounded heady even though they all swear to a significant chest component in the voice. Lulu once said: "Non si lascia mai la voce di petto. È il fondamento!" (One never leaves the chest voice. It is the foundation!"

It took me years to understand what she meant although I knew that what Signora Finelli's female students were doing was correct. Signora Finelli once told me she could trace the line of her teachers back to the 16th century.  I wish I had been bold enough to ask her to write this lineage down for me. But taking her pronouncements and that of her students, I find a profound similarity to the pronouncements of the founders of the Italian School of Singing. First from Lodovico Zacconi (1555-1627), a charter member of the Florentine Camerata, the poets, musicians, singers and philosophers responsible for much of the Italian Renaissance including a methodology for singing we currently refer to as Bel Canto:

Among all voices one must always choose... the chest voices, and particularly those which have the above-mentioned delightful biting quality which pierces a little but does not offend; and one must leave aside the dull voices and those which are simply head voices, because the dull ones cannot be heard among the others, and the head ones are overbearing.
The preceding quote is a translation of Zacconi by the pedagogue, James Stark, quoted in the dissertation, The Road to Bel Canto, by the Swedish soprano, Katarina Pilotti.  It is hard to find a better example that substantiates the balancing of chest voice (fold mass) and biting brilliance (fold closure).

From Pier Francesco Tosi (1654-1732) we get the following, quoted and translated (by David Mitchell)  from the Bel Canto section, by Antonella Nigro, of the book, The Singer's Handbook (1942) by Lazar S. Samoiloff:



Un diligente Istruttore sapendo, che un soprano senza falsetto bisogna che canti fra l’angustia di poche corde non solamente procura di acquistarglilo, ma non lascia modo intentato acciò lo unisca alla voce di petto in forma che non si distingua l’uno dall’altra, che se l’unione non è perfetta, la voce sarà di più registri e conseguentemente perderà la sua bellezza [...] Se tutti quegli che insegnano i princìpi sapessero prevalersi di questa regola, e far unire il falsetto alla voce di petto de’ loro Allievi, non vi sarebbe in oggi tanta scarsezza di soprani. [...] quanto più le note son’ alte, tanto più bisogna toccarle con dolcezza, per evitare gli strilli [...] Nelle femmine che cantano il soprano sentesi qualche volta una voce tutta di petto, ne’ maschi sarebbe però una rarità, se la conservassero, passata che abbiano l’età puerile.
 (A diligent instructor, being aware that a soprano without a falsetto voice has to sing within the narrow range of a few notes, not only seeks to provide him (soprano is masculin in Italian. Can be translated as her--JRL/Kashu-do) with one but tries by every means possible to unite it with the chest voice in such a way that there is no contrast between the one and the other, since if the union is not perfect the voice will have more than one register and will consequently lose its beauty21 [...] If every teacher of the basic elements took up this precept, and united the pupil‘s falsetto with the chest voice, there would not be such a scarcity of sopranos today. [...] the higher the notes are, the greater the need to sound them gently, so as to avoid shrieking22 [...] ... Among females who sing soprano one sometimes hears a chest voice over the entire range, but among males it would be unusual if they were to keep it once the boyhood years were past23).
The Zacconi quote is obvioius at face value.  The singing voice is based on what we call the chest voice. Hence, "Si canta come si parla" (One sings as he speaks). The Tosi quote explains further that the influence of the head voice is crucial in establishing a balance.  More importantly, Tosi refers to the ability to sing in chest voice throughout the entire range as a gift, not an abomination. Does that mean that Tosi advocates singing with a pure chest voice throughout the range? I think not.  Tosi also acknowledges that it is more likely that a female singer will maintain a chest component throughout the range and a male singer will tend to lose this ability after puberty.  What does this mean to us?


What I gather from these articles and many others I have read lately about the bel canto period support Signore Finelli's principle that the chest voice is the foundation that must be used in balance as the range is ascended.  The sensation of substance associated with the chest/speaking voice is the sensation that should be built upon.  The participation of the head/falsetto register should not take a way that substance.  The sensation of a "lean" voice is derived from adequate chest voice component combined with the brilliant, biting closure mechanism that prevents one from going too far into the chest. These are balancing components of each other that yield both a sensation of dark substance and of bright leanness simultaneously.  It goes without saying that in such an efficient system, the movement of the breath, continually compressed is the "oil for the machine".  Yet, proper breathing technique is impossible to sense without applying it to the functioning glottis. Support and phonation go hand in hand.  


Many make the error of letting go of the chest voice to access an unopposed cricothyroid activity. Although this leads to easy high notes, these notes lack the substance necessary for a viable operatic sound.  It is true that the cricothyroid dominates from the middle of the voice around C4 for men and C5 for women, but it does not suddenly become unopposed. It is a proper balance of these muscles that lead to a complimentary closure mechanism that yields balance.  


A one-sided approach to the voice is much easier to accomplish. Sing in chest voice at the bottom and head on top is different than singing in a chest-dominant sound in the bottom and a head-dominant sound in the top. Adding the word dominant signifies that the dominant voice is opposed by another part. In a world in which vocal terminology is tossed about often without understanding, it is crucial that we attempt to use language that at least reflects the actual anatomical process.

It would seem that as early as the late 17th century, Tosi was complaining that the Italian school had lost its roots and that foreign influences had weakened Italian fundamentals and the then current batch of professional singers were proof of the decline over the previous century.  What would Tosi have to say about today? I think he would feel hopeless.  

We must accept the fact that vocal pedagogy evolves.  The need for instant gratification is not a weakness of the 21st century. It has always existed.  Expediency has always been the great human fault and unfortunately it is what drives our cultures to one degree or another. The teacher who can bring a student to market faster will make a lot of money and will be in keeping with the accellerating trends of our times. The fast lane on the  highway may get one home more quickly, but it is also fraught with deadly accidents.  And so is the current fast lane of singing--In fact more accidents than fast and successful journeys.

Like singers of every age, the current crop are earnest about their craft and try the best they can in an environment that does not allow them the time to do better than they are.  The average professional singer is a fragile being mentally, because he or she is usually a fragile being physically/vocally.  To build the adequate chest voice content in the high range and lean out the lower range adequately (there are exceptions to this fast rule. A rare student may come with the reverse problem), is a process of muscular training equal to any professional sport.  Not only must the muscles of the body be conditioned, but so must the muscles of the throat.  Many teachers do not understand the musculature of the throat well enough to be able to approach training in a vigorous but safe manner.  Treating the voice with kid's gloves is just as ineffective as treating it with violence.  Knowing how to train the muscles vigorously and safely is what brings strength, confidence and lasting results.  

This is the lesson I learned from Ada Finelli.  Take the singer where he or she is and help them complete the process.  Lulu, Signora Finelli's prize student of those years was not only vocally accomplished, but she was drop-dead beautiful. Furthermore, she was musically sensitive.  Singing duets with her made me sing better. In her company it was difficult to sing badly (subject for another post). But I remember that Lulu was very nervous before performances.  We sang a duet version of Rossini's Tarantella for a concert.  I remember being a little nervous myself about learning the text, which came lightning fast.  But I knew I would memorize it in two days (just the confidence of a boy raised in Haiti at a time when it was required to memorize more than 40 pages of lessons every night for school), but Lulu was terrified and ended up writing the text in her hand. She was also very nervous for her own arias for the concert, pieces that she had sung many times.  I asked Signora Finelli why Lulu was so nervous when she sings so securely.  The answer was cryptic: 

"È molto difficile convincere un cantante non-dottato con presta facilità che sia arrivato al livello più alto. Si crede sempre in cammino, mai arrivato!" (It is difficult to convince a singer who is not gifted with early facility that he has arrived at the highest level. He believes always that he is on the way, but never arrived!"
This psychology is used by teachers, agents, casting directors and all the gate-keepers of our discipline to convince singers that they are cursed by their weaknesses, which can never be overcome, thereby robbing them of the vision of becoming fully developed artists.   It is a battle to erase a singer's fundamental belief that they are not good enough.  Such problems are often deep-seeded and have nothing to do with singing itself but with early brain-washing that eats at the person's spirit.  It would be easy to dismiss such a person as unsalvageable.  But fortunately or unfortunately for me, I have seen too many such people transform into confident, achieving human beings, particularly in sports and martial arts. I have not choice but to see the possibilities.  


When we approach singing first as a physical discipline and later as an art form, the singer becomes conscious that s/he is able to do things that were not possible before, rather than focus on what is currently undoable.  Confidence is developed in this way even before the singer ever sees the stage. Still, the Lulus of the world exist, and unfortunately I do not know whether she exorcised her ghosts and became the great singer she could have become.  In the end it depends on the singer's character and dedication to excellence. We all have self-esteem issues.  The question is whether such issues dominate us or we them, and athough I believe profoundly in each person's capacity to overcome obstacles, I would lying if I said I knew that everyone will overcome them.  

Then again, as a voice teacher, I am not a psychologist even though we teachers often serve that function.  The more important fact is the following and relevant to the entire discussion:  Voice or the lack thereof is no obstacle to a singer's pursuits.  Some are lucky enough to have had the right environmental stimuli to develop their voices unconsciously. Those who have weak voices can develop them to the highest operatic standards if they have the courage, the patience and the faith that they can.  Of course they have to be willing to work ten times as hard as their spontaneously developed colleagues to achieve that level. But when they do, they are usually in better form than their so-called talented colleagues.  Indeed the question of operatic talent is always a tricky one and Signora Finelli said something to me early on that never left me. After being overwhelmed by the many great voices in her studio, I asked her why, with all her magnificent students, is she interested in my voice.  She replied, as always, straight into my eyes: 


"Se voce fosse l'unica cosa che ci vuole, tutta Italia canterebbe alla Scala di Milano.  Voce ne abbiamo tutti. Bisogna solo svilupparla e per questo ci vuole pazienza. Tutto il resto ce l'hai già!" (If voice was the only thing necessary, all of Italy would sing at La Scala. We all have voice. It is only necessary to develop it and for that one needs patience. The rest you already have!"

Voice is only an issue when the teacher does not see a path to development and/or the student is not willing to do what is necessary to achieve excellence.  A natural coloratura who sings as a lyric because she does not have spontaneous top notes or does not have spontaneous agility, or prefers Puccini to Donizetti will sound inferior even if her technical approach is good. Her voice will not sound intense enough in the lyric tessitura.  Some may say that she has a limited talent because they do not recognize that she is singing the wrong repertoire with good technique. Some may believe that unless the high notes come naturally one is not a coloratura. Either way she is stuck and may not reach her artistic potential because she did not find a teacher who said: "You are a coloratura and must develop those top notes." Too many teachers work to refine what is already functioning and ignore the weaknesses, claiming that they constitute the student's natural limitations. Sad!


Developing adequate chest content in the voice is difficult and does not feel nor sound very good in the beginning. In fact, when developing the top range, a couple of note in the top may be lost temporarilly. With increased (adequate) resistence from the vocalis muscle, the crico-thyroid must become stronger as well if length and longitudinal tension is to be maintained for pitch. A pedagogical culture based on fear of the chest voice and anything to do with weight looks down at a teacher who advocates the use of the chest.  How interesting is it that the original developers of operatic technique advocated the opposite?  

Ada Finelli, one of Italy's great mezzos, a regular at La Scala and other major European theaters, left us in late April of last year.  She taught until the end after she settled in her home town of Bologna.  I had sent a student to her who was not able to meet her because she was hospitalized.  I cannot call myself a bona fide student of the great mezzo because I did not work with her very long, but the influence that my time with her has had on my teaching is indelible.  Without Ada Finelli, my pedagogy might have remained somewhat limited. She told me my voice was an unusual one and that it might take me some time to figure it out. Then she said that since I will be singing into my nineties, I had plenty of time to figure it out (she read palms and taught me how to do it).  One minute she sang a G2 (bass low G) to show me how to prevent that note from being breathy and loose.  The next she was showing a coloratura how to support and Eb6. Crazy! When she sang, we were speechless and we cried.  


I wanted to be a teacher like her, with a great voice that can do what she teaches.  I am getting close, I can feel it.  And since I "will be singing into my nineties" I have some time to make good on that goal. I always weigh my new scientific finds against what I learned from her.  Science and tradition complement each other. I am eternally grateful for the time, albeit short, that I spent with her. So much wisdom in so little time.  If I understand her well, I bet she has set up shop in some corner of Heaven teaching the Angelic Choirs a thing or two.  So I will not say only Requiescat In Pacem but rather what she always said when she wanted more intensity and focus in the sound: "Chiagne, chiagne!" (Cry, cry!)


© 11/09/2010