Why Artists Should Avoid Shortcuts

In the great wisdom that I find as a maturing artist (seasoning at varying pace for a few decades now), a number of things are becoming more clear to me. Here is one.

Many of us want to excel, to follow the rules, to be responsible and obedient servants of the art. It is too easy to diligently target some “perfect version” of a piece  from recordings or live performances of other artists, style manuals, instruction from teachers and coaches, etc., then work very hard to reproduce it. Not the best strategy.

What is better, is that the student (aren’t we all students?) develop skills, musical-dramatic concepts, and personal sensitivity that allow him/her to perform or recreate a specific work of art. In other words, we must not be content with “as though” expression, but actively choose truth at the moment–the truth that we are convinced enlivens the piece (song, aria, visual art work, etc.). For example, one can sometimes easily identify an acting performance that is emotive, even resembling truth, but it does not “touch” the audience member, because it is simply not true. The cure for a bland or unconvincing performance by an actor is not to over-act. What may be missing is the research that would make the character and situation more clear to the actor. In this case, reading, listening, seeing other performances, and taking to heart the advice of directors and coaches will help the actor make informed choices that can be confidently carried out.

As a singing actor–which is essentially the calling to everyone who sings text–one must become aware of the difference between merely following instructions to ape another’s performance or standard, and the honest performance that emerges when an artist faithfully commits to process.

One is sometimes tempted to jump too far ahead, to attempt repertoire that is well beyond the reasonably expected, earned and trusted skill level. (I am reminded of the Lee Trevino story in my earlier post, The Confident(?) Performer, where I quote Trevino’s observation that confidence is earned in practice, not in performance.) Yes, tackling more difficult rep is often the path to progress, but students and developing artists must be certain not to jump in too deep. The artful teacher and wise artist develop a sense of how much challenge is too much, partly based on experimentation in the practice room. However, one must not assume that somehow making a given piece “work”–by hook or crook–elevates him/her to a place of greater skill and qualifications. Precocious children may have great intelligence or talent in certain things, but they are still children, and should not yet be presented as adults.

Here are a few practical areas where the singer must beware the short-cut, microwave oven approach to learning and presenting a piece. Future posts here will follow-up on some of these ideas, as much more can be said.

Pronunciation and articulation are not the same thing. The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is a valuable tool for singers. It graphically represents how a word is pronounced, not how it is sung. IPA is essentially a tool that helps us to know how to say a word, not how to sing it. An accurate pronunciation in the background of the singer’s conciousness is the genesis for articulating or shaping the resonance while singing. Furthermore, simply choosing to darken or brighten the vowel does not necessarily affect the tone in a positive way; do not expect merely a different pronunciation to lead to the desired ease or quality of sound. Vowel is not tone. Consonants are often not articulated the same way in singing as in speech.

Translation and interpretation of texts are not the same thing. It is better for a singer to create his/her own translation, word for word, if possible. If language ability is not sufficiently strong for that, find a trustworthy, literal translation of the text as a starting point. Even better, learn the language in question as well as possible. I often say that the singer must be fluent in the text’s language, even if only for the few lines of words that make up the poem or libretto in question. There is more to understanding language than knowing how it sounds or how it feels to articulate the sounds, even if the syntax and musical quality of the spoken language are noticed. There are differences of thought, attitude and expectation that one begins to experience when living with a language over some time.

Tonal result and a cohesive vocal technique are not the same thing. Similarly, the student who learns to make a positive impression on a given aria is not necessarily suited for nor capable of singing the entire role. An aria may show a very limited slice of the character’s attributes. Successfully singing one note with a desireable timbre does not guarantee that it can be presented in the appropriate context. It would be embarrassing to spend the entire budget on an extravagantly expensive, beautiful, finely tailored shirt–only to wear it with worn, out-dated trousers and overly casual accessories.

Easiness and relaxation are not the same thing. Ease of production and expression is desirable; indeed, not only should it seem easy to the audience, but the performer would prefer that the singing actually be relatively easy. Additionally, we seek repeatability and the ability to recover well. Investing super-human effort, simply to present one good performance, is too costly a choice for the artist who desires to perform at a consistently high level.

Legato and avoidance of consonants are not the same thing. My students know that singing auf Deutsch, for example, does not mean that the singer grudgingly leaves the concept of legato to Italian, nor does the execution of consonants rule out beautiful, musical flow. Lyric singing is based on legato; there is a commitment to line and momentum or flow of the music. However, vowel is not to be exclusively worshipped and consonants eschewed. A feeling for line should enable the singer to manage his/her energy in such a way that relatively longer or shorter vowels and stronger or more gentle consonants can all live in the language, while the musical line progresses. The entire text (long vowels, short vowels, glides, consonants, consonant groups) must be supported, thus energized. Inflection of language and the pursuit of musical legato are not mutually exclusive. Far from it.

Guarantee and faith are not the same thing, far from it! There are no guarantees; it is precisely that element of risk that makes performance so exciting for all of us. To end this post on a cliché, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

Elizabeth Parcells

Recently, my teacher/coach/friend/colleague, Harold Evans, suggested that I look up the soprano Elizabeth Parcells, and I am very glad he did. Ms. Parcells was an American singer who made her career primarily in Europe, suffering an early death from cancer in 2005 at the age of 54. I have a faint memory of having heard about her before, and I feel a strong kinship with her–as though I knew her, although I don’t think we met.

Visit elizabethparcells.com and explore this extensive website, containing a massive library of audio and video downloads. I have heard only a few excerpts so far, but much of it I like a lot.

What I have also found to be of great value is a transcribed interview with her, a “Discussion About Singing.” I highly recommend that all my students take the time to read this lengthy article, as it contains much truth.

More to come.

Advice to Artists from a Novelist/Critic/Academician

Revered author C.S. Lewis penned these words: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

For those of us who are committed to being authentic and avoiding cliché, this is liberating and empowering advice.

Our calling to be creators and re-creators is guided by respect and love of the truth. The performing artist seeks artistic truth in word and music, and personal truth finds its way into the performance. Inspiration and preparation — in its various forms — allow that performer to deliver the truth through his/her own lens.

Mature artists and students alike must choose to seek truth in art and in themselves. Truth is a beautiful thing, though it may seem ugly, coarse or even repulsive. Singers must find that broad range of expressive potential in their voices — literally and artistically.

This brilliant quote is my favorite excerpt from C.S. Lewis. It surely bears further analysis, contemplation and application…


Observations, not Excuses

In singing (or just about any endeavor), one must be observant of what goes well and what goes poorly. Arguably, most of this critical observation should be done soon after the activity, not so much during the creative process.

Determine why some things went well. Be grateful for them, and re-create these circumstance and potential choices again the next time.

Determine why some other things did not go well. Rather than use these failure-contributing events or choices as excuses — thus letting yourself “off the hook” — get right back on the hook. Next time, create different background events and/or preparation, so that you can make more desirable choices. In other words, learn from mistakes — including those you did not commit on purpose, or were not even aware of.

A mistake is a choice you make that does not lead to your best outcome; that’s why we are always works in progress, learning which choices to make and which ones to avoid. The person who accepts responsibility accepts the power to affect change.

Why Practice?

Learning without application is of questionable value; in a skill such as singing, learning is arguably worthless — unless validated by consistent practice. One does not learn to sing only in the voice studio; vital concepts are introduced there, but the student builds with and upon those concepts/techniques in the practice room (the coaching studio, the opera rehearsal, the choral rehearsal, in performances…). It is important that techniques introduced in the studio be promptly, thoroughly and regularly supported by generous amounts of time in practice.

Practice is also about rediscovering or affirming choices that have previously been identified as desirable. This truth is essential for continuing progress, as one builds a cohesive network of choices that make up technique. As a singer develops and experiences physiological changes in the maturing process, it is valuable to rediscover earlier choices and make subtle adaptations.

Perhaps the most important reason to practice is to develop confidence. If one does not practice to “work out” the technique that is ostensibly being developed, he/she must depend on over-effort and luck. To come to a voice lesson or performance without effective and frequent practice — thus to be constantly “on guard,” often second-guessing oneself — does not allow the singer to make valid, true artistic choices. He/she will not develop the technical freedom that empowers expressive freedom, and will quickly lose faith in the technical approach. The approach that I offer is based on poise, balance and flexible strength — not on manipulation — and the singer must be willing to take necessary risks to develop consistency.

Any activity (such as singing) is more rewarding and fulfilling when one is well-prepared, and has therefore earned the expectation of success. Besides, practicing well is often exhilarating and always good for the soul!

New Eyes and Ears

Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” This is inescapably true in the process of learning to sing, of learning repertoire, of learning to recognize and appreciate art, of learning to live richly. So very much is already in front of us, around us and within us! We need only to perceive it — actively, earnestly, deeply and more clearly.

A singer can expand his/her abilities by gradually perceiving what the notation on the page actually represents. For example, “Caro mio ben” (as arranged by Floridia, contained in the 24 Italian Songs and Arias anthology) has not changed on the page for approximately 100 years. At first glance, it contains a simple melody based on the diatonic major scale, with simple and balanced phrases — rather straightforward, a suitable study piece for beginning singers. Music and text of this song can be easily comprehended, so that essential vocal technique and musical/dramatic character are successfully explored in lessons, practice and performance. In other words, the piece is easy enough that many students will be able to find its essential character almost immediately, and it becomes a means for technical and artistic application and growth — not an overwhelming challenge.

When a singer is confronted with a song or aria that is more complex, with musical and/or textual language that is not immediately heard in the inner ear, basic accuracy is a challenge. To be insightful and authentically expressive with such a piece is a very tall order indeed. This is often the case with 20th and 21st century music, due to more advanced compositional language. Yet if the singer’s musical and literary skills are well developed, and if that singer is experienced in dealing with such challenges, he/she can see beyond apparent confusion on the page and hear the sound world of the piece.  It becomes more and more clear that composer and author/poet actually have specific expressive ideas, and more details begin to emerge.

Over time, even the most ornate or severe printed music becomes more simple for the artist who invests the needed effort to convert ink into meaningful sound. Melody, harmony and rhythm on the page somehow relate to each other, and the artist is able to express truth that has been there all along. Familiarity with what at first seems incomprehensible on the page develops with time and focused observation.

In the same way, all singers — young and old, those who are developing their technique, and those who are maintaining and adapting their technique — discover capabilities that they already possess, but have not yet properly recognized or validated. The singer who desires to grow and improve must be willing to experiment, to sense the voice with new ears and keenly observant body and spirit.

I think Proust would agree.

Grounds for Thought

We just returned from an opening reception at the splendid Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. It is a place that must be visited to be visualized, not at all what one might predict.

It was fun to meet and chat with the woodwork artist, Steve Madsen, and we enjoyed his works immensely. They are marvelous, sometimes whimsical, often functional, colorful, of substance, aesthetically fulfilling, witty, challenging, engaging and enjoyable. We felt a sense of kinship with Steve, as is so often the case among artists. He is from beautiful Albuquerque, and we have often been there to visit family, so that was also a point of reference.

Also opening at GFS today was a collection of pieces by Jesús Moroles, who works with granite. Wonderful, mostly large-scale works created from a very hard, difficult material. Moroles’s artistic concept is essentially contained in this quote, “Parts of what I attempt with my sculpture are to bring the quarry into the gallery – to make the stone important by drawing attention to it, and to show the finished piece as the result of its interaction with the context. The stone itself is the starting point. I always choose pieces that already suggest their final form. By working directly in response to the character of the stone, I hope to expose the truth of the material.”

The perceptive artist/singer/student–even the observant voice teacher–will find inspiration and application in this discussion.

P.S.: Visit www.groundsforsculpture.org for information on the splendid and vibrant Grounds for Sculpture. The exhibits of Madsen and Moroles continue through September 2009. I highly recommend a visit!

Parenting Skills for the Singer

Wait…this post is intended for every singer, not just those who have (or will have) children.  The relationship that each of us has with our singer-self (and with “the voice” itself) is a lot like that of a parent and child.  Just as the role of a parent changes according to the seasons of life, so change our responsibilities towards the creative self.  At various times, we must encourage, demand, challenge, affirm, and enable the singer-self to find its potential.  Yet, at all times, the care that we offer must be based on love and acceptance, even when it is “tough.”

One must take an honest view of the talents with which he/she is gifted.  When a singer receives the compliment, “You have a beautiful voice!” or other such accolades (music to our ears), the appropriate response is, “Thank you.”  That same expression of gratitude is more rightly addressed to the One who created our minds, bodies, souls and spirits in the first place.  Truly, the singer did absolutely nothing to acquire those talents.

To recognize, believe in, train and develop one’s gifts, though — here is where the opportunity for good parenting presents itself.  The mother or father who senses talent (potential excellence) in a child should make it possible for the child to explore the medium (sports, music, acting, visual art, writing, etc.).  Those parents make available performances, recordings, trips to museums, etc., for the gifted child, in order to spark his/her interest and stir the young imagination.

Those parents make it possible for the child to pursue training and development as he/she matures, often at great sacrifice.  (Lang Lang and his parents come to mind.)  Throughout the entire process of growth and exploration, a number of parental traits can be identified.  Though certain parents find certain attributes easy to display, necessary parenting skills often require deliberate strategizing and practice.  Among the characteristics of good parenting are love, patience, vision, calm, honesty, optimism, and encouragement in the face of fatigue and/or disappointment.  The parent helps the child to joy in discovery and growth, but never fosters complacency.

Do other traits of good parenting come to mind?  How faithfully do you — the creative artist — nourish your own gifted self, from the viewpoint of a wise and committed parent?  More to follow in future posts.

Rediscovery as New Discovery

Constantly searching for a radically new technical approach?  Some “magic bullet” to deliver instant technical perfection?  What a waste of time and energy!  To do so is not unlike searching for the exotic (even expensive!) diet that will shed those omnipresent 20+ extra pounds, while the latest research shows that simple monitoring of caloric intake is the best approach for weight control…not great news for authors of diet books.

Good singing is not unreasonably complicated, not “rocket science.”  Singing is a skill (actually a group of skills), and has much more to do with coordination than intellect, more with imagination than knowledge of physiology and acoustics.  Continuing growth can be a way of life, if a few essential techniques are consistently made new.  As with common tasks (driving a car, e.g.), virtuosity is gained through discovery of how to apply and adapt relatively few technical intentions.  Other than “low larynx, high palate” (the essential open throat), low/efficient support and a pliable system of resonators and articulators, what other technical fundamentals can there be?  Yes, the overarching principle of poise and balance, instead of tension and over-pressure, is vital.  The essentials are relatively few, though, as agreed on by most good and reputable teachers.

My disclaimer for the above paragraph is that most of us can certainly benefit from reading, listening, and studying voice pedagogy and related disciplines.  However, much is to be gained in simply maintaining a fresh commitment and openness to newly comprehend those Bel Canto fundamentals that are our tradition.  [There is a distinct difference between comprehensive, systematic “technique” and “technique” as particular, individual tasks.  A future post may further explore how new and insightful ideas/approaches can honor and support the essential, comprehensive technique that has been with us for centuries.]

Rediscovery (to newly comprehend) is much more than simply reheating yesterday’s tuna casserole.  It may be sparked by varying the tried and trusty old recipe.  Growth and progress often result from reexamining the lessons and truths learned yesterday.  In the same way that a performer recreates the truth of music and text with each performance, we seek far more than dull repetition.

Young singers must not allow themselves to become confused by words or teaching approaches that seem unduly complex and mysterious.  The fact is that not all teachers are good communicators.  On the other hand, I have long suspected that some teachers are intentionally vague — “stringing along” the worshipful student who is in a disassembled technical state, at the mercy of the master with the wisdom to put the voice back together and set the student on a path to stardom!

In developing a comprehensive vocal technique, it is important to understand the motivation for calling on a particular technical concept or vocalise, not to sing mindlessly.  The mind of the singer, though, is not only found in the left brain, it is (to quote an earlier blog entry) to “think with the body.”  As the person and the body change somewhat each day, fundamental techniques must be reinterpreted and rediscovered.  There can be no substitute for consistent, centered, observant and inspired practice.