Monday, January 22, 2018

Revisiting the Rubix Cube of Vocal Balance

The concept of a balanced phonation is a the heart of high quality classical singing.  What that entails requires intimate knowledge of how the instrument function or the blessings of genetics and environment.  A young person who sings early and has appropriate vocal models at an early age tends to develop a strong “sense of self” in singing.  Having an instinct for comfort at an early age tends to help the developing singer to navigate the changes in the anatomy as s/he matures.  That sense of balance at an early age, if encouraged throughout the singer’s development, can make all the difference in how easy the process of maturing occurs.  

This is why such singers are called “Natural Singers!”

As a pedagogue, it is always exciting to get the singer who comes with natural coordination.  In some regards the job is easier at first.  But more times than not, the singer who develops without conscious effort and without an awareness of the discipline needed to grow to professional levels can become very difficult to convince that it takes great concentration, great conviction, great patience and hard consistent work to develop further, especially the refinement stage.  There are always exceptions, and they often become,  because of their early advantage, the stars of our field.

I am more interested in the singer who is passionate about singing and willing to do what is necessary to become the best s/he can be.  I find the most passionate singers most often to be real musicians who lack a certain muscular coordination to perform at the highest level.  My most dedicated clients come as amateurs, college level students and professionals.  They all have the common trait of desiring to excel.  They are great listeners and they practice efficiently.—Daily, focused and concentrated.  Not two hours one day until they are tired and then must take 2 days off.— 

I research and practice almost every day—Partly for myself and partly to find more exact answers for my dedicated students.  The balance of phonation requires not only an understanding of the concepts but a feel for them.  Teaching a tenor to sing a high C for instance is an emotional experience.  While it is not absolutely necessary to be able to demonstrate it, every tenor out there know that they feel better when their teacher can demonstrate it—Well!  Because of my dramatic voices, they are happy enough if I do a great high B for them.  But it is certainly encouraging for them to hear me do the C.

Why  is a high C so important to a full voiced tenor?  Because it requires a level of correctness that leaves very little margin for error!  I have always had a Bb.  Even in my baritone days.  But singing one in the context of an aria while sustaining a high tessitura (living in the passaggio) is trying at best.

So while I can speak of the “Rubix Cube” of phonation in theoretical terms, considering fold depth (contact area) fold lengthening and medial approximation (closure), coordinating a high C requires  precise sensations relative to these three main functions.  What does a gentle (but fully compressed), clear (but not pressed) and flowing (but not breathy) onset feel like?  A gentle onset can remain superficial and not coordinate with the breath compression fully.  This will lead to an eventual glottal squeeze for compensation.  A clear onset can easily be pressed because clarity relies on both closure and fold tautness (antagonism between a sensation of singing fully and the elasticity to stretch the folds appropriately).  The appropriate stretching of the folds for a given pitch depends on the pitch itself but the quality of the tone/vowel.  The singer must want a certain brilliance while not loosing the initial gentleness.  Flow can very easily be confused with breathiness.  

Thus we can simplify the onset to gentle and full, brilliant and flowing.  Gentle and full address TA group as well as the LCA group. Brilliant and flowing address the CT and IA groups.  Both double-directives active the breathing mechanism.  One must train to take a full, elastic breath and maintain the “sensation of the intake” (never pushing outward but suspended in the desire to expand) even as onset occurs and phonation continues.  Furthermore, there is no stoppage time between intake and onsets other than the imperceptible time that it takes a pendulum between swing in one direction and then the other.  

How long is a pendulum still when changing direction?  

The fullness of the tone guaranteed breath compression.  Let us say the singer achieved the ideal onset (after many tries) but then must maintain the feeling of balance when changing from note to note.  All the parameters are changing!  If the singer were to sing a five-note scale from F-C, the folds would be lengthening, which means the CT muscles would be contracting, while the TA group would be slightly relaxing.  Perhaps!  If the singer has a tendency of relaxing the TA group too much, the correct product might require a feeling of getting fuller not lighter.  Does breath compression need to increase or decrease.  If the singer has a habit of overexerting s/he might feel a need to reduce compression.  Conversely, if the singer has a tendency of decreasing compression too much, the moment might require a sensation of increasing.  Yet what is actually happening may very well be the reverse.  By the same token, if the singer tends to press medially as s/he ascends the scale, s/he might correct by relaxing them and conversely attempt to increase medial closure as s/he goes up if the tendency is to become breathy.  It does not guarantee that one needs to either increase or decrease medial pressure as one rises to a top note.  It has to do with the singer’s background.  The process of balance relates to reducing over-compensations and correct the tendency to under-perform a given function.  

The final product depends a great deal on the singer’s sense of self.

A bigger problem is the psychological factor.  When a singer sings the appropriately balanced sound, it can be so unrecognisable to him/her that s/he may back away from it.  The greatest challenge to the singer who did not develop “Naturally” (unconscious training) is acceptance of the most efficient voice.  It often feels too much at first.  

It takes time to get acquainted with the true timbre, so as to let go of the one we accepted heretofore.  

The management of the vocal tract as resonator becomes crucial in this kind of precision singing.  While jaw articulation may not cause noticeable problems in the singer’s comfort range, a slight hyperextension or reduction of the mouth space can have a detrimental effect in a sensitive range (the high range is not always the most difficult.  Depends on the singer).  A slight retraction of the tongue could cause a wrong resonance adjustment and cause compensatory stiffness in the fold vibration.  

Too much volume may destabilise an otherwise balanced tone.  

In the refinement stages singers must be aware of their instrument globally.  They must have their feelers everywhere, but not interfere with the physical process.  The singer must have a clear idea of what s/he wants and focus on it, such that the brain sends the appropriate signals to the muscles via the nerves.  

This weekend at the Gothenburg Opera, I worked with a number of very, very focused singers.  Intelligent enough to understand the issues at hand and disciplined enough not too interfere and micromanage.  

Fear is natural, but panic is a choice!  Walking such a tightrope, a strong-minded singer concentrates on the task at hand!  S/he sings fully, but not necessarily loudly; gently but not cowardly; clearly but not stridently; passionately but not violently, etc… 

At this level, I often tell the singer:  “I may give you suggestions, but in this flight I am only a co-pilot.  You are coming to the time for your solo flight.” 

This means simply that the final step to technical mastery is taken by the singer alone.  While a teacher may always be there to guide, s/he cannot know the singer’s inner experience and therefore must come to trust the singer to take those solo steps and own their own voice and technique.  

© 01/22/2018

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Bel Canto Technique Intensive 4-10 March, Nyland (Kramfors) Sweden

The next Kashu-do Course in Idyllic Nyland, Sweden 4-10 March: Bel Canto Technique Intensive. Limited to 10 participants. Experience the Italian Tradition with an analytical understanding from both a traditional/Musical perspective and a scientific/technical perspective. As of this first posting 7 spaces remaining.

Kashu-do Opera Studios, organizes several masterclasses throughout the year in idyllic settings that encourage the singer artistically and humanistically leading to the Härnösand Opera Academy and Festival.  The second masterclass of the season is  Bel Canto Intensive featuring  Internationally renowned pedagogue, Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond, soprano-voice teacher, Anna Niedbala and Conductor-pianist, Brandon Eldredge. The Bel Canto Intensive gives the singer the opportunity to understand Traditional Italian Vocal Technique by analyzing Old School Concepts with respect to current (New School) research.  The intensive week will include, morning group warm-ups using the Vaccai Exercises, daily voice lessons and evening masterclasses. The Bel Canto Intensive will concentrate on Italian Repertoire. Kashu-do (歌手道):  The Way of the Singer is a philosophy of vocal artistry developed by Dr. Jean-Ronald LaFond.  In short, it is a process that opens the developing singer to the awareness of the many elements that must be mastered in order to achieve true competence as a vocal artist. 

Go to the Kashu-do Website for more information!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Discipline of Opera: It's Always Been About Interdisciplinary Competence

Post-modernism, post-truth!  The extreme strain of taking in the vastness of what is human existence is often too much for some of us to take.  In such instances, rather than sifting through the barrage of information that is catapulted toward us via mass media, social media and our immediate surroundings, we often retreat into a bubble of ignorance, which we convince ourselves to be safety.  Ignorance was bliss, before we had immediate access to information about the most remote corners of the world.  I love Brazilian Portuguese and often thought about spending some extended time in Brazil!  But a recent acquaintance, a native Brazilian, walked me through the grave situation in his country's daily life -- that assault at gunpoint is a daily experience. Do we close our eyes to this fact?  Or do we open our minds to how corruption at the highest levels is a worldwide reality that is only contained in countries where the social safeties are in place.  Yet even in a country with powerful safeguards, such as the United States, many social constructs we take for granted can quickly disappear under a president who shows anarchist tendencies through a total disregard for the democratic process.  The same overstimulation from social media, or world-shaking wars that scare many of us to retreat into "virtual" utopias of our own design have profound repercussions in the development of art. And most certainly, Opera.

When I had my first successes as a singer, it made sense when I heard a teacher say:  "That's too bright!" As a teacher, I do not allow myself to tell a student "too this or too that!"  I prefer to say "not enough of this" instead of "too much that."  In my own practice and retraining over the past decade, it became clear to me that the interdependency of muscular systems require each system to be stable/strong enough to withstand the forces that other systems exert upon them without buckling. 

One teacher will say:  "Don't sing too bright vowels or you will lose your space!"  Another will say:  "Don't make space!  It's artificial and will make your vowels dull and unintelligible!" 

Who is correct?  Neither!  We need only to listen to the best singers to realise that it is definitely possible to have that feeling of an open throat and still articulate vowels with absolute intelligibility.  However the muscles of vowel articulation (tongue, jaw, lips) do not only counter the musculature that govern the opening of the vocal tract (laryngeal depth and palatal height).  The antagonism between those muscle groups make way for better vowel production.  The systems are complimentary. The depth of the larynx create a better acoustic space for balance between the formants.  Tongue, jaw and lip articulations must neither hamper the ability of the larynx to lower appropriately nor be hampered by it.  Furthermore, the results that we seek relative to vowel clarity and laryngeal depth cannot be achieved in balance without a source tone that is also balanced between vertical contact area, fold lengthening and fold closure.  The stability of the whole is impossible without a constant compression of breath, achieved without collapsing the expansion of the torso as achieved by an inspiratory process that leaves the body flexible (non/rigid).  In short, all the functions that are favoured by one teacher and frowned upon by the next can coexist.  Even more, they must coexist to achieve sustainable balance.

As complex as all of this sounds, some young singers achieve near ideal balance just by listening to a balanced voice that is similar to their own.  The great disadvantage of this is that they often progress with very little conscious knowledge of what they do.  It takes one wrong role to throw that balance off and create a sense of panic in the young singer.  Fifty years ago when the operatic business was still relatively small, singers could have their teachers at their sides constantly and could be rebalanced before every performance they sang.  Today, the constance geographical displacements make that nearly impossible.  Singers must be self-reliant and must therefore learn to know themselves vocally to a fine degree.  Unfortunately few do!  They prefer to limit their scope to what they are able to process and call that limited bubble the totality of information they need to concentrate on, most often avoiding anything that is potentially confusing.  They too often do not realise that it is from confusion that the search for clarity begins.  We teachers do not help the situation when we spend our times trying to make our students comfortable instead of challenging them to develop in every way. Academic and artistic rigor have declined in direct proportion to operatic decline.

Singers do not realise that their inability to sustain a career is due in great part to their lack of knowledge and expertise relative to their own process.

By the same token, the amount of knowledge a conductor needs to amass in order to be truly competent as an operatic conductor is overwhelming at first.  It was so in the past as well.  But the ideology then was that a conductor was expected to take time to amass that knowledge and master it in order to lead others.  Now conductors will limit themselves to "directing traffic wit flair" with very little knowledge of harmonic structure, or phrasing, or how to balance an orchestra by tuning appropriately and how that leads to balancing the ensemble with the singers.  Let us not even talk about the language skills required, or the understanding of how music and drama interlace in an operatic moment.  Seeing young maestros like Alexander Joel and Gustavo Dudamel deal with operatic music in expert fashion means that this is possible.  Too many prefer to limit themselves to the few things they do well, rather than expand their knowledge and continue to grow.  When they don't know something, instead of admitting it and seek to learn it, they prefer to posture in their authority and blame others for their lack of expertise. 

Conductors do not realise that their inability to sustain a career is due in great part to their lack of knowledge and expertise relative to their own process.

Likewise stage directors need to understand the operatic art from the singer's point of view and from the conductor's as well.  Like the vocal mechanism that is complete only when localised muscular systems must be able to function flexibly while withstand the forces exerted by the global instrument, so must stage directors especially understand the forces exerted upon them by the singers' tasks and the conductor's tasks and the composer's music and the librettist's words.  A stage director's ability to make constantly viable theatrical choices is only possible when s/he understands the whole and respects and appreciates the complexity of the different jobs.  It is easier to blame the singers inability to do acrobatics while singing, the conductor's rigidity of the score, the limitations of the score or the public's ignorance.

Stage Directors do not realise that their inability to sustain a career is due in great part to their lack of knowledge and expertise relative to their own process.
The non-musical administrators that are brought in for their business acumen should be taught to respect the art form.  The complex roles that music plays in an opera, what a bona fide opera singer sounds like, the different vocal and theatrical requirements for success between a Mozart or Bellini or Wagner or Verdi or Massenet opera are a few among the many issues an administrator must be taught to understand over time. 

However, if singer, conductor, repetiteur, stage director have little respect for their process, how can the administrator be expected to have respect for the art-form?  Then there is the casting director!  So many of them have no idea what an operatic sound is. 

They hold auditions in small rooms and think singers unrefined when the squillo needed to carry the voice in the large hall hurts their ears in the audition room.  

There are some wonderful opera experts out there, but for every 1 expert in his/her field there are hundreds who are virtually incompetent.  And many such incompetent people get hired through connections who prefer to insulate themselves in a bubble of underlings that are less knowledgeable than they.  We in the opera world and beyond it have build a house with rotten wood.  A discerning buyer is not going to be fooled by a nice superficial coat of paint.  Nor will an audience be convinced by an opera house's PR machine touting its productions as great art when they are left uninspired in the opera house. 

Simply put, it is not the audience that does not get it.  We in the opera world present shoddy productions on a regular basis that even we insiders are bored by.  

How can we expect an audience to respond differently?  When I enjoy an opera, the enthusiasm of the audience around me is felt like electricity in the air.  When I am bored, I watch a confused public applaud because they think they are supposed to and ask themselves whether or not they understand this so-called "high art."

By extension we should not fault social media for our decisions to insulate ourselves with a friend's list of like-minded people, but rather by our collective fear of having our values questioned, by our fear of engaging our fellow man in a civil discourse that might show the limitations of our individual knowledge.  For my part, I have never unfriended someone from my social media profile because of a difference of opinion.  But I will remove someone who argues without facts to back up their opinions and insults by calling an opposing viewpoint "fake news!"

The operatic machine, the gate-keepers close their ears to the deep illnesses that are rotting the field from the inside.  The fear of the massive work before us as a collective makes those in charge insulate themselves so to only hear what they would like to hear. 

It is uncomfortable to admit that despite a few stellar moments, a few truly well-developed singers, fewer prepared conductors and directors, our field is in crisis, not from outside forces but from our collective laziness and fear of the difficult tasks before us.  It is much easier to say: "fake news!"
© 1/4/2018