Monday, March 21, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Beauty of Tone: Purposeful and Effortless Meditation

 As a profoundly spiritual man I often ponder the nature of what we call God, the supreme consciousness we, the spiritual we, hold responsible for the nature of our existence and everything therein.  And when we are in the presence of a singer who emits a sound that we judge to be objectively beautiful, perhaps incomprehensibly beautiful, there is a great temptation to want to attribute such a sound to divine intervention.  The greater paradox that I struggle with is that on the one hand, all things could be attributed to God, the creator of all things or indeed to man who is the inheritor of the divine gift of creation and thus by extension to God.  Or we can indeed debate the nature of God:  whether a detached being, who alone reigns and decides arbitrarily over all things or a collective consciousness that is the amalgam of what appears to be the individual consciousnesses of all beings biological or even the conscious totality of all things in the Universe.  This blog will not attempt to provide answers for such extremely philosophical questions, however to the extent that we as professional singers hold ourselves responsible for our talents and indeed in respect of those who develop their talents to a high level, we owe it to ourselves to understand the possible reach of our human efforts.  In other words, can we all develop a tone that can be called objectively beautiful and what qualities must be acquired to attain such an objective?

In the last week, I find myself in the presence of two world-class singers I have the honor of advising.  And as my relationship with them began after they have achieved a word-class status, I do not hold myself creditable for their accomplishments but merely as a coach helping them to manage and maintain a finished product as they undergo different challenges.  Hence the question:  if these singers are the inheritors of a divine gift that is beyond the scope of man, then what is my business with them? Why do they need a coach at all?  Knowing these singers, their unrelenting work ethic and their humility, I am sure they would give credit wherever it is due, but would recognize that their lifelong efforts have been necessary throughout in order to accomplish the magical tones they produce.

For my part, I deal with the spiritual dilemma thus:  we are all born with a divine imagination, which when developed gives us the ability to create from our mind’s eye.  All that we can imagine can be made real over time and a divinely beautiful tone is first a fruit of our imagination that is then worked out into the physical realm, just like the amazing flying machine that is about to take this Caribbean lad, far from his place of origin to the neighborhood of the Arctic Circle in the next hour (I fly to Umeå, Sweden in less than an hour).  When I listen to these singers and on occasion analyze their beautiful voices acoustically, there are common elements that can be observed: 
             1) They produce vowel shapes that are amazingly in tune with the harmonics of the pitch being produced.
       2) The vowel production (the vocal tract shape) modifies with the need of each consecutive pitch.

These first two attributes mean the source tone (laryngeal vibration) is in tune with the filter (vocal tract) or better said, they are in tune with themselves

      3) The vocal spectrum at any point is precisely in tune with the musical environment.  That is to say, not only are the fundamental frequencies in tune with that of other instruments that are present, the overtones of these two singers are also in tune with the harmonious overtones of other instruments in the musical environment.
To accomplish the above, the singers must have:

1)      Extremely sensitive ears commensurate with the musical imagination of the composers of the great works they sing.  This requires a paradoxical dichotomy of them, namely the humility to recognize and respect the awesome quality of the music they sing (whether Verdi, Mozart or Rossini) and the audacity to vocally measure up to the extraordinary nature of that music

2)      A refined sense of proportion that instructs their dynamic musical and vocal choices in the moment

3)      A linguistic intelligence that must reach the highest poetic level

4)      An elevated sense of the dramatic potential of melody, harmony and text

5)      And the empathic human experience that instructs their understanding of complex theatrical characters.

All of this requires a purposeful and effortless meditation into the nature of what it is to be human.

Many singers can produce beautiful moments (a note, a phrase, and sometimes even an entire song).  But it takes a hard-working, extremely dedicated and determined human being to achieve mastery in all the above qualities, such that yields the awesome ability to command the willing attention of thousands of people for a sustained period of time.

Having worked with these singers in the past 6 months, what I have noticed is that what they consider excellent is far above the norm.  Most singers would be happy to be able to produce the sounds they make upon sight-reading a piece of music.  But they are aware of the highest quality and they want it.  And that means I, as their coach, must be keenly aware of the highest quality in order to help them achieve it and above all must not see them as students but rather as high-performance ARThletes (forgive the neologism) who have a keen sense of what they can do.  In this way I will know when and how to humbly challenge them to achieve not only what they imagine but also what they have not yet imagined.

The relationship between coach and ARThlete requires a tenuous balance of humility and audacity between both members of the relationship in order to accomplish the artistic aim. Artists or ARThletes  are amazingly accomplished individuals whose humility is the first thing one notices.  Working with them, I also see their inspired audacity, which should never be seen as a negative attribute but rather a part of the inner recognition of their talents.  As a singer myself I am keenly aware that such an audacity is part and parcel of achievement and is to the glory of the Source, however one chooses to define it.   

It is fitting to end with a story I heard here in Sweden.  Jussi Björling was often annoyed when his voice was referred to as a gift. He thought it was belittling that people did not realize how hard he worked to achieve that level of mastery.

 © 03/21/2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Of Confidence: Honorable Competitiveness: Ode to Dr.Timothy Jones

One of my master teachers, who watched me teach, told me I was blessed and cursed with the vision of what the student could become.  Blessed because it gave me an incurable optimism about their possibilities, and cursed because I sometime do not pay attention to the student's pessimistic view of their own situation.  I have learned since to pay attention to the student's doubts and try to find ways to be encouraging in a very practical way until the student begins to also have a vision about their own possibilities. Without vision, there is no success!  Everything that is created begins with an inspired vision and that includes the singer's own success. Because of my ability to see why a student's growth may have been stunted (whether musicianship issues, or vocal strength issues, or self-esteem issues or linguistic shortcomings, etc), I naturally see a path to remedying the problem.  But as a teacher, my vision does not determine the student's path.  Convincing the student of his/her path to success then makes the vision the student's own, which then makes a transformation possible. Of course there is a danger!  To have a vision is to be responsible for it, and unfortunately some people find it easier to be responsible for a pessimistic view of their own stagnation than the optimistic view of their potential success.

When a student believes they can be successful, they are suddenly faced with the many tasks (sometimes seen as obstacles) to their success.  One of such necessary tasks is facing competition honorably. To that end, I quote Proverbs 27:17, which came to me by way of Sifu Romain's Kung Fu:

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another!

 And thus begins my Ode to Dr. Timothy Jones!

As my teaching career expands and I now teach many high level students, I begin to see the spectre of dishonorable competition come up.  What happens when I tell a student about another student with a similar voice type and Student 1 becomes threatened by the existence of Student 2?   Student 1 may have believed he would be singular because he has a particular voice type combined with the fact that he studies with a teacher with a singular approach.  Then suddenly there is another student with the same voice type and similar qualities who also works with me.  Student one suddenly does not feel so special.  And perhaps becomes jealous or even angry that I would take another student with the same qualities.  Jealousy is the abyss opened by self-deprecation and doubt.  I personally have vowed to eradicate it in my life at all cost. That is the lesson I learned from the opera that turned me into a singer.  Otello!  Otello (Othello) perishes not because of Jago's power but because of his own self-hate.  In his jealousy, he wonders whether the most faithful of wives betrays him because he is Black in an all-caucasian world or because he is not schooled in the finer arts of love.  He questions both his potency and his unalterable biological make-up!  And indeed for no reason!  He ends up killing love only because he wonders whether he is worthy!

In truth, the student's uniqueness has nothing to do with his voice type or the fact that he studies with me.  His unique gift has to do with the ability to bring out the truth of who he is in his musical creations and interpretations. When that is the mindset, the presence of a worthy competitor is welcome, for we as vocal athletes and as artistic people should be inspired by the presence of great artists not wonder if their presence denies us a job.  It is simply not the case, even if the highest elements of our field preach this poison.  John MacEnroe was made better by Bjorn Borg and vice versa!  Callas was driven to excellence because of Tebaldi and vice versa.  That La Divina did not have the grace initially to acknowledge Tebaldi's qualities was her failing.  Domingo and Pavarotti made each other better.  The best example I can remember is the honorable expression of respect expressed by Nicolai Gedda and Jussi Björling about one another.  They had studied with the same teacher and were considered Sweden's best in their category, and at one point two of the very best in the world at the same time.  I cannot find a statement in which one spoke ill of the other but have heard many stories of one defending the other. 

Thus comes the story of Dr. Timothy Jones.  We entered the Masters program together at the University of Michigan in 1988 and continued on to the Doctorate.  We were the most cast baritones at the University between 1988 and 1995.  We were both fellows at the Aspen Festival during two summers together, were up for the same parts at local professional companies and sang against each other (and the word against is meant positively here) in more occasions than I can remember.  Timothy and I are singularly proud of an experience that lasted more than two years.  We studied with the same teacher, George Shirley, the entire time. During our first two years, before our schedules became divergent, after the weekly studio class, we stayed after and practiced together, both technique and interpretation.  We had different strengths and I know that my presence spurred him on as his did me.  I am not only a stronger singer because of my honorable competiton with Timothy, but a stronger person in the field.  In the end, Timothy is an active bass-baritone and I became a tenor.  And even if we both remained baritones for the rest of our lives it would not have changed anything.  He has his success and I have mine and we have great respect for each other until today.  He has recommended me to students traveling to New York as I have recommended students to him in Texas.

In the presence of the legendary George Shirley, we had the ultimate example of proactive, positive, responsible, self-respecting thinking.  This I hope for my students.  I challenge them all to see the blessing of having colleagues whose skills inspire them to sharpen their own rather than to be threatened.  A threat only exists to the degree of our own personal insecurities!

© 03/14/2011

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Kashu-do (歌手道): Of Confidence: A Fundamental Element of Success

When I think of competitions I have won or auditions that lead to jobs or my best performances, there is one element that stands out above all: Confidence.  Confidence that the moment at hand was within my control!  Paradoxically, control has a double-meaning, for in those moments I felt that I relenquished control to my imagination--My desire to express something wonderful was dependent simply upon the will to express it.  My body, mind and spirit were prepared to act in concert because I had prepared in every way that was necessary.  I had no doubt that my preparation was of the highest order and knew fundamentally that I simply had to deliver what I had prepared, as if a beautiful present to my audience or to the judges or casting directors.  But what is it that gives confidence?  What are the necessary ingredients that yield true confidence--the calm state of mind that is filled with certainty that the moment would simply develop as it was meant to:  fluid, effortlessly concentrated, peaceful?  There are two fundamental parts to confidence:  1) the certainty that training and repetition of correct habits lead to reliable skills and 2) the ability to let go of past failures that were based on prior inadequacies.

1. Repetition is the mother of all skill~Anthony Robbin:  I would add to Mr. Robbins axiom that the repetition of correct habits lead to correct and reliable skill.  Recently one of my students wrote the following on a singer's forum:

...Working that way honestly feels like being a ballerina at the barre. You just do it, and then do it again. Until the strength is there. (And by "it", I mean the strength exercises. Just continuing to sing off the voice up there every day again and again won't ever make it stronger.)
The vocal strengthening exercises are not easy. They target the specific muscular coordination that yield a balanced sound. This means that in the interim, depending on the severity of the imbalance, the singer may feel at first uncoordinated, easily fatigued, and unable to trust the voice to do what s/he wants.  But what ballet dancer ever felt perfectly strong in the beginning?  What athelete did not feel unccordinated in the beginning?  But our field has a hard time dealing with the issue that a voice has to be built.  It is easier to  think that great voices are born. That way, noone has to be responsible for building it.  That is the unfortunate state of pedagogy in our times, by and large.  

I honor my colleagues who guide their students to confront their weaknesses and not just coddle to their strengths. In our business, it is simply too rare. 

To become confident, it is important to have overcome difficulty! A false confidence comes from early success: Ignorance is bliss!  Many young singers who developed spontaneously (unconsciously) assume that they have a special talent until they face a repertoire that challenges their weaknesses.  It is in facing their fears and overcoming them that such a singer becomes truly confident--Confident from conscious overcoming of limitations not from never having faced their weaknesses.

This reminds me of the legendary Leontyne Price who made one of the remarkable Met debuts in 1961 (the pressures of the Civil Rights movement aside) only to crash and burn in the difficult role of Barber's Cleopatra written for her for the occasion of opening the Metropolitan Opera's new house.  Can you imagine the pressure?  After such a setback, most strong people would crawl under a rock and never come back.  Ms. Price took a bit of time off and came back with a solid technique that carried her through a career of big events that lasted more than 30 years.  I heard her in recital in 1989 in Ann Arbor, Michigan during her farewell recital tour.  She sang a full program of songs and arias with a voice so fresh, with powerful fortes and breath-taking pianissimi--a near perfect vocal technique at the service of a varied repertoire handled with stylistic grace.  She was balanced. She was confident!

To that end, I also honor the many singers on the world stage who are too often the target of derision because of their vocal weaknesses.  

In the past I have participated in such conversations because I had a hard time understanding why top singers would have obvious vocal flaws. Many of them become etremely successful because of their multi-dimensional skills (that they have worked hard for) and in a world where everything is rushed, their weaknesses were not addressed.  I am currently working with quite a few singers singing at very high levels and I find they have certain traits in common: 1) they are very conscienscious and hard-working 2) they are very honest about their flaws (little or great) and really want to work them out 3) they are gentle souls in a tough business that will eat them up and then spit them out at the first sign of insecurity.  They are my heroes and I am honored to be in their corner.

I honor most profoundly the students I have who have been misguided in the past and find themselves sometimes frustrated and insecure about their future when they should be reaping the rewards.  The road to recovery is not easy, and as one on the other side of a very difficult Fach-change and beginning to really enjoy the fruits of a grueling labor, I do not pity them.  I honor their courage for wanting to work their problems out even if it appears late in the game.  Without exception they are truly inspired and skilled musicians who just need their instruments to respond to their artistic will.  I feel intense joy when I see the light of hope in their eyes, because it is the beginning of confidence.  When they see the logical path to the skills they always wanted, then the hardest part of our journey together has been passed.  And when a former baritone has gone from not being able to sing F4 comfortably to being a tenor able of coordinating a well-supported F5 (not falsetto), I want to throw a party!  And when a mis-fached lyric erupts with her effortless Queen of the Night and sings Ab6 regularly in her warm-ups I almost want to cry.  And when a tenor whose passaggio was all but broken can now sing a perfectly supported pianissimo in that part of his voice and is now free to make music I go to sleep feeling that what I do truly matters.  But my knowledge and skill as a teacher means nothing without their willingness to confront those weaknesses and the problem is not just physical...

2. Let sleeping corpses lie (1974 Italian horror film in which disturbed souls wake to wreak havoc on a small town).  It is important to face the errors and horrors of our past, and I have seen more singers sob great bitter tears at what they perceive as time lost  because their weaknesses were not addressed.  I see their eyes burn with seething anger when they come to understand how easily their problems could have been addressed.  But too often the teacher had said: "well, your voice is just limited!" or "You just don't have a great voice!" or my favorite, "You don't have any voice!"  Lucky for me, none of my own teachers ever told me I had no voice. Other teachers did, but I just assumed they were quacks, since the statement literally made no sense.  Figure that those same teachers would say I had a beautiful speaking voice but no singing voice, as if I had two different sets of vocal folds for each!

But what does it really matter what a teacher did in the past?

Yes a certain amount of anger should be expressed, for the life of an opera singer is so much easier when technical issues have been dealt with at a younger age.  Ageism is a plague that is eating the operatic field alive. Because of the inadequacies of academic pedagogy (there are great teachers in academia but too few), singers need a lot more time. Unfortunately when singers reach true preparation it becomes much more difficult to get auditions.  So indeed it is important to take a moment to grieve for lost time...

But some singers are paralyzed by the ghosts of the past and even when they have achieved great skills, they spend their time talking about what this teacher or that teacher did or did not do.  It is not belittling the tragic impact of such experiences to say: "Now what?"  Do you remain victim to the inadequacies of the past or do you follow Ralph Waldo Emerson's prescription:

Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.
 Quantum physics shows us that reality is simply thought.  The brain responds precisely the same to an experience as it does to the memory thereof.  Reinforcing painful or negative memories is as bad as reliving them. To be able to move forward we have to let go of the bitter past.  In three years I have almost forgotten my 25-year experience as a baritone.  I keep the good parts of course.  The special concerts and auditions remain fresh, but I look forward to having greater ones as a tenor.

The way to make peace with our past experiences is to realize that our teachers were human beings who were growing and learning, and that if we are honest with ourselves, we learned more from them than we did not learn.  This does not soften my indictment of those who wallow in the mud of their own ignorance and pompously blame their students for their lack of achievement. I for one have no ill words for my teachers.  They were all people who had a great thirst for knowledge.  They always wanted to learn more.  They are my role-models.  It is because of them that I wanted to learn vocal science and conducting and composition or whatever else my colleagues in academia considered distractions.  Of course I wonder why my beloved teachers never perceived I was in fact a tenor.  Perhaps it was because I identified so much with being a baritone that my zeal convinced them.  But indeed the question is simple: "What can I do now to make my future a fruitful one?"

This is the question I try to answer every morning.  Some mornings it is simply getting up and doing my Tai Chi form.  It brings clarity of thought and physical balance.  Then perhaps I gain the strength from it to do my daily vocal practice, from which I might have an idea for a blog post, which develops into an idea in addressing a student's concerns, which leads to a discussion with a colleague who invites me to do a master class in a new city, which leads to the acquaintance of a new General Manager of a new theater, etc...

Progress is not made by mourning the past, although as human beings we may need a little of that once in a while. But bitterness must not reign over anything we do as artists. Our job is a heroic one!  We live in a world that puts us last! When there are financial concerns, the Arts are the first that people deem expendable.  Yet when there is a baptism, or a bar mitzvah or a wedding or a funeral or a tragedy, who brings balance and meaning to the moment?  Usually a singer!

In a lifetime, a singer probably spends more than s/he takes in, but if we valued the heroic adventures of an artist in terms of money we would have no music to listen to, no paintings to see and no poems to read. Indeed we would have been better off blind, deaf and mute then!

We can give ourselves so many excuses why we are in the predicaments we are in. We can blame all kinds of people and experiences in our past for the problems we have, but in the end what does that help? Let sleeping corpses lie!

And so confidence is achieved from the practice of correct habits that lead to reliable skills and in the great spiritual ability to avoid being victimized by past experiences.  As a teacher I can bring my students the former, which if practiced in the present can help with the latter.  But in the exorcism of evil spirits, a priest will tell you that his greatest ally should be the soul he is trying to save.  If that soul does not want to be saved, then the demon will win. And since I don't believe in demons except those that we create ourselves, it is up to us to decide which reality we want to live in:  the prison of the past, the pressure of the future or the empowerment of the present?

© 03/06/2011