Saturday, December 7, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): A Tribute To Tom Gunnar Krause, July 5, 1934-December 5, 2013: Mentor and Friend

Tom Krause touched my heart long before I ever met him.  The year was 1984.  I was a first year voice student at Westminster Choir College and my work-study job was in the recording library.  This was a terrific job because I was allowed to listen to music when the library traffic was slow.  In my music history class, we were introduced to German Lieder in the persons of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey.  I found them both remarkable and took a liking to Lieder singing that developed into a life’s passion.  I fell in love with Schubert’s music and was captivated by the collection of late songs on Heine and Rellstab poems called Schwanengesang (Swang Song).  They were Schubert’s final song compositions.  I could not get enough of them and consequently I came across Tom’s recording of the Schwanengesang.  While both Dieskau and Prey touched me respectively for a certain musical precision and this “Jedermann” kind of emotionalism, Tom’s reading of those songs took directly to a part of me that was beyond precise and beyond mere emotion.  Something about the quality of his voice bore like fire straight to the center of me.  

Back then, the prospect of meeting these legends of song was unimaginable.  I got to meet Prey at a master class some four years later and only got to hear Dieskau in concert.  I had not heard much about Tom in the later years and had imagined that he either retired or perhaps had passed.  After a performance as Germont in Traviata, I got a comment that my voice could use more squillo.  My dear friend and colleague, the excellent dramatic soprano Othalie Graham asked me if I had a choice to study with anyone who would it be?  I responded either José van Dam for whom I had sung in a master class or better yet, Tom Krause if he were still alive.  I assumed she might not know who Tom Krause was.  She was in my car and looked at me astounded.  And in her classic way, she replied: “No way!!!”  I was surprised she knew the name at all.  She said: “I looooove him.  Love him!  Would you like me to call him for you?”  I thought she was teasing.  Then she pulled out her cell phone and called him and made the appointment.  The next day we both drove to Tom’s house in Philadelphia where began an apprenticeship, that though short-lived because of traveling logistics, left an indelible mark on my singing and teaching life.

The first lesson and everyone after that were “events!”  At the first lesson we spent three hours having tea and talking about life, philosophy.  Tom said we had to get to know each other before we sing together. I got to know Tom’s delightful wife Jeannie and I felt like I had just become part of a family.  For the next year and a half I traveled to Madrid and Hamburg whenever possible to meet with Tom.  In the process I got to meet his terrific daughter Danielle, who became my friend.  I remember we spent a terrific time, all four of us, in Hamburg singing, talking and having tea.  In Madrid, I remember arriving at my hotel in the center of town and it was chaos from 6pm to 6am.  The next day I went to my lesson with Tom outside of town and it was calm.  We spent two hours together and then we walked slowly back to the train station stopping along the way at a book store that had a hard bound copy of Isabel Allende’s Zorro.  I told him I grew up with the legend of Zorro and he looked at me deeply and said: “Then you have to buy the book.  It is here for you to notice it and want it.”  I bought the book and ever so happy I did.  It is the best treatment of the Zorro legend that I have ever read and it was a magical journey that began with Tom’s advice.   

Every meeting with Tom was significant.  Our meetings were not frequent because I was traveling a lot to teach and so was he.  But it was always a joy to meet.  We had a lot of people in common in the world of singing/opera.  So I heard about his advices to me repeated through trusted members of my musical family like George Shirley and Dalton Baldwin to whom he had related our stories.  

Tom’s technical approach was based on how the voice should function when technique is totally accomplished.  He looked for an ease that was difficult for me to achieve at the time because I was at the end of my baritone phase.  In fact my lessons with Tom made me open to the possibility that I might be a different voice type, although tenor never came into question.  We experimented with bass-baritone roles like Holländer and Graf Lysiart.  The lower tessitura of those pieces made it possible for me to accomplish the effortlessness that Tom wanted.  The Italian repertoire, or rather the timbre ideas I had about that repertoire, caused me to sing in a way that was causing me unnecessary tensions.  Yet Tom was surprised that I could always sing the top notes easily despite what he perceived to be tensions.  Through the process I started to experiment with pieces that influenced a warmer color from me.  It is then that I started experiment with Heldentenor repertoire.  I found a remarkable similarity between Holländer and Siegmund.  The colors and the way I approached the two characters at opposite ends of my repertoire made me realize that true “squillo” came from singing one’s true color and not by trying to sing “brightly”! The latter was what was causing me tensions.  A couple months after that it became clear that I am actually a tenor and the process began, which gave rise to Kashu-do, my brand.  Indeed the final stage of this technique is the “trust” to let the voice function.  

I realized then that I had some fundamental structural work to do to alleviate 25 years of “making” my voice sound like a baritone because that is what I thought I was.  Indeed, I realized that many young singers try to “fabricate” colors they think their voice types require instead of develop a sense of what their natural voices are.  Without trying to, Tom Krause influenced my teaching in very substantial ways.  It took me 5 years to do the structural work I needed to do such that my voice could start to respond to my imagination and not to muscular manipulation.  I can now do what Tom was asking of me and it was my hope that I would go back to him to continue to refine my voice.  Unfortunately I would not have that chance as Nature called Tom’s essence back to her bosom so that he may graduate to a different level of existence.  In truth, during that year and a half of work I believe I captured the essence of what he wanted me to accomplish and my current students who are benefiting from that approach based on “Trust” are the testimony of how important that year and a half was to my development.

I have been fortunate with teachers who taught not only information but philosophy.  They took their students “in” into their hearts and mentored them, often without them knowing that they were being mentored.  Tom made me realize that quality is always of the essence.  He expected a certain artistic quality.  

When I told a friend that I studied with Tom, he said something along the lines that Tom’s approach was cultish and “spiritual”.  Tom felt a student must be an artist to understand artistic things.  What my friend thought as cultish is simply a capacity for “higher” reflection.  It took me a long time to realize that many people posture as artists who are not really such.  Classical singing is a diverse world that celebrates “vocal athleticism” as well as the kind of singing that evokes philosophical and spiritual reflection.  Great artists have the capacity for both.  A great singing artist must be a great vocal athlete, but not every vocal athlete is an artist.  Tom was a great singer and a superior artist.  His singing touched me profoundly before I “understood” what “the art of singing” was.  He touched me in a visceral place.  As his student, by example he taught me I could go further than my intellect could grasp.  This level of faith requires a vulnerability that few students are willing to experience.  I trusted Tom and felt safe in letting go of what I thought I knew.  I became a more profound person for it.  I was rewarded yesterday when a student I have taught for almost eight years accomplished this complete release of control, trusting that his desire was enough to bring the instrument into natural, balanced function.  

His response: “I feel like I don’t know anything!” 
“Does that scare you?” I said.
“In fact, it does not.  It’s humbling and empowering!”

Thank you Dear Tom for all the things I thought I was learning and even more for the many things I did not know I was learning.  I will miss you always!  But in a crazy way you have been with me since the beginning, before I knew who I was artistically, and I know on some level I can always count on your mentorship.  You leave a mark not only on many ears but on so many hearts.  

I leave you to graduate to a higher consciousness with these words from Shakespeare from a Finzi setting I sang often:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Thou thy earthly task hast done
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages...

No exorciser harm thee
Nor no witchcraft charm thee
Ghosts unlaid forbear thee
Nothing ill come near thee.

Quiet consumation have

And reknowned be thy grave.

© 12/07/2013

Friday, December 6, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): I Want To Be Like Nina: The Unique Artist That Is Nina Stemme

I first met Nina Stemme the night I heard her live as Minnie in Christopher Loy's magical production of Fanciulla for the Royal Opera Stockholm.  After what appears to be a vintage film sequence on the main drop, featuring Nina herself astride a horse through what seems the New Mexico/Arizona landscape, the soprano burst through the paper curtain, with classic six-shooters in hand--A theatrical move that could have been cliché if not handled with perfect timing and physical energy.  She was brilliant! As Minnie is the only substantial female figure onstage, her presence must be enormous to counter that of the two powerful tenor and baritone leads and the male chorus as well.  She radiated an energy of such intensity that one wonders if anyone could match it even though all her colleagues on stage were magnificent.  I had befriended her teacher, Micaela von Gegerfelt a couple of years before and a couple of my students were singing in the production.  Consequently I was able to meet her after the performance.  She was as down to earth in real life as she was otherworldly onstage.  We ended up having a beer together in the opera café.

A few months later she came to Berlin to sing a concert including Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and Rachmaninov songs accompanied by the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra with Donald Runnicles at the helm.  I greeted her backstage before the performance and asked how she was doing.  "Allergies!," she said matter-of-factly. "But what are you going to do? Gotta sing!"  Singers in perfect health wish they could produce the tones she produced during that concert.  Wether loud or soft, tender or passionate, she was in complete command of her resources.  That is a professional and that is what we should all aspire to.

Whether singing in Italian or German, she is flawless.  Her idiomatic expression in both is uncommon for a non- native Italian.  I know she speaks German, Swedish and English.  I would not be surprised if she spoke fluent Italian as well. We talked also after the performance and it was mostly about family, being on the road and the fun of making music with colleagues from before.

The next two performances, Salomes, a year apart turned me into a total admirer.  In New York's Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst, Nina sparkled, truly topping the all-star cast.  If she had not been too familiar to New York audiences, she won them over that night.  She soared on Salome's high tessitura commandingly, calling on every dynamic shade and practically dwarfing the orchestra with her radiating resonance--All at the service of a deft musical and dramatic interpretation.  That concert Salome was more "femme fatale" than "crazy lolita!"

A year and a few months later, the Stockholm Salome took on dimensions both vocally and dramatically that were hinted at in New York.  The simple but profoundly multidimensional staging by Sofia Jupiter must have contributed to this.  She was buttressed by the vocally superb Austrian baritone Josef Wagner as Jochanaan and one of my clients, Niklas Björling Rygert, perhaps Sweden's most gifted singing-actor on the male side, was her unforgettable Herodes.  Nevertheless, these magnificent artists only supported the central figure which is Nina Stemme's Salome.  My girlfriend, who had also experienced the New York Salome, was so impressed by Nina's "girly" demeanor even when singing giant dramatic soprano tones.  Strauss created a version of the opera whereby the orchestra is reduced to facilitate the possibility of a lighter voice singing the role in order to emphasize the childlike nature of the character.  Those incarnations have always left me wanting more voice.  This is a piece written for a great actress who can give the impression of a young girl while erupting in rich tones that leaves the fullest orchestras in the dust.  This Nina Stemme does!  Her portrayal left nothing wanting.  The capacity house was on its feet for more than 15 curtain calls and they would have continued their rhythmic standing ovation (me included) if the stage manager had not called for house lights.

At the post-premiere reception, I was speechless, not knowing what to say to this magnificent woman. So I said simply: "How?..." "Every day is different" she replied.  "I must find it each time..."  But in fact I knew how.  This is the kind of results some singers used to get in their youth because they were talented enough and took a year to prepare a degree recital, where every note was carefully studied.  Most top professionals can put out a very good product that would please most critics, but this level of specificity and effortlessness in the production of an Olympic level effort is not accomplished because one is "gifted".  Jussi Björling used to get upset when people assumed singing came easily to him.  He wanted people to know how difficult the preparation was in order to make it look easy.  Nina's work ethic was already noticeable by her friends in the Stockholm youth choir, as one of her former colleagues revealed to me recently.  That work ethic has only matured.  Hers is a big voice for big roles, yet she can sing the most ravishing pianissimi without losing any part of her rich timbre.  This requires great skill, hours of practice, determination...

As I wait for a too early flight from Frankfurt to New York, I could not take my mind away from the powerful emotions I was left with after that performance a few days ago in Stockholm.  I felt compelled to put these thoughts here.  Yet I know I am too fatigued right to be as eloquent as deserves Nina Stemme's unique, far-reaching skills.  I will only say this:  If I were to chose one performer I would recommend for my students to emulate, it would have to be Nina.  Every time I see her, I have the strong feeling that the art of opera is alive and well and it remains "noble"!  Thank you Nina!

© 12/6/2023

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Innies and Outies

No, I am not talking about navels, but I misspelled the German word “Innig” and found a heap of pages dealing with “innies and outies”.  After working with a couple of exceptional singers getting ready for a run of Tannhäuser, it became so clear why some singers succeed big and some do not go as far even though they sing technically very well.  

Having a well functioning voice is like having a megaphone in front of a large outdoor crowd!  The megaphone makes you audible!  

But what if you stood in front of the crowd with your perfect megaphone (or microphone) and say: “hmm...er...aahhh...”, or spoke in a monotone?

What if you stood in front of the crowd and spoke like a great orator or actor?

Many singers give so much worth to the mechanics of their instrument that they do not even begin to understand why they may not be getting any work even though they sing difficult arias with great ease and in that regard may even surpass most of their competitors.

Of those who do have something to say, there is the question of whether the thoughts come through or not.  There are singers who require no coaching on communicating their thoughts.  It was a part of their singing since before they understood what they were doing.  It was always “communication” and there are singers who have had to learn the techniques for communicating thoughts, emotions, state of mind, etc...

Of course these things can be learned, but what are the obstacles?  What psychological imprints are there that make a singer resist going to the vulnerable place whereby communication is immediate.  The “état d’âme”  that is necessary for communication that strongly impacts an audience is specific, effortless, almost meditative.  One of my most successful students, who is also a terrific teacher, conversed with me yesterday about this:

JRL:  The time between the intake of breath and the release of sound is the length of time that a pendulum is still.  It is theoretically the shortest time and can feel extraordinarily long.

Student:  Sounds like “relativity”!  That moment of timelessness is the place where unfettered communication occurs.  It is the “silence” that makes the audience listen in a different way.

What was meant as a technical idea from me was turned into an artistic premise by the student. This student already understood artistic communication at a very high level.  Her audience was already listening even before the “megaphone” was working efficiently. Call it “presence” or “charisma” or any other word!  It is what makes the difference between sound and music.  This silent place of communication where unnecessary noise disappears can be found, but only if the singer wishes to find it and will invest as much time to it as with technique. Like technique, for some it is easy to find. For others, it is the block that keeps them from making a real impact.  It is the obstacle that keeps them from succeeding.

But why would a singer not want to find this “state of mind” that brings the audience to him/her?

Because it requires confronting the true self--the imperfect, vulnerable self.  It is what makes us artists.  It is a scary place to be. Without pretense, facing our scary fallibility! The place beyond skill, where everyone is compelled to listen.

Is it only that some singers are afraid to be vulnerable? Some yes!  In other cases, some are afraid to have the undivided attention of others because they are afraid they might not have much to say or that what they have to say is not worth hearing. Before we can get in front of people and bare our souls, we must believe in the value of our thoughts, our ideas, ourselves!

As a teacher, I can only guide a person to this place, but only the singer can decide if s/he ready to communicate at that level.  To be able to make a loud noise is sometimes enough! A lasting career however or one begun late is only achievable when we touch the listener in a place that strikes their core.  To do that, we must speak from our core and trust in its inherent worth.

It is a choice and some will never go to that place! Sadly, I cannot even say it is absolutely necessary because some make careers without ever truly communicating.  That is the greatest challenge to teaching.  When superficial types find a way in, it is tough to ask students to the the "inside" work. Innie or Outie?  That is a personal decision for each artist. For my part, I am not interested in "outies"!


© 11/27/2013

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Musings On Breath Support: An Often Changing Experience

The most self-serving aspect of vocal pedagogy is the constant posturing of those who claim they have the answer for this or for that.  Although any viable pedagogy must be based on a set of unalterable principles, it is important to know that the singer's experience changes depending on their level of strength, flexibility, body type, level of experience etc...

Breathing coordination is a case and point:

The unalterable fact in breathing for singing is that the muscles of exhalation will provide a compression that drives the vibration of the folds and the sensation of flow that one should feel. Compression and flow cannot be separated.  Additionally, this compression/flow system is countered by the muscle of inhalation that prevent over-compression (over-pressurization).  Throughout the history of opera, teachers have utilized the voiceless fricatives "sh", "s", "f" etc, to help the singer feel the compression before it is put to voiced sounds.  The "sh" in particular gives a strong sense of compression/flow.  These fricatives, when sustained, give the singer a fair simulation of what it feels like when one is singing.  Both an outward (pushed out) sensation is felt (in the lower abdominal and pelvic areas) and an inward (pulled in) sensation is felt around the area of the epigastrium.  Furthermore the sensation of suspension (expansion) is felt in the ribcage.  This three-part sensation is more or less a complete sensory experience of what support feels like.  The suspension of the ribcage is active, because the natural occurrence when we exhale is that the ribcage collapses.  However in singing, we are attempting to counter a strong reaction (active only in so far as the brain decides what muscular action is necessary to produce the desired compression) from the muscles of exhalation to compress the air that drives the sound.

Therefore, there is 1) a necessary antagonism between muscles of inhalation and those of exhalation; 2) a paradoxical experience of simultaneous out/in in the exhalation experience--The out/in experience is automatic where there is enough resistance to the airstream, wether voiceless consonant or voiced consonants and vowels which require a glottal oscillation.

These principles are not truly debatable.  How one experiences them in the act of singing and indeed how two different people experience them is certainly up for conversation.  I teach a baritone who has a body like iron.  He breathes for speaking the way he does for singing.  His powerful singing voice is connected to the rugged make up of his body.  It would not have taken much to teach someone with that kind of muscular development to sing.  More than anything else, one would have to caution him against breathing too strongly.  His body is already used to compressing air properly for speaking, which transfers effortlessly to singing.

What then of the young lyric tenor, who comes from a polite culture and speaks gently?  How much more effort is it for him first of all to create an "operatic sound?" How much more viscerally must he inhale for singing?  And how much more does it cost him to compress air for singing?  How long does it take before his voice and breathing mechanism begin to spontaneously work the way the above baritone experiences?

The important conclusion is this?  

When you tell a singer they should not take in so much air as a rule, it may work for a singer who already exchanges air strongly and it may be the exact opposite that a more anemic singer needs to hear. 

 Pedagogy cannot happen in a vacuum.  The same technique applied to forte vs. piano feels differently!  Singing a voice consonant vs. a vowel feel differently even though the same technique is applied, because the nature of the resistance is different.  The voiced consonant requires stronger support because the trans-glottal flow must be maintained and additional compression must be provided to overcome the consonant's obstruction at the articulation point.  From a voiceless consonant to a vowel, the articulation points are different.  Ideally the compression of the voiceless consonant should be equal to the compression for the tone that the vowel depends upon.  If I sing the italian word "fate" (fairies) as in Nanetta's aria in Falstaff, the compression of [f] at the lower teeth-upper lip obstruction should match the production of the tone for [a] articulated at the level of the vocal folds and of [t] articulated by the tongue and hard palate, and of [e] articulated at the vocal fold level.

The experience of each phoneme is distinctly different from the others yet the compression that is needed for each is mechanistically identical.   

Successful pedagogy constantly reinvents itself while holding firmly to principles.  Singers change and the way they need to think about their singing changes depending on whether they are fit for singing or training to be fit.  It is also a different experience for the same singer in different parts of the range.  It takes a long time to train such that every note is equally strong.  Some great singers have to do more work to get the same quality sound in one part of the range vs. another.  All of these variables come into how the singer experiences support.  Some say it is harder to sing a well-supported piano than to sing forte.  Some others say the opposite.  It depends on what the sound expectations are and whether or not the specific note is in the singer's easy range or difficult range.

The bigger question is:  What are the principles that should be kept and what are the pronouncements that work for a singer today and not so well 6 months from now?  Hopefully, as it pertains to support, a few answers may be found here on this post.

© 11/12/2013

Monday, October 21, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Quixote Incident and The Savior Complex

I had a very heated discussion some years ago with one of my mentors, a rather famous Lied-pianist, on the subject of Don Quixote de la Mancha, as we were preparing a concert that included both the Ravel and Ibert Don Quichotte cycles, toward the end of my baritone phase.  I became very disenchanted when he said:

"Don Quixote is a loser!  We should know that from the beginning!"

"How would you come to that conclusion? I said impertinently!  He wins at the end!"

"In his own mind, perhaps," said he.  "But in reality he lost his mind and everything else."

And so it felt to me as if I had just realized my father was not a superhero.  This man whom I revered my entire musical life, it seems, did not get it at all.  His point of view seemed common;  I dare say banal.  The performance of the cycles seemed unusually perfunctory to me, although he felt we had succeeded in accomplishing what was necessary.  That Quixote Incident has remained with me for years and last night after a very enjoyable master class I realized something as I was going home.

I have always identified with Quixote and always will.  But from last night on, my point of view about Quixote has changed.  No I do not subscribe to the "loser" point of view of my former mentor.  The character of Don Quixote, which I also played in Man of La Mancha, is even grander to me now.  I used to think of Don Quixote as an underdog, the way I thought of Rocky (the Stallone character) as an underdog, but this is an erroneous point of view.  These iconic characters endure because they were winners from the very beginning.  They had the spirit of winners long before anyone ever saw them as winners.

What does Quixote really mean?  What is it that makes this character endure and has fascinated composers of many generations from Jules Massenet, to Manuel de Falla to Mitch Leigh?  Through adversity, Don Quixote lives by a vision of the world that in the end transforms others who in the beginning ridiculed him.  He was willing to risk his life for his beliefs.

Most artists live a Quixotic vision in spite of a world that look upon us as dreamers and yet cannot continue to exist without our dreams that are so easy to deride.  Because we persevere and achieve, often at great cost to ourselves and often against what to others appear to be impossible odds, we too often believe that anyone can undertake the journey that we have no choice but to take.  We are artists and that remains our way of life until we die.  We made that commitment before we knew we made it.

When I became a teacher, I unconsciously thought that I could enlighten my students as to the importance of the Quixotic pursuit, that I could open the way for them to a journey that was so extremely noble.  But that is indeed a savior complex that leads to disappointment.  My teachers that I saw as so extremely inspiring were only guiding me on a journey that I decided to take.  They never pushed me to do anything I was not already determined to do.  The students I have come to enjoy teaching also took on this journey before I ever met them.  Because the journey is difficult, I encourage them and remind them of that which somewhere inside of themselves they already knew.

I thought I would be much sadder when I realized that I cannot transform anyone.  But contrarily, it is a joy and a relief to discover that I can only guide them on a journey of transformation that they themselves already took and that they already know the price of attempting to become what they imagine inside of themselves, rather than what the world has superficially decided for them.

Rocky was already a winner from the beginning.  He only needed Mickey to show him how to bring the winner in him out.  Quixote made "The Impossible Dream" possible.  He is the ultimate winner.  A winner is not without doubt.  And no win is ever easy.  But winners simply win because they never stop fighting!  No teacher can turn a looser into a winner, but a teacher can help a winner learn how not to loose!

© 10/21/2013



Monday, October 7, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): On Deborah Voigt: An Important Artist Who Should Not Be Just Another Statistic

Few Sopranos in recent times have mastered the Wagnerian Repertoire with the apparent ease that Deborah Voigt has displayed over nearly two decades in the dramatic Fach.

Here vocally so consistent in Manon Lescaut:



Here head-to-head with the legendary Pavarotti and she reigns:



And here one of the most vocally balanced and musically refined readings of "Dich theure Halle" in recording history and live:



Another superb example of her technical mastery is this All-Wagner concert in São Paolo ending with the taxing Liebestod from Tristan.  She sounded as fresh at the end of the concert as she did at the beginning, except for a slight loss of support in the final phrase (this is worth mentioning later).

Technically of the highest water, musically irreproachable and dramatically convincing!  So what went wrong?

We cannot point to a singer doing too heavy repertoire too soon as is testament here.  The voice was ready and the technique was solid.


Therefore, we must point to the obvious reason why things went wrong lately!

After the surgery, this performance started fights on the various opera Forums between diehard fans and those who sought reasons to criticize:



There is a definite change in quality in the tone, that any experienced teacher would attribute to a slight glottal squeeze due to inadequate breath support.  It is not severe and even at this stage she sounded better than most other sopranos singing this repertoire.

Singing better than the average is not the modus operandi of a singer at this level, nor would it be of a world class athlete.  Yet as much as some in our midst would like to refer to opera as a sport, few truly understand why that is.  An opera singer does not need to look like a bodybuilder anymore than a golfer does.  But there are specific muscles in both cases that need to be developed to prevent breakdown.  Besides the laryngeal muscles (which in Ms. Voigt's case were ideally developed) the breathing apparatus must be developed to extraordinary levels particularly in the case of a Wagnerian singer.

Why had Ms. Voigt been so successful if her breathing was not developed?  Most singers know the fact that additional fat assist in the breath support of a singer.  With the fat tissue as a cushion beneath the diaphragm, maintaining constant breath compression is much easier than without.  The downside is that it takes great effort to take a deep breath.  Nevertheless, Ms. Voigt managed quite well.

But indeed even in a singer who is obese, the fat is not the only part of the breathing process.  The muscles of exhalation are still a part of the process.  And at the end of the São Paolo concert, the exhalation muscles gave up in the final phrase.  Her vocal folds  compensated by pressing together (via Interarytenoid Muscles) to make up the pressure lost from the support muscles.  However the medial pressure added time to the vibration cycles and the pitch lowered.  An unexpected occurrence in an otherwise almost flawless concert.

Indeed this occurrence in São Paolo signaled what was to become more problematic post surgery.  Once the fat was removed, the muscles had to work harder to create the compression that the voice was used to.  Ms. Voigt was back on stage 8-weeks after the surgery according to her recent interviews.  This was not enough time to develop the necessary muscular strength to maintain compression at the level se was used to.  When that compression is lacking, the vocal folds responded again as they did in São Paolo, but this time chronically since the old support system was no longer there.

I work with singers who come out of pregnancy and even if they sang during the pregnancy, they require more than 8-weeks to be back to normal.  Dramatic voices require even more time. In her recent interview with the NY Times,  Ms. Voigt attributes the change in her vocal quality more to age and the requirements of very difficult repertoire than to the surgery.  Age and repertoire are real factors of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore the obvious.  The voice did not sound the same after the surgery and that is a fact.

The more important question is not just why this occurred but how does one recover from it?  The technical side of it is not so difficult.  Ms. Voigt would have had to maintain the sound expectation from before the surgery.  Why?  Because it was healthy and balanced.  There is no fat tissue on the vocal folds.  They do not change when one is slim or obese.  The breath compression system is what changed and she should have taken the time to work the breath until her sound returned to its pre-surgery color.  This is still possible!  It is not her technique that needed to change but rather a "vocal fitness level" that would compensate for the sudden weight loss.  

Why "vocal fitness"?  Because the fitness of the breath compression system that is needed should be totally relative to how it brings her larynx to its old balance.  In short, this is not about perfunctory fitness, but rather a specific fitness related to the voice.

Yet the work that would need to be done to get Ms. Voigt her old voice back is not only physical.  Ms. Voigt spoke of alcohol abuse in her NY Times article and dealing with it head-on by attending regular A.A. meetings, etc.

 Ms. Voigt is a very strong and determined woman who has fought many battles.

1. She rose to the top of the operatic world and no matter what anyone tells you, that is not accomplished only because God gave you a talent.  Success has so much more to do with dedication and hard work.

2.  She was publicly humiliated by that ridiculous black-dress incident and she came through it triumphant and reinvented herself.

3. She is dealing with this crisis head-on and honestly and she is to be admired for that.

Was her decision to have gastric bypass surgery wrong?  At the time I thought so.  But in retrospect and perhaps with a little more wisdom, I realize that it was a decision that she had to make and she knew better than anyone what the stakes were.  As she explains in the recent interviews, she had to chose her health over the potential ill effects on the voice.  I would say she chose well.  She may still recover her old voice.

The question is whether she has the emotional strength to fight any more battles.  Is it then a wise choice to take on easier roles that do not demand the precision of technical balance required for the Isoldes and Brünnhildes?  We should trust her in that regard.  She has other talents which are being developed and perhaps her career will now take a more diversified outlook.

As a singer and a fan of Ms. Voigt's I would love to see her recover her pre-surgery voice.  More importantly, I would like to see Ms. Voigt transition from this crisis and reinvent herself again.  I would hope the operatic world would not treat her like yesterday's great dramatic soprano who has lost it.  That is the noxious air that wafts through conversations with singers and other business types, whether at cafés or on the blogosphere.

She is as close to the Birgit Nilsson of her time as one can get.  In the old days, when a great singer had a crisis (I am reminded of Leontyne Price's 1962 Anthony and Cleopatra), it seems there were important people in the field who felt it necessary to help the singer find real solutions.  If not from the business, I hope Ms. Voigt has a team of caring people around her who will help her make a triumphant return to the stage and to her life, as she so richly deserves.  God knows she has given us enough to enjoy for generations to come!

© 10/7/2013


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Bing Crosby In the Throat and Willy Nelson in the Mask: Why Traditional Imagery Takes Training For Granted

I was having a Skype session with one of my wonderful students from the Southern part of the United States and we started to laugh with the imagery I was using.  This very gifted dramatic soprano is pure South and she speaks with a wonderfully charming Southern drawl, full of vibrant high overtones.  Unfortunately we do not see each other as much as I would like and so we do what we can with Skype sessions.  Over the past two or three years we addressed the fact that her Southern heritage made her particularly prone to press the voice forward.  the tendency is to disengage from low overtones and as a result force the vocal folds into a posture that fits this reduced resonance adjustment.  Her tendency was to press the voice slightly to achieve a one-sided tone.  However, after a long period of working on "substance", and reengaging the full tone, we were able to address her issues from a resonance standpoint.  And so I said to her laughing:

Imagine Bing Crosby in the throat and Willy Nelson in the mask!

Her dramatic soprano exploded into a laughter reminiscent of Birgit Nilsson on a silly day.  Her tendency was to give up one side each time she thought of the other, to which I prescribed:

Imagine Willy singing in Bing's house!  
Code for: Maintain the lower space while allowing the high overtones to dominate!

In the end, the concepts became clear and we ended the lesson with a lot of laughter and clarity.

But the truth is I could not have talked in this way with my wonderfully disciplined and hardworking student if we had not spent the past years working on a muscular structure that allowed resonance adjustments to be so immediately available.  As I listened to her speak throughout the lesson, he Southern "brilliance" froth with high overtones was riding above a tone of great substance.  That is not the young dramatic soprano I met a few years ago.

 IN THE BEGINNING IT WAS ALL HIGH, NO BOTTOM! 

Now the voice has substance through many hours of lip-trilling.  Once the structure was built, it was easy to deal with the voice in terms of high and low overtones, in terms of chiaro and scuro, in terms of head and chest resonance...This was not possible while the voice was one-sided.

This post originally included a video of a famous singer of the past making pronouncements about resonance that are at best questionable. Commenting on that video infuriated one of my former colleagues and the video was taken down.  Nevertheless the point will be made without that prop.

The point to be made is complimentary to the story of teaching my student above.  When a teacher refers to the chest, the neck and the skull as resonating cavities, it does not take more than one semester of basic vocal acoustics to refute such pronouncements.  Yet the sensory feedback is real!

What I find infuriating are the many master-classes I attend given by famous singers where they will pronounce a student to be untalented because they cannot sense these vibrations in these so-called resonators.  The situation is a simple one to understand:

Singer 1 is told to feel high notes on the top of the head and responds wonderfully.
Singer 2 is told the same thing and looks like a deer caught in a headlight and has no idea what is meant.

In an atmosphere led by the famous teacher in question, Singer 2 seems like an idiot.

Yet Singer 2 is not an idiot at all.  This is a very easy situation to understand.  Singer 2 simply has not trained the mechanism well enough to be able to have the sensory feedback that said famous teacher takes for granted.  Singer 1 already has a vocal structure that makes it possible to have the feedback that the teacher speaks of.  Calling Singer 2 untalented is tantamount to not understanding the fact that a laryngeal structure as well as certain resonant adjustments are necessary to produce such feedback.  Rather than pronounce the young singer as untalented, a teacher whose pedagogy goes beyond personal experiences would consider what Singer 2 would need to begin to experience such feedback and work on that foundation work!

During my time in academia, I watched young students come with magnificent voices trained by a very specific teacher in North Carolina only to be modified and diminished by college level teachers who thought they understood more than a local teacher who had a certifiable genius for training young voices.

The disconnect in the world of Opera is the following:  Famous people know better!  

In truth, famous people have the ability to get themselves famous!  It does not mean they always have skills in teaching commensurate with their fame.  Like this not famous teacher in North Carolina whose name escapes me, the most gifted people are more interested in the work at hand and not in making themselves known.

Is it possible to be famous and truly competent.  Yes!  That unfortunately is a rarity in current vocal pedagogy!

© 10/15/2013



Monday, August 26, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Efficiency In Inhalation (Inspiration): Exertion Becomes Relaxation

I was working with a student recently who has had a bit of difficulty with stamina.  This tenor had worked hard to develop a truly wonderful voice, but often after two phrases the quality of the sound would drop substantially.  Yet this is a singer who has successfully sung several roles.  He often finds his pace during the rehearsal process and ends up doing an excellent job, but in the studio, at an audition, at a master class, it often take a few corrections before he begins to find a place of balance.

We had already identify that something changes during the intake of air after a phrase.  So the longer he sings the less comfortable the voice became.  One of our coaches had suggested he sings two phrases together without breathing and then try them detached.  That worked sometimes, but not always.

Finally I realized something today that made a huge difference.  We are so stuck in a singing world that promotes "relaxation" that this trap manifests itself in all kinds of peculiar ways.  This particular singer's approach (unconsciously) was to relax after each phrase.  One would think that would work, yet it did not.  The suggestion I gave him was to breathe with the same energy that he exerts when he is actually singing.  If the phrase requires his whole body to be muscularly active, then the breath after that phrase should remain in that same world.  The piece in general should be at a certain level of physical engagement.  Suddenly, phrases that were difficult became extraordinarily strong and fluid.

Does it mean that we must exert an enormous amount of energy throughout the performance without relaxation?  Yes and no!

In a sense, the singer must live in the energy of the piece that is being sung.  One singer may be very strong and exert the powerful energy for a song without looking like he is doing much.  I am often able to show no marked effort as I sing very difficult music.  I feel my body working really hard, but most people do not see it.  It was not always that way!

There was a time that I felt I was heaving giant stones to sing a well-supported tone.  As I trained and my body got used to it, it feels less effortful.  The learning curve can be fairly short.  Once the singer realized what kind of energy level his body had to maintain, he was able to live in that world much more easily, with a sense of relative calm.

It is not that he reduces his energy expenditure!  It is rather that exerting that kind of energy becomes easier to do!

It is a misguided approach to try to get young singers to relax.  They need to discover what kind of energy a singer needs to produce a truly well-supported, operatic tone.  They will progress by doing repertoire that permit them to use strong energy without overwhelming them.  Then gradually they will grow to do repertoire that requires progressively greater energy and stamina.  By that point they will consciously learned what an operatic sound is and what it takes physically to produce it.  After that, building is a matter of time and personal fitness.

© 08/26/2013

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Understanding Falsetto vs Supported Soft Singing

Falsetto, head-voice, flute voice, mezza-voce, voix-mixte, etc are only a few terms that bring more confusion to the vocal discussion than necessary.  The reasoning for this confusion is that the conversation is usual based on sensations rather than function.  A definition of any of these terms must take into account the structure of the vocal vibration, which is often very different among the people having discussions about this subject.

There are many effects that resemble each other in the listener's ear, but when we are speaking about classical singing, particular in the context of the operatic stage, there must be some agreement about the acoustical signature of a well-sung tone.

Falsetto is distinguished by the fundamental frequency carrying most of the acoustical energy of the sung tone.  We can call that F0-dominant.  This means that the source tone (the fold vibration) is so weak that upper harmonics are not strong enough to be affected strongly by vowel formants or the Singer's Formant.

By contrast, when the source tone is strong, the "pockets of energy" (formants) in the vocal tract can have a notable influence on nearby harmonics.  In a strong source tone, the dominant formant will be the one that has the greatest influence on a nearby harmonic.  The frequency range of the formant and its proximity to the harmonic makes the difference as to whether the harmonic will be boosted strongly or not.  The frequencies of the formants of the vocal tract change as the shape of the vocal tract changes.  This means that the frequencies of formants change with vowels (shapes of the vocal tract).  This is where the principles of vowel modification come in to play

In short, if a singer is able to take advantage of these formants (particularly higher ones), it is a guarantee that the source tone is strong (i.e. the folds are meeting completely.  There is relatively little loss of energy).

View the clip below for acoustic acoustic analysis of Matti Talvela's pianissimo F4.  Falsetto or well supported tone?




Corelli's pianissimi are legendary.  It is interesting what I was able to find below.




I grew up listening to a fascinating singer.  Tino Rossi, a French of Corsican (ergo partially Italian) heritage, had the most touching voice I had ever heard.  I always taught his production was more or less of a falsetto nature, but in this recording which I heard often in my childhood, this is a well-supported example of soft singing that remains acoustically energized throughout.  See clip.





Tino Rossi had a very efficiently produced voice.  He never sang very loudly.  One always got the impression that his voice could not sustain the stress of great volume.  Gentle singing was his skill.  It is refreshing to know that the voice that schooled my childhood ears is actually properly produced.




This Di Stefano example is fascinating.  I would have imagined it was purely falsetto, but there is definitely some energy in the high harmonics.




Björling has the very best balance between low and high resonance found in any analysis of the voice. His soft singing is also very convincingly "not" falsetto.  Yet there is room for greater efficiency as demonstrated by Gigli below:






The point to be made in this series of spectrographic analyses is that the ideal as demonstrated by Gigli in the final note is difficult to maintain.  Even the very best in history do not keep it consistently. Maintaining strength in the Singer's Formant require efficiency of source tone (complete closure of the vibrating folds) and enough pharyngeal space to guarantee a 6:1 ratio between pharyngeal circumference and epi-laryngeal circumference. This also requires a stable fold posture that can produce a tone rich in overtones to begin with.  Strength in one of the lower vowel formants (F1 or F2) is also part and parcel of a balanced tone as demonstrated by Björling singing loudly.  Ideally, that kind of balance should be maintained in soft singing.

The presence of the Singer's Formant is not the only way.  Corelli's famous diminuendi show a strong F2 and little strength in the SF.

"The Threshold of Acceptance" (i.e. what the listener accepts as supported soft singing) requires that there be a strong enough source tone that makes "formant influence" viable.  In any source tone (without formant influence) the fundamental is the strongest harmonic. A formants will boost the strength of an harmonic near its field of influence. With a weak source tone, the formants would not be able to influence an upper harmonic enough to make it stronger than the fundamental.  That is the case in falsetto.  Therefore, if a singer singing softly is able to produce strength in one of the upper harmonics (anything beyond the fundamental), the sound will not be perceived as falsetto.  Yet a source tone is neither 100% weak or 100% strong.  There are tones that lie in between and will induce equivocal spectrograms (difficult to distinguish whether falsetto or supported soft tone).  In fact most singers singing softly are singing in a mode that lies between falsetto and supported soft singing.

The difference can be observed through spectrographic analysis.  That is obvious.  But the question I get all the time is how do you produce a supported soft tone.  The answer is simple:  The same way you produce a loud tone except softer.  It sounds simple, but as always it is not.  The kind of full voice tone that leads to good piano singing must be efficient enough to produce strong upper resonance.  The folds must be able to close fully without excessive medial pressure (pressed voice).  This is why deep fold posture is a part of Kashu-do training.  Still, the "flow" sensation experienced in falsetto singing is part and parcel of training soft singing.

Falsetto and supported soft singing can feel very much alike.  But there are different kinds of falsetto.  The one we are most concerned with is full-closure falsetto.  In full closure falsetto, the folds close completely during the close phase of vibration.  However, the arytenoids are relaxed and allow air to flow freely.  The relaxed arytenoids are a response to the raised sub-glottal pressure that occurs when the folds are too shallow, necessitating greater medial pressure to maintain the length of the vibration cycle.  In other words, the arytenoids relax to avoid the pressure of pressed voice.

By contrast, when the folds are deep enough, the length of the cycle is achieved without pressing.  Therefore, the folds can be set into vibration with very little breath pressure (i.e. soft singing).

Full-closure Falsetto can be a good beginning, because the folds close fully and some breath pressure is built.  However the increased pressure necessary for louder singing is destabilized by the fact that air pressure is lost through the open arytenoid juncture.  From full-closure falsetto to full-voice, there is usually a sudden change in mode.  The sudden closure of the arytenoids causes a sudden rise in pressure that the pressed folds cannot resist.  The result is a "break" (cracking).  The break is only avoided when the soft mode is not leaking air as is the case in full-closure falsetto. That said, there are singers who have excellent control of the arytenoid juncture and can gradually open and close it as needed to create an effect of crescendo-diminuendo.

Soft singing must be practiced and each singer comes to it from a difference history.  Even a singer who has appropriate fold structure for supported soft singing, controlling the air pressure is also a question of coordination and practice.  Breathing technique becomes part of the equation.

In my baritone days I had excellent full-closure falsetto in the tenor high range (should have been sign of my tenor nature).  Converting that set-up to supported singing took time.  Developing supported soft singing requires the sensation of falsetto.  Warming up the voice with falsetto from G5 down has helped  tremendously in developing flow-phonation in a deep fold posture vibration.

The key in all of this is not to resort to an "either/or" mentality but rather adopt an "and" philosophy.  There is much too be learned from a falsetto sensation.  Most singers can crescendo diminuendo from falsetto to full voice and back in the comfortable middle and lower range.  The question is not to learn a technique for doing that in the difficult upper range, but rather to develop an upper voice that has the characteristics of the balanced middle and/or lower voice.

As for acoustic analysis, one needs to have done many hours of analysis to be able to make an assessment of what is actually occurring.  A trained opera singer will most likely produce some energy at least in the lower formants even when there is leakage of air at the arytenoid level.  An opera singer is used to singing with fully closing vocal folds.  Even when attempting falsetto there may be enough energy in the source tone to create some energy in the lower vowel formants.  Therefore, I would make the Threshold of Acceptance for supported soft singing to be at least activity at the second formant level.  The goal should be activity at the SF level, which would guarantee full closure including at the arytenoid level.

In closing, I would recommend analyzing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  Dieskau's Pianissimi almost always included strong SF content. The SF was also relatively high pitched for a baritone.  More on Dieskau in upcoming posts.

© 06/08/2013

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Devil Appears In Surprising Guises: Victims of our pasts and cultures

For all intents and purposes, I was raised more or less French!  In my early formation until the age of 10, I was taught by French (in some cases French Canadian) Franciscan Priests in a highly admired school for boys in Port-au-Prince, Haiti called Jean-Marie Guilloux.  After spending many years in France over the years, I realize how very French my upbringing was and how those formative years colored my life.  At home, it was strongly encouraged that we speak French as much as Haitian Creole.  The mode of behavior in classes was thoroughly based on the French system, with a great emphasis on discipline, memorization (both serve me well as a singing-actor) and a dogged aim for "perfectionnement" (perfecting oneself).

This last aspect taken to an extreme (and the French often do take the concept of perfecting oneself to an extreme) can be defeating rather than helpful. This I observed in a very gifted French-born singer today who has made amazing strides in so many ways.  By far one of the most vocally able singers I have ever heard, this singer used to be paralyzed by the need to have one aspect of singing perfected before moving to the next thing.  At best, one gains great awareness of the problem at hand, but at worst one can become obsessively one-sided to the detriment of other necessary parts, including the most important aspect, musical expression.  And the singer has experienced precisely that until recently.

Today, the singer was balanced, aware of faults but not obsessed.  The singer was able to sing with a relaxed precision that I had not heard before.  Obviously great strides were made. Yet as we talked, I noticed familiar refrains:

"So, once the legato is mastered, everything will fall into place!"
To which I replied: "No, it is just one other thing that contributes to the whole."
Then came: "In this new repertoire, it seems that much more pressure and connection is needed!" 
"No" I countered.  The fact that singing felt effortful in the training phase does not mean it needs to remain this way.  You are at a point in your singing whereby the relationship between your brain and your body needs to be simple.  The brain desires, the body does.  And the body is able now to respond and do whatever you ask of it.  No extra effort is needed!"

I too have experienced very important technical strides the last two months.  Singing is becoming simpler and a lot easier. And so I am considering accepting an audition opportunity. I have always had a particular ability to let the voice do what it can in the moment of performance without interfering too much.  When practicing, perhaps I have had a need to interfere too much.  One might think the former to be a virtue and the latter to be more of a vice.  Balance is found actually between the two. One should allow the voice to do what it can but with a firm conviction and commitment to a technical philosophy.  Certain parts of my technique have become almost automatic and others not.  As I practiced today, thinking about the audition, I tried to conceive myself in the audition situation.  In many ways it was exciting and I allowed the music to carry my imagination.  Everything felt easy until a high Bb that I rarely miss got caught.  I stopped and redid it and it was fine but still more effortful than I wanted.  Suddenly I realized that I was thinking so much about one aspect of technique that I allowed a very important fundamental to escape my attention: Open Throat!  That rarely happens.  Later when I had a minute, I tried the passage again with a better organized mind and the Bb was simple, flexible and relatively effortless.

The tendency to focus on one thing, no matter how important is an eternal trap. Life is a tight-rope act! There is the rope and its particular tension.  Then there are the feet and the special shoes for tight-rope walking.  Then there is the fitness of the legs and the ability to balance.  There is the long pole used for balancing and there is the placement of the two hands that hold the pole.  There is the angle of the arms bent at the elbow and there is the strength of the arms to maintain the pole in balance, changing the angle with every step, etc...If the tight-rope walker concentrate on any one thing to the exclusion of the others, he will fall!  The singer fails for the same reason! The human being fails in life when his attention is governed by an obsession with one thing, whether career, family, work or play.  In life as in singing, one thing depends on all the other things.  At any given time, one thing may take priority.  Hence the Art of Life as the Art of Singing is based on the ability to give priority to what needs it.  And that is ever changing!

Continuing with my French upbringing and heritage, I became a student of Dalton Baldwin, eventually meeting some of the stalwarts of the French Song repertoire, such as José van Dam, Gérard Souzay and Ely Ameling.  I relished the many years of work with the great Baldwin, a superlative musician and a gifted collaborative pianist.  The concerts we did together still stay with me.  What was always difficult were the classes with him.  There was a sense that a certain French song had to be sung a certain way and there was no variation.  There was a certain necessary "perfectionnement" that occupies my mind until this day.  The need to sing a beautiful mezza-voce was so all-consuming that I would do it in any way I could, never thinking that certain technical fundamentals had to be accomplished before I can master such a skill.  Indeed when I became a tenor, of a more robust kind than usually sang the French song repertoire, I had to put the work of my life to the side.  After concentrating on Otello and Don Alvaro and Don José for five years, the ability to sing Poulenc's Bleuet, a song I was obsessed with, is becoming seriously possible.  The needed well-supported mezza-voce as I heard in the recording with Nicolai Gedda and Dalton Baldwin, is becoming consistent throughout my range.  By putting the song and all it represented to me to the side, I was able to find my center and in so doing, the song becomes possible in my voice and not as an effect that required me to go against my nature as was the case for some 25 years.

A defining time in the progress of any person occurs when s/he is strong enough to get rid of an obsession.  To take distance from something that means a great deal and trust that if that thing is supposed to be part of his/her life, it will return and with a more appropriate relationship to the self.

Artists too often confuse passion and obsession.  To be passionate about something in balance is to know when the best thing to do relative to that something is to put it aside or go away from it.

French classical singing is rooted in early French Opera, which has its roots in French Theater at its apex during the Age of Enlightenment.  The French prize their language and its beauty perhaps more than other culture.  While the spoken word in theater may be articulated in "purity,"  most of the 14 vowels in the French language must modify considerably in order to preserve vocal balance.  The French singer who is not willing to modify his/her obsession with linguistic purity is bound to experience extreme vocal imbalance.  For the profoundly artistic nature of the French people as a culture, it is nevertheless not a mystery to me why so few native French speakers have developed world-class careers in the last century as compared to Italians or Germans or Swedes or Spanish or Americans.  The Belgian baritone, José van Dam understood this and consequently said that he does not sing with a "French" technique.  It is also not surprising that the most vocally pleasing performances of French mélodies are to be found in the recordings of van Dam himself, Nicolai Gedda, Jessye Norman and William Parker, who loved the French language and mastered it but who did not have to be prisoners to the obsessions of the "perfectionnement de language" as most native French speakers are.

"The Devil (which we create) appears in surprising guises!" Yet it appears dressed in all the things we hold dear.  Obsession is the killer of Art and Life.

© 05/07/2013




Monday, May 6, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Leaning Out the Substantial Lower Voice: Isolating the Thyromuscularis

It is important for this discussion to define the transition point between "Heavy Mechanism" and "Light Mechanism".  There is a point in the vocal range whereby the voice is dominated by a sensation of "stretching" of "leaning out".  The "two-register model" would have that point at middle C (C4) for men +/- a perfect 4th with very low basses at the lower extreme and the tenorino at the higher extreme. One octave higher for women of comparable voice types. Basses sense a change around G3 (contraltos at G4), Baritones feel a little struggle at Bb3 (mezzos at B4b) while tenors seem to feel it around C4# or D4 (dramatic sopranos at C5# and lyrics at D5).  Tenorinos can sense the beginning of instabilities around F4 and even as high as G4 (Very high coloraturas at F5).  These points of change, these passaggi, do not take into account voices that are over produced in the low and causing a need for change earlier in the voice.

Indeed the influence of the Thyromuscularis (TM) may be crucial to balance and efficiency of the folds during phonation.  Unfortunately the literature on this muscle is at times contradictory.  Because TM is a part of the Thyroarytenoid muscle system (TA), it is considered in tandem with its complement Thyrovocalis (vocalis muscle) to thicken and relax the vocal folds.  Some believe that the TM contributes to the same action.  Others observe a branch of the TM that supports the functions of the Lateral Crico-Arytenoid, which is to adduct and lengthen the vocal folds.  It is this latter action that I find interesting.  See following sources:

1.
2.
3.

Experts agree that when the folds lengthen, they tend to approximate more because of this additional medial action by Thyromuscularis.  Yet the lengthening of folds does not mean that they will be adducted ideally.  It seems there is an extra lengthening and adducting that is essentially a function of TM.  It is also my belief that the contraction of TM is driven by vowel quality. If the singer  intends to produce a vowel quality that includes strong high overtones, the TM probably contracts to create those conditions.  TM however is a refining muscle.  Its action contributes positively to a situation where there is already a relatively good balance between fold mass (substance) and glottal closure (adduction).  The additional contraction of TM (again probably driven by vowel quality) can make all the difference in the acoustic passaggi (where the voice necessitates a change as to which vowel formants will dominate the spectrum of harmonics).

When there is adequate substance and adequate fold closure, the additional stretch and adduction of the TM produces a level of efficiency that results in a source tone richer in high overtones.  These overtones can be further enhanced by acoustic adjustments making the entire phonation process less resistent at the glottal juncture.

In plain terms,  a voice that is substantial and well adducted will benefit from a brighter concepts of vowels as long as the natural laryngeal depth is not compromised.

Achieving the combination of "open throat", clean and clear adduction and a brighter concept of the vowel  will result in sensations of high harmonics toward "the mask."  If this balance is achieved in the lower range, the transition from low to high (heavy mechanism to light mechanism) becomes fluid and dynamic.  A lower voice that does not experience this leanness leads to the necessity of an abrupt change from heavy to light.

It is important to note that this is not about singing "lightly" in the low range.  The nature of the low and  lower middle ranges is such that sufficient vocal mass is imperative.  Within the natural heavier construct of the lower voice there is room for stretching and leaning.  Singing too lightly in the low will only force tightening at the glottal juncture, elevating sub-glottal pressure and raising the larynx.  It is important to make the difference between the desirable "substantial and lean" lower and lower middle voice to a "light" lower voice lacking in fundamental substance.

© 05/06/2013

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Chest Cavity AND Mask: Complimentary Antagonism

If there is any symbol of consistency on this blog it is the words "AND"and "PARADOX".  The biggest problem in addressing vocal technique issues is one-sidedness.  Even in the case of a teacher addressing a missing part, it is too often one-sided in treatment.  It is more common to hear: "You need more brilliance!"  There is nothing wrong with that statement except it should be followed by: "...However be sure not to lose your excellent depth in pursuit of brilliance!"

After a singer has developed muscular-balance training (the part usually taken for granted) comes the issue of vocal coordination, too often based on personal esthetics.  Some like brighter sounds and some like darker sounds.  One to the exclusion of the other however leads to imbalance.  I have often quoted my late teacher, Ada Finelli: "Chiaro e scuro! Non chiaro o scuro!" (Bright and dark! No bright or dark!).

The question is:  what are the characteristics of dark and bright?  How does the singer feel these sensations?

Indeed bright and dark can be expressed in all kinds of ways that may help or hurt the ultimate vocal balance.  I would express it thus:

Scuro (Spaciousness):  Sensations of a vibrating chest cavity is associated with low notes.  It is because in the average singer, low notes are relatively relaxed and balanced.  This sensation of resonant chest cavity is based on four aspects of singing that I can think of:

A. Relaxation of the throat (i.e. the natural low position of the larynx when there is no laryngeal constriction)
B. A clear source tone, whereby the folds approximate adequately, without breathiness or pressing.
C. Consistent breath pressure/flow induced by a need to express (I believe idiomatic, i.e. specific support is driven by emotional commitment to the note being sung.
D. A clear idea of the text being sung (specificity of vowel concept and clear and efficient articulation of consonants).

It might be interesting to some that I include efficient phonation and clear vowel as a part of "Scuro".  This is purposeful.  The vowel should have a spacious, three-dimensional nature that reflects the complete resonance chamber including not only the chest as mentioned above but also sensations of vibrancy in the head.  What brings the vocal intensity "forward" inducing "mask" sensations is the following:

Chiaro (Brilliance):  Given that the folds are approximating well (i.e. deeply enough and fully closing the glottis but not pressing), the length of the folds (i.e. the stretch) is what ultimately produce true brilliance (strong high overtones as opposed to weak low ones produced by pressed voice).

Attempt this exercise:

Sing a comfortable low note and attempt to find its best balance: A) a complete sense of resonance space low and high, a clear tone that also flows and is sung with some emotional intensity (think happy for starters) on the clearest, deepest [a] vowel possible not pushed too loud or held back too softly!  From this ideally comfortable note, sing legato to one octave higher on the vowel [i]!

Unless you resist too much, the voice will feel like it stretches upward and even feel like it turns a corner toward the mask.  This is natural!

The questions in finding balance are the following:

1) When you sang to the octave on [i], did you lose the sense of the open chest cavity of the low note?

If so, the folds have a tendency of thinning out too much as you go up in pitch.  Solution: Seek to maintain the sensation of flow and clarity and spaciousness as the voice naturally stretches to the top note.

2) Did you sense that the voice did not stretch up at all?

If so, it is possible that your own concept of your tone may be too much geared to the dark sounds.  The folds may be forced too thick to create a sound that is richer than natural, which would resist the natural stretch.  Maintain depth and clarity and flow, but be sure that the tone has buoyancy (that it is not stuck or rigidly anchored).

Over-producing the voice in the low range and over-thinning in the top are the common problems that young singers face.  Often these natural tendencies are then over-corrected.  The singer may then sing way too lightly in the low or over-resist the stretch in the high to compensate for the tendencies of too stiff at the bottom and too elastic at the top, respectively.

As in anything balance is the key.  We should begin with the premise that all the best qualities are possible in any voice.  The voice should be substantial, rich, spacious, clear, flowing and brilliant all at once.  Never give up one good quality to achieve another!  However one should be willing to reduce a quality that may be exaggerated.  Each voice is different and so each singer must find the ultimate balance that gives rise to all these wonderful qualities in balance: A sensation of Complimentary Antagonism.

© 04/25/2013

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): So Much More Than Voice!!!

Sometimes we teachers cannot help it!  We occasionally get on a philosophical soapbox attempting to explain to students that success in the field has so much more to do with "extra-vocal" things.  In my new studio space in New York, there is a photo of George London.  It is an ad by Columbia Artists from the early 1950s promoting their magnificent Bass-baritone.  One does not need to know much about George London or his unusually resonant and elastic voice to realize that promotion of a singer has in fact little to do with their voice quality and so much more to do with their ability to exude a charismatic energy, which has everything to do with a sense of confidence in their talent.  Yet it is not only about how George London fit in his balletic tutu-like outfit, portraying Don Giovanni, but rather how he got to the point where that photo became necessary.

According to the moving biography written by London's wife, his beginnings were relatively normal, but that magnificent voice was accompanied by a 1950s American post-war ideology of self-reliance and self-determination.  The dominant questions back then were "what can I do to move myself forward?" or "How hard do I need to work to get there?" Granted, operatic expectations were clearer.  A voice perhaps played a bigger part, but musicianship and stage-deportment and language skills were as important even at a time when there was no internet and access to a foreign country was nearly a pipe-dream.  Nevertheless, singers back then in large part were musically more aware and linguistically better studied.  My own former teacher, George Shirley, still has the best recording of the role of Pelléas  available anywhere and his French diction is flawless.  How does an African-American born in Indianapolis and raised in Detroit get to pronounce French that well and to sing the quintessential French opera better than most if not all French speakers?  And this during the American Civil Rights era, when it was very difficult for African-Americans to get cast in lead roles in opera?

Having spent six years in the company of George Shirley, I can say without hesitation that I have met few people in the world who are as positive as he is.  His success came through perseverance and hard work and a voice devoid of "pretense!"  I have aspired to be like him since I met him. Authentic! True to myself.  Yet as much as we claim to value authenticity, the world is a paradoxical place that seeks to assimilate people into the "general" consciousness.  And performers, who are supposed to train to seek their inner truth, are just as easily victimized by this fear of coming out of the "norms".

Most singers I meet are afraid to be themselves or are afraid to discover who they truly are.  Yet the only chance they have to become special in their field is to discover their unique voice.  To be "natural," "unpretentious," "transparent" is usually untrained out of us when we come out of the womb, perhaps already before.  Young opera singers for the most part have already formed a "false" voice the moment they decided to follow the path of operatic singing.  They usually manufacture stylistic idiosyncrasies before they have developed a sense of what their true vocal center is.  The search for the true voice is "personal" it is "intimate" it requires a sense of "defiance" against anything false, which includes most often family conditionings that we have come to accept as innate.

Most of the singers I work with are very hard working people.  But very few are willing to work hard at the things that are hard to work on.  There is a reason that truly "realized" people are few.  It is because it takes a "revolution" against many things we were taught to hold dear in order to become our true selves and as much as I hate to admit it, most of us are not willing to take the scary adventure of ridding ourselves of our earliest brain-washings.

We are all of us afraid.  The question is whether we chose to be defined by our fears or that WE define ourselves despite our fears.

I tell my students always.  I cannot guarantee anyone's success.  You succeed only when you are prepared and willing to go "All-In!"  "Walk the tight rope without a net!" "Put it all on the line!"

Nothing is more difficult for me than to see the potential in a student and then see them turn away from it!  Turn away from themselves!

The conflict I see in the average aspiring opera singer is the following: A little voice deep inside says "you are here to sing!" And so the desire and instinct to sing is powerful. But the brain that has been washed says: "what makes you think you could ever become a successful opera singer?"

Most singers are more willing to listen to the second voice even though they cannot silence the first voice.  So they are tortured, pulled between the truth of their inner purpose and the denial by their learned fears.  That kind of torture is exhausting and depressing!  Consequently they use their energy on easily achieved goals to soothe the inner fear of failure.  They resist inner change and deny themselves the very experiences that can teach them how to deal with this inner struggle. Even though they do not realize it, they have already given up!  It does not matter how many positive examples they see before them, of colleagues who have persevered and conquered.  They prefer to see the reasons why they are bound to fail.  "I'm not thin enough!" "My voice is not big enough!" "I'm not big enough!" "My voice is too big for the current market!"

If you are not willing to tell the negative voice: "Shut up! You're distracting me! I've got work to do!" Then you should shut up! Because you are distracting people who have got work to do!

© 04/10/2013

Friday, April 5, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Vocal Fry: A Means To Efficiency

Teacher: "Your folds need to close completely!  The tone needs to be more 'focused', less breathy!"
Student:  "But how much?  Won't it be pressed?  Is there a sensation of what the right amount is?"


The question is one of precision.  What is the ideal sensation of fold posture?  After years working with the "vocal fry" with the purpose of training efficiency, it has become one of my fundamental tools.  I once asked an esteemed colleague if he ever used the vocal fry.  His response was:  "yes the 'creaky voice' is an ideal set-up.  The problem is going from the low pressure of the vocal fry to the higher and constant compression of actual singing."

Over the years I realized that the reason why the vocal fry only works in the low range is that the lower range has enough natural mass to allow efficient vibration without too much medial pressure (this is discussed often here on the blog. See here!).  Therefore if fold depth were appropriate in the upper range (beyond the muscular passaggio where the folds are in thinning mode instead of thickening mode), that is, not over-thinning as is the tendency, the "fry set-up" could be maintained.

In fact, the gentle vocal fry (one could go from a fry tone to a pressed tone by over-compressing) is as efficient as the folds can come together (i.e. full-closure without pressing, which necessitates ideal fold depth).  The object is to teach the entire range to accomplish the three-way dynamic between the CT-TA-IA muscle groups in order to achieve the necessary fold depth that makes a fry posture possible when compression is increased to create a self-sustaining vibration.

The training exercise (videos forth-coming on the Kashu-do Website, which will be launched by May 1, 2013) would be simply to sustain a gentle vocal fry, clear and regular and then go to tone without a change in the fry posture.  Again, this exercise only works when adequate fold depth has been achieved .  This I have done through occlusives such as vocalizing on voiced consonants, rolled Rs and lip-trills.

The vocal fry has gotten a bad rap because it is not a "supported" sound.  This is true.  The 'fry' is not compressed like a good tone, but it does indeed bring the folds perfectly to midline with relatively no pressure.  The key is to use this aspect and go from the fry tone to a compressed tone without a change in the fry sensation.  My success rate with this has been remarkable.

Because the 'fry tone', like any exercise,  can be performed in many different ways, it is important to know how to do it to get best possible results.  I stress the word "gentle."  A pressed vocal fry is tantamount to a stiff chest tone associated with "improper belting" and forcing (Belting can be done with a balanced tone.  In fact I encourage singers to learn how to belt correctly.  It will have a positive influence on classical singing if approached with balance).

If the gentle fry is indeed in a state of a balanced exchange of air from below the glottis to above it (hence the absence of sub-glottic pressure build-up), it follows that if that state is maintained, compressed air can also be exchanged in the same way, whereby the pressure needed for maintaining fold vibration is exchanged into flow thereby preventing an unhealthy rise in sub-glottic  pressure.

© 04/05/2013

Added after publication:

I should add that whenever we are dealing with muscular re-balancing, there will be a learning curve (i.e. if will take time for the muscles to adjust and strengthen in the new configuration).  Some singings whose closure mechanism always included full glottal closure (balanced or pressed) will have less problem with the vocal fry than a singer who has sung breathily up to the point of using the exercise.  With time, the natural compression of singing will not feel like such an effort.  Indeed many singers do not progress because they avoid the necessary compression of full-glottal closure.  Current pedagogical norms, as reflected in much of academia, prizes the avoidance of pressure of any kind.  Consequently, many young singers go out of school without ever achieving the complete closure necessary for a viable operatic/theatrical tone.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Double Dynamite: Damrau and Domingo in Traviata at the MET!!!

I decided to become a singer in the early 1980s after seeing Otello with Placido Domingo at the MET.  It has been 9 years since I heard this magnificent singer live when the concert was not outdoors and amplified.  I had also resisted paying to see him sing a baritone role.  The MET's Willy Decker production of Traviata was very enticing for the simple fact that Diana Damrau sings the title role.  My girlfriend, a coloratura with a pure rich voice had not yet seen Damrau live and I insisted she sees the show.  The darling woman sat in line for hours to get rush-tickets since we decided to go last minute and remaining tickets were in the hundreds of dollars.  She was able to get two orchestra seats for a very reasonable price and there we were.

Willy Decker's production featured a minimalist set shaped like a semicircular acoustic shell. Indeed it helped the singers' voices noticeably.  The production has Dr. Grenville in the role of a rather passive Green Reaper, in elegant modern dress and a large clock that supposedly keeps the remaining time of Violetta's life.  Other than that, the stage was furnished with one or several sofas depending on the scene.  The time factor worked particularly well.  The concept was limiting but in Damrau, with her usual balletic, quick energy (a little over-the-top at the beginning given the bare stage), the production had its most perfect advocate and motor.

Traviata is a taxing role that requires many skills:  deft coloratura singing and a top Eb in the Sempre Libera, breath-taking cantilena in both Ah forse lui and Addio del passato (my girlfriend was moved to tears during the latter) and great stamina as she is onstage most of the opera and always in emotionally and vocally very taxing numbers.  Beyond all that, the singer of the title role must be an actress of the first water, to make sense of two dramatic recitations within the stylized singing environment of an unusually tuneful opera, without sounding suddenly superficially melodramatic.  The recitations must be natural and yet must be able to pack an emotional punch commensurate with the level of intensity found in the music of the opera.  A very tall order!  And this coloratura was born to sing this role.  Several years ago, I argued on a the NFCS discussion list that Damrau was not only the top coloratura soprano of the day but on of the most inventive actresses of her time.  Many did not agree.  This Traviata brings an already celebrated artist to the level of sensation!

I had forgotten how Placido Domingo's voice envelops the soul!  It was its unique richness and intensity that made me choose to become a singer in 1982 and the voice sounds even richer in the comfortable baritone tessitura.  Domingo was never a baritone in reality even though he sang some baritone parts in his parent's Zarzuela company.  This is a magnificent tenor voice that is fully developed and what is remarkable is that in a cast that includes the magnificence of Diana Damrau, Domingo's voice was the most present and most exciting voice on stage and it is not only because of his legendary status.  Domingo's voice in his 70s is absolutely secure, with an even vibrato and absolute intonation.  His command of the stage is undisputed and his characterization specific and unusually convincing.  I dare say, I have not seen a Germont that has developed this character as thoroughly as him.  And I have sung the role myself.  It is still the most satisfying voice to be heard on the operatic stage today.  Some voices mature like a great wine, Domingo's voice would have to be commensurate with the 1961 Chateau Latour, considered one of the greatest wines of all time and coincidentally the year of Domingo's Met, Vienna, Scala and Verona debuts.

The Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu has a nice voice that is still developing. This is an artist with potential both as singer and actor.  His best sounds came when he sings with full emotional vigor, at which time the complete richness of his voice comes through and excites.  Those moments were too few.  Unfortunately for him, not being fully ripe does not work well when you share the stage with Damrau and Domingo.  The Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted elegantly.  He is among a new crop of conductors who understands how to balance an orchestra with singers.  Every voice was audible at all times.  He also has an impecable lyric sense, squeezing Verdi's score for every melodic syrup that it has (not difficult with Damrau and Domingo carrying the tunes), yet he never lost the effervescent vigor of the Parisian party scene as is evocative in his brisk tempi in the chorus numbers.

The supporting cast was engaged and energetic with the voices of Jason Stearns and Kyle Pfortmiller  as Douphol and D'Obigny particularly present and beautiful.  The night however belongs to Damrau and Domingo, Double D for Dynamite!!!

© 03/27/2013