Sunday, January 26, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): Surviving the Career: How Fit Are You Really?

A great number of my students are singing as ensemble members in German theaters and every once in a while, even the very best among them come to a point of near crisis if not for a supportive studio that helps to make the singer aware early enough when something feels wrong.

Every professional singer, even those that have had lots of experience, like to feel that they are reliable and would prefer to hide any problem so that they do not get negative attention, or worse yet, get fired because the house administration loses faith in them.

Like being afraid to go to the doctor because you are afraid to discover something might be wrong, not dealing with vocal issues early is the worst thing you could do.

 This week, I worked with two of the most consistent singers I have ever had the pleasure to work with.
With a lot of productions, having to sing different roles on four successive days and dealing with fatigue, even they found themselves becoming a little uncertain.  Lucky enough they have colleagues they could talk to and I was able to see them as always at least once a month.

  But when you are a professional and everything is going well, you don't usually think of making time for a vocal check up. ---Athletes are required to have full check-ups several times a year. --- Singers should see their voice teachers regularly.  Why?

As much as current pedagogy would like us to think that great singing takes little physical effort, this is one of the greatest lies that is propagated.  Strong singers do not have to overexert, but singers who are muscularly more phlegmatic often look like they are working hard when they sing correctly.  Looking like one is working hard is not always the sign of forcing.  It is often the sign of a singer who is working hard to produce the correct vocal coordination.

The remedy should be to counsel the singer to practice regularly so that they become stronger in the correct coordination and thereby not longer having to overexert.  Not work less!

Singers who are naturally physically strong are few.  Genetics does play a part in it.  Some singers are just physically robust and have always supported their voices with a strong breathing mechanism.  Others are by nature more phlegmatic and have to work to keep their bodies in top physical condition.  

One must never forget that the vocal mechanism is also made up of many muscles that must be strong to work in balance with each other. Those muscles too must be developed! 

Without this physical robustness, a singer, even a really good one can hurt themselves when they experience the deadly trifecta of being a member of a house ensemble in a "Fest" experience:

Too many roles + too little recovery time + mental stress --------> insecurity ---------> fear -------> technical disorganization --------> vocal injury ----------> doubt ----------> loss of nerves -------> loss of job.

I am lucky as a teacher that most of my students who sing in theaters are not alone.  They have other colleagues from the studio who are near enough to come hear them (often in the same theater) and I do see most of them at least once a month and often more when they are learning new roles.

A few are alone in theaters and sometimes have to go through anguish alone.  Sometimes family members do not understand.  Those who are the most clear thinking will request a video conference and I, with the use of my real-time spectral analysis on my computer can detect much information that will confirm what I hear.  A good internet connection on both sides can guarantee quality of sound.
Some are still skeptical of video-conferencing for voice lessons and that is too bad.  While it is not ideal as a primary tool, it is an ideal complement for a teacher who knows the voices of his students well.

However the problem is more dependent upon the student's ability to be honest with himself/herself as soon as s/he detects a problem.  But how can a student find the balance between detecting a real problem and being hypochondriac?

In order to be able to self-diagnose when things are not optimal, a singer must have a baseline concept of what is correct.  That is called technical awareness.  There is a correct, balanced way for the voice to function.  It is a myth that a great technician gets to a point when they no longer have to think at all.  When a process is repeated correctly thousands of times, it becomes more or less automatic.  Yet, singing begins in the imagination.  A singer must have an expectation of their natural sound in order for the body to call upon the correct function.  A false concept of one's sound, even with correct technical philosophy, will cause disrepair and dysfunction.  

Many young singers enter theater life with a "natural" coordination.  That is to say they learned balanced singing somewhat unconsciously.  They are not aware of all the working parts:  the parts that work involuntarily and the parts that require conscious organization (usually from a mental concept more than physical interference).  Those singers are the ones most likely to have short careers, because the rigors of a "Fest" contract or even a "three-week rehearsal period" for a common repertory theater production, might bring them to a point of fatigue whereby certain aspects of the total function no longer behaves automatically.  Such singers eventually become very nervous and have to be replaced.  School productions are different because the singers have their teacher on the premises.  Today, singers have to travel to work most of the time and they do not have a teacher in the city where they work.

The most difficult element to deal with is that theater administrations are generally populated by people who have no clue how singers function.  They create an environment whereby singers are expendable and can be fired with very little notice at the first sign of normal discomfort, whether from fatigue or a cold or even "marking."  Most operatic conductors who could act as a go-between do not have the pre-requisite knowledge of the voice to know 1) whether a singer is vocally fit for the job at hand (being able to sing an aria easily does not mean one is ready for the rigors of the role.  Ensembles are the most difficult in most roles) 2) whether a singer is having problems due to fatigue or a systemic technical weakness 3) how to help a singer on the edge find their balance back 4) how to advise singers in the middle of a difficult rehearsal process.

A singer is the darling of the administration as long as they are producing what is expected.  At the first sign of discomfort, the singer is the enemy, the virus that must be eliminated.

It may sound extreme but it is today's reality.  Longevity is a foreign word in classical singing today because 1) the criteria for professional readiness do not exist in today's vocal pedagogy 2) theater administrators and even many agents, in large part do not understand music, let alone the complex nature of the operatic voice (that singers themselves often do not understand 3) superficial attributes like being able to sing high, loud  or fast (regardless of quality) or a Barbie doll figure trump a solid technique.

No we are not going to change the administrators or the agents for that matter.  We singers must change.  We are the custodians of the operatic art form because the voices is what makes opera.  So we must be vocally fit, musically well-trained, focused, intelligent, charming and do our best to keep ourselves physically appealing enough (without selling our souls to the devil) as not to be counted out.
All of these attributes are necessary to sustain a career.  Most important is a constant, honest, balanced reassessment of self.

Are you fit and prepared for what you have to do as a professional opera singer?
© 01/26/2014

Monday, January 20, 2014

R.I.P. Maestro Claudio Abbado

I did not know Claudio Abbado personally but the few experiences I have had with him are eternally meaningful.  One of the regrets I have had about having to change Fach (a starting over, so to speak) is that I wondered wether I would finish my re-training in time to get to work with this man as a soloist one day.  It is not meant to be and I let it go.  But why was that so important?

I first met Maestro Abbado when he visited the campus of Westminster Choir College during my undergraduate junior year, 1987, to rehearse with the Westminster Choir in preparation of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  We had performed the work two weeks before at Carnegie Hall with another great conductor and orchestra that we loved very dearly.  But on many fronts, Abbado was about to bring us to another level.  His rehearsal with us was short, and to the point.  He had a mini-score which he almost never used and he said almost nothing.  We rehearsed and when he wanted something different he stopped and conducted slightly differently.  After a mere 20 minutes, we were done.

At our first rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic, we were transported by the first notes they played. It was as if we had been watching “black-and-white” for years and suddenly were introduced to Technicolor.  The Vienna Philharmonic tuned nearly a half-tone higher at 454 we were told and yet the basses having to deal with Beethoven’s hyped up high Gs never complained.  And the E/G minor third for the sopranos and altos on “über’m Sternenzelt...” got only raptured transcendence from the ladies instead of the usual complaints.

A couple of years later, I was deeply in my study of orchestral conducting under the legendary Gustav Meier.  How a young singer got this honorable opportunity is a story for another time. Maestro Abbado visited Ann Arbor, Michigan to perform among other things, Strauss’ Four Last Songs with Jessye Norman.  Needless to say, tickets were sold out practically before they were printed.  After a conducting seminar, Maestro Meier signaled to me and when I approached, he suggested I cut my next class to join him in an adventure.  We went to Hill Auditorium and sneaked into the dress rehearsal of that performance.  We entered quietly, but maestro Abbado noticed us.  Soon he stopped the orchestra, came down to the house level and embraced Gustav Meier.  There was something profound between the two giants and I stood there by my teacher wondering what would happen next.  And when Maestro Abbado asked who I was, to my unforgettable surprise, Maestro Meier said:  “ ...he is one of your nephews!”

More than a decade later I was in Rome visiting a German friend and colleague who had chosen the Italian capital as her home, I was introduced to a little book, which was an extended interview with Maestro Abbado during his years as Music Director of both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.  The name of my teacher, Gustav Meier appeared several times. Although I knew that five especially famous conductors studied at Tanglewood together under Leonard Bernstein and that they are very special people, reading that book made me feel part of a special tradition.

That this does not appear in any way self-serving, I am not a conductor. And yet I am.  During my years at the University of Michigan, I must have spent at least half of my time preparing for conducting classes with Gustav Meier.  Why am I not a conductor?  Simply, because I do not spend every day in front of an orchestra or preparing music for an orchestra.  Real conductors conduct and it is a very special covenant that not so many get to experience.  I spend most of my time singing these days.  That was the choice I made even though Maestro Meier told me once I would never be totally satisfied being a singer.  This great man thought I would be more completely fulfilled as a conductor.  In some respects  I remained active, conducting musicals in the universities where I taught and occasionally appearing as conductor in some capacity, lastly, with the Clifford Brown Jazz Orchestra in a performance of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts.  To be really great at something, one needs to dedicate much time to it.  Perhaps when I am satisfied that I have contributed properly to the art of Operatic Singing, I will recommit myself to the art of conducting an orchestra.  Time will tell.

What my “conductor’s apprenticeship” meant has everything to do with music and a certain philosophy of music which I hold dear and has Gustav Meier and a few others written all over it.  Serious musicians are willing to die for what the art form means to us.  And to be willing to put your life, reputation and entire being on the line for something means that you value it.  And to value it, you must know it intimately.  And to know it intimately you must have spent more hours than most people would give to mastering it.

As a choral singer, I experienced Riccardo Muti on one side who was almost fanatical about the sacred nature of the written note.  I have come to understand why.  Too many conductors use the score to express their personal point of view.  Muti, a very early important influence, during my Westminster Choir days, understood that the answers were to be found in the scores and studying the score to reveal the composer’s truth as much as we can understand it was the job of the musical interpreter.  Indeed, I have experienced enough conductors who in their ego, think that the music is their vehicle to look interesting and they will use it as it serves them.

Abbado, Bernstein, Meier, Flummerfelt and Glenn Parker, the most influential musicians on my development had one thing in common:  they were able to find a place where every note was sacred and yet allowed for the expression of the human condition in a way that placed the interpreter as solely responsible at the time the music is being made.  In the end any applause is a celebration of a transcendental experience whereby the audience becomes enlightened viscerally and no words of explanation need be spoken.  Whether the Beethoven 9th with Abbado, the Mahler 2nd with Bernstein, or Brahms Zigeuner Lieder with Flummerfelt and Parker, or Brahms Magelone Lieder with Parker and the many operas I sang with Meier, it is all the same.  The audience rejoices when the performer makes himself invisible, such that the music and its inspired creator are celebrated.

My thoughts are with Gustav Meier today, who was close to Abbado and who remains a symbol of everything musical for me.  I could not reach him by phone today and I am sad.  The passing of Maestro Abbado might signify the beginning of the end of a school of conductors who shared a noble vision.  Abbado, Meier, Mehta, Ozawa and Slatkin shared a close kinship under the tutelage of Bernstein.  But perhaps more than singers, conductors at that level aspire to go further than their predecessors and seek to leave a proper legacy.  A quick exchange with Maestro Simon Rattle a few years ago revealed to me the significance of these men.  At the mention of Gustav Meier I had gotten his attention.  More than the art of singing, I see a coming generation of conductors that give me hope for the future of music and the significance of art in the context of an ever superficial socio-artistic culture.  They too are aware of the significance of being a conductor, a musician, an artist.  We have a responsibility to embody the noble significance of artistic meditation and how it becomes action in our society; not for furthering our own egos but rather to disappear such that an entire audience may be spellbound.  Whether to disappear into the tortured texture of a Mahler Symphony or into the persona of a tragic operatic character or the meaning of Schubert’s An die Leier, great interpreters disappear such that the music may live.  And Maestro Claudio Abbado was among the greatest master-interpreters ever.  His example is one to be emulated!

He once said he would protest everything that was against freedom.  Perhaps it is significant that we celebrate the life of Claudio Abbado on the day that we remember the contributions of Martin Luther King!

© 01/20/2014

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Kashu-do (歌手道): What Is The Way Of The Singer? A New Year Resolution

I take it for granted that after writing more than 300 posts on this blog that it is clear what Kashu-do (歌手道) means.  "The Way of the Singer" can be very easily misconstrued.  The emphasis should be on the word "Way" and not "The".  I am not so egocentric to think that there is only one way to approach the teaching of singing.  That is not the meaning behind all this.  It is rather that we as singers (as classical singers especially in a world governed by superficial consumerism) do indeed follow a path that necessitates specific road markers with regards to what singing signifies, independent of the career aims of those who undertake this discipline.  Art is a celebration of transcendence! It is understood that art (singing in this case) at its best elevates our consciousness beyond the trivialities of daily existence and even at its most commercial, art, indeed singing, should not lose what defines it--Its transcendental power.

For an artist to become a conduit for the energy that transcends, s/he must have prepared himself/herself for such a task.  Indeed the artist summons the energy that transcends through an intimate knowledge of the medium of art that s/he practices.  At the end of a song, we should all be "different"! We should have been changed, transformed!

The composer mixes the elements of words and notes through an alchemy that becomes something greater than both, but this composite remains inert until it is made real by the singer's voice having passed through his/her psyche.  INDEED, ARTISTS DO NOT JUST OPEN THEIR MOUTHS AND LIKE CANARIES MAKE PRETTY SOUNDS. The sounds we make have purpose and context, both in the moment of performance and in the infinite time that one could meditate upon that moment.  Our work has consequences and we should be responsible.  We emit vibrations into the air that permeate every molecule within an ever-expanding radius. They cause an effect!  We should be responsible!

The way of the singer is a dedication of self to an ideal that has transformed the world many times over. It is a commitment to something that goes beyond daily cares and yet soothes away the cares of the day. It is the singer who is called when it is time to celebrate or when it is time to mourn.  The performances of great singers give us pause.  They make us reflect on the nature of our existence and consider our relationship to this life and our connection to our fellow traveler on this plane.

To become an artist, a singer, is a mystical experience that we too often take lightly.  Once upon a time, this concept was obvious for people lived consciously!  Do you ever wonder what goes on in the mind of a painter as s/he contemplates what brushstroke to make next? Or what happens in a great pianist's mind as s/he plays the notes of a piece for the first time and what s/he decides when she plays it the second time and the third?  How does it feel to read through a piece for the first time when you are an accomplished musician? Did the composer make good choices with respect to declamation, harmony and melody?  Do his notes make the aims of the poetry more powerfully experienced or do they obstruct? How do you, as singer, make real for the audience the mysterious product of the poet's and composer's solitary meditation?  Are you linguist enough to grasp the totality of the poet's experience? Are you musician enough to understand the choices that the composer makes? Can you compare and contrast Schumann's and Wolf's Lied der Mignon? Can you bring the totality of your humanity to bear on the experience of two different songs on the same text and give your audience a sense of why both composers made correct choices totally different from each other? Can you do all this without explaining but only through your singing?

An hour of technical exercises take a completely different attitude when the questions above are behind the training.  Vocal Technique cannot live in a vacuum! We train to be able to deal with the artistic contemplations above.

Great comedy has substance and great tragedy is not merely heavy! The paradoxes and apparent contradictions, the grey area and the line between are the domain of the artist.  We live where the questions are and we provide enough clarity such that the listener, the observer may make his/her way through.  To do that we must master our artistic medium and we must be artists enough to contemplate our existence and that of our fellow travelers on this plane.  Like the baker who takes pride in making the best bread, so must we take care to nourish the souls of our "customers"!  Only when we have totally baked the bread of art can we even conceive of being paid, of being recognized.

I sense too often that too many among us want to be paid and recognized before we have even learned how to bake a proper bread!

"The Way of the Singer" is a reminder that we have a discipline that is complex, that demands every ounce of our energy to comprehend and even more to become competent.  A young singer should be made to approach classical singing, indeed any kind of artistic pursuit, with a sense of awe and respect.  Then we would not have so many who try to get by hoping that they can climb the ladder of success by means of extra-artistic attributes instead of artistic competence.

Every singing lesson, every practice hour, every performance must be an opportunity for us to contemplate our existence, and how responsible we are to our society in the practice of art.  We artists have always been and must always be the "conscience" of our society.  To take on such a noble role, we, in our training, in our preparation, must be worthy of the honor.

It is my hope that we may commit our hearts and minds to revolve around our soul-nourishing art, just as the Earth is committed to begin another full revolution around our life-giving sun!

Happy New Year in Art

© 01/01/2014