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

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Voice Teacher and Coach: Singer In the Middle

Two events occurred this week that made me write this post on a subject I have wanted to address a long time ago.  First, a student of mine who has had a successful transition to another vocal category, actually getting her first contract in that new Fach, said to me that a coach at an audition (the wonderful student would not tell me who...nor did I care to know who), looked at her resumé and Zwischenfach repertoire choices (one dramatic soprano, her new Fach and one dramatic mezzo, her old Fach) and said something along the lines that he did not understand this mixed repertoire.  She replied she was at the end of a Fach change and is still considering repertoire from both categories that still felt comfortable.  His response was something along the lines: "...Ah, you study with Jean-Ronald LaFond.  He tends to mess with people's Fach!"

The second event, not completely surprising, I parted ways with a wonderful young singer who felt that she would be violating her coach's approach by doing what I need her to do from a technical standpoint.

First issue:  It is important to set something straight.  Because I went through a very public Fach change and successfully, many students who suspected they might be a different voice type have approached me and consequently we have worked it out.  I have a group of tenors in my studio who are former baritones.  We have a regular "Tenor Summit" and last night at just such a gathering, we discussed this and in no case was I the instigator of the change.

Generally  as a teacher, I will have a point of view about a singer's voice type that may or not be in agreement with some current points of view in the field.  With so many natural tenors singing lyric baritone or sopranos singing mezzo, clearly there are issues of disagreement.  I take always a philosophical view and a practical view of the issue.

1) Philosophically:  A singer's best voice category is one that gives the voice the opportunity to bloom where the repertoire needs it to bloom.  Example:  why did I make a change to tenor?  Because when I sang as a baritone, I was lauded for my warm voice but it lacked thrust.  My coach at the time convinced me I should make the change when he heard me sing a tenor aria at a party as a joke.  He said it is the most impressive and expressive he had ever heard me.  He was correct, because people are becoming more and more impressed with my "voice" (artistry was never in question) as it settles.

Thus, at a reading of Carmen in Berlin with some of my high level professional students, the Micaela was a dramatic coloratura who can sing every day to a full-bodied Bb6 (yes almost one octave above high C) and often beyond that.  I have a recording of just such a warm-up!  The Queen of the Night is a walk in the park for her.  Yet, with a fully developed voice she sang a drop-dead gorgeous Micaela.  Truly beautiful.  Does singing Micaela make her a lyric soprano?  No.  It makes her a dramatic coloratura who's voice is rich enough throughout to sing even a lyric role convincingly.  But her most excellent work is in Queen, Lucia, Konstanze and Zerbinetta, roles that require a higher tessitura, in which the most exciting part of her voice is featured.  As Micaela, she is memorable.  As the Queen, she is unforgettable.

2) Practically:  Am I going to tell my coloratura she cannot sing Micaela?  No.  With a fully developed voice, she should accept whatever role she can sing convincingly and within the safe limits of her instrument.  But I would not have her audition as a lyric just because she is being offered "a" lyric role.

Interesting enough, I have another dramatic coloratura, young one, in my studio who sang Micaela last year.  In her case, the coloratura side of her voice is not yet fully developed.  So the pressure on her to sing lyric roles is strong.  She has a very large voice for a coloratura.  But do you completely forego a possible Eda Moser-like talent because it is easier to train them in a repertoire in which they might get some lower level adulations?  Or do you train the student relative to her future while allowing her to take on some roles in another Fach if they are offered and if they are appropriate?


Second issue:  One of my favorite coaches sent me a student whom she had been working with for quite a while hoping I might be able to shed some light on her vocal issues.  It began quite well until the young student perceived a difference in opinion and felt herself in the middle.  I expressed to the student that the coach's job is to get her to function the best possible within the limits of what she has currently as vocal substance.  My job is to build her voice for the long haul.  Since my philosophy is about building structure first, correct coordination as I see them are not always readily possible.  I believe in doing the correct coordination regardless the current results in a voice lesson.  It is perfectly ok to me if a singer cracks a note while attempting to sing it correctly because they lack the strength to do it.  I am not a fan of getting a note to come out respectably at all costs.

Correct technique yields results over time.  Once those results become consistent, they do not go away.  Compensatory modifications can get a momentary result, but it will not be viable in all circumstances.  Vowel modification is popular in modern vocal pedagogy because one can always find a vowel that is convenient relative to the strength of the overtones present in the source tone.  But we should have an ideology about what should be possible on a given note, meaning that the old school idea of "pure vowels" has an indispensable place in vocal pedagogy despite the fact that vowel (resonance)  modification is a scientific fact.

There is a big difference between conceiving the vowel purely relative to the singer's personal concept of that vowel combined with a relaxed throat, whereby vowel modification is the spontaneous end result between paradoxical functions (text articulation vs. low larynx) and choosing a vowel modification relative to the poor limits of the source tone.  The source tone depends on both the depth of the folds during vibration and the medial pressure of fold closure.  Until that balance is achieved, ideal resonance postures cannot be achieved.

Am I against a coach who is trying to help a singer get the best results from their instruments in the moment?  Certainly not!  It is their job.  In an ideal world, there would be no disagreement, because the student would not be visiting a coach until her technique was finished.  But that is not the reality of the world.  I am thankful to a coach who can help the singer sing their best within their current means, because I am then free to work the singer on the other side and help him/her develop a final vocal structure.

Some students however, do not have the wherewithal to see the advantages in such a relationship.  My personal coach helps me put my technical mind aside and deal with my voice from a musical standpoint.  I have made great strides that way.  But the fact that I can do much better in my upper range than my low does not decry the fact that there are some technical issues still to be rectified in the low range.  The better I work my technique, the better the advice of my private coach work for me.  They go hand and hand and I have made substantial strides recently because of that.  This works because when I go to my coach, I walk in as an empty cup.  I try to the best of my ability with his help to put my technical know-how aside.  Only then can I really learn from him.  Yet it does not mean that I completely forget about the technique that has gotten me here and from my own estimation I have not mastered yet.


For that reason, I do not have much use for coaches who will pronounce a voice teacher summarily "wrong" because their "opinion" matters more to them than the singer's future.  Indeed voice teachers can be just wrong occasionally.  But it takes someone with at least equal knowledge about the voice to make that determination.  And just as I will never refer to myself as a professional conductor, although I have advanced training in the field, I find it truly self-centered of coaches who do not spend the bulk of their time dealing with singer's technical issues to assume they understand those issues better than a voice teacher.  For that reason, I defer to my student's coaches on musical issues, regardless of my opinions on the matter.  The great coaches, many of them better voice teachers than many, will be the first to say that they are not voice teachers.  They understand that their tutelage has an effect on how the singer approaches technique, but they do not surplant themselves in the role of voice teacher.

For that reason, I am grateful for the coaches I work with regularly, even if occasionally our mutual clients could find themselves confused between what we require of them.  Thank you Steve, Mikhail, Adelle, Alessandro, Kanako and Andrej, for the humility you always show in your extraordinary knowledge of the voice and music.  I always feel safe as a singer to submit to your teaching, because of the respect you have for the complexity of this art form.  You are special and I am grateful for you.  That is why you teach so many of my students.


© 03/23/2013

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Believe and You Shall See: Philosophical Truth "and" Cultish Manipulation

Faith is a tricky issue!  What should we have faith in?  All great ideas and inventions come from what many call "a light bulb moment",  a moment of clarity when the apparent obstacles seem to pull out and make space between them, allowing a path to the objective.  There is a rest period in Tai Chi called "Standing Meditation" during which we let our minds free where we consciously allow negative thoughts to go away and leave our minds clear for possibilities.

Paradoxically, that is not when I feel my greatest moments of deep meditation.  My most meditative states happen while doing the Yang Style short form that I have been practicing for more than two years.  I sometimes get to a state of allowing where my mind is very clear about my objectives and my body very present and ready to perform them.  In those moments I have what many call "an out-of-body experience".  I feel as if I am watching myself doing the form, clearly connected to it in my mind, but totally detached from my body doing it.  This kind of out-of-body experience I have often experienced in singing.  Particularly when I am not having a great vocal day.  I have always been able to let go and allow my body to do what it can.

During my most recent moment of clarity, the message was powerfully strong.  "Do not sing unless your voice is fresh!"  This may seem extreme for a voice teacher, but it is precisely what I have been doing for five days.  I may have sung a total of 20 minutes in the last five days including demonstrating for my students when necessary.  The thought came to me clearly saying: "Don't try so hard! Let it happen!  Do only what you need to do!"  I realized at that moment that what I needed to do was giving my poor voice a chance to be fresh.  I realized that vocal technique problems are practically non-existent when I am fresh.

The best way to acquire what you most  cherish, is to release yourself from it.  When we are so attached to something, we fail to see that our actions are stifling it and we are often too close to it to see that we are headed the wrong way.  We need a bird's-eye-view!  It does not mean that we stop wanting this thing or that person.  The key is not to allow our strong desires to limit our perspectives.  We must remain calm enough to observe and to know what the best move is.  The shortest distance to a point is a straight long as there isn't an iron wall between those two points.  Sometimes it is best to go around the wall.  Sometimes the distance is non-existent if we seek a spiritual connection.

Let us imagine that one of my goals is to sing my favorite tenor roles at the Metropolitan Opera.  I could walk to the house today, find out who is there who can hear me sing, sing an amazing audition and get hired.  That is the most direct path!  If I am truly ready, the story could be that simple.  Yet if I walk up to the front door of my own house but do not have a key, I cannot get in.  Yes I may break a window and force my way in, but that might cause more problems than it is worth.  In the same way, what obstacles would I encounter if I just walked up to the MET today?

There is preparation for every journey.  In my moments of detachment, I know that my way into the MET or to any objective is when the objective comes to me.  My job is to make myself attractive to the MET and I can only be attractive to the MET when I am not trying to make myself attractive to it.  We cannot guess what another person is looking for in us.  We are attractive to people when we are busy being our happiest selves unaware that someone is watching us. How do I make myself happiest as a singer?

When I am in front of an audience, with a fresh voice, singing a song I know inside-out, I am like an Olympic Gymnast doing the  most extraordinary floor exercise, or a figure skater skating the perfect long program.  I am in my element.  It does not matter if I am singing for an audience of two or two million.  It's all the same.  I have never had a problem getting out of my own way in the way that many singers are afraid to let go.  I have had to relearn to sing over the last five years.  I have strengthened, I have coordinated, I have learned to let my body do its thing, I have learned how to become healthy and now my final task is to "rest!"  It does not mean I don't need to train anymore.  But that is less important than discovering how my voice feels when it is at its healthiest and the missing element is "rest."  For such a hard worker as I am, the hardest thing is not to do anything.

How do you know what your next move is?  How do you see clearly?  You must believe that there is a place of clarity!  It is quite logical!  When you ask a successful person:

 "How did you get there?", the answer is invariably,

"one step at a time!"  They can innumerate the steps:

"First there was my first experience singing in front of people, then there was this and then that and then finally, I was there."

"How did you know what the next step was?"

"It seemed the logical next thing to do!"

There are two prerequisites to success: 1) Know what you must do 2) Do it!

To know what to do, one must be willing to get to that state that Deepak Chopra calls:  "The field of pure potentiality!"  The funny thing is I used to laugh every time Deepak Chopra said that in one of his infomercials.  And in truth I don't know how credible Deepak is anymore.  But it does not matter.  Sometimes a not-completely-credible-person can offer truthful information.  The "The field of pure potentiality" is a state of mind in which we are not distracted by energy-sucking elements, whether it is from our worst enemy or our best friend.  Sometimes the devil comes in the guise of my own children.  It is the easiest way.  What do I mean by that?  What is the devil?  No I don't believe in a red-skinned dude with a pitch-fork and horns!  The devil is the distracted self.  It is the gullible self that becomes needlessly emotional and irrational because the beloved daughter or son or girlfriend  or operatic career seem to require attention of a debilitating type.  Because my children and my girlfriend  and my career mean so much to me, it is easy to fall victim to their whims.

Five years ago, I stopped performing (with the exception of environments removed from the operatic world where I can keep my chops alive), where as before I was performing something weekly.  Why did I do that?  Because I needed to discover my true self if I was going to scale the next walls in front of me.  To fulfill our potential, sometimes we need to stop, rest and regroup, even retreat and make a new plan of attack.  I have never worked as hard as I have these past five years even though my former teachers will tell you it is hard to find someone who works harder.  It is in my culture.  Haitians are raised with an extraordinary work ethic.  But not necessarily the most efficient work ethic.  Haiti would be the most prosperous nation on Earth, not the poorest in the Western Hemisphere if its citizen's work ethic were put to the right tasks.  In my own field of pure potentiality I was not afraid to do the near-impossible task of changing from baritone to tenor at age 42.  That is the work that had to be done. Now I need to give my voice rest and practice less.  That was probably necessary all along.  I was not ready to see that until now.  Now that I see it, I am doing it!

The world is precisely the way we imagine it.  If you walk outside imagining the world to be an unfriendly place, ten people will greet you good morning and you will not give it worth.  The first person to call you an asshole, is the first person you notice.  So your world is defined by your preconception.  I wake up every day with the thought that there is a solution to the problems.  I must be vigilant to see the clues to the solution.  Sometimes, I just need to wait until a clue comes.  Sometimes I need to actively look for it.  Knowing the difference takes experience.  It is just as important to know when to do nothing as when to exert a lot of energy.  Both are necessary at different times and in different measures.

If you want to be successful, you must first believe it is possible to be successful.  If you believe, then you start to see the clues and the steps.  If you do not believe in your own potential to succeed, all you will see are the obstacles.  This is a truth.  One that can be used to free people to find their potential or to manipulate them into following a believe system that is not in their best interest.  Only you can decide which path you take.  Be empowered by your Faith or be victim to it!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

© 03/17/2013

Friday, March 15, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Conversations With My Brain, Part 1: Vowels

So I started the "Flower Song" from Carmen, thinking I would modify the vowel of the world [la] to a darker rounded [a],  more like "aw" in the word  boy.  Then I heard suddenly:

"What do you think you're doing?"

"Who is that?" I said a little scared. "Where are you?"

"I'm inside your head.  I'm your brain! Control Center.  You can call me Control for short!"

"How are you talking to me?"

"Like I said, I am Control Center!  I control stuff, including talking to you if it helps!"

"Well you've never done that before," I stammered.

"Don't get all panicky!  I'm talking to you because I have had enough of you trying to 'control' stuff!  That's my job!  What if I decided to go on a vacation?  Do you really think you can do this stuff better than I can?"

"What is wrong with choosing a darker vowel?  The rounded lips lower the first formant and gives rise to the second.  And since that note is soft, it makes sense that I would want the note to 'turn' to second formant dominance."  I  argued proudly.

"What about the fact that lip rounding lowers all the formants?" I heard my brain calmly respond.  "So you got your acoustic rotation to second formant dominance, but in the process you shifted all the formants including the upper ones, and now you've lost the ring of the voice that is so crucial to voice carrying and I know (since I am your brain) that you want the voice to ring!"

"What is the solution then?" I tried to defer.

"What do you care?" My brain snapped back.  "You still don't get it.  Your job is to give me interesting problems.  My job is to solve them.  You don't get to solve!"

"Alright smart guy!" My brain seems to have an accent between Bugs Bunny and Fred Flintstone or the typical Italian mobster voice, maybe James Cagney.  I wonder why..."Hey! you're wandering.  Wake up! Stay with the program!"

"Now, as I was saying," it continued "You don't get to solve anything.  Give me a small problem!"


"Pick up the cup in front of you and take a sip!" I picked up the cup and took a sip of my green tea.

"First of all, you need to stop drinking that sh...stuff!  It gives me a headache.  Try some espresso!" My brain is definitely an Italian mobster.

"Now was that so hard?"

"I don't get it,"  I rebelled.

"Of course you do, idiot!  You say this to your students all the time.  You think it, your brain does it!  And you must admit, I'm pretty good.  How fast did it take for me to fulfill your wish?  A split second, right?  I am that good."  He ended with the oversized confidence of a dramatic tenor... "That's me though?" I thought.

"Of course, it's you!  I'm you! Your active part!" It scolded.

"If it were as easy as me thinking it, don't you think I would happily let you do it?" I complained.

"First of all, stop whinnin'!  You ain't the whinnin' type!" The mobster voice came back, more Bugs Bunny than Fred Flintstone this time. "It is that easy! But think!" It ordered and paused for a second.

"When you were a baby...and boy you weren't pretty..."

"Must you?"  I retaliated.

"Just a joke! Calm down, will ya?"

"As I was don't interrupt!  When you were a baby, you could not lift that cup.  You kept dropping it until one day you did it.  Even though I was developing, I was already able to do my part.  I sent the right signals to your arm and hand to lift that cup as baby-you desired.  However, your muscles were not yet developed enough to complete the task.  So just because you want it and I fulfill it, does not mean we get the result we want.  Now lifting a cup to your mouth seems so simple because you've been practicing it all your life.  You have not been practicing singing that difficult first note of the Flower Song that long."

"Ok.  So going back to that F.  What should I be thinking?" I asked, really wanting to know.

"You need to imagine that F in its absolute perfection.  You want to sing the word 'la' then that is what you must desire!"

"But if I desire a pure 'la' my larynx rises!"

"Then desire to sing a pure 'la' with a relaxed throat!"

"What if it the throat still tighten despite my desiring it to be relaxed?"

"Then, just like you could not lift the cup as a baby, you need to give your muscles time to learn and strengthen until they can do it!"

"How do we best do that?

"There are two choices that seem best judging from my databank of your life experiences:

1) Like your Kung Fu teacher always says, 'Repetition is the mother of all skills.'  Repeat it until it is correct.  This trains the muscles slowly but correctly.  By desiring it and not interfering, you are letting ME train your muscles by sending them the signals to respond correctly. Eventually they will be strengthened and balanced to fulfill the task you desire and  that I order them to do.

2) Develop training exercises that balance and strengthen your muscles such that they can fulfill the task without interference from other unnecessary muscles.  I am a fan of your lip trills and fry voice exercises.  They are clear, simple and do not require interference from you.  By fulfilling them, your muscles get more and more balanced and consequently, you start to trust them to do the work.   Thus our relationship works better.  You desire, I program, the muscles do!

"How do I interfere?" I queried.

"You interfere when you desire other muscles to come into play to get you a result that the correct muscles cannot presently do on their own.  When you desire it, I must comply.  So I do it, even though I know it is wrong and training your muscles the wrong way. The right muscles never develop if you keep calling on other muscles to help them."

"What happens when I don't interfere?"

"Initially, your muscles are awkward and weak.  They do not perform well.  You might crack a note.  So what?  You fell on your ass as a child trying to walk.  You were not conscious enough to interfere then.  You were great.  Dumb like a tenor..."

"Really!!!"  I protested.

"Sorry" My brained laughed. "I couldn't resist that little quip....Anyway, just let things be awkward!  Eventually they become strong and graceful.  The less you interfere the faster I can train those little muscles."

"I think I get it!" I sighed.

"I know you get it.  I'm your brain!  Like your coach, Steve Crawford says:  You are very clear about what you want musically and vocally.  Just desire it and let me take care of the rest. Commit 100% to your desire.  This gives me stronger impulses and then I send clearer signals to your muscles and they respond more efficiently.  Whatever comes out will be correct.  If something does not happen the way you want it, do not change your strategy.  You only have one.  Be clear about what want and commit to it.  Trust me to handle the rest."

"We are a kind of trinity you know:  Your genius (call it your psyche, your spirit, whatever) imagines and desires, I, your brain calculate and program, the muscles do!  Since I am the middleman,  so to speak, I have a clearer idea of the relationship.  We need to keep the relationship like that.  You can never know my job better than me, so don't desire corrections on the fly and don't guess.  I have real problems when you do that.  It forces me to call upon unnecessary muscle units on the one hand, and then the impulses are weak because you seem unsure of what you want.  Just imagine the music the way you want it.  Create a scenario, and I will get the muscles to do it.  But all three of us must be healthy.  So eat well, train hard so you are strong muscularly but above all, rest!  You need to sing less and sing only when you are fresh.  We will train better that way and your stamina will increase and recovery time will decrease." My brain seemed to have completed his argument.

"I just realized!  You don't sound like a mobster anymore!"

"I only call on that voice when I need to get your attention.  Bugs Bunny is the best teacher after all.  I only bring in James Cagney and Fred Flintstone when I need a little more authority.  Bugs is great, but that whinny voice makes us laugh too much."

"You just said US!"

"Yes, when we are in agreement about our tasks, we are no longer three but a single multidimensional ONE!"

"Thanks, Brain!"

"Stop talking to yourself.  People will think you're crazy!"

© 03/15/2013

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Comparative Philosophy

A student of mine sent me this link to an article by opera expert and blogger, Fred Plotkin.

Below is Kashu-do's philosophy statement.

I recommend reading them side by side.

Sometimes we see the same basic thoughts expressed by different people from different perspectives.
Through all my experiences, I have come to shape (and be shaped by) a simple philosophy:

Faith, Courage and Patience...Hard Work is a Given!

This is Kashu-do (歌手道), The Way of the Singer. I toured Japan for one month each of eight consecutive years. Naturally, one of the first words I learn was the word for singer: Kashu! The name Kashu-do came out of my experience in Japan. I also study Kung Fu and find many parallels between the disciplines of the Martial Arts and the Performing Arts.

Philosophy is not based on pretty words but in real experiences. Singing in general, but especially operatic singing, is indeed a lifelong pursuit. My Kung Fu Teacher, Karl Romain of Edgewater Kung Fu Academy often says: “The goals we set are the goals we get,” and being a singer often begins with a beautiful vision that most people are willing to give up the moment it becomes difficult. And it will become difficult!

The average operatic aspirant comes into the field with no idea about what is necessary to make a living as a classical singer. They simply do not think that far ahead and it is often very late in the game that they begin to realize what it really takes. The aim of Kashu-do (歌手道) Studios is to bridge the gap between where the singer is and where they need to be in order to be viable, marketable and employable. There is no great mystery here, for singers must have certain skills and it takes time to acquire those skills. The greatest lie that is continuously propagated is that talent is a gift. Talent is an inspiration developed by hard work. The singers I love to teach must sing and they will not take no for an answer. Their lives will take many twists but they will stay the course.

Vocal Talent and Vocal Training

What is the vocal difference between a great singer and the aspiring singer? A great singer has a voice that is trained, and I do not use the word ‘trained’ lightly. A singer is an athlete and the muscles involved in singing must be properly trained to do the job. A football player does not train in the same way that a boxer does, nor should a singer train the same way that a common sports athlete does. Having a healthy fitness base helps singing, but a singing athlete must train specific muscles; including the extrinsic and intrinsic muscles of the larynx, the muscles of breathing, the muscles responsible for balanced body alignment, etc.

The Opera singer is a special vocal athlete. The fact that someone can make a pretty vocal sound does not mean they are ready to do battle with an operatic orchestra, sans microphone. The Opera singer must win this fight every time. This incredible battle is won by a singer’s innate acoustic superiority in relation to the orchestra, providing the singer is using all the resources available to him/her. Though this superiority depends on acoustic law, the muscles of the throat and of the respiratory system must be strong enough to generate and transform the powerful compression of air inside the lungs into an acoustical energy of a very specific kind. This strength (often called talent, chops, voice) is either trained unconsciously by the singer because of a specific cultural environment (e.g. the Italian language and extroverted culture, singing Gospel music at an early age, Swedish Kulning, etc), or by a teacher who understands what vocal strength means relative to opera and how to train for it. When a singer is physically trained, they can make extraordinary operatic sounds look and sound easy. During this daunting vocal training there is incredible focus and effort needed. In the beginning of training singing will not be easy!  It should be said however that like a good athlete, training is difficult but performance should be easier.

Vocal Health

A great vocal technique begins with great vocal health. I discovered very late in life that I had an intolerance to gluten which caused swelling throughout my body, even at the level of the vocal folds, and had I known this earlier I would have been spared a great deal of stress and time. It is important to be able to tell the difference between a vocal problem that exists because of technical issues and one that is caused by health issues. Allergies, acid reflux, nutrition and even a woman’s menstrual cycle are difficulties that a singer must confront and make plans for.

Musical Training

Beyond the voice, a singer must be a reliable, trained musician. Issues of nervousness often stem from the inability to feel musically secure and making music with a complex musical texture can be a very scary experience if the singer is not keenly aware how he or she relates musically to that ever-changing texture. Some singers don’t even know that musical insecurity is the source of their nervousness because they believe that they truly know the music. Memorizing hundreds of pages of music to present in front of a live audience is no small matter, and not everyone is equipped to do this. Many singers do not succeed because they are not musically sophisticated enough. Often they are unaware of this inadequacy. Keep in mind it takes even more patience to learn the language of music for those singers who begin their studies later in life.

Stagecraft and Stage Presence

Singers often pay for acting lessons hoping that they might acquire an advantage over their operatic competitors who are notorious for being poor actors. First of all, it is important to note that skilled opera singers are generally excellent actors. Great operatic acting requires different skills that a straight actor sometimes does not understand since they do not have experience dealing with the changing role of the music in the context of opera. It isn’t a lack of acting lessons that make a singer look dramatically uncomfortable, but instead an opera singer’s stage presence is often curtailed by technical and musical insecurities. Without a clear understanding of music as a dramatic tool, singers will be unconvincing even if they have had good theatrical training. The same is true for singers who have unnecessary physical tensions due to poor technique. Even with excellent training in stagecraft, the physical tensions will hinder dramatic delivery.  In singing as in acting, all elements must become one and every aspect depends on the others. Stage presence is the result of an inner confidence we achieve when all elements have been trained such that they occur without stress.

Languages, Poetry, History, and more……

The etceteras of opera are endless. One cannot escape the necessity of proficiency in at least a few languages; Italian, French, and German are a must for the most commonly performed literature, and English remains the international language of the opera theater. Then there are the speciality languages like Russian and Czech, which are becoming more and more mainstream these days. Obviously we cannot speak every language, but in our hearts we must wish that we could master them all and that  intent for perfection reveals the inner quality of the artist.Operatic libretti are often poetic in nature and we as artists must be sensitive to the difference between the common nature of language spoken in the streets and the carefully crafted language of a skilled librettist. We must at least desire to be poets in order to not only understand but also appreciate the poetry of Da Ponte or Boito or Hoffmansthal or Menotti or Wagner.

Today we have the luxury of the Internet for the purpose of research and we no longer need to be birdwatchers to be able to get a glimpse at a King-Fisher nor amateur botanists to experience the special color and shape of a Hibiscus. Whether now or two hundred years ago, curiosity about the world is the hallmark of every artist. The historical relevance of the operas we sing and how they may translate to issues of our times is at the heart of the art form. Those singers who do no task themselves such questions are at a disadvantage even before the first rehearsal of a piece and the superficiality of their preparation will be evident, even felt when they audition the first time.Even if a singer does not have the knowledge, if they have curiosity and a true desire to know,then that essence will permeate every note that they sing. This element is often what makes the difference between being the singer who gets in the finals and the one who is picked for the job.We cannot know everything, but an artist should want to know as much as possible!

Be the light, not the moth: A Philosophy For Business and For Life

Singers often buy into the myth that they have to chase after a career or they will never work.  And yet I see the opposite. Singers pay trainers to become skinny, coaches and acting teachers to help them prepare their parts, beauty consultants to find the right hairdo, and fashion consultants to find the right look, often getting no better results than they did without the various and sundry superficialities. They network madly, writing to every agent and every person they know in the field hoping to get cast in this or that show and still they get little for their efforts. Yet I can tell you of a singer that walked into an audition wearing her street clothes, and walked out with a powerful manager who has been guiding her career to the highest level ever since. No, I do not advocate walking into an audition looking less than your best, but this student of mine was invited to an impromptu audition and did not have time to take care of the exterior aspects. She arrived with a smile and delivered such a performance that she could not be denied. She was able to do this because at the time of the audition she was vocally and musically secure, a result of many years of eradicating every technical fault and experiencing the music at its core for the sake of the art and of artistry. All the exterior factors are important but only when the interior ones (the voice, the musicianship, the language skills, the love of the art form) are completely solidified in the persona of the singer. When the substance is all there a singer will be able to exude confidence,and this is what attracts agents, conductors, directors and producers. My philosophy for success is simple; make yourself irresistible musically, vocally, and artistically. Then lose the extra pounds and find the clothes and hairdo that go with your irresistible artistic self. All the networking in the world is a waste of time if the product is not ready for market.

In the end, a singer must be able to wake up in the morning and feel that he or she is possessed of a very special substance that others want to experience. This substance is like a beautiful home.It must be built with the greatest of care and with the finest materials. Upon seeing it everyone must desire to live there. Operatic talent is multi-faceted. I know only one way to guarantee success and it demands that all facets be irresistible. A true singer wants no less! It takes love of the art form and love of self.

We must strive for perfection knowing that we will always fall short! It is a very different thing to strive for less because we cannot achieve perfection. The former is noble, the latter is common. An artist understands this difference and lives by the former!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): May I be forever "Blythed" and Hail to Warren Jones!

So my fabulous sister, Erica, once again surprised me with Carnegie Hall tickets.  The first time it was a total surprise.  She asked me to meet her in front of Carnegie Hall for a concert and I had no time to see who was playing/singing/etc.  When I arrived I saw the giant poster of the Fado queen, Mariza, whom I adore!

At one point in the concert, Mariza went to the edge of the stage with her guitarists, unplugged the sound system and sang without a mic explaining that Fado is usually an intimate experience done in a smaller hall.  Well, small hall or Carnegie's immenseness was no match for Mariza's pure tone and resonance.  I could feel the vibrations of her voice in the top balcony where I was seated.  Franco Corelli once said that his teacher Lauri-Volpi was the only singer whose vibrations could be felt in the loggione (top balcony of an Italian theater where typically the poor people stand to listen).  Then there was her soulful, vocal honesty that just went straight to the heart.  The world stopped.  At some point at the end of the concert, I properly lost control and yelled: "I love you" in Portuguese.  A great singer moves an audience to forget itself and just enjoy the moment.

Mariza was the last singer who did that in my presence at a solo concert (Nina Stemme's Salome last year was another unforgettable experience), and after lots of vocal concerts at Carnegie in between I was blighted...NO! Blythed.

From the first moment when she addressed the audience-- and she and Warren Jones (perhaps the most playful collaborative pianist in the world) took turns reciting 12 poems of Emily Dickenson before singing the setting by the late James Legg, a very talented composer who died quite suddenly of an accident in 2000 at the young age of 38-- it was clear that this was not going to be your average evening of "art songs"!  The recitation (as promised by Ms. Blythe) was a concert unto itself.  She should receive a Tony Award for the recitation alone.  Her magnificent mezzo that I have heard only in the company of large orchestras, --first as an unforgettable Mignon with Opera Orchestra of New York a few years ago and then at the Met in the three Trittico roles and of course as Azucena and Frica-- is superhuman in the company of a piano, even when the collaborative partner is the genius, Warren Jones.

It is not only the size of Stephanie Blythe's voice that is so impressive, it is the directness of it, the honesty of it, the defiance of technical restrictions.  And here is where I would like to discuss technique a little, although talking about technique is precisely what one should not do when experiencing Blythe.  She takes you so far beyond that.  Yet I am a voice teacher and there are things she does so wonderfully that need to be discussed.  For now I will concentrate on the obvious:

Blythe has become a symbol for cross-over over the years, particularly due to her forays into Broadway musicals in concert and always doing American popular songs of a bygone golden era in her recitals.  
Many years ago, before I could articulate exactly why, I felt that there was practically no phonation difference between a healthy belt and classical singing.  The way I heard it when I listened to great pop singers, whether Judy Garland or Ethel Merman, it was a resonance choice.  The singer basically follows speech resonance (First Formant  Dominance for you voice science geeks) throughout the range, which necessitates the larynx to climb.  

When the "core"(substance) of the voice is so well developed as in the case of Ms. Blythe, there is no chest or head register for the most part.  There is simply flow phonation, with endless resonance choices.  She was appropriately "classical" in the first half with the Legg settings and Barber's celebrated Three Songs, Op. 10.  The richness of the F2 resonance (what one could call head "resonance") in the middle voice was no less than astonishing.  It sounded like a full voice tenor and filled the hall just as much as great tenors I have heard there.  The top of the voice was effortless as always.  She deftly handled the lower passaggio denying such thoughts as "break"!  

The second half of the concert was all popular from Buddy Desylva to Irving Berlin passing through Cole Porter and a few others.    Here one could imagine Ethel Merman at her best, but to my ears it was more Judy Garland on steroids.  Garland had a noble refinement about her sound even when she would let loose.  Blythe, a classical singer, has the same refined richness but also a particularly "raw" disposition with such a fully developed mezzo-contralto lower and middle range.  She used every color at her disposal and the evening became about words, music, expression, fun, communication, letting your hair down, pulling up a chair, lean over the balcony and experience a singer and pianist at the very top of their musical/theatrical possibilities.  

Indeed "belting" if we want to call it that is not the most efficient way to use the resonance mechanism. singing F1 resonance through the middle, particularly for such a giant voice, does require greater breath strength and puts the folds under pressure in ways that F2 resonance in the middle does not.  On some rare notes at the end of a demanding program, one can hear in the muscular passaggio a slight tendency to lose substance.  Still not enough to take one's mind away from the thrill of the moment.  

Warren Jones is simply one of the most entertaining, musically versatile and polished pianist on this planet.  And it does not hurt that I have been a fan of his since my young days as a singer.  I used to travel far to hear the great Bass, Samuel Ramey in concert, whose vocal pyrotechnics were accompanied by Mr. Jones' fiery and facile fingers at the piano.  As a Ramey-groupie in those days, I often found my way backstage and carried a few conversations with the very friendly Mr. Jones who was usually available while my wide-eyed colleagues were pushing to get a glimpse of the star bass up close.  

A number of years later, Mr. Jones accompanied Kiri Te Kanawa on a recital at the University of Florida where I had been teaching.  When I noticed he was the pianist on duty, I called him in New York and asked if he would do a masterclass for my students there.  He took the only few hours free of his scheduled and did a wonderful two-hours (it became almost three) for the wide-eyed students.  The next morning, he called me very early and said he had asked Ms. Te Kanawa if she would allow the students and me to observe their dress rehearsal the morning of the concert and she agreed.  Chairs were set up literally a few feet away on stage and we got to pick the order that they would go through the program.  Perhaps we helped them have a run-through with an audience, but I know that my students will never forget the day they got to watch Kiri Te Kanawa work from five feet away.  I certainly never will!  Mr. Jones had played that particular recital, as he often does, from memory.  An amazing feat for anyone who understands the dedication that such a preparation requires.  He told me then that he likes to be free from looking at the score.

Last night, even though he had his scores on the piano, they were there merely as reference.  The entire program was from the 20th and 21st century and so it makes sense that having scores there for reference is cautionary and wise.  As always, he was an equal partner in every way, as effortless in his difficult passages as Ms. Blythe in hers.  From my few experiences with him, I find this man to be a musical gem, whose musical seriousness is so perfectly balanced by his elegant and playful showmanship.  He is musically generous in every way and not surprising since he is so generous to the young musicians he has impacted over the years.  Ms. Blythe is one of those musicians who benefited from his mentorship.  

I could write forever about this concert, but suffice it to say that I got to hear one of the greatest singers of any genre last night and a pianist I dream to work with someday.

Thank you Stephanie Blythe!  Thank you Warren Jones! And thanks to my sister Erica for offering the irresistible tickets that forced me to postpone two students last night!  I hope they will forgive me, but this was worth it!

© 03/12/2013

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Fear vs. Panic: Just One More Step!

Fear is not the enemy.  Fear is a necessary part of life.  It is instinctive, a part of our warning system.  It is in fact a call to "focus," to heightened awareness. However, when fear yields a lack of focus, a state of mental disarray, it becomes chaos, panic!  As performers, we cannot afford to allow panic to take over.  Indeed nor can we allow this mental state in life.

The two most challenging performances I have ever done have yielded the greatest strength.

1) My second doctoral dissertation recital at the University of Michigan was such a failure.  It came at the heals of my first dissertation recital, which many of my teachers back then called the best student performance they had seen in some time. So when the second recital went south, I could have panicked.  But I did not.  A bit of background first.

The second recital was an Italian program covering from Monteverdi to Respighi and beyond.  A very special program dedicated to my mentor, George Shirley on his 60th birthday.  It was supposed to have been a very beautiful program.  It was well-rehearsed, well-researched, etc.  But in the end, I had too many performances in one week and my recital ended up being the last of no less than 7 events, big and small.

In the middle of the recital, that on average had a tenor tessitura, at a time when I felt firmly like a baritone, I felt myself struggling.  But this was not bad.  I kept trying to find ways to make it through the program.  Even though my body felt tired, my mind was focused and I kept looking for solutions.

But of course, at the end I was disappointed because I failed (as I saw it) in my attempt to honor my mentor through music.  Throughout my years at the University of Michigan, I had a benefactor, a lady from my church choir who besides taking voice lessons from me gave me an annual scholarship of a thousand dollars.  She attended most of my performances and this was no exception.  After the performance, my wonderful supporter came to greet me and told me how proud she was of me.  As she hugged me, I whispered in her ear: "Thank you for being so supportive, but you know I did not do that well tonight!"  She swiftly pulled away from me and looked at me with anger and disappointment and left.

She did not show up to church for several weeks and did not respond to any of my calls.  It was more than a month later, when I saw her in church and approached her.  At which point she taught me a lesson I will never forget.

She told me how proud she had been of the way I dealt with a tough situation.  She had been proud of my ability to focus when things were not going perfectly.  She knew I would succeed in life by the way I handled that moment.  But then when I did not see the value in my own "correct instinctive response," she had her doubts and felt terribly disappointed and dismayed.

Things can go wrong at any moment and most of the time, they will not go perfectly.  If those moments of difficulty can inspire us to gather our energies and focus our thoughts, we will be ok.  Indeed, in such situations, there is so much to do that there should not be time for "panic!"  But many of us chose to panic when we do not see the obvious answer.  I have seen some start to cry because a traffic jam might make them late to a rehearsal.  They are defeated by life's simplest challenges.

I often ask my students:

"What do you do when you come to a dead end?"  The answers never cease to amaze me:

"Do I get to use my cell phone?"

"What if I say you don't have a cell phone?"

"Can I knock at someone's house?"

"There are no houses to be seen!"

It is not many who say: "Well I'll just go back the way I came and make a different turn!"

2) My other major moment of extreme difficulty on stage, was around the time my voice was telling me it wanted to do something different.  I had never had allergies before and in early April--when I was supposed to sing Vaughan-Williams' Five Mystical Songs and the Duruflé Requiem, a program that a conductor created specifically for me--my voice fell to pieces and I found myself in front of an auditorium filled to brim with enthusiastic onlookers, going down in flames!  My voice was simply not working.  I stood in front of that crowd, as if some fighter fighting a lost battle.  I felt surrounded by flames and was certain the floor would collapse beneath me and swallow me up.  Yet in mind, I kept saying:  "Quiet your mind!  You have a job to do!  One note at a time!"

I survived but the dear conductor told me: "I know what kind of musician you are. It was hard to see you struggle like that.  That was heroic.  But I got someone else to do the second performance.  Give yourself a chance to get healthy!"

I was fired from a job for the first time in over 20 years of singing for pay.  I got on a plane the next day to Europe and on that ride I kept wondering what was next.  Perhaps, that is the way my mind works.  I just look for the next task at hand.  Whether it is the next note or the next life decision, it is all the same. That instinct is the greatest gift I have.  It is the one thing that came relatively natural to me.  For everything else, I had to work hard.  But that one gift, helped me figure out how I was going to work hard.  I am now a dramatic tenor who flirts with high Eb and even F sometimes and I am enjoying singing again.  The struggling steps are behind me and now each new step is an enjoyable one.

I wrote this blog for my friends, my students, my children and whoever else may benefit from this one idea:

All we ever have is the next step, whatever it is! Just one single step forward!

© 03/10/2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): As Iron Sharpens Iron so One Man Sharpens Another: Proactive Competition

It is not easy to learn to sing in the company of others.  Yet there are great benefits of studying together with others when the social dynamics are philosophically healthy and mutually inspiring (instead of negatively competitive).  In a recent post about the It-Factor, I wrote about creating a small group of singers I call my Tournament Team.  One of the criteria that was important to me is that the students were able to thrive through each other’s success as opposed to being discouraged by them.  This young group is showing all kinds of signs of fellowship and mutual admiration, but after 25 years of active teaching, I am able to recognize very early the seeds of competition that could turn negative if I get too comfortable.

Competition is natural and I welcome it within my studio.  But I like a kind of competition that reminds me of the mutual admiration and competition I experienced with my dear colleague, Timothy Jones, whom I featured on this blog a while ago.  This principle of sportsmanship, of one inspiring the other to greater heights by example is echoed in the philosophy of my Kung Fu School:

Call:  As iron sharpens iron...
Response: So one man sharpens another

To honor a fellow competitor is the height of personal honor.  To recognize the value in a colleague who may see the world in a different way brings true collegiality to our art form.  The tendency to react from a place of jealousy, of negative criticism of others, of denying the validity of other opinions is a virus that permeates the field of music as a whole and reaches cancerous proportions in the field of classical singing.  There are reasons for this and paradoxically it is an entirely different thing (not deprecating to the art form) to recognize the reasons why this cancer persists.

  1. Lack of a common understanding:  Two pianists may disagree on technical approach based on information that is readily available to both.  Many pianists suffer from tendonitis  or carpotunnel syndrome and pedagogues can discuss scientifically why this occurs as the piano pedagogy community tends to make greater use of the scientific information that pertains to the longevity of its members.  Vocal pedagogues on the other hand are split in all kinds of directions, including a) those who claim to teach based on so-called Bel Canto techniques (few agree on what those principles actually are) b) those who claim to teach based on science c) those who think that those who claim Bel Canto technique are charlatans who have no empirical knowledge of the instrument d) those who think that those who teach based on science are charlatans who do not know the fundamental principles of the Old School e) those who develop their own techniques and think all systems are fundamentally cultish and baseless, etc...Singers therefore grow up in an environment whereby criticizing the worth of current professional singers is a required sport.  It is a preemptive activity to avoid having the spotlight on one’s personal flaws.  If we spend the time talking about how terrible this or that singer is we can avoid having the conversation turn on us.  WE ARE, MOST OF US, GUILTY OF THIS.                                                                                    
  2. Over-saturation of the field:  There are more singers coming out of conservatories and music schools than there are possibilities for work.  This has always been the case, but now the numbers are astronomical and the level of the singers is lower every year. The selection of singers is too often arbitrary and based on issues that have nothing to do with viable classical techniques.  The schools cannot be sustained if they do not have enough students and so the standards, even at the very best schools, are dropped considerably to make certain that numbers are maintained.  Where standards are low and arbitration is random, there will be confusion among the young people entering the field.  They will follow the lead of their predecessors and join the negatively competitive behaviors of the field.  

  1. They will put down their colleagues in order to feel viable
  2. They will point out faults in someone’s technique to feel that theirs is better
  3. They will blame others for their failures
  4. They will posture and pretend they are the next great thing to cover their fear of never achieving
  5. They will form cliques of like-minded critics so to feel less alone in their abject fear of not being talented enough
  6. They will blame the isms (ageism, lookism, favoritism, etc) of the field for their inability to advance
  7. They will talk ill of their competitors to influential people, hoping to derail their progress
  8. They will hold on to habits that feel secure even though they know the habits prevent their further progress, for fear of losing the little they have
  9. They will talk ill of a teacher who recognizes their deficiencies for fear that they are not as good as they convinced themselves they were
  10. They will hold on to popular dogma about technique and other things to shield themselves from having to question the undeveloped principles cemented in their formative years.

This poisonous behavior exists everywhere and by talking about it I hope it reminds me not to take part in it and hopefully instill in my students the clear reality that I will not condone such behavior in my studio.

But despite this dark state of affairs, many great singers persist and shine a light on what makes this art form great.  In my travels I have had a chance to speak with some of the great singers on the stage and almost without exception, they are very friendly, down-to-earth professionals who are passionate about their work and are easily drawn into a conversation over a meal about their process, their love of great colleagues that challenge them to be better, etc.

I am not so naive to think that all of this is going to change overnight.  But I feel hopeful when I meet top professionals that this period of negativity is shifting.  The over-saturation of the field cannot be sustained and I predict that many schools will out of necessity drop the performance portions of their programs, giving way to another era of fewer schools, higher expectations and better quality preparation.  Yes I am a dreamer, but I also believe in the natural swing of the pendulum.  It is time for it to swing the other way.

I pray that one day traditional teachers will see the value of scientific knowledge and that science-based teachers will understand the absolute necessity of the Old School codes.  My own success as a technician depends on understanding both and indeed they instruct each other.  Singers have a difficult time with the paradoxical nature of singing.  Apparent contradictions abound, there is a logic in the nature of singing that reflects nature itself.  Apparent contradictions in singing can be explained spiritually in the Buddhist concept of Yin and Yang, scientifically in the coexistence of matter and anti-matter or even in terms of Relativity or the duality (physical/spiritual; matter/energy) of human beings.  Indeed balance in singing, like in any discipline, is not accomplished by neat explanations but rather by constant re-evaluation of fundamental principles.  Philosophy is not necessarily dogma and religion is not necessarily spirituality.  The more advanced the knowledge, the more profound the questions.  Our art form at its best inspire questioning on the most transcendental level.  Where questioning does not exist, there is no art.  Entertainment is part and parcel of what we do, but what we do should go beyond mere entertainment.  Operatic singing at its best can and should be life-transforming.

But for our art to take on this transcendental nature, competition must become “noble” again.  We have to wish our fellow singer to inspire us to greater heights and we must never cease to challenge ourselves.  Given that the field is over-saturated, it follows that  many are not willing to challenge themselves to improve.  My greatest disappointment as a teacher is when I see the abject panic in a student’s eyes when they finally realize that vocal development is a lifelong process.  They are shocked when they realize that even with extraordinary skills, absolute “security” does not exist.  I heard Pavarotti say on more than one occasion that if a singer tells you s/he is not scared (nervous) before a performance, s/he is either lying or does not care enough (paraphrase).  He also equate the opera singer’s experience to that of an athlete.  One may be extremely proficient and does not have the “killer instinct” to score a goal or win a match or indeed stand in front of three thousand spectators and deliver ear-tingling top notes with athletic strength and artistic sensitivity.

As athletes we need to understand sportsmanship.  As artists we need to explore the mysteries of this existence.  Both require us to value our fellow colleagues, respecting them on the one hand and expecting them to live by a higher code on the other.  Constructive criticism is not disrespect.  Nor is polite non-commentary constructive. Engaged discussion and necessary disagreement lead to search and research. In so doing we recognize the inherent value of the positions of our staunchest opponents.  Chiaro “e” scuro; Yin “and” Yang; never either/or.  For that to be possible, I must be willing to wear my opponent’s shoes and s/he mine.  That requires mutual  curiosity at least if not mutual interest in understanding our field beyond our own personal boundaries

Call: As iron sharpens iron
Response: so my opponent sharpens me to higher levels

© 03/10/2013

Monday, March 4, 2013

Kashu-do (歌手道): Out Of the Comfort Zone: "Shit or Get Off the Pot!"

I was talking to my dramatic soprano friend lately and the exchange went thus:

"Hi Jean-Ronald," she said in her Icelandic lilt.  "A colleague of mine whom you've taught asked me for lessons.  So I asked him why he does not work with you the next time you are in town, since he has had really good sessions with you.  He said your way puts him out of his comfort zone and he thought I would be better for him."

"I think it's great that he works with you," I replied.  "I don't think he will find a better teacher!"

"Well," she grinned, "I told him not to expect anything different from me, since you are my teacher and that furthermore, getting out of his comfort zone is precisely what he needs!  Let's see how he does!"

"As it turns out, this week is precisely that kind of week in my studio as well" I offered.  "Singers have different fears.  Yet in the end we all tend to return to the same place: where it feels 'normal,' comfortable.'"

"So we spent months doing these exercises, learning to coordinate open throat and true vowel, clear tone and breath flow, breath release and breath resistance...Did you think it would always be about that?  Does it surprise you that suddenly I want you to imagine the sound you want to make and trust your body to do it?  Does it surprise you that I know longer wish to see your hands hammering at the onset of sound trying to coordinate it?  Your hands have nothing to do with creating the sound.  When you focus on them, you are not focusing on the elements that need to do the work.  Do you ask a piano technician to use a plumber's wrench to tune a piano?  Why then are you using your hands to start the sound?"

"Well, my dear," she mused, "Don't you have a saying in America like:  You can bring the horse to water but you cannot make it drink?"

"Something like that!"  I laughed.  "I am terrible with proverbs, so I would not know exactly!  What do you mean, exactly?"

"Your students seem dedicated, yes?"

"Of course!"

"They seem totally committed?"


"So you are having a tough time understanding why they find it so difficult to make the switch from being handled with baby's gloves to being required to become professionals like they always professed they wanted to be?"

"Do you have these problems with your professionals? Besides me, I mean," she grinned a knowing grin!

"That is just the point!  The most advanced professionals (you included, silly) not only expect it, but they thrive on it!  I was doing an exercise with a great singer lately.  She is already singing at very important places.  The newness of the exercise made her throat tickle a little.  I told her to take a moments rest at which point she burst out laughing and said: 'I have not felt a little tickle in months!  Must mean new skills are coming!'  A few weeks later, new skills came indeed!

"Darling, here's the difference..." she interrupted.  "We pros have been pros a long time!  When I sang my first Gräfin Almaviva, oohh so many years ago (I must have been 12, she joked), I brought the audience to tears with Porgi Amor!  God knows I did not have nearly the technique I have now (thanks to our collaboration), but it was about the music even back then.  We pros have been through 10 thousand incarnations and changes and we are not afraid of yet another 'dis-comfort zone'.  There is not one lesson I have had with you whereby I did not feel out of my comfort zone.  Whether it is pushing me to be true to the score and give up old nuances that have nothing to do with the music or your call for technical chance taking.  Would I have ever trusted my pianissimo if you did not keep saying to me:  "You can sing softer!"

"Should I back off then?  Should I take it easy on them?"

"Did you tell me it was OK when I said I have a dramatic soprano's piano?"

"No, I insisted your pianissimo could be as soft as you wanted it.  There was no scientific reason why you could not sing softer, if the structure is correct..." I continued my technical argument then caught her eyes giggling at me as if I were some mad scientist putting together a new creation.

"I remember fighting with you about that one until you said quite strongly:  'do you trust me to take you there or not?' That was hard and I had to hold back tears a little.  But I knew you were right!  It was time to go beyond that fear.  I remember clearly.  I cracked the note right after that.  And you said: 'that was an honest try.'  The next day I got that Bb and now I don't even worry about a pianissimo high C.  Aida is going to be fun!

"So I should not pull my punches with them right now?"

"You know the answer to that Jean-Ronald!  You would not be you if you did.  And it is precisely what they need.  They will not grow unless they are pushed beyond what feels comfortable!  Either they face the challenge or remain forever, like so many others, on the threshold of professionalism, at the door of success, and never enter.  You cannot push them in, but you have to show them the door!"

"You are full of wisdom today!" I joked.

"Am I not always!"  She chuckled!  "What is that other saying? 'Shit or get off the loo?'"

"Hahahahaha!" I could not contain a loud laugh!  "You should have quit while you were ahead, Dear!  The saying is:

'Shit or get off the pot!"

"Hahahaha," she roared back.  I should watch my hearing with such loud sopranos.

© 03/04/2013