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


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): Are Orchestras Too Loud or Are Singers Un-resonant?

To be fair, there is some responsibility to be had on all sides of the podium!  I know several conductors who enjoy making big gestures and literally become caricatures of conducting!  There are orchestras who simply could not care less about singers (including some opera orchestras). However, in our times, I fault singers mostly for balance problems with the orchestra.  There are several reasons for this!

1) The obvious:  Poor technique.  Let us discuss the technical goal of an opera singer at its most practical and fundamental.  The first goal of operatic vocal technique is that the singer should have no problem being heard in the presence of an orchestra.  It is not a matter of loudness but of "presence"!

Fact:  The smallest orchestra will always sound louder than the singer.  In terms of decibels, a singer cannot compete with an orchestra!

Fact:  A singer producing a strong resonance in the 2000-3000Hz range will always be heard better than an orchestra!

Are these two statements contradictory?  Without an understanding of the acoustics of the human voice and its specific relationship to the human ear, the statements might indeed appear to be contradictory.  However science makes it a little clearer.


Baby's Cry: Bb4


Pavarotti's Bb4


It is remarkable how similar the high side of the spectrums are between Pavarotti and the Baby's cry.  The lower side of the spectrum shows the baby in first formant dominance and Pavarotti in a tenor's proper second formant dominance.  This difference can be explained relative to the undeveloped larynx of the baby vs. Pavarotti's adult larynx.  The presence of the Singer's Formant (between the two red markers) in both spectra (almost identical) shows how very closely the relevant acoustic elements resemble each other.

When this acoustic element, the Singer's Formant, is present it causes a ringing sensation in the ear as if someone had rung a bell very close to the ear.  As many coach-pianists can attest, it can be uncomfortable when a singer sings with this ring at close proximity to another human being.

In essence, we are not trying to be louder than the orchestra but rather creating an acoustic effect that the human ear picks up better than anything else, giving the impression that the voice is louder.

Good technique is not about loudness, but about presence.

2) The less obvious: Artsy-fartsy Music making!  This has become a plague on the operatic world.  So many top singers are  concerned with making vocal effects that are supposed to reflect their understanding of poetry and important harmonic changes.  That is superficial!

Quite humbly, the singers job is to make a consistent sound throughout the contour of the vocal line, making sure that each note is resonating properly for technical accuracy and for the musical environment. A truly musical singer does not try to make a color "over the music" but makes acoustic choices instinctively that puts him/her in "consonance" with the musical texture.  The human voice is not simply a melodic instrument.  Every note is a series of overtones. In truth the voice is a harmonic instrument.  Tuning it to the musical environment requires incredible aural sensitivity.

To create sounds that are rich in harmonics and are consistent with the musical environment, the singer must sing a strong tone.  One must not sing "off of the voice" (a weak, unsupported tone).  Too often singers make unsupported sounds and call it musical sensitivity. Unsupported sounds are not musical.  They lack the harmonic complexity to truly participate in the musical environment.  Such artsy-fartsy singing is aurally unsatisfying and inferior.  Not only do many important people in our business not know the difference, but they (aurally trained by hi-fi, over-produced modern recordings) even promote that weak sound.

A singer recently sang an unsupported tone and claim that it is in keeping with Mozart's style.  This was a very musical singer who has allowed himself to be corrupted over many years of bad coaching.  Mozart did not write for small voices.  His orchestra is sizable!  There was a time when substantial voices were expect to sing Mozart along with Verdi or Wagner such as the legendary Eleanor Stever here.

We are lucky in our time to witness the rise of a great Mozartian/Verdian.  The very promising, Angela Meade singing Fiordiligi here:





or Mozartian/Wagnerian, René Pape:





Elegant and substantial of voice.  Mr. Pape often speaks of returning to a time when Mozart is sung by substantial voices.

And one of my favorite Netrebko moments:




Not the largest voice to ever sing Mozart's Elettra, but the voice is thoroughly substantial and indeed present in every sense through the contours of Mozart's tour-de-force aria.  That Ms. Netrebko does not always pick repertoire that  suits her magnificent voice is another story entirely, but the rebuke she suffers from the blogosphere about her lack of talent is totally unfounded.

Whether with Mozart or Puccini or Verdi or Wagner, the issue of orchestra balance is the same.  Until the singer is generating substance and squillo, do not blame the conductor and/or orchestra for playing with passion.  At every operatic performance I have attended when it was said the orchestra was too loud, there was always a singer or two who carried through with great presence and ease.  And not always the biggest voices!

Nature gives no unsubstantial voices. Man, on the other hand creates plenty of unsubstantial vocal techniques!

© 3/24/2012


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Kashu-do (歌手道): False Voices 1: The Modern Counter-Tenor in Opera

The title of this post is controversial and I am aware of that.  Let me begin by saying that I am not making a judgment on the artistry of counter-tenors, nor even on the validity of the voice type.  The fact that many counter-tenors make a great living and that I have taught quite a few counter-tenors over the years is enough to dispel any prejudice against the use of the male "falsetto"!  Indeed I am playing on the word falsetto, the diminutive of the Italian word, falso (false).

The falsetto as utilized by most counter-tenors is not falsetto in the true sense.  Although modern counter-tenors call themselves falsettists for the most part, their sound envelopes do not reflect falsetto patterns, generally, but something akin to that of many Rossini tenors (not all--More on Rossini Tenors in False Voices 2). It is important to explain what happens functionally in the case of such voices.  The term falsetto is too general and covers many types of sounds.

In the case of the modern counter-tenor, two types of functions are observed that are called falsetto: 1) the brilliant, powerful but relatively thin high voice that apes the middle and higher portions of the mezzo-soprano range.  Modern counter-tenors such as  Michael Chance



 and David Daniels





use what some might call "full-closure falsetto".  It is an effect a modal phonation, but an extremely thin version of modal voice.  That is the folds are stretched very thin with little vocalis opposition.  The virtue of this is that with little vocalis resistance it is very easy to stretch to the note.  The negative part is that to created a viable tone, the singer must press the folds together considerably.  If the fold were of appropriate mass and closure, a male singer singing C5 would sound like Franco Corelli, not David Daniels.  So to make the counter-tenor sound that can be heard over an orchestra, there must be enough strength in the high overtones, which can only be accomplished if there is enough glottal resistance. Because of the very thin nature of the folds in counter-tenor singing, the folds must be pressed considerably to make up for the lost oscillation time that would have existed in full modal vocal posture, like a tenor or even mezzo. 2) The slightly breathy lower passaggio that often results when descending from the unnaturally thin upper voice has also been called falsetto by Old School Italian Teachers. In fact the original range that was referred to as falsetto was the passaggio of the male voice where breathiness often occurred before the singer develops the skill to manage the change between heavier and lighter mechanisms.

It is worthwhile to compare the same arias sung by mezzo-sopranos (again not comparing artistic quality here, but rather functional differences).  Here is Garanca singing the Tancredi aria





and Julia Hamari's rendition of the Bach




What we hear in the mezzo versions as compared to the counter-tenor versions is that the mezzo voice is considerably richer.  This is expected because a viable mezzo uses an appropriately full (deep) fold posture that with adequate closure generates a richer spectrum of overtones, achieving a balance between low and high overtones (chiaroscuro).  By virtue of this balance, the mezzo sounds more at ease in this range.  It must also be reminded that the operatic counter-tenor (whether in Rossini or in Bach, the orchestra texture provides enough competition) is using a full-closure (or near full-closure--in most instances there is a slight gap at the arytenoidal end of the vocal folds to prevent dangerously harmful over-pressurizing)  phonation pattern at the very top of his modal range for long periods of time.

If a lyric tenor (not talking about haute contres or naturally high tenor voices that do not have to thin out to sing Rossini) sang between F4 and C5 even 50% of the time (i.e. in a mezzo middle range) with a near full-voice approximation, the amount of strain would be considerable and could reduce the quality of tone, as the amount of constant medial pressure would cause chronic pressed voice, leading to loss of the upper range.  This is precisely what we experience with even the most skilled counter-tenors over time.

Again, I am not making a musical judgment.  I chose the two counter-tenors, David Daniels and Michael Chance because I am a fan of both of them.  I heard Mr. Chance in Berlin in Johannes Passion and he gave the vocal performance of that evening, even in the presence of such giants as Thomas Quasthof in the role of Jesus.  David Daniels is a former classmate at the University of Michigan whom I have always admired for not only his great vocal abilities but his musicianship and his amazing acting ability.  We played opposite each other in Britten's Albert Herring, his last role as a tenor (in rehearsals.  We were in different casts for the show).

So to be clear, I do not have a problem with the counter-tenor voice, per se.  However, I believe there are dangers in utilizing the voice in large operatic venues.  The male voice used in near full-closure mode at the upper extremes of the modal range cannot sustain the amount of pressure put on it in order to produce audible sounds at such large venues as the Metropolitan Opera and other large operatic and concert venues.  The wear on the voice over time is a given.  The professional shelf-life of an operatic counter-tenor is considerably shorter than that of the average opera singer.

The counter-tenor voice used in chamber music, such as the a capella group Chanticleer and others, is relatively healthy as long as the vocal technique is sound, for the simple reason that they singer does not have to exert vocal energy beyond the natural limits of the instrument used in this fashion.  Such singers can last a long time.

It is also important to note that the great pioneer, Russel Oberlin, was not a counter-tenor in the style of the modern counter-tenor.  He was referred to as a haute contre, whose voice is by my analysis that of a very high and light tenor voice.  One hears a full posture in his middle range, even if the upper extremes are a little thin by comparison:




This article in no way disputes the artistic viability of singers who make their living as counter-tenors, but it is an anatomic reality that the male voice used in near full-closure mode at the extremes of the modal range for long periods of time with substantial orchestral accompaniment in large halls is a recipe for problems.  It is also common that counter-tenors singing in large opera houses require more recovery time than the average singer after a performance.

To be fair, not all counter-tenors are alike.  Daniels has a natural tenor voice and would have been a spinto in my estimation (telling from how he sang as a tenor).  I have taught several counter-tenors who were natural baritones.  Some counter-tenors have naturally high tenor voices and in their counter-tenor singing do not deviate too extremely from the natural voice.  In such voices, the pressure is considerably less.  Darryl Taylor, another excellent counter-tenor and colleague from my graduate school days is precisely such a tenor.




I sang Papageno to Taylor's Tamino (again in rehearsals.  We were in different casts) and he too was an excellent tenor.  The lightness of his voice as a tenor made his transition to counter-tenor relatively easy.  He already had the lighter extension and the muscular shift between the high light voice and the middle C area is more naturally managed in such voices.  In fact, Taylor's production is closer to a haute-contre than it is to a modern counter-tenor--A kind of counter-tenor/haute-contre Zwischenfach!

Obviously, the closer the counter-tenor production is to the natural voice the healthier it is in terms of longevity for the singer.  Nevertheless, the success of such artists has to do with their singular charm, musicality and vocal beauty, all of which are subjective.  The objectivity of vocal function, as a matter of scientific facts, as much as teachers like me would like to see it play a more important part in the vocal discourse, up to now has had little influence on the business side of the operatic discourse.

Finally, one should avoid equating counter-tenors to their Castrato predecessors. The vocal mechanisms of castrati were arrested in development, allowing an adult male with full adult breath capacity to have a prepubescent boy's vocal folds.  In other words, they were singing with the full voice of a child powered by an adult's breath mechanism.  They were not falsettists and sang in their full modal voice as do other traditional voices.  They did not face the vocal fatigue and wear that a modern counter tenor might face.

© 03/06/2012