Sunday, December 30, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Appoggio 2: Mental Conception of the Voice and Anatomical Response

The term "La lotta vocale" (vocal struggle) is one often tossed around when discussing breath support or appoggio.  All this terminology makes very little sense without understanding 1) What the body does automatically 2) What the singer is responsible for on a conscious level.

Question: Why does a baby exhibit perfect breath support when crying?

Answer:  The baby has an overwhelming desire to express a specific need.  The expression therefore requires certain mechanical responses from the body, which include strong phonation and excellent compression of the breath by way of efficient muscular antagonism (The so-called lotta vocale).

Therefore we should look at breath support as beginning with a mental concept of the specific sound we need to produce.  Quite erroneously, singers often begin with the idea that "if I support I will create a great sound!"  It is rather the opposite that is true.  If I expect to produce a great sound, excellent breath coordination must be a part of it.

Indeed the compression of the breath is automatic, if:

1) The glottal resistance is adequate (i.e. if the throat is doing its part).  Appropriate glottal resistance begins with a mental idea of what sound is to be produced. A substantial sound will produce substantial glottal resistance, providing the singer has the vocal wherewithal to produce the sound that is conceived.  A sense of flow must also be part of the mental picture of the sound lest the singer ends up with rigid substance.  Nor should flow be considered without sound substance lest the result ends up being unopposed air (breathy singing).  Correct glottal resistance requires a mental concept and learned sensation of flowing substance.

2)  The muscles of inhalation remain active at and beyond the point of vocal onset.  The idea of lotta vocale or appoggio technique, as some like to call it, is indeed simple.  If the muscles of inhalation (which muscularly oppose the muscles of exhalation) are continually active (not relaxing to allow the air to collapse), the only muscles that can push the air out are the exhalation muscles, and they will respond automatically.  

Question: But what activates the many muscles of exhalation?

Answer:  The desire to release a specific sound (as long as the muscles of inhalation do not collapse).

In short, we are left with another axiom from the Old School.  Sing on the feeling of inhalation!

A good inhalation expands the ribcage and the belly (diaphragmatic descent pushes the viscera down and out).  If we maintain this supple sensation of suspended expansion (not rigid), and we desire to sing a substantial sound, the body's exhalation muscles (abdominals of many kinds, internal intercostals, i.e. the core muscles) must respond to help produce the desired sound.

Our responsibilities relative to appoggio therefore are the following:

A) Develop laryngeal structure capable of producing a substantial sound (this is not a given and not equal in every singer before training)

B) Inhale deeply so to expand the body fully

C) Desire to produce a substantial and flowing tone (whether soft or loud)

This will yield the desired response:

D) The many core muscles respond to create the breath compression commensurate with the desired sound.

The body is mostly an automatic machine.  Our responsibility is to train it, such that it is fit and capable of producing the desired results (like an athlete does.  Just because one has athletic talent does not mean one does not need to train daily).  Then we must know what activity we are consciously responsible for (maintain body expansion in this case) such that the automatic parts happen without our interference.

Finally, for my part, I believe that the definition of the term, lotta vocale, and indeed of every jargon found in vocal history, should be updated to reflect what we understand about the instrument.  Lotta vocale speaks to muscular antagonism between the muscles of inhalation and exhalation.  There is a lotta vocale, "a vocal struggle", happening at every level of singing, not only breathing.  The dynamic relationship between muscles of heavy mechanism and those of light mechanism (i.e. TA vs. CT) is a type of lotta vocale.   The dynamic relationship between laryngeal depressors and laryngeal levitators is a type of lotta vocale.  The relationship between laryngeal stability and tongue movement is a kind of lotta vocale.  Indeed the stability of the body in motion depends on a paradoxical and antagonistic relationship between muscle pairs.

A singer's life is made many times more difficult by the fact that we cannot see the vocal muscles at work.  Singers sing by feel and it is very easy to get attached to a particular sensation that might be one-sided.  Many great and balanced voices deteriorate because the singer assumed that his/her vocal balanced was due to the one thing that had been lacking.

Whether it is Alfredo Kraus who spoke only about "sensing the voice forward", or Caballe who speaks exclusively about the breath, or Corelli who spoke incessantly about the low larynx, most of the singers who had great careers began with vocal advantages (mostly cultural stimuli that trained substantial vocal use before the singer was aware).  Many of them define technique by the small part they needed to learn. Something that may work for those students who needed the same thing but often ends up being disastrous for students who have other needs.

Great pedagogy is not only giving the students what they need, but making them aware of what they already have and how and why it works!

© 12/30/2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Appoggio: Confidence and the Speaking Voice

I will never forget having dinner with Mario Sereni during the summer of 1991.  The celebrated Italian baritone was retired but continually received offers to sing.  And no wonder!  Even by today's standards he would have been a catch for most managers.  He appeared a lot younger than he must have been then, he was impeccably dressed, was a charming and supportive person (he gave me a peptalk before I sang Macbeth's big aria in a concert) and then there was the voice!!!  I had never heard someone speak, as he did normally, with such a powerful resonance.  A few weeks later I would do a masterclass with Piero Cappuccilli and wondered if all Italian baritones spoke with such a powerful resonance.  After meeting those two magnificent singers with their powerful speaking voices, I must admit, I had doubts about my own native talent. Over the years, those voices would come back to haunt me, but in a reassuring way.  Somehow I felt they had appeared in such close proximity to help me understand something.  The classes with Cappuccilli ended up being about "using the breath with generosity but without ever wasting it."  Another paradox!

It takes a lot of life experience to put such experiences to good use.  In the end, there was obviously a connection between the way those two "confident" artists used their breath.  In my teaching, I often bring a singer to an "altered" state whereby they sing with a powerful resonance.  Unlike our great baritones, instead of living with it, they wonder whether "it is too much", whether they are "putting it on!"

In a way, it is as if they are putting it on, faking it, because their default structural state is "other", "smaller", "socially more acceptable" especially in a more introverted society, unlike the Latins, Afro-Americans, Koreans, etc, who tend to be much more outwardly expressive.

After having developed my own vocal apparatus (structure), I found I still had to deal with a tendency of making myself smaller, vocally more "normal" (whatever that is).  Even with my years of experience teaching singers that they must become their "whole" selves, I was tricking myself into a "safer" "more limited" approach, whether by developing an approach that was more acceptably "tenorial"!  True "release" is based on a vocal coordination that defines the true voice, not our own ideas of what we wish it were or worst yet what we think we should sound like.  In recent months (as might be evident in a recent post), I am constantly confronted with accepting the "baritone" quality of my tenor voice.  Why would that be a problem?--After all, one of the most important agents in the business defines a tenor with a baritone quality as "very rich!"--

The problem is that it feels superhuman!  It feels like "more than that which I identify as self!"  I am fundamentally afraid at some level to be "all that!"  A fully developed operatic voice is indeed "all that".  It  is James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart and Birgit Nilsson!  Those are people who are not afraid to be vocally complete in their every-day life.  Particularly when one has a dramatic voice by nature, it is a lot to go around with.  Most of us make it smaller!  Opera can be gentle, it can be quiet, but it is never vocally small.  The lightest coloratura voice fully supported produces a powerful resonance.

When the truly supported sound is not part of the singer's every-day existence, it feels as if the singer is "fabricating" a sound, when it is in fact the voice that is used in every-day life that is fake.  Support, as any aspect of vocal technique, begins with an idea of "self"!  When we imagine ourselves to be "less", "smaller", how can we possibly take on the grand vocal presence that is required in operatic singing?  The first part of any singer's training should be to be introduced the nature of the full vocal resource.  When one expects his voice to sound like James Earl Jones, or Patrick Stewart or Birgit Nilsson or Christa Ludwig, there is also along with that an expectation of a certain kind of breath energy.  I will always remember Mario Sereni's catch phrase: "mi spiego?" (Do I explain myself or Do you understand?) or when I asked Christa Ludwig for an autograph and she replied:  "You are baritone, yes?...My husband was baritone?  You are all sooo loud (zoooo laut)!"  Their every-day speaking voices were as full as their singing voices.  From normal day to operatic stage, there was very little change.  For most of us, even when we know what the proper, supported voice sounds like, it is an unnatural thing.  My students who sing the most naturally also speak with a supported voice.

I discovered the lack of proper support in my speaking voice when I began having difficulties in my lower middle range, where I was particularly strong during my baritone years.  The same rich "baritone" fullness that sang "Thus saith the Lord..." from Messiah,--inspiring audience members to ask me after every concert of Handel's masterpiece: "How does such a big sound come out of such a little body?"--is the same voice that must now sing: "Vincerò!"  "Vittoria!" or any other normal tenor phrase for that matter.

Let us see if we have the humility to dare to speak/sing our true voices!

© 12/19/2012

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Change 1: Getting To Know Our Changing Selves

I have not been writing very much lately...No, I have been writing a lot, but not publishing anything here on the blog!


I never want to post something here just out of the need to keep the blog active.  In fact, there are more readers reading the blog now than ever before, despite the fact that I have not been writing.

Why not post my writings here?

Because singing is about a lot more than technique in the physical sense.  Also, so much of what I write now needs vocal examples which I should be putting up and yet I do not feel that the product I would put up here is consistent with my standards.  I don't care anymore to put up clips about "how much closer to completion I am!"  The next clip needs to be about the completed process and what it has yielded.

I often tell my students that the final step of their mastery needs to be taken alone!  I have been my own teacher for 5 choice...Only with the help of a couple of wonderful coach-pianists who have had better advice for me than the average voice teacher might offer.

Why is that?

The great Steve Crawford gave me yet another amazing wisdom:  "When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail!"  Unless I become a victim to the success of my own technique, I had to consider a few things relative to that statement.

I became aware that I should drink more water.  Why do I not get thirsty as often as most people?  Is it a personal peculiarity? Or is it a defect?  I had considered the former for quite a while.  Then today I had a particularly dry day.  It is winter!  I sleep with the heat on, it is dry outside and in my studio, I did not sleep enough the past couple of nights since arriving in Berlin...All important factors!

Then I considered something else:  What is the oil capacity of a Nissan Titan? Officially 6.5 quarts!  7 quarts is safe!  What is the water capacity of Jean-Ronald LaFond? 45.3 liters according to Watson's formula for body weight/age/height to body water content!

What is the average oil consumption rate of a Nissan Titan? 2.5 quarts per 1000 miles!
What is the average water consumption of Jean-Ronald LaFond? 2.5 liters per day.

If the Nissan Titan has an oil change every 1000 miles, the oil gauge should not go lower than -2.5 quarts per 1000 miles.  Many factors could lead to greater oil consumption, including dirty oil, driving in extremely dry and/or hot conditions, malfunctioning catalytic convertor, dirty oil filter, etc...

Water consumption in an average human being can also vary depending on myriad conditions.  Unfortunately, unlike the Nissan Titan, which has an oil gauge, Jean-Ronald LaFond does not come with  a water gauge.  Humans close to 50 years of age also lose thirst sensitivity.  A human being in a chronically mild dehydration state can adapt to that state until it becomes normal.  Tangentially, there are many symptoms that lead me to believe that I may have been mildly dehydrated.  I will not bore you with all of them since they can easily be found through a Google search.  One thing I will say however is that my voice (we singers are hypersensitive when it comes to our voices) is always more consistent when I am in Italy.  This I credit to balanced diet and increased water intake as a virtue of the culture.

Assuming that I am mildly dehydrated---deadly to a singer's health because the viscosity of the vocal fold cover (mucosa) depends greatly on water intake---I will not return to normal hydration by suddenly drinking 2.5 liters of water every day.  This may help to a certain extent, because it would be more than I generally drink, however it would not bring my body to the kind of hydration that would support vocal folds at optimum levels of functionality.  If I were like a Nissan Titan, I would have a gauge that would determine my hydration level and the viscosity of the vocal fold cover.  To ascertain that I am drinking adequate water, I would have to drink far beyond my comfort level, because what feels normal is not normal at all!

So today, dealing with my extreme dryness and suddenly becoming aware of my potential chronic mild dehydration, I immediately drank four fillings of my .5-liter bottle (a recent present from my very attentive girlfriend--Thank you, Darling)!  Within 15 minutes my raspy voice began to clear and I felt a surge of energy that inspired a few repetitions of one of my Kung Fu forms.  My mind was clearer and my balance was decidedly more consistent.  Nearly two liters was more than I would ever drink at once.  It felt like my stomach was full.  I began practicing and felt clarity in my lower range where I usually do not.  Then the top of the voice was much more flexible and several high Cs felt unusually free.  After half hour of practice, I drank two more fillings of my water bottle and continued practicing.

I did not expect that all my problems would be corrected in one day, and of course some level of dryness remains as does a degree of inflexibility on certain notes (interestingly enough not the the notes that normally feel inflexible).  Most of the literature would suggest that at least a week is necessary to rehydrate, including potassium intake and salt intake to prevent water loss.  In other words, all the water I drank today did not get absorbed.  I did urinate quite a bit two hours later (not immediately).  I am interested to see how the voice responds after I feel properly hydrated.

I will keep you posted.  I do feel I am on to something important.

Interestingly enough as I write this post, I feel decidedly thirsty.  It could be the power of suggestion relative to writing this over the last hour, or it could be something truly significant.  I am betting it is the latter because I exhibit all the mild symptoms consistent with mild dehydration.  Because they are otherwise mild, except for the perceptible difficulties with respect to the voice (stuff that a non-singer would not care about), I did not think much of them.

I have to change!  I have to become aware of mild discomforts.  It is part of a long process of learning to honor the body as the temple of the spiritual self.  It is part of honoring one's inner worth.

In every sense, my voice has been improving and I have been extremely excited.  The frustration has been with the lack of clarity in the voice and any kind of vocal damage has been ruled out.  Reflux is the laryngologist's default diagnosis.  I have stopped treating myself for reflux more than two years ago and I have not felt any adverse effects.  On the contrary, once I dismissed reflux as the unpredictable devil, I have improved on many levels.  It will be interesting to see what this brings.

© 12/02/2012

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Practice Strategies For Singers

There are many papers written about the practice strategies of top musicians.  Against linear thinking and the assumptions of the masses, high level musicians do not practice more hours than their less accomplished colleagues.  At least not at the later stages!  Practice strategies should certainly not be the same for beginners and advanced musicians, and for singers it is even more individual than other musicians.  Different singers come into serious study with different assets, and classical singers have so many different skill-sets that they must master that it would be ludicrous to suggest a single practice regimen for all singers.

Of all my musical skills, keyboard skills lagged behind for a long-time because I did not have the luxury of piano lessons when I was young.  Now I routinely accompany my students (usually playing reductions of what is on the page) to sometimes satisfying results.  I do well with composers who were not virtuoso pianists and who wrote more orchestrally.  I think my study of orchestral conducting may have a bearing on this particular skill.  I am no pianist!  Some of my students will attest to the obvious fact.  But there are many accompaniments that I can fake very well at sight.  Today I was looking at a Beethoven accompaniment (typically pianistic, which does not accommodate my week piano skills) and began to see that the patterns were not as difficult as I used to think.  Some rapid scale passages that I would not consider at all doable before suddenly became possible if I dedicate time to practice.  But how would I practice a difficult Beethoven piano reduction?

The specifics of the how I leave to my able pianist-colleagues.  What I do know is that I would not approach this piece the way I might have 10 years ago, which would have been many hours of repetition.  Now I know my way around the keyboard enough, from hundreds of hours of sight-reading accompaniments, to realize that my time would best be spent slowly learning the patterns in each hand and putting them together.

For singing technique, practice regimens also vary depending on skill level and knowledge of self. There are three levels of skill in vocal technique:  1) Gross motor-skills and strength-building 2) Fine-motor skills and strength-building and 3) Coordination of technical elements.

1) Gross Motor Skills require repetition.  It is like going to the gym to development fitness, strength and muscle tone.  Singers need this as well.  Some singers, because of excellent speaking habits or vigorous singing traditions, come to early training already having developed muscle tone and strength.  These singers are called gifted, talented, etc.  With such singers, it is not necessary to spend a lot of time of fitness, but it is important to teach them exercises that will help them become aware of their fitness and to maintain it.

Gross motor skills include basic balance between heavy and light mechanism and moderately efficient glottal closure.  Too often singers are asked to accomplish perfect efficiency in phonation before the muscles have been developed to accomplish it.  The voice is not a one dimensional instrument whereby one could isolate the Inter-arytenoids to achieve ideal fold closure.  On a note that is overly defined by the heavy mechanism, ideal closure will not be possible unless it is forced, nor can true flow-phonation be possible in a voice that is too dominated by the light mechanism.  Issues of vocal weight and glottal efficiency depend on each other and the student must know at what level of proficiency s/he is in order to have expectations commensurate with their skill level.

2) Fine Motor Skills include refinements in vocal mass and fold length to achieve ideal balance between heavy and light mechanism.  The specifics will vary from one pitch to the next.  At this level, the singer should have conscious control of intrinsic musculature by sensory feedback.  The singer must also work on glottal efficiency, keeping in mind that  actual fold closure, balance of vocal weight as well as control of volume (sub-glottal pressure) all depend on a dynamic interaction.  The mental focus required for this level of exercise should not be sustained for long periods of time.  I see singers getting frustrated when they spend too much time on balancing these elements.  At this level, shorter and very goal-oriented practice is crucial.  The singer must be able to understand sensations related to fold mass (what some might call anchoring, grounding, etc), fold lengthening and closure (what some might call stretching and focusing) as well as conscious volume control at the onset of sound.  Combining these skills is initially a frustrating process for many singers.  For that reason, long practices that become more and more mindless do not help.  Just as the high level pianist or violinist who may work on a specific étude to develop a specific skill, singers must also have pieces designed for specific skill sets.  A former baritone turned tenor worked on Mozart's "Dalla sua pace" initially to develop the basic strength required to handle the tenor tessitura. Many months later after not singing the piece for a long time he picked it up again for a different purpose, namely glottal efficiency and dynamic control.

3) Final Coordination includes not only the refinement skills in (2) but also issues of articulation of vowels and consonants  (which has repercussions on legato and phonation efficiency), resonance tracking/vowel modification (which would have repercussions of fioratura, trilling and acoustic passaggi)  and musical details (i.e. harmonic structure of a musical line, diction vs. technical necessities of vowel alteration, dramatic interpretation vs. technical limitations, etc).

The higher the level of proficiency, the more there is to consider.  I watch singers who were emotionally very scattered become very focused with respect to their vocal studies as well as their lives.  When singers begin to understand the elements of singing that they can control, particularly when they are trained enough to experience the instrument responding to their will, they will begin to practice differently.

It is possible for a beginner to be able to perform very advanced skills while a much more proficient and experienced singer may have difficulties with the very same skills.  Very advanced singers may have minor weaknesses in very specific parts of their voices because of training history.  In such cases they may have two modes of practicing: A) developing strength and fitness in the weak areas and B) working on refinement and coordination in otherwise well structured regions.

In short no two singers have exactly the same needs.  Effective practice particularly at the higher levels of proficiency need to be deliberate, conscious and specific, whereas regimens for beginners, particularly those who need fitness training, can be more general and based on sheer repetition.

© 11/08/2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Understanding Di Stefano: Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath-water!

There should be no dispute as to virtues that made the late tenor, Giuseppe di Stefano (lovingly called Pippo among opera fans and friends) one of the most memorable performers of any time and it is no wonder he was so loved by that unique musical actress, "the divine" Maria Callas.  As an Italian, Pippo was unusual in that his talent extended far beyond the power, purity and beauty of his voice.  He was linguistically refined and among Italians of the time, practically unique in his mastery of foreign languages, particularly French.  He was also a refined musician who was as much invested in the meaning of harmony as he was in the color of language.  His dramatic interpretations, like Callas, with whom he worked often, were direct, specfic, multi-dimensional...human!

The virtue I wish to discuss however is the one that most have counted as a deficit in Pippo's arsenal: "The Open Voice!"  The same can be said of the great baritone, Cornell MacNeil (lovingly called Mac by his friends), who argued vehemently against the idea of covering the voice.

In this clip, at around 1:32, Mac sings an open Eb on the word "noi".  It would have been more traditional to sing a rounder "o" and access F2-dominance (i.e. the cover).  The high G at the end is wide open.  Paradoxically, Mac, who advocates a pure vowel, avoids the open "O" of morte and "modifies" to [a] to keep F1-dominance (i.e. open sound).  So in practice, Mac is not singing a pure vowel at all.  He is simply more comfortable with the open sound.  The way singers use language is very personal.  Finding terminology that we all can understand is not always so simple.

Zancanaro, a more traditional Italian singer, has the same approach in most of the voice but at the comparable places, you will hear the Eb on "noi", 1:18, decidedly covered but with some difficulty in coordination.  The awkwardness of this covered tone is why Mac argued against it.  The high G at 3:35 is ideal and traditional. Covered without losing clarity/efficiency.

I am certainly not advocating singing the top of the voice "open" as these two great singers did, even if they were successful for a long time.  However, many singers, if not most resort to very inefficient singing in pursuit of "covering," of the illusive "giro" (turn of the voice).

Piero Cappuccilli (his performance is rushed here), considered one of the finest technicians among the great Italian baritones performs the appropriate "turn" on the Eb in question at 0:55 and a properly "turned" G at the end.

 First, the virtues of the open voice!  It is not possible to speak about the acoustics of the voice without observing the changes in the source tone.  Singing what seems like unmodified vowels (in the context of folds meeting completely without a medial squeeze) has the virtue of allowing the vocal folds to stretch more easily.  This stretch however does not mean that the vocal folds reduce their vertical mass.  Vocal substance can be kept even as the folds are stretched.  That is the virtue of muscular antagonism relative to phonation, and indeed what makes singers like Di Stefano and MacNeil different from the average "comprimario" (singer in a supporting role)--The great comprimari were exceptionally technically and dramatically proficient, but many sang smaller roles because they were technically deficient. Singing open and too thin was often a part of that deficiency, particularly among comprimario tenors.--

Another virtue of this open approach (again keep in mind that the voice remains substantial.  Stretched but not overly thinned out) is dynamic control.  The beautiful mezza voce at the beginning of the aria here is breathtakingly beautiful.  Other singers who had this "stretchy" (but not necessarily open) approach were Alfredo Kraus, Jussi Björling and Nicolai Gedda.

Kraus bordered on too thin, and his wonderful abilities aside, one can hear that there is a subtle tightness throughout in the passaggio and above.

Björling's mastery is truly is quite unusual.  A freedom of breath emission without ever losing the clarity of the tone.  The difference between he and the the two previous examples is this combination of a stretchy (what Pavarotti often called "elastic") voice, like the open-voiced singers, and a fully open resonance room.

The same is true of his colleague Nicolai Gedda.

It is difficult to find a better recording of this aria.  Again the difference between Gedda and di Stefano/Kraus is that he like Björling, is able to make use of a fully open resonance room (call it open throat, but that does not completely capture the idea) while making use of the stretchy sensation associated with the open voice.

The voices of both di Stefano and MacNeil were substantial and very efficient.  In fact, as much as both singers actively pursued the principle of "cantare come si parla" (singing as one speaks) to a fault, in their early years, their voices would often spontaneously "turn".  The term girare (turn) can be observed  in spectrograms as a spike in the areas of the "second formant" (F2) of the sung vowel.  But achieving the so-called F2-dominance is not merely a result of vowel modification but rather the combination of a source tone that creates strong enough power in the area of the second formant to begin with and a vocalic strategy that encourages the influence of the second formant.  Both di Stefano and MacNeil had powerful source tones capable of F2-dominance but instead chose a vocalic strategy that remained F1-dominant or speech/language driven.

As previously said, the desire for linguistic purity does have a positive effect on stretching the vocal folds, however maintaining linguistic purity also means that the larynx will climb when the natural limits of the first formant are reached.  Raising the larynx is one way to maintain F1-dominance (i.e. speech/language purity).  While this strategy may work for popular modes of singing which require text intelligibility above all else, it works less well operatically, an art, which up until the last few decades was based upon a criterion of vocal beauty related to a balance between high and low overtones (i.e. chiaroscuro).  The Italian singers of di Stefano's time remarked often that he had a voice of exceptional beauty but that his technique was against the norm, dangerously "open".  He was an "exception", particularly among tenors.

Too often, in search of this "turn of the voice", singers would abandon the efficiency that comes from true vocalic concepts and chose vowels that produce F2-dominance at the expense of efficiency and vocal elasticity.  An efficient mode of vibration has been shown by scientists to result from the longitudinal tension (tautness) on the folds rather than mere lengthening.  Like the strings of a guitar, higher pitches are much more easily achieved when the folds are appropriately taut  from resisted lengthening (i.e. vocalis-CT antagonism).

The error that some pedagogues make when thinking about vocal function is that lengthening of the folds necessitates thinning of the folds.  On a given note, lengthening and thickening may occur simultaneously creating a dynamic longitudinal tension that makes for more efficient fold oscillations.  In this mode, the folds have enough contact time during the closing phase, not to necessitate medial squeezing during the opening phase (both parts of the closed portion of the glottal cycle).  In this way flow phonation can be maintained and the larynx can float down to its natural low level.

In essence, both di Stefano and MacNeil had the perfect vocalis-CT antagonism to create very efficient vibration patterns.  Their folds where not only stretched nicely from their concept of pure vowels but also substantial (deep) from a vocal aesthetic influenced by operatic singing of the time.  If they sang both open and thin, they would sound like an average comprimario and might not succeed in lead roles.  
Their only problem was that they insisted on a vocalic strategy that did not take the height/depth of the larynx into account.

The solution is in fact simple and many old school teachers have said it thus:  "Think the vowel pure, but sing it modified"!  As most traditional axioms, this one too sounds contradictory, but it is not.  The singer must be able to identify the sensation of a low larynx in the range where pure vowel are possible.  In this way the singer will sense how the voice stretches with the thought of a pure vowel but the larynx maintains its depth and the breath continues to flow.  Maintaining all these elements results in a second antagonism between the source tone, which will be influenced positively by the thought of pure vowels and the vocal tract, which will be influenced positively by the idea of maintaining laryngeal depth.  These two ideas together create a dynamic relationship whereby vowels will be subtly modified without  negatively impacting the fold lengthening.  The same modification will act positively on the low larynx and a true balance will be accomplished.

In my personal approach to technique, I often advocate singing an open sound in order to develop a sense of the dynamic between vocalis and CT before resonance strategy is thrown into the mix.  The goal is a Double "AND" Strategy!  First a dynamic antagonism between vocalis and CT, then a dynamic interaction between phonation and resonance.  Pippo and Mac achieved the first dynamic to near perfection.   They did not understand the importance of the second aspect:  The crucial relationship between source and filter, between vibration and resonance.  We must not negate the extreme importance of the part they understood because they did not understand the other important part.

© 10/16/2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Kashu-do Royal: Avoiding the Danger of Reducing Oneself--A Shout-out to the Royal Hotel Perea, Greece

There is so much to discuss along the path to realizing ourselves as singers.  My mind has been full of subjects to discuss here on the blog, but so much was happening with my voice that I needed time to work them out before I commented too much.  I needed a hiatus from writing.  Some things needed to be truly concrete in my mind as I write the book, Kashu-do, The Way of the Singer.

I had a session yesterday with a wonderful coach from the Bavarian Opera and she said to me" "I know you love teaching...But you must sing!"  This was after working through Siegmund.  I told her that I would sing and that the two were not mutually exclusive.  The time is coming for that.  After these many months (over 4 years)  I am seeing a light at the end of a long tunnel.  I can begin to think seriously about auditioning in the near future.    In the next few months I have arranged readings of Florestan, Siegmund and Radames.  Next I will look at Samson, José, Canio, Chénier, Tannhaüser, Alvaro and Otello.  These roles are not only desirable, but they fit my voice, my dramatic personality and my musical sensitivities.  It is a great step to accept that I am indeed a dramatic tenor on the more robust side of the spectrum.

It is indeed a step to see myself as what I truly am.  The truth is when one looks at someone with my body type, they do not think dramatic tenor.  People have a way of consciously or unconsciously assigning us to specific boxes, limiting us to what they are comfortable with.   You hear such statements as "Tenors need to be bright! Your voice is too dark to be a tenor!"  "You are too slight of stature.  You could not be anything but something lyric!"  One former academic colleague, upon hearing that I had become a tenor, said:  "Why did he do that?  He has a better chance continuing as a baritone!"

With all the hours of study I put in, with all the skills I have learned, if I were indeed a baritone, I should have become one of the very best.  The fact is that my voice did not excite as a baritone.  My acting ability and musicianship is what always carried my performances.  The voice was well-produced but not exciting in and of itself.

To become a great singer I had to take a journey to become myself, a fact which has permeated every aspect of my life.  I see success coming my way as a teacher, as a father and in my personal relationships.  After teaching a 10-hour day (with a practice hour in between), I was still able to sing some difficult arias with great ease.  I am beginning to feel I can turn this voice on on command.

The voice is strong.  I have been training my entire vocal body for more than four years.  My knowledge of acoustics and anatomy has guided me to develop a technique, which has helped many singers and now myself.  I am now reaping the rewards.

All of this to say that the truth of technique begins and ends with a correct concept of the voice and vocal personality that someone has.  This brings me up to the technical terms in the title (the original title was different and covered the following terms).  Gola Aperta is precisely that--Open throat.  Assuming one's full resonance space is of absolute importance to a well-functioning operatic voice.  It is this large pharyngeal space that couples with the narrowness of the Aryepiglottic fold (epi-larynx) to produce Squillo, the ring in the voice.  As so often discussed here, there is a necessary 1:6 ratio between the circumference of the epi-larynx and the pharynx.  This spacial relationship combined with an efficient glottal oscillation (I recommend the vocal fry as a model) and appropriate resonance tracking via vowel adjustments (jaw, tongue and lips articulations) produces a flexible sensation in the mechanism that we can refer to as Morbidezza or non-rigidity.

Several students have said to me that being given permission to sing the voice they felt they had was necessary in order for them to take that step to truly sing.  I do teach many dramatic voices and they in particularly have suffered from the tyranny that dictates that a voice should be effortless from get-go.  Singers are afraid of the necessary in-between stages when the voice is tense from lack of strength and flexibility, when phonation is fuzzy, when the voice gets tired quickly, etc...In most voices, there will be a necessary training period, whether done unconsciously by screaming in the backyard as a free child at play, or later when an otherwise shy adult begins to open up.

Today it was a coloratura who had to learn that she did not have to sing like perched canary, but that she should have the same visceral experiences that her Heldentenor husband has.  The result was free, faster coloratura and a rich middle voice color that did not change much from the lowest to the highest note.  It was also about a young full-voiced tenor who found freedom in his top notes when he adopted the natural timbre of his middle range.  It was also a former mezzo turned dramatic soprano who realize that pianissimo high notes came from maintaining the richness of her former mezzo voice instead of reducing herself to a stereo-typical soprano timbre.

Vocal freedom begins by recognizing one's true and complete timbre and training the entire voice to reflect that complete color, which is true, which is humbly Grand!  Opera is about full un-amplified voices requiring dynamic muscular strength throughout the body.  The entire person sings.  Discovering that person and his/her true vocal color is our goal.  Instead, too often is some stereo-typical color imposed on us.  We should all free ourselves from these impositions, passed down initially before the voice had truly matured.  The biggest obstacles to great singing are the falsehoods that we take as truths.  The premises of academic vocal pedagogy are for the most part ill-advised, developed for High School choral singers whose voices needed to be protected during the formative stages.

A colleague told me once: "You should emulate Vladimir Galouzine!"  I told him I thought Galouzine may have taken his vocal weight too far and I noticed some instabilities I did not like.  I further told him it was not my goal to sing dark.  Galouzine in fact has become my hero.  I believe he understood something that many true dramatic tenors do not.  He attempted to develop the completeness of his voice and the more I hear his recent performances, the more I believe he has gotten it right but may be still developing.

Galouzine has become my hero not because I think he is perfect, nor because I think we have the same voices.  I think my voice is a few shades lighter than his in fact:

In truth, Galouzine and I do not sound anywhere near the same.  However, it is important to me that there is a professional tenor with such a baritonal tenor voice, who has been the last uncompromisingly viable Otello in recent times.  It is important to have a role model.  Paradoxically, it is crucial important to keep in mind how individual we truly are.

I was reminded this year during my vacation how important it is not to compromise principles.  Planning my first personal vacation in 25 years (i.e. not an extension of working in an idyllic place), I ended up at the Royal Hotel in Parea, outside of Thessaloniki, Greece.  In short, the staff of the Royal Hotel, Parea completely charmed my girlfriend and I to a lulled state we can both remember as "vacation"!  We had been to Athens and Lesvos beforehand and only felt the dismal weight of the economic crisis on every face.

After become friendly with the staff, I had a drink with the Hotel owner/manager.  He made it very clear that his goal was that his guests do not think about the economic crisis when they visit his hotel.  Indeed because of the crisis, Greece is a very cost-effective place to vacation and the Royal Hotel, with its four stars (which should be five) could not raise their prices to high.  For a modest fee, we had a "Royal" experience, because this manager, who is loved by his staff, would not compromise on the quality of the experience he offered his guests.  I have already spoken with him about returning there and using the premises for a master-class.  

Why is the Royal Hotel so important?  It does not compromise what it stands for.  In the face of others' doubts, one must remain true to oneself.  Only then do we discover who we are and what we are made of.  I am a tenor with a baritone quality and thanks to Galouzine, I am not alone.  He does not attempt to sound like a "typical tenor".  He is a special kind of a tenor!  So am I! And I do not need to convince anyone.  I just have to offer a product of quality.  The more I sing my own voice, the more stamina I have, the more flexibility I have.  I am still developing, but the day that I sing my pianissimo high C, it will be full bodied and totally supported.  Until then, I will continue to be true to the voice I have been given.  And this is the message of this post.  The best voice is the complete one you have inside of you, which does not sound like anyone else.  When you reduce it, you will sound like every other voice reduced to a "type," reduced to someone's inability to imagine something richer, something more complete!

© 08/29/2012

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hard-Hitting, Unconventional Diet Advice For Singers: A Guest Post by Vic Dorfman

In my own search for vocal health, I have experimented with quite a few dietary regimens.  Vic Dorfman at The Smart Singer contacted me a month ago and offered to present this article on Kashu-Do.  I find the article passionate, well-written, with a non-apologetic style which I find wonderful (I like it when people stand by their opinions).  I am not yet following this diet to the letter because of the difficulties presented by the last couple of months of travel (a bit more than usual).  I do find the premises logical and common-sensical.  Diets are very personal things and no doubt many will not agree!  I welcome you to read this article all the way through and feel free to post questions.  All questions presented with respect will be posted, so that Vic may get a chance to respond, as he promises to do at the end of the Article.  Thank you Vic!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Yawn: "Gola aperta" or "voce ingolata"

Two weeks ago I began a three-week master class on the idyllic island of Ischia in the bay of Naples, in Italy.  I am convinced during this week that there is an absolute necessity for students and their teacher to meet somewhere remote, away from their normal place of work, to investigate the barriers that hinder true vocal progress.  I will have taught 15 students during this stay, meeting them on average three or four times a week.  The work is intense, emotionally invasive, lovingly challenging requiring trust and risk-taking from me and from the students.  Let me start this post by thanking them for going full tilt into a journey that is perhaps much more complete and vulnerable than city life in New York or Berlin allows us.  A special thanks to the guest students who have completely integrated themselves in our way of working and have done us honor by their openness, resulting in substantial and tangible steps forward.  One of the questions that kept coming up during the last few days is the question of resonance space, open throat and how the sensation of yawning figures in.

Some teachers swear by yawning as a means of achieving the open throat and others quote science and the necessity of tongue depression relative to the yawn that would then cause tensions that would take time to resolve later.  Up until a few years ago, I was also against the yawn for the reasons just mentioned.  Yet, as I developed the techniques of Kashu-do, I realized that every technique should be applied with the consciousness of the paradoxical nature of muscular function and balanced function in mind. I began to rethink the usage of the yawn or pretty much any technique that has had success.  In other words, I have learned not to "throw away the baby with the bath water."

Italian axioms like "gola aperta"(open throat) and "voce ingolata"(swallowed voice, literally throaty voice) are not defined by empirical evidences or the logics of function as understood by those who try to make sense of the voice in their minds, but rather by a visceral experience judged quite subjectively via the listener's ears.  I had the pleasure of teaching a wonderful local soprano, with quite a bit of teaching experience.  The simplistic nature of her vocal vocabulary makes total sense in a country where "squillo" in the voice is the norm not the exception.  Italians by culture develop such readily resonant voices that the subject of vocal study is fundamentally one of tweaking rather than building.

Voices that are muscularly developed from a certain cultural vocalism, be it Italian language or Gospel choirs, etc, require mostly coordination.  Such voices are too often thought of as a "gift".  There are two dangers here: 1) Gifts do not need to be developed, particularly when thought of as divine gifts. Consequently there often results a poor work ethic relative to developing the talent 2) Even the most extraordinary "gift"requires some conditioning in certain parts of the range.  Too often these extraordinary voices are considered perfect and their limitations considered "natural".

When a vocal technique is developed with the "weakest" voice in mind, a philosophy and training regimen must be developed to bring the voice to function at a professional level.  Voices that are spontaneously trained through cultural and environmental habits will have an advantage.  However, the philosophy would be such that possessors of such voices would be aware of the possibility that their spontaneously developed voices might not be complete trained.

I bring this subject up again because it has a bearing on how terminology such as "gola aperta" and "voce ingolata" might be experienced. Where default phonation is efficient (experienced in excellent speaking habits), yawning would produce a wider pharynx, without necessarily rob the voice of brilliance.  The wider pharynx is also needed for the production of squillo (the Singer's Formant). Where phonation is loose or pressed, the voice would be perceived as not functioning properly in the throat.  The hollow or otherwise "unfocused" sound would be perceived as "throaty", giving rise to the term "voce ingolata" (throaty voice).

The greater technical downside of yawning as a means of expanding the pharynx has more to do with the functions of the hyoglossus muscle, originating at the hyoid bone and inserting at the base of the tongue.  When the larynx is lowered to produce the yawn effect, the action should be produced by the laryngeal depressors and not by the depression of the tongue.  A good way to train this is to produce the yawn while singing [i].  The necessary high tongue position of the [i] vowel prevents the tongue depression, thereby facilitating a yawn that is produced primarily by the laryngeal depressors.

To summarize, a yawn is an excellent way to teach the "open throat" because all singers have that natural point of proprioceptive reference.  The danger is in introducing the yawn before some level of efficiency in phonation has been achieved.  Furthermore, doing exercises with the yawn requires awareness with respect to the base of the tongue.  Yawn exercises should begin with [i], followed by vowels with lower tongue positions, particularly [a] which tends to encourage tongue depression during the yawn.

© 06/7/2012

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Inhabiting Your True Voice

One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome is the early conditioning of vocal identity and the other night at a master class with my male students, the conversation turned to vocal identity. One bass-baritone who was incorrectly trained as a heldentenor earlier was transformed after he sang the lead role in The Mikado. This ex-tenor who had a difficult time assuming the depth of tone that defined his buffo voice and personality was suddenly complete. His performance of Mozart's "La vendetta" from Nozze di Figaro was a tour de force, particularly when I reminded him that his resonance should always match his unmistakable belly laugh that overwhelms anyone within earshot of it. In a sense, he had learned a solid vocal technique already. He simply needed some impetus to encourage him to inhabit his true voice. Mikado was it for him!

In that same master class, I worked next with a young dramatic tenor who began as a lyric baritone. I had imagined that a tenor with a baritone past might have a fear of high notes, and I thought that was a part of the problem to solve with this talented young man. He seemed often afraid to push and fearful of any kind of minor discomfort (the normal kind that comes with a major vocal change--i.e. the discomfort of the unfamiliar). Last night when I encouraged him to open his voice fully in terms of resonance space and occupy a bigger room for his voice, he erupted into a sound reminiscent of the greatest tenors. Then he asked whether he was pushing? I asked him if it felt uncomfortable. He said no, and also said it felt easier to sing that way but it seemed so big that he wondered if that was really his voice. He then confessed that as a lyric baritone he concentrated in always less, and in always reducing. Lyric to him in a sense meant unsubstantial! When he opened up to his true voice, dramatic or not, the voice acquired a certain lyricism. A well-produced voice, even a dramatic one, will sound lyrical, not because it has been reduced but rather because it has been allowed to be itself (i.e. occupy its true acoustic space, which is its most efficient adjustment). Reducing a dramatic voice in search of a false lyricism is just as dangerous as attempting to push a lighter voice beyond its means.

The night before, I had a class for my female students. One particular coloratura had progressed very quickly in 3 months. I was very happy with her technical progress and her quick acquisition of strength and stamina. Still, the tendency to squeeze, despite the training of a proper muscular and acoustic coordination, was engrained. There was a personal reason behind her tendency to push the voice. I had to abandon my principles of a balance onset to help her achieve a balanced onset. I asked her simply to "blow air", indeed "waste it!" Suddenly her voice transformed before us into a warm, rich voice releasing supple, full-voiced high Fs as if they were the most routine occurrence. The sensation of "release", to her, felt like wasting air. Once she recognized that the sensation was indeed not of waste but that it was the "flow" portion of a pressure flow system, she was able to enjoy true comfort and beauty in her singing.

In diagnosing vocal imbalances, I always begin with the thought that most problems are due to a basic muscular or acoustic fault. The follow up question is therefore: "what is the root cause of muscular or acoustic dysfunction?" It can be a lack of appropriate muscular strength or mismanagement of acoustic/resonance spaces. Further beyond the basic muscular/acoustic dysfunctions, it can be a self-image issue. What kind of confidence does it take to inhabit the speaking voice of a Patrick Stewart or a James Earl Jones? Whether instinctual or trained, one must on some level recognize such a grand voice as one's own, otherwise one would not dare.
In her autobiography, Birgit Nilsson wrote of her very uniquely recognizable speaking voice when a taxi driver identified her by her very special voice as she gave him her destination. I believe that singers would develop much faster, were they to be trained after the manner of the Royal Shakespeare Company. If singers were trained earlier to develop their speaking voice, they would be less fearful of the natural grandeur of it and would find it easier to release such fullness in an operatic context.

Along these lines, a couple of years ago I remember being offended by a critic who was upset with the lack of "Diva personalities" in modern opera. He further berated Frederica von Stade for being a symbol of normality in operatic personalities and a negative role model for future generations who have taken on this "girl next door" persona. I think he missed the point entirely. I look at the great Nina Stemme as a model of the modern Diva. Her speaking voice leaves no doubt that she is possessed of a substantial instrument, but she is the most down-to-earth, friendly, unpretentious opera singer I have had the pleasure to encounter lately. What makes a great operatic personality, indeed a charismatic personality in any field, is the ability to inhabit one's true frame--one's complete physical volume, including the power of the complete voice, whether soft or loud. To put on a grand personality is a poor attempt at compensating for a reduction in the true self. When one opens himself/herself totally, there is no need to "put on" grandeur. One is then simply "grand"!

One of the biggest obstacles therefore is simply recognizing the grandeur in ourselves--not in an egocentric way but rather in a self-fulfilling manner. A society bent on conformity, the need to fit in, suppresses true individuality simply by definition. We artists have a responsibility to be models of individuality since our job depends on it. We are not going to be hired to be the poor copy of a great predecessor but by achieving the uniqueness of our complete selves. As opera singers, this means inhabiting our true voices. © 06/02/2012

Monday, May 21, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): HD Simulcast and the Future of Opera

After reading a NY Times article on the subject of MET OPERA HD Simulcasts in movie theaters, in which the critic concludes that HD might be a mixed blessing, I engaged one of my students in a conversation regarding the article.  It was a hot button topic for him and he asserted that he gets turned off whenever anyone suggests that HD would herald the end of opera as we know it.  He argued that the same was said of the MET radio broadcasts of an earlier era, and to the contrary, they helped popularize opera.

I am personally on the side of the article.  The point is made logically and in a balanced way.  The writer did not predict an operatic doomsday but rather that our experience of opera would transform because of HD. And it makes sense for the following reasons:

If we look at the Metropolitan Opera, it is run by a non-musician, who has done a super job of bringing the MET technologically up-to-date.  With MET Player and the HD Series, Mr. Gelb has created a model that the premiere opera companies in the world are copying.  The MET makes many times more money on an HD Broadcast in movie theaters than it does in the house.  By financial necessity, HD Opera will become the norm.  Opera in the house?  A curiosity for the neofite and a temple for the  bona fide opera aficionado.  The large crowd of opera-lite fans, brought about by the success of of The Three Tenors are excited by spectacle and a few recognizable tunes.

In a sense, this is correct.  Opera in its true form (i.e., whereby a singer is measured by his/her ability to win the acoustic battle over the orchestra, all the while touching an audience in ways they did not imagine possible with the sheer sound of the voice) can only be appreciated by those who invest the time to understand what it is at its core and thereby be able to appreciate it for what it is, as opposed to what one makes of it.

With HD, comes a visual scrutiny that is not possible even at front row orchestra in the theater.  This kind of scrutiny evoques Hollywood, particularly in the context of a movie theater.  The production values are going to become more important and lookism will become more pronounced in the short term.

In the long term it may become a litmus test for live theater.  With 3D film, the proscenium stage is becoming confining and limiting for a modern audience.  For live theater to become interesting, Shakespeare's Theater in the round may offer great possibilities with modern technology, particularly with the multi-faceted nature of opera.

In the short term, we may have to get used to the idea that opera-lite has won over for a while since the onset of The Three Tenors pop-opera spectacular.  HD Simulcasts work for the pocket and modern eye of the modern opera-curious audience.  At least, HD will get a broader audience to be educated about opera.

To my student, I will say this:  it is true that Radio Broadcasts did not undo live opera.  How could it?  Radio Broadcasts lacked the visual element that makes an operatic experience.  HD however gives that experience and even streamlines it!  The camera can concentrate on the interesting parts of the stage and narrate the opera rather than let the audience do the spontaneous editing.  HD is indeed an alternative that outdoes live opera at the moment. The microphone can easily turn a voice that is substandard in the house into magnificence at the movie theater.

I am of the Star Trek generation and enjoy my Iphone/Communicator/Tricorder even more than my children do.  I am a modernist and would like to see even more HD opera available from the great theaters of the world.  If I cannot be a a Scala opening, I would like to have the option of seeing the spectacle on my Ipad.  That said, no amount of modernism is going to replace the thrill of seeing Otello live at the Met in 1982 when great voices dwarfed the orchestra even under the slightly heavier hand of a younger, more passion-driven James Levine.

The experience of live opera when there are true operatic voices is something so spectacular that anyone would become a convert.  The problem is that life-changing operatic experiences cannot exist without voices and the current tenor of the business is such that an "impression" of opera suffices.  So pretty voices with little carrying power is the norm and they work very well in HD presentations.  The dearth of developed dramatic voices is simply the fault of an industry bent on making money first and art last.

The mystique of opera will not go away and so the magic of operatic voices will not disappear, but it will take some time before the dust settles and bona fide opera is brought to compatibility with 21st century technology and the fast-food/immediate gratification culture!

In short, in the name of real opera, not opera-lite, I will pay top dollar to see an artist on HD if that same artist can deliver vocal power and charm in the theater.  Or perhaps, the two are not as compatible as we would like to believe.  Perhaps opera-lite voices work better in HD Simulcasts than their full-voiced counterparts.  In such a case,  the divide will become larger and larger!  But if it is so, then let us make the distinction clear!  Mario Lanza for the movie screen.  Mario del Monaco for the theater.  Il Divo for the screen, Antonenko for the stage.  At this point, we have a lot of singers who would fare better with the electronically enhanced movie camera.  They do not do so well in a live experience.  If the distinction was better made between what works in the theater and what works on screen, we may be able to locate the true operatic stars of the future.  The competition that would exist between the two media might indeed give rise to an operatic model for future generations.

© 05/21/2012

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): "In the Mask": A Sometimes Evil Necessity!

My time with the late, Ada Finelli, in Italy taught me many things about the experience of learning and teaching to sing.  Among them is an axiom that I have come to coin: "Every superficial jargon is based on a more complete and fundamental principle of singing."  Why have so many singers advocated over the years that the voice should resonate "In the Mask"?  Yet, just as many have advocated the other side, that "placing" the voice in the mask is a recipe for tension and dysfunction.

Many of my friends in the voice science community will say that one cannot place the voice and that correct muscular postures and resonance adjustments produce sensations that perhaps each singer feels differently, given that each has a unique vocal mechanism. This is correct!

But equally correct is the traditional principle that singing is passed along by sensations and not by words alone. Demonstrating a concept for a student very often speaks more clearly than any explanation.  It depends on what point in the process the student is currently experiencing.  And therein lies the disconnect between science and tradition.

Vocal Science fails in one most fundamental way.  It does not truly follow the scientific process when it comes to the analysis of voices.  Up to this point, vocal science has not established a vocal ideal!  Norms have been established based on selected professional singers' voices that happen to be available for analysis, more often because they are academically bound and not usually doing battle with an operatic orchestra.  One can get away with a great deal in a small recital hall and a piano!

The sensation of Mask Resonance is not based on resonance of the sinuses.  Singers who do not understand the way resonance works will swear that the resonance is happening in this cavity or that! Science proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the nasal cavity is not a resonator.  William Vennard's experiment, stuffing the sinuses with cotton and then milk, proved that there was no acoustical change when the nasal cavity was stuffed.  The experiment has been repeated by other scientists since and the result has always proven to be the same.  Still singers feel strong and specific vibrations in the bones of the head.  This is a principle called bone conduction.  Vocal tract vibrations are transferred through the skeleton in the form of vibrations in head and chest.  The specific nature of these vibrations are based upon the overtones produced by the oscillating vocal folds and the filtering of the vocal tract to emphasize certain areas of acoustic strength based upon the five identified strong acoustic bands called formants.

For a given pitch (frequency) there are three possible basic glottal (vocal fold) postures:  Too deep and breathy, appropriately deep and appropriately closed and shallow and pressed.  We seek a fold posture that is deep enough to create a spectrum rich in overtones both low and high and still allow for complete glottal closure without the frequency falling (singing flat).  This follows the principle that two variables influence the length of the glottal cycle (and therefore pitch accuracy), namely fold depth and fold closure (medial pressure).  Deeper folds take longer to close, given the pattern of the mucosal wave.  Likewise pressed folds take longer to open since the glottal squeeze works against the opening of the folds.

The strategy to achieving mask resonance (i.e. sensations that accompany a strong influence of the singer's formant) is first to create strong overtones and then chose a vocal tract adjustment (vowel) that gathers two of the top three formants closely on either side of a single strong harmonic, a principle called clustering of formants.

An exercise I use often to bring singers to this sensation (once the fold balance has been achieved over months of lip trill  and vocal fry exercises) is the following patterns:

Start on D3/D4 (male/female) on a clear, strong chest voice on [a], maintain the sensation of chest voice and without detachment, sing legato to D4/D5 (octave above) of [wi] and then descend on a five-note scale to G3/G4.  In otherwise 5-5-4-3-2-1 (two 5s constituting an octave) in G Major on [a-wi-i-i-i-i].  The exercise can then be taken further:  Still beginning of D3/D4, 1-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 in D Major following the pattern [a-wi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i].

The goal is to attempt to maintain the efficient phonation of the chest voice as the resonance of the [i] vowel emphasizes the narrow sensation of the epilaryngeal tube responsible for the resonance of the singers formant.  The chest tone guarantees a tone rich in overtones and the [i] vowel with its upper formants close to each other  would cluster around a harmonic in the 2800 range, the frequency of the singers formant.

In terms of sensation, this does two things for the singer: 1) Attempting to maintain the phonation sensation of the chest tone makes it clear that the tone needs to stay appropriately full and closed.  A jump of an octave guarantees that the vocal folds will thin out, but appropriately and without losing closure and produce a falsetto pattern as is often the case with women in the middle range.  2) The natural resonance of the [i] vowel (providing the glottal oscillation remains full and efficiently closing during the adduction part of the cycle) will bring the singer to the sensation of resonance in a narrower tube (the epilarynx), which by bone conduction is experienced in the mask (the bridge of the nose, between the eyes, etc).

Having established the sensation of the narrow resonance of the epilarynx, the singer can then vary the exercise to 1-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 on [a-wi/a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a], making the vowel change of the upper octave (8) and attempting to maintain the sensation of narrow resonance as felt of the [i] vowel.  The glottal source must continue to produce a rich spectrum of overtones and the choice of the specific [a] vowels should be guided by how strongly the singer can maintain the narrow resonance of the epilarynx as felt naturally on [i].

It is important to note that the Singer's Formant, carried by the epilarynx and to the mask by bone conduction only occurs when the source tone (the glottal vibration) produces strong overtones.  There is a trap that has ruined vocal balance that feels similarly to the correct resonance adjustment of the Singer's Formant.  In an attempt to "place" the voice in the mask before the fold posture has been achieved, some teachers will have a student sing a bright [i] vowel, whereby the larynx rises making it impossible to achieve the 6:1 ratio of pharynx to epilarynx that is necessary for the production of the Singer's Formant.  In those instances, the lower overtones are suppressed and the singer only experiences the high overtones that are available (usually weak).  Still, some singers, because they have a particularly large pharyngeal structure, can achieve the Singer's Formant even with a high larynx.  But those are not the norm.

It is my experience that when a singer works to develop a glottal posture that is appropriately full (deep, adequate chest content), then glottal closure can be efficient without too much medial pressure (pressing).  This also makes it possible to achieve excellent trans-glottal flow preventing the rising of the larynx.  Appropriate sub-glottal pressure is built during the closed part of the glottal cycle and the pressure is released during the slightly longer open phase when there is no excessive medial pressure.  Aside from the case of singers with large pharyngeal spaces conducive to the production of the Singer's Formant even when the glottal source is pressed, an appropriately deep glottal posture is necessary in order to create the conditions that make the Singer's Formant possible.  Only then can the experience of epilaryngeal resonance be carried via bone conduction to the mask.

In short, mask resonance is real and necessary and it is my belief that although we have singular vocal mechanisms, all voices function more or less the same way.  Mask resonance when based on correct principles of function can be reproduced and passed along. However, pressed voice with a raised larynx can produce an experience that is similar in sensation but is not efficient and could lead in a very short time to faulty and harmful vocal production.

© 05/20/2012

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Acid Reflux: More Insidious Than I Thought II --- Thanks For the Love

Today, I arrived at the main train station in Dortmund, Germany, looked at my phone and notice that I had received a new email, the latest of more than a hundred emails I received from students, friends and many readers of this blog wishing me well!  This email drew tears!  (I changed his initials to maintain anonymity).

Dear Jean-Ronald,

My name is W.R... I once had a Skype lesson with you (more of which later), and exchanged some emails with you afterwards. On reading your blog post today, I was deeply saddened to see you still suffering from the horror of GERD, particularly that you are now considering surgery. I'd like to tell you a story of how mine began, and how I cured it. I'm sorry this is so long - I didn't intend it to be. 

About 4 years ago, I was working full-time and undertaking a masters part time. I was actively involved in triathlon's, drama and music. I was (am!) a very driven, I suppose successful person, with no fear of undertaking any challenge. Indeed the greater the challenge, the greater I relish it. In honesty I'm probably a workaholic. However during this period of about 2 years, I began to suffer from pretty bad back pain, with some days worse than others. Being the type of person I am, I endeavored to find the root of the problem. I did yoga, stretching, core exercises, walking, tried different shoes, back supports, diet, supplements, saw several physiotherapists, chiropractors and eventually a surgeon. I woke up and went to bed thinking about it - I WOULD beat it. 

But I didn't. All the money, time, effort and perseverance got me nowhere. There was NOTHING I hadn't tried physically to beat this thing.I eventually stopped exercising for fear of further hurting my back, began limiting all my activities, even social events with my girlfriend, friends and family. I fell into depression that I would be crippled by this forever. I was 28 years old. 

And then I read a book ( I have no recollection how I got this book). The book was called "Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection" by Dr. John Sarno. It proposed that back pain (along with many other ailments) was an emotional/personality disorder manifesting itself physically. I outlined the people prone to this disorder - high achievers, people who perceive themselves to be strong willed,  hard workers (and more). All the things that I was. The diagnosis was simple enough. The treatment not so easy. Find out the root of the emotional problem(s), confront them, bring them to the fore. Recognize that you are not perfect. Throw out all "aids" for your disorder - they only perpetuate the myth that it is physical. Do ALL of the things you think you can't do because of your physical disorder. Live!

For about a week I was as bad or worse than I had ever been. But I refused to dwell on the physical. Instead, every time the pain returned, I would examine what was emotionally wrong with me, what stresses was I under, where was the anger and fear coming from. And then one evening, I realized. I hadn't had any pain ALL DAY. I went back running, weight lifting, singing - everything. I went back to living.

That was 3 years ago, and I have ALMOST NEVER had back pain since. Remarkable given that I afflicted by it every day for nearly three years.

How does this relate to reflux? Well, about 18 months my  girlfriend and I moved to Vancouver on a once in a lifetime adventure. We took all our savings, left our jobs and families and tried to give it a go in Canada, at least for a year. However, after a month I still couldn't get any work. I had always been the provider for us (my girlfriend was still in college), and we were hemorrhaging money at an alarming rate. I was desperately trying to get work, working for hours on end on resume's for specific positions, doing interviews, calling to potential employers. And I began to suffer from the most incredible burning in my chest, throat and gut. I assumed I had picked up some sort of bug. I eventually found a job, but a super-high pressure one with an up and coming internet company about to make it big. The rewards were good, but the pressures were unbelievable. I was working anywhere from 12-16 hours a day. And my condition got worse and worse. Again, I began looking at every physical possibility, diet, bugs, lifestyle. I WOULD find a cure. I researched and researched, looking for an answer in the physical world. And never did I see the connection. This went on for many months, with my general health and voice suffering horribly. Eventually pressures subsided in work, and my symptoms did too. At the time I was trying "natural" remedies for my reflux - (acidophilus etc), which I attributed to my recovery.

We moved home in September, and my experience the internet company got me a great job in a large company, again one filled with great pressure and responsibility. And sure enough, my reflux returned WITH A VENGEANCE. I was at a very exciting stage with my singing, truly seeing myself as a tenor at last. The reflux became vocally debilitating. My voice would tire incredibly quickly, and my voice was getting rough in the passaggio, and my newly developing top was disappearing. I began to return to questioning this "full voiced" technique I had been working towards. I went to a doctor and was prescribed PPIs, and I went back on my "natural" remedies. Neither did me any great service.

And then it clicked. The stress, strain and pressure put on myself to succeed, to be the one who could be relied on, determined to achieve anything I put my mind to - my mind was trying everything to tell me this was unsustainable - I just wasn't listen. So I began to. I began to meditate again. I started looking at my life to see what was important and what wasn't. I realized I hadn't been spending the kind of time I should with my friends and family, burying myself in my work - and for who? So I took a back seat in work for a while. I took it easy on pressuring myself. I stopped trying to get somewhere with all the things in my life - singing, work, exercise etc. I tried to reconnect more with what was actually important to me and FOR me. And I began to heal. Sure enough, within about a week, it was mostly gone. I'm still early in this phase, but each time I return to stressing and piling pressure on, it returns. Its now pretty clear to me. I am causing this through how I treat myself emotionally.

Though I won't go into it here, my girlfriend has also recently cured herself of terrible migraines caused by long term family problems through the same approach. She was as skeptical as I was at the beginning (and I'm sure you are), but is now living migraine free.

I'm sorry this is so long, but I felt the need to write to you this morning to share this. You are someone who kindly helped me, regardless of how busy you were, when I needed it, I see you as a similar person to me - a high achiever, one who feels no task is insurmountable, if we just work hard enough. And this, our self-admired work ethic, is our downfall. Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps your GERD is purely physical. However, I urge and plead with you to buy this man's book, read it, absorb it, and try it. Its a lot less risky than surgery, and a lot nicer to your body than drugs.

For a quick overview by the man himself (where he lists GERD as a primary symptom), please read this short interview:

Also, an interesting blog post from the wonderful Mr. Andrew Richards, who I glean from reading his blog and forum posts, is another "Type A" personality, where his reflux which he had rid himself of returns with a vengeance during a recent difficult period of his life.

Finally, I want to thank you for encouraging me to take a more "full voiced" approach to singing. Prior to talking with you I was classed as a leggiero tenor by many, (I could sing a reinforced falsetto very high) with an unusually dark and heavy chest voice. Others heard me as a baritone. You were the first singing professional ever to tell me that I was what I believed I was, and to provide me with a roadmap of how to realize my true voice. I've attached a clip from a recent practice, which I think shows me in my true fach - a full lyric tenor!  (I had to do a little editing as I fumbled over the words in places).

Thank you for leading me on a challenging, tough but ultimately rewarding vocal journey. I have a long way to go, but I am beginning to see the light. Your blog means a lot to me.

I hope you find a cure from this awful illness, and I hope that this email may help you in that journey. The mind-body approach is not easy (indeed it is sometimes more about "not doing" than doing), but it is amazing to be healthy and free of these disorders.

My sincerest regards,


I agree wholeheartedly with the premise shared here by this good-hearted person who took time to share his story with me.  He analyzed me very well.  I am driven, I am consumed by my work and I believe most anything can be accomplished through hard work.   I will order the book and delve deeply into its contents.  Much to be discovered here for sure.

Not only do I want to thank the writer, but I would like to thank all of you who wrote to me with such care and genuine compassion.  You have all touched me very deeply.  We have indeed built a community here at Kashu-Do.  

I will share some good news with you.  I returned to the drugs as prescribed by my doctor but following the advice of two friends who gave me the same advice.  I am taking 20 mg of the PPI Pantoprazol (another form of omeprazole) in the morning before eating anything at all and 75 mg of Ranitidine (Zantac) at night.  The combination is working and several people have heard the difference in my speaking voice.  Singing is feeling much better but I will not celebrate yet.  I will give it two weeks and see how things improve.  I have also begun eating probiotic yogurt daily, which I believe is already having a good effect.  So far so good!

This however does not trump my friends suggestions above.  I am still determined to deal with the root cause of my reflux and will follow his advice above.

W.R., your clip sounds wonderful! Your progress is notable.  I wish you continued growth!  Thank you again for taking the time to write.

Thank you once more to all of you who have written to me.  You have so lifted my spirit this week!  I hope to share the fruits of success with you soon!


© 04/14/2012

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Acid Reflux: More Insidious Than I Thought

Everything about the voice makes sense in the end and it is paradoxically a frustrated relief to know that Acid Reflux is still at the heart of some of my vocal problems.  What has been confusing to me throughout this ordeal is that over the last 18 months that I have gotten off of Reflux medicines, my voice has improved continuously.  My modal range became consistent up to C5# and my full-closure falsetto extended nearly an octave to E6b (one step below Queen of the Night high F).  I sang a couple of concerts and read through three tenor roles during this time--something I could not have done before.

On a rare clear day (little or no Reflux symptoms) I felt my voice do amazing things.  I have had the flexibility to sing Ecco ridente, Una furtiva lagrima, Every Valley and right after that Celeste Aida, Chénier Arias, Nessun Dorma, etc.  I began to believe that my issues were more technical than health related.  I will not say that I have not had serious technical work to do in the past 18 months, but I believe that if I had been fully healthy that my technical issues would have been dealt with much more quickly.

To make a long story short, after I experienced my easiest day of singing in months, touching on high Eb full-voice for the first time, I realized that my voice was inconsistent because the state of the mechanism was inconsistent.  So I visited my doctor and confirmed my chronic reflux.  The inflammation and mucous build-up, the redness in the arytenoid area, the difficulty closing the folds in the extremes, which would explain the raspy tendency in the lower voice, the husky bassy quality and the difficulties above B4b.  My doctor was direct. Either find a combination of Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) and Acid Reducers or have the Endoscopic Fundo-Plication Surgery.  I have decided to go back on the acid controllers until such time as I find a more natural solution.  Surgery is not something I would elect when there are other choices.  If I exhaust all options, then surgery may have to be addressed.

In the end, I can no longer be cavalier about my own vocal output.  I have always said that my technique rests with me.  I have successfully trained a large number of singers with serious vocal issues to balance.  However, as a singer myself, it will always be reflected upon me, as to whether my viable technique holds water.  The day I post a high quality clip on this blog is the day that all doubts are cast aside.  I also know that my own success is crucial as a model for my Posse of Ex-baritone Tenors, who have undergone the transition from baritone to tenor with me.

I wanted to find the source of my Acid Reflux and deal with it naturally.  I still have that hope.  In the mean time, it is necessary to deal with the symptoms well enough such that the true quality of my voice can emerge.

A student of mine who had suffered terribly with reflux recommended Prevacid (a PPI) and Zantac (acid reducer).  She finds the combination very successful after she had tried other similar drugs that worsened her symptoms.  Another student recommended Acupuncture.  I am investigating that as well.  My dietary changes have been considerable over the past few years, but now I have to be even more diligent in dealing with the issue.  Eliminating the intake of carbonated drinks (including my San Pellegrino) I believe will be considerably important.  Furthermore, not drinking water before sleeping is also crucial.  The water comes up easily and accompanied by stomach acids can cause serious harm during the night.

The logic of my process is obvious to those who have taken time to understand it and as a result my studios have flourished.  I have begun to realize that posting clips of a voice hampered by inflammation gives a bad impression.  I don't know how long it will take before I am clear enough to post a clip of considerable difference in quality.  I hope I will be able to post something in the next couple of weeks.  In the mean time, your prayers and good energy is welcome in the fight against this extremely inconvenient and insidious disease.



© 11/03/2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): One for the Teachers

We teachers are as multi-faceted as the art itself.  No one teacher has all the answers to all the different facets, but we must know what all the issues are and what aspects of it all we can best address.  I have enough colleagues who do this job with all of their hearts to have faith that we are not going to lose this battle to save the art of singing, particularly the art fo classical singing, which in my opinion, is in the greatest peril.  Acoustic singing allows no tricks.  So we are constantly faced with the inadequacy of our combined impact on the field by what we too often have to endure on the professional stage.

We care about great singing, but the powers that be (I mean intendants, conductors and powerful agents) do not see often that their bottom line could be easily rescued by singers with truly present and balanced voices, not just "loud and ugly" or "pretty and weak" (both packaged in super-model bodies that are rather indistinguishable from the other normal colleagues when everyone is in costumes and make-up under unflattering stage lighting)...Anyway, I digress!

Our discipline both as performers and teachers remain mysterious and not in a good way.  The average person has no idea how difficult it is do do what we do as singers, let alone teachers.

See it from the teachers point of view a little bit!

A devoted teacher gets up in the morning and looks at the list of 5 to 10 singers s/he will deal with on that given day.  S/he will consider specific vocal issues, specific psychological and life challenges of each particular singer and wonder whether the singer on that day will be mentally strong and ready to face the vocal challenges of the day, which relate to career issues and therefore life issues and therefore personal worth issues and therefore the philosophical void that is the classical music business today.  On a good day, there will be no domino effect that brings us to the nature of the Universe and what our raison-d'être really is.  It will be a day of putting the pieces of the technique together again to successfully deal with the piece of music at hand.

But there is rarely a day when it is all about the music at hand and the vocal technique.  Because when one happy student leaves the studio, another walks in whose day may not be so hot, rather s/he ate late and his/her reflux is acting up, or slept badly and feels dry or the allergies are particularly bothersome, etc...

One particular day stands in my mind as a reminder of the fleeting nature of anything.  One of my ex-baritone-tenors sent me a clip of him singing "Un'aura amorosa" all the way through and quite beautifully, a major stamina achievement for him.  The throat remained mostly relaxed, the tone remained lean and lyrical, the breath was flowing throughout.  I was elated and teared up because I know how hard he had worked to do this in preparation for his first Ferrando.   A huge victory!  It was 1:00 am Berlin time.  I was about to close my computer to fall asleep when the wonderful clip arrived.  I wrote him back after hearing it to congratulate him, to which he responded something like:  I am very happy and looking forward to where we go from here.  Yeah, refinement, advanced stage here we come!

Then I noticed the text message on my phone from another student who found out that one major gig at a major theater was canceled because the government of that country is in dire straights and eliminated theater funding, which means he would not get the role debut and the nice paycheck that is part of his income for the year. To make matters worse, another major role with another theater was exchanged for another, meaning he would not work with that theater until the following season.  So two major income affecting events on the same day.

So one moment you are celebrating with one student and the next you are grieving with another!

One of my truly wise teachers told me once that I get too close to my students, that I would take on their problems and issues eventually and burn out from cheer lack of energy!  I should keep a healthy distance!  I saw the value of her advice but I politely disagreed!  This is not the type of teacher I am nor want to be,  I told her!

We are teaching artists, and that means we teach them to open themselves and become vulnerable, so to share something amazingly deep from inside of themselves.  There is always the danger of opening emotional wounds, at which point they will need to know they are in a safe place with someone who intends to help them deal with those moments.  Although not every student/teacher relationship will be close, I find that over time the relationship with most of my students becomes quite personal.  The level of closeness depends in great part how well both teacher and student respect the relationship and the lines that keep the relationship respectful and comfortable.  At the end of the day, a true artist must face their personal demons to be able to bring life to the stage.  That artist requires a coach who knows him/her well enough to help him/her through that process.

How do you do that for many students and not lose yourself, and not be drained of energy at the end of the day?

For my part, I practice Kung Fu, Yoga and Singing.  Yes, I am a singer too, with the same needs!  But I find them in different ways.  I am also my own teacher, which I do not really advise.  My reasoning for following this path are complex and probably already shared many times on this blog.  In a sense I am not without a teacher.  I have coaches that I trust with my voice, who have advised me well through my process and I have my Kung Fu Teacher who helps me keep my mind in balance.

Since the beginning of this year, I eliminated Sunday from my teaching schedule.  I will teach a studio class on Sundays but no private voice lessons.  And for further balance, I take one day "Thursday" in the middle of the week (in Germany) OFF.  No teaching, other than the occasional Skype lesson from abroad, if necessary.

That day OFF is self-affirming!  We all need a break! A time to recharge!  Today was my first Thursday off in Germany and I felt the need to nap in the afternoon.  My nap ended up lasting 3 hours.  Catching up in sleep is an important part of health as singer and teacher (this will have great repercussions on the singing voice).

In short, for a teacher of many singers, there is no perfect day.  One hour can be wonderful, the next really energy-consuming.  It is important to follow a rule that is relevant to pretty much anything:

"A great future is shaped by a sequence of well-managed present events!"  

This more than anything is responsible for any degree of success I may enjoy!

To all my colleagues sharing their life's work with singers, I wish you many "well-managed present events!"

© 03/29/2012