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!


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!


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!

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:

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:

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:

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

 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.

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