Sunday, September 24, 2017

Education or A lack thereof: An Unsuccessful Attempt at Dismantling Traditional Vocal Pedagogy

The great tradition of classical singing was always based on disciplined long-term development, unrelenting work-ethic and a thirst for knowledge.  Before there was much empirical information, voice pedagogues and students read voraciously in the search of enlightenment, relative to both the physical act of singing and the artistic performance thereof.  Today, my colleagues and I at the Opera Studio in Härnösand, Sweden labor daily to instil in our students a fundamental respect for knowledge, objective information, dialogue and debate based on accepted factual information, including "music as a language!"

1. Music:  Everything we do as classical singers must have "musical literacy" at its core.  Music is hardly abstract.  It is no more abstract than a foreign language.  However, a foreign language is literally "gibberish" to someone who does not speak it.  Just as some singers sing words they do not understand and try to cover their ignorance by silly facial expressions, so do they sing harmonies with no idea of their "weight" and "significance" in a musical phrase, and make inappropriate nuances with their voices to cover their complete lack of understanding.  Where the honest singer will feel gratification when a teacher instructs them about musical and textual phrasing, the lazy singer will continue to develop subterfuge to disguise their abject musical illiteracy.  Posturing is a common and overused manner of hiding a fundamental lack of knowledge.

2.  Pedagogy:  Unfortunately, in a world strongly influenced by one's ability to manage quick soundbites, the illiterate singer (sometimes armed with a good native vocal material) can quickly become a master of subterfuge, knowing just what "button word" to use to give a false impression that s/he is knowledgeable.  Such poseurs can become very influential in a world where "fact" is labeled "fake news," "real knowledge" is labeled "elitist cult," "experience" is labeled "obsolete" and "manipulation of ignorance" disguises as "pedagogical pedigree."

I see too much of this and it makes me sick to my stomach!  Especially when experienced masters in our field are thrown to the wolves by narcissistic anarchists who can only achieve influence by destroying the reputations of people who have worked their entire lives to contribute to our field in substantial and undeniable ways.  Those of us of conscience must do everything we can to expose such malignancies in our midst. 

Yet, we must not despair!  At The International Congress of Voice Teachers (ICVT 2017) in Stockholm in early August of this year, I left inspired and optimistic about the future of singing as a whole.  I met many wonderfully knowledgeable people who are passionate about learning and passing on information, who have real skills and share them with generosity of spirit.

I was able to see a remarkable presentation on the state of modern vocal pedagogy by three next generation pedagogues.  Drs. Noël Archambeault, Blake Smith and Doctoral Candidate Joshua Glasner were not only informative in their presentations but articulate and organised.  Talking with them afterwards was revelatory.  Knowledgeable people do not need to posture.  They have answers and yet are always humble before the elemental proportions of our discipline.  What I constantly find in people who cherish knowledge is their fundamental awareness that they are trying to understand something that is practically limitless in scope and therefore they must revise their understanding every time they come across new information.  That is the nature of education.  Meanwhile the lazy ones hold on tightly to whatever small amount of palatable information they may possess and repeat it ad nauseam while avoiding any new information that may question that little bit of knowledge.

I also met two of the most extraordinary Western overtone singers in the world: Wolfgang Saus, whom I had briefly encountered several years before at PAS5 in Stockholm, and the Youtube phenom, Anna-Maria Hefele.  What was extraordinary about them both was their passion, their understanding of vocal acoustics and their eagerness to share their knowledge.  I was fortunate to have several discussions with them, which resulted in a mutual desire to deepen our combined knowledges and create a bridge between traditional classical singing and overtone singing.  I have committed myself to learning overtone singing because of them.  We remained humbled by the infinite possibilities.  They are not just a curiosity in a world fixated on novelty.  They are on a journey towards understanding and their passion is infectious.  I am eager to collaborate with them. While classical singers hope to have an effect on the various formants, these overtone singers understand them so well they can control individual formants in opposite directions to one another.

Kenneth Bozeman, another extraordinary American vocal pedagogue gave a mind-bending lecture on applied vocal acoustics that I found stunning.  This was a lesson on how what one knows can be seen from a totally different angle and renders everything that much easier to understand.  Mr. Bozeman is one of the truly great vocal pedagogues around and I am determined to find ways to collaborate with him.

There were elegant and instructive masterclasses by Janice Chapman, George Shirley and David Jones, among others.  It never ceases to amaze me how much experience open our horizons.  These people have been at it a long time and they have true wisdom to impart.

I encountered my dear friend from Barcelona, Dr. Patricia Caicedo, who has made Latin American and Iberian classical songs her passion.  She continues on her path with even greater vigor and passion than ever before.  Lifetime commitment and growth is our inheritance in the classical singing world.  We must not allow it to be obliterated by a few who seek to gain influence by undermining a tradition of personal investment with a false promise of immediate gratification covering superficial drivel. 

I encountered a number of wonderful young performers in the field of popular music, who despite their extraordinary voices and stage presence wanted to understand the voice from the classical perspective.  Swedish jazz singer Emilia Mårtensonn, Italian pop singer, Emilia Zamunder and Dutch pop singer, Kim Beemsterboer made an indelible mark on my spirit.  

At home in Sweden, at least two interesting connections were made in Stockholm.  On the last day, I spontaneously started conversations with Helene Lux Dryselius, whose openness of spirit inspires collaboration.  I am looking forward to sharing information with her soon.  Finally, after many years of passing each other in the halls of various and sundry voice congresses in Europe and the United States, I finally had the courage to approach the legendary Johan Sundberg, who presented some very informative and entertaining sessions.  Our talk lasted close to an hour regarding, among other things, the subject of my presentation with Dr. Katherine Osborne, on the acoustics of the female voice.  He was immensely generous, and has already taken a look at our work since.  He is passionate and ever searching for new information.  He was genuinely interested in what we have found out and was eager to help us understand the greater ramifications and how we should proceed.  I look forward to meeting him again, as soon as time allows.

In the middle of a world that constantly falls for the promise of easy success--we see it in the posturing of the American president as we do in "Talent" shows promising quick fame to an ever gullible public--We must maintain an unwavering optimism, because in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse of Lazy Singers and False Prophets, promising rain on the moon,  there is genuine artistry and profound pedagogy all around us.  

1. Great pedagogues never claim they are the only answer to your problems because they are aware of the fact that there isn't one of us who command the full scope of the monumental challenge of teaching a human being to discover his/her true vibration.  

2.  Great pedagogues never promise to make your career, because they know that only you can navigate your own path.  But they will do everything they can to help you make the next connection.

3.  Great pedagogues do not put down other pedagogues, because they know that fundamental disagreements usually stem from not seeing where two paradoxical concepts intersect.

4.  Great pedagogues do not envy the success of others but rather celebrate it and attempt to learn from it.  Your failure does not make my success.

Kashu-do, The Way of the Singer, seeks to create a body of open-minded, truth-seeking, collaborative teachers, who can proceed from established and newly discovered facts, in order to understand how their apparent differences come together to form a more complete vision of our beloved discipline.  We welcome collaboration, when we can all agree that we are little compared to the enormous nature of vocal pedagogy in its unlimited facets.

© September 24 2017






Saturday, September 9, 2017

Necessary Artistic Distance: Avoiding Codependence Between the Art and Business of Classical Singing

In recent decades, the education of classical singers seemed to have shifted drastically in the direction of career management.  Although business savvy is of indisputable importance in managing a career in classical singing, the balance between artistic development and career management has become so tilted in favor of business, that one must wonder whether the farmer has forgotten to load his vegetables on the cart he is taking to market.

In the 1970s and 1980s, before the internet dominated our lives with easy access to videos and self-promotion on social media, it was healthy to discuss business savvy in the field of classical singing.  The field had become markedly international and singers had to learn how to make the best use of the market, particularly between the United States and Western Europe. It was a given then that talents must be viable before they could even be competitive in professional singing venues.

The Convenience Generation, schooled in fast food, online-shopping, a sense of entitlement and immediate gratification, in large part, does not understand the term Discipline, particularly when it pertains to the development of musical competency, vocal resilience and artistic preparation.  Some would spend several hours editing their most recent video, but will not spend the time in the practice room to learn an aria (let alone a role) without the use of Spotify or Youtube.  How is a singer going to develop a personal interpretation of a piece of music if s/he is not able to read the language of music?  In too many cases we are left with poorer copies of what other artists took the time to develop.  

The saturation of singers in the field  of classical singing is reminiscent of a Zombie Apocalypse.  It feels like an army of the undead climbing over one another aimlessly, seeking only to infect others with that same sense of emptiness.  Within that sea of aimlessness, there are often mindful artists who despite the carnage around them chose to go to their practice rooms and do the diligent, soul-searching work of the artist.  They develop!  They get better! They become musicians and singing actors!  They are on a lifelong path of development and refinement.  But they are too often surrounded by that army of the dead of nay-sayers, that would encourage them to take the easy way out.  This reminds me of those changing a light-bulb jokes:
How many tenors does it take to change a light-bulb?
One!  Plus an army of onlookers saying: "Wouldn't it be better if you sang high baritone, dear?

The punchline is really: "Isn't that a little high for you, dear?"  But I hope the point is clear.  Developing high competence in anything requires time, patience, resilience, tears.  Athletes know that.  Great singers know this.  But the educational system is too often about getting students through a program that is too short and too limited in scope to train viable candidates for the classical singing world.  Hence, an army of zombies!

Singers at all levels should develop an inner sense of when they are truly competent and ready for market.  Yes they need knowledgeable people who know the realities of the market who can advise them as to when they have the physical, vocal, musical and emotional wherewithal to confront the professional market.

At every level, singers should be encourage to spend private time learning how to create art!  We should all follow the principle espoused in Friedrich Rückert's wonderful short poem, "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder..."  Take private time to create fine art!  Then offer it like a precious gift to the audience!




In a music business environment that is bent on pushing singers onstage as soon as they can make an inoffensive sound and look attractive on camera, singers owe it to themselves to be more honest judges of their own talents and take appropriate distance from a business that does not have their best interest in mind.

© September 9 2017

A Three-dimensional Model of Vocal Fold Closure: Efficiency and Avoiding Pressed Voice

I remember years ago, when the Italian mezzo-soprano Ada Finelli told me that the muscles of Appoggio are far inside the body (not the superficial ones we see) that and their contraction produced a twisting action.  I was not sure what she meant back then, but I trusted her.  Eventually I observed graphic representation of the muscles that root  the diaphragm to the various insertion points on the pelvis and saw what could be described as a twisting motion.  Her sensations were based on empirical information although she was not aware of the science.

As for me, my process is usually instructed by the available science.  A recent article by Ingo Titze and colleagues addressed a two-prong system that produces efficient glottal closure (see more below).  The specifics of that article are a bit complex to address here, however the concept is not new.  We know that the contraction of the Lateral Crico-Arytenoids (LCA) bring the two vocal folds to midline.  This however does not complete the closure of the posterior arytenoidal juncture (sometimes referred to as the mutational chink in earlier vocal literature).  The contraction of the Inter-arytenoids (2 pairs, one lateral and one transversal) complete the posterior closure giving the singer that sensation of "mask resonance," rooted in multiple functions of breath compression, glottal resistance and resonance adjustments.

The concept of mask resonance is a a controversial one.  I address it here as a result of a three-dimensional closure system.  Many would instruct their students to "put the sound in the mask!" This directive does not always produce the desired results.  The student indeed may accomplish some kind of closure to achieve the objective, but often the result is pressed phonation.  This occurs for two reasons: 1) the directive of "put it in the mask" does not address any specific function relative to the goal. 2) Even if fold closure is mentioned as the functional means toward the end result, if closure is conceived as a simple system--one set of muscles-- the result is often hyper-function relative to whichever muscle group is targeted for closure.

The two-function system I wrote about above is the most complete we commonly hear about.  The third part of the three-dimensional system is indeed fold-depth.  Titze points out the importance of appropriate y-axis (vertical) mass relative to the "closure phase" of phonation.

Appropriate fold-depth depends on the specific voice.  Experience teachers can easily hear when a voice is "shallow"in color.  Often the recommended remedy is to "find more room"!  That directive does not specify any function other than a sound concept that is less "superficial-sounding." The easiest way to accomplish that objective is usually to retract the tongue.  This often gives the student a fall sense of room and depth, however the result is artificial darkness and a loss of high overtones.  By contrast, accomplishing appropriate depth (which must be developed over time with respect to breath/vocal fold interaction) often requires time.  But when accomplished, pressed voice is avoided, flow-phonation induces an appropriate low larynx, which increases the length of the vocal tract.  The more massive the vibrating fold-cover the more consistently stronger must the breath compression be.  This physical development (or lack thereof) is often the greatest obstacle to the singer's ability to accomplish a tone that is completely full (resonant) relative to that particular vocal material.  It is this accomplishment that gives the voice its unique acoustic signature (timbre) and optimum resonance.

The richness that comes by way of the vertical fold depth (Thyro-arydenoid function) can of course be exaggerated.  The fullness of the voice must not be so extreme as to hinder the possibility of closing the superior aspect of the folds. Nor should efficient closure at the interarytenoid level hinder the possibility of a full tone.  Yet often, in an attempt to avoid exaggeration of either function, singers often neither sing fully enough, nor achieve adequate closure. Of course both breath compression and acoustic adjustments (vowel/vocal tract) contribute to the ability to accomplish a three-dimensional fold closure model.  In short, all functions interact upon each other and in such a context are interdependent.  They must however never become co-dependent. In the former scenario, functions act upon each other but do not hinder each other.  In the latter, the singer's fear of going too far in any direction, causes him/her not to go far enough in any direction.

© September 9 2017