Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Micaela von Gegersfeldt in Berlin 14-18 March

(This is an update! Micaela had planned to be in Berlin last winter but due to unforeseen events had to postpone.  I am pleased to announce her visit in Berlin 14-18 March 2011)

I cannot recommend Micaela highly enough.  She will be available for individual sessions with singers. I have met noone who understands muscular balance as Micaela does.  Any singer would be the better for working with her. The result is awareness of muscular uasage and balance in the body, how to achieve balance and render your singing that much freer  and more efficient.  For more information, write me at!

See more about Micaela on the blogpost I dedicated to her a month ago.

Happy Singing!


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): 40 Falls To Balance

When babies learn to walk, they fall often and laugh.  They laugh because they understand instinctively that their falls are middle points in their adventure toward being upright humans.  This period is the most exciting for a baby, because it promises freedom and independence of a real sort. Unfortunately once the baby has learned to walk and fully master his/her gait, then s/he forgets the entire process, which is indeed the most important lesson in human development.  So much of what humans need philosophically  to develop into really capable adults is found in the lessons learned during learning to walk.

And so with a bit of pain on my right hip and muscle aches all-over, I joyfully share with you the lessons learned during my skiing adventure in Oberwiesenthal, on the German-Czech border. 

The last time I went skiing was 27 years ago, when I was still in high school.  My school organized a yearly skiing trip and I took part all three years I was there.  By the third time I was able to ski the intermediate slope in Mount Vernon, New Jersey without falling.  I attribute that to youth and the fact that I was very athletically involved back then with soccer, baseball, tennis especially.  27 years later I had hoped that my experience from 27 years ago might have been saved in my nervous system's hard drive and I would be able to go down the slope again with minimal difficulty.  For some reason, my hosts also had the idea that I was an experienced skier.  I made it very clear, and so Marius, the 13-year old son of the family accompanied me to what they called Die blaue Piste. Well a so-called blue slope is for beginners with some experience, which I have very little of...But before we continue, let me begin at the beginning of the adventure!

Of course, not having skied in Europe before and not having skied in 27 years, I forgot the whole ski gear thing, and assumed I could rent everything.  Lucky enough for me but very unfortunate for her, Kati, the mother of my host family had gotten hurt a bit when she accidentally skied through a half-pipe meant for freestyle skiers and snowboarders.  When she came flying out of the halfpipe and landed (thankfully safely) she had no sense of her surroundings and ended up being braked by a flagpole.  In any case she was out for the rest of the weekend, when I showed up, after having slipped climbing the bus to the sky resort (not a good sign)! So I had ski pants! I figured I would do fine with my artificial fur coat if I wore three layers underneath.  That seemed to have worked (mostly) and my insulated street gloves for the most part seemed like they would do the trick! So I went to the ski shop and rented skis and boots.  Well, I was sweating heavily after the 15 minutes it took to get into those astronaut boots.  They were so heavy I thought I was about to get on the space-shuttle for a moonwalk.  Anyway, now I had gear!

Martin, the wonderful man of the family, got our lift tickets and I was off to my adventure.  The first trek to the blue slope meant a chair lift.  It did not seem too difficult! I watched three people at a time get in position as the chair came behind them.  As I got closer I noticed there was a miniature slope that one had to slide down to get to the platform of the chair lift.  There was also a traffic light that flickered between red and green to signal when each group of three had to slide down the little slope.  Off I went with Marius, my 13-year old companion-guide and we slid down. I wobbled a bit when I hit the landing but I managed to stay on my feet and sat on the coming chair-lift.  "Easy enough", I felt! The ride up the slope felt vaguely familiar and then I arrived on top.  I put my skis to the snow and stood up.  I then slid a couple of meters and was immediately down on my right side.  I could not believe how little balance I had!

Marius came and helped me up.  That was an adventure unto itself.  It looked like one of those comedy routines by Abbott and Costello.  I don't know how long it took me before I was up on my feet/skis again. I got a terrible panic when I saw how steep the slope was. I don't remember ever skiing so steep a slope voluntarily except for when my high school buddies enticed me to ski down an expert slope when I thought I would surely die. I survived that one, but was not sure I wanted to voluntarily take that chance at 45 years of age.  Hatians have a saying: Zo gran moun pa pran (more or less, adult bones do not heal)! That crossed my mind more than once.  Well my wonderful and patient 13-year old teacher-guide convinced me I could do it and so I turned my skis downward against the mountain and started down the mountain.  It seemed as if I went from 0 to 60 miles and hour (90 Km/h) in two seconds, then my rigidly stiff body went straight forward in front of my skis and I ate a mouthful of snow. Marius tried to explain to me the concept of skiing in quasi figure-8 curves, perpendicular to the slope, but my mind was elsewhere. And so it took about one hour and about 40 falls to ski down a slope that takes everyone else about 5 minutes. When I finally got down, I was happy that I made it to some semblance of terra ferma, when I slipped one more time as I was getting in line for the crotch-lift (that is what I call the damn thing)! Martin, sweet Martin (the dad of my host family) had a good laugh at my expense, knowing the extreme humility that I felt, saying:  "you should see the state you are in, Maestro"! I could not help but laugh with him!  He helped me up for the next phase of my terrific adventure.

So there we were in line for the crotch-lift. It seemed easy enough, watching the people before me.  Grab the tow-lift as it comes from behind and stick it between your legs!  It then pulls you up the slope. Looked simple enough!  The nice Czech gentleman operating the mechanism saw me slip as I approached the mechanism and muttered something in a heavily Czech-accented German and signaled me to approach. He grabbed the lift as it approached and helped me adjust it between my legs.  A sudden jerk made my heart almost come out of my mouth and I felt myself dragged upward. My instinct was to sit, which took my skies off-line and I found myself suddenly on my ass again in the embankment on the side of the slope, being dragged ungracefully upward as I imagined many laughing onlookers enjoying my comedy routine. Martin abandoned his lift and came to my side and helped me up.  I felt badly! They did not come here to babysit me, but to enjoy a day of skiing. And it was the last day because we would return early due to Kati's little accident.  She could not move well and we were not sure if everything was OK (she is recovering very well, so you don't worry).  I therefore told Martin I would wait by the lift and he should go and enjoying skiing.  That wonderful, sweet man looked me in the eyes and said: "we should not quit after a setback but rather after a victory!"  He was preaching my own philosophy to me (or his, which coincided with mine)! We headed back to the lift and this time I stayed on my skis and made it up the hill.  But of course I removed the lift from between my legs a little too early and did not make it over the little bump at the top of the slope. So my skis slid backwards and I was eating snow again. 

Martin was right there to help me up.  Then he instructed me to hold on to the tip ends of both of his ski-poles as I ski down the slope in a snow-plow! He would ski behind me holding the other ends of the poles to help me keep my balance.  I made it down the hill without falling, but Martin told me that I had no control of my left ski because I went down the entire time leaning on my left.  We went up again and this time concentrated on standing up straight on my skis with my knees just barely bent. I had better balance!  We went up a third time and this time we tried to concentrate on shifting my body-weight to help bring the skis on their edges so to facilitage a curve. We fell once but I got the idea.  I decided on a pause and so we went up one last time so we could come down to the little lodge where I could go in, warm-up again and have a warm drink.  This time I mastered my balance and used the principle Martin taught me of leaning on the edges to turn.  I was able to go from one side of the slope, turn and go to the other side. I felt my skis slow down each time I got to the edges, and Martin behind me kept instructing to go all the way to the edge on each side.  I was able to do that all the way to the lodge and came to a clean stop.  I decided on a half-hour break while Martin and the three young boys went up the hill to enjoy some uninterrupted fun.  What I just experienced was enough of a victory for one day. Even though Martin would be back in a half-hour, I had no illusion of being able to go down the slope alone. I was happy enough to break my sugar-restriction (my homeopath feels I should avoid sugar-cane and milk products) and ordered a hot chocolate. I figured this was an emergency as I felt that my gloves and three layers did not keep the snow from turning my hands to useemly colors.

After a half hour that seemed closer to an hour, Marius, my very patient and unusually empathic 13-year old junior teacher came to keep me company.  We shared some French Fries (pomme frites) and talked about blondes (his current love interest is blonde). It was a touching moment and I thought about my son, Christopher, with whom I would love to have such a moment.  Martin came back soon after and invited me up to the high slope.  I was done with skiing for the day and declined politely and said he should go and enjoy the slopes and I would meet him at the street after he was done.  Marius decided to stay behind with me.  Just when Martin left, Marius informed me that we still had time for at least one more run down the shorter slopes where Martin had been instructing me.  I was not in the mood, but it is not possible to resist the extreme blue of this sweet young boy's eyes. His smile was full of excitement and we had bonded in a way.  I figured one more series of falls will not hurt my pride any more than it had.  We skied down from the lodge to the crotch-lift and low and behold I made it down without falling.  It must have been a good minute on my skis and I did not fall. I curved side to side on the slope as Martin had instructed while holding me up with the ski-poles.  I was like a baby who took a few steps for the first time.  Now I was excited to get back up the slope. 

We went to the lift and in my excitement, I misjudged the strong first pull and ended up at the side of the embankment again.  "Scheiße", the German expletive shouted out of my mouth like the yelp of a dog experiencing sudden pain!  I was not expecting this setback. Marius, like Martin before, abandoned his lift and came to my rescue.  He helped me up and we got back on the lift.  This time I stayed securely on, but as I grabbed the pole, my cloth gloves (not made for skying) stuck to it. It looked like toffee as I pulled each finger away from the iced-up metal pole.  I had thoughts of the Jim Carrey-Jeff Daniels movie, Dumb and Dumber, in which two bona fide idiots stuck their tongue to the base of a frozen ski-lift tower. But then I banished those negative thoughts and concentrated on the jubilation from a few minutes before when I made it down to the lift from the lodge.  We arrived at the top and I misjudged the release of the lift again and brushed the snow with my lips, but did not eat any this time.  Marius cheered me on as I got up.  I fell a few times on the way down but Martin's teaching was definitely catching on. 

Those falls were not so terrible. They hurt a bit since I was already sore from my earlier 40 falls, but toward the end, I was able to go from one side of the slope to the next and made it down again from where the lodge was all the way back to the lift.  As we approached the lift one more time, it was nearing 4:00 pm and the attendant told us it was the last time we could go up.  The crotch-lift was no longer a problem.  I wanted to make it down that hill and finish my day with a solid victory.  This time I judged the release correctly and glided to the edge gracefully.  I was about to go down when Marius pulled out his pocket camera and said: "Ich nehme auf dieses mal!" (I am filming this time)! Don't put a camera to a tenor's face.  No way I was going to fall this time. 

I began my glide down beautifully.  I headed left to the edge of the slope and began my right turn. But for some reason the right turn always felt precarious. I made the curve too tightly and fell sharply on my righ shoulder. It stung (That is the fall above)!  But I was determined.  I got up, took my ski-hat back, brushed myself up and turned my skis downslope.  Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I figure a film is worth a million...(Thanks Marius for filming this!)

So the lesson is obvious, right? My ski adventure reminded me what it might have felt like to learn to walk as a baby. I love babies! They have so much potential because they approach life in such a pure manner. I began the day in Oberwiesenthal as an adult and part-way through the day I regained the innocent, adventurous childlike abandon that produced my success!

In truth, my journey from baritone to tenor has been very much like that. There comes a point when you just give in to something very insecure. It is there that the field of pure potentiality begins (I think I am quoting Deepak Chopra! Definitely time to finish this story!). So much is possible when there is no expectation. Only discovery and the joy that comes with surprising rewards!

If you have never skied, dear Reader, I recommend it highly because it will take you to the edge of insecurity, but just as we try to provide in our Kashu-do (歌手道) studios, it is important to be in a situation that guarantees as much of a safe environment as possible (Kati's halfpipe flying flagpole routine, aside). So make sure you go to a safe establishment and I hope you find a team of teachers like Martin and Marius.

A better team is not to be found!

© 02/19/2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Why Kung Fu? The Marvelous Inspiration of Sifu Karl Romain

People sometimes ask me: "Why Kung Fu? What does a singer need with Kung Fu?" Kung Fu has been in my life in some way since I was about 7 or 8 years old in Haiti, when my cousin Gary and I went to our first Kung Fu movie together.  Like every boy of our generation, going to experience the newest Chinese martial arts flick was what we did on Saturday afternoons.  I imagine Sifu Karl Romain did the same thing around the same time, except he had already immigrated from Haiti to the United States by that point. 

Bruce Lee's sudden death was the talk of my neighborhood, as much among the adults who had been practicing martial arts as it was among us kids, who had all kinds of theories about the mysterious nature of the great master's passing.  Throughout my life I had hoped to study the martial arts, particularly Kung Fu.  In my youth, we could not afford it, and in college I did not know of a school in Princeton, nor would I have had time. Finally, when I was in graduate school in Ann Arbor, Michigan (USA) one of my house mates had been going to this Kung Fu dojo and thought I should join.  I jumped at the chance. Soon after, I got my first teaching job and then fifteen years passed in the blink of an eye. 

I was teaching a student near New York who one day told me: "It is remarkable that two of the most influential people in my life are Haitian men!"  I replied incredulously: "I did not know your husband was Haitian!" To which she replied that she was talking about her Kung Fu teacher. Long story short, she told Sifu about me, and me about him. His office called me, we met and that was the beginning of a very special relationship that permeates my life, both professional and personal.

It is fair to say that Sifu Karl Romain was the missing link in my development.  I had come to the most important crossroads of my life before I met him. I worked out the relationship with my ex-wife, the dedicated mother of my two children. After many years we realized that despite our divorce we had to work in support of each other in order to have the most positive impact on our children.  My studio in New York had been growing steadily and the European branch was developing nicely. I was on a steady path toward the reeducation of my voice from baritone to tenor and I had been working steadily on my personal health through healthier diet and Yoga. But when I began to work with Sifu and became a serious student at Romain's Kung Fu Academy, it was like taking everything to high gear.

I came with certain principles, but Romain's Kung Fu helped me to practice them in everything I do.  When I wake up in the morning and I am too tired to do my basic warm-ups, I hear the voice of a 12-year old in my class saying: "Repetition is the mother of all skill!"  Sounds like operatic singing much?  Well every axiom we learn in class (and there are many) are all pointedly relevant to the discipline of singing and indeed to any discipline.  The singing technique that I teach has to do with mental and spiritual development through arduous muscular training.  That is what the old masters did. See the movie: Le maitre de musique to see the similarities!

Sifu's influence goes deeply into what I do. His purposeful way of developing his business without compromising his principles helped me to more consciously value the special product I offer as a teacher.  I became more deliberate, more confident and more trusting of my own skills.  Sifu's teaching shows an idealogical understanding of all the principles he has mastered.  As a result I began to see the parallels in my own vocal principles.  It was important that I codified the elements of my techniques, so that the student can make better sense of the elements. I stopped belittling myself for the fact that I had to undergo a major Fach change from baritone to tenor late in my career and became certain that I would become a greater tenor than I ever was a baritone. I am seeing the fruits of that journey more and more.

Sifu's school is a large family and my own students comprise an international family that may be a little more difficult to gather together. But I realized that technology can help with this, and so I have begun the process of connecting my large family through technological means and to make use of the skills of my students for the betterment of our studio.

I have not talked about the personal accomplishments of Sifu Romain who is a world champion martial artist, highly respected in his field and valued outside of it.  His frequent appearances on Dr. Oz is just one aspect of his far-reaching accomplishments.  He is a respected author on the subject of Kung Fu and his students include world reknown celebrities and sports figures.  Please visit his website to learn more!

Does an opera singer need Kung Fu? I say yes! More than ever! And if Sifu Romain is teaching it, then don't think twice! Pick up the phone and make an appointment!

I am not just making an advertisement for my teacher. That would be belittling him! Besides, he does not need it.  The reason Sifu Romain is so important to me is that he has the elements that could help put the substance back into any discipline that has a long tradition.  We opera singers are part of a field that has lost its soul. Despite the many stories we all know, we forget the most essential thread that runs through the journeys of all the great luminaries that light our way. They all worked hard in an environment that expected excellence and that uplifts the spirit to achieve its highest aims. At Romain's Kung Fu we do not complain and we do not whine.  We learn to push our bodies and our minds and spirits further than we imagined possible and then we rejoice in the achievement.  We do it in a safe and supportive environment. In our Kashu-do (歌手道 studios we aim for the same aspirations.  But with all humility, we are not yet at the level of Sifu Romain's organization.  If I had my way, every student I teach would have a strong dose of Romain's Kung Fu as part of their training.  The kind of deliberate, forthright, purposeful, goal and process oriented mindset that our field requires can be learned in no uncertain terms with Sifu Romain and his capable staff.

Jean-Ronald and Sifu Karl Romain after J-R graduated to Orange Sash.jpg

I have wished to feature this wonderful, great man here on the blog since I began working with him.  I am sure I do not fully do him justice, but I hope it is clear how much I value him in my life and how very proud I am to call him, Teacher!

© 02/18/2009

Kashu-do (歌手道): Appropriate Thinness and Closure: The Other TA Muscle

 There is a reason why I specify the Vocalis Muscle when I write about the TA muscle that thickens the vocal folds vertically.  When most people speak about the TA, they are speaking about the Vocalis and its antagonistic function against or with the thinning of the vocal folds as resulted by CT (Crico-thyroid) contraction.  In other words, the Vocalis muscle does not always shorten the vocal folds.  The folds can be lengthened and thickened simultaneously to a degree.  Too much thickening prevents the lengthening of the folds but appropriate thickening does not prevent the folds from being lengthened.  All of this is of course dependent upon specific pitch.  Low pitches of course will have thick and shorter fold posture and high pitches will have thin and long fold posture.  The artistic use of the vocal folds in classical singing requires finer motor control.  Indeed a paradoxical balance is necessary for peak efficiency.  The folds must be appropriately thick and appropriately lengthened.

When the CT lengthens the folds it does not necessarily thin them out.  But parallel to CT contraction is the contraction of the external TA (Vocalis is Internal TA).  This muscle is the direct antagonist of the TA when it comes to fold thickness.  Additionally, it brings the folds closer together since its contraction is slightly oblique, inward in the direction of the glottis.  This is the most significant part of this discussion.  The thinning and adductive effect of the External TA, which is complimentary and parallel to the lengthening effect of the CT, plays a significant role in final phonation-balance.  Longer and thinner folds adduct more readily.  Thicker and shorter folds, with little External TA action, require greater IA activity to fully adduct.  Consequently, fully adducted heavy singing (too thick, too short posture) require a certain hyperactivity from the IAs which result in pressed phonation on higher pitches where the folds come together more closely because of External TA contraction.

It must not be forgotten that a full spectrum of overtones is necessary particularly for Second Formant Tracking (accessing head resonance: middle voice for women, high voice for men).  A full spectrum of overtones requires greater fold mass and good closure.  This is where the tight-rope act becomes necessary.  The folds must be lengthy enough to benefit from the partial adduction provided by the External TA, such that the IA does not over-adduct. At the same time, the Vocalis must thicken the folds enough to provide the potential for a rich spectrum.  Proper balance means that the folds are both thick enough and thin/lengthy enough. I love the paradoxical nature of this function.

Therefore, when we speak of a lean production, Voce Magra, we are not speaking about only thin vocal folds, but appropriately thin folds.  This tenuous balance manifests in the ability to sing a full tone with unlimited dynamic variations.  The ability to crescendo and diminuendo on one pitch, commonly but erroneously called messa di voce, depends on this precarious balance.  Many singers are able to accomplish this in one part of the voice and not in another.  Dynamic control of the voice is therefore not possible in a voice that is produced too thick or to thin.

I venture to conclude that the disappearance of the messa di voce and the authentic trill in top level singers of our times has a great deal to do with what I would like to coin Faching Inflation. A spinto singing Wagnerian repertoire will tend to thicken the voice to produce the desirable sound.  Since modern Wagnerian singing seems to concentrate on loudness alone when it comes to vocal means, many lighter-voiced singers can get away with inappropriate thickening.  Likewise, this generation of Nemorini and Adine in Egitto, (a slight variation on Mario del Monaco’s phrase, Nemorino in Egitto, describing an undervoiced Radamès) has produced a great number of inappropriately thickened voices that unfortunately do not last very long on the professional stage.

On a personal note, I am thankful once more for my 6 years with George Shirley, who made me aware of what I have called The Little Voice.  This little voice, often called reinforced falsetto, is a modal production.  Indeed a real voice! I call it little because it lacks the mass to produce a full spectrum of overtones, but on the other end it has appropriate length and closure.  As I have learned to develop my high voice from this lighter coordination, I am beginning to experience the heavenly sensation of singing a high B or even C with a feeling of elasticity.  The appropriate thickness of the upper register can only be achieved with the appropriate thinness of the lower.  My most rewarding strides to date have been achieved when I produce an appropriately lean lower and middle voice.  When this is achieved, the transition to the upper register feels natural and uneventful.  Because the lower register is appropriately thin, the upper does not suffer excessive thinning as would happen from a sudden release of the Vocalis to the hyper-function of the CT. Instead a dynamic exchange of dominance between Vocalis and CT/External TA occurs.  The contraction of the IA in such a case remains more or less constant with possible subtle variations.  George Shirley convinced me in my early 20s that the ability to produce the little voice is a hallmark of healthy singing.  Well Mr. Shirley, the hallmark of a great teacher is that you continue to learn from him even after leaving his side for many years.  (Thank you, Sir and I miss you)!

Indeed as I conclude this post, I cannot help but to think of Jussi Björling, whose centennial anniversary was celebrated only a few days ago.  In my estimation, no male singer achieved this paradoxical balance more completely than Jussi at his best.  Look for the Björling retrospective here in a few days, called appropriately: Belt it Like Björling!

© 02/18/2009

Friday, February 11, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Playing With Balance: After Strength-building

Achieving vocal strength is not defined by mere Vocalis dominance in the low range and CT dominance in the upper voice but rather achieving CT dominance in the high range when there is adequate opposition by the Vocalis and vice versa. Indeed CT training is not defined merely by the muscle's ability to provide longitudinal tension against the contraction of the Vocalis muscle but also by its ability to give in to the Vocalis contraction, and vice versa. The ability to produce dynamic interplay between the two main muscles determine the level of the singer's physical skill.

When both muscles have been strengthened, their function becomes heightened.  The tendency in the lower end would be Vocalis hyperfunction and in the upper end CT hyperfunction. A logical strategy then is to approach the lower end of the voice with light mechanism in mind (i.e. a sensation of lengthening, fold closure and higher overtones) and the high voice with a sense of heavier mechanism.  One could easily misunderstand this to mean that one should sing lightly in the lower end and heavily in the top. That would be wrong!  The voice is more massive in the lower end and less so in the upper.  Yet proper balance in the lower end depends on Vocalis dominance in concert with appropriate CT opposition and conversely for the upper end, CT dominance with appropriate Vocalis activity.  When muscles are appropriately trained dominance in the respective registers is automatic.  Adequate opposition the dominant contraction by the more passive muscle is what determines balance.  If the extremes of the voice are dealt with balance, then the muscular passagio where balance is tenuous becomes more easily achieved since the muscles would have been used to working in concert.

Of course it is not so simple. Beyond dynamic control of the muscles that determine fold mass, fold closure and diaphragmatic pressure must also be properly balanced in order for the fold-mass muscles not to be overly stressed.  Indeed, fold mass, fold closure and breath pressure are interconnected, and when ideal muscular balance has been achieved, acoustic adjustments (i.e. resonance) have a refining effect.

Great singing is a complex experience involving dynamic activity of practically all the muscles in the body.  In the end, such a balance is achieved by "feel".  Still, the sense of feel is useless if the muscles are not strong enough to respond and produce the desired "sensation".

© 02/09/2009

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Of Oil-Rigs and such: Final Stages

At a certain point, a student will say: "now you are sounding like other voices teachers!"  That is because suddenly I start to concentrate a lot more on head voice, squillo, focus, brilliance, exactitude in vowel modification, etc.  They will often ask why I did not center on these issues at the very beginning.  The answer is simple:  they were not ready.

I find an apt analogy in the construction of an oil-rig. I imagine it takes a great deal of energy and time to set up an oil-rig and probably an eternity before modern technology made such things much easier to construct. But in the end, the oil-rig itself is not the important product. It is merely a means of arriving at a much more important end, which is to extract the oil. 

On that score, I contend that many teachers work on fold closure and squillo before the instrument is set-up to achieve such final coordination.  The fold posture necessary for flow phonation is not automatic in any singer.  Of course, fold posture readiness is a matter of degree.  Some singers have such speaking habits that foster excellent fold posture for singing, at least in parts of their range.  But adequate CT-TA balance throughout the three-plus octaves of modal range is required before efficient fold closure that yield a sustainable flow pattern can be achieved.  For that reason,  I may do full-voiced lip-trills with a student for an entire year throughout the range, until the folds have been balanced to a proper pressure-flow balance.  As a tenor, I could not sing a high-C until I was able to produce a full-voiced lip-trill on that note. Even today, producing a full-voiced lip-trill on a high C is not easy. But once I do it, the head-voice high C becomes possible and flexible.  I also know that there are notes beyond that C, because I teach a dramatic tenor who can do the same up to F5 and we have recordings to prove it.  I am waiting for the clips from his lesson to feature that phenomenon on the blog.

When the rig has been set up, the harvesting of fluid, brilliant tones becomes possible.  Then spontaneously, a coloratura wonders why the high Fs and coloratura was ever a problem, or a tenor wonders why a high C is considered such a difficult note when he can sing a fourth above it in full-voice.  Yet it should not shock anyone to hear that it took this husband and wife team of heldentenor and dramatic coloratura two years of a steady occlusion diet to achieve the strength for such feats.  I had a lesson with said coloratura yesterday. A short while before, the high Fs where unpredictable and the coloratura passages of the Queen of the Night's second aria was uneven and she did not feel she had the breath capacity to achieve it. Yesterday, she was another singer.  After she vocalized on occlusives to A6 (a 6th above high C), it was clear to me that she now had the strength to trust the structure (the rig).  Now she could concentrate on head voice, breath flow, efficient closure without a squeeze and that sensation that the entire thing rides on a cushion of breath.  And it was all easy and immediate. Simply because she was ready to do it. 

But when a teacher does something that people might consider unconventional (even when science supports it) it is a great joy when students achieve the final product, and the process is proven.  As a singer this helps me personally to see the process work so well.  In fact the majority of students I teach currently, I have teaching for about two years.  That seems to be the amount of time it takes to get the instrument to peak readiness throughout the range.  With younger students who did not cultivate bad habits, it take less time.  With singers who have had a 20 year deficit in the wrong fach (like me) it can take longer.  It is the most exciting thing to hear yourself begin to sound like your heroes. 

The point here is what Orson Wells said in the wine commercial: "Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time."  Indeed we cannot extract any oil before the rig is set up.  This is the hard work that the traditional teachers used to do. Muscular training until the instrument is ready to handle the work of singing difficult repertoire. And do not fool yourself, dear reader!  There is no easy repertoire until the instrument is ready. But when it is trained (as in muscularly strengthened in balance), suddenly everything feels easy.  I submit that great singers are made not born.  I do believe in a higher consciousness and if God instill a gift, it is a gift of passion---An unrelenting need to follow the path of a singer, with all of its traps and barbwires.  Along these lines, in Kung Fu class we were talking about the tests that Shaolin monks had to go through to become ready. The tests were death-defying and some monks died in the process.  Then I watched a movie called The 8 Masters that featured precisely such a test.  Perhaps a singer's tests are not physically death-defying, but they are at least life-changing in a spiritual sense.  True singers (those who simply must sing, no matter what) are challenged to their core to achieve their highest purpose. And there is a physical part to this training.  It is an extreme workout that touches on every muscle in the body at some level.  Vocal training, like Kung Fu, challenges our spirits by challenging our bodies and our minds.  Indeed every discipline taken to its highest level challenges in this way.

© 02/05/2009

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): On Fioratura and Trills

First, forgive my absence here on the blog.  I have been dealing with something unusual which I think I may have pinned down.  Before arriving in New York this last time, I felt on top of my vocal game and was seriously contemplating sending my materials to a particular house for an important role.  I even wrote to my Posse of Tenors Who Previously Sang Baritone, that I had some new vocal developments to share with them.  Only a couple of days after my arrival, my voice began to skip like it did when I had experienced a black mold infection some five years ago.  I went to a homeopath who among other things felt that I had some weakness in my lungs. I have been feeling easily winded lately and could not understand why since I am in excellent shape because of my Kung Fu practice.  I had a little sing-through of Zauberflöte and found my middle range uneven.  I had attributed the problem to sudden exposure to indoor heat and dry air, but even though my humidifier mitigated the problem somewhat, it was still very present.  My housemate, also a singer has been suffering from some unexplained respiratory infection that made her easily hoarse.  I felt the same hoarseness when I speak.  Whether because I am too close to the problem or that my new tenor high notes have been reducing my grey matter, I did not consider that some airborne particle might be causing the problem.  I am writing this blog with a face-mask after having done a cleansing of the sinuses with an iodized salt solution.  I figure if the problem is in the house, I should feel a difference in the next couple of days.

Now to the discussion at hand:

I have been meaning to address the issue of fioratura and trills for a long time, but could not find a direct enough approach until I spontaneously explained the concept to a young student the other day with a simple illustration:

On an acoustic piano (will not work on an electronic piano),  hold down the keys: A4, E5, A5 and C6# (by holding down the keys, the dampers will be off for those specific four pitches)! With the keys down but the notes not sounding, play firmly the note A3.  If the piano is in tune, the four pitches that are held down will begin to vibrate in sympathy.  Now play Bb3 while the same notes are held down.  Nothing happens! Why? Because those four notes happen to be the first four overtones of A3.  These notes are part of the acoustic structure (natural overtone series) of A3 and they will vibrate in sympathy when A3 is played.  Likewise, A3 will sound in sympathy if any of these notes are struck, as long as the damper is off and the note is free to vibrate.

How does this relate to fioratura?

In fact, this relates to phonation at all speeds. A singer who has a good sense of intonation will change the resonance of the vocal tract to accommodate the acoustic needs of the pitch being sung.  In this way, the laryngeal vibration will be in tune with the resonance space/vocal tract. Although these adjustments occur spontaneously when a good singer is singing slowly, often it does not occur when the singer is singing rapid passages.  Singers who have problems with fioratura do not realize that often the problem has little to do with faults in phonation or breathing, but rather with maladjustments in the vocal tract.

Sing a five-note scale slowly downward on [a] in a comfortable range! Pay attention to discover that for each note there is a change in the shaping of the vocal tract.  This is natural and spontaneous when the singer has a good sense of pitch.  Also when sung slowly, the singer does not need to increase air pressure or aspirate to change pitch.  The change in fundamental frequency and vocal tract happen without disturbing the fluid vibration pattern.  This is legato singing.  No interruption of the phonation for pitch change!

Fioratura should follow the same pattern. Speed of note change should not interrupt the legato function.  The required coordination is simply appropriate acoustic adjustment simultaneously with the note change without interrupting the flow of vibration. The need to aspirate is a remedy for the tension that is created when the vocal tract acoustics are disagreeable to the vibration pattern of the vocal folds.  In essence the movement of the air above the vocal folds is interfering with the vibration of the vocal folds because the two are not in sync with each other.  The singer feeling this as tension attempts to correc the problem by pushing more air through.  When this is done on every note change, we hear a kind of machine-gun effect.

There are many charismatic performers who utilize this machine-gun effect.  Great performers are not always great technicians.  Often their great stage presence makes up for technical inefficiencies and flaws.

It is now two days since I started writing this post and my voice is beginning to come back, though a little "husky" to my ears.  I decided to illustrate this principle with Deposuit from Bach's Magnificat (a comparison with an earlier version of this clip two and a half years ago may be interesting).  Having a larger voice does not prevent what I consider the proper articulation of the coloratura.  The legato is maintained and the vocal tract changes appropriatedly for each pitch.  Even with the slight "huskiness" of the voice, there is still enough efficiency to sing the long phrases comfortably.

The same principle is true of a trill and it is more difficult to do.  A trill is considerably faster than the speed of the fioratura of Deposuit.  I did record a sustained trill but I thought the quality of the voice was not adequate to share.  A proper trill must be done with a healthy voice.  I will add the trill tomorrow or the day after.

Indeed the proble with a trill is not only the rapid change of fundamental frequency but a simultaneous change in the vocal tract. This is not as easy as it seems, which prompted Joan Sutherland in a Metropolitan Opera interview to say that a trill could not be learned, that one is born with it.  Marilyn Horne, he close friend and colleague in the same interview countered that she had learned to trill because she could not do it before.  If one person can learn it, then it is possible for anyone to do so, as long as s/he has the patience and dedication to do so.  I learned to perform a sustained trill because one of my students 15 years ago refused to learn to trill unless I could demonstrate it.  I went home and figured out that a vocal tract adjustment was necessary for every pitch change. Hence a trill is as much a rapid change in the vocal tract (not automatic) as it is a rapid change in pitch (which is automatic).  When the resonance changes are not made for each of the two notes of the trill,  only one will be resonant even though both notes are in fact being produced.  If the pharynx is static one of the notes will be maladjusted and unresonant, giving the impression that only one pitch is being sung with an exaggerated vibrato.

For breath-taking fioratura passages, I leave you with the able throat of the incomparable, Beverly Hoch:

© 02/02/2009