Saturday, November 21, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Short-term Memory and Scientific Sanctimony: A Bad Recipe For Completing the Vocal Rubix Cube

When I took it upon myself to create this blog, I wanted to do something that was never done before-- I was already a respected teacher, with a knack for common sense writing, bringing some clarity to the masses on the Rubix Cube that is vocal science. -- What I set out to do was to expose the many transition steps that a singer experiences in the difficult process of accomplishing true vocal balance.  I started to write this blog at the onset of my transition from baritone to tenor.  I said back then that I was not a baritone becoming a tenor but rather a tenor who thought he was a baritone.  What kinds of compensatory measures did I use to convince my high level teachers that I was a baritone?  To what degree did I throw my voice out of balance (believing myself to be a baritone--that's what I was told) in order to fulfill the fallacy that I was a baritone?  More importantly, how long would it take to get my voice to the highest level of balanced function? Also, what do the transition steps look like?

Because this blog has become widely read, it has become the target of a "gotcha'" mentality that exists in social media.  Whenever I put up a clip describing a specific transition step, I will usually receive commentary or emails from some trolls and at times very respected teachers about something they did not like about my clip.  On rare occasions I will put up a link to a performance that I have done to exhibit where I am in the process.  But usually my clips are about how concentrating on one element, brings us to awareness about imbalance in another element.  Like a Rubix Cube, we often have to undo what looks like a finished element to find completion in the whole.  After many rounds of functional analysis and physical growth, I am achieving a sense of balanced completion.  No, not that my voice is finished, but having a sense that I can actually experience my voice with what I perceive of as ideal brilliance, with ideal substance, with a sense of solid support and pressure-less flow with the ability to articulate text with astounding precision.

I reached the 7-year mark in my process last April, and felt I was at a new plateau--A state that promised a path to real refinement.  Not just the ability to sing all the tenor notes with balanced formant resonances but rather achieving a sound in balance that was immediately exciting to the listener and felt centered in my own body (that feeling that I was not fighting myself in any way). While teaching at Kashu-Do's retreat in Magagnosc, France (magic seems to happen here), my fiancée, herself a singer (and who rarely makes any comments about my voice, except to be encouraging) felt compelled to tell me that she was listening to my practice and it was extra-ordinary. She thought our host (who embodies the most extraordinary tenor voice we've heard) had returned from his errands and was surprised it was me.  For the first time she also made a criticism: "as amazing as it sounded I would like to hear the top begin a little gentler!"  I could not agree more!

My fiancée rarely makes comments because she has been one of the witnesses to my development.  She knows my daily practice and what I have had to undo and do to achieve a type of final product (as she heard yesterday).  Comments are often superfluous when you understand the process.  Her own voice has grown wonderfully in the past few years because she too practices daily.  This goes to the core of the issue:  those who have had certain abilities from before they were aware, have a hard time understanding that it can be difficult to achieve true balance.  And so it is easy to pick at a sound quality, concentrating at what they perceive is missing (instead of the organization of the whole) or else picking out a word or sentence in a blog post that offends their own technical ideals.

Many singers I know would rather hold on to the completion of one side of the Rubix Cube rather than undoing it in search of completing the whole!

I feel poised to release what I would consider a reliable top-level professional sound within 2016, because I have gone around the Rubix Cube so many times in literally thousands of practice sessions and tens of thousands of voice lessons making sense of this puzzle.  I have experienced students beginning with weak, uncoordinated voices accomplish just that: top-level professional sounds!  I watch with interest how these singers overcome the Opera World's illnesses the way they overcome their personal vocal illnesses.

One of the illnesses of our current Opera environment is short-term memory.  Our operatic culture has little memory of what made it great or what makes it great actually.  I cite Nina Stemme here so often because she has a remarkable work ethic, always seeking to better herself vocally, musically, dramatically.  I also applaud Jonas Kaufmann who does not let his fame be a reason for not working hard to improve.  Whether one likes Mr. Kaufmann or not is not the subject.  That his technique and artistic process help him to become more and more reliable and convincing is the more important lesson.  In his late forties he is steal peaking, and that cannot be said of many top professionals today.

It is important to remember the steps of development and not be afraid to lose a little something to achieve something greater.  No we do not throw our voices to the wind at just anyone's behest.  We take risks with the advice of those who know us and want the best for us and have the skills to guide us properly.  And we avoid the cautionary fears of bystanders and couch-pedagogues, who think they understand us better than our own teams.

Another illness is what I call vocal pedagogy in a box!  I have great respect for vocal science as is evident here, but I have less respect for the process that is employed by vocal scientists and many who claim to have a science-based approach to singing.  There is a real danger in attempting to protect one's "intellectual property!"  The kind of mentally that says: "I published this ten years ago, so I must defend it even if I discover it is not quite correct"; or the type of mentality that holds on to specific terminology the way religious fanatics quote Bible verses with literal dogma!

For all intents and purposes, I am a writer.  I have written close to 400 blogposts on the subjects of opera and voice, plus hundred of articles on classical singing forums and a few in professional magazines.  What I have learned is this:

 words are limited.  At best they crystalize more complex thoughts.  At worst they reduce complicated subjects to simplistic drivel.

I received a well-meaning comment from a very respected colleague relative to a recent blogpost.  He had issues with my usage of the term "great breath pressure" in relation with operatic singing.  From a theoretical principle of final vocal experience, I do not disagree with my colleague that the use of the term could be misleading.  Yet on the other side, some modern pedagogues (not necessarily my colleague here whom I respect greatly) fail to consider the process of the developing singer who when finally experiencing an organized phonation mode finds the body's muscular responses to be so much more extreme than s/he ever imagined.  Here in Magagnosc, a young tenor who I instructed to reduce volume but imagine a "fuller voice" had a lightbulb experience when he said:  "That is a lot of breath pressure on my body, but remarkably there is no pressure in the throat.  I feel that my body is working much harder than before but it is as if all sensations in the throat disappeared!"  So the student experience complete glottal closure for the first time and experienced a stronger breath compression than heretofore.  Simultaneously, the full closure was so gentle that efficient trans-glottal flow gave him a sensation of effortlessness in the throat.  Pressure, compression, pressure-flow balance...  It was enough for me that the student articulated in his own terminology a sense of relationship between his breathing and phonation. That will take him further than me insisting he uses a terminology he might find restrictive. It was also important to tell the student that:

"next week, the same experience might feel less effortful on the body as well.  The more developed the coordination, the less effortful it feels everywhere."

The vocal science community invents new terminology all the time to replace what was considered inadequate before.  Yet, the same people will wave the newly accepted terminology around with the conviction of religious zealots.  For better or for worse, I am a geek, in part.  I love knowledge and I love science.  But I am also a bit of a philosopher.  I do not like to be mentally restricted or restrictive.  Teaching vocal function in a vacuum does more to discredit empirical scientific information than anything else.  For that reason, I have one foot in tradition and one foot in science.  I keep my distance from zealots in both camps.

The Rubix Cube of vocal pedagogy couples empirical information relative to the efficient functions of the vocal apparatus with the uncertain physical and psychological vacillations of the human being who is inhabited by that same vocal apparatus.  The goal is to get the human being to be in synchronicity or better yet in symbiosis with the functional necessities of the apparatus inside of him/her.  For that, we need short and long term memories to understand the steps we took in the process.  This includes understand very well our necessary transitory periods of relative imbalance. For this we also need to be free of sanctimonious shackles of pseudo-science.  Imagery, imagination, even imprecise language sometimes speaks to the student more precisely than correct scientific jargon.

Scientific language, no matter how well-meaning, tends to unfortunately speak to one specific localized function without regard to the singer's experiences on a global level. yet this in no way gets the traditional teacher off the hook.  In the tradition of the most effective teachers, real knowledge instructs our process.  While we cannot absorb every piece of information out there, it is part of our job as voice teachers to be as informed as possible.  This takes an effort that too few of us are willing to make.

© 11/21/2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Let it fall...Opera will survive: What If the Current World Opera Structure Were to Collapse?

In a recent conversation with a respected colleague about the problems that the operatic culture faces in our times, we came to the question that none of us want to ask:  "What if the theaters all closed down? What if the government sponsorship of opera were cancelled? "  Would our greatest fears be realized?  Would opera disappear forever?  I personally have had this fear!  My first instinct has always been to try to educate politicians about the importance of opera and why it needs to continue to be funded.  Whenever I get a chance to do an interview, which is somewhat frequent these days, I make a point of saying that culture is not a luxury but a necessity to our well-being as developing human beings.  I often will point to direct connections between reduced cultural funding in the United States to the rise of teenage delinquency and ultimately of crime in adulthood.  I believe that cultural education is fundamental to brain development and ultimately the capacity of a person to become a positive influence on society.

That said, I find myself thinking suddenly radically about the state of operatic affairs in the world.  What if state sponsorship is actually the problem?  I am beginning to believe we underestimate the public appetite for innovative, entertaining and moving theatrical experiences.  What person would not rejoice in a performance of Katharina Thalbach's magical treatment of Rossini's Barbiere, or Christoph Loy's Fanciulla or Stefan Herheim's Xerxes? What if those productions were not at state sponsored theaters ( Berlin Deutsche Oper, Stockholm Royal Opera and Berlin Komische Oper respectively)?  Would these geniuses be silenced?  I think not!  For every genius production by these stellar figures, there must be 50 or 100 productions in the operatic world that prove noxious to human senses by their lack of imagination and respect for the theatrical experience.  

We artists have the tendency to fear censorship at all costs and thereby support artistic freedom regardless of its quality.  We must realize that we do not have the luxury of defecating on the stage ad nauseum (alla Calixto Bieto) and expect the tax-paying public to sponsor it.  That is not an opinion.  It is a fact, as was proven when theater goers in Hannover boycotted Bieto's Butterfly by canceling their season tickets.  Bieto is not without talent, but it is one thing to use one's talent for the benefit of expanding the boundaries of what we thought of a piece (as Herheim does so well with Xerxes) and another to either work out one's personal psychoses at the expense of the work or for sheer shock value.  There are those who prefer shock over real theatrical evolution and will pretend that shock theater is the same as innovation.  Some of them are my friends.  And I have no qualms in disagreeing with them.

I am writing this while my students are preparing to sing their last performance of Resan till Reims,  a Swedish language rendering of Viaggo a Reims in the form of a reality show about a Trip to some non-specific place.  I sang one production of this opera and saw Abbado's production in Vienna and found both experiences boring despite the great music and the amazing voices on stage.  Boring because the story itself was limited to its time, being tied to the coronation of Charles the 10th of France in Reims.  Rossini himself never expected the opera to be produced beyond that specific connection.  This brilliant production by Sweden's great secret, the boundless imagination of Märit Bergvall, not only kept the audience in stitches all night, but it enhanced the experience of this magnificent music in a way I never fully appreciated before.  It gave the music a context we can all relate to---A true updating with panache that gave the piece a greater vibrancy that everyone, regardless of age responded to with unison rhythmic applause in a standing ovation, both nights I went.  I would be there tonight if I did not have to be on a plane writing this.

I believe artists like Märit Bergvall will continue to expand our minds about the relevance of classic operas in our times.  I don't believe that would necessarily be the case with the likes of Bieto and the hosts of pseudo-regisseurs that unfortunately inhabit so many of our houses relegating the greatest theatrical music ever written to the role of background noise.  It is sheer arrogance every time some unpersuasive director claims that the audience is incapable of understanding!  I have seen too many instances where this poor excuse proves just as unpersuasive as the failures it seeks to explain.  Why shouldn't politicians target cultural institutions as irrelevant when they take a position of intellectual superiority to explain failed productions?  At the first production I experienced in Germany (a Bohème in Köln)  I realized how fundamental opera is to the German psyche.  I had never experienced such a concentrated audience at any opera house like that.  It was as if they were experiencing something sacred to them.  People of all classes and status were hurrying from their jobs to attend the performance on that Thursday night.  I was enchanted!  Now expect these same people in a time of uncertain economical future to support something that routinely offends them and to add salt to their wounds, they are told they are not intellectual enough to understand.  It is not that the masses prefer some cheesy spectacle at the Friedrichstadt Palast (a kind of Las Vegas production house in Berlin), it is rather it makes sense for what it is and Opera is continually failing to either define itself or produce convincing results.  

Better Cheese than Feces!

A little production company I was a part of in Berlin produced 5 successful shows in a row, but in a town with three major opera houses there is not a lot of subventions left for alternative opera.  Our reviews were unfailingly positive and the work was very innovative.  I am still very proud of our production of Verdi's Macbeth and our first production, Don Giovanni, without funds.  Another such venture is beginning in Berlin in which some of my developing students are taking part. That spirit of "creating something" because there is a need is what makes me believe that the collapse of the entrenched Operatic Machine would herald a new period of innovation. Little opera companies sprout up because developing singers need experience and they are shut out of an exclusive system without any kind of oversight, whether relative to the art's future or to racism, gender prejudice or lookism.  The failure of the International Opera Machine cannot be rectified by the great work of a very small number of brilliant stage directors.  There is a lack of training for opera conductors, who, if they had been trained would have been the advocates against the excesses of unmusical and unimaginative directors.  

State-sponsored Opera for all its positives has one powerful Achilles' heel.  It is too comfortable to be artistic.  An Intendant in the German system (who is usually the Stage Director as well) does not feel enough responsibility to the people who pay for his/her job.  Consequently, they rule their theaters like personal fiefdoms.  When a new Intendant comes in, he usually brings his own ensemble with him, a level of obvious nepotism that should not happen.  This leaves singers in particular in a bind.  After a few seasons of great work at a theater, with no certainty of another position, singers are often told they simply do not have a job the following year because a new administration is coming. How is that responsible?

 The orchestra in Trier protested in the streets to keep their General Music Director, the excellent Victor Puhl, against the whims of the incoming intendant who was resolved to sack the very effective conductor, quite probably because he had some friend in mind for the job.  The orchestra was successful in fighting for their leader and his contract has been extended for two more years.  Such little revolutions against the norm give us hope--when an orchestra would take their job so seriously that they would indeed fight for someone who brought them the possibility of growth and improvement.  Bravi!

The revolution needs to be more systematic!  If theaters were not funded by the government, they would have to learn to become truly artistic.  Another colleague made the suggestion that the government should pay the salaries of the ensembles, but the production budget should come from ticket sells.  In that sense, the theater has to be responsible to its audiences, striking a balance between challenging their limits, educating them and entertaining them. Great productions often come when funds are short, because a theater is constrained to use imagination and innovation to put something credible on stage.  That was the case with the Metropolitan Opera in the 90s.  Low budget yielded magnificent productions.  The house was never more consistently full than during that period when belts had to be tightened.  The period of "my production was great but the audience doesn't get it" must end!  

As an audience member I don't mind occasionally not liking a production, but I like to feel that the producers attempted to take me on a journey that begins with a clear understanding of what is at stake artistically and that well thought-out choices are made, not convenient modern symbolism that work in one scene with the rest abandoned or shock value where imagination fails! It has become unacceptable to call crap by its name: "crap!" If anything is good, nothing is good! 

Music and probably most art forms over the last 100 years took the road to be "modern" instead of encouraging the artist's true voice. New ideas come not by a desire to be modern but by being a true witness of one's own time! Insisting that one uses modern compositional techniques is just as bad as tying him/her down to absolute functional tonality. Regie Theater imposes the same type of dogma and tyranny!  Let directors find their true voices instead of forcing them down the only road that is accepted! When shock is all that's left, we're left with stage defecation (simulated or otherwise) gratuitous violence without dramatic impact, blood and gore instead of honest poignant story-telling! It's boring, it's anti-art, it's not entertaining and not worth the tax-payers' contribution!

In such a case, LET IT FALL!  Let the opera machine collapse to cinders! From its ashes will visionaries rise like a swarm of fiery phoenixes to breath life into a new period of serious art that seeks to understand the undiscovered regions of the human psyche instead of poisoning it; mature artists that seek to challenge their audiences instead of offending them. The two are not the same! People would pay for that! And theaters would have to be convincing! Not conservative! CREATIVE! 

Those that want stage defecation can pay for it too! But it would not have to be force fed to the masses under the ruse and guise of necessary art experience! 

To my students, I will stay this:  I am not advocating being an outsider for being an outsider's sake.  I believe that it is better to try to change things from the inside.  And perhaps my thesis is a cry out from the gut to those who inhabit this Opera world we all share. But there is a point in which those who run our field in large part are not interested in change for the betterment of the field.  The goal is not to be an outsider but to be willing to be an outsider if it serves the art better.  We will walk and fret our way upon the stage, like the poor players we are, hopefully not full of sound and fury but having some lasting significance during our time on the scene.  Above all, after we have spent our hour, we will have gone.  But hopefully the art will remain!  Hence the Art matters more than we individual artists and if we are committed to it we should be willing to fight for it when necessary! Our fear of being on the outside is preventing us from finding a true place of belonging! 

© 11/17/2015

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Kashu-Do: Long-term Vision is Not a Cult: A Call to Arms!

I feel a need at this crucial time in Opera's impending demise to define what we at Kashu-do stand for!  We are sometimes called "cultish" by our detractors.  Yes when we are gathering steam and are beginning to make an impact on the field, those who are afraid in some way of losing their status will attempt to define us for their benefit!  That is totally normal and expected.  And since in the last post, I encourage singers to define Opera and not let it be defined by those who do not believe in it, I became inspired in the process to talk about what we are.

Kashu-do (歌手道): The way of the Singer:  I have always been interested in the martial arts, because 
of the discipline, dedication and philosophy involved.  The martial arts, like singing at its best, is about 
lifelong self-development, aspiring to be the best that we can possibly be.  Like Karate-Do, 
The Way of the Empty Hand  or Ju-Do, The Gentle Way, I adopted Kashu-Do to represent a philosophy
based on the most noble principles of the art of singing:

1.  Lifelong Self-development:  


The Americans have a simpler version of this:  "Shoot for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars." - Les Brown 

Performing is a very "naked" vulnerable experience and singers need confidence, the way a boxer before a fight or an athlete before a big event.  Sometimes you need to convince yourself you are unbeatable.  We go further!  We develop a philosophy of "Yes We Can!"  But we are always aware of our potential to fall short but persevere with a calm trust in our abilities to meet the challenge because we prepare for it.  Being an artist is the noblest of pursuit and our world needs to recognize how very much it needs the arts.  We are the ones to carry the torch!  And how can we do that if we are ashamed of admitting what we are and what we stand for.  At Kashu-do we are proud to be artists and what it means at the core to be one.  

Is That Cultish

No, it is just artistic! This philosophy is not new.  It is what artists of all stripes believed and lived by for centuries!  Modern media has done a great job of countering this with a destructive philosophy of immediate gratification at every level: fast food, fast money, egocentric self-aggrandizement at the cost of long-term sustainability of the common good.  A few singers make millions in the name of the art, contributing to its peril, because they have no responsibility to the art's future.  A few that I know at the top of the field tried their best to contribute the way they can, whether by taking little fees to promote a new work, or taking time to talk to young singers about where the field is now.  Unfortunately, those many who think they are contributing are just buying in into the popularization of Opera bent on abandoning core values for a quick buck!  

2. Advocacy for the Art of Opera: 

We just are among those with our heads out of the sand, realizing that our art form has been compromised beyond repair at the hands of those who do not believe in its intrinsic great qualities. We believe opera can be successful in terms of what it actually is and not what it is forced to pose as. Pseudo-pop!

There are great singers, conductors, regisseurs, stage designers, instrumentalists, agents and casting directors who understand and love opera at its core.  Our mission is to gather as many of these people as possible in the common cause of reclaiming the path of our art.  

No we are not reactionary!  We do not believe that operas need to be produced in period costumes and settings.  But we much prefer that to the kind of desecration of the art form that poses as innovation these days!  Singers don't like it, audiences boo it, but they persist because those of us who care are afraid to become outcasts for speaking out against a conscious destruction of the art form.  Well guess what?  Those who really love opera as opera are already outcasts.  So what have we to lose, except the cancer that is eating at the heart of our beloved art?

3. Wholistic Artistic Development:  

Kashu-do began with a mission of common sense vocal pedagogy based on modern empirical information buttressed by traditional values.  Our mission has expanded to instructing our singers about the core values of the art of opera: top level vocal technique, superlative musicianship, solid language skills, solid stagecraft worthy of a professional stage actor, self-confidence based on reliable skills and a sense of purpose, a well-rounded education and awareness of the world we live in, which in turn instructs our relevance as artists and our responsibility to the art form.

4. Instruction at all levels:  

We have developed instruction tracks for Professionals, Aspiring Professionals and Dedicated Amateurs, as well as development strategies for Voice Teachers, Coach-Pianists and Stage Directors.  We are looking for opportunities to develop Conductor Training and Artist Advocates (too many so-called agents only provide a company name for their singers and do not actively help them progress in the field while taking money for jobs the singers often find for themselves).

In short it is our mission to infiltrate the field in every way possible so to have an impact on the development of the field.  We would like to be part of a community of antibodies that eliminate the cancer that has infected the art of opera.  If it sounds extreme, it is because we care that much!

5. Meaningful Jobs for Singers in Development:  

It is our goal to develop opportunities for singers to do work for the betterment of opera that allows them to pay their basic sustainability, without being so tired at the end of the day that they cannot practice.  As we grow, we will be able to provide these opportunities.  This is a central premise of our mission.  An artist cannot grow when worried about paying the rent.  We are addressing this problem as part of our company's development strategy.

6. A philosophy of Inclusion against Co-dependence:

This past summer we put our money where our mouth is and developed Kashu-do Teacher Training.  We invited teachers including several of our professional singers who are also gifted teachers, and spent a week developing.  For the first three days we spent 10 hours a day discussing, anatomy, acoustics and empirical vocal functions, as well as vocal health and fitness and disorders.  After each topic, each teacher contributed, based on their experience, how they approached each issue.  

The information we presented as a core structure on the first days helped each teacher feel comfortable to offer his or her own experience into the bigger picture.  So no one felt that they were being guided to teach a certain way. 

Over the following four days, we took turns singing while 14 other teachers made comments from their individual perspectives.  Each of us made visible progress in our half hour in front of the group. Because we had three days to develop a sense of what the bigger picture looks like, no one was afraid to put themselves in a position of having their singing analyzed and bettered by our colleagues.

We went further!  Our teachers taught at the Academy and sang in a master class taught by 81-year old, legendary tenor, George Shirley, who rejected the title of "Master Teacher" in favor of "Eternal Student!"  That is Kashu-do in a nutshell!

We believe at our core that NO TEACHER HAS ALL THE INFORMATION. NONE!  So in a sense it is cultish to promote the idea that you have the only key to developing a student's singing. In our studios we promote open lessons, unless the student needs privacy in their development.  There are many occasions when the singer needs to be alone with his/her teacher (e.g. first lessons, working out a particularly difficult problem, those days when one is emotionally or psychologically a little down, professionals who need their work private, etc.)

Kashu-do Singers are free to have lessons with whoever they want, whenever they want.  The singer owns his/her destiny.  We teachers are only guides.  Students come back to us because they believe they are progressing!  No one teacher is the single solution for any singer.  Developing a singer is developing an artistic person.  For that we need a team that is appropriate for each individual singer.  Cults seek to imprison their members into an ideology of exclusivity.  We free singers to find their  individual paths.

We teach Tai-Chi and Kung Fu as part of our core curriculum because they are proven techniques to help the singer in developing mental focus and self-confidence as well as total physical fitness.  But we do not force anyone into this.  We encourage it!  We promote Yoga, Pilates, and any form of fitness and mental focus exercise.  

We continue to maintain our core values at every level.  Our Partner Institution, Härnösands Folkhögskola in Northern Sweden has adopted our philosophy in their curriculum.  Young students get the opportunity to develop musical, vocal, linguistic, theatrical skills in an environment that promotes teamwork, competition in a way that encourages each other to improvement as opposed to tearing each other down.  We alternate Tai Chi and Kung Fu daily and our students are physically more fit, more flexible, and more daring in general.  Their confidence after a few months is visibly improved.  We can see their gradual transformation into committed artists.


I, Jean-Ronald LaFond, developed Kashu-do.  It became a reality through my transformation from baritone to tenor. I went to top schools, worked with top teachers and began a professional career only to find out in the middle of it that I was in fact a dramatic tenor not a baritone.  It was not discovered because by that point, most of the schools in the West (North America and Europe) had prescribed a style of singing based on non-invasive caution, dealing with the superficial adjustments of the voice.  A teacher who would have called me a dramatic tenor at 19 or 20 might have been labeled a quack or dangerous in the safe pedagogy of modern University settings.  But it is my believe that having a larger voice is genetic.  However, that one has the genetic material does not mean that one has developed it.  I had to go through my experience to understand this fact and many others.  The vocal material is given but it's development is environmental and based on traditions and training.

I will have been teaching for 30 years as of this coming Spring.  Great pedagogy comes from the experience of teaching thousands of voices over a long time.  That and a constant curiosity to understand further, and the humility that I can always learn more even from my least experienced student lead to Kashu-do.  I love the art of Opera more than my own personal need to be onstage. I did not think that would be the case because I love what I do.  I am a singer first.  However to do the kind of singing that I want to do, there must be a system that values it.  Who is going to heal the operatic world?

I start by healing my own voice, with my own knowledge and the help of those I trust to guide me. Every singer needs a teacher or a few.  If all singers heal their relationship to this art form, we might be strong enough together to heal the whole thing.  Conductors and directors and agents and casting directors need to look themselves in the mirror too.  But we cannot have an impact on them before we make sense of our own house as a singer community!

My Team:  I am surrounded by great pedagogues, successful students, and some wonderful colleagues and friends in the business that have a similar vision of Opera.  We combine our efforts to grow an ever expanding network of professionals to provide an alternative to egocentric, self-serving visions of the world.  We would like to see the great works old and new performed for centuries and for that to happen, we must stop the bleeding of operatic values that is currently happening.  The hemorrhage is dangerous and Opera as a sustainable art form needs emergency help.  No one person is going to heal Opera.  But serious people who care about this art form can come together and do the job, even if it means challenging the establishment.  Most likely it will.

We are not a cult! We challenge the cultish nature of the current opera establishment.  We call attention to facts and we respect the hard work it takes to produce an opera.  We dare to be Quixotic. We dream big and we envision a world where opera singers can make a living doing what they love, not what others who don't like the art twist it to become.

This afternoon I watched the dress rehearsal of a fascinating, very modern treatment of Rossini's Viaggio a Reims at Härnösands Folkhögskola, a difficult opera sung by young singers in their early 20s.  It is a magnificent production and a testament to the fact that modern treatments of operas can be highly artistic, entertaining, totally updated without violating the essence of the piece.  The singing is at the center of this genius interpretation on a very low budget.  If you don't know the name Märit Bergvall, you should!  If it is the last thing I do, I will make sure  the world knows this genius regisseur!  I have seen four productions by this magnificent woman and it would be a crime if the world does not get to experience her magic.  Too many fakes in the opera world desecrating opera because they are unmusical, unimaginative and plainly boring.  This woman is another Katharina Thalbach or Christoph Loy or Stefan Herheim! This is to say, the world of opera is not without genius directors and great conductors and great singers.  It is simply that some other agenda is obstructing their good work and forcing them down a path that is neither worthy of their talents nor of our art form.  This must end and it begins with each one of us who cares.  No more whining: "Oh, the opera world is being destroyed and I can't get a job!"  Well, if you really care, let's go to war!

© 11/12/2015

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): If It Quacks Like a Tenor...: Why We Singers Are At Fault For Letting Others Define Opera

A duck quacks! A dog barks! A snake hisses! An Operatic Tenor...???  No there is no one word that describes what an operatic tenor does.  On the coveted high C on a vowel resembling [a] (more than likely a neutral vowel that sounds closest to [a]) an operatic tenor, singing with a fully developed voice excites the surrounding air at over 500 vibrations per seconds, producing a dominant overtone at over 1000 or 1500 vibration per second and another one around 2800 vibrations per second, exciting the human ear with great intensity, while expressing emotions commensurate with that kind of vocal power, without the tone degrading into an unbalanced scream, through the most extraordinary music ever written and poetic texts produced by some of the greatest wordsmiths of all time, and looking elegant in the process.

Opera is nothing short of an Olympic level feat akin to a figure skater doing a Quad Axel while skating on an iced tight-rope.
It is that breath-taken when you hear a real tenor do it.  Luciano Pavarotti often used the term "real tenor" to describe his singing as opposed to that of tenors who sang reinforced falsetto in the top voice.  If Pavarotti felt a need to distinguish "a real tenor" from the "not so real tenor" it is because he had cause.  His teacher apparently told him: "hurry and start! You are probably the last tenor!"

The degradation of operatic standards began almost immediately.  Late 16th Century pedagogues were already complaining of singers not adhering to the principles of the Old School.  As Claudia Friedlander expressed in a very inspiring article:

I believe it is now time for another course correction to steer opera back in the direction of its essential purpose. 

Dr. Friedlander makes a good case for the definition of Opera's core mission of emotional transference.  A worthy endeavor!  She also makes a point that we singers must seek to better ourselves first in order to better our field.  I could not agree more.  The central job in my opinion is defining what an operatic voice is!  Opera is the Olympics of Singing.  Keeping the human voice balanced while performing in a very wide range, without electronic amplification, with great breath pressure and resonance manipulation in order to be the dominant presence in the company of a symphonic orchestra, is indeed an Olympic level endeavor!  It is breath-taking and it is inspirational...when it is the real thing!

Franco Corelli was a real Opera Singer!

Mario del Monaco was a real Opera Singer!

 Andrea Bocelli is an Italian pop singer with a lovely vocal color and a love for his native country's art of Opera.  He actually took a few lessons with the legendary Franco Corelli as he explains in the next video.

Bocelli studied with one of the greatest tenors of all time and learned to mimic operatic sounds. It's wonderful and it makes his popular singing healthier, stronger and more varied.  His love for opera aside, if we take Bocelli's microphone away, in the presence of an operatic orchestra he would be over-powered if not inaudible. Yet in an age virtually totally electronically amplified when it comes to music, the average person does not know that Bocelli is a pop singer singing opera and not an opera singer singing pop.

Michael Bolton is not an opera singer!  He is a rock singer who developed a love for opera and with a voice not trained to sustain opera, he tries his best to do something beautiful.  But he could not be confused for an opera singer.  But many would say Michael Bolton is singing opera.  Being able to sing the notes is not the same as maintaining optimal vocal balance and dominating over an orchestra without electronic amplification.

"I think we have a case of a little lump of coal here that is gonna turn into a diamond..." says Amanda Holden, one of the judges at this circus that has turned the world of music upside down.  That was the pitch!  Take a guy who looks like the ultimate underdog, have him sing the most popular aria, made famous at the first concert by TheThree Tenors and draw sympathy for an otherwise lost cause.  Not that Mr. Potts is a lost cause, but that he was played as such!  There is a basic material there that with a lot of work could develop into an operatically viable instrument.  The patience required for this is the total antithesis of what American Idol and Britain's Got Talent and such shows represent.  The narrative is that " too can become famous quickly by appearing on one of these shows, even if you are the most unlikely person to win."  Yet millions of people probably believe that Paul Potts won because he has an operatic voice.  Mr. Potts is not an opera singer.  He sings an operatic aria with a wobbly voice in a show that makes no difference between him and Luciano Pavarotti, with judges who have no competence whatsoever to judge whether he can sing opera or not and an audience so lacking in basic arts education that they might not be able to distinguish between Potts and Pavarotti on the same stage.

Andrea Bocelli, Michael Bolton and Paul Potts and all the pseudo- or wannabe- opera singers are not the problem.  It is the fault of the opera industry, so insecure about its own viability, that it would embrace any gimmick that brings attention to our sorry state of affairs.  It is the fault of us opera singers, who are more interested in any kind of notoriety that we would sell out the art form for our own short-term glory. It is the fault of us singers who are so afraid of not being able to walk on stage at all, that we would do anything to get to sing this music even if the circumstances are totally against the principles of our art form and at the disservice of the music we claim we love.

Between Corelli and Del Monaco on one extreme and Paul Potts and Michael Bolton on the other, there are too many opera singers whose development fall closer to Bocelli than Corelli and they themselves do not know of the poor quality of their instrument.  Why should they when agents and casting directors are more interested in their 6-packs and the size of their breast than they are interested in the quality of their voices.  The democratization of Opera has been to reduce it to its least common denominator.

That narrative reads thus: "...if the average person believes that s/he can sing opera with little work, maybe s/he will be likely to come to it...  If they see the opera singer as a normal person, then they might find the art-form more approachable."

The opera singer is a normal human being doing something superhuman, like Cristian Ronaldo or Michael Jordan.  These abilities take great dedication and work to accomplish and surpass human expectation.

Surpassing human expectations sells!  

I have produced so many low budget operatic productions that people still talk about.  My little Academy/Festival in Northern Sweden is successful, not because of anything except that we believe in the transforming power of the fully developed human voice combined with the greatest music ever written.  It's that simple!  People embrace it because they experience it for what it is.  They are not being sold pseudo-Musical Theater.  Real Musical Theater is more powerful than fake opera wrapped in a Musical Theater package.  Opera aping the movies or productions attempting to shock with poor theatrical worth are only killing the art-form like a cancer from within.

Take the Stage Director out, you still have opera--  The singers will use their ingenuity and figure out a staging. It happens in so many productions anyway!  Take the sets down, you still have opera-- The singers will use their imagination and transport the audience via text and imagination to far away lands.  Take the agents and the casting directors out, you still have opera!  Take the Opera Singer out, there is no more opera! 

And yet we take no responsibility for this power but rather walk about like sheep afraid we will be taken out to the slaughterhouse unless we play nice.


What can you do you ask?  Simple things!

1.  Gather some great opera singers who like you are not finding an agent to listen to them (don't make it just your friends unless they have great, fully-developed voices and radiant personalities) and present a concert in a local venue. (Make sure that your singers are musically independent and don't need a lot of rehearsals and coaching to get their pitches, rhythms and language right.

2.  Find the most charismatic of your team of singers and have them approach the venue and sell the idea!  Convince them to put it in their advertisements. Convince them your presence is good for them and they should not charge you for usage of the hall.

3. Find a top level coach-pianist and pay him/her to play the concert (prepare your notes on your own or with the help of a lower level coach, so you don't have to pay said top pianist a high fee for coaching you the basics.  Use top pianist for one or two coaching sessions and dress rehearsal.

4. Blow the audience away with your great voices and personalties.  Make them say it is better than what they heard at the MET or Covent Garden or the Wiener Stadtsoper! On many nights this would be true.  Make sure audience members leave contact information and contact them to ask how they enjoyed your performance.  Now you are beginning to create a following.  

5. Video-tape everything and post your best efforts on social media (Youtube, Facebook, etc...)

6. Repeat 1-5 until your local theaters cannot ignore the fact that you are getting more consistent audiences than they.   Don't be co-opted by them!  They want to hire you because of your success. Great!  But don't take their job with the condition that you stop producing.

7.  Grow in quality not quantity--Better programing, maybe a reading (off-book) of an opera.

8. Find an inventive stage director who loves opera and is a musician and gets it!  Stage a production when you're ready, but don't sacrifice your core values.  Keep your costs down by concentrating on basics.  Frills are unimportant until you can afford them!  Be patient and let things grow!

9.  Save parts of your profits to develop the next level of quality.  When can you get a chamber ensemble?  Can you find a skilled conductor who loves opera and gets it, but for some reason could not find work in the current chaos?

10.  Suddenly you are the alternative to the company that has lost its soul and no longer believes in the viability of the art form---

11.  Be careful not to become what you just replaced!

That is just one strategy!  

Never forget! Opera Singers have super powers!  We can blow someone's ear out with our voices at close range or we can caress their souls with our voices in the Opera house.  Anyone who tries to reduce that power is not a friend of opera. Singers use your gifts responsibly! 


© 11/11/2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): What Is Your Natural Voice?: The Operatic Search For Identity

Even for those who do not experience a change in vocal categorization, the idea of knowing what your natural voice is is a constant problem for opera singers.  When children are asked to imitate an opera singer they do what they think is a fake unnatural sound usually making fun of the idea of opera.  It is not because they find it "unnatural" per se but rather because it is something that is "not common" to them.  It is like asking them to pretend they are a super-hero.  It is extraordinary!  The truth is the more I teach singers, even professional singers, the more I notice they have a problem with doing something "extraordinary!"  That is the price we pay for trying to make opera an ordinary thing.  Ever since Pavarotti and Friends, pop singers think it is a cool thing to do to attempt an opera aria.  Perhaps the desire to "popularize" opera is just reducing it to the least common denominator (i.e. what we think people are comfortable with).  Many developing opera singers go only so far in seeking their total vocal color for precisely that reason.  They are afraid to go too far from "normal."

Vocal categorization is another limiting factor.  "A tenor sounds like this! Your voice is naturally too dark.  You must be a baritone.  Maybe a bass-baritone."  Such authoritative pronouncements I have heard from some teachers when I began the process of accepting my tenor voice.  Thank God there were voices like Giacomini, Galouzine and Efe Kislali around to see and hear on Youtube.  They have more baritonal voices than I do and they made great careers.  When it comes to vocal categorization, we must be very careful not to be reductively influenced by "norms."  Every voice is unique when it is "complete."  Today's definition of unique seems to be "in what way can you go against good function so the voice sounds unusual?"  That is the pop definition, not the operatic definition.

Even well-meaning voice teachers can have a wrong idea on a given day.  My excellent colleague, Karin Bengtsdotter Olsson, at Härnösands Folkhögskola likes to remind our students that they own their talents.  We are only their guides!  In the end, they know what feels natural and must always seek a sense of their true selves even as we help them make changes.  Great advice from a great teacher!

Likewise, I often tell my more advanced students that they will have to make the final steps on their own.  A teacher can give us the tools to fundamental techniques, however who we are as artists/human beings can only be experienced by us first.  A good teacher can discover the nature of the student over time, but the clues come from the student, even if they are often not aware that they are giving clues.  Our job is to find the nature of the singer in front of us not to dictate what they should be.

As a singer, myself, I am always in search of the truth of my voice.  More than 15 years ago I did a series of Tango concerts with the Latin Grammy-winning Bandoneon Master, Raul Jaurena.  One of my colleagues at the time told me after a concert that it was the most natural he had heard me sing.  There was something about Tango that brought out the complexity of my musical heritage.  It combined Latin rhythms, a touch of Jazz, great emotion and even a touch of the classical elegance that drew me to Opera.  My father brought all kinds of music to our home, including Tango.  I was very drawn to this form before I knew what it really was.  It also fit my natural vocal color.  Tango singers like Carlos Gardel or Roberto Goyeneche (two of my favorites) had rich voices that worked well in the speaking range.

We can immediately make the connection between this music and some of the classical forms that influenced it.

Goyeneche at this point in his career was less steady of voice but remarkable with what he did with text.  A master in phrasing and emotional context.  Going back to playing with Tango (I recently joined a Tango studio to learn to dance the Tango better), I was able to make sense of something the late mezzo-soprano Ada Finelli told me when I began the change to tenor: "Whatever you do, do not lose your natural baritonal color.  I believe you are that type of 'tenor robusto' and if you try to color your voice like a lyric, you will never find true 'morbidezza.'"  The difficult part of becoming a tenor for me was not developing high notes, but rather developing flexibility and true support in the low and middle. Going back to Tangos gave me a balanced sense of both:

Lately, I have begun my practice sessions with one of my favorite Tangos, Nostalgias. 

It is quite low, touching on low G#2 and only going as high as D4.  This is precisely the range I need to balance.  The tendency is that as a tenor, I became afraid of engaging my full lower voice.  Under-supporting this region made the approach to the passaggio and higher more difficult.  And if I must go down to the middle and back up to the top it was often a problem.  The Tango comfort of my low range makes for a cleaner approach to the top of the voice.

Then I can allow the head voice sensations to dominate in relation to this lower voice as I do here with Addio alla mamma from Cavaleria Rusticana.

We may talk about technique in all kinds of technical ways and in the beginning, in terms of building a structure and maintaining it, we need to be very empirical and very disciplined about function.  When we get to more advanced stages, it is no longer about the root and the branches but about the leaves.  This means we must experiment with intuition and instinct.  That can only come from the singer himself.  Helping a student to find out their true nature often depends in finding out what type of music really excited them in the beginning and how they tend to engage that repertoire.

I have decided to commit some of my energy and time to developing my Tango repertoire.  It provides me a real balance in my approach to Opera.

© 10/24/2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): The Olympics of Opera Singing: The Power of the East at the Tchaikovsky Competition 2015

It is no secret, by name alone, that Kashu-do has its roots in Eastern philosophy.  But not all Eastern philosophies are the same.  What Korea, Russia, China, Ukraine and now Mongolia have in common is an adherence to "Old School" principles and a traditional definition of what an operatic sound actually is.  While these countries have strong popular music styles and a very vibrant pop markets, it would seem, as evident by the strong contestants representing these countries in the last Tchaikovsky Competition, that they do not confuse popular styles with Operatic values.

At the Härnösand Summer Opera Academy and Festival, last August, the most common comment I received from audiences was: "I did not know an operatic voice sounded that extraordinary!"  One person said it was like hearing X-Men whose superpower was an overwhelming resonant voice.  Operatic singing is as mind-boggling to a listener as it is to watching basketball legend, Michael Jordan fly to the basket or Ussain Bolt break world records in the 100m dash.  It feels "superhuman!" And it does not matter if it is a light coloratura shooting out rapid-fire fioratura or a dramatic baritone singing Scarpia's first entrance.  The way the fully-developed operatic voice vibrates the surrounding air is a magical experience.

The live experience of a fully resonant operatic voice singing great music with compelling understanding does not need preamble.  We do not need to make excuses for opera as an art form but rather give the live audience what it comes for:  great vocal power, great emotion, great music and great story telling.  Opera thrives in the Eastern countries because they have embraced the Operatic genre for what it is and they more than any other continue to produce great voices.  If one goes to the Opera in Russia or China or Korea, one expects to hear great voices and they are in abundance.  Listeners in those countries make the difference between a pop singer attempting to croon an operatic aria and the true Opera singer delivering a bona fide performance.  In the West, Opera in the Movies is the new norm, which means that it is enough to look good on screen while crooning an aria that sounds resonant on the movie screen (boosted by microphones) and inaudible in the live hall.

The Easterners prove that there is no shortage of voices and interesting stage personalities, very evident in the Tchaikovsky Competition (admittedly the only vocal competition I trust to be fair anymore).  Fully resonant voices are more rare in the West.  To control dynamics and be refined with a fully developed large voice requires extraordinary breath management.  When the developing singer shows signs of difficulty because the breath mechanism is not yet fully developed, Western teachers are more likely to have them "reduce everything" to produce a "pretty" tone, even if the tone is inaudible.  I must say I have not gone to one international competition where I heard Koreans and Russians and Chinese singers reduce themselves.  When they sing a "piano" it is an event!  Because it sounds like it requires the balance of a tight-rope-walker to maintain it.  And it does!  This leaves the audience spellbound, intrigued, speechless. And when that same voice turns on the volume, it is like waves of warm sound passing right through one's body and we feel changed.

The East is just as effected by modern consumerism and immediate gratification as the West. But somehow they make room for both the superficial entertainment of Pop-Opera and the ennobling, profoundly life-changing  experience of Grand Opera.  I am not suggesting that we give up Opera at the Movies.  However, if we hope for that audience to come to the Opera House and enjoy the experience, we will need real voices to do the job!

The Winner of the Tchaikovsky Voice Competition 2015 was also the Grand Prize Winner (overall winner) was Mongolian baritone, Ariunbaatar Gunbaatar, one among a large number of Mongolian singers who took part in the competition.  Many of them who did not make it past the first round will probably end up having world class careers.

Here he is demonstrating a cantilena from a large voice, an almost lost art today as truly large voiced singers tend to sing lower voice parts instead of learning to control their large voices in the appropriate tessitura.

This young singer with a mighty voice is not only well-trained but singing Largo al factotum for the Winners Concert reveal a real concept of traditional voice building.  Reminds of the great Bastianini singing this great baritone aria, which is no longer considered territory for full-voiced baritones.

It is no secret that the great secret of developing voices in the East is a true adherence to tradition!  More coming on this discussion.

© 10/20/2015

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Date Changes for Magagnosc, France Masterclass: 16-22 November 2015

The masterclass in Magagnosc, France, which was a special occurrence last March was planned for 2-8 November but will be take place two weeks later to accommodate more singers that wanted to participate.  This is a special intensive 7 days in the South of France near Nice and Cannes during the off-season when the place is not so crowded with tourists.  At Kashu-do we are hard at work developing one-week experiences (I don't like the word masterclass actually) in several idyllic locations, that allow the singer/pianist to expand their horizons by working in a beautiful, peaceful environment with supportive colleagues and teachers.  There are a few spots left.  Check the Kashu-do website for more information!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Breathing, Support and Alignment

I will address the muscles of respiration and their functions and then talk about the concept of pan-costal breathing as related to singing.

The main muscle of inhalation is the diaphragm.  It is a very complex muscle.  Most importantly for inhalation, it is attached to the bottom of the lungs.

When the diaphragm contracts it pulls down on the lungs increasing their volume.  This creates a negative pressure in the lungs relative to outside pressure (law of equilibrium) and pulls in air from the outside to equalize the pressure.  If the mouth is open, the air will rush in.  A desire to breath basically activates the diaphragm to contract and expand the lung space.  In exhalation the diaphragm relaxes to reduce the lung space as air escapes.

In inhalation the ribs also expand to create space for the expanding lungs. Their action is principally controlled by the external intercostal muscles.

These muscles run diagonally from the spine to the top of each rib.  When they contract, they lift the ribs up and outward creating greater space as in the diagram below:

In exhalations, this action is countered by the internal intercostals which run opposite, from the spine up to the bottom front of the ribs.  Upon contraction, they pull the ribs down and in, reducing space.

Unfortunately the diagram that correspond to the internal intercostals (from the website that contained the previous diagram) was incorrect.  It simulated the action of the externals.  The theory in pan-costal breathing is that during singing, the external intercostals remain active.  Their antagonistic function to the internals (which should dominate in exhalation and singing) helps to keep the ribcage stable such that the usage of air is more directly controlled by the rise of the diaphragm and remaining muscles of exhalation namely the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus and the obliques. 

The rectus abdominus originates from the pubic bone and inserts into the fifth, sixth and seventh rib. It pulls down on the ribcage during exhalation to reduce the space of the thorax.

The transverse abdominus is sometimes called the corset muscle because it goes totally around. It originates at the Iliac crest of the pelvis and the lower margin of the lower ribs, and inserts at the pubic crest among other points.  It reduces the space of the lower torso to help push out air.  It is also the principle muscle involved in giving birth.  Below are two other views of the transverse.

The obliques running diagonally over the transversus and at the sides have the function of rotating the  torso, among movements.  They also help in reducing the space around the lower abdomen, pushing the viscera (abdominal organs) toward the diaphragm as it rises.

The external obliques originate at the Iliac crest of the pelvis and insert into the lower ribs.  The internals run opposite.  Their combined function help reduce the abdominal space.  

What is interesting relative to singing is that all of this exhalation muscles have origin or insertion points at the pelvis.  There is no need to attempt to activate the pelvic floor in singing.  The natural function of these muscles require pelvic sensations.  Indeed breathing is a natural function and does not change much for singing.  Other than maintaining a sense of suspension in the ribcage during phonation, one must trust that the respiratory system responds to the singer's desire to produce a certain sound.  Rather than seeking to activate muscles (the brain knows better how to recruit muscles), one should make sure the muscles are in shape so they can do the work required of them.

Several other muscles are known to contribute in respiration, however their activity is not always conducive to efficient breathing for singing.  Two muscles in particular, the Sternocleidomastoid and the Scalene group responsible primarily for head movement are attached to the upper ribs and can lift them during inhalation.  

They are responsible for what is often called high chest breathing or clavicular breathing.  They tend to be hyperactive when the principal muscles of breathing are otherwise insufficient in their functions.

Body alignment is also crucial to the correct function of these muscles.  However, poor alignment is as much a result of weakness in those muscles.  Posture improves with proper development of all muscles.  Exercise is crucial for maintaining the voice.  Alignment is never rigid.  It is not something that can be dictated with a few words.  Alignment takes time when the singer is not physically fit. Many muscles participate in creating proper posture without being rigid.  They must all be appropriately developed to create the conditions for proper alignment.

Finally, we cannot talk about support, breath compression, sub-glottal pressure, etc, without talking about the source tone or glottal resistance.  The appropriate closure of the vocal folds is directly involved in creating the breath pressure that drives it.  In the end, breath is intimately tied to glottal function and vice versa.  Likewise, resonance is mutually tied with glottal function.  The instrument is one complex machine with many interdependent parts.  It is always important that "the left hand knows what the right is doing."  Having an inner sense of dynamic and conscious coordination is crucial to vocal balance.  It is also important to know what we are responsible for in the act of singing and what happens without our direct participation.  Mostly the singer's job is to imagine and desire the specific sound he or she wants to create.  A well-tuned body will respond to fulfill those desires.

© 08/02/2015

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Kashu-do (歌手道): Fundamentals of Vocal Acoustics: What we need to know as singers

After writing this blogpost and viewing the videos, it became clear that the definition of the screen recordings is too low to see the exact frequency numbers.  The grid of the spectrum view has vertical lines markers separating every 500Hz.  This should give the viewer an idea of the frequency peaks.  I will edit later to add the information that cannot be seen immediately.

The amount of information available relative to vocal acoustics is exhaustive and exhausting.  To understand the really profound stuff one should have at least a strong physics background.  However some basic mathematics is enough to understand the stuff that makes a difference to how we singers think.

The first thing to understand about a tone is that it is much more than what it is named.   When we sing or play the tone A4 (so called because it is the 4th A from the bottom of the standard 88 key piano; 440 Hz (Hz=Hertz  or oscillations per second.  It is the unit of acoustic measurement), the pitch orchestras tune by, soprano middle range, tenor high range), we are singing that tone (called the Fundamental [F0] or the first harmonic [H1]) plus all its overtones also called natural harmonics (H2 for the second harmonic, H3 for the third, etc...).  The harmonics are multiples of the fundamental tone. If A4 (440 Hz) is the fundamental (first harmonic, H1) then H2 is 880 Hz, twice the frequency rate and H3 is 1320 Hz, 3 times the frequency rate of the fundamental (H1).

At the end of the video, I freeze the spectrum view and point the cursor to each harmonic:  The fundamental (F0 also called H1 for first harmonic) is about 1000 Hz, H2 is about 2000 Hz, H3 is 3000 Hz and H4 is 4000 Hz.  It is clear that the frozen display shows the harmonics decrease in intensity as they get higher in frequency.  This is standard for a tube like the Irish flute but not necessarily so for a piano.

The lower half of the acoustic piano has keys that activate a felt-covered hammer to strike three strings of equal length and thickness.  Even though highly calibrated, the strings are not always struck with equal intensity. Furthermore, the shape of the pianos sounding board (its resonator) favors certain frequencies to others.  It is a complex instrument in that way.  Different pianos playing the same note may produce slightly different acoustic patterns.  The rate of decay of the piano's sound also contributes to how the acoustic pattern appears depending on when the display is frozen.  An early freezing of the display (i.e. right after the note is struck) gives us a pattern closer to the acoustic nature of the piano.  The higher notes of a piano however are very thin and are produced with two strings instead of three.  The pattern there resembles the Irish flute a bit. That is because the sound board (resonator) of a piano favors the lower notes.  Like a violin (most instruments in fact) the piano has a fixed resonator that acts on different notes with different intensity.

All pitched instruments (instruments that produce a regular oscillation of sound) regardless of make up, including pitched percussion, will produce the same harmonics.  What gives each instrument its unique color (timbre) can be observed by the relative strength of the harmonics.  Each instrument has a different variation of strength of the harmonics of a given note.  In fact, different notes on the same instrument may produce different relative strengths in the harmonics.  In a straight tube, like the Irish flute in the video above, the harmonics tend to decrease in strength the higher they are.  However depending on the shape of the instrument's resonator certain acoustic regions will be stronger than others and so certain higher harmonics will be stronger, reflecting the specific nature of the instrument's make up.  An instrument, based on its acoustic make-up is expected to produce very predictable resonance.

The human vocal tract is flexible and changeable and so it can change its acoustics from one moment to another. Those changes will have a direct impact on the note being produced at any given moment.  That is the virtue that makes the human voice very unique. It is also what makes it difficult to make consistent.

We can hear the difference between the three sopranos above singing the same note. (The three sopranos were recorded in different rooms. The piano was slightly lower for Soprano2 who has an exceptional ear).  The three spectrographs show us differences that are significant.

  Soprano1 is an amateur beginning to coordinate her voice. The level of breath support is lacking and the spectrograph shows almost equal strength in the harmonics.  This is not desired. It reveals a certain amount of inefficiency (to be discussed later).  Still a good beginning!

  Soprano 2 is more advanced and reveals an excellent selection of a relatively narrower range in the lower harmonics than soprano 1 and a narrow range in the upper harmonics as well.  Selecting areas of strong resonance and having others weaker signifies that this singer is already focusing the acoustic energy and not spreading it across the entire spectrum as does soprano 1.

  Soprano 3 is similar to Soprano 2 except her pattern shows a cluster effect in the upper harmonics suggesting a strong "ring" in the voice.  This is the effect of the Singer's Formant, which will be discussed later.  It is important to note that all three singers are lyric coloraturas of similar range and vocal size.  The difference is not only acoustic. These singers are at different levels of experience and underlying muscular development, which impacts the strength of the source tone (the laryngeal vibration) .

On a given fundamental frequency (F0) the harmonics are predictable.  However there are two fundamental variables: 1) how the source tone  is produced (there are many components to the laryngeal tone) and 2) how the vocal tract is shaped.

For the time being let us assume the source tone is optimally produced, we are left with the possible variations in the vocal tract.  We have to consider what the components are that can vary and how they affect the sound.

The optimal volume of the vocal tract is dependent upon five variables: A) laryngeal depth B) opening of the jaw C) variations on tongue position D) the shape of the lips and E) the position of the soft palate (closing or opening of the velar port: nasal or not nasal).

There are many theories about the soft-palate and how high it needs to be.  It basically responds to a desire not to be nasal.  Its function is related to laryngeal functions including the depth of the larynx, which itself depends on phonation, as well as tongue migration.  The pieces are inter-connected.  A weakness in the source tone can affect the ability of the velum to close the passage to the nasal cavity. A nasal tone has proven to have an adverse effect on the resonance of the vocal tract, producing a weaker and less balanced tone (balance of low and high harmonics what is often called chiaroscuro or balance between bright and dark).

The concept of a "low larynx" is commonly accepted as beneficial to resonance.  A high larynx contributes to many vocal faults AND is caused by vocal faults.  The question is rather how to achieve a low larynx without losing other fundamental functions, such as a flexible tongue and raised palate.  All functions must be able to be achieved satisfyingly without disturbing other functions.

The optimum spatial nature of the vocal tract could appear to depend on taste.  Some teachers insist that the jaw has to be relatively closed and that releasing the jaw even barely will cause a loss of high harmonics.  This is obviously false.  Other teachers insist on the jaw being opened three fingers tall. Others insist that the jaw must be pushed back.  The jaw should open to what I call its natural maximum.


The singers in the photo were told to push the jaw back as in the pictures on the left.  This was beginning to cause both discomfort as is obvious by their looks . When advised to allow the jaw to release according to its natural contour, the result was the photos on the right.  The alignment of the lower jaw seems appropriate to each structure whereas one can see that the lower jaw is crooked toward the right in the left photos, when they attempted to push their jaw toward the back.   An inappropriate opening or forced closure of the jaw during singing does not make for a high quality tone.  There are those who have great source tones and can get away with inappropriate resonance adjustments.  These types of singers make a conversation about efficiency difficult to sustain. I posted these pictures because I encounter many singers with TMD (Temporo-Mandibular Joint Disorder) who acquired it after they began singing lessons.  Many teachers afraid of a protruding jaw suggest that the jaw should be pushed back.

A jaw released to its natural maximum (different for each physiognomy) regardless of vowel and through the articulation of most consonants, contributes to a resonance atmosphere of regularity and constancy. A fully open vocal tract creates the conditions for optimal resonance of lower harmonics, which leaves the tongue as the principal element to partition the vocal tract, creating conditions for a balance between lower and higher harmonics.  When  the jaw is released to its natural maximum and the larynx is released low, the tongue must migrate further to create the [i] to [E] spectrum of vowels.  In speech we do a combination of subtler tongue migration and closing of the jaw to achieve an [i], so singers assume this is natural.  Yet they usually open the jaw when they produce the same vowel on higher fundamental frequencies (pitches).  An [i] vowel is better balanced when the jaw is released and the larynx is low creating conditions for optimum resonance of the [i]'s very low first formant (F1--more on this later).  The coordination of released jaw, low larynx and high tongue position is not easy to achieve.  Those that seek immediate gratification and quick results usually go the easy route and close the jaw and/or allow the larynx to rise for [i], the [a] vowel that comes after such an [i] would usually be weak because it would require adjustments that do not occur very quickly.

The lips are refiners and rounding them should only be used for vowels that require rounding such as [o] and [u] and mixed vowels [ø] or [y] (for example).  There are some specific situations where a slight rounding makes for a better resonance adjustment but overuse of lip rounding often replace a low larynx to produce a warmer sound.  The rounding of the lips does not produce the same results as a larynx relaxed to its lower position.  Lip rounding has a way of dampening high harmonics rendering the tone warmer but at the expense of high resonance that is needed for the voice to be heard over loud accompaniments.  A low larynx enriches low partials given the voice warmth without eliminating high partials, as long as the tongue is able to migrate naturally and not muffle the resonance by pushing down on the epiglottis.

This brings us to the tongue.  It is the most agile, multi-faceted  and complex muscle we deal with as singers.  If it is not handled with specific expectations and intent it tends to do what it wants  to compensate for weaknesses elsewhere.  When the rest of the vocal tract is optimized (i.e. low larynx, closed velum released jaw and relaxed lips ready to be shaped "as needed" and not rounded when not needed) the tongue becomes the most important agent of resonance change.  The tongue repartitions the vocal tract to create the fundamental vowel spectrum from [i] through [e], [E], [ae] to [a].  The lips then round to continue from [a] through [O], [o], [U] to [u].  Combining lips and tongue create mixed vowels such as [y], [Y], [ø] [oe].  Through all these changes the jaw remains at its natural maximum, the larynx floats low and the velar port remains shut.  Here is a very clear, concise and thorough discussion of the tongue's intrinsic and extrinsic muscles and how they interact

The vocal tract, like any space has resonant frequency bands called formants.  Depending on the shape of the vocal tract--what we recognize as vowels-- these formant areas move around.  Looking at a spectrograph, vowel formants may be identified based upon where the strongest harmonics are.  For our purposes, the voice displays 5 formant areas.  The lowest two have the strongest impact on vowel recognition.  The upper three combine to produce strong higher harmonics that make the voice seem more present. Formants bandwidths vary with frequency.  The lowest vowel formant (the first formant of the vowel [i])around 250 Hz has a bandwidth of around 50 Hz whereas the highest formant value around 4000 Hz has a bandwidth of 200 Hz.

The exact formant frequencies for a given vowel are similar for all singers, however they do vary subtly between voice types and probably to a certain degree for each individual since we do not have the same size and shape of vocal tract.  A simple way to find formant frequencies is by producing a a gentle vocal fry (also called pulse tone).  A vocal fry requires little air pressure, a fact that reduces the strength of the harmonics so much that only the formants are seen:

In this video, I freeze the spectrum view (bottom of the screen) to allow the viewer to see the formant peaks for each of the cardinal vowels ([a,e,i,o,u]).  The peaks also give the exact frequency numbers. In the video that follows, I sing all 5 vowels on the pitch f3=267Hz (so named because it is the third f from the bottom of the standard keyboard.  You will see that the peaks in the spectrum are pretty close to what was experienced in the fry-tones for the respective vowels.

What we should take from this is the following:

The sung pitch (fundamental and its harmonics) are given.  The overtones cannot change. They are exact multiples of the fundamental.  However, the formants can change their location (frequency).  Assuming the source tone is of good quality, if the sound output is not good, the vocal tract must be adjusted. This is called vowel modification or formant tracking. That said, I must say that I observe greater fault in singers' source tones in general, which then leads to over-manipulation of the movable parts of the vocal tract (i.e. jaw, tongue, lips, soft palate and laryngeal depth).

The strategy for the classical singer is to use the formants in ways that concentrate the acoustic energy of the vocal tract in specific areas to achieve a balance between low and high harmonics. As previously explained the lower two formants have an effect on vowel recognition, while the upper three can combine to make the voice more present to the human ear.  The human ear is most sensitive in the area between 2000 Hz (2 kHz) and 3000 Hz (3 kHz).  The upper three formants can concentrate acoustic energy in that area making the voice very present to the listener's ear. 


The fourth formant (F4) (called Singer's Formant, SF for short) is a special formant frequency that is believed to be the result of a large ratio between the size of the pharynx and the Ary-epiglottic fold (also called the collar of the larynx).  It is calculated that a ratio of at least 6:1 (can be 7:1 or 8:1 but not 5:1) creates the conditions for a special resonance at the opening of the Ary-epiglottic fold into the pharynx.  This resonance (formant) is not vowel dependent.  It only depends on the size relationship between the two structures.  However, faulty production of a vowel can reduce the size of the pharynx thereby eliminating the conditions for the SF. Although I believe that any singer can train to produce the SF (I did not have it for a long time and now I do), some singers' throats are predisposed for the necessary conditions.  The efficiency of the source tone is often influenced by speaking habits, including social and linguistic influences.  The size of the pharynx can be widened with technical exercises.  It is conceivable that someone may have a pharynx that is genetically too small to produce the fourth formant, SF.  This fact would not eliminate a singer's operatic viability. The third and fifth formants lie between 2 kHz and 3 kHz. They can give a singer's voice the presence needed for operatic singing.  However, the presence of the crucial 4th formant can draw the energies of the third and fifth formant creating a cluster effect thereby concentrating the acoustic energy in that region in a way that makes an impressive impact with orchestral accompaniment.  Singer's who have such an ability have an acoustic advantage and sound often more impressive than their colleagues on stage.  


Female singers sing approximately an octave above their male counterparts (that is alto to bass or soprano to tenor).  If a soprano sings G5, a fourth below her high C, the fundamental frequency is 800 Hz.  This mean the harmonics would be as follows: H2=1600 Hz, H3=2400 Hz, H4=3200 Hz etc... The SF for a soprano is thought to be between 2900 Hz and 3200Hz depending on the specific singer. Even if the bandwidth of the SF were around 200 Hz, its frequency would have to be at least 3000 Hz in order to catch the H4 (fourth harmonic).  Because the harmonics are so far apart, the singer's formant does not always have an effect on the soprano or mezzo voice.  However, there is no reason other than pharyngeal size that would prevent a woman from having the SF in the middle range quite consistently. However, there are problems in modern training.  The discovery of the acoustic passagio (where the first formant loses dominance to the second) in the female lower voice has caused teachers to think of the middle voice as a separate register from a source tone perspective. Today's female singers often do not develop the source tone enough in the middle range to achieve strong enough harmonics that would carry the influence of the SF resonance.

© 08/01/2015