Thursday, February 23, 2012

FYI (For Your Information)

Hello Dear Friends,

Some of you who receive the blog by email may have experienced problems when I changed the Blog URL.  I have placed a new gadget for "Follow by Email".  I recommend you use that gadget if you have problems.  Sorry for any problems!  I thought it would be a smoother transition.

I apologize if my writing has been less frequent.  I have been teaching an average of 10 hours daily (sometimes more) and practicing, and coaching and Kung Fu/Tai Chi  and writing the book and creating the new Kashu-do Website and attempting to have a private life as well.  None of this is bad, it simply requires an adjustment!

I have lots of technical blogs that I have begun but have not had time to complete them.  I look forward to addressing some fun issues including "Articulation and Resonance", "Tongue and Jaw--Primary Tension or Secondary Symptom", "Formant Tracking: A Compound Resonance Strategy".

With a great deal more information now available to me, I will eventually make good on my plan to acoustically analyze the Great Legends.

There will also be many more clips of my own development as I am now in the middle of more precise fine-tuning efforts.  It will be a most exciting next few months!

All the best,


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sharing a post from CHRISTINE'S VOICE

My blog-colleague, singer-colleague, fellow Ami-expat in Germany, Christine Graham writes a very wonderful blog that I should have pointed to a long time ago.  Christine shared a link to one of her posts that has a lot in common with my latest.  I am linking to it here !

Thank you Christine!  Hope to see you sometime soon!


Kashu-do (歌手道): Why Our Operatic Legends Should Remain Human...

Diva:  From Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary

Origin of DIVA

Italian, literally, goddess, from Latin, feminine of divus 
divine, god — more at deity
First Known Use: 1883

The deification of a human being who has accomplished great deeds can be explained in the idea of Apotheosis:

Late Latin, from Greek apotheōsis, from apotheoun to deify, from apo- + theos god
First Known Use: circa 1580

What ever your religion or belief system, human beings have the ability to approach the divine.  Whether you believe that God gave life to man by virtue of a breath, which gave him a piece of perfection; or that there is an oversoul (American Transcendentalism) that is part and parcel of every living being, all cultures celebrate the feats that makes a human being approach the miraculous, the God-like!

Would anyone claim that Jeremy Abbott or Jeremy Lin were so "gifted" that they did not have to work for their greatness?  The work ethic of athletes is well-documented.  Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time took great pains to debunk the entire myth of natural talent:

Yet despite all the recent books that prove that "nurture" trumps "nature" when it comes to talent, the business of opera and the lie of modern vocal pedagogy wants us to believe that the following is all "nature," all "gift"!

One might be prone to belief such "giftige Meinungen" (poisonous opinions) if the great Kaufmann himself did not debunk it on his own website.

The great Jussi Björling, one of the greatest tenors in recorded history used to be angered when someone would suggest that his ability was a natural gift.  "If they knew how hard I worked to be able to do this...", he would say.

But this poisonous lie is convenient.  With it, a voice teacher who cannot help a student can tell him/her that s/he is "not gifted." A theory teacher who is not skilled at teaching a student the fundamentals of music will claim that the student has no aptitude.

I began studying Kung Fu and Tai Chi less than two years ago with a wonderful teacher,  who had to nurse himself back to health after a near fatal accident in order to become a world champion in his discipline.  Sifu Karl Romain's teaching gave me confidence in my approach to voice.  By doing the same Tai Chi form for nearly two years, every day following the same principles, I developed skills I did not dream of having in the beginning.  And I am only beginning!  The same is true of my vocal development. I know a ton of tricks that could make me sound polished but limited.  I am not interested in that.  I prefer to be awkward following sound fundamental principles than acceptable doing shortcuts and tricks.

My own fundamental principles of singing have guided me over nearly four years to develop abilities I had a hard time imagining I could truly attain.  Today, at the end of an 11-hour teaching day, I felt balanced like I had never before and sang 12 of the most difficult arias I have ever attempted, including "Ah lo veggio..." from Così fan tutte, "Fuor del mar," "Florestan's aria," "O lola..." and "Mamma, quel vino..." from Cavalleria, "Ah la paterna mano...," "Tu che in seno agl'angeli", and others.

After thousands of hours of repetition, the fade-away jump shot that made Michael Jordan famous, Jonas Kaufmann's ability to sing any dynamic on almost any note in his range, Jeremy Abbott's Quad Toe-loop, and yes my Tai Chi that gets more and more graceful and balanced every day, and yes my passaggio that gets more and more released every day making it possible for me to sing 12 big arias without feeling tired.

Real beauty of tone is a developed skill based on years of physical development and musical mastery.  We belittle the great accomplishments of great singers when we reduce their skills to a gift that they supposedly did not work for, and we discourage passionate young singers from staying the course, if they consider themselves less gifted than their predecessors.

I would like to offer Mr. Kaufmann a Kashu-do Honorary Gold Bracelet for his honesty about his hard work and debunking the myth that great artistry is manifest destiny.  I honor his honesty and artistry! Such a singer can truly be a model for the rest of us.  Not because he is perfect but because he has accomplished miraculous things through hard work and he knows that to maintain his level, he needs to continue working hard.

If we can accept that normal human beings can accomplish amazing things through perseverance and hard work, then we can see the same possibility in ourselves.  Great singers are not Gods, they are passionate people who emulate the divine!

© 02/21/2012

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Step by Step...One foot in front of the other

Last Sunday, I read the part of Luigi in Puccini's Il Tabarro, a role I love and an important milestone.  Three months ago I read Idomeneo to test my strength and stamina.  That was satisfying in the sense that I had no problem handling the tenor tessitura.  Luigi is another experience altogether.  It was to see if I could work on details of finer coordination.  One of the singers who knew me only as a baritone from a few years ago could not believe I had successfully made the change and sounded comfortable in the role.  The aria excerpt I posted two posts ago, as representative of nerves getting the better of me in a coaching, was definitely improved upon here!  The performance was well-received by the colleagues who were present including a student of mine who jumped in and read Tinca.   There is plenty that can be improved on, but this is an indisputable step in the right direction.  And more steps forward since then, as I prepare for a reading of Radamès in three weeks with the goal of truly enjoying the process of learning this extremely difficult role.  I include the reading here, cutting only the two or three short moments when it was necessary to stop and fix an error that stopped the flow. 

I thank Susan Morton of SingThrough Central and the very friendly colleagues for the opportunity to try the role out in a safe, friendly and supportive environment. 

To the many singers who have had to make changes later in the game, I encourage you to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  If I can get this far with the deficits of a bass-baritone past, not only can I make it the rest of the way, but anyone who puts his/her mind to the task of completing the journey to mastery of his/her voice can achieve it and truly enjoy singing!

© 02/16/2012

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Tai-Chi of Singing

Last Saturday, I arranged for fourteen of my New York and Maryland students to experience a Tai-Chi/Mental Focus seminar with my Kung Fu Master, Sifu Karl Romain.  It was magical on so many levels.  An hour or so after the seminar I taught many of the same students in our weekly masterclass.  After the voice masterclass, a few of us went out for dinner and one of my students said:  "Do you know you have become a better teacher since you started studying Kung Fu?"  Three days later, at my private Kung Fu lesson, Sifu told me that my Tai Chi has really improved; followed of course by the constructive comments that I need to pay attention to my posture and stance alignment.

First, thank you to my student for her kind comment.  She is correct, my teaching has improved significantly since studying Kung Fu and particularly the Tai Chi part of Kung Fu.  The reason is that I found in Kung Fu/Tai Chi a visible, tangible physical activity that relates completely to the process of learning to sing and by extension, a confirmation of my theories about the nature of physical training as it pertains to the voice.  Tai Chi done well, seen from the outside, looks like the most graceful, most fluid, easiest movement imaginable.  But it hides extraordinary strength, without which none of the fluidity and flexibility would be possible.

The Art of Taoist Tai Chi -- powered by ehow

At one point in the seminar, Sifu asked me to perform Tai Chi Walking so the students could have a model.  It was a performance and it entailed all of the things we performers face.  To my students, who were experiencing Tai Chi for the first time, I was an expert.  Of course, I am not.  With Sifu watching me, I tried the best I could to perform the walk as I had been practicing daily for more than a year. I performed meditatively, focused, yet I was aware of the faults in my alignment which manifested as discomfort in my stance.  I was aware of timing errors between hand movements and feet movements, which must be coordinated.  I was also aware of the timing of my breathing being sometimes off.  When I asked my students what they learned from the Tai Chi walk, one of my tenors told me that watching me perform the Walk he understood what legato means.  It was another compliment for which I was grateful, yet I was very aware of how much further I had to go before I could claim true fluidity without tension.  Tai Chi is humbling and it is empowering.

In Tai Chi we do Qi Gong exercises to build strength, flexibility mental focus and inner energy.  The first time I did them in a class, I thought I was going to die because my legs hurt so much.  And I was watching classmates in their sixties and seventies perform those exercises easily.  Now I wake up in the morning and perform a half-hour of Qi Gong exercises and then practice my form for another half-hour.  I do not feel tired at the end, but I feel that I had been working out.  My strength in general has improved remarkably as manifested in the other Kung Fu styles that I am learning.  When I perform my forms, whether Tai Chi or Kung Fu, I am keenly aware of where I am relatively strong and where I am noticeably weak.

Sifu Romain's teaching is practical and philosophical.  We learn principles that lead gradually to skills.  No martial artist is perfect.  Some do extraordinary things but they seek always to improve.  We are never just good or bad.  We are in an endless path of improvement.  Like a baby who is learning to walk, we lose our balance and fall sometimes, and sometimes we look horribly ungraceful in the attempt to perform the task correctly based on the principles.

That is the reason why I opened my transition from baritone to tenor on this blog.  Before I began studying Kung Fu/Tai Chi, it was my desire to document the grey areas from the beginning to the end.  I wanted to exhibit humbly how my beginning as a tenor were forced, tense, weak, uncoordinated to gradual strengthening, relaxation and refinement.  I have seen quite a few professionally performing singers through this process in the past few years and I know the principles are sound.  I teach over 160 students worldwide and have no doubt as to the viability of this process.  The strange paradox is I have had the longest road to follow, to undo the wrong singing I had done as a baritone (although extremely praised for it).  As I improve, I find that there are very few people who can hear the nature of my improvement.  That I am able to go through the role of Radamès twice in a row without fatiguing is a testimony to the strength I have developed.  The fact that I can warm up to a high C# every day is a sign of obvious improvement.  This strength does not mean that the sounds that are coming out of me are finished sounds.  But they are strong sounds resulting from three years of muscular development that I did not have as a baritone.  As a baritone I developed a very pretty, warm sound that a lot of people enjoyed listening to.  But it was not a bona fide operatic sound in the true sense of the word.  It lacked core strength, but it had a kind of superficial polish.  Most people are more impressed by my superficially polished baritone sound --that could not withstand big orchestral environments-- than they are by my strong but unfinished tenor voice. 

In the last couple of weeks I have noticed that I have become strong enough to begin approaching the voice with grace and lyricism.  I have waited for this for three years.  I can start letting go.  The functions are enough trained to begin to be reliable with what feels like much less effort.  I am beginning the polishing phase.  My coach, Steve Crawford, is the vocal version of my Kung Fu Master.  He has worked with the greatest singers of the past 30 years and he understands the principles of my process. At my last coaching with him, he heard remarkable improvement in my sound and complimented me on the improvement.  Then he proceeded to help me improve it further. The principles he teaches compliment good vocal technique. He is not just complimenting me just to be nice.  He so believes in my process that he constantly sends me students.  The joy of working with Steve is that he is uncompromising about quality, but he understands that true growth takes time and he has such a fine ear that he hears incremental growth even in very unstable sounds. 

The operatic culture of our times is so much about quick results.  It is either black or white.  Almost no one is interested in the gradual growth of singers.  For that reason, even though I expose my baby steps here, I keep my students protected as much as I can.  I advise them to expose their baby steps in situations where they are free to make mistakes and falter without being judged by power-brokers in the business. 

First no one believed I was a tenor.  Then some believed I am in fact a tenor but that it would take too long to retrain.  Then the same believed that I had made remarkable steps but could use their help to learn lyricism.  I am sure very soon I will hear them claim they can polish me up and make me a great career.

Well, I practice Vocal Tai Chi!  I know that grace does not come without fundamental core strength in all the muscles involved.  I know that in the beginning I would be weak; then I would be stronger but awkward, and then I would begin to look graceful and fluid and then would spend the rest of my life developing mastery.  That is the commitment of real singers and I am blessed to have more than 160 wonderful students at all different levels who help me see clearly every step in the process from beginning to mastery.  Thank you Sifu! Thank you Steve! Thank you my 160 students and the rest of my coaches and friends who make this process (as difficult and frustrating as it is sometimes) a joy that brightens every day!

© 02/11/2012