Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Dystopian Operatic Future Is Here: Be The Change You Want!

One of the greatest disappointments for the world of opera in the last year was the precarious nature of Jonas Kaufmann's health. Whether the debated article in "La Nación" speaks some level of truth or is totally inaccurate as Kaufmann's managers said is less important at this point.  More to the point is Kaufmann's own statements on his website regarding a vocal hemorrhage.  Hemorrhages occur under many different conditions, including singing with an infection, when vocally fatigued, and under straining or stressful conditions and can happen to any singer with a heavy schedule.  This is less about Kaufmann's technique, although much is made of his tendency to sing a bit dark and breathy when singing softly.  However it can be explained  quite logically  that Kaufmann's issues are related to an unusually punishing schedule that stands to reward the short-term goals of opera houses that benefit from Kaufmann's popularity rather than the singer's longevity that would have benefited the art-form in the long run.  Kaufmann is just one more victim of a system that is determined by short-term benefits of economically beleaguered opera houses rather than the philosophies that would help determine the long-term health of the operatic art-form.

The current Operatic Dystopia has been generations in the making.  Luciano Pavarotti spoke often about his teacher saying he should hurry and make a career because he would be "The Last Tenor."
This is prophetic to the extent that not Pavarotti but his contemporary Placido Domingo has emerged in some respects as "The Last Tenor."  With respect to the great tenors singing a more specialized Fach, in the business of opera, it is often regarded that the tenor of choice should be one like Domingo who has been able to sing a vastly diverse and varied repertoire and has the stamina to sing over 200 performances in a year.  This combination brought Domingo's market value to legendary and unique proportions that enriched him, his agents and the opera houses and concert organisations that sold out concert after concert.  However, one thing must be kept in mind.  Not all of Domingo's concerts were well-prepared and well-sung.  Not all of his concerts were operatic in nature and not everyone has the robust physical stamina that he has.  While one can hope for a singer with the musical proficiency, physical stamina, linguistic facility and varied repertoire of Domingo to emerge, the field of opera cannot be carried on the shoulders of any single singer.  When Domingo began, Pavarotti and Aragall were hot names, and Corelli was still active along with a host of full-voiced tenors from all over the world who could carry the same repertoire when needed and would be allowed to do so.  The world did not go into a tailspin if Domingo had to cancel.  Yes, patrons who came to see the great Placido might be disappointed if he were indisposed but there were respected substitutes who could jump in and do a professional job, appreciated by an operatic public that came to experience "opera" for what it is as opposed to what it is defined as, for the benefit of a growing audience that has no idea about the nature of the art-form. With Kaufmann being crowned as the only viable tenor who can sing Puccini and Verdi, Massenet and Bizet's Carmen and Wagner too, the operatic gate-keepers have ham-stringed themselves into a narrow-minded search for a single person who can fit the Domingo-Kaufmann mold.  Not only are they not succeeding in that limiting task, they are also ignoring viable singers who could fit part of the bill and also ignoring in the process that although the economic health of opera is enhanced by a glowing figure like Domingo and perhaps Kaufmann, the ultimate long-term health of opera depends on many components that have been totally ignored by the establishment despite pleas from practically every responsible voice in the field.


It would be silly and unimaginative to think of the dystopian state of opera as an isolated incident.  Opera is just one flashy example of a world in chaos without a guiding philosophical consensus other than consumerism, quick personal gains at the expense of many justified by a sense of impending doom.  In the 21st century, if we are not living through a biblical Armageddon, the thinking of the average person reflects precisely this doomsday scenario that would justify a hedonistic, nihilistic lifestyle that suggests one should enjoy every luxury possible in the moment considering that the world is about to end.  This may sound somewhat dramatic and over-the-top but this is the world we have built for the last several generations dominated by TV, Movie and Computer screens that teach the subliminal message of money, possessions and pleasures of all kinds in the short term regardless of the consequences.  We see Wall Street exposed as the enemy with frequent discoveries of ponzi schemes at an institutional level, whereby bankers and investment agents lure their clients to invest and reinvest while they themselves take money out of the system in the form of commissions and bonuses.  The hard-working investor in the end ends up the victim.  The gate-keepers come out in the end with the benefits while the investors lose their shirts.  The middle class investors in particular work hard for little remuneration, invest what they can in an effort to get ahead but are in fact the ones who lose the most.  These good people become terribly disenchanted with a system that benefits those who run it at the expense of the many who pay into it.  They rebel by looking for any alternative that they can find.  In the case of politics they look to elect anyone who speaks to their personal interests including those like the United States' Donald Trump who profess ultra-nationalist/white supremacist ideology guiding the disappointed masses toward identifying an easy enemy in the form of immigrants, the press and the very establishment that such politicians aim to control.  Yes it seems like a Sci-Fi nightmare!  How does it relate to opera?

The parallels are obvious.  The average talented artist understands opera to be a discipline that requires a long view. The many skills needed to sing opera at a high level require time, effort and determination.  The current narrative devalues all three and replaces them with immediate gratification, manifest destiny and physical appearance.  In such a fantasy world, a great voice teacher is one who turns a switch and makes you sound like Domingo; a talented singer is one who is born with all the qualities necessary and requires little or no guidance to take his/her place in the firmament of operatic Gods; and physical appearance is a genetic gift that requires no real effort to maintain.  To counterbalance the vast number of aspiring singers who are released from the conservatories every year, high profile competitions irresponsibly reduce their age limits to deny the singers who require more time to develop into viable professionals, while hiring artist managers with little musical training or vocal understanding to pick winners based on that "it" factor--which has to do with their abilities to be noticed on magazine covers rather than their abilities to transmit emotion and musical refinement through their voices in the company of a large orchestra in the large hall seating thousands of spectators.

In such a fantastic dystopian operatic world (which happens not to be fantastic at all, but rather the one we are living in currently) a massive number of aspiring singers who invest a lot of money into the system are left on the sidelines to wither even if they achieve the required skills to do the job.  Like the political middle class, we are left with a lot of aspiring singers accruing large financial debts supporting a failed system that rewards the chosen few (manifest destiny) at the expense of the studious majority.  The chosen few unfortunately are not up to the rigors of the field for the most part (there are always exceptions).  Singers at the top of the field lose their voices in a matter of a few years but continue to sing because of name recognition.  The rules claim that singers cannot attract an audience unless they are known already.  Yet it is common knowledge that singers become known by doing great work consistently.  The old rules were governed by the idea of "A Star is Born!" and "There is Always Room at the Top!"  In such a paradigm, the gate keepers were (fittingly) the audiences.  Now the gate keepers are casting directors and agents who could not care less about the health of the art form but rather about the health of their pockets in the short term, if it means feeding the system that gives them relevance.


Who can we point to in our times as symbols of excellence in our field? 

Vocal Excellence: Which singer has had a long career and continues to sing healthily?
Interpretative Excellence: Who has sung a role long enough to discover new possibilities in that role?
Musical Excellence: Which conductor has the time and willingness to defy the system and insist on musical and stylistic considerations as opposed to allow singers and orchestras to have their way for expedience's sake?
Dramatic Excellence: Which stage director at the top of the food chain has the luxury or will or musical sophistication to insist on dramatic intensity relative to inspired musical source material (as opposed to inflicting physical mannerisms onto dramatic moments for lack of stagecraft and musicianship)?
Career management: Which artist manager cares enough to protect their singers from destroying their talents when there is money to be made in the short term?
Composition Excellence: Which composer has not only the musical skill but the knowledge of opera in all of its intricacies to be able to produce an opera that works vocally and dramatically, without the excuse of needing to revolutionize music theater in one stroke?
Theaters: Which opera house will look at its community and the operatic art form together and come up with solutions that both invigorate the public while investing in artistic educational and development?

The answer should be all!

But alas, most companies are trying their best to keep up with the current production let alone plan the next one or determine any kind of vision for sustainability.

The system is broken!  It is not serving the singers who make the effort to become what they were told they should become.  Great artists!  Instead it rewards the flash-in-the-pan artists who excite the public for a short time and then they move on to the next one.  In such a system, there is no legacy, no vision, no future!  Therefore we are here!  The future is bleak! Empty!

Therefore there are no singers for a real manager to consider developing over a long time.  The conductors don't have to understand singers because that singer will probably be forgotten in a few years and they do not have to understand the difference between symphonic conducting and operatic conducting because they just have to survive the evening without losing the effect of the hairspray that sustains their conductor-hair. The stage directors don't have to create memorable productions that will be talked about for generations, just something that lasts a news cycle. Therefore we are in a state of perpetual decline.

Not unlike global warming, those who stand to gain from fossil fuels and the money generated from it politically will deny that the planet is in serious danger.  They will probably die before the ultimate environmental catastrophe occurs.  Likewise, those at the top of the operatic food chain will continue to chant that the health of the operatic field is better than ever because they will have gained enough of an economic parachute by the time the entire system collapses.  News flash!  It has already collapsed.

The Phoenix

The system is broken but Opera is alive and well.  Even in the dystopian nightmare that is our system,  some visionary directors, conductors and singers persist with one foot firmly set in tradition and the other searching for an artistically adventurous future.  It is their rare performances that continue to inspire young artists.  But inspiration is only the beginning.  

Anyone can become an operatic artist, but few have the commitment to do all that is necessary to become a dependable professional.  It's a lifelong pursuit that requires a determined artist with access to knowledgeable and constantly growing teachers  and a professional environment that values true vocal-musical-dramatic talent and not just an empty shell that is visually interesting enough to fool the operatically illiterate, that is curious enough and has money to buy an expensive ticket.

Art has a way of re-emerging phoenix-like through the ashes and flames of the decaying past.  And so shall it be!  

The reality being as bleak as it is, what does an operatic professional do?  In every way possible we should work for the excellence of our art, avoiding mediocrity whenever we can.  This is not easy! Even in my little heavenly oasis in Sweden, I find myself too often having to convince students about the need for consistent, persistent hard-work and too often being convinced to reduce my expectations for the sake of the student who finds it too difficult.  

The best we can do for opera is aspire in our own lives for excellence.  We must push ourselves to become better singers, teachers, conductors, directors, agents and casting agents.  Those elements are already there, doing their best in a system that obstructs their progress at every turn.  But those people do not give up.  They look for opportunities to make a difference.  And so we continue!  In the best case scenario, those positive elements already active will emerge just as the decaying system crumbles. And if we are lucky we will not even feel the dramatic shift but simply enjoy the result.  But that is improbable.  I predict we are close to seeing the majority of opera houses shut down in the next couple of years and thousands of singers and conductors and directors give up on opera.  A skeleton crew of visionaries will be left to rebuild from the ashes.  

My analysis is far from pessimistic.  I am only commenting based on what I observe in the trenches daily, whether extremely talented artists having a difficult time progressing in the field or truly well-meaning and effective agents giving up on the field because it makes no sense.  I am in fact very optimistic about the future of opera.  However there is a need for a cleansing of sort before this field can go forward.  A year or so ago I eliminated over 800 acquaintances from Facebook that I felt inspired a very negative feeling whenever their names popped up on my screen.  After doing this, I found that my social media experience became very constructive and positive.  Opera will go through a similar cleansing and I suspect it will be spontaneous!  As this occurs the operatic landscape will take on a more productive profile and I suspect those elements truly invested in its development and future will be the ones left standing!

In 2016, Fausta Truffa was the operatic story in my estimation.  For several weeks, her angelically pure, heart-driven voice shed a light on the darkness that often envelops the subject of opera!  Old, Amateur...Perhaps two of the worst words that opera people can utilize these days.  Yet the two noblest words I believe should define opera's future are synonyms of those two:  Longevity, Love!

© 12/31/2016

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Rewards of Patience: Do the Right thing, even when results are not the best

There are singers who can make a pretty reliable noise and are happy to go to market with that product.  Combined with great presence and musicality, and a dash of good looks, often more is not necessary to have a pretty decent career in Opera.  When asked why not develop the voice to be more beautiful, better balanced, the answer is often: "I have a good voice! A reliable voice! But not a beautiful voice.  One must be practical and accept that!"

How do you know how beautiful it can be?  How do you know how far you can stretch a voice that seemed common in the beginning?  

We don't know!  Therefore we must persevere and push ourselves beyond what we are now in the hopes of finding a better us.  The artistic goal is not to get on stage!  It is rather, what happens once you get onstage?  Can you open your mouth and make an audience absolutely still and listen?

Such did Nadine Weissmann at Bayreuth in 2015 when she brought a rather noisy audience to absolute attention and silence when she sang the first phrase of "Weiche Wotan.." at the end of Das Rheingold.  She is a singer dedicated to becoming better every day.  A true artist in the best sense! In her own words:

"On the worst day, this is still the coolest job in the world!"

That sentiment means a search for constant improvement.  A desire to be true to the art and challenge oneself to go further than our predecessors did if we cant. I am inspired personally by such artists and what they signify in a world of easy achievements and immediate gratifications.  The "sweat and tears" required to become exceptional in any discipline is the badge of honor, for the results ultimately transform not only the artist but the audience as well--As I have been transformed by the great Italian baritone, Lucio Gallo.  He becomes greater with each passing performance.  I have been watching this singer for years.  It is remarkable that he has quietly made his way to become one of the greatest singers around, musically, dramatically and vocally.  Totally inspiring!

I celebrate today in feeling myself fully transitioned to a "real" tenor!  It has taken every ounce of courage and determination I could muster to accomplish the journey. But it was all worth it!  What I've learned makes me a far better teacher than I was before, and more interestingly it has made me a far better and happier singer.

Practicing for one of my Academy concerts to take place 8-20 August in Northern Sweden, I felt overjoyed.  I am about to share the stage in the Riddle Scene from Turandot with Meta Powell, one of the greatest sopranos I've ever heard and I am looking forward to it.  A year ago, I was a bit skeptical of my ability to sing with such a singer, but now I can't wait.

Progress is "progressive!"  Not sudden!  The turbulent 8 years that have brought me to this level have been a gift of the most humbling and noble kind.  Singers, especially do not like to make ugly sounds. It somehow psychologically reflects on the person and not merely the instrument that needs balancing.  So many singers fear the uncomfortable transition periods when nothing sounds good.  Those periods are important because they are periods of building dynamic muscular strength.  They are necessary, like a baby must fall when learning to walk the first time.  Avoid the falls and the baby's growth is stunted.  Many singers never achieve strength beyond what they had when they began to sing consciously.  This is because traditional vocal pedagogy is about coordinating what one has even when proper coordination is impossible--Impossible when proper muscular development has not been address.  In such cases, the technical approach is about all kinds of muscular compensation  in order to create a false sense of stability.

To get to this point is a joy!  I had to go "through Hell and back" in order to achieve my true vocal possibilities.  I will be always saying it's not finished yet.  At least now I can say, this is a good balance by any measure.  Yet I will continue to get better!

Riddle Scene phrases

The prospects of how much better I can become is even more enticing!

© July 14, 2016

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Understanding Muscular Training: Be Ready Before Entering the Jungle

One of the reasons I advocate Tai Chi and Kung Fu Training for my students, although most do not understand it until they are mature enough to see beyond the satisfaction of the moment, is that we as singers need another physical activity that we are less "obsessed with," so that we can learn crucial lessons like patience and how to learn.  Having a secondary instrument can also be a great means of learning lessons for the fun of it instead of rushing towards the next audition or opportunity.

Obviously Tai Chi or Kung Fu are not necessarily the only means, but having an physical activity from which relevant lessons can be learn is important in vocal study.  Here is a typical scenario:

Teacher gives an exercise to two students.   Student 1 thrives! Student 2 has difficulties and becomes frustrated or bored or both.  What is the matter with Student 2?

It is possible that Student 2 is not muscularly predisposed to do well with the exercise because certain muscular pairs are out of balance.  Therefore other exercises to strengthen the flexibility between those unbalanced pairs are necessary before the original exercise can be successful.

Another possibility is that Student 2 is a little weaker and the exercise is "appropriately" difficult and needs to be repeated until it becomes easier "over time."  But who's got time?  This is a culture of immediate gratification.  The right exercise should yield immediate final results.

Although the italics may appear to be facetious, it is in fact the mindset of many students in these times of immediate gratification and no patience.

In my early years as a singer, I was taught that anything that felt effortful had to be wrong or pushed.  So I avoided anything that felt effortful, until I came to a school full of talented students with powerful voices.  I had to learn.  But part of me is always afraid of committing to that little effort that produces the better tone.  In time I learned to give that effort sparingly and then more and then more until I felt it was ok and then until I felt it was a better coordination.

Granted sometimes it is better to "take it easy" because it is not a good idea to exert too much intensity when we do not have the means to safely do that.  It is another when a fear of pushing paralyzes the singer so they never develop the muscular tonicity to sing a viable operatic tone.

When the voices of Golden Age singers feel totally foreign and unachievable, it probably means you are not muscularly "toned" to sing opera yet and need to find a means of training.  Small or large voice, great singers make intense sounds in flexible ways:

There is such a similarity in the intensity and balance of these two voices at opposite sides of the weight spectrum.  Balanced strength has a particular quality that both of these great singers exhibit.

Likewise, Garanca is a more lyric Carmen than Obratsova but the fullness, brilliance and directness of the voices reveal very similar type of intensity.  Admittedly Obratsova's tone is more "in your face" in the middle range.

Too much falsetto singing pass for opera in an age of "pretty" digital recordings.  Those voices end up being ruined when they have to face the rigors of a large opera house "sans microphone."

Training is sometimes effortful and difficult!  Once trained, difficult things sound easy! Unfortunately there is such fear of appropriate effort even in the best situations that singers end up either never achieving muscular balance or hurt themselves from not knowing the difference between full singing and pushing the voice beyond its means before one has the wherewithal to sing strong tones.

These are dark times!  And I am in awe of any singer who manages the uncertain paths in the jungle that is modern Opera Business!  If you have to go in the jungle to hunt, at least be physical strong and ready!  If the wild animals don't eat you, the jungle will!

© June 17 2016

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Aging Operatic Voice: Baseless Discrimination Because It Is EASY

We are living in dangerous times when discrimination of all kinds are becoming easier.  An American Presidential candidate rises nationally by inciting racism, sexism and xenophobia in such overt ways that only a few years ago would make the average fair-minded person cringe.  Similar right-wing zealots are rising to power worldwide. The "ARTS," which are supposed to inspire us to higher thinking should be the last refuge from such ignorance, yet we should be very mindful today that the business of art is not necessarily art.

There was a time when people aged in preparation for death.  I have been reading some 18th and 19th century novels lately which unabashedly support this.  After a certain age, one would wait to die and reduce any kind of activity that would be considered strenuous.  Today it is commonplace that older people maintain physical and mental fitness in ways that prolong their abilities by decades, beyond what was generally accepted as a time to slow down only a few decades ago.  I know for fact that I am in better shape now at 50 than I was in my 30s.  Taking up Kung Fu and Tai Chi have certainly improved my general fitness and health extraordinarily.  I feel stronger and have more stamina now than I did 20 years ago.  Being younger is not necessarily being more fit or more energetic.  I know young people in their teens and 20s who are physically weak and yet it is taken at face value that younger is stronger.  I have been an athlete in my life and I know that tissues wear out over time and the kind of fitness that a top level athlete must maintain becomes difficult with age.  But whether that is because of physical wear-and-tear over time or that tissues are weakened with age is still a question to ponder.  At very least, it is proven that those who stay physically fit can do a great deal more as they age than those who do not work on their personal physical fitness.

The question with respect to opera is does a singer's capacity to produce top quality operatic sounds diminish with age?  Does one necessarily lose range, flexibility, beauty of tone and/or stamina with age?

After 30 years of teaching (I began teaching at age 20) it is my experience that not only do voices not need to diminish considerably with age, voices that have diminished can be revitalized.

To what degree one maintains the voice has everything to do with understanding the physiological functions of the voice and how the respective musculature and tissues need to be maintained relative to the aging process.  One needs to consciously do more to maintain the body and the voice over time.  I can state with great certainty that imbalances in the singing voice take time to become debilitating.  When we hear a voice begin to wobble,  we should listen to recordings of that voice in the past and ask ourselves what dysfunctions were already at play before, which over time lead to wobbling and other irregularities.  It is also important to understand that wobbles occur because of muscular imbalances (not just in the throat but relative to breathing as well) that can be remedied.  However, such remedies require time and patience, which have become luxuries that the business of singing does not allow.

Muscles that are pushed beyond their natural functions will eventually give way to instability.  However, muscles challenged to achieve and maintain their natural functions will remain stable, given that supporting musculature also function properly.  Longevity in singing requires global physical health, not just the health of the vocal folds.  The process of singing involves pretty much all muscles of the body in some way.  Those that produce a healthy, balanced tone and sing repertoire that is friendly to the specific voice type will tend to last longer, all things being equal.

This woman, Fausta Truffa, (by all accounts so far an amateur singer) is the most talked about classical singer in the past few days because of this video.  If she is able to maintain her voice to this level in her 80s why can't others?

Her colleague in this choir, Ignazio Del Monaco, an octogenarian tenor is also causing a lot of opera fans to consume a lot of online time:

The retired soprano, Lina Vasta, produced this in her 90s:

Last summer, at the Härnösand Summer Opera Academy and Festival, tenor George Shirley at 81 years of age sang a concert that we are still talking about for his steady, beautiful and resonant voice and his refined artistry.  Yet there are singers in their 30s and 40s whose voices have lost all semblance of balance but because they had an early start to their careers, they are still hired because of name recognition.

But in the age of the internet when a video like those above can go viral in a matter of hours, could that tool be used by opera houses to get the word out about new talent, younger or older who have something special to bring to the stage?  Their names would quickly be recognized and they would fill seats.  I would go to Italy and hear Fausta Truffa sing.  That is an elevated musical soul carried through a gorgeously balanced voice.

More importantly operatic voices need time to achieve true balance and singers need time to understand their voices so they can determine early when the voice is ever so slightly out of balance.  Small imbalances become severe problems over time.  

Longevity in singing depends more on how balanced the voice is used. 

One of the great problems with operatic singing is that lower quality singing can lead to high level careers.  What is considered operatically viable today is not always depended upon voice.  Looks and charisma are dealt with as separate issues and not necessarily how they may combine with the voice to create a stage charisma.  Singers are recruited today more based upon how they may appear on a poster or video than what they actually sound like in the hall, with an orchestra.  It is not enough to make a pretty sound.  It is crucial to make a sound that is very visceral in the hall in the presence of an orchestra.  For this, the voice needs to be used optimally.  Optimal and truly visceral is not always "pretty" particularly in a small space.  I use the word pretty here to mean superficial, bland, inoffensive and lacking in personality. Those that make decisions about vocal quality too often hear singers in small rooms and are often not aware that the penetrating quality that transforms well on the operatic stage with a substantial orchestra accompaniment often sounds piercing to the ear in a small room.  

The previous article about Squillo addresses the global functions of the voice that lead to that special resonance.  It is this totality of functional balance that creates the special quality that is experienced as a visceral vibration in the house.  It is this quality throughout the vocal range that brings an audience back and that keeps the voice in shape.  An operatic sound requires concentration in a way that commands the attention of those listening.  There is a difference in a sound that is loud enough to be heard and a sound that seems to vibrate inside the listener's body.  Of the former there are many, of the latter not so many.  Not because some have it and some don't, but rather because it has to be trained.  Furthermore it has to be maintained in order to last.  All the bodily functions that lead to this special vibration must be maintained and so the individual singer must understand how s/he needs to eat, drink water, sleep, stay physically fit, etc.  And those issues are not the same for every singer.  Each person must find their personal routine for keeping in shape.

The process of selecting singers for an operatic career makes no sense relative to the visceral art form that is opera.  Opera is being packaged as the sophisticated person's musical theater and it is not.  Great operatic voices reflect the physical and psychological make up of the specific person who is singing.  It is much more than mere entertainment.  It is a transforming experience when it is being done by voices that are trained for it.  A trained operatic voice is the equivalent of a baby's cry or laughter if it were emanating from an adult.  In polite society, the natural voice is suppressed at an early age.  Opera is highly elevated music sung by the most primal voice.  And primal does not mean aggressive or violent.  It means the way nature meant for the voice to be used.

The previous three paragraphs address a systemic problem that confuses the process of selecting singers and by association also contributes greatly in redefining opera for the worse, not better.  If a non-operatic voice that sounds pretty in a small room can be hired professionally, then it follows that the field will become saturated because underdeveloped voices are admitted for other skills that though important do not translate in the house when the voice is not viable.  A great artist without a voice is like a great orator whose microphone has been turned off.  What if Martin Luther King's Dream speech was made while his microphone was off.  Would we get the message through his gestures and his obvious passion?  And do not take this to mean that we can fix opera by putting microphones in the houses, because the operatic voice not only transmits audible sound waves.  The coordination that produces an operatic sound also carries emotional information.  For that purpose microphones cannot replace an operatic resonance.

Because the training of an operatic voice requires time in order for the entire range to be properly balanced, singers, especially those with more substantial voices, need to be in their 30s before they are truly ready. Therefore competitions with age limits of 30, leave out a great number of superlative artists who are still trying to get their voices together.  An age limit of 30 also does not take into account that the winners, though impressive may not be physically aware of what makes their voices work and can falter very early in their careers.  Raising age limits brings more physically fit singers and therefore a better chance for longevity.  If all singers have time to grow, even the coloratura who may be coordinated at 20 may not sound so extraordinary when she faces a 32 year-old competitor who is not only coordinated but truly understands how to use the instrument.  The coloratura of 32 may end up lasting longer because she would have a better idea how to manage her voice in difficult situations.

The truth is opera is not a kid's game.  A voice can be coordinated at a very young age but the time it takes the muscles to grow in strength and stamina is another thing, and a young singer who starts a career early needs a teacher around all the time until s/he figures out how the voice functions and understands signs of problems before they ever become apparent to others.  Constant travel makes that kind of access difficult even with tools like video-conferencing.

The younger generation of singers needs to hear older singers who use their voices successfully at a high level with great artistry, so they understand what they are aiming for.  When we stop having great singers who have made long careers, we also lose mature interpretations of roles and songs that can only get deeper with life experience.

To bring another matter to rest, there is nothing that concretely proves that a post-menopausal woman must lose her voice any more than she would lose her ability to walk straight.  The rate of muscular degeneration more than likely depends upon the degree to which muscles were weak before menopause as opposed to that they rapidly degenerate afterwards.  Scientists have a tendency of observing a group of people and decide that certain trends prove the fact.  The two women above certainly go against the idea that you must lose vocal ability post menopause.  A random Youtube search for 90-year old opera singer yields also the following:


I am particularly aware of the flexibility of Maestro Loforese's breathing.  Released after each phrase! And I get the sense that his entire core musculature is compressing the sound.  Not just isolated muscles.

A healthy voice does get older and with extreme age, it is understandable that one will lose some muscle strength both in the laryngeal and breathing musculature.  However the degree of strength loss depends greatly on the person and how well they keep in shape.  Regular practice of balanced singing can keep one in great vocal shape for many years beyond what was considered possible.  In our times, the Age of Physical Fitness, it should be considered possible for singers to last a lot longer than their predecessors, not shorter.

The current ageism that is rampant in the field in the guise of dramatic realism is appalling!
There are well-meaning people in the field who have simply drunken in the fountain of modern operatic marketing and take the words of those who run the business as opposed to really thinking through the complex issue of building operatic audiences.

Size zero sopranos usually don't have the voices to sing Tosca or Turandot and tenors who sing in reinforced falsetto will not last long.  So why don't we just get real and sell opera as opera.  Begin with truly great voices that are accompanied by passionate souls and great musicianship and build from there! Age is the last thing on my mind when I go listen to opera!  I am usually more concerned for a young singer who lacks the physical strength to sing opera than I am for an older singer not looking the part.  If they are great singers, the moment they open their mouths one forgets what they look like!  Looking the part should be seen like a bonus that we are happy to have.  But without a voice, George Clooney attempting to sing opera would suddenly look extremely unattractive!

© May 24, 2016

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Squillo: The Haves and Have Nots in a Fast-Food Operatic Culture

Some voices have squillo and some voices have not!

I have heard this so many times and at face value, it is a true statement.  It is however an incomplete statement and in such a state it is dismissive and belittling of the nature of opera and even to the limitlessness of the human spirit.  

This statement has been used to dismiss and discourage singers whose voices have not fully developed.  However, many of these singers have such extraordinary imagination and musicianship, that it would be a shame not to help them develop the special resonance that makes a singer's voice easily heard in the presence of orchestral forces.  Indeed, the complete statement should read thus:

Some voices have squillo and some voices have not! However all voices are capable of developing it!

First, let us define this word squillo pronounced ['skwil: lo].  It is a special resonance that exists in the human voice when it is produced as nature intended.  That is a bold statement!  First, why is this resonance so natural and how does it function?

When I define squillo as a natural occurrence, the reply is always why does it not occur in all voices? The answer is that it does...In pretty much all babies unless there is a vocal defect of some kind.  I have a spectrographic analyzer on my Iphone and I will turn it on whenever I hear a baby begin to cry, whether on a plane (which often occurs) or in the supermarket.  That special resonance around 2800 Hz (vibrations per second--the precise resonance varies with voice type, and lies between 2500 and 3100 Hz.  The specific resonance depends on size and shape of the vocal tract and size relationship between the pharynx and the epilarynx) is always present.  When my son was in utero and I observed the first ultrasound, the doctor who knew I was a singer pointed to the vocal folds as the second vital organ after the heart that can be observed functioning at the end of the first trimester.  She said entertainingly: 

"he will be vocalizing non-stop until he comes out!  He has to warm up for that first cry!"

So babies train their voices in utero and come out with a voice with a powerful resonance around 2800 Hz.  Let us assume for a moment that all of us come out that way!  

What does it mean relative to carrying over an orchestra?  

Carrying over an orchestra is a deceiving term!  The truth is that in terms of decibel levels, the orchestra is always louder! However its area of greatest acoustic pressure as an ensemble peaks around 500 Hz.  The human ear is most sensitive between 2000 Hz and 3000 Hz and particularly sensitive between 2500 Hz and 3000 Hz.  When that resonance around 2800 Hz is strongly present in an operatic voice, the human ear perceives that voice more strongly than anything else in the acoustic environment.  The theory that accompanies this states that nature created this resonance, scientifically referred to as the Singer's Formant (because it was discovered in the the study of operatic voices) is that nature developed the Singer's Formant so that parents can hear their babies from anywhere, in case the child cries for food or for help even.  In that way, the species could continue to propagate.  

The resonance evidently is associated with primal sounds--a baby's cry for instance.  That resonance can be eliminated to make soft sounds, as when one does not want to be heard.  If one were to socially develop speech habits that were about not being heard, s/he would gradually un-train the muscular dynamics in the throat that produce the Singer's Formant.  And that is how most of us lose the squillo (also called The Ring in the Voice) before we even know we need it!

Getting our squillo back:  This is the real issue.  It is not whether we can have squillo or not, but rather how do we get back what we had from the start.  If the answer was simple, I would not be writing this article.  The problem with vocal pedagogy is that singers like easy answers and we teachers try to accommodate that need too often.  Operatic singing has many inter-connected, interdependent, interactive components which influence each other.  The problems are best solved when we understand that it is not "the chicken or the egg"  but rather "the chicken and the egg." Resonance and phonation are interdependent, as are tone-concept and breath coordination, as are body alignment and breath coordination, as are text articulation and phonation, etc.  Likewise squillo, that special Singer's Formant resonance that gives the audience the impression that our voices are more easily heard than the orchestra's sound depends on a well-organized source tone, requiring adequate mass and fold lengthening and correct closure (not breathy not pressed).

"Adequate mass" is relative to the nature of the specific voice.  A dramatic soprano who believes she is a soubrette and has that sound concept is going to reduce contact area (vertical mass, if you will) to produce the expected sound.  In reducing mass to fit the tone concept, the soprano will have to induce pressed phonation to accomplish the length of the vibration cycle for the desired fundamental frequency (pitch level).  Likewise a leggiero tenor attempting to sound more dramatic may over-thicken (too much contact area) to produce the desired sound and have difficulty maintaining pitch.  He might loosen his closure to accelerate  the vibration cycle. Unlike the dramatic soprano's pressing to be a false soubrette, the light tenor would sound a little breathy and hollow lacking brilliance.  Having a correct sense of one's true timbre is essential to creating the correct conditions for proper phonation and therefore the production of squillo.  Unfortunately, few singers have a correct concept of their natural tone at the beginning of vocal study--Nor does the teacher in fact!  With experience a good teacher has a good idea of what a voice might end up sounding like when fully developed, but no-one can know precisely what a voice should sound like at first hearing.  That is why we listen for functions.  The phonation part of voice production depends on fundamentally three functions: 1) fold depth (vertical contact area) controlled by the Thyro-arytenoid muscle group 2) fold length controlled by the Crico-thyroid muscles and 3) fold closure controlled by the Inter-arytenoid muscle group.

Phonation requires a constant and dynamic rearrangement of these main muscle groups for every change of fundamental frequency (pitch).  This is the main challenge of vocal production.  When this dynamic and ever-changing balance is achieved, we discover what the specific vocal timbre is.  It goes without saying that the rearrangement of these muscle groups to achieve balance is like a gymnast learning to stretch for the first time.  It requires strengthening as well as relaxing.  As my Yoga teacher told me early in my practice:

 flexibility equals strength.  Each muscle must be strong enough to do its part for the specific movement.  It is not only about one stiff muscle relaxing, it is also about the countering muscle contracting adequately.  
 When this balanced source tone is achieved, both breath coordination and resonance adjustments must also be dynamic in order for squillo to become consistent.  The many muscles outside of the larynx must do their own balancing to achieve resonance balance.  This includes: A) laryngeal depressors and levitators achieving balance B) tongue, lips and jaw achieving appropriate balance in vowel and consonant articulation such that the optimal size of the vocal tract is not compromised.

Adequate breath support in the best case scenario should be reactive not active relative to the tone concept.  The singer must begin with a tone concept that sets up the fold posture and resonance space upon inspiration.  The inspiration part of breathing must expand the body, activating the inspiratory muscles enough to provide appropriate counter to the expiratory muscles.  Support is achieved when the feeling of inspiration is not collapsed at onset, such that the appropriate muscles of expiration are called to duty to provide the needed compression.  A singer does not need to support but rather learn to observe how the body supports the tone, such that they get out of the way of a complex function that our unconscious brain can process more efficiently than our conscious control.  The Old School teachers used to say:

Sing on the feeling of inhalation.  Do not try to support! Let your body figure out!
When remaining suspended in the feeling of inhalation, the correct support muscles will be activated without your conscious help.!  All respiratory musculature have attachment either directly or indirectly to the pelvis.  When we truly get out of the way of the natural process, we sense all kinds of interesting sensations in the pelvic area.  That is why some teachers prescribe "singing with your sex organs!"  No, the sexual organs, as such, are not involved.  But the breathing musculature is attached very close to the sexual organs.

However, even though the support muscles are automatic if their function is not preempted by conscious manipulation, they are not necessarily in shape for primal operatic sounds.  When a baby cries we can see their breathing musculature extremely involved.  Just as we lose our squillo by reducing our voices in childhood, the function of support musculature can atrophy or rather do not grow in strength with the growth of the body unless the vocal instrument is used with the same primal instinct that a baby has.  The more civilized we become the more we forego our primal instincts and thus we tend to lose the muscular tonicity necessary for operatic singing, which in short is primal sound applied to extraordinarily civilized music.

We have gone deeply into the discussion of the complexities of global vocal function to explain why some have squillo and some have not.  Some do not have because they are not encouraged or willing to do the work necessary to reawaken what was once there without special effort.

When a teacher tell you you do not have enough voice to sing opera, it should be translated thus:

I am not willing to spend the time with you that it would take to reawaken abilities that you had as a baby!
Many people maintain vocal abilities from their babyhood through adulthood and if they were encouraged to study music early and be onstage early, and they lived in Europe and speak several languages and are Caucasian,  they have lots of advantages.  These people are called talented.  Not having these advantages does not mean you are damned to never sing opera.  It only means you have a lot of work to do and you need to find people who are engaged in helping you do that work!  A lot of it you will have to do on your own!  Therefore it is possible that the only statement I may utilized from the Fast-Food Operatic Culture is this:

You must really want to sing opera! Unless it is absolutely necessary to your soul, don't start!
To achieve a high level of proficiency in opera, especially if you did not start with all the advantages I mention in the paragraph above,  you will need to have extraordinary will power and patience and dedication.

© May 12 2016


Sunday, April 3, 2016

Investments in Loss: A Path to Improvement

The champion chess player and Tai Chi Push Hands champion, Josh Waitzkin is known to the world as the subject of the very popular 1993 movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer, detailing the progress of a young chess master who reminded of the last great american chess champion, Bobby Fischer. I loved that movie also.  But I am a fan of Josh Waitzkin for his book: The Art of Learning, which I think every one should read who hopes to reach a high level of proficiency in any discipline.  In this post, I would like to concentrate on one of Josh's themes from the book, based upon a concept that his Tai Chi teacher emphasized. Investments in Loss.

My own Kung Fu and Tai Chi teacher, Sifu Karl Romain, introduced this idea to me, when I began sparring.  His advice was that I should let myself lose to my opponent the first time I sparred him or her such that I can learn the opponent's strategies and concentrate on what I am not aware of instead of using what I know in an attempt to "win."  There is really no winning in a good sparring session.  It's about learning!  Although I must say, I would have preferred not cracking three ribs in the process of learning to defend a "mandarin duck feet" followed by a forbidden spin kick!  But that is martial arts. I digress...

This is a concept that we can all learn from regardless of discipline.  I notice that singers have a tendency to protect what they think works:

This approach helps me sing the aria straight through without fatiguing.  I should keep it right?
You should keep it until you want something better.  Singing the aria straight through is not the final goal.  Are you free to make music?  Are you flexible to the point that you can live in the moment and sense the musical/dramatic needs of the piece?  Or are you just making sounds relatively stably through the length of the aria?  Whatever the next step is, it requires giving up something to discover the next thing.

For example, in my early years of teaching, I heard teachers preach "pure vowels!"  Being a language person, I quickly gave in to this idea.  I enjoyed the immediacy of feeling myself articulate the words with exactitude.  Yet, my sound was not very appealing at the time.  I later came to a teacher who emphasized the open throat.  I was praised for my new, more robust sound but my diction had gone to  mud--dull and unintelligible.  One of my great teachers before she died told me to become a successful tenor I should never lose my natural baritone color.  She was correct.  During the early years of my progress from baritone to tenor, I attempted to brighten the sound, lighten up, as many had suggested, only to become stiffer and less resonant.  Going back to my teacher's advice helped tremendously.  My high notes where coming back and I could handle the tenor tessitura more easily when I committed to my true baritonal sound.  Yet, lately,  I have had to concentrate on brilliance and more tenor-like colors.  In experimenting with these extreme tenor colors, I discovered a brilliance more extreme than I ever thought possible for my voice.  With years of experience, I knew I would be giving up a little bit of my baritone richness for a period of time.  However, having gone back and forth so many times trying to get both sides of my voice satisfying, it did not take any sacrifice of my rich baritone substance to acquire the stretchy brilliance that I equate with lighter voices like Kraus and Gedda.

It has always been clear to me that the balance I seek involved both depth and brilliance.  We however have a terrible tendency thinking that we must give up one thing for another to manifest. Here is our paradox:

Depending on where we are on the path to balance, we may have to give up a little bit of one side to be able to experience the other side.  But in more advance stages, we start to become aware that with practice, we can actually have both sides with complete satisfaction.  This reflects the functional nature of the voice:

The folds may thicken and stretch simultaneously!

Two complimentary functions!  They are connected and yet, when functioning at their best, they feel as if they are independent.  High overtones depending on the opposed stretching of the folds, just as low overtones depend on the opposed thickening of the folds.  Ying and Yang, so to speak!  Greater levels of interdependence are experienced when we are willing to let go of our safe place--That feeling of: 

I dare not wander away from what works!

It is indeed about balance.  We should not wander from our safe place until we know it well.  But once we know our home, we must wander from it to experience the world.  It is always there to come back to.  Or we may decide, we will make our home in a better place.  At very least, we should have the option to decide.  This is the way of the artist!  This is the way of the singer!

© April 4, 2016

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Life-Art: Following Dreams or False Myths

I’m reminded of a quote from “Rocky Balboa” perhaps one of the most mythical characters in movie history.  Like “The Karate Kid,” which Rocky inspired, his is a story of coming from behind—an underdog with the heart and resilience to keep getting up when others would stay down.  Rocky’s advice to his son reveals his philosophy:  that life is no different than the boxing ring.  What we do in our chosen fields requires the same resilience towards building a worthwhile life for ourselves.

There are times in life when we just want to “stay down!” Shut the doors, close the curtains, turn out the lights, stay in bed and just slowly decay!  A very dark thought to be sure!  But how many of us have had exactly those thoughts and sometimes even stay down for a while? None of us is immune!

Our progress in our chosen discipline (in our case classical singing) is met with similar challenges:  frustration in our developments, financial pressures related to just continuing to be an artist, little reward for our hard work, etc…

But little reward only if we are waiting for it from the outside!  

Keeping our optimism is the greatest challenge! Optimists are heroes not because they have been lobotomized to not feel the anxieties and depressions that come with life’s deceptions, but rather because they meet the darkest hours looking for the faintest light to be steered by.  They look for a reason to go on and in the process discover how immense their inner strength can be.  The path to success is a process of inner expansion and enlightenment that ends up radiating outward calling others to the light.  But that experience of glorious achievement comes with a very high price on our hearts and our souls.  The more deceptions we experience, the harder it is for us not to experience that need to shut down and stay down.  Yet it is precisely in those moments that we are poised to make our most extraordinary steps.

How do we know? Because the signs are there!  In deeply depressive moments, we can discover that suddenly our voice has taken on a more natural balance; we may discover we have reached a healthy balanced relationship with a family member—all the while every cell in our body from some kind of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) is wanting to shut off and give up because life seems to make no sense.  These are the moments when the optimist is tuned to notice the little sparkle of light that says: “there is still hope!  Get up! Get up!”

However, one of the greatest battles we face in today’s “fast-food” world is that everything should come easy.

Those who achieve great things are especially gifted!—Lie!  

It does not matter that those that achieve greatness, almost without exception, will emphasize the importance of resilience and hard work as much more important than whatever “gifts” we may have been given.  It is so much easier to say that this one or that one was especially gifted.  It is as much a reason for not trying to develop our inner talents as any—A convenient excuse for not taking on the extraordinary challenge of fully developing ourselves.  Is becoming an opera singer any less difficult than becoming a boxer? Or a basketball player?  How many very “gifted” basketball players do tricks on neighborhood courts and never make it to the NBA? Thousands literally! How many young singers with great voices never feel the boards of a professional opera house? Thousands literally! What do they lack? Mostly discipline and work ethic and what Rocky exhibits in all his movies: “HEART!”

What does it mean to have “heart!”  It means to go on when it is difficult to do so; to rise up when it is much easier to stay down; to be hopeful when everything seems impossibly hopeless…We have arrived in a period of such darkness that songs like “The Impossible Dream,” which inspired me 35 years ago to follow my unreachable star, is now derided by jaded 20-year-olds as corny and unrealistic. Don Quixote de la Mancha once considered the greatest of heroes is now branded a “loser” by today’s generations and even teachers. 

Art, sports, even our daily job as waitresses and taxi drivers, done with a sense of personal honor and service, can change the world right before us.

Gifts are just abilities developed before we were conscious of the work we were doing to develop them. 

Many among us tend to give up when they become aware how much work it takes to get to the higher steps.  I applaud those who understand the “daily grind” and persist along the hard road until they achieve their inner development!  With such development we are armed to confront a world in despair and desperation.  With a history of development through persistence we can defy the world’s easy pessimism.

As Prometheus to Zeus:  “There are no Gods!  We men are the Gods!”  

This statement should not be seen as addressing a superior being, but rather as a statement against the idea that some are more “gifted” than others--The manifest destiny of singers is no less fallacious than that of European monarchs before the French Revolution. The God I believe in gives a passion that must be developed into talent.

Life is not fair and some come into it with opportunities that may make their paths easier.  But among those with much opportunity are often the ones who push themselves the most to become worthy of their opportunities; and among them are also those who squander their inner worth because they can always find food and shelter without having to work for it.  Same can be said for those who begin with little.  Many strive to get themselves out of destitution and others blame the “gifted” for their sorry lot.

In my culture, which has a fear of snakes, there is a saying: “The road to Heaven is covered with snakes!”  No doubt! You will feel your heart burst inside your chest and your legs give out like over-cooked spaghetti and every avenue will appear shut down before you, as the snakes close in.  What do you do? Should you just give up? Those that want to give up should!  Then there would be less noise and distraction for those of us who have no choice but to go on! We are optimists, we are star-catchers, dream-makers.  The last breath must be taken from us!  We will not give it up willingly!

© April 2, 2016

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Kashu-do Teacher Training: One Student's Experience

Reflections on Tai Chi and Voice Training
Michael Brown

In August of 2015, I attended the Kashu-Do Voice Studios Teacher training and Härnosands Summer Opera Academy and Festival in Härnosand, Sweden.  This program was designed by Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond as an intensive Operatic training camp based on his philosophy of voice training.  As Dr. LaFond has stated:  

“The aim of Kashu-do (歌手道) Studios is to bridge the gap between where the singer is and where they need to be in order to be viable, marketable and employable. There is no great mystery here, for singers must have certain skills and it takes time to acquire those skills. The greatest lie that is continuously propagated is that talent is a gift. Talent is an inspiration developed by hard work. The singers I love to teach must sing and they will not take no for an answer. Their lives will take many twists but they will stay the course.”

  He has based much of his voice teaching philosophy around lessons learned studying Kung-Fu and Tai Chi Chuan, and daily Tai Chi classes for the entire community are a central part of the Opera Academy.  
The teacher training that preceded the academy was a week-long intensive that looked into how we as voice teachers effectively assist voice students in their goals while rooting our teaching in a solid foundation of physiological knowledge.  There was a general acknowledgement that while there were certain objective elements to be found in voice function, the process of applying complex ideas practically in a voice studio setting could be highly subjective, and that none of us had all the answers.  What follows is a reflection on my experiences and lessons learned, not only from my time at the program in Sweden but in my own study of both Tai Chi Chuan and singing.
I am not certain if I was looking for any mind-shattering revelations about singing and voice teaching when I chose to attend a three-week program this past summer built around the intersection of Tai Chi and Operatic Singing.  I was perhaps looking more for confirmation of my own instincts as a voice teacher and as a singer who has struggled for years to figure out how to reach my own vocal potential.  In sixteen years of voice lessons and ten years as a teacher, I have experienced both triumphs and failures, and I have had both positive and extremely negative experiences working with voice teachers.  I have immersed myself in literature to find some sort of objective understanding of the often nebulous terminology we casually throw around in voice studios.  And in all of this I have dealt with an all-too-common anxiety about my own skill with which many singers and voice teachers seem to struggle.  
It was during a year of studying Tai Chi Chuan, primarily for personal fitness reasons, that I found that the most traditional approaches to teaching Tai Chi Chuan as a physical art are very similar to the old ways of training singers as found in the accounts of the 18th and 19th century Italian schools of singing.  In applying these approaches to my own practice and, by extension, to how I encouraged my voice students to develop their technique, I found that there are pedagogical approaches that exist within both traditions that can be very powerful in developing crucial skills.

Day One of Kashu-Do Teacher Training in Nyland, Sweden:  The first order of business after Tai Chi and breakfast is to get introduced to each other and our backgrounds.   As the only member of the teacher team who had not previously worked with Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond, I am first.  I talk about being one year into a doctoral degree in vocal performance after 8 years teaching and studying in Washington, DC.  I speak about the two attempts (one successful) to switch fach from Baritone to Tenor.  I mention the fact that I found this program from a Facebook connection after I had taken up Tai Chi in South Carolina primarily to fulfill some personal fitness goals. I am warmly welcomed, but I start to feel a bit out of my depth as the other members of the teacher training program speak about being on contract in European Opera Houses or having 20+ years of teaching and performing experience.  One member of the teacher training, Dr. Katherine Osborne, has recently completed her doctoral degree with Scott McCoy as her advisor.  There is a consistent theme I pick up on, however:  Everyone is completely open about their personal struggles both as singers and teachers, and no one claims to have completely solved them.  The mindset is that we are all here to learn from each other in open, frank, discussion.

The rich parallels between Tai Chi Chuan and classical singing are intriguing. For one, the art turns out to be deeper and more complex than most would assume.  While the term Tai Chi is often associated in the West with a long, elaborate set of movements, this is only one of five aspects of a rich tradition that is rooted in Chinese philosophy and cosmology.  Dan Docherty’s concise description of the art is:

“Tai Chi Chuan is . . .  . . .a chuan governed by the changes of Yin and Yang.  For martial purposes Yin is soft or indirect, while Yang is hard or direct.  Soft is not necessarily better than hard, or vice versa;  it’s a matter of using whatever is most appropriate under an existing set of circumstances. . .   . . . Beyond this, we need to be able to switch from Yin to Yang or Yang to Yin with ease.”

The five aspects of the art are the hand form (Tao Chuan), pushing hands exercises (Tui Shou), self-defense (San Shou),  weapons, and internal strength exercises (Nei Kung).  In working through all aspects of this art, students are able to work towards physical and mental well-being.  Likewise, singers that seek to maximize their vocal potential need to engage in training that is not always clear to the outsider.  Audiences will readily see the finished product of a song or aria, but they are often unaware of the training and exercise that is required to accomplish that one aspect.
Looking toward the requirements of the art, the movements of the Tai Chi hand form demand a sense of “physical legato” in which there is constant connectedness in the slow sequence of movements and a sense of simultaneous stillness and energy.  The foundation for the flow of chi, or energy, comes from a sense of rootedness into the earth and a sense of the breath filling into the lower dantien, the area three inches below the navel and three inches into the body.  One sees both best practices in posture alignment and breathing in these ideas, elements which easily transfer to critical areas that singers deal with.  
Beyond the external parallels, there are internal elements to the art of Tai Chi Chuan that offer perspective on the challenges singers face.  In the world of Chinese Martial Arts, Tai Chi Chuan is categorized as belonging to the Nei Jia Chuan, or the internal family of martial arts.  This means, among other things, that the sequence of movements that encompasses the Tai Chi form, and even the other four aspects, are considered a means to an end, not necessarily an end in and of itself.   Those that practice Tai Chi Chuan are in the end working towards a sense of mental and physical stillness that have applications in fighting and self-defense as well as in general well-being.  In martial application, the theory is that a peaceful mindset is crucial in self-defense situations.  If one panics, then it is easy to lose the advantage.  On the other hand, an individual who is able to maintain a clear head in these situations is able to yield to and redirect an opponent’s energy in a way which will end the conflict quickly.  Doing this often requires doing the opposite of what a panicked instinct would suggest, and this can only be accomplished through disciplined mental training.  It is for this reason that one of the foundational exercises in Tai Chi is the standing meditation, where the goal is simply to stand in wu chi stance, close one’s eyes, and quiet the mind.  Students are encouraged to make their goal to be able to do this for thirty minutes.  
While the act of singing is not a self-defense situation, there are useful lessons to be learned from the way martial artists train both mentally and in terms of muscular coordination.  Dr. LaFond refers to opera singers “doing battle” with orchestras:

“The Opera singer is a special vocal athlete. The fact that someone can make a pretty vocal sound does not mean they are ready to do battle with an operatic orchestra, without a microphone. The Opera singer must win this fight every time. This incredible battle is won by a singer’s innate acoustic superiority in relation to the orchestra, providing the singer is using all the resources available to him/her. Though this superiority depends on acoustic law, the muscles of the throat and of the respiratory system must be strong enough to generate and transform the powerful compression of air inside the lungs into an acoustical energy of a very specific kind.”

In the context of Opera in particular, it is true that singers are training to reach the pinnacle of what the human voice can accomplish without electronic amplification.  To accomplish this requires training one’s mind and body into the opposite of what natural instinct suggests.  While one is aiming to focus the flow of energy in the form of air vibrations in such a way that maximizes sound output, this is done in high pressure situations that can cause the unprepared performer to become paralyzed by nervous instinct.  
It doesn’t take much to acknowledge what often seems like the utter absurdity of what the trained singer is asked to do.  They must be relaxed, yet energized.  They must sing soft dynamics that project.  And the highest level singers are asked to be completely open and vulnerable when performing, yet operate in a business environment that requires a thick skin.

Days Two through Five of Teacher Training:  There has been rich, open discussion in both formal and informal settings on everything from the physiology of vocal function to the current environment in European opera houses.  Ron LaFond and Dr. Osborne have facilitated discussion regarding some recent research regarding the vibrating surface of the vocal fold;  an understanding that in many ways reconciles longstanding debates between advocates of “top down training,”  “bottom up training,” and “middle out training,”  while adding new dimension to the old Italian concept of “chiaroscuro.”    I find this reflective of the philosophy that underpins our Tai Chi exercises each morning before breakfast;  we must find a point of relaxation and energy that is not a compromise between the two seemingly opposing concepts, but the simultaneous presence of those two elements.
Beyond the daily discussions, it is during the morning standing meditation that I am confronting the roots of my own challenges.  We are encouraged to relax and “be” during the meditation, but this becomes difficult as I’m determined to do things “right.”  The two goals seem at cross purposes, as an over-determination to “make” the right result happen results in undue tension which prevents that result.  My own approach to singing has fallen into the same pitfall time and again.  

The underlying philosophies of the Chinese martial arts school, or gwan, demand an environment conducive to attentive, detail oriented learning.  In my work at the Columbia Tai Chi center for the year prior to the singing program in Sweden, I was introduced to an environment that balanced respect for more experienced students with the understanding that on a certain level, everyone is a student and has room for improvement.  The philosophy of Wu De demands that students repeat what they are given to work on until they are given something new;  it is considered inappropriate to demand new material from one’s teacher.  The result is an approach toward learning the art that is very slow, yet highly effective in building a solid foundation for the art.  In my personal work, certain moves in the forms have required repetition, correction, and repetition for months before I was allowed to move on to the next part.  The approach has been known to frustrate students, but those who have had the patience realize the value in the end.  Sifu Wes Adams, the owner and head instructor at the Columbia Tai Chi center, acknowledges the difficulty for students and often jokes that it is a small miracle he stayed in business with the often excruciatingly slow approach he takes to teaching the art.
Additionally, the basic exercises in developing Tai Chi Chuan are considered critical to success in the art.  It is often said that anyone who has become a master of the art has at some point gone back to the most basic fundamentals reworked them, sometimes for a span of years.  It is not uncommon during instruction to have a group of students that span multiple levels of experience all spend a significant period of time on fundamental skills such as basic stances or forward walking.  No one who studies the art is considered too good to go back and revisit the basics.  
Teachers of singing face this same dilemma;  those of us who have spent time studying the physiology and reading the literature know that real vocal change and development takes time.  The legends of our tradition acknowledge the fact;  we have the disputed story of Nicola Porpora giving the castrato Cafarelli one page of exercises to work on for six years and then dismissing him with the statement that he was at that point the “greatest singer in Europe.”  Additionally, accounts of European conservatory training in the 17th through 19th centuries emphasize an almost militaristic approach to musical training in general.  Given the knowledge we have in the modern age coupled with the tradition, it seems that the raw repetition of certain fundamentals should be a cornerstone of vocal development in aspiring singers.  We are, however, expected to often deliver rapid results in the form of public performances.  The tension between offering good training and achieving business success is a palpable one.

Day Eight, the end of Teacher Training and the beginning of the Opera Academy:  With the voice teachers relocated to Härnosands Folkhogskola and fifty more students added to the mix, things are much bigger and busier.  Dr.LaFond addresses the large group at the Tai Chi class before breakfast, and states that above all, this is the most important element of the program in terms of bringing our community together each day.  After Tai Chi, breakfast, and announcements, the event affectionately referred to as “Death by Aria” commences.  Every student at the academy gets up and sings something.  I am with the teachers furiously taking notes on what I am hearing, but over the course of the day I am floored by certain performances.  A young tenor decides to attempt “Mes amis,” and does quite well.  Another individual is incredibly nervous in front of the group and then proceeds to floor us with a stunning lyric rendition of a Lied.  The Academy participants run the gamut;  some are post-high school students at the Folkhogskola, some are active professionals in Europe, and some are community amateurs.  There is no pretense that any one singer is more “worthy” than another, but instead a shared goal of everyone finding improvement during the program.  

Martial Arts and Singing have both had their share of contentious arguments in terms of best practices and pedagogical approaches.  Singing has perhaps had the easier time, due to the fact that there has been less opportunity for these disagreements to erupt into physical violence. Nonetheless, both arts deal with long histories full of unverifiable legends and descriptive vocabulary developed from empirical practice prior to the advent of modern scientific understanding.  
How to retain the integrity of the art while adapting to a modern environment remains a challenge for both Tai Chi Chuan and Singing.  Some teachers will hold fast and hard to a single technique or approach while dismissing others and lamenting the impending death of the art.  Others will do their best to carve out a middle ground.  Sifu Adams, in discussing small and large differences between approaches in Tai Chi Chuan, has said that correct question to ask when dealing with these conflicts is not “what are they doing,” but “why are they doing what they are doing?”   Understanding the root problems that differing techniques are trying to address can bring about common ground, and ultimately results in better experiences for students.  This inquisitive and flexible approach seems to spring from the philosophies inherent in the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, and is seen in the outlook presented by Dan Docherty.  In looking at both the history and modern practice of the art, he comes to an interesting conclusion:

“The majority of Tai Chi Chuan practitioners only practise a few aspects of the art, and in most cases are also only aware of a few, and this applies to Chinese and non-Chinese alike.  Furthermore, despite claims to the contrary, no-one alive today is practising precisely the art that Yang Lu-Chan brought with him to Beijing around 1852.  Since that time, successive generations of teachers have added to, and just as often have subtracted from the art;  moreover in many cases the additions have been as detrimental as the subtractions.  Nevertheless we must accept that any art, if it is to thrive, must develop and change to fit the circumstances of the society in which it exists.”

In the long and storied history of singing and teaching singing, there are the same desires for both integrity within our tradition and adaptability to the modern environment.  Voice teaching communities would do well to take a lesson from Tai Chi Chuan and see that it is possible to maintain a tradition while acknowledging the changes that occur over time.
The Summer Opera Academy in Härnosand seemed to embrace the idea of different perspectives in pursuit of the same goal in the way student lessons were structured.  Over the course of the two week academy, each student took lessons with four different teachers.  In setting up voice lessons this way, students were able to gain a multitude of perspectives in a short period of time.  The result was that each student was indeed able to grow and learn over the course of the two-week intensive.

The End of the 2015 Opera Academy:  The two weeks became so hectic that it became difficult to summarize every single day. I taught lessons to eight different students and took lessons myself with four different teachers.  I sang in three student concerts, one teacher ensemble concert, and a public masterclass with George Shirley.  I found that my own approach to singing changed, but importantly, I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin as both a performer and a teacher. I had started teacher training feeling like the least of the teachers, but during the Academy I had a number of participants tell me in casual conversation that I had (somehow) managed to tell them and others exactly what they needed to hear at certain times.  In a practical sense, the daily routine of exercise, breakfast, practice, rehearse, teach, etc.  left me feeling that the two-week academy had truly embodied Wu Chi and Tai Chi, stillness and movement, in that during those days I had felt very internally peaceful despite a packed schedule.  Moreover, the community I had worked with over the three weeks felt like a new-found family.  Since returning to my work in South Carolina, I have continued to correspond with my fellow teachers and students from Härnosands Opera Academy, not hesitating to check in if I have a question about a student I am working with or a struggle in my own singing.  The experience changed me, and continues to do so.


Docherty, Dan.  Complete Tai Chi Chuan.  Crowood, 1997.
LaFond, Dr. Jean-Ronald.  “Kashu-Do:  The Philosophy.”  <>.  Accessed 12-8-2015.

For more information about Kashu-do Teacher Training and Härnösand Summer Opera Academy and Festival, please visit