Sunday, January 27, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): The "It" Factor: An Old Conversation With an Old Friend and Colleague

What makes someone seem special? What makes them come out of the numbers?  As I selected a few students from my NY Studio to give the full extent of my experience, I had to decide who was truly ready for it.  Who was ready for hard criticism and would take it positively, as intended?  Who could withstand my constant: "that is not enough! You can do better!" or my "there are no excuses! Do it or don't do it!" Who thrives when confronted by a great fellow competitor and who gets scared? Who rejoices in a colleagues success and is inspired by it and who thinks "maybe I am not good enough!"

I have a dear dramatic soprano friend, who often has fears.  Before an audition she is visibly nervous.  But when she walks into the audition room, it is as if the winner had just arrived and everyone looking on knows it.  I asked her why that is.  "First of all", said I, "why do you get scared before an audition when you seem otherwise so confident?"

"I am always afraid I am not good enough," said she, "But God forbid anyone should ever know that and got forbid I should ever truly give in to that fear. In the moment I enter that room, I am committed to the thought that I am the only choice for them.  If they do not realize it, they don't have their head screwed on right."

"Are you tricking yourself into believing a lie that you are that good?" I asked.

"No!" She replied categorically. "I am that good, otherwise I would not get hired as often as I am.  The trick is not to believe the lie that I am not good enough!  I am good enough because my singing is my business and I work on it every day, whether it is keeping up with my contacts by sending a friendly email, or that I go to my coach and we rehash some Wagnerian phrase that I did not like last time, or that I ask a knowledgeable friend like you whether my middle range has improved since last you heard it!"

"How do you deal with criticism?  What if someone tells you you are not talented enough for your goals?"

"Many have over the years!  You've heard it too, haven't you?" She shot back at me.  "Who do you believe?  Those who help you to see your potential or those who are too blind by their own biases to see what is possible?"

"So in the end it is a choice!" I affirmed.

She smiled and said coyly:  "You know it is a choice.  Are you just looking for someone to agree with you?"

I smiled back and said: "No! I don't need your agreement.  But it is good when someone you respect sees it the way you do."

"My friend," she continued, "you, more than most, understand what this is about!  When someone asks me what is the It Factor, I tell them what you told me when we first met a long time ago: It is a vision that you are here to accomplish something special in your chosen field.  And so, the negatives that some people bring to the discussion are not helpful.  So you simply decide to let them roll off of you like water off of a duck's back.  Only give worth to what furthers your vision!"

"So you don't accept criticism," I wagered just to play the Devil's Advocate.

"You know that is not what I am saying!"  She countered.  "If someone said to me, as you have for example:  'Darling, your middle range needs work.  It is noticeably weaker han your magnificent top and rich low!'  I will consider that statement because it is balanced, informative and I consider the source.  You want me to improve!  As you know, I have continuously worked since you told me this on the middle and it is better.  My agent noticed it and some of my colleagues have commented on it.  But if some self-absorbed coach, conductor, director, agent, colleague or whatever says to me: 'your talent is just limited!'  I will simply ignore it because it is a blanket statement that undermines everything I have done to get here.  How does that help?  Admittedly, we can find valuable information even in the most negative statement, but sometimes we are not ready to deal with such assaults and so temporarily, I might decide to ignore a statement or shelf it somewhere until I am more equipped to deal with it.  Nevertheless, whatever I occupy my time with must be to further my vision of how I want this to work out!"

"What if your vision never works out?"  I asked dryly.

"You're just being provocative, Jean-Ronald!  It is not a question you ever personally consider. Let me ask you then!  Why do you never give worth to that question?"

"First of all I find that to consider that possibility is paralyzing.  It does nothing to help my cause.  I can only concentrate on what I can do right now to further my goals. What happens may fall short of my goals, fall far beyond them or end up resulting in something completely different.  In the end, the journey toward a possible end game is the prize!"

She looked at me for a few seconds, somewhat amused:  "Would you say then that the it factor is an absolute concentration on the 'positive' of the now?"

"I have more than once used that very definition!" I replied.

"What does it mean concretely?" She asked knowing my answer.

"It means that people are attracted to someone who seems positive in the moment!  To be truly convinced that your future is in your own hands is a powerful statement and it fills you with an intense energy that others see as inspiring and enlightening.  All of my heroes have this energy!  You have it!"

"Then we are heroes to each other!"

© 01/27/2013

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Yin and Yang of Teaching and Learning: A Tribute to Maestro Steven Crawford

"...Life is effort!  You just have to decide which effort you are willing to make.  I can decide whether I will make the effort to stand up from my piano bench with pain or the effort to work out every day so that I do not have to make the painful effort of standing up from the piano bench.  It's a choice!

Likewise, you may either give the energy (support) to the note you are currently on so that it is well supported, such that the high note that comes after it has the best chance of coming out wonderfully or you can lazily sing the note you are on with the absolute certainty that the top note after it will be 'effortful'!"

I am paraphrasing Maestro Steven Crawford above; a refined pianist/conductor who worked at the Metropolitan Opera for many years, coached and continues to coach some of the finest singers in Opera today.  What makes Steve Crawford so particularly effective is that he understands great singing and even more, he understands what singers need to do to allow their voices to behave most effectively and efficiently. He understands and can articulate how singers get in their own way!  More than that, he shows them how to be active in their own singing without hindering their own process.

"...What I have to tell most singers, I don't have to tell you.  You have a great technique and musicality.  You need to sing as if you don't have any vocal problems, because you don't!  Let your understanding of the music guide you!"

It is important to walk into a lesson as an "empty cup" needing to be filled (my Kung Fu teacher, Sifu Karl Romain,  always says this).  One of the most difficult things for a singer who has had to fight to develop a technique is that fighting remains a part of his personal journey.  At what point is the fight over?  When do we start to enjoy the fruits of our hard labor?  As wise people do, Steve gave me a choice with the statement above.  To embrace this, I had to put my own process aside in a way.  By simply following his directions I realized how to effectively use the tools that I had built for my self.

To use a metaphor, when my car was broken down, I had to push it.  After the car was repaired, I continued to push it.    Efforts that were necessary in the begin, when I lacked the strength in singing were no longer needed.  It took a leap of faith to simply open my mouth and hear what I desired coming out without excessive effort.

"Singing begins in the imagination.  You must know precisely what sound you want to make and commit to it.  Your body/voice will follow and produce the required sound."

Steve reminded me of an axiom that I often use with my students.  "Build the machine and then allow it to function the way it was designed to function.  The voice is mostly automatic.  Just make sure that all its parts are in proper working order."

But do not think that Steve Crawford is all about philosophy!  What makes him so extremely effective is that he gives simple directives that yield astounding results.  He not only understands how the voice functions but he understands the singer's mind and how conscious thought and the instrument work together.  He teaches precisely how one gets the best results from his/her voice.  It would be belittling to attempt to describe his approach.  One needs to experience it.

How does one get to understand singers so well?  Well it turns out that Steven Crawford sang since he was a child and in very professional situations.  Furthermore, he has the greatest curiosity about the function of the singing voice and wish to understand the singer from the singer's point of view.  This wonderfully humble teacher who, by virtue of his vast experience, could easily dictate his wisdom from his piano bench, asked me to exchange lessons with him.  And so after my coaching, I taught him a voice lesson.  We have done this a couple of times and we continue to do this exchange.

It was intimidating for me to teach this master who just taught me so much!  Yet he told me he was intimidated the first time he was going to teach me because he had been impressed with what he had experienced with my students.  Indeed, what this exchange is teaching us is that there is no need for intimidation when each of us comes as "an empty cup," ready and hoping to be filled.  We want the same result but we approach the problem from different angles.  His unique vision has made me a better teacher and when my students go to him, I hope they are now a little better prepared to absorbe his extraordinary knowledge.

I always knew there would come a point when I would need guidance.  I trained myself for 5 years to build the structure of my singing.  Now I have a master who understands what I need to do to maximize my effectiveness as a singer and to achieve true vocal beauty and musical expression.

I could not have found this from teachers who believe that singing should be "effortless."  In truth Steve makes a distinction between effort and the proper expenditure of physical energy.

"Music requires you to invest energy.  But when you invest that energy properly, music has a way of giving you even more in return.  Making music in a truly invested manner creates energy! It's really quite extraordinary!"

Steve Crawford does not call himself a voice teacher, but he is a lot more than a coach.  He has a unique ability to bridge the technician and the musician within one person.  Working with him is like being in the middle of a conversation between my best voice teacher and favorite conductor in the same room at the same time.

At the end of a session with Steve, having put my own technique aside,  I found myself on the A Train back to my studio, not having to leave my technique on the side line but rather with a clearer understanding of how to use the technique I have developed.

Indeed this new clarity required more than one session to understand.  In our earlier sessions, I labored to understand and took bits with me from each lesson.  Lately, I feel I understand in my body, what beautiful, expressive singing feels like again.  It's been a long time! Five years is a long time to take off when performing used to be almost a daily occurrence.

Thank you Maestro Steve Crawford for helping me to be a singer again!  This is just the beginning of a great deal of fun!

© 01/22/2013

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Vocal Categorization: What Is the Most Defining Criterion?

There are many disagreements when it come to vocal categorization A.K.A. "Faching", to use the American bastardization of the German term.

Many believe that timbre (vocal color) determines categorization! Upon hearing this Pollione's first line or even second or third, would you call him a tenor?

Especially compared to his very bright comprimario colleague, Lorenzo Decaro sound very much like a baritone and probably will produce a considerably more potent sound than the average lyric baritone in the same range.  So why is he a tenor? Later!

How about the mighty Turkish Efe Kislali!

From the first notes and the bass-like physique and beard, one would think a bass.

Both of these tenors defy categorization by timbre in the lower range and by physique.  Even in the top range the color remains very baritonal.  Why not baritone?

The royal richness of the voice of the incomparable Jessye Norman defies categorization.  She has sung mezzo roles like Carmen and Dalilah, but has been equally convincing in such soprano roles as Mozart's Contessa (on recording), Strauss' Ariadne, Wagner's Sieglinde and Isolde among others.

Violeta Urmana sang the most beautiful Tosca I had heard in years at the Deutsche Oper Berlin a little more than a year ago.

A few months later she opened the renovated Bolshoi Theater with a famous mezzo aria from Joan of Arc

Both Norman and Urmana settled on the categorization "dramatic soprano".  Indeed, being referred to as a dramatic voice does have a strong impact on our discussion here.  Dramatic voices in general are equivocal.  They naturally have deeper qualities that are associated "superficially" with lower voice categories.

There are many reasons why categorization is problematic.  A few of them follow:

1) Range:  A young woman has a relatively bright voice but has not yet developed the top range.  She is called "mezzo"!

A young man exhibits a beautiful quality up to Eb4 and struggles with F and G.  He is called a baritone although the timbre of his voice clearly suggests tenor.  Since he was experiencing problems with his Fs and Gs, no one bothered to find out that he in fact had an exceptionally powerful and well coordinated voice beyond G up and beyond D5.  It is his "tenor" passaggio that had not yet been developed.  He discovered his tenor potential himself.

2) Technique:  A singer is trained as a dramatic tenor for many years struggling with his top.  He could sing the 9-high C aria from the Daughter of the Regiment, so no one ever assume he could be anything but a tenor.  He also had a physique that reminded of a celebrated Heldentenor of his time.  No one in his circle thought to examine whether his strong high C was modal voice or reinforced falsetto.  Turned out to be the latter.  Now he is successfully making his way as a Bass-baritone particularly impressive in the Buffo roles.  A more powerfully resonant voice is rarely to be heard.

3) Physique:  Many singers who are slight of physique do not develop a sense of the extreme physical demands of operatic singing.  The production of the operatic voice depends upon the development of many muscles, including the entire core structure for breathing and the generation of the breath pressure/coordination necessary to vibrate the  vocal folds.  Singers who have bigger frames (and therefore bigger muscular structures) have an advantage (all things being equal).  If the muscles of the throat are well-developed, the singer with the bigger physical frame will have an advantage in generating breath support for the voice.  I do not talk about small-framed singers who are obese.  Obesity is not an advantage in the athletic art of operatic singing.  But neither is a frail frame without strength (unfortunately, not much thought is given to this in today's operatic meat market)!

Consequently, many singers (yours truly included) with smaller physical frames and more dramatic instruments begin their careers without the necessary physical strength to support the dramatic instrument in its natural range.  High notes are more difficult to produce because they require much stronger and much more precise breath support/coordination.  Indeed, singers like me begin their careers in the category that their physical strength can handle.  In my case, lyric baritone!  So why was that not enough?

We can now skip to the determining factor.  I was successful as a lyric baritone when my colleagues on stage had relatively more lyrical voices.  In conservatories and university settings, more lyric voices have an advantage.  Because dramatic voices take longer to develop, it is almost impossible, during the short time that students spend at a university, that a viable and balanced cast of dramatic voices would be available.  Even with a natural dramatic tenor voice, one music director at the University of Michigan found my voice too powerful for the baritone role of Malatesta (compared to the available cast of voices at the time) and convinced me to sing the bass role of Don Pasquale.  An argument could be made for the darker hue of my voice and for the fact that I had proven an excellent comic actor in some smaller parts in previous years.  However, by any professional standard, I should have sung Malatesta for that production especially given the fact that I interpolated a high Ab at the audition.

Therefore, the ultimate determinant is dramatic intensity in the context of the available ensemble and environment.  This not only drives academic norms in the world today but also the opera marketing machine for the most part.

How do you market Juan Diego Florez?  A handsome latin tenor of small frame who makes Rossini exciting to listen to.  He sings the difficult 9 high-Cs aria that Pavarotti made famous in Daughter of the Regiment and he does it easily.  We will not tell you that Mr. Florez has a very light voice and it will not have the sound pressure impact in the hall that Pavarotti's more traditional full lyric voice had.  We will surround him with voices that work well with his.  Lighter voices!  So the singers around Mr. Florez have to be singers who do not overwhelm him either physically or vocally.  So smaller and smaller-voiced singers will do well in his company. A natural baritone could easily sing bass roles in such company.  And some do!  It is logical!  If money is to be made from Mr. Florez's considerable charm and vocal flexibility, he must be surrounded with colleagues who will help feature his specific talent.

On the other side of the spectrum are the Wagnerian singers.  The Met Walküre last year featured Stephanie Blythe and Hans Peter König. Two bona fide Wagnerian voices that leave nothing to be desired.  They filled the hall with grand sounds.  It is a little bit more difficult to find singers who match them in voice. Wagnerian baritones and tenors are still the most sought after voices at the current time. That two very high profile singers Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann filled the cast speak more to-- 1) their marquee value (name recognition sells) in a very expensive production and 2) to their multi-faceted talents (i.e. extra-ordinary musicianship and stage-presence-- than it does to their ability to balance the likes of old school Wagnerian voices such as those of Blythe and König.  From my vantage point, they were both overwhelmed in scenes with Blythe and König.

However, it must be remembered that the operatic machine is at least two-sided today.  There is live opera and there is "opera at the movies!"  This impacts voice categorization in a direct manner, relating to tangible financial considerations.  If I was not satisfied with Terfel and Kaufmann's vocal power in the house, particularly in the presence of their mighty colleagues, Blythe and König respectively, I was blown away by them at the HD simulcast on the giant screen of my local movie theater.  Here is a situation whereby one can use microphones for opera while maintaining operatic purity in the house.  The experiences in the opera house and at the movies are extremely different from each other.  I must add that Blythe and König were just as impressive at the movies as they were in the house.  The only disadvantage (if it should be seen as one) is that their vocal superiority was less evident in the HD experience since the microphone levels are controlled to guarantee balance between the voices.

Vocal categorization in today's market goes beyond vocal considerations.  The major consideration for managers and casting directors are whether the singer fits in a predetermined niche.  Thomas Hampson is often asked whether he would consider dramatic tenor roles.  Such queries date as far back as this 1998 interview.  He replied categorically that he is a baritone and has no plans to sing tenor roles.  Hampson, one of the most successful classical singers in the world, filled a niche at a crucial time.  Hampson became prominent at the twilight of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's career.  His Mahler cycles with Bernstein remain a testament of his finest singing.

Everyone saw in him a superlative interpreter of songs with a beautiful voice and physique reminiscent of Dieskau.  That he also has the ability to render one of the best readings of Siegmund "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond..." from Wagner's Walküre to be found on recording has indeed caused many to wonder whether he would have done better in this repertoire, rather than the dramatic baritone roles that seem currently ill-suited to his natural instrument.  His response in the 1998 article explains everything:

"Do you know what the real definition of a lazy tenor is? ...A very rich baritone!"

This response symbolizes the times we are living in.  Opera is not what it used to be.  It is ever changing.  Even something as fundamental as vocal categorization in an operatic context is no longer a subject of any certainty.  Perhaps it never was.  If I am saddened about anything relative to vocal categorization is that those decisions are not made relative to the artist's ability to sound exciting on stage with an orchestra without a microphone.  Those are my personal criteria for a viable operatic voice.  Voice type should be gauged by the sweet spot of the voice.  Where, in a fully developed voice does the singer exhibit the most dramatic intensity and does it concur with the composer's music?  In other words, as a soprano, if you sing "Vissi d'arte" does the climactic Bb sound climactic or does it sound like a step higher might sound more satisfying?  If the latter, than you are more than likely a lyric and not a spinto. Yet in today's market, if you are attractive on screen, you may get to sing Tosca on an HD broadcast performance.

Perhaps I am old fashion, but in my experience, a singer singing roles that are truly compatible with his/her best, fully developed vocal material is many times more exciting than someone pretending, while singing in a tessitura that is easier but lacking in character and presence. Using a term borrowed from one of my students, my real definition of a lazy tenor is basso pretendo!

© 01/09/2013