Thursday, December 11, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): You Have No Talent! Now You do...Success in Masterclasses and Beyond

I began thinking about writing a blogpost about how to have a successful "masterclass" experience and then I realized that the same things required for a positive masterclass experience are also required for success in the totally contorted business of Opera.  How do you avoid this type of situation as is experienced here in this Freni Masterclass that is inspiring a lot of conversation on social media and the blogosphere?

I met Mirella Freni around 2006 at a competition she judged and she was the warmest most loving artist.  Nothing she says below is wrong!  But her one-dimensional commentary and apparent impatience with these Russians "darkish" tone makes her look less loving and refined than she usually is.  Furthermore, the young mezzo at the beginning was on the verge of tears and the young bass was not sure if he should stay after the recitativo.  She appeared impatient and dismissive.  Yet she is not!

Or how do you avoid the embarrassment of this situation, also often discussed on social media?

Again, Maestro Kraus is not saying anything wrong.  Both Kraus and Freni know the sound they want.  Kraus singing a great Bb does not achieve any improvement in the young dramatic tenor's process.  Why?  What is the problem in both the Freni and Kraus masterclasses?

Let us not talk about Freni's mood or the fact that she says the same to every student or that Kraus is obsessed with this high position at all costs.  Both legendary singers say the same thing over and over.

Simply put, the students that had a bad time were not prepared!  Not prepared for the situation they came to.

The first rule of a high profile masterclass with a great singer is the following: 
You are there to make them look good!  

And if you can achieve that, you could get a lot out of such a class, including connections, etc.  In other words, one does not come to a masterclass with Mirella Freni to learn the fundamentals of singing.  You come able to make great sounds and with the wherewithal to make immediate changes upon request.  But to make immediate changes, the technical components must be already trained, such that a suggestion is turned into a vast improvement in the sound.  The error that is made is the expectation that great singers who exhibit extraordinary technique actually understand the totality of what they do.  

Most high level singers only know a portion of their technique because they came into singing with many components already developed and coordinated. In their experience, vocal technique is limited to what they themselves had to learn.

Example:  A little less than two years ago I arrived in Härnösand Sweden and taught a masterclass for 18 young students.  It was the easiest masterclass I ever gave and we experienced 18 small miracles over two days of work. Why?

The students at Kapellsberg Musiklinjen of Härnösands Folkhögskola are taught by extraordinary teachers who had already trained them thoroughly.  They had even voices from top to bottom, excellent and natural breathing technique and a great natural sense of resonance.  My job was basically technical refinement, confidence building and artistic expression.  They were ready to make immediate changes.  During those two days, I got to know them and what they fundamentally needed in order to make their next steps.  But that is extra!  The average famous singer who does masterclasses is in another sort of performance and wants to look good doing it.  The students are in great part merely a means to that end.  It is also a way to earn a living beyond the career on stage.  

However when one succeeds at making the great singer look good at a masterclass, there may be rewards. One may begin to have a deeper conversation with such a singer.  One may even be referred to agents and impresarios. Most young singers go to these classes hoping to learn something great from a great singer, or at least to have their process confirmed by someone who has touched the firmament.  Those who get confirmation are usually those who know they have something special and are confident about what they do.  They don't need a famous singer's confirmation.  They are the ones ready to take advantage of what such an experience might have to offer.

Famous singers have a lot to offer students in terms of their experiences.  They can talk about the way they prepare for a role, or how they learn to deal with difficult situations with conductors, directors, managers and colleagues.  They could talk about how they presented themselves at auditions.  There are many things beyond technique that they could talk about, unless they are truly capable and interested in doing the complex work of technical development.

The young dramatic tenor in Kraus's masterclass was not physically/muscularly in a place to produce any kind of Bb let alone a truly resonant one.  With "boring" detail work, the tenor could have gotten a Bb out in tune, but that is not the kind of work that famous singers want to do in a short masterclass.  Most cannot do it, and those that can are afraid they might not have enough time to make a good impression.  So whose fault was it?  The innocent young tenor and his teachers who put him in an impossible situation.  He should have sung something he could actually produce all the notes to.  Then Kraus' directives could have been easier to implement.

In Freni's case, nothing would have been good short of having a perfect technique.  The kind of final phase production that she was seeking is not possible to teach in a masterclass.  It must already be there.  In other words, a young singer at Freni's best technical level would have been easy for her to work with.  She could help them navigate the road of the aria as opposed to fixing the car.

To take this beyond the masterclass format, an audition works the same way.  You are not talented enough until they hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see.  The singer must know himself/herself and in a way have a good idea what to expect, and know how to take commentary in a proactive manner.  I did an audition for a theater a couple of years ago singing Otello and Siegmund.  I was able to chose my audition time in the early afternoon (which is next to impossible) and had everything at my disposal (practice room at the theater all morning, a hotel 200 meters from the theater, perfect spring weather, two days rest beforehand). I sang very well!  I spoke with the conductor afterwards:  

Conductor: "That is the best Wälseruf I've ever heard!" He was speaking about the "Wälse, Wälse..." in Siegmund's monologue, Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater.  "You know you will have a hard time getting hired to sing these roles in a German theater!"  

Me: Fascinated, I ask him: "why?" 

Conductor: "Well, how do I put this delicately...In a traditional German theater, people expect a German-looking guy to sing Wagner heroes and a bit more brightness in the voice to sing the Italian repertoire."

Me: Does my voice not carry enough in the house?

Conductor: "No, quite the opposite.  We had you stand in the back of the stage and were impressed how strongly your voice came through the back of the house. " Then he changed: "Did you ever sing as a baritone?"

Me: "Yes"

Conductor: "I was not sure because the Bbs were so comfortable.  But I thought I heard a particularly dark color to your voice.  For lead Italian roles, you would need more Spitz (more point) in order to give the voice a more italianate color.  The whole time I was thinking, if anyone is ever looking for a Herodes from Salome, you would be the first I would suggest."  

That had been my first audition as a tenor.  Was I disappointed?  Au contraire!  This conductor told me everything I already knew.  I also knew that his Otello looked a lot like me and had also sung Tannhäuser in Germany among other German roles.  The moral of the story is the following.  I was prepared enough to make a good impression, and experienced enough to take this conductor's good advice.  Not that I should necessarily limit myself to Herod and other character tenor roles (I love Herod by the way!  Amazing role!), but that he confirmed the fact that I needed to concentrate on the more brilliant aspects of the voice.  I had already been working on it.  It also confirmed what I already knew.  It is not enough to sing the notes comfortably.  One must sound and look like what people expect in a given role to be able to break in.  So I went back to work and I bet this conductor would not recognize my voice today from what he heard two years ago.  I also did not take his comment about "looking German" as racist. He was just telling it like it is in many German situations. But one thing I know about the German theaters, once you're in, they will use you in anyway they can, including in roles they themselves considered unsuitable before.  So:

You can't sing Siegmund!  Now you can!

When we present ourselves, whether in a masterclass situation or an audition, we must be prepared to do our best job with no expectation that whoever is there is going to like it.  Do they not like it because you did not do well or because they have a different idea of what you should sing?  You must weigh the information in see how it can help your personal trajectory.  There are no stories ever of a total unknown coming to a top theater.  Unknown to the greater world maybe but not untested.  Anna Tomovo-Sintow debuted in Ernani at the MET and made a sensation, but she had paid her dues elsewhere.  Rudolf Bing was not taking a random chance with Magda Olivero at age 62.  He heard her in professional performances in Italy and knew the quality of what he would be putting on stage.  He gambled with a straight-flush in his hands.  

Finally, it is worthwhile to talk about "proprioception" in teaching.  The other day, I told a young singer: 

Me: "Imagine the throat opens beyond your throat into your upper back! You will then feel the low resonance as if your upper back was a drum vibrating sympathetically with your tone!"

Young Singer: "That is uncharacteristically unscientific of you!  Why are suggesting sensations now?"

Me:  "Because you are at a stage of physical development whereby you can actually distinguish clearly between physical vibrations!  The truth is that you could not have these sensations before, because the instrument was not muscularly structured enough."

He tried my directive and was amazed how easy it was to do something that was heretofore very precarious in his voice.  

Kraus and Freni knew that sensation of high resonance that felt like a narrow beam.  The resonance that carries the sound to the back of the hall and that buzzes in the ear like a swarm of bees.  Just asking a student to place it higher does not always work.  It only works when the student already does it in other parts of the voice.  Then they understand what is being asked of them.  The mezzo and soprano (singers 1 and 3 in the video) would not get there immediately with the directives of "just sing more comfortably" or "put it more forward and higher".  They needed to be brought to the experience of true brilliance that does not violate natural depth.  Squillo is not the same as just singing a brighter vowel!  It is not about disconnecting from the lower voice.  It is about being able to stretch the vocal folds appropriately without losing the fundamental, natural substance of the voice.  It is also about having access to a complete resonance space that includes articulating text naturally without the larynx rising and falling like a yoyo.  It is also about a fold posture that induces complete but gentle closure, allowing a fluid emission of breath. It is also about having strong development in the core muscles that govern breath compression (i.e. support).  

Physical sensations is the vocabulary of a singer's final technique.  However sensations that are not based on a solid physical foundation can lead to vocal disrepair.  Indeed many of the sensations that high level singers experience are not available to the developing singer until certain elements have been developed. Resonance sensations are unreliable until a solid support and phonation system have been addressed.

In closing, the quality of the singer's experience in a masterclass or audition is totally dependent upon the singer's level of preparation for the situation at hand.  In the age of the Internet, we can all research a singer before we decide to attend their masterclass and decide whether we are ready to work with such a person relative to what it is they are looking for in such a situation.  Thirty minutes in a masterclass is almost silly unless one is at a level whereby the information can really have an effect.  A student would do better to invest in real technician to work out all difficulties before presenting himself/herself to masterclasses with famous singers. 

© 12/11/2014

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Demystifying the Wobble!

1.  The Anatomy of a Wobble

A wobble does not mean your career is over!  It is a classic muscular imbalance and it can be eliminated!  I wanted to state this categorically and clearly at the onset of this post.  On the other hand I do not want to trivialize the matter.  I will address this issue as thoroughly as possible.

A wobble is essentially a vibrato extent (frequency range) that exceeds the ears ability to distinguish between the desired fundamental pitch and the extremes (low and high) of the vibrato extent.  It is not necessarily true that the vibrato rate changes during a wobble.  Vibrato rate is more connected to brain signals to the laryngeal nerves than it is to muscular imbalances. That says, an extreme muscular imbalance can interfere with the intermittent brain signal that produces a regulated vibrato.

The components that contribute to a wobble are all-encompassing.  The central issue is hyper-function in one of the frequency altering muscles (Vocalis or Crico-Thyroid) producing hypo-function in its counterpart.  An efficiently produced tone depends greatly on an ideal contact area controlled by the Vocalis and ideal longitudinal tension produced by the CT.  In a wobble situation, the vibrato extent tends to vary between one vibration cycle and the next, signifying that one muscle is overly dominating during one cycle and then the opposing muscle overcompensates in the next.  The sensation to the singer is that one moment the sound feels too heavy and the next it feels to light.  It is in effect a continuous yodel sensation.

The laryngeal imbalances causes, or is caused by,  irregularities in trans-glottal flow, whether originating from poor breath management/support or causing inappropriate sub-glottal pressure.  In other words, incorrect laryngeal dynamics can cause problems in breath function and vice-versa.  Excessive volume or inadequate support can both lead to a domino effect that result in a wobble.

Lastly, inappropriate resonance adjustments (e.g. high larynx, tense jaw and inappropriate vowel choices) contribute to irregular fold oscillations and inappropriate sub-glottal pressure.

In a sense, all aspects of singing must be addressed to correct a wobble or better yet, avoid it in the first place.

2.  How Age  and Time Factor In

Up to the mid 20s, it is very rare to hear a wobble (yet I have heard it in a few 19 to 22 years old college students) because the larynx tends to be more flexible until around age 25.  The natural calcification of the laryngeal components around 25 years of age results to allow for a more stable system as the adult body produces greater sub-glottal pressures with age, heightened expression, etc.  With this new stability, there develops also a lesser ability to bounce back from malfunctions and imbalances.  After 25 years of age, the singer can no longer party all night and wake up to a voice that is fresh the next day.  Longer recovery time is required and the elasticity of a pre-adult larynx is no longer available.

It usually takes a long time for a wobble to manifest to the point of disturbing performance.  However, the signs of an oncoming wobble can be measured (Voce Vista's vibrato tool is particularly convenient) even without machinery.  A teacher with a well-developed ear can hear tones that are not ideally balanced, which left unchecked can develop into a wobble.

Wobble is not only a thing of old age. Today I hear discernible wobbles in top singers in their late 30s and early 40s, either caused by singing inappropriate tessituras for over a decade or singing more loudly than the voice can safely sustain.  A lack of total training makes for imbalances to become more pronounced much earlier than with earlier generations who took more time to train and were more discriminant about repertoire choice.

As for aging singers, a wobble does not have to be part of the equation.  A singer can avoid a wobble by being thoroughly physically fit.  The muscles directly involved in singing are supported by muscles throughout the body, particularly core muscles and costal muscles responsible for a great deal more than singing.  If core and skeletal muscles can be kept strong and the vocal musculature is trained in balance, a wobble is avoidable.  Longevity does not have to be selective if the singer has the patience and is training correctly.

3. Ode To A Special Singer

I dedicate this post to a singer I have had the pleasure of teaching for the past four years.  I mentioned her in passing in a post some three years ago.  This true dramatic mezzo who had the beginnings of a bourgeoning professional career some 30 years ago thought she had lost her voice and after many laryngologists and expensive voice teachers could not find an answer and she had stopped singing altogether for some 12 years, she read this blog and contacted me.  After an hour of exercises I theorized that her problem was probably the cause of an extreme muscular imbalance.  The chest voice was totally devoid of CT participation and the head voice was totally disconnected from the bottom.  So much so that more than an octave from F4 to around G5 could not be coordinated.  No one bothered to see if notes above F4 could work.  I found that B5 came right out.  A kind of flute function that was so loud, no one would have called it a flute voice.  But when you have a voice so substantial it might make the magnificent Stefanie Blythe sound like a lyric mezzo, it is understandable why the flute voice might sound so loud.

I mention this wonderful singer who is now in the final phases of her training, because she started to work with me around the same time as another singer around her age began with me.  The other singer who had a pronounced wobble but whose problem in my estimation was not so unusual progressed little and eventually gave up.  I felt that the other singer was not practicing regularly as much as she needed to to reverse the pressing and weak breath support that had been built over many years.

Our current singer, however, who is the most challenging case of muscular imbalance I had faced in my entire career (including literally thousands of singers) did go through a period of wobbling, which I expected when the two sides were first coordinated again, exhibits no signs of a wobble now.  I do not post any clips of this most extraordinary singer because I would like her sound to be unimpeachable when we finally reveal her secret work.  This was a high level singer who included Domingo and Ramey as her early colleagues.  I have not met a singer with this kind of courage, determination, patience and work ethic ever!  I believe most singers would have given up.  But when you have made strides the way she did, measurable strides due to daily, regular practice, good day or bad day, rain or shine, then it feels wrong to leave the work unfinished.

Thanks you B. for being the inspirational singer you are. As much as I guide you, your peerless example has been my personal daily inspiration.  When I see how far you've come and the mountains you've climbed, I cannot even begin to imagine stopping my own work halfway.  YOU demystify the Wobble and conquered it as one small hill among the Everests you've had to climb.  I look forward soon to the time when we can display your implacable courage and the fruits of your hard work!

© 11/30/2014

Friday, November 28, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): The folly of one-sidedness! 100% of both sides

How long does it take to balance a thoroughly satisfying chest voice with a totally satisfying head voice?

Will it be beautiful the first time?  Will you get a great sound the first time you try to balance two complete sides?

In breathing:  Are you a pushing out type or a pulling in type?

In resonance, do you think about "putting it forward" or "opening up the back space?"

When you do an [i] vowel such as in the word "feel," do you close your mouth?

Low larynx or high soft palate?

Full-bodied or floaty light?

One register or two or three or five?

Either/or is the singers's Hell!  The world is full of proponents of one side or the other, which leads to a dissatisfying polarization that is just as responsible for the decay of the operatic arts as bottom-feeding agents and stage-directors who do not read music.

Balancing a thoroughly satisfying sensation of substance with a flexibly flowing light mechanism is the goal in every part of the register.  But in a world bent on immediate gratification, singers and teachers rarely allow themselves the natural process of "necessary imbalance" in order to accomplish true balance.  Singers are so afraid of making a less than perfect sound that they do not allow themselves the experience of developing true balance.

One process that begins with wobbly legs:  such as babies learning to walk!  Wobbly legs lead to perfect balanced walking, just as a true technique often begins with an unsteady voice and over time develops into true balance whereby no aspect is sacrificed.

Compression and flow are parts of one inter-dependent system.  Paradoxical and total!  The folds close gently but completely once substance and stretch have been balanced and a balance between compression and flow is a reality.  Resonance is a three part system that includes a low larynx, a tongue that is flexible and does not retract and a jaw that releases regardless of vowel.

In singing, things that seem like opposites are rather necessary parts of a more complete system.  But how many singers or teachers for that matter are patient and courageous enough to figure out ten elements that balance with each other without any of them being sacrificed?

Most singers come into singing with one or several of those parts unconsciously trained from speaking habits and early musical experiences.  Those are the parts they must reexamine!  Unfortunately these are the parts they too often take for granted and do not include in their teaching.
We must examine ourselves!  We must make sense of the total package including the parts that we did not have to struggle with.  Otherwise, we remain forever partial teachers never understanding the whole.

A great and total technique takes us through many steps without altering its principles.  The voice changes until it is balanced.  The technical precepts remain the same.  Over time, the singer manages to balance 10 elements without ever sacrificing one or the other.  At that point, true balance is achieved and the multi-faceted nature of the instrument is discovered.

Beware of one-sided singing and embrace the juggling act or the tight-rope act that is balance in singing!

© 11/28/2014

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Winterreise and My Seven Years in the Desert

7 X 7 = 49.  This year I turn 49 and I have heard that we go through a sort of transformation every 7 years, or rather that we experience a certain level of existence for 7 years and graduate to another level.  Whatever it is, it would seem to coincide with my journey to becoming a tenor...or better, a real singer.  What do I mean?  Was I a fake singer before?  Certainly not!  I was always admired for bringing a high level of artistry and interpretative honesty to my performances.  Those things were enough such that many overlooked a certain vocal inferiority...Inferiority because I believed I was something I was not.

Vocal categories are interesting but sometimes limiting.  Even now that I feel 100% tenor (that is I feel at home in the tenor tessitura in a way I never did as a baritone), my timbre has a lot of baritone in it.  It is my vocal nature:  Baritone fold thickness and tenor fold length.  As I have written here often, paradox is a word that has come to define me, my voice, my teaching, etc...

Perhaps it is for that reason that Schubert and Müller's Winterreise has been such an important piece of music in my life.  I have never found the cycle difficult to sing.  In a strange way, it always fit my spirit.  It was fitting therefore that I made what I consider my official comeback to performance (yes I have done other small performances) with this great work.  The final step to readiness is performance.  One can have all the pieces ready, but singing in the studio is not the same as commanding an audience's attention.  Preparing a work like that places a performer square before his fears, aspirations and hopes.  One must defy limitations to truly perform.  For that reason I admire anyone who prepares to the best of his/her abilities and faces the public.  Yet I am also critical!  No less than I would be critical of myself!

This is not my finished voice, but I make no excuses for it here.  The vocal product is pretty well developed...well enough to really perform this cycle in all of its complexities, taking bold chances whenever I felt up to it.  Likewise I made some safe choices when I felt the voice was not always up to the perfect pianissimo or when the lower range fuzzes out a little, or when the heavier side of the voice dominates in the lower passaggio.  But those moments were few and I never felt artistically distracted.

It was time to come out of the desert and it showed me that the process has been correct.  Furthermore, this performance also opened my eyes to how little was left to work out technically and how crucial it is to take this to its logical end!  Indeed there is no end!  But there is a level of skill that is akin to a skilled tightrope-walker!  The skill level must be extraordinarily high, yet the job of keeping once balance presents eternally changeable moving pieces that are inter-connected.  One must be conscious and one must allow balance to occur.

I travel always with a copy of Poulenc's Bleuet, the song that more than any symbolizes superior technical and interpretative achievements, precisely because I love the song and until recently never felt up to its challenges.  This next period will be the Bleuet Period.  It will be a time of refinement at the highest level and a time of intense enjoyment.

April 17 2015 will be the 7th anniversary of the day when I gave up all baritone repertoire to start training as a tenor.  It will be interesting to see where I am by then, and where I will want to go afterward.

For now, I leave you with my performance of Franz Schubert's and Wilhelm Müller's Winterreise. I hope you enjoy viewing it as much as I enjoyed singing it.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Becoming Tenor 2: The Nature of Talent and the Responsibilities Thereunto

Several things inspired this post.  First, in checking the traffic on this blog, I noticed a large number of people find the blog by searching "baritone to tenor switch" or similar search titles.  Second, I feel the word "talent" as it is often used can be a preparation to disaster.  Third, and a commentary of my second reason, very little difference is made between what are genetic attributes and the skills developed relative to such attributes.

I have often said on this blog that I did not "change" from baritone to tenor.  I don't believe a natural baritone can make a change to become a reliable tenor.  To support this statement, I must define what is a natural tenor as distinguishable from a baritone.

Parameters that are used to distinguish voice types:

Timbre:  When my voice changed at age 11 or 12, I dropped from a high soprano to a low bass.  My choir teacher in middle school wrote special bass parts for me and by the time I got to high school I was the lowest bass in the section, and proud of my special "talent".  I thought then, this was the "nature" of my adult voice and my very caring teacher never said otherwise.

Arriving at Westminster Choir College (Princeton, NJ, USA), I quickly discovered there were voices that were both lower and more substantial than mine.  Nevertheless, I felt more comfortable as a bass and through my senior year, I sang bass roles even though by that point I had developed higher notes, felt comfortable performing G4 in both my junior and senior recitals and would occasionally sing the tenor Bb in the touring choir's encore number, an arrangement of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

In graduate school, at the University of Michigan, back then always in the top four music schools in the United States, I encountered very well-developed voices in my vocal category and quickly thought I was a lyric baritone, albeit with a very rich tone color.

For a total of 25 years I sang oratorios and orchestral concerts and some 40 operatic roles with middle level organizations and occasionally replacing someone for a high profile performance.  When I felt ready to take the next steps into higher level performance, it seems people became increasingly disenchanted with what was always referred to as a superior package.

At very least, we can agree that my timbre did not change drastically.

Why did I not simply develop over time as a bass?  I had both the dark vocal color and the low notes.  I can still sing C2 regularly.  Not very loudly, but respectably. Many basses I know have not developed those notes.

Let us talk about what is primarily responsible for natural vocal timbre (i.e. what nature gives us)!  I have concluded that natural color of the voice is determined by the thickness of the mucosal layers of the vocal folds (also called fold-cover), which in an ideal situation make up the vibratory tissue during phonation.

We will return to how vocal color is not a primary determinant of voice type but rather a secondary definer of sub-categories.

Range:  A singer who can sing a low C like I could would be considered a bass at first thought.  By the time I got to graduate school, my teacher, George Shirley, routinely warmed me up beyond C5. Is a male singer with a high C necessarily a tenor?  I teach dramatic baritones who can sing an easier high C than I can.  They are not lazy tenors.  I should be able to tell, given my experience!  I have dramatic coloraturas who sing higher than some lyric coloraturas and lower than some baritones.  What does that say?  It says those baritones have not explored their low range and the lighter coloraturas sometimes are happy enough to be able to touch F6.  There are notes beyond the required performance ranges.

Tessitura (Let us call it Area of Unforced Power):  In listening to my old recordings, what makes me not a baritone is that when I sang an F4 (supposedly a money note for a baritone), it does not sound very intense.  Therefore, being a sensitive dramatic singer, I knew what color was necessary for those Fs and so I unknowingly manufactured a tonal color to fit my given vocal type (my label).  No matter how convincing I could be in some auditions in a small room, those notes did not sound as exciting in a large room with orchestra.  When I would sing a third higher, my voice became effortlessly powerful.  I imagined I simply had to develop that kind of power in the baritone tessitura, but powerful F4s were not in my vocal make-up.  In student productions, yes! In top professional situations, not as good!  When you find yourself playing Leporello opposite the rich voice of John Cheek's Don Giovanni, you better be a great actor.  My acting ability made up for what was lacking in natural vocal power.  I had enough color to make Leporello work, but not the vocal intensity in that tessitura.

What then is responsible for determining tessitura?  

Fold Mass!  Longer (Horizontal) and deeper (vertical) folds have a great influence on how low one can sing and most importantly that the folds reach a strong tautness at lower frequency levels and thereby create a much more intense tonal quality at those lower frequency levels.  Long and deep folds have naturally lower notes (although many singers do not explore their low range completely. Many professional basses sing below the confines of the traditional piano keyboard).

Let us say that a natural bass with long and deep folds does not sound as rich as his dramatic baritone counterpart!  Why is that, if the bass has longer and deeper fold mass than the average baritone?  Because the baritone has thicker mucosal layers.  The vibratory body of the folds should be the mucosal layers.  However, some singers will press the folds together to induce a thicker vibration mode than is native to them.  This requires greater compression of the breath and a great deal more pressure on the larynx as a whole.  The tone often sounds hard and on the verge of instability.  Some physically robust singers can endure this kind of phonation for a long time.  But they are more the exception than the rule.  Parenthetically, our bass with the leaner mucosal layers (fold cover) would be called a lyric bass.

To conclude my story, I discovered late in my career that I had folds short like a tenor, with a very thick fold cover akin to a baritone, even bass-baritone.  The color of the voice reminds of a baritone, but its natural tessitura is higher.  The thicker fold cover provides greater resistance to the air stream and so my ability to generate adequate breath pressure must be better developed to maintain a free vibration along the fold cover.  The moment that this breath support fails, the larynx makes up for it via the inter-arytenoids that presses the folds together, reducing the breath flow to a trickle. A more intense but less resonant sound. Fold vibration frequency is constant for a given fundamental pitch.  If the breath pressure is reduced too much, maintenance of that fundamental frequency require the breath usage to lessen.  To maintain a more flowing vibration modality (flow-phonation) a certain amount of breath is necessary to keep the fold cover vibrating freely (not trapped by a medial squeeze).

Considering my past, in the attempt to sound like a baritone, I must have pressed my folds together to achieve more intensity and a thicker vibration modality.  Nevertheless, it would never sound as free and resonant as a natural baritone not pressing.

In retraining as a tenor, I had to:

1) take away the false pressure (retrain the inter-arytenoids not to press the folds together and trapping my fold cover)

2) Develop a breath support system that was equal to the nature of my fold cover

3) Develop a dynamic between fold length and depth (Crico-Thyroid vs. Vocalis [Internal Thyro-Arytenoid) that created the most efficient fold vibration (because I also sang a Vocalis-dominant sound in an attempt to sound more at home in the baritone range)

4) Develop a balanced resonance strategy relative to lower and higher formants, such that the voice sounded natural relative to its native make-up.

This was a tall order.

And now that I am a confident tenor after seven years of hard work, was it worthwhile?

To me yes!  But not everyone has that kind of patience, and not everyone can decide to let go entirely of what was working at a decent level.  I got hired by 5 Universities based partly on my ability to present a convincing performance at the audition, as well as be able to teach well--Never mind that I do not think very much of academia for the development of a singing artist. There are few schools willing to and equipped to address the dilemmas intrinsic in becoming a classical singer--

I had something that could earn me a decent living.  I was a functioning baritone, good enough for some decent name University programs and some regional orchestras and opera companies that were willing to give me an opportunity to display my talent and grow in the process. For me that was not enough.  The same thing that drove me out of Academia is the same thing that drove me to becoming the tenor that I am.  I became a singer to achieve the highest level of artistry possible.  For me...for me (not necessarily for others), I could not go on knowing that there was something better that was not being investigated.  Same is true of the academic institutions I experienced as a teacher.

Freelance teaching is not the most financially secure situation, but I managed to make a living at it at least equal and some years better than I was doing in academia.  It takes a lot more responsibility on my part and also a great deal more traveling than I would like.  But I am honestly facing my ability as a teacher and by extension I am forced to evaluate my worth as a singer.  I must be better if I am so bold as to instruct professionals and aspiring professionals and my favorites, the committed amateur who is determined to be the best s/he can be.

Did I sacrifice my professional career development?

I don't believe I did.  I don't think I could have made a real impact at the top of the field using my tenor voice as a baritone.  Some disappointing auditions, at which I was told I had a flawless vocal technique but not enough vocal power, made me begin to question.  Questions that ultimately lead me to understand (through a series of events) that I was in fact a tenor.

As I prepare for my first Winterreise as a tenor (I sang the cycle often as a baritone), I feel more empowered artistically than ever before.  My voice feels the most honest ever and I am enjoying the relearning of this cycle with a fresh feel.

With a fully developed voice (technical mastery is a lifelong pursuit of course) I have the great benefit of no longer being a victim to reflux or minor food intolerances.  If I wake up with a case of reflux, I am able to warm up, and feel functional.  The better my technical work the day before, the easier my voice works the day after, regardless of reflux, slight cold or allergy.

In short the benefits of this seven-year journey are undeniable to me.  But that is my journey.

Granted, not every tenor who starts as a baritone deals with the issues I had.  I teach a young tenor who is physically robust and always used his voice relative to its nature.  He always used his voice like the tenor he is.  But because the voice is robust, in his undergraduate years he sang baritone and bass-baritone like I did.  Yet he used his voice correctly.  When we started to work together, he did not have many bad habits to fix.  It was a matter of developing ease in the top range.  He could already handle the tessitura pretty well.

The Nature of Talent

Relative to what I discuss above about my own journey, the nature of classical singing talent is a complicated thing.  One must look at talent not as vocal ability, but rather as the attributes necessary to get those in power to pay attention:

1) You are a young singer, 20 years old, with an even three and a half octave range that you can produce every day with apparent ease...

That is enough to get most people to call you very talented (I know at least 20 such singers).  

What takes you from interesting to earning your living in the art of classical singing?

A.  How fast can you learn music accurately without the aid of a recording? Better said, what is your musicianship level?

B. How well can you deliver foreign language text while singing and convince your listener you understand every word and its dramatic purpose?  In other words, how musical and how dramatically compelling are you?

C. How charming are you as a person?  In other words, will the person hiring feel comfortably sharing a meal with you, and will you be a hit at a party thrown by patrons of the organization?

D.  How physically attractive are you? In other words, can you fill the extremely revealing undergarment that substitutes for "costume" in the current production of the opera you are applying for?

If you can do three out the four items above well, you may be ready to have a professional career at the tender age of 20.  It has happened. 

In most cases however, it will takes 5 to 10 years of working hard to achieve the three things above.  And as you get older the expectations are higher.  

In other words, the assessment of "talent" changes depending on age!

2) If you are a true dramatic tenor, nearing 50 and you have a flawless high C and you are dramatically compelling and master all the major operatic languages and have the stamina to sing Tannhäuser, Parsifal, Otello, Samson, Radames and Cavaradossi without a sweat...

That is enough to get people to call you very talented (I don't know so many people like that)

What takes you from interesting to earning your living in the art of classical singing?

A.  How fast can you learn music accurately without the aid of a recording? Better said, what is your musicianship level?  Can we call you at 3 am and ask if 24 hours is enough time for you to learn Bacchus of book?

B. How well can you deliver foreign language text while singing and convince your listener you understand every word and its dramatic purpose?  In other words, how musical and how dramatically compelling are you? Can you move on stage in such a way that everyone believes you are 25 years old while delivering crazy difficult music with Jonas Kaufmann style ease?

C. How charming are you as a person?  In other words, will the person hiring feel comfortably sharing a meal with you, and will you be a hit at a party thrown by patrons of the organization?

D.  How physically attractive are you? In other words, how much space do you take on stage that is consistent with being a lead tenor (Meaning, you cannot be perceived as fat).  Therefore, how muscular can you be?  How much will the rich female patrons pay to see you again when you appear shirtless in your Otello love scene or in your final Samson scene? Enough to want to give a couple of million toward the next production?

When I look at that list, I imagine I have as much a chance as anyone and I've got most of this down.  But I also know that that list list of A-D is meaningless until I get the fundamental talent in place.  So that is how I spend my time.  I know I have the musicianship, musicality, language skills and stagecraft.  I know I am charming enough to be a hit at a party, particularly when I am already the center of attention at a production.  Been there done that.  Bodybuilder-type muscles have never been a priority with me, but I am a brown-sash in Kung Fu and whenever I train for three months straight I get close to the Barihunks aesthetic.

None of this is impossible!  The question is how do you want to play this game?  I chose to play it peacefully.  My blog is as much a therapeutic way of airing out my thoughts as it is an attempt at informing and instructing.  I am an artist first.  A career in the questionable world of opera does not define me.  However, like any honest singer, I want to have the opportunity to sing my favorite repertoire in a venue and atmosphere that does the art credit.  Therefore I have to be willing to play the game by meeting the challenges that the business puts before me.

I believe presenting yourself before you are 100% confident in your abilities, especially at a more advanced age, is a recipe for failure.  I never imagined becoming the dramatic tenor that I am was ever going to be easy.  The fact that there are few dramatic tenors in the world singing these roles with consistency and ease (it has been so since I saw my first Tannhäuser at age 16) made it clear to me that I had my work cut out for me.  I also knew from the start that it would be certain failure to rush into auditions half-baked.  I watched too many colleagues fail thinking that their charm and 1 out of 10 B-flats in auditions is enough to get them having a career because there are so few viable dramatic tenors.  Since there are few truly great dramatic tenors around, no one is interested in having more mediocre ones.  Like it or not, Domingo was the last undeniably successful Otello.  If you audition with that role, people will have certain Domingo expectations until someone else comes along and redefine the role.  Either you meet the Domingo expectation or you give an alternative that is just as powerful or more so!

I'm the first to to argue the dysfunctional nature of the operatic field!  The above expectations are in part laughable, but notice that many of the expectations I write here have to do with bona fide operatic skills.  As operatic aspirants, we have to play the game that is being played, but we do not have to sacrifice our values to do it.  If we can respect ourselves and live by our standards, we can pump iron and give the meat-marketers the six-packs and guns they want, because we will not be defined ultimately by the superficialities but by the artistry that we value.

© 09/13/2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Old School or Cult?: The Aversion to Discipline in the Modern Operatic Culture

In Le maître de musiqueone of the rare films dealing with the operatic discipline, a master teacher played by celebrated baritone, José van Dam, talks proudly about killing his young student with scales. Later in the film, he has his young tenor swim laps in the pond of his property and has him hold his breath underwater to see if he can control his breath, stating:

" are a tenor!"   
"But you said before I was a baritone," the student replies.   
The teacher counters: "You are a tenor.  You have the voice.  It is the physical stamina you lack!"
To his young female student he discussed concentration.  He opens a blind while she sang and she was distracted.

 "You must be the music! Nothing else exists!" 
 "You must never close your eyes. You sing with them as much as with your voice." 

This movie details in such wonderful precision, the nature of our art form:  the politics, the sacrifices in the name of art, the daily discipline that yields great results and the charismatic influential teacher who promises careers but lacks the skills to bring his own students to professional readiness.  The film should be requisite viewing for all aspiring classical singers.  Yet its message is subtle.  It is a Belgian film and it does not hammer the "moral of the story" home like a good Hollywood drama!

I venture to think the average young singer would miss the point entirely.  A dying singer who takes on two students and "...kills them with scales" until they are whipped into shape might be considered cultish, to the blasé and jaded youth of our times.  Students today find it normal to take uppers to give themselves a performance edge or downers to keep them from getting nervous.  Sleeping one's way to the top is considered good business sense in most circles now instead of the selling of the soul that it is. Learning one's music by listening to recordings and being devoid of musical opinion, letting oneself be spoon-fed by a répétiteur is preferred to honest scholarship and intelligence.  What is cultish?  The teacher who aspires to old-fashion rigorous training or the one promoting doping and prostitution?

Which one of the following teacher statements is cultish and which one wise?

A.  You are dumb, you have no talent and no charisma! Without me you will not amount to anything? Now I will charge your credit card for $250.00 for 45 minutes.

B.  You have potential but you lack work ethic!  Singing requires extreme discipline in many areas including vocal technique, physical fitness, language training, and general education in the arts as well as social skills...

The average student in a large city in the world will pay the $250.00 and equate verbal abuse to "tough love!"  They might also be led to believe that anything worthwhile costs more.  The teacher who charges less must not be very good.

A common conversation between an Old-School teacher and a modern student:

Teacher: When you go to the top voice, do not lose the support you feel in the low! Maintain an open throat and all the while sing clear intelligible vowels!  Emit the breath freely and unimpeded, yet do not waste air by pushing it out nor hold it back and prevent its natural release.

Student:  It is much easier when I just lighten up and let it go bright in the head!

Teacher:  Of course it is easier.  It is a one-sided experience and the tone is of poor quality!

Student:  It does not sound poor to me and I can do it every time.  When I attempt what you ask, it is more difficult!

Teacher:  Let's go to the park!
(At the Park)

Teacher: Please uproot one blade of grass from the ground!  Make sure you bring it up entirely, root and all!  (Student performs the task easily and smiles)!

Teacher:  Do it again! (Student performs the task easily a second time and smiles proudly)!

Teacher:  Now uproot three blades of grass at the same time!  (The student tries and one out of three blades broke in the middle.  He tries again and this time two blades broke and one is uprooted.  He tries several times and does not succeed and stops with frustration and anger)!

Student:  It's not possible to uproot three blades at once!  What does it prove? Just like trying to sing a pure vowel in throat and keeping weight in the top voice and blowing air through the vocal cords while hoping not to waste it! All impossible!

(The teacher bends down and three times in a row uproots three blades of grass).

Teacher:  It only takes practice!  The first time I tried it, I failed too.  But I knew it was possible!  And it is not "singing a pure vowel in the throat" but rather "maintaining an open throat while singing clear intelligible vowels."  That is a big difference!  It is not "keeping weight in the top voice" but rather "maintaining support as you ascend toward the top" and it is not "blowing air through the vocal cords while hoping not too waste it" but rather "emitting freely the amount of air that is required, no more no less!"

Student:  But what is wrong with just doing what comes easily?

Teacher:  Nothing, except that there is nothing special about it.  I can ask anyone here in this park to uproot one blade of grass and they would succeed.  But how many do you think could successfully uproot three blades of grass consistently?  Uprooting three blades of grass, like a superior vocal technique, is a learned skill that requires repetition. Concentrated repetition!

Student:  Why does it have to be hard?  Shouldn't singing be fun?

Teacher:  Once the superior skill is trained, it is not so hard and it becomes exponentially fun because it permits you to do so many musical things easily that your current technique will not allow.  What you can do easily, hundreds of young singers your age can do.  If you develop a real skill, you will be set apart from your competition.

Student:  How long is that going to take?  How much older will I be when I learn this? Won't I age out of most auditions and competitions? Until now I've always been told I am talented.  If I follow your program, I will lose all confidence in my talent.

Teacher:  Or you will gain greater confidence, true confidence in a consciously learned skill that you will be able to repeat at will.  And with such skill you will have a much greater chance of succeeding at auditions when you do present yourself, instead of doing auditions just to do them and accomplish nothing in the process.

Student:  I don't think so!  I'm done.  This whole thing is a little too "cultish" for me.  I want to stay natural!

Teacher:  I wish you well on your journey!


My little story only illustrates what occurs too often in studios throughout the world, particularly in big cities.  In a fast-food culture of immediate but superficial gratification, art is synonymous with entertainment.  The average person cannot distinguish from a beautifully painted landscape and a painting by numbers.  S/he considers Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli to be operatic icons while few people outside of operatic circles know the names of Jonas Kaufmann or Stephanie Blythe.  (For the uninitiated, Brightman and Bocelli are not opera singers and they could not be heard in the presence of a symphonic orchestra without microphones).  Young singers in big cities tire quickly of a day job that sucks their artistic energy and they would give their bodies and souls to leave those jobs and get a shot at their dreams at whatever the cost.

In truth, we cannot totally blame them!  It is often after spending four years  at conservatories and music colleges, taking the easy route to a degree, that they are confronted with the savage reality of the operatic field:  that there are thousands of young singers just like them coming out of schools just like theirs every year and there are not enough jobs or even training opportunities that would make them viable singers.  By that point, they are only looking for a teacher with a good illusion, a magic trick of sorts, that convinces them they could turn into Cinderella at the wave of a magic wand and have a go at the Operatic ball! 

To tell them there are no magic wands or quick tricks makes you the villain!  They would rather hide in a cocoon of self-delusion rather than confront the reality that they are not as good as they need to be to have a real shot.

The solution is early discipline!  There are two types of students: the one who gives up on a math problem after 15 minutes and the one who solves it in 45 minutes.  The one who worked 30 minutes more investigated 3 times the number of possibilities until s/he arrived at a solution.  S/he not only develops the confidence that s/he can solve future problems, but s/he has already learned that perseverance leads to results and has explored a number of avenues that may prove helpful in future problems.

For my part, I live by the following axiom:  There are either winners or those who quit too soon!
In every discipline, there are thousands of times more quitters than there are winners!

© 9/7/2014

Friday, August 22, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Going to the "Insecure" place": Crescendo-Diminuendo and Other Advanced Exercises

"You have to let go!"  How many of us have heard this assertion and others like it from our well-meaning teachers?  As always, our teachers are not wrong for bringing up these wonderful ideas, however the question is whether a student is at a point whereby s/he is truly able to let go without things falling apart.  Imagine asking a young gymnast to do a one-handed handstand on the first week of classes or someone who has done little physical development to do a one-arm push-up!

Tai Chi has taught me that grace and fluidity comes from the leg strength that permits one to do a slow movement that carries most of the body's weight on one-leg and ever-so gradually transfers the weight to the other leg.  Both legs must be strong to make the transition fluid and unbroken.  Likewise, an ideal stability is necessary when crescendoing on a a single note.  

Why is it that particularly difficult to crescendo-diminuendo on a note that lies in the muscular passaggio (where the mechanism goes from a vocalis-dominant [thickening] mode to a crico-thyroid-dominant [stretching] mode?  
The reasoning here is that during the crescendo phase, more sub-glottal pressure is exerted on the vocal folds.  If the phonation is truly balanced and the set-up is strong enough to handle the breath pressure, the crescendo occurs without a glitch.  However is one of the two muscle groups is weak, it will buckle under pressure.  That is, if CT is weak, the voice might lower slightly during crescendo.  If Vocalis is weak, the voice might go sharp during crescendo.

If the set-up of the particular pitch (Fundamental Frequency) is unbalanced, say that one of the two main muscle groups is hyperactive, the Inter-arytenoids  will compensate.  In the case of too much vocalis activity, which would lengthen the vibration cycle, the IAs relax to accelerate the "opening" portion of the close phase.  This relaxation might cause some breathiness or else the folds may just fall apart from each other.  If on the other hand the CT is hyperactive, it could cause sharpening, the singer with a good ear might compensate by slowing down the opening phase through IA contraction (in essence pressing the fold edges together).  In such a case, the sub-glottal pressure might be too much and result in a sudden break (cracking).  Alternatively, the folds may endure the pressure but the tone would sound tight.

Of course, any imbalance during the crescendo will be experienced badly during the diminuendo.  If the tone is pressed during crescendo, diminuendo will require too much relaxation in the IAs which would result in breathiness.  Yet some singers have very strong IAs and may be able to do a tension-filled crescendo and still manage a gradual diminuendo.  That ability may be exciting but it is not an ideal form of a crescendo-diminuendo.  Appropriate strength should make it possible for us to make sound in ways that appear effortless.  That is to say, the correct muscles exert such that the phonation process remains flexible and fluid.  Strength that creates rigidity or extreme tension in the singing process is ultimately harmful to the long-term health of the instrument.

What about the breath?

The kind of dynamic regularity that is necessary for a truly fluid and balanced crescendo-diminuendo can only be achieved if the breath is reactive.  If I decide to take a cup of coffee and lift it, a number of muscles in my arm and hand response in perfect concert to achieve a move that is in fact extremely complex.  Yet we make that very difficult movement look simple every day.  That is because we take for granted that our brain is better than we are at calculating the precise muscular coordination for that movement.  Do you remember when you were a baby trying to grab an object with your fingers and the extraordinary concentration that was necessary to do what now looks so simple?  How many attempts over how many months did we invest before that move became fluid and not awkward and baby-like?  How many muscles had to be balanced to accomplish what now seems like a simple task?

For a gradual crescendo-diminuendo, beside the complex muscular coordination discussed in the previous section, there is also an even more complex process relative to the muscles of breathing.  We often think we have direct control of breathing and support because we can move the muscles of the stomach and ribcage at will.  But we rarely stop to ask ourselves whether the movements we are able to access directly are precisely the ones needed for the vocal emission we are attempting.

The gentle, clean onset that is both clear and fluid requires very little air pressure, an almost passive action from the standpoint of conscious muscular control.  Beginning the tone cleanly in a way that feels relatively "unsupported" is in fact the correct support for that quiet onset.  From there, a crescendo calls upon the necessary muscles more and more until it feels that the entire body is involved in the crescendo.  Then we attempt to maintain that coordination as much as possible during the diminuendo to avoid a sudden disengagement of the complex support system.

This "observing" the instrument at work and instructing it only by having a clear idea of what is to be achieved (like lifting a cup) is the ultimate goal of singing coordination.  The mind imagines, the body does as the mind observes and does not interfere.  Interference is simply activating extra muscular activity to help in a situation whereby we feel uncertain as to whether we can achieve what we set out to accomplish.

Some compensation is always necessary during early training.  Just as a parent holds a baby's hands when they are first learning to walk, some muscular compensation will usually occur before the singer is strong enough to accomplish the job with the right muscular coordination.  But just as a parent stops helping the baby and encourages him/her to walk by himself (even if he falls after a step or two), so must we let go of compensatory muscles and allow the natural process to take over as those muscles become strong and coordinated.

As always, in pedagogy, success of a particular technique depends on when it is introduced.  Crescendo-diminuendo and other exercises such as coloratura-training and trills are advanced exercises that should be introduced when breath and fundamental phonation coordination has been learned and consciously understood.  That a student makes a very good sound has no bearing on whether they know what it is they are doing.  While basic phonation may be learned from childhood and properly influenced by the environment that the singer grows up in, it in no way implies conscious singing and does not help the singer go further when it comes to fine-motor-control tasks like crescendo-diminuendo and trills.  Knowing how the instrument should work (i.e. what is our conscious part and what other parts are automatic) leads to high level skills.  Some believe that knowledge is tantamount to interference.  Singers who sing mindlessly will tend to be out of the way and for beginners that may not be such a bad thing.  But when fine motor skills are necessary, they will eventually be lost.  Singers who sing consciously can identify good tensions that come from necessary good coordination and the interfering kind that is "extra" and unnecessary.

Letting go is not mindlessness.  It is a conscious decision to allow the instrument to work the way it is meant to because one becomes aware of the difference between consciously taking a good breath that uses only the necessary muscles and therefore feels free of compensatory muscular actions and one that is mindless and lazy.  One is organized the other is not.

It is a very different thing to consciously decide to jump off of a cliff into the water below than it is to fall off of a cliff.  The former is a calculated risk, the latter is mindless and dangerous.

© 08/22/2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Seize The Day: An Ode to Robin Williams 1951-2014

I saw "Dead Poets Society" during the summer of 1989 while I was a fellow at the Aspen Festival.  We were so enthralled with the film that we fellows formed our own society that summer and often gathered together at a park and read poetry to each other.  Robin Williams' John Keating sealed my idealism about teaching and I knew that I wanted to be that kind of teacher, who challenged hearts and minds to open.  The tragic ends of that film were so poignant because they reflected certain truths that our human society can only properly deal with in films.  The same people who wept at the end of that film would be the ones who would fight tooth and nail to prevent the kind of "out of the box" teaching that Robin Williams' character championed.

This is the world we live in!  I left five different schools and quit academia after my own alma mater that taught me to imagine beyond the obvious, proved to be just one more of those places that fears anything that challenges one to think.  I have enjoyed the happy precariousness of freelance teaching because of the word "free"!  It has become a luxury to enjoy an honest relationship with a student whereby a true pursuit of excellence and self-development is the objective.  And yet for every student, with whom I make a lasting partnership, I am disappointed by five or ten who are more interested in ultimately boxing themselves in with a wrapping of comfort.  

This is not strange.  It is only hurtful for idealists like me who are blessed to see the best in everyone and cursed not to realize that most are scared to death to become the best of themselves;  that it is more manageable and more acceptable to see oneself as normal and small.  The idiot teacher who dares to suggest to such a person that they can be more will only be punished for pushing them to places they are not ready to explore.  

Yet just when you imagine you can write a student off as limited by their own fear, someone writes to you 10 years after you have taught them to say:  "I kept all of my lesson tapes during our time together, and today I found the box of tapes and listened to them crying at the realization that I had all this wisdom offered to me at a time when I was not ready to take it.  Yet, the seeds were planted and now I am ready to water them."

Teaching is an adventure wrought with joys and disappointments perhaps in equal measure.  An experienced teacher has to be close enough to see the diamond beneath the dirt, but distanced enough to see the total person and realize that not everyone has the patience to dust the dirt away and free the diamond.  Still, our job is to inspire, challenge and encourage.  And we have to be strong enough to know that mostly, we are only there to show the way.  We will seldom be there to see the student achieve their goals.  

Teach them with all our hearts but let them go because they are not ours!

I can hardly remember a time when Robin Williams was not in my life.  Whether the alien, Mork, or the Russian immigrant in "Moscow on the Hudson" or "Ms. Doubtfire," or the innumerable portrayals that have shaped my generation, Mr. Williams left an indelible mark, not least of which is the perfect model of what it is to be a teacher.  It is a tough job and our society does not value it hardly at all these days.  The fakes, the "rainmakers" the two-bit swindlers are more valued today because they sell immediate gratification; they sell a MacDonalds' education commensurate with the fast-food culture we live in.  In the midst of this decadence, Mr. Keating, along with Miyagi and Yoda shine forever bright.  

Rest In Peace, my fellow artist/teacher whom I never met in real life.  You have left us with a legacy that we shall not soon forget.  In a strange way, we all feel we got to know you, because you opened your soul so widely that each one of us may find a mirror of ourselves in one of your unforgettable portrayals.

© 08/13/2014

Friday, August 1, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): The First Härnösand Summer Opera Academy: A Greater Achievement Than I Ever Imagined

The Idea

The idea of yet another summer course sounds crazy with a saturated market, but having participated as both teacher and student at quite a few summer programs (when one could trust the offerings), I was very clear of what I did not want to offer.  This was not some money making venture for teachers trying to fill their summer calendars and it was not a two-week course posing as everyone's final miracle cure.  Along with the best programs I had the great luck to enjoy when I was a developing singer, I wanted to create an environment where the students and teachers could really concentrate on the "quality" of what they do and hopefully take stock of their artistic package.  

I believe strongly in imagining our objectives. I often daydream about my Scala debut, even at age 48 in a new fach and by the assessment of the pragmatists a very long shot.  But when I look at the accomplishments, which my imagination have brought to reality, I stop thinking of living my destiny based on the realities and constraints of others.  When I look at my teaching life post-academia, it is precisely the way I imagined it 8 years ago.  When I take stock of my vocal development post-baritone, it is pretty much how I imagined it would be. I have a crucial next step ahead, but I am seeing the dream become a reality.  

This summer academy also began with a thought, about six years ago, that Sweden, with its deep singing culture and operatic pedigree was probably the best place to see the philosophy of Kashu-do truly develop.  Kashu-do is no mystery.  It is simply a commitment to old school principles of developing talent by hard work and facing the paradoxical nature of life--something that requires philosophical reflection, whether we speak of chiaroscuro or Yin-and-yang.   Even as late as the 80s, the movie, Fame and television series that followed it concentrated on the importance of "...paying in sweat" for success.  

The location and support system

The correct location for a course of this scope was of paramount importance.  One day, one of my students in Northern Sweden invited a friend to one of my master classes.  It happened to be the head of the Music Department at the Folkhögskola (equivalent to a community college) in Härnösand, Sweden. I visited the school a couple of days later and soon found myself teaching a couple of master classes there and making firm plans for the summer academy.  Nothing is done alone.  My dear colleagues at Härnösands Folkhögskola, particularly the department head, Helén Lundquist-Dahlén and lead vocal instructor, Karin Bengtsdotter-Olsson, invested time, energy and heart to make this course a success.  I never felt alone in this ambitious enterprise.  

The Team

Once the location was fixed and we were committed to making the course happen the very next summer, we had work to do.  The first was building a team.  At one point one of my students suggested I bring on a famous singer and an agent, so singers would feel they had a chance to make certain career steps.  Having a big-name singer come and do a concert and speak about his/her experience is in the books for the future.  That kind of experience is always inspiring, but I did not want to have a famous teacher come to teach just because of the name.  I have seen otherwise good programs get totally derailed by famous personalities who have very little to do with the greater vision.  I have some dream people in mind and perhaps in future years they could contribute in the best of ways!  As for agents, I did not want students to feel that they were there to impress anyone.  The nature of the academy is to provide an environment where true reflection and development could occur.  If the student is ready to be heard by an agent, that can happen in a different environment.  

I decided to bring together a diverse group of people who had only one special attribute in common:  A very high standard of excellence combined with a long term view of development.  These people all achieved great things in their careers with plenty of adversity.  They are success-oriented and know that success is a developing idea.  

Katrin Kapplusch, one of my top students over the years, is an extraordinary soprano who made her biggest career strides at a time when most would consider their chances to be diminishing.  She is an active spinto soprano throughout Europe and a gifted voice teacher. 

Gabriella Sborgi, an Italian mezzo-soprano, is an artist of uncommon inspiration who has the ability to see possibilities where others see obstacles.  We encountered each other at a course very similar to this one about a decade ago.  Artistic partnerships are built often long before the partnerships take place.  She is a rare Italian who makes a career combining Mozart, contemporary music and Lieder.  With Verdi's Nabucco she recently entered the dramatic mezzo repertoire with singular flair and multi-faceted approach.  She is an experienced teacher influencing a generation of Italian singers that look beyond their natural talents to develop into well-rounded artists.

Andrej Hovrin and Alessandro Zuppardo are two pianists with very diverse backgrounds and very different approaches.  They are both ridiculously technically accomplished with a profound understanding of music as a language beyond the sum of individual notes on a page.  They meet in their passion for Lieder and mélodies and are both steeped in the art of Opera.  They complimented each other so thoroughly.  Their professional accomplishments are extraordinary. 

Karin Bengtsdotter Olsson is one of the most gifted voice teachers I have ever encountered as is evident of the extraordinary development of students at the Härnösand Folkhögskola.  Watching her teach during the two weeks has been a revelation and I look forward to learning from her and taking advantage of her vast experience. 

Helén Lundquist-Dahlén is a superior musician and a talented choral conductor.  Her teamwork with Alessandro Zuppardo lead to highly successful final concert of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle.  She is also a visionary leader who is able to anticipate problems before they happen.  Her vigilant eye kept us well-steered during a very full two-weeks.  

Two guest lectures from Professor Anders Olsson on Walt Whitman and The Hermeneutic Circle, a principle of text interpretation rounded out our process so beautifully.

Finally, the unexpected element in an opera master class ended up being the key element.  The presence of Sifu Karl Romain, master Kung Fu and Tai Chi teacher was the glue for this inspired team.  Because of Sifu Romain's presence, the course took a direction dealing with energy and balance in the context of singing.

The Result

22 Students and 10 instructors combined seamlessly to create an environment of mutual support and learning.  The students included professionals, traditional students and inspired amateurs.  Some of the professionals were amazed by the skills the amateurs displayed. Likewise, the amateurs saw the completeness that makes a professional a professional.  The gifted traditional students took attributes of the other two groups and in the end everyone became a amateur in the true sense of the word--a lover of the art with limitless aspirations.  We teachers became students as well.

For my part, I was able to see how my many experiences instructed my teaching.  Three and a half years of Kung Fu and Tai Chi have contributed greatly to my athletic approach to singing.  Students were able to see how vocal science confirmed the many traditional approaches we were steeped in and yet again Yin and Yang were complimentary and not opposite.  Through this experience I realized that my important next step was to give in to my intuition when it came to my own singing.  It is time to let go and let my voice sing.  The two weeks helped me personally to dare to take the crucial step that goes beyond understanding.  I've known from the onset that singing is a dynamic experience that cannot be put in a cage.  There is a time for structure and there is a time to just sing.  This experience gave me the courage to let go in ways I needed to and it seems that each member of this wonderful family made steps they might not have taken on their own in a different environment.  The environment invited courage because everyone felt supported.  

This was our first year and we discussed immediately at the end of the course with students and teachers about what we can improve on.  It is however most unusual that even when pressed, I could not get a negative review from anyone who took part.  This was way beyond what I expected and yet I am already working to better this for next year.


My heartfelt gratitude to the students, my colleagues, the people of Härnösand who supported our concerts heartily, the other teachers at the Folkhögskola who were always present to provide emotional and moral support, our friends and families who helped in all kinds of ways to help make this program a success.  I look forward to this program developing into a real force in the vocal/operatic landscape over the next few years.  

The following video is a small report of the academy's activities:  

© 08/01/2014

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Achieving High C: A Tenor Milestone

It is so easy to say: "No you can't!"  I swore I would never tell a student that something was not possible.  I would explain why something was not attainable at the moment and what would be needed to achieve it.  But I would never say: "It is impossible!"

I have heard from many coaches and teachers that you do a student a favor when you tell them they have no talent.  You spare them the agony that they would face in attempting to reach a goal they never would reach.  Sometimes, I wish I could do that, but I find it unethical.  It is not our place as teachers and advisors to tell anyone what to do.  It is our job to present the realities as they are and let the student decide if they will chose to swim the "sea of troubles" that is the path to a professional career in singing.  The path that is unending an rewarding however is the path to artistry.  

When we tell a student that they should not sing because the world of the music business is impossible, we also tell them to stop the path of the artist.  "Cart before the horse!"  Why not instruct the student in the art of singing and music and then they can figure out whether or not they want to deal with the world of music business.  Armed with the tools of an artist, one has a chance.  Armed with nothing but fear of a nasty world of music business, one has indeed no chance.

When I started my journey to finding my true voice, my tenor voice, I decided a fully supported High C was a part of the package.  It is not that the High C is the end of everything.  It is simply something that many full-voiced tenors have accomplished and just because I began as a baritone does not mean that a high C was not possible.  So many tenors with more substantial voices than mine accomplished this feat.  Why not I?  I look at the singers of the past as models, not as Gods.  In fact the most exciting lesson is that they were mere human beings like all of us.  They practiced until they were able to do something that is indeed difficult to do.

I knew that a High C would be possible as a result of a complete technique, not as a goal unto itself.
My early clips on this blog from a few years ago show rough beginnings.  The following clip shows how far this has come.  The journey is ever-continuing, and while I enjoy my High C, the C3-C4 octave, my middle and lower middle ranges still need work.  Refining is a lifelong job.  

While practicing some songs this morning, I felt that the fluidity I had been working on through coloratura singing was bearing fruit.  My voice felt more released and flexible than it had in previous months.  As I warmed up, the top range felt a little lower, and when I sang the C in a scale, it did not feel stuck or resistant.  It was "released!"  I thought I would try it on my favorite High C phrase, the one from Pollione's cavatina from Norma:

The first try was relaxed, but perhaps a little too relaxed.  The second note of the phrase was a little unsupported and flat.  However, the balance of substance, air pressure/flow and brilliance was right and the C just released.

The second try was to prove to myself it was not a fluke.  My concentration was not as good.  It grabbed from the beginning.  Yet it still came out, though a touch stiff!

The third attempt was to regain concentration and balance.  I had to think about all the elements again and allow the instrument to function. It released again.  So it was not fluke.

The fourth try was to try to better the third attempt.  It was pretty good but not as balanced as either the first or the third.
This is how practice works!  Mastery is not accidental.  Through repetition, we find out the difference between a stable structure and a faulty one, between excellent coordination of all the elements and "mindless hoping" that our natural inclinations might prevail and give us the desired result.  A professional does things on purpose!

How do I improve on this C?

The acoustic analysis tells me a lot about my tendencies.  If I looked at only the "spectrogram" (the scrolling history view), All four attempts look alike.  The greatest energy is carried on the 3rd and 5th Harmonics (peaks), the Second Formant (F2) and the Singer's Formant (SF).  This is precisely what we want.  However, the spectrum view (which represents a moment in real-time), when I freeze it for the High Cs, shows certain tendencies:

The first attempt was very good, but there was a tendency for the First Formant (which happens to be on the fundamental) to dominate during parts of the sustained C.  We would prefer to have a stability in the dominance of the F2.  

The spectrograph also shows us that the formant values (First [F1] and Second [F2] Formants) determine the vowel to be [ae] as in the word "cat".  This choice of vowel (probably influenced by all the tenors I hear do this piece) presents a struggle between F1 and F2, rendering the note a little unstable.  I theorized that the better choice would be the Second Formant of the vowel [a] as in father, which would focus the energy of the low formants on the second harmonic (second peak).  This lower laryngeal position would have a beneficial effect on the SF as well.

The tightness of the second attempt shows very strong peaks in the lower two formants while diminishing the SF.  This is to be expected when the tone is pressed and inflexible.

The third attempt was acoustically the best.  It showed a tendency toward greater strength in the second harmonic (which is desirable).

The fourth attempt showed again a tendency for F1 to become dominant.

Although the Cs are relatively stable and well-coordinated, there is still some polishing work to be done for the note to sound beautiful.

Being able to sustain C5 means that I have a certain amount of flexibility (ergo strength) in the coordination of notes below that.  B4b or B4 are notes I can now trust in context and more important than that, the flexibility of my lower range is becoming a reality.

Furthermore, before a High C would be possible, I had to make friends with my "natural" voice.  Every time I would try to sound like a tenor, the voice would become tense and quickly fatigued. Whenever I allowed my voice to have the same "body" it always had in my baritone days, the ability to find the brilliance that made the voice tenor-like also became possible.

Now that I feel I have this High C, I have to upkeep it.  And I have to go beyond it!

This summer, as part of my Opera Academy in Sweden, I will be singing three concerts.  I am feverishly working of operatic arias and ensembles as well as some favorite songs and Rossini's Petite Messe Sollenelle.  It is fun to be able to really make music again!

Achieving this High C is just an example of the simple commitment to the idea: "Yes I can!  But it takes work!"

My journey is just becoming interesting!  I love achieving new abilities!  I love that I can sing tenor now when not so long ago, it was just a pipe-dream!  All reality begins with a dream, an inspiration!
I have bigger tenor dreams still, that have little to do with High Cs.  Dreams of masterful music making using this voice that is now coming into its own.

There is indeed no limit to what we can achieve when we commit all of our energy to a task!

Happy Singing!

© 05/28/2014

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): On Critics and Their Responsibility: A Response to Ann Midgette's Cowardly Postcript

In an attempt to bring some kind of closure to the entire Critics-gate debacle, Ann Midgette of the Washington Post wrote this cowardly attempt at middle ground, which does no more than to endorse this type of base behavior under the guise of a balanced view.  To Ms. Midgette, I have the following to say:

We are not simpletons! Any performer who has ever taken the leap to expose their souls on the boards, consciously takes the risk of being panned by critics. Critics play a visceral part in furthering the art by helping to remind us of the standards we should aspire to. A balanced review can critique an actor's performance without debasing the person behind the actor.

When did it become acceptable and fashionable to insult an artist in the guise of a critique?  There was a time when such behavior was considered the last resort of poor writers who lacked both skill and imagination.  A truly competent writer could manage to comment on even the physical attributes of the singer in question without resorting to downright mean-spirited adjectives for which he might be challenged by a respectable gentleman wishing to defend a maligned lady's honor, for indeed these comments go far beyond acceptable form for a learned person, let alone a writer who pretends to report on what is commonly accepted as high-class art.

Is it really a "formulaic" definition to accept that Opera is indeed distinguished by the quality of the singing? In an attempt to appear artistically liberal-minded, Ms. Midgette has done nothing more than to endorse a deconstructionist ideology that accepts any disrespect of the operatic form as an indication of modernism and/or the natural and necessary evolution of Opera.  To add insult to injury, Ms. Midgette concluded that even the praises of the singer's vocal performance must not have been warranted because "...had the singing really been as glorious as all that, they might not have focused so much on the looks." The fact that Ms. Midgette herself had not attended the reviewed performance makes that statement insulting and unbecoming of a critic of a major newspaper.  

Indeed "'s not the job of the critic to be liked, or to pander to popular tastes," as Ms. Midgette writes.  But is it necessary for an opera critic to resort to locker-room misogyny to make a point? And what exactly is that point?  That Opera should no longer be an art form defined by high level vocal development? 

What is revealed in this equivocal attempt at finding common ground is only a revelation that Ms. Midgette had drunken the CoolAid of acceptance into the very modern operatic environment that is willing to do away with the classical vocalism that has always defined the art form in favor of more populist, if not popular values, that seem to suggest that opera will be more successful if it aspires to a status of Hollywood or  Broadway wannabe.

That which is popular is not necessarily artistically sound, Ms. Midgette.  Nor does a successful advertisement campaign for an opera company guarantee that the product that is being presented is valid for the current times or any times.  One may be able find flaws in a great production or find virtues in a terrible one.  A Gesamtkunstwerk as Wagner called opera has so many levels of skills to be considered that a singer's looks would have to be otherworldly to be of serious consequence.  This young woman is not obese by any stretch of the imagination, yet fell prey to nothing other than a modern obsession with the misogynistic, mythical size 0.  

The bard wrote it thus:

Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves, when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die. 

Such is the power of music!  And even more poignant is that power when transmitted through a refined classically trained voice at the command of a well-trained musician.  This is what vocal musicians should aspire to--to move the listener from within, reaching a part of the human spirit that perhaps nothing else can reach.  A great operatic critic should love opera and defend it with a brutally critical pen if must be to prevent it from falling to the level of the banal and common.  In an attempt to avoid being elitist, too many influential parties in the operatic world have chosen, what is easiest and superficial and giving it the name of "democratization of Opera"  Ms. Midgette has simply become what she claims critics should not do: "to be liked and to pander" to those who have the most influence in the field:  the casting directors, stage directors and agents who have made the devil's deal that opera singers should look like Hollywood movie stars, since the most important medium is now the cinema screens where the most money is to be made. 

This modern "lookism" can be used as a terrible excuse to exclude singers on not only the basis of weight, but height, race, sexual orientation or anything else that members of a production team may find subjectively not to their tastes.  Rather than attempting to understand why these reviews struck such a loud dissonant chord through the operatic world, Ms. Midgette chose to play the role of collaborator.

The final slap in the face was Midgette's conclusive Exitus autem quae sunt ad finem (The end justifies the means), suggesting that the singer in question will probably have a more important career because of this scandal. Typical!  This only proves that Ms. Midgette has very little idea what moves artists from within.  We all wish to be successful at what we do.  But it does not even take an artist to understand that the type of success that one wants is the type that validates the blood and sweat that we shed for years to accomplish excellence in our chosen fields, not the notoriety that may result from infamy.

For my part, I would prefer to go back to writing about the newest exciting discoveries in acoustic analysis that give us a real understanding of what makes great operatic voices, but how can I focus on that work when these poor excuses for operatic criticism defy the very definition of the art we chose to learn by sacrificing our life's blood? Why uncover the secrets to the greatest voices in operatic history if we are being told that a gastric bypass will serve us much more toward making a career, even if we do not need one?

This scandal struck us at our core because those critics pretty much gang-banged a talented singer with unmitigated, harsh, verbal violence.  Ms. Midgette's response is terribly out of touch and downright deplorable.

© 05/25/2014