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.