Sunday, December 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 12/25/2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

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

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

© 12/16/2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 12/14/2011