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