Sunday, December 25, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Way of the Singer Is a Solitary One -- A New Year's Wish!

First, I wish you all, dear friends around the world a very enjoyable holiday season, as you celebrate religious holidays of many kinds and reflect on the previous year. In two days, on the 27th of December (my birthday), the blog will be four years old.  My writing has been less frequent but not for lack of things to write about.  In fact, quite the contrary!  So many experiences, on a daily basis, in lessons, in my practice, in listening to singers on stage, at concerts, etc.  But as we close 2011, I am so filled with the thought of how lonely the path is at times.  This is not negative or positive, but rather a simple observation.  Each singer's experience is singular.  No one travels the same road.  In lessons, I must find a singular way to share the same fundamentals with each student.  The nature of the lesson depends on the needs of the student in the moment and what I feel they need.  A give-and-take is necessary, but certain information must be disseminated, shared, passed on, discovered...

The most painful part of the path is the one that was not supposed to have happened in the natural scheme of things.  It is not a natural thing for a singer to wake up one day and realize that s/he had not learned what s/he was supposed to have learned in order to be prepared.  And even if the true singer will go back to what seems like the beginning, in order to become the singer s/he was meant to be, it is not without great difficulty that s/he undertakes the challenge to become more complete.  The young singer who must work hard to develop a strong foundation either has the staying power or not.  In the natural course of things, the young singer will find out whether s/he has what it takes to stay the course.  Youth is indeed the natural time to deal with the frustrations of learning to sing.  When one is older it is 1000 times more difficult, but the seeker of truth (one's personal truth) has no choice but to return to the road and attempt to find the real path once again.

In returning to the road and undertaking learning fundamentals again,  the older singer must be armed with even greater faith, even greater patience, even greater courage.  To take the path again, one must take as given that a real technique (for lack of a better term) is possible for anyone who truly wants it. Otherwise, it is self-torture to undergo the path again.  One must have the courage to stay the course when it is easier to listen to the discouragement of the masses.  One must have above all the patience to realize the vision of a healthy, pleasurable relationship with singing.  Otherwise, any attempt is worthless.

In the best moment, it is no longer about the career, nor is it about adulation or impressing anyone.  A singer is fundamentally a healer.  What we do with great music, channeled through the purity of the fully-developed primal human voice is soul-nourishing.  A singer must sing and in a way that heals others and him/herself through the process.  To be blocked and frustrated is nothing short of karmic poisoning.  We must complete the process of becoming skilled.  Not for money, not for a career, not for applause, but for the sake of what singing means to the singer and indeed to the world of listeners.

Too much in the past year have I witnessed the hidden anger of singers who must come before an audience with a feeling of uncertainty and worthlessness.  It costs them so much to keep their composure, but they should not have to go through such a hell.  Too much the frustration of singers who yearn to be able to sing the song the way they always wished they could!

I am however lucky to have witnessed this year the light of hope in singers' eyes who see the light at the end of a long tunnel, who realized that indeed they can become masters of their voices, paradoxically by training it and then releasing it to do what it was always meant to do without conscious help.  Yet there are moments, even after accomplishing once-seemingly-unattainable skills, when doubt rears its ugly head--doubt of whether that day will ever come when true ease is possible.  This is the challenge that plagues so many otherwise capable and potentially inspiring artists.  That question:  "Will I ever sing well?" is poison.  It is doubt!  Those who were lucky to have developed good vocal strength and coordination before they were conscious that singing is a learned skill take for granted that they "have a beautiful voice" and can always find it again.  The disadvantage of the singer who must consciously find his/her natural voice for the first time is that s/he feels she is chasing a dream, a legend that may or may not be true.  I promise, it is not a legend.  But like any true buried treasure, it takes an adventure to find it.  But what wonder when the treasure is unearthed!!!

A beautiful functional voice that responds to the need to express is the "norm" and a birthright for every human being, barring some unfortunate physical handicap. A singer simply adds the musical component to that innate capacity.  Yet our consciousness, which leads to the act of mimicry causes us to copy the voices of our parents, our older siblings and eventually our favorite singers, all the while losing track of the original, unique voice that is each individual's personal treasure.  That unconscious loss means muscular deviation and unbalance.  To regain our nature we must often go through unnatural frustrations. Yet, it is completely worth it because honest, unedited expression is healing to the human spirit.  Hence the re-acquisition of our voices, our instrument of expression is not only necessary for the singer but for the human being.  Unfettered expression awakens a truth in our fellow human being that makes vocal performance, whether theater or singing, a necessary ceremony--A ceremony that requires that the singer be a vessel of inspired human experience that is to then be shared by means of the voice. 

My wish for each of you, my friends, is that you do not abandon the path to your true voices.  In 2012, I wish you all some moments of clarity when you experience a glimpse of how special it is to express yourselves by means of your most natural voice.  Stay the course: Faith, Courage, Patience...Hard Work Is a Given!

© 12/25/2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Primal Voice and Civilized Music

What we accept as our "natural voice" is the voice that has resulted from whatever unconscious habits we have developed through our environmental stimuli, whether copying our parents' voices or developing vocal habits relative to modes of vocal expression from our native cultures, early singing experiences or other experiences that gets us to use our voices in ways that influence the development of vocal skills (e.g. cheerleader squad, sports teams songs, singing along with Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, Steve Perry or Edith Piaf etc).  Every vocal habit trains the balance of the vocal mechanism in specific ways that will ultimately influence what we identify as our "natural voice".  The process of training should complete whatever has been learned through balancing the activity of all the muscles involved with the aim of developing flexibility and strength in vocal expression.  As opera singers, we should be vocal "Olympians"-- be able to perform extraordinary vocal feats based on muscular activity that is consistent with the most natural functions of the vocal apparatus.  Those natural functions are primal.  Indeed, a listener responds to primal vocal sounds, whether a baby's cry or spontaneous full-bodied laughter.  The acoustical intensity of such sounds evoke a natural response from other human beings who listen to it.  A great opera singer develops a primal sound that is put to the service of the most highly evolved music ever created.  That combination is irresistible and is indeed the secret to great operatic performance.  A great musician without that primal sound does not touch the audience but may inspire the intellectual curiosity of some.  A great primal voice without musical sophistication may still evoke something in the listener's being that goes beyond explanation, even when the voice is not perfectly balanced.  That is why we often see singers on stage that we do not believe have refined techniques. Yet somehow they keep working.  There is no logic to the effects of the primal voice. People simply respond to it from instinct.  The goal of course is to develop such a primal sound in absolute balance like a lion's roar, a dog's bark, a cat's meow or indeed a baby's laughter or crying or cooing. When a vocal artist has such an instrument at his/her disposal and speaks the language of music fluently, s/he is able to access the listener on levels that border on the metaphysical.  I believe that the success or failure of opera singers can be tracked in great part through measuring the extent to which their sound include acoustic qualities of primal modes of vocal expression.

© 12/16/2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Malena Ernman, Swedish Song Goddess

I am of the opinion that Opera will never cease to exist because of the sensational Swedes.  I am in the middle of several very serious technical blog posts, which are taking a long time to write because I am teaching a lot and practicing perhaps even more.  Lots of exciting things to come hopefully before the new year.  But while you patiently wait, a little bit of entertainment is an order.

Great singing is great singing no matter how you cut it, and as I enjoy my few days in Umeå, in the north of Sweden (they decided to raise the freezing temperature of water to accommodate this Caribbean Tenor), teaching some truly committed singers (Tackar alla er, mina vänner och studenter)
I was introduced to a Swedish household name.  Malena Ernman is a singular singer/comedian/show-woman of extraordinary proportions--An operatic vaudevillian if you will, in the style of Viktor Borge or Dudley Moore.  The difference is that she is a bona fide opera singer who has sung lead roles at the Royal Opera Stockholm, Vienna Stadtsoper, Berlin, Brussels' La Monnaie, etc.  Slated as a lyric mezzo of extraordinary versatility, she successfully and repeatedly exemplified what makes classical singing appealing and entertaining without resorting to vocal vulgarity.  She will twist operatic norms occasionally to suit the purpose of the moment but never resorting to vocal parody.

This woman exhibits a refined technique that should have thrilled audiences worldwide.  If her remarkable vocal and comedic talents have not been imported beyond Europe, I would guess it is most likely that she is like many Swedish women, very family-conscious and decided to limit her travels.

As a lyric mezzo, we would certainly expect her to have fun with Rosina:




Or use mezzo arias to have fun with famous Swedish sports figures at an athletic gala.




But an impromptu Queen of the Night at a Christmas Concert is something else.  Her perfectly in-tune high Fs are flute voice tones as they should be for a healthy mezzo.  Her high Ds are modal.  If she was not just having fun with a famous aria, she could make a scary Queen.



There is indeed a big difference between a well-trained classical singer with a magnetic stage presence and great comedic timing and someone with little voice singing operatic tunes with the aid of a necessary microphone.

This is a singer who has sung at the great houses of Europe with deserved success and critical acclaim who can also have fun in less formal situations when she wants to.

 If the so-called crossover singers had half of her vocal and theatrical talents we would be in very good shape in the classical universe, but alas that is not the case.

I'm very happy my friend Martin in Umeå, a regular contributor to blog discussions shared some of these clips with me.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

© 12/14/2011

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Have not forgotten you!

I have gotten several recent questions about various topics here on the blog!  I have not forgotten you!  It is a very busy time right now but I promise I have lots of fun new things to share!  Thank you for your patience!

JRL

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Towards Flexibility: A little ditty called, "Per poco fra le tenebre..."

A yoga teacher told me once that "Flexibility is Strength!"  He said this when I was having difficulty with a particular stretch.  He whispered, "your arms are so strong, use them to help your legs give in to the stretch."  I did not get it!  He told me to see him after class.  After the workout, I saw him and he asked me to pick up my visibly heavy backpack (I carry an office in my backpack, hardwood desk included) with one arm.  Then he asked me to stretch the arm and make a circle with the heavy bag.  I could not. It was too heavy.  He then asked me to do the same, holding and circling the bag with both arms.  That was relatively easy.  He concluded that with enough strength one can be do "flexible" things, like moving the arms in a circle.  I was not strong enough with my one arm to do it.  He then called one of the classmates who looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger and asked him to circle my backpack with one arm.  It was obviously easy.  So I asked him, how that related to my stretch.  He taught me a lesson that never left me.  He said:

You know that the muscles in the body are arranged by antagonistic pairs, right? That is to say, each muscle has a partner that contracts in contrary direction.  It is when both muscles are working opposite each other in proportion that balance is achieved.  In Yoga we train to accomplish the fullest range of motion, such that each muscle may be allowed by its partner to contract fully.  When one contracts fully, the other releases fully and vice versa.  So in your stretch, one muscle was not allowing the stretch. It was too tightly and inflexibly contracted.  It also means that the counter-muscle was weak, not able to contract and help that muscle release. Your very strong arms were in a position to help the weak muscle and thereby encourage the stretch.  The the tight muscle gets the message that it needs to give a little.

The concept of muscular antagonism was not foreign to me.  I was introduced to it in Vocal Pedagogy 101 a long time ago.  But it is different when one is at a level to understand physically how that actually feels in the process of singing. Poor antagonism is when one muscle dominates excessively as in falsetto or the reverse, a "loose" heavey chest voice.  Good antagonism is when the two muscles are doing their part, preventing one muscle from being two active.  An organized balance between the two main phonation muscle groups, CT and Vocalis is the goal.  It is precisely that: a question of balance! And balance means that one will tip off of center a few times before achieving stability.

Luciano Pavarotti often refers to his voice as an elastic voice.  He meant flexible, able to traverse his entire range almost seamlessly.  The goal used to be a state of balance that gives the impression that there are no registers. One young, professional tenor told me a while back that his goal was to keep the registers.  He wanted the sensation of a sudden shift from low to high. For him the drastic change was a virtue. How things have changed.

If the goal were simply to stretch thin towards the top then falsetto would be hallmark of a great singer.  A coordinated tone requires the CT to stretch the folds thin out but with simultaneous opposition from the Vocalis to prevent the folds from thinning out too much.  This longitudinal tension makes for a much more efficient vibration process.  Elasticity is when the CT has the strength to stretch effortlessly to the top with appropriate opposition from the Vocalis to create a full voice tone. Not two-thirds voice, not three-fourths but a full voice!  This takes time!  The modern singer's nemesis!

One can listen to my clips over the three years I have been writing this blog and documenting my progress and hear a gradual leaning out of the voice.  Many listened to my falsettone high C about a year ago and celebrated my having found my tenor voice. But it was not a true high C.  I have a real one now that is becoming viable, but I also have three former baritones who can stretch to Eb5 or higher. High notes are not everything, but a well-coordinated high note is a sign of a voice that has been truly developed. I have found that singers who sing high notes that are too thin, often have difficulty in the passaggio.    One short aria I find to be a remarkable test, is Arturo's short one minute arioso, "Per poco fra le tenebre" from Donizetti's Lucia.  I have heard more than a few otherwise able tenors, literally crash-and-burn on that little aria.  I would encourage all tenors regardless of category to try to master that little one-minute challenge:

Here is a clip of my attempt at it.  It is an interesting clip in that one can hear when the voice is truly balance and when it deviates a tiny bit.  One can hear very successful stretches in the passaggio but one has the feeling it can all become stretchier, more elastic!  That is the goal, and elasticity is possible without losing the fullness of the tone.

© 11/16/2011


Monday, November 14, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Baritone to Tenor: Inch By Inch...It's a Cinch!

I would not wish the transition from baritone to tenor on anyone!  And I am sure that those who have made the change successfully, particularly at a later age would agree.  I must always reiterate that one cannot make a true baritone into a tenor, however many true tenors begin their careers as baritones because it was easier in some way or other.

A lasting transition is often slow, arduous and froth with challenges at many levels, physical, psychological, spiritual and most definitely social.  There is no lack of nay-Sayers!  It is always easier to see the faults and difficulties than to have a real idea about how to find the solutions.  When one does not have a vision beyond the difficulties, the only answer is "It's not possible!"  Lucky for me I am part of a very special Kung Fu School (where I learn the saying: Inch by inch...It's a cinch!) where impossible is not a vocabulary word.  I am not shy about advertising my Kung Fu School.  It makes my life easier every day!

Because I travel so much, my dear teacher, Sifu Romain, gave me the option of training privately so that I do not fall behind in the curriculum.  One of the privileges (Thank you Sifu!) is that I get to train side by side with the most advanced students early Monday mornings.  So I get pushed beyond what I thought I could do.  When I practice my forms after a Black Sash workout, I notice the difference in my fundamentals.  This morning, my drop-stances felt much more flexible after some tough drop-stance stretches.  The workouts with this exceptional group of people are extremely challenging, but I thrive on them.  My week begins very differently.  I am pumped!

Pumped to practice my singing with the same vigor, the same commitment, the same approach to precision!  I have always been an athlete of sorts.  In high school I played soccer.  I was a center-forward, the goal scorer.  I had to finish!  Whether my team won or lost rested heavily on my shoulders.  I had to score and it takes a single-mindedness in a split second to score.  I scored 37 times in four seasons. No I do not forget that.  As a freshman in a high-level public high school team, I had to learn to finish. It took the last three games of the season before I scored my first four goals. I was a right wing then (also responsible for scoring, but not the main scorer).  That experience prepared me to lead my private school team my last three years. During the summers I played tennis, quite seriously. Sometimes 12 hours a day.  Winning meant finishing a point, then a game, then the match.  My coach kept yelling, "one point at a time!" Yes, "Inch by inch..." with different words.

What I learned in singing over the 30 years I have been doing it seriously is that it requires three phases to become physically proficient: 1) Fitness 2) Coordination 3) Polish.  I find the same in Kung Fu every time I practice a form.  I had achieved Phase 3 as a baritone.  My most critical teachers felt I had an excellent technique but could not figure out what was not working.  Well, I was singing lower than where my voice could have maximum intensity.  I was at a disadvantage because I was singing the wrong repertoire.  Fine for middle-level work and certainly good enough to get a job in Academia (go figure), but not good enough for top professional work.

One of my students, who is also making the transition, a couple of months ago said to me: "I thought you were crazy, allowing yourself to make sounds that were not very pretty, but now I get it!"  What he got was that I have a lot of stamina! Meaning I can sing through some very difficult arias, but sometimes they are not very pretty. Is it that I don't want to sing pretty? Certainly not!  I am not interested in ugly sounds. But often, doing the right thing in training means somethings will be a bit shaky, a bit wobbly a bit unrefined.  But those are the very steps that lead to quality singing. Effortlessness does not come because we simply relax!  Relaxation happens when the right muscles are strong enough to do their part, such that other muscles do not compensate.

In Tai Chi, one of my favorite styles, I used to always have tense shoulders--usually up to my ears!  I am sure I still carry tension in my shoulders, but I know it has improved because Sifu comments on other aspects I have to correct. I am sure he will come back to the shoulders because I tend to carry tension there, even in singing, but it is less obvious now!

So in a read-through of Idomeneo yesterday, the first role I have sung all the way through since an ill-advised Pagliaccio six months after I began training, I felt good. At the end of the run, I felt I could sing the whole thing again twice.  I used to feel that way in my baritone days.  This is significant.  I have built the stamina and the notes.  I warmed up to C5# in full voice yesterday and began to feel I will be accessing notes above that. Just more practice. Beyond C was not even a dream a few months ago.  So I am beyond my phase 1.  I estimate I am toward the end of phase 2.  Coordination to me means consistency in balance throughout the range.  Some notes still are harder to coordinate than others, particularly A3 and the passaggio D4 to G4.  Each time one thing improves, the fault in something else becomes more obvious.

Now I can concentrate on making beautiful tones, not just the basic coordination of notes, which require basic muscular strength in balance.  Now it will be about clarity and fluidity, exact fold posture and a perfectly relaxed throat.  Not that those elements where not part of my thought all along, but now they can be accomplished in a real way (No longer dealing with gluten allergy symptoms is certainly a plus). 

Phase 3 is about dynamics.  The job is not done until one can sing a perfect pianissimo-crescendo to fortissimo-and back, on every note in the range.  That was the old school expectation. Phase 3 is about how long a note can be sustained, how fast one can sing and the performance of an honest trill on two distinct perfectly tuned pitches, not a wide vibrato on one note.  Some of these skills I already have, but they are made much more impressive when coordination is really exact.  So the same way I waited for fitness (and health) before I tackle real coordination, I must wait for excellent coordination before concentrating on final high level skills.

How low is your Horse-Stance? But how long can you sustain it? If not for long then maybe you are pushing it too low too soon! Patience...Inch by Inch! But stretch a little lower every day!

How high can you sing? But how long can you sustain the highest note? If not for long, then perhaps you need to sing a little lower for a while!  Patience...Inch by Inch! But stretch a little higher every day!

Kung Fu is everywhere! Singing is everywhere and in everything we do!

Idomeneo_Vedrommi

Just one point on a long road that must be walked.  That aria has been in my practice regimen ever since I started the road to tenor.  It is a barometer for me.  It seems easy, but it challenges the voice in ways that are unimaginable until one has to sing it.  Every Mozart aria is like that.  When sung by the right voice type, those arias teach a great deal!

Take time! Envision perfection, but forgive your human imperfections!

© 11/14/2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Faith 2: Breaking Boards and Barriers, Another Tribute to Sifu Karl Romain

There is nothing more precious than the total belief that we can indeed do anything we put our minds to!  I believe this absolutely and yet there are moments when I question my own faith in the face of difficulties, adversities, challenges, etc.  After a very difficult week, in which I saw fear and doubt all around me, whether the student who does not believe s/he has enough talent, or the one who is not sure if s/he has the wherewithal to overcome the technical challenges, or the challenges imposed by the business, etc, and certainly my own fears about whether I am giving them what they need to succeed, I found my center once more at Romains Kung Fu Academy.

We had a Saturday Seminar on a style called Xing Yi or Xingyiquan, an internal Kung Fu style like Tai Chi, but much more aggressive because it is also a military style developed by a celebrated Chinese General named Yue Fei.  At the end of the two-hour session of exercises to develop inner energy, Sifu Romain ended the class with a "board-breaking" session, a type of application of focusing our complete energy, which we had just learned from Xing Yi.  Sifu always tells us that our study of Kung Fu is not measured by breaking boards like so many other martial arts insist, however, just as his teacher did for him once, he wanted to give us the opportunity to experience breaking boards.  When Sifu called for a volunteer, I raised my hand not knowing precisely what it entailed. 

I imagined the experiences I had watching Tae Kwon Do demonstrations when I was in high school.  I imagined I was going to "Karate-chop" the board in two, that maybe I would succeed and maybe I would not, since it was my first time ever trying to break a board.  Then Sifu demonstrated how we had to break the board: 1) The fingertips had to touch the board the whole time 2) The board would be broken with the palm of the hand.  I immediately realized that this was not a test of strength, but rather one of the mind.  It was about mental focus and faith, yes faith in something that is not easily quantifiable.

I walked to the board with a single-mindedness that it was possible and if focus and faith is what is necessary then I have what it takes.  I closed my eyes, focused my thoughts, I visualized my palm going through the board and to the floor like Sifu instructed.  The fact that I had two friends visiting the school that day did not cross my mind.  Everything disappeared and a split second later the board was in two pieces, and the class applauded.

Here's the interesting part:  I was surprised! Elated! Changed!  I come from a very metaphysical culture.  Believing the unseen is not difficult for me, but to experience faith becoming manifest in a very "real," tangible experience was life-changing.  When some more advanced students tried it and did not succeed, then it was confirmed that this was not a test of strength nor experience. When the youngest member of the class (he must have been 10 or 11) accomplished it, I knew it was a test of faith and concentration.  The youngest of our classmates said it best: "It doesn't matter how old you are or how big or small you are, you can do anything if you put your mind to it!"

It got even better! My friend, Claire who was visiting and who joined class that day got to try.  She has never had a Kung Fu class before.  She broke the board!



Breaking one board in the way we had to do it required a momentary suspension of our minds linear way of making conclusions.  In the moment that I saw the short distance between the board and my suspended palm, it became very clear that force of a conventional kind was not going to do the trick.  I had to summon a will from inside and in the moment of truth dispel all doubt and fear.  This goes far beyond the breaking of boards.  It became real to me that the way I had approached challenges was indeed real.  Believing always that there is a way to resolve problems and accomplish goals even when faced with what appear to be insurmountable obstacles is no longer a romantic ideal that I aspire to.  It is simply the way I do things and it is right!

Because of this realization, I taught some wonderful lessons after that class and I had some further realizations.  As Kashu-do Studios begin developing into something fuller than I had originally imagined, I will need this kind of single-minded focus.  The kind of focus that makes me realize that any major enterprise requires many hands and help from other sources.  This kind of focus, frees the mind to reach beyond barriers of thought and planning into a realm of discovery and spontaneous manifestation.

Sifu Romain, my teacher, has a way of opening doors whenever we feel boxed in.  Kung Fu, practiced with faith and purpose and focus opens doors we did not even know existed.  I feel always that I am growing in the presence of this wonderful man.  He helps me to reaffirm that what I bring to a lesson or performance goes far beyond my knowledge and accomplishments.  It is the spirit of possibility that transforms my tangible skills into something more limitless. 

I am empathic and it hurts to see some of my students allow the nay-saying culture of the music business to manipulate their minds, even temporarily.  It is so easy to be negative!  To be positive is to take responsibility for  the certainty of achievement.  It takes far more courage, far more strength, far more patience, far more faith to see the path to achievement in the face of the illusion of a negative reality!

My reality begins with a vision...




My vision!



© 11/06/2011


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Faith

There are times I want to give up teaching! Yes I don't know many teachers who love teaching singers as much as I do, but there are times that the whole process seems useless.  So often if seems like convincing singers to do something they don't believe they can achieve. Yet all the elements are there!  If they could pull back and see the landscape, and what obstacles are truly before them!  And that the obstacles can be overcome.  You either look at this madness that is the business of classical singing and say: "this is for the birds" or you look at the art of singing and realize that you, with the singer's soul are meant to be there.  The artists, the ones with vision that surpass common understanding always see a way through all the madness.  But in the case of singing, it is a community of "artists" who are saying: "You can't!"

The truth is as much as I wish that I could carry the burden of this path for my students, I cannot. No more than I can carry the burden of life for my children!  Life is hard and you have to want to live.  The business of singing is an infernal chaos---but the art of singing is a beautiful thing that saves lives, that of others and our own---and you must want to sing.  Above all you must believe that you are meant to sing!  Why must you believe? why Faith?  If you do not believe with every ounce of your being that you are here for a purpose, then there is no guidance, no compass! And therefore no vision and no will!

Being a professional anything begins with a commitment to an ideal that drives us every second!

Reality:  Expect no favors!
But there are always guardian angels.

Reality: There are a lot of dark clouds!
But there is always a silver lining!


There is a particular axiom that is both true and false: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results!


This is true only if we are not talking about practicing.  Sometimes the results come precisely from repeating the same thing over and over again!  In my Kung Fu scholl, we have many axioms. Among the most important is the following: Repetition is the mother of all skill!


I have repeated the same exercises for three years to achieve a sustained high C.  In the beginning it was only Ab and then A and then Bb, and so on.  The same way I have learned many skills in Kung Fu class.  Repetition of one such skill saved my life in Germany a few weeks ago when I was attacked late at night in the S-bahn!  I was shocked and kept this to myself until I met with my Kung Fu teacher!  It is not surprising that the move that saved me is the one I had been practicing daily in two different forms!


The Insanity quote is among the most repeated phrases in our times.  Its necessary opposite, the Repetition quote I have never heard outside of my Kung Fu Academy.  And I believe it is needed more than ever in our times.


Great instrumentalists know that they must practice many hours to master certain skills.  We singers still live with the illusion that we should be able to open our mouths and make great sounds instantaneously or that a two or three years of work is enough to accomplish all skills.  The average young virtuoso instrumentalist usually begin at a very young age and usually work some 10 years before they are taken seriously at a professional level.


I meet young singers in their 20s who have lost all hope that they can make a career in classical singing!  Somehow they believed that they would open their mouths and the casting agents and directors would be blown away by the sounds they were making in their high school choirs!  When that did not happen they believed they were not talented.


It is part of my job to inspire my students!  In the midst of hard training one can temporarily lose faith. So I use my skills to show the student in the moment what they are able to do when they put all the pieces together.  But sustained, repeatable skill comes from having trained the body, the brain and the spirit to organize the entire being into producing a specific result.


Most singers I meet believe that a great technique should get them to sing their most difficult vocal challenges with a relatively short time.  The truth is that a great vocal technique reveals our faulty pasts and trains habits that discourage our faults and instill correct habits.  Every singer should have a class in brain function to understand how the bad habits they learn unconsciously are saved as neural pathways that become default functions until new ones are learned.  The new pathways are created by repetition.


And here once more I have done the exercise that I often do with singers.  I use science and logic to convince them that they can, that all the obstacles can be overcome by repeating until the new has been trained muscularly, mentally and spiritually.  But in the end, my arguments only have an effect on a singer who is willing to go through the frustration to capture his/her Golden Fleece.


Very often, the singer has already been brain-washed that it should happen for them quickly and without a lot of work.  I wish they would bring back the TV Series fame.  No one says it better than Debbie Allen!  Not just an actress delivering a line, but an artist who knows what it takes to achieve!


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtgmnhRQir4&feature=related


If that does not work, then watch a Rocky movie and imagine it takes that kind of training to sing Opera, because in fact...It does!


© 11/03/2011









Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Sub-glottal Pressure: Another Technical Paradox

A colleague recently asked me whether there is any scientific literature that certifies whether sub-glottal pressure causes the larynx to rise.  Perhaps a couple of the other voice science types here can point us to articles that deal specifically with SBP (cause) and High Larynx (effect).  What I did reply is that SBP is the only vertical upward force that could be responsible for the larynx climbing, therefore it might be superfluous to write a paper on this particular cause and effect.  My colleague explained that he does not experience a high larynx because of SBP and that he could apply quite a bit of breath pressure to his sound without having a high larynx. Is it that his laryngeal stabilizers are stronger because he is an experienced singer?  Is it that he is experiencing something different that feels to be SBP?

The answer is YES on all counts and NO on all counts.  I am not being facetious!  Sub-glottal pressure is what drives the voice.  A healthy voice has adequate SBP that gets transformed into glottal flow! A tense voice has SBP that does not get released but continues to build up to unhealthy levels below the larynx and cause it to rise.  Here is the kicker!  It is not too much air from the breath source that causes unhealthy SBP but in fact too little air! Let me explain!

It is important to understand that SBP is governed by two elements, namely the air in the lungs and the resistance of the vocal folds.  Any vocal sound requires compressed air.  If the diaphragm does not rise adequately to provide the air pressure necessary, the vocal folds immediately make up for it by squeezing together to reduce flow and raise the pressure to necessary levels in order to keep the sound going.  In such a case, the sound becomes labored because of the added stress created by the tightened larynx.  The higher SBP that results and the discomfort in the throat causes a response from the brain to lower pressure even more.  The diaphragm stops its rise and the throat compensates even more.  A terrible snowball effect. In a sense, less air pressure from the diaphragm requires more squeeze from the throat as a compensatory measure.

In short, SBP can be either virtuous (when provided by the rise of the diaphragm, thereby keeping the laryngeal resistance appropriate) or erroneous (when provided by a laryngeal squeeze, further suppressing the healthy participation of the diaphragm in the equation).

It should be mentioned however that too much pressure from the diaphragm is also possible against a properly functioning larynx.  If the laryngeal stabilizers cannot sustain the pressure, the folds can be blow apart literally.  One can in fact attempt to sing too loudly, more than the native instrument can sustain healthily. 

Good, consistent pressure from the diaphragm frees the vibrating edges from over-tightening. This means that the singer can reduce volume without losing necessary pressure.  This is why soft, well-supported singing is tricky.  The breath pressure must be reduced for softer singing, however not to the point of losing necessary pressure below the larynx.  Finding the right coordination is a sensory experience and requires practice in order for all the participating muscles to learn their part in the equation. 

At the root of it all is a fold posture that encourages glottal flow.  This includes appropriate mass (fold depth) to avoid a necessary squeeze relative to the length of the glottal cycle.  This has to do with a perception of one's native vocal color.  This is different with each voice.  A lot of our process in vocal technique is discovering what our natural vocal color is!  The natural color is often supplanted by learned vocal habits that the singer believe to be native.  The true voice in the beginning might feel foreign.  Singers have a tendency of resisting anything that feels "unnatural" to them.  Paradoxically, in many cases what feels unnatural is in fact nature and what feels natural is in fact poor nurture.

© 11/01/2011


Kashu-do (歌手道): Ideology and Reality 2: A Personal Journey

As I prepare the teaching philosophy page of my website (under construction) I wrote the following:

We must strive for perfection knowing that we will always fall short!  It is a very different thing to strive for less because we cannot achieve perfection.  The former is noble, the latter is common. An artist understands this difference and lives by the former!

This encapsulates the necessary dichotomy of Ideology and Reality.  At my recital, as with any performance, I had a real responsibility, which is to entertain an audience. I had an ideal, which was to create musical art in the process.   The standing ovation at the end means that I was able to fulfill the responsibility, but I fell quite short of my ideal.  I did the right things.  I practiced my music very well and had enough time to work with my pianist such that we felt secure going in.  I was silent for close to two days and at my warm-up/rehearsal a few hours before the recital, I believed I was about to have the time of my life.  Two of my students walked in at the sound-check to a Bb4 that would have stood comparison to any tenor!  But that was the rehearsal!  I did not sing too much during the rehearsal, I ate healthily close to four hours before the concert to avoid any potential issues with acid reflux and the like.  I did everything right this time.  The concert began relatively OK with Purcell's We sing to him:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cXV8IVOIs0

Not bad!  A particularly good Ab4 on "rehearse"!  Still, I started to feel a nagging raspiness in the lower rangeEach time I sang there, it was as if something was not solid.  Whatever followed it would also end up raspy.  It seems to have come out of nowhere!  I was rested, had a super warm-up and I drank plenty of liquids throughout the day. Everything should have been golden.  Handel's "Total Eclipse" went also pretty well, but I could feel the occasional raspy lower note:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8zy2bb4moQ

The following set of Haitian Art Songs went well but I could feel the raspiness worsen each time I had to sing low.  The Tchaikovsky set that finished the first half was definitely a little struggle.  All the high notes came out including Lensky's Aria and Don Juan's Serenade but I felt I was singing though a small film of mucous that simply was not to my liking.  So I won't bore you with the clips, which I do not feel represent my singing at this stage.  Not horrible but not pleasurable either.

I had 15 minutes at the half to assess my situation.  I felt the lower range was not engaging the breath properly, either because I was tentatively avoiding the precariousness of that part of my range or that something was causing it becoming even more mucous-ridden.

I decided to be a little more forthright about my onsets in the low range, making sure the breath was more under me and that worked more or less.  The second half was particularly more fun as a result. These two excerpts from Turina's Poema en forma de canciones felt good as a result of this more fearless attitude:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HbtKzLzE2o


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHZDA5rZtLI

The last song of the last set was a cute Haitian song that inspired some of the compatriots in the audience to chime in. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcxHH3nqI-4

 This gave me the confidence to sing the encore that I had planned, which had a particular significance to the evening.  This was in honor of the Dominican Republic, the first presence to offer help after the Haitian Earthquake of 2010. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8p1ATmXOH4E

The top Bb4 was not as released as in my rehearsal but it did the trick. 

The importance of this recital for me was the fact that I turned a potential problem around and made the evening a success, but artistically I would have like to be more free, particularly in the first half. One can lose an audience in the first song. 

More importantly however was understanding why despite my best preparations this occurred the way it did.  As there are many singers who read this blog who suffer from allergies or some other ailment, it is important to understand all the ramifications even when the ailments have been dealt with.  In this case, I realize that I caused myself problems because I spoke between the songs and indeed spoke softly with my pianist for a few minutes before the concert.  Normally that is nothing to worry about, unless there are residual tensions from the compensations that were necessary in every day speech when the allergy (inflammation from gluten in my case) was present. When I listened to the recital on the train back to New York, I realized that my speaking was at the heart of the issue.

Upon arriving home, I practiced, concentrating on proper breath support in the lower range and remembered to apply the same to my speaking.  After those 6 or 7 years of not knowing that I had a gluten allergy that had reached a tipping point, even after dealing with the issue, my tendencies were to press when I speak, without knowing that I was doing it.  That simple adjustment made a remarkable difference in my practice over the past 48 hours.  Not only is the low better but its effect on the freedom of the top and on my legato in general astounded even me.  I think I have found the key to the rest of my technical work.  In practicing Idomeneo, for which I have a sing-through in two weeks, I was amazed at my ability to sing a supported piano.  Some of that can already be heard in the first of the Turina songs even in the recital, but there is a total sense of knowing the sensations particularly relative to the low.  It is one thing to hear it and know it aurally.  It is quite another to feel the sensation precisely.  Above all, this was a confirmation that my allergies are pretty much gone, that I was not dealing with inflammations anymore.  I can now give myself permission to expect the ideal or that the reality is not that far removed from it!  Happy days to come!

© 11/01/2001






 

Kashu-do (歌手道): Jonas Kaufmann, Joseph Calleja, Gerhard Siegel: Ideology and Reality

If you are wondering who Gerhard Siegel is in my trio of tenors, just get a ticket to a performance of the current Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera!  No insult to the Met's Siegfried on the night I was present, who did an admirable job of a very difficult role, but one of my students who attended with me read my mind when he said after the first act, "Should this opera be called Mime?"  Herr Siegel is a true Wagnerian tenor of a special kind.  A real jugendliche Heldentenor with top notes to burn, a musicality and charm that totally disarms the audience and lets it love Mime even as he is supposed to be the hated, conniving little dwarf.  He has already sung Siegfried and Walter von Stolzing in Nürnberg and thus vocally perfect for the title role.  I will not venture to calculate why he was not cast in this role at the MET to begin with, but there are a multitude of possible reasons.  Perhaps he is physically more Dwarf-like (he is not a short man) according to the aesthetics of the directorial staff; perhaps the original Siegfried, Gary Lehman who had to drop out last minute was more suitable to the MET's concept; perhaps Mr. Siegel was only recently discovered by the MET because of his successes as Mime at Covent Garden and other places.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps...No matter!  At the end of the day, at least according to this blogger, the night belonged vocally to the powers of Herr Siegel and his German colleague, the magnificent Fafner, Hans Peter König, indeed by his name, a king among basses!  Between this magnificent pair, René Pape, Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann, Germany has much to be proud about when it comes to the complete development of operatic voices.

Great technique speaks for itself and it inspires a singer who is in this for life.  Mr. Siegel made me want to go to my practice room and discover fun things.  As I was in the middle of preparing for my first professional recital since my change to tenor, I was indeed inspired.  I wanted the flexibility to act, express, change colors at will as did Herr Siegel.  One moment he was the best romantic Wagnerian tenor I had heard in quite some time--Cuts through the orchestra effortlessly, able to use his native language to magnificent effect and manages to endear himself to the audience in a villainous role--the next he transformed himself vocally to remind us he was indeed playing a dwarf, and that our stereo-typical expectations had a place in his well-rounded interpretation.  I took note of his excellent breath control.  Every note was indeed supported by a flexible column of air!  Bravo Herr Siegel! Ausgezeichnet!

A couple of days before, I found myself at Le Poisson Rouge, in The Village, in New York, where Decca scored big in choosing this quaint, jazzy venue to kick off the release of Joseph Calleja's album, The Maltese Tenor.  It was clear from moment one why the operatic powers have invested in this excellent artist.  He began that evening with disarming, jokingly self-deprecating jabs about his Maltese heritage, etc.  Then accompanied by the ubiquitous showman-conductor, Steven Mercurio, Soprano Katie van Kooten and Italian baritone, Luca Pisaroni, in a program called Joseph Calleja and Friends, MC'd by NPR, Mr. Calleja took his audience on a breath-taking journey of Gigli-esque morbidezza.  Like Herr Siegel, the secret here is breath-control.  And even though I am somewhat disturbed by the tendency of Mr. Calleja's voice to thin out around D4 (the full lyric tenor's muscular passaggio), his constantly present breath support prevents the voice from going too far into the squeezing that is typical of this part of the voice if left unsupported.  His musicality is emotion-driven.  This is not a singer who spends many hours with Schumann songs but by his own admission schooled by the recordings of the pre-war singers.  It is no wonder he is called The Young Tenor with the Old-School Sound.  One imagines that Gigli must have sounded like that--flexible, innocent, lyrical and always beautiful.  Is the technique complete? By my estimation no!  The thinning at the passaggio concerns me, but the breath support makes up for it and one gets the feeling that the breath will correct the tendency to thin out over time.  What is more important is that he sang a good amount during the hour long program, interspersed with arias by his two guests.  He sang many thrilling high notes with no effort and sounded fresh at the end.  He noticeably turned Mr. Mercurio down who was trying to convince him to sing another encore.  He knows his limits! Leave them wanting more!  I believe Mr. Calleja will be with us a long time.  Unlike his Operalia colleagues, Villazon and Filianotti, Mr. Calleja seems to be taking his time.  Indeed so against the tendencies of our times!

After my own concert on Saturday, 29 October 2011 in Washington D.C. (I will address that event in the next post) I returned to New York in time to experience, Jonas Kaufmann in recital a the MET.  One could not help but to remember Pavarotti who presented a recital in the same space a generation ago.  This is without question the world's reigning tenor saying: " This is how it is done!" No, perhaps not so self-absorbed, but certainly Herr Kaufmann threw down the gauntlet!  He sang challenging repertoire by Liszt, Mahler, Duparc and Strauss, over two hours plus 6 or 7 encores and sounded just as fresh at the end as he did in the beginning.  Mr. Kaufmann sang every dynamic that was possible in his voice and in every part of his range.  He thrilled the audience with brilliant, well-supported top notes as a tenor must.  But he thrilled equally with the evenness of his secure two octaves (C3 to C5), his wonderful breath control, his musical nuances in perfect pace with his former teacher and musical partner, the celebrated pianist, Helmut Deutsch.

In the lobby during the intermission, I must have heard six different conversations on the same theme: "He is the real thing! I so hope he does not destroy his voice with the heavy dramatic repertoire!"  Of course the same thought crossed my mind.  This is the technically most proficient, musically most sophisticated lyric tenor of the current generation.  So why is he bent on singing the dramatic repertoire?  Well on a recent Opera News interview, Mr. Kaufmann explained it thus:

"I see this whole career like a building," he says, "and you cannot build something by putting the roof or putting the antenna on it first." He points to the ground. "You have to start down there." Wagnerites will have to wait the full five years for Tristan, the two Siegfrieds and Tannhäuser. "The difficulty is all those real heldentenors, they have problems in the long high phrasings that are in there," he says of Tannhäuser, "and the lyric tenors have problems then in the strength. And I believe that I have that all."

As I said, Mr. Kaufmann throws down the gauntlet, and why not?  He is correct in that the dramatic voices are not being trained for flexibility, stamina and beauty of tone.  Mr. Siegel has precisely what one would like to have in a Siegfried: natural weight, excellent breath management, flexibility and beauty of tone.  But Mr. Siegel is not considered to have the kind of physical beauty that makes a modern day star, perhaps!  Make-up and costumes, anyone? (Another blog post).  Still, no one should complain.  Either put up or shut up as they say!

At my recent recital, I was reminded that I have work ahead of me if I am to achieve such a level.  Yet, not so much work, I think.  Just the right type of work! No bravado here, just a proper assessment of what it takes to get there (more on this on the next blog).  I am a dramatic tenor and we don't have it easy in this world.  We don't usually get to start out as tenors because bona fide dramatic tenors do not sound like what is expected for the typical college opera night.  We do better starting as lyric baritones, but these days few go beyond their baritone beginnings to stake a claim in the Heldentenor Fach. So it is not so strange that real Heldentenors who successfully make it to the big stage seem often to come out of nowhere.  I have seen three Ring productions this year and a bunch of Strauss and Wagner operas, and you know what?  There is room even for an unknown Heldentenor if he has got the stuff!

Now for the title of this blog.  A young soprano student of mine who had her resumé micro-scoped by the heads of a small opera company in New York was complaining that she just wanted to sing and not play the stupid game.  I told her you only get to bypass the game when you offer something worthy of the very top.  Angela Meade, anyone?

The point is this:  I hear more talks about the reality of our times, that the singers today are just as good if not better than those of the past and anyone who disagrees is a crotchety reactionary, according to Opera News. If you are talking about the three tenors I saw this week and the magnificent Herr Hans Peter König, yes we are not without great singers in our times. Ideology:  Singers who can command their voices to do what they desire to the benefit and not the deficit of the musical score before them! We have some excellent ones in the lyric Fachs.  Reality: Most of them do not sound very compelling when singing roles that are beyond the native lyricism of their voices. I am old enough to have heard Vickers live!  Yet, until we have dramatic singers who can command an audience the way the lyric singers can, we have to accept the reality passed to us by the gate-keepers of our business! Three words: Jonas Kaufmann rules!

© 11/01/2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): On Vibrato, A Point of Pedagogy: 2. Bleats and Wobbles

In the last post, I dealt mainly with the nature of vibrato (that it is inherent in the voice) as opposed to the nurture theory (that a vibrato is made, not inherent to the voice).  In this post I would like to address unbalanced vibrato. The two common qualitative issues relative to vibrato are bleats and wobbles, mistakenly referred to as fast and slow vibratos respectively.

It is important to know that a vibrato is defined not only by its rate, the number of oscillations per second, but also by its extent, the pitch range it covers.  The vibrato rate does not change from one moment to the next or from one day to the next unless there are issues to the efficiency of nerve function or dysfunction, which can be influenced by the effects of old age. But not necessarily!  Indeed vibrato rate (speed) is hardly the issue at all.

The problems we tend to identify as a slow or fast vibrato have to do with the pitch range that the vibrato covers or the vibrato extent.  Scientists have gauged an acceptable vibrato (one that does not distract the listener's attention) to have a pitch range of about a semitone or less.  Vibratos have been measured far in excess of a semitone (100 Cents: In acoustical measurements of vibrato extent, one Cent is defined as 1% of a semitone) among professional singers.  What is particularly interesting is that a singer's vibrato extent may vary greatly between one note in their range and another.  Extents may vary prominently between different registers as well.  All of it depends on the individual singer and this is the question that occupied my mind until a couple of years ago when I began to consider different modes of singing one pitch, relative to the dynamic activity in the antagonistic relationship between the Cricothiroyd muscles that stretch the vocal folds and the Vocalis that resists the stretch and causes tautness in the vocal folds (Scientists have shown that tautness of the folds make for more efficient pitch making than simply fold lengthening).

In my opinion, good singing begins with efficient pitch-making.  One pitch can be sung in different ways on a continuum of antagonistic activity between the two main muscle groups.  Given that pitch is basically based on the timing of one vibration cycle, there are many variations on how a pitch can be sung.  The length of the cycle depends on the vertical depth of the folds on the one hand (since the vibration pattern or mucosal wave occurs on the vertical axis of the folds) and the firmness or looseness of the closure between the folds.  A given cycle length (pitch, in simple language) can be produced either with folds that are vertically very thin and firmly pressed, vertically very deep and loosely closed or somewhere in between.  The correct in between is what we seek.  I believe that wobbles and bleats occur when the production is at the extremes.  Thick and loose production tend to cause flatness.  A singer with a good ear will always seek to compensate and so the mechanism will try to inch its way to balance between cycles.  This means that one moment the tone may be flat and the next in tune.  This variation registers in our ears as a slow vibrato when in fact the vibrato rate (how many vibrato cycles per second) has not changed at all.  The average pitch range of the vibrato relative to the frequency of the desired pitch is low.  Likewise, a pitch that is produced thin and pressed would hang on the higher side of the desired pitch and continually try to adjust to the desired pitch.  The average range of the vibrato would be higher but there would always be a move toward the center of the pitch.  The vibrato extent in both cases is actually wide, but the pitch range, sharp or flat, makes us perceive the vibrato as fast or slow respectively.

A thick or thin production can both be pressed.  A thick production that lacks good breath support would begin to squeeze and the pitch would lower audibly.  Such a singer over a long period of time, especially with older age when the breath mechanism can become lethargic, could end up with what sounds like a slow vibrato even if vibrato rate does not change (vibrato rate can change with older age).  Likewise a singer who sings thin and lacks adequate breath coordination could end up with an instability that sounds like a bleat, goat-trill or the Italian term caprino.  Such instabilities can occur at any point in life, but are more common in older singers, whose breathing function may become weaker due to lower physical activity and atrophy.  Singers who on the other hand have a balanced phonation (neither thin nor thick) tend to not exhibit a wobble even in advanced age.  A balance phonation is generally accompanied by excellent breath coordination, which maintains good muscular fitness as the singer ages.

One thing is certain, wobbles and bleats develop over time from phonation habits, which may not even have to do with principles of singing but rather the singer's normal speaking habits.  Poor speaking habits can undo good singing practice such that the singer never develops a since of security and consistency. 

© 10/21/2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): On Vibrato, A Point of Pedagogy: 1. Normal Vibrato and Preceived Straight-Tone

I don't think I have written a post before about vibrato because I thought the facts about vibrato have been discussed so much over the internet and voice forums that there was nothing pertinent to write about.  That is, until I found myself in the middle of a discussion in a forum of voice teachers, and I must say I was mortified, not so much by the probability that some teachers have not been exposed to the scientific facts about vibrato but by the absolute resistance of some to consider the scientific information because it contradicts a paradigm that has been sold as a method, for which books, etc have been produced.  This brings a really important point of pedagogy to bear, namely "Packaged Pedagogy" in favor of sensible debates based on the facts.

For this reason, as I am deep in the middle of writing a book that deals in great part with vocal technique, I am trying painstakingly not to offer this book as a The Method but rather as one approach based as much as possible on facts that we know and in certain cases based on analytical extrapolations based on what we do know.

Since I teach CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music) singers as well as opera singers and have done so for as long as I have been teaching, I certainly recognize that there are modes of singing that hold other values more important than absolute acoustic and muscular efficiency.  However differences in style and artistic aims do not decry the facts that scientists have dedicated so much of their time trying to pass on information to us that are central to our work.  As much as I think that the scientists could do a lot more to help disseminate the information they gather to the voice teachers in ways that are more user-friendly, I think the community of voice teachers is even more lethargic in doing its part to meet the scientists halfway.  I do not believe there is a discipline whereby so-called experts hold on to false information as much as we voice teachers do.

There are those who believe that the least the student knows about the workings of the voice the better, that way they are less likely to interfere with its workings.  Some truly believe this and it is not as ridiculously condescending as it may appear at first.  Singers are tinkers.  They like to "mess with the instrument" in an attempt to control it.  Smart teachers of all traditions understand that the workings of the voice are fairly automatic and that vocal training is more about getting the instrument in shape to do what it was designed to do without much help from us.

HOWEVER,  I do not seize to experience the amazement in students' faces when they get simple information that makes sense.  We do not need to give an anatomy lecture to educate the student about what they are responsible for in the process of singing and what happens automatically.  Understanding how the voice basically functions make for a confident singer not a complicated one.  If the student really understands the process (i.e. what is automatic and what needs their attention) they are less likely to tinker in a manipulative sense, but rather practice to find balance between their responsibilities and the automatic workings of the instrument.

Which brings me to the main topic, vibrato!  I will try to be as simple as I can be with this, but I will also try to be thorough:

1.  Muscular function relative to pitch occurs thus:

  • The singer desires to sing a specific pitch, the brain sends the signal via the two laryngeal nerves (superior laryngeal nerve and recurrent laryngeal nerve) to contract the many muscles of the larynx to create the desired pitch (and quality, as the singer imagines).  How well the singer's imagination turns into reality depends on how these muscles have been trained (consciously or unconsciously) over time.
  • The nerve impulses from the brain are intermittent. They occur between 5 and 7 times every second depending on the specific person.  The impulses are a reminder of the desired muscular function.  In between them, the muscles relax.  The vibrato is essentially a sequence of A-B-A: A) contraction of muscles to create desired pitch (and quality) B) relaxation of muscles and the pitch drops A) correction of pitch by new nerve impulse.
  • It is important to note that the crico-thyroid muscle, which stretches the vocal folds to make them thinner (it works in tandem with the internal thyro-arytenoid muscle [vocalis] which resists the stretch and keeps the folds taut.  The vocalis prevents uncontrolled thinning of the folds), is enervated separately by the external branch of the superior laryngeal nerve.  The CT is the central pitch-making muscle.  
2.  Vibrato in the fundamental sense is not a choice.  What is explained above occurs in every voice barring some kind of nerve damage.

3. Perceived vibrato vs. straight tone:
  • Straight tone is part of a continuum relative to the normal vibrant nature of the voice.  In other words, a voice functioning with muscular balance will be vibrant.  The vibrato pattern is not heard in speech because one specific pitch is not sustained long enough for the ear to perceive the regularity of the nerve impulses.  When a tone is sustained, with continuous, consistent breath pressure, the folds go into the regular pattern that bring out the regularity of the A-B-A pattern explained above.  However, if the breath pressure is inconsistent, or there is a great imbalance between subglottal pressure and transglottal flow, then the regularity of the pattern might be compromised and the vibrato not perceived.  This we judge to be a relatively straighter tone.  The vibrato pattern is still perfectly observable in spectrum analysis, but irregularity causes the ear to perceive it as non-vibrant. 
4. Proper vocal balance reveals the vibrato pattern. The vibrato already exists!
  • This is an important distinction to make.  A vibrato is not learned.  It manifests when the voice is functioning in a consistent manner relative to breath pressure/flow.  Thus when a singer achieves good vocal habits, the vibrato is simply revealed.
  • When a teacher teaches a student good vocal skills and the vibrato manifests, s/he might say: "I just taught the student how to make a vibrato"!  But this would be incorrect.  The truth is that the teacher taught the student the coordination that reveals the vibrato pattern in a regular manner to the listener's ear.  
5. Skilled singers can alter the regularity of the vibrato pattern to create a perception of straight tone:
  • Vibrato in the voice confirms learned skills.  So in a sense one could superficially say that a vibrato is learned.  But this has the effect of separating vibrato from the skills that reveal its innate existence.  
  • A vibrant voice in singing reveals that the voice has achieved relative balance.  From that healthy state, a skilled singer can alter the perception of vibrato to create many effects.  A skilled singer can alter the vibrato at will.  Classical music expects the voice to function in its natural vibrant, balanced state. Perceived straight tone in the classical tradition is an effect used for special circumstances. In non-classical traditions, the voice is expected to be in a vibrato-less state that imitates the less regular patterns of every day speech.  Vibrato is then perceived as an added effect instead of the fact that perceived vibrato is the hallmark of a balanced voice in singing.
6. Early Music and Straight Tone: The traditions of straight tone singing in Early Music traditions 
  • It is important to distinguish the importance of reducing the natural vibrato of the voice in acoustic circumstances whereby the natural vibrato would cause musical problems.  The motets of Giovanni Gabrieli, for instance, were written for the Basilica di San Marco di Venezia.  The echo effect of singing in cathedral of any size makes the voice's natural vibrato excessively problematic.
  • Choruses that included children's voices (boy's voices for the most part), as was the case in the renaissance and in the Catholic Baroque (including the Anglican tradition) would require modifications relative to their voices.  Children are perfectly capable of accomplishing a perceived vibrato, however it is more rare because the respiratory training that maintains consistent breath pressure at will is not normally developed in young children.  The adult voices of such choirs would have to make concessions both in terms of power and the perception of the vibrato if the chorus is to have a homogenized sound.  
  • The operas of the baroque period and the works of Bach would have no such restrictions.  The adult voices (Bach's choir , especially the castrati would have developed such amazing breath control as to make vibrato a normality, not an anomaly.  It is important to note that because a straight tone requires an inferior coordination relative to efficiency, music that requires great virtuosity such as the fioratura passages and long lines required in such works as the solo madrigals of Monteverdi and the solo works of Bach, Vivaldi and Handel, would necessitate the kind of efficiency of a vibrant voice.  A voice producing a perceivable straight tone also alters the resonance of the voice causing it to be less powerful relative to balance with an orchestra, even of modest size.  Modern performance practice, having establish a preference for straight-tone globally for Early Music, would seek solutions for orchestra balance that would make the natural inferiority of straight-tone singing viable.  It is also important to note that an inspired musician singing early music in straight-tone can be extremely convincing.  That also does not decry the natural inefficiency of perceived straight-tone singing.  It is important to add here that conductors might decide in a Draconian manner to eliminate vibrato when poorly train singers exhibit bleats and wobbles (next post).
  • We cannot currently go back in time to verify what the practices might have been. But it is unlikely from a scientific point of view that any music requiring extreme virtuosity would logically inspire straight-tone singing.
  • It is also important to realize that the voice is the only instrument that produces an inherent, "natural" vibrato.  Other instruments produce an induced, or forced vibrato, mostly attempting to imitate the nature of the voice.  It is conceivable that some composers dealing with children's voices and the vibrato-less nature of instruments might require their adult singers to suppress the natural vibrancy of the voice.  All of that is speculation and subject to musical tastes.  Researchers with a preference for straight-tone can make a good argument why one should approach certain works with a perception of straight-tone.  A good case can also be made for vibrato as being functionally necessary for extremely virtuosic vocal music.  The main point however is that vibrato is an inherent part of the human voice that is revealed (not imposed) through balancing the instrument toward its most efficient state for acoustic singing without artificial amplification.
The next edition will deal with unbalanced vibratos (i.e. wobbles and bleats).
© 10/18/2011

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Who can fix it?


In 1986, I had the honor, among all the male members of the Westminster Choir, to participate in a concert version of Rigoletto with Renato Bruson and Cecilia Gasdia conducted by then Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti.  This was the beginning for me of many experiences with this magnificent conductor who not only made great music but inspired the young members of the Choir every chance he got.  During my time in the Westminster Choirs, I must have participated in at least two productions yearly with the Philadelphia Orchestra and took part in two recordings: Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette with Jessye Norman, Simon Estes and John Aler and James Morris among the soloists for the two works.

On one occasion when we were preparing Bruckner's Te Deum, Maestro Muti visited the campus as he always did for the first round of rehearsals.  In the Salvum fac populum, which includes a tenor solo, Maestro Muti began singing the solo in a very clear, pretty (if a little unsupported) voice.  It looks as if he was going to sing the whole solo, but when he got to the tenor high A, he took it one octave lower, and the Choir burst into laughter, because it looked like, up to the last minute, he was going to go for the A.  He, laughing, jokingly reprimanded us for laughing at him.  We were clearly laughing with him.  At our rehearsal the next day in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, where we performed, the soloists were present.  Frank Lopardo was the tenor and I vividly remember Mark S. Doss as bass soloist.  When we got to the Salvum fac populum, Mr. Lopardo ripped into the solo, but when he got the high A, he turned to the chorus and took it an octave down, to which the normally very concentrated Westminster Choir under Joseph Flummerfelt, lost it and burst into a roar of spontaneous laughter.  You see, Maestro Muti explained that for our benefit, he called Mr. Lopardo in the night, who was traveling from Milano and prepared the joke with him.  Some 25 years later, I am here retelling the story on this blog.  I have a great love for this man, and was very happy that he is the recipient of the Nilsson Prize.  Furthermore, it is my great hope that Maestro Muti will be around for a long time and as this tenor voice of mine is taking shape, I put the dream out in the Universe that I might sing with him one day.  But my dream is not the subject of this blog!

Who is going to save our art?  How many times do we complain about how the art form is degrading by superficiality, etc?  And how many times the young singers who want to connect to the upper echelons of the business claim that everything is fine and that we middle-aged and older fogies are nostalgically remembering the past to the detriment of the future?

Recently the great violinist and conductor, Gidon Kremer wrote his now legendary letter of withdrawal to the Verbier festival administration, explaining his need to be true to himself and music by withdrawing from the superficiality of the music business for the sake of the art. There were as many letters from conductors and other musicians in support of Maestro Kremer's letter as there were business types who thought the letter was unfair.  But that this letter made its way through the Web so quickly speaks to its resonance throughout the music world.  Yet there is no movement to reverse this on a large scale.  Does this mean that the world of music is not run by the artists, but by the business people? By the money?  Rhetorical question!  The bookkeeper is running the arts and that is the problem!

It is easy to talk about the problem, but what do we do about it?  My students often ask me about this.  To me, it is quite simple.  We start with ourselves! 

For my part, I teach a principle that requires a little bit of time in the case of singers who come with muscular imbalances.  But I put the hours in to make sure it does not take any more time than it needs to, but the student must be committed to the time that it should take.  Too many are not interested in a solid technique, but a quick fix.  I'm uninterested in those frankly and I usually know them when I meet them.  So I teach them as long as they can stand it, hoping they will leave with principles that might help them if they ever realize that there are no shortcuts.

For my part, I do not charge students more than they can afford.  I charge professionals more than aspiring professionals and work out a price with my students while teaching them as often as they need to be taught to really make a difference.  Yet it takes a lot of my time and as my studio grows I have to find ways to make it work more efficiently, but the quality of the teaching must not be compromised.

For my part, I keep challenging myself as an artist, till aspiring in my new tenor incarnation to be the best artist that I can be.  At 45 years old I should be skeptical of ever singing at a high professional level again, but I will be sharing my exploits with you soon.  I begin with a fund raising concert in Washington D.C. on 29 October 2011 to raise money to rebuild a music school that was destroyed in the Haitian Earthquake in early 2010.  Then I will participate in a reading of Mozart's Idomeneo.  Sounds humble? Yes!  But little steps lead to bigger steps.  I am not afraid of time!

And that is the problem in general.  As a teacher, I encounter a lot of singers who are afraid of the passing of time, while aspiring to master an art form that is supposed to be timeless.  The irony is disarming! 

But on the positive side, I work with a studio full of singers who are willing to take the time to do it right.  And it pleases my heart so very much that I discovered the Muti clip this morning while I had my morning coffee at Starbucks in Berlin, near my studio, after traveling on the night train from Bonn, having heard one of the singers I guide in a thrilling performance of the title role of Puccini's Manon Lescaut.  More important, I drove her from Zwickau to Bonn on Sunday because she needed to rest after her triumph the night before as Tosca in her home theater.  Her Manon sounded totally fresh, after that full-out Tosca the night before.  That is old school!  As long as there are musicians like this excellent soprano, who embodies patience, we will not have lost it all. 

But for the art of music to conserve its dignity, it will be up to all of us to have the guts to take the time to do it right and believe that at the end of the day, substance trumps a nice hairdo and a six-pack any day!  If you don't believe it, become a pop singer! Nothing wrong with it!  Just don't be a pop diva posing as a classical musician!  The two are and should be two different things that share certain elements.  For the record, I am a proud owner of a six-pack, but I am not going to present myself to La Scala tomorrow because of it.  If it serves me in addition to a fully developed musical talent, so much the better, but I would never want to go to my grave wondering if I only got to sing because of it!

Every sign is pointing to the end of the superficial excesses in our culture during the past generation.  I firmly believe that the values that made singers like Birgit Nilsson will dominate again.  I recommend we all join the reconstruction!

© 10/16/2011

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Singer's Formant and the Singer's Formant Region 2: How to achieve the ring

The following comment by our frequent contributor, Klaus Georg is worth its own post:

So, how does one go about tuning the 3rd, 4th, and 5th formants? It is my understanding from reading Sundberg, Titze, and a lot of other stuff, that the fourth and fifth formant are essentially fixed by nature and can only really be affected substantially by lowering or raising the larynx, which lowers or raises all formants. The third if I remember correctly depends on the tip of the tongue...

From what I have observed in my students lighter voices tend to have higher F4 and F5 and lower voices lower ones. I, for instance, seem to have F5, even with a completely depressed larynx, no lower than about 3300.

Perhaps the especially ringy voices are simply gifts of nature, and not "tuned" in the same way F1 and F2 can be "tuned." This would also explain why different singers have certain notes that just ring better than everything else--like Lauri-Volpi's Bb.



Our friend Klaus asks the very question that occupies all our minds.  I am in Umeå, Sweden at present and just finished having a very significant chat with my friend and sometimes student, Martin Berggren, an acoustic scientist, with a beautiful voice (Swedes are blessed in so many ways vocally).

First let us count out the idea that some people have "ring"and some do not!  I have spent the last 72 hours with Swedish singers and I am more convinced than ever they have advantages due to their language, their default speech frequency, their country-wide choral tradition and overall love for music as an indispensable part of life.  It is no wonder they hold a significant number of operatic jobs around the world.  The Swedes and the "ringing" Italians have a lot in common in terms of speech.  The common Swede (particularly male) speaks with a very high resonance that resembles nasality but is not completely.  It is the same brilliance that many United States Country singers have as a result of the Southern/South-Western accent.  In all these cases, the sound may indeed be accompanied by some nasality because there is a tendency toward a high larynx when Italians, Swedes and U.S. Americans with a South-Western accent speak (high larynx and a lowered soft-palate usually occur together).  Yet the brilliance of the sound is not due to the nasality but rather to narrowing/lengthening of the epi-laryngeal tube.

Now to the point!  First the third formant:  At a conference in Stockholm last fall, one of the presenters was an overtone singer, who demonstrated with spectrographic display how he can control the third formant at will.  I asked him personally how he was able to so effectively effect the 3rd formant and he responded that it was based on the movements of the "tip of the tongue" (as Klaus suggests).  He completely charmed the audience that day and I found his control quite spectacular.

As for the fourth and fifth formants, I believe we can manipulate them as well.  The overtone singer did specify that he believed (as do scientists) that the fourth and fifth formant could be effected by adjustments in the aeryepiglottic fold (collar of the larynx or epi-larynx) and the depth of the larynx.

The way my acoustician-host, Martin explained it (he can correct me if I am wrong) is that the epi-larynx has a frequency of approximately c. 2800 Hz.  The strength of that frequency is stronger when the epi-larynx is long and narrow and the surrounding pharyngeal space is expanded (low larynx).  At its peak strength, the resonance of the epilarynx would draw the energy of the upper part of the spectrum to itself.  In this way, it would raise the fourth formant and lower the fifth and have a powerful effect on the nearest harmonic.

It is significant that the Oblique Inter-Arytenoid that can bring the vocal folds together are the same muscles that could narrow the epilarynx.  Lowering the larynx would also lengthen the epilarynx.  Unlike the Lateral Inter-Aritenoids that also bring the vocal folds closer to each other but can cause pressing, it would seem the Obliques can do the same without inducing a pressed tone.  The Western twang developed by Country Music singers could be attributed to this action, what I sometimes refer to as a focused head-tone (for lack of a scientific term).  Incidentally, Swedes speak with the same twang. (I would mention that country singers generally do not show strength in the SF region because their production also depends on a high laryngeal position. Not the case with Swedes when they speak. They have the twang but with some depth in the sound as well.  I have only occasionally come across a Swede who speaks only with the twang without a low larynx).

A twang that does not cause pressed voice allows the possibility of relaxing the pharynx (open throat) to effect the 1:6 ratio between the volume of the epi-larynx to that of the pharynx.

Achieving the narrowing of the epi-larynx is not as complex as it might seem.  I believe it is a matter of experiencing this resonance and then deciding to utilize it.  Producing an [i] vowel while the larynx is low (I have recommended the [hwi] exercise in a recent post) is a good mechanical way to achieve the lengthening of the epilarynx and the widening of the pharynx needed for the critical 1:6, 1:7...ratio that produces a strong singer's formant.  This is a start.  The adjustment of the [i] vowel can indeed be kept when singing other vowels, which is why teachers recommend exercises that lead into [a] from [i].

The [i] vowel has the wonderful property of having its 3rd formant coincide with the Singer’s Formant frequency (c. 2800).  As said, the mechanics of the [i] vowel correspond with the lengthening/narrowing of the epi-larynx, by virtue of the paradoxical stretch upward from the displacement of the back of the tongue (hyo-glossus muscle) and downward if the larynx maintains its depth. This is achieved very well by the [hwi] exercises.  We have gotten awesome results with this exercise in the studio.

Indeed some vocal tracts are naturally suited to achieving the 1:6 ratio that produces the singer's formant.  A singer with a very wide or deep pharynx will naturally have an easier time with respect to producing "ring",  it does not mean it cannot be learned.  Perhaps there are people with very small pharyngeal volume that would have a real hard time producing the ring in the voice. So far I have not had a student who could not eventually accomplish the coordination.  Given that nature created the laryngeal structure precisely for long distance communication without artificial amplification (Please let Opera remain this way--This was one of Salvatore Licitra's plea by video that was shown at the award ceremony in Ragusa, Sicily shortly after his fatal accident), it is a rare human being who cannot produce this sound.  Babies need it to alert their parents of discomfort or danger.  The propagation of the species necessitated this before technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution.  Agrarian and otherwise non-urban cultures make use of the Singer's Formant for communication, such as calling the animals home at the end of the day.  An example of this is the Swedish tradition of Kulning.




It is interesting that Birgit Nilsson, who prided herself on being a farm girl, practiced this traditional animal call.  There are many traditional songs that came out of Kulning. (I had a coloratura student use her experiencing with Kulning to access more intensity in the middle range.  I had wished to include that recording here, but we found out after the lesson that the recording machine was not on.  It was quite extraordinary and I am very sad we were not able to record it. But I do have a recording of her from the day before singing some extremely high notes.  Look for it in the next post!)

The other part of this is the source tone.  We cannot talk about the effects of the singer’s formant on the upper part of the spectrum without a good source tone.  The folds must be deep enough to create a tone rich in harmonics and must come together completely and gently for efficient propagation of air. Closure alone is not enough. A low larynx is part and parcel.  A “natural” low larynx is achieved in part when there is a pressure/flow balance.  Too much medial pressure will create excessive sub-glottal pressure and force the larynx up. One difference between a pressed tone and a good closure without excessive medial pressure is the contact area.  As said here so often, if the contact time is increased by medial pressure, the vertical contact area must reduce to maintain pitch, since both add time to the length of the glottal cycle.  Conversely, increased contact area requires a relaxation of medial pressure if pitch is constant.  This is theory, but in my experience it makes complete sense.    


Very  good results can be achieved with a relatively pressed tone.  Even some of the greatest singers in the history of recorded opera sang with a pressed tone.  Their charisma more than made up for the relatively venial sin of over-compression. Some singers have very strong extrinsic laryngeal musculature and can handle more sub-glottal pressure than the average.  The fact that they can function successfully with this excessive pressure does not mean that it is the best way, nor that everyone can sing successfully with such pressure. 


Indeed there are variations in what voice teachers will accept as a good source tone and much of that has to do with personal taste.  For my part I will take, on the male side, the one singer who is practically without reproach both on the traditional and science side of the vocal discourse.  And that is Jussi Björling. 
Björling had a relatively lyric voice (as opposed to a dramatic voice).  By this I mean a naturally lighter voice.  The vocal folds were not as substantial as that of Corelli’s or Del Monaco or even Pavarotti.  One can extrapolate this by ear.  The latter three produced sounds that were simply more substantial as far as source tone. To my ears however, within the limits of his own natural voice, Björling sang as substantial a tone as was possible and still maintain balance.  On that score, he produced a more substantial tone relative to his own instrument than Pavarotti.  This substance helped produce the kind of source tone that was also amenable to a larynx that floats low.  He did not have to use external forces like depressing the larynx with the back of his tongue.  The tongue was free to configure as necessary for proper acoustic adjustments.  Furthermore, he had such a sensitivity to the Singer’s Formant’s effect that he used it constantly.  The balance between the low part of the spectrum and the upper part of the spectrum is faultless in Björling. Here is pretty much a map to what a tenor wants to achieve in terms of chiaroscuro balance.

Björling si m_ama.mp3







Also significant is the influence of the Singer's Formant on the source tone itself.  Martin Berggren suggests that because the epi-larynx is directly above the vocal folds, it would make sense that the propagation of acoustic energy between the epi-larynx and the pharynx would produce an impedance to the glottal flow, in essence keeping the glottis closed for a brief moment during each cycle even as the folds begin to open. This has the virtue of reducing the length of the close quotient without losing efficiency or compression.  It sounds like the glottis is not closed tightly and yet the voice produces amazing brilliance and ring.  Sounds like Björling at his best to me!

(Incidentally, when I feel I am singing really well, I have a feeling that there is a sensation of vibrant air directly on top of where I sense the folds vibrate. I cannot be sure this is impedance caused by supra-glottal inertia. It is possible that my knowledge of this makes me interpret the sensation in such a way.  We must be careful with sensory feedback.  Since that area of the larynx is not enervated it is important to keep a level of skepticism relative to interpreting proprioception).

I have tried to recreate the balance that Björling had by concentrating on the narrowing experience of the [i] while maintaining the depth of the [u].  This is the purpose of the [hwi] exercises.  The results were spotty. Sometimes good, sometimes not.  I was able to observe fault in my own singing in two ways:  1) As a former baritone, I am very conscious of removing unnecessary darkness in my tone.  The lower voice was manufactured to created my old bass-baritone sounds (I sang a lot of Oratorio).  However, I believe I took this idea too far and may have allowed my larynx to climb up slightly in pursuit of my new tenor sound. 2) A lot of the brilliance that gives the voice is "tenor" quality has more to do with efficiency of the source tone, meaning how well the folds stay in contact with each other to prevent breathiness and loss of necessary sub-glottal pressure.  I may have been pressing a little bit to achieve this, which would have caused the slightly raised larynx to feel comfortable.

After having achieved a relatively good balance relative to fold posture (vertical depth of the folds), I felt comfortable working with the "occlusive" [z] to bring the folds together without pressing.  Singing on a clear [z] (imitating a bee's buzzing) requires excellent fold contact without pressing.  Maintaining this posture on the following vowel is the trick.  If there is a little explosion of air going from [z] to the vowel, then it is a sign that the folds have popped apart.  This exercise is also completely doable with the deeper laryngeal position. A good sequence would be [zi ze za] on simple up-and-down 5-note-scale: zi-zi-ze-ze-za--za-za-za-za.  After working on this for a couple of days, I found that a difficult Purcell song, We Sing To Him, that I have programmed for an upcoming concert became considerably easier.  My low range had been the more difficult part to deal with. Achieving good closure without pressing in that range made the approach to the treacherous Ab so much more organic.  When I analyzed various parts of that clip, I was very happy to see that I was able to approach the balance that Björling exhibited on his Abs.  The spectrum is dominated by the 3rd harmonic (H3) on the lower side and 7th (H7) on the upper side--That to say the clustering of F4 and F5 around the 7th harmonic.  Otherwise, the energy would be split between two of the three higher formants F3, F4, F5.  This balanced chiaroscuro effectively increase energy throughout the spectrum, so even the harmonics that do not carry most of the energy maintain a relatively high intensity.  I compare this to an earlier Ab that I sang and the results are obvious.


Earlier clip:


20110829JRL m_ama si m_ama.mp3



Later clip:

20110924JRL We sing to him_rehearse.mp3





I also learned from this experience not to dictate a vocal color for myself.  I give this advice all the time, but sometimes I am not aware I am doing it.  As one student said to me: "I have never heard a color like yours in a tenor!"  That is both scary and reassuring.  Heldentenors are fewer today not because there aren't any but rather because most of them are trained as baritones.  Indeed traditionally, the heldentenors had very baritonal aspects to their sounds. Some more than others.   From Vinay and Melchior to the tenors who sing the heavier Verdi and Wagner today, there is a very large distance.  Indeed it was two types of tenors who sang Lohengrin and Erik on the one hand and Sigmund and Tristan on the other.  A difference was made in Kloiber between the Jugendliche Heldentenor and the unqualified Heldentenor.  Lohengrin and Parsifal is listed for both (I think the latter is a mistake in Kloiber.  Character-wise, the young sound makes sense, but the tessitura of Parsifal is too low to be sung comfortably by a lirico-spinto/Jugendliche Heldentenor.  I saw Götterdämmerung the other day and the Siegfried, Stephen Gould had a naturally darker timbre than the baritone singing Gunther. The fact is that the naturally darker timbre of the voice must not be sacrificed when seeking brilliance and vice-versa.  If one can display a spectrum that shows such strength in both sides of the spectrum as displayed by Björling (and sporadically by me--I am getting closer), then one must accept the nature of the sound for what it is.  The biggest trap is to limit our own voices to sound like someone else, even our most revered heroes.  It is one thing to follow Björling's acoustic strategy and it is another to copy his sound.  What should be heard in the best moments of my clip is balance relative to my own voice, which makes it unique unto itself, sounding nothing like Björling.