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.
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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!

2 comments:

Daniel James Shigo said...

Just a note to say how much I have enjoyed reading your recent spate of posts. Well-written, on the mark, and timely stuff. Thank you.

Kashu-Do said...

Thanks Dan! Sorry I've not been in touch lately. Traveling a bit too much these days. Would love to catch up sometime. I'm in NY until end of April. If you ever have a little time, perhaps we can grab a bite or a drink or something.