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