True Imagination

I remember reading a comment by golfing great Severiano Ballesteros. In his playing days, Seve was known for an unmatched ability to get out of trouble on the golf course–hitting shots from unusual lies, parking lots, trees, etc. (Of course, one must first get into trouble to be able to get out of it…That could be another post, another day.)

As I recall, the quote was something like this: “People say that imagination is looking at somebody else, wondering what that person looks like naked. I say imagination is looking at somebody, and knowing what he/she looks like naked.”

Seve is telling us about creativity on the golf course, but also in the arts, in any kind of activity, like singing.

Curiosity and dreams can awaken imagination, but they’re not the same as true imagination. Neither are positive thinking and confidence the same. (See the Trevino quote in “The Confident(?) Performer.”) Distinctions are to be made between wild, untried choices, and those possibilities born in reality, discovered in practice.

A similar difference exists in the art of musical improvisation. Whether in jazz, 17th/18th Century, or other music, the performer must know tonality, rhythm, essential rules. In this way, improvisation won’t lead the performer (the listener, too!) down a dead-end road, with no way to get back home.

Through lessons, practice, observation, research, conversation, and/or earlier performances, the serious performing artist discovers effective choices, ideas, possibilities. Wishing, hoping, and wildly dreaming are not enough. Performing “without a net” is best done by seasoned veterans with a lot of data in their imaginative computers. Amateurs tend to perform without a net rarely, if more than once.

In the long run, foolhardy carelessness and insufficient preparation steal the performer’s confidence. True confidence fuels true and productive imagination. Ask Seve.

Extreme Balance

Liberal, conservative. Democrat, Republican. Blue, Red. Us, them. Right, wrong.

Wasteful, managed. Uncontrolled, contrived. Offensive, defensive. Public, private.

Left, right. Hot, cold. Up, down. Forward, back. Bright, dark. Loud, soft.

Left brain, right brain. Spontaneous, planned. Allowing, making. Instinct, calculation. Imagination, discipline.

You get the point. These are pairs of apparent opposites, at least strongly contrasting. Consider further:

Clear, veiled. Focused, spread. Chiaro, oscuro. Onset, release. Resistance, flow.

Florid, sustained. Dynamic, static. Principal, interest. Expansion, compression. Give, take. Talent, technique.

Balance. Balance is found not only through compromise. Sometimes it exists because of independent, complementary qualities or activities.

Balance is not always a 50/50 equation. Sometimes it may seem different from day to day, or moment to moment.

In the human and political arena, it is increasingly difficult to find moderation or balance, as people are grouping themselves at the fringes. Balance is not always a matter of  right or wrong; sometimes it is “how much” or “when.” I often say in lessons and classes, “never say never.” (To quote Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore, “hardly ever.”)

Not only politicians, voters, and institutions around the world negatively label others and their views. Singers and artists often do the same. Sometimes, as we mature (not simply chronologically!), we learn to respect “the other” and learn from those who advocate it.

The singer/student must not fear exploring new and apparently contradictory techniques. The wise teacher will encourage the student to experiment.

Specific application of truth and technique may change, as specifics of the situation change. Yet, if one is diligent and honest in his/her work and practice, basic truths will be more deeply comprehended and trusted.

We must not approach today’s opportunities with yesterday’s stale understanding of valid techniques and concepts.

Update your relationship with the truth. Don’t be afraid. Truth is not limited by time.

True in life. True in singing.

Choices reflect who you are, and they shape who you become. To rue past bad choices, or to spend undue time in self-congratulation, makes it difficult to find current options.
The voice, body, mind and spirit will not be at their best and most responsive when trapped in yesterday. If a singer too often looks back (except in purposeful times of evaluation and learning), he/she will not enjoy today’s freshness and energy.
Few choices are irreversible. Likewise, no desireable choice carries a guarantee for future success; each choice must be constantly renewed. Today’s choices are actually empowered  by accepting the old ones; even if they were “bad choices,” they were made in the light of that day’s understanding and perception. Just as significantly (perhaps even more so for young and ambitious students), true and lasting progress is elusive in the face of desperate preoccupation with the future.
When seen from a larger perspective, each phase of the artist’s creation (including the re-creative art of the singer) is valid; it is one day’s version of the artist’s work. In the same way that we value works from each period of a composer’s or painter’s catalog, singing must be respected and valued at each step of development. Live/sing in the present, with an eye to the future.

Tribute to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Like many of my generation, my first exposure to Lieder–actually to what we call art song in any language–was from LPs of the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (“the Dietster,” as I have fondly nicknamed him recently).

In late childhood, I was introduced to the immense world of Classical vocal music. My father (a true hero in my book) began college at the age of 30, with a working wife (my mother is also a hero!) and children of age 10 and 3. Dad earned a music education degree in a record 2 years and 9 months, after having graduated high school some 12 years earlier. He went on to earn a graduate degree in church music, and served as minister of music and other church staff positions–including as pastor, before retiring a few years ago. Dad’s voice teacher was a DFD admirer, and I remember being introduced to Schubert recordings he assigned Dad to hear. (I was also introduced to the “yellow book” of Italian songs/arias, Copland Old American Songs, etc., by playing them on our Estey spinet for Dad’s at-home practice, but that’s another post…)

Before digital media, there was the LP. As a high school student in the Atlanta area, I well remember trips to the Atlanta Public Library, walking out with stacks of 20 or so Lieder, Melodie and occasional opera recordings. DFD was the singer on most them. By the way, another legend–Dalton Baldwin–was the pianist on many, including all those of Souzay. I cannot express the joy and thrill I have so often experienced in these past years at Westminster Choir College, when I have frequently performed with, coached with, shared students with and socialized with Mr. Baldwin, an American treasure.

This brief YouTube tribute to Mr. Fischer-Dieskau consists of his singing “An die Musik,” as various quotes scroll by (rather quickly, I warn you). Notice the emphasis on imagination and synthesis; it is these powers that allow us to learn, grow, express and move ahead. Of course, my young ears were initially drawn to the sound of DFD’s voice, as the voice itself is the instrument we play. Younger listeners may not seem to appreciate the personal and artistic dimension as readily, but many of us “got it” at a significant level when DFD sang.

Many teachers assign students to hear DFD recordings as a reference for diction and style. As I mature in my own singing, there is more and more basis for relating to and profoundly appreciating this legendary artist. I was blessed to attend a week of master classes by the great Dietster himself in Weimar, back in 2001 when he was at the age of 76. Though retired from singing, I can tell you that his demonstrations were amazing! Even in retirement, his voice was big, powerful, solid, spinning, and still immediately capable of his signature “head voice/mix/half-voice, etc.” that goes directly into falsetto. In a future post here, I may explore some opinions and methods for approaching the voice in such a way that this seamless registration is possible; this is central to what I currently seek in my own singing and teaching.

As you enjoy this brief YouTube clip, I hope you will be inspired to consider/reconsider this great artist. Hundreds of recordings are available, of course, many on YouTube. I also hope you will be inspired, as I am, to seek out his writing and interviews. Much to learn!

More on warming up…

The previous post on warming up has to do primarily with creating physical readiness. Know that the “warming up of the brain” is more important.

The initial approach to the singing voice must be characterized by thought and attitude that emphasize coordination and integration, fluidity of motion and stability of body, devoid of unnecessary tension. Anything that feels like tension or pressure is too much.

Spend a few minutes gently (not tentatively or guardedly) waking up the voice while placing operative concepts of balance and freedom into the conciousness. The ultimate goal is to be “thoughtless,” but directed and helpful thoughts will allow the warm-up to be effective.

Must-See Video on Bel Canto

These two YouTube clips, featuring Sutherland, Horne, Pavarotti and Bonynge, simply must be viewed by all serious students of classical singing! So much is worth consideration and celebration in this informal discussion among artists at the peak of their careers. I cannot single out any one or two highlights, as I am fascinated by the entire clip. Both segments played sequentially take just over 16 minutes.

I suggest that you take the time to listen, concentrate and consider without interruption or distraction. The next step is to get to a practice room immediately and have some fun with your own voice! Enjoy…

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.