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.

The Confident(?) Performer

Is your apparent confidence well-founded, or are you misleading all of us — yourself included?  The attractive and socially-adept performer can seem prepared, due to the abundant poise and charm that he/she wears like a glove.  When blessed with a beautiful voice and sensitive musicality, this smooth but unprepared performer can fool many of the people, much of the time.  Audiences can be tricked (for a while!) by a veneer of gestures, expressive smiles and flashy vocalism.  The voice may impress with beauty, size, or “the sound” that is thrillingly appropriate for certain repertoire, yet the illusion of authority will eventually collapse.

Even if the performer does not suffer a meltdown or encounter obvious problems, the impressive veneer will ultimately wear thin; one cannot forever hide the lack of imaginative preparation.  The honesty and power of the performance will be lost, for if the singer-actor does not practice imaginatively, he/she cannot call on imagination to render a performance that rings true.

In preparing a song, aria or role, one must find the essential truth of both text and music, early in the process.  Ideally, the artist begins to internalize texts, even before getting melodies “into the voice.”  For this reason, the tasks of translating, identifying dramatic context and poetic intention, and other literary study are much more than busy work demanded by the teacher or coach.  They are the collective down payment that the artist makes on future, confident performances.

Those confident performances are not simply efforts to duplicate previous outings.  Each performance is a newly created event, so that the performer is essentially a re-creator.  Effective preparation of a song, aria or role lies in discovering choices (interpretive and vocal) that lead to an honest and powerful performance.  With clear intentions guiding the way, one’s improvisatory energy serves as a lens through which the imagination releases a dynamic, fresh, creative beam.

Often, I remind students that notes are not the music, and words are not the thought.  One cannot effectively personalize a performance without a relatively broad and deep knowledge of what the composer and author have created, as represented by those ink marks that comprise the score.  If the artist imaginatively brings the printed page to life during preparation, the imagination will ultimately help to unlock consistently strong performances.  With thorough and diligent preparation, the performing artist earns the right to be confident.

I enjoy the anecdote that I heard from Lee Trevino, the beloved golf champion with such a gregarious public persona and surprisingly philosophical mind.  The interviewer (Roy Firestone, on ESPN back in the late Eighties) remarked that winning the US Open as a young, unknown, Mexican-American athlete must have been a huge confidence-builder.  Trevino immediately disagreed, “Oh, no.  Let’s say I have a 90-yard wedge shot to the final hole of the tournament, with a simple 2-putt to win.  If I haven’t successfully made that shot hundreds of times in practice, all the positive thinking in the world won’t help me to win the tournament.  Confidence is gained in the practice rounds.”

In preparation and in practice, one identifies and incorporates choices that allow the most honest and effective performance.  Repeatedly carrying out those choices leads to dependability, thus confidence.  Relying on talent, intelligence, adrenaline, superhuman effort, or good luck is no substitute for that confidence.  Get yourself to the study hall and the practice room…make a deposit into your own confidence account!

The Role of Experimentation in Developing Vocal Technique

The vocal artist–particularly the young singer who is developing his/her vocal technique–must never be so committed to a particular sound or way of singing that creativity suffers.  This is not to say that technical mastery must not be a goal, or that the expressive end justifies any means.  Far from it, as great expression may be found in technique that is limiting, or even damaging!  One should develop techniques that allow increasing options for both today and tomorrow, though.  The basic vocal approach should be simple and integritous, so that it is dependable and will support decades of artistry.  Yet, it must be comprehensive and thorough, so that a multiplicity of stylistic choices can be supported, and the maturing singer will be able to continually grow and adapt.

The serious student must be willing to experiment with a wide range of choices, attitudes, timbres and vocal directives.  Voice lessons, vocal coachings, opera rehearsals, even choral/ensemble rehearsals provide the dedicated student with opportunities to expand her/his horizons.  A teacher, coach or conductor may suggest or insist that the singer employ a particular timbre, intensity level, even a specific vowel (things that may seem manipulative or wrongly motivated) but the singer may discover an authentic result that becomes a viable option for other situations.

Above all, though, the practice room is the place to discover those abilities and talents that have been there all along, simply not recognized!  The student (you) must not be so focused on being correct that expressive energy disconnects from technique-building.  The goal of mastering “the sound” alone will disappoint; you will lose motivation and the basic joy of singing–what I call “the fun factor.”  Surprise yourself by discovering new sounds, effects and abilities that you actually already possess!

Vocal Health/Recovery

For the singer, it can be upsetting and confusing to encounter anything from a simple cold or sinus drainage to more serious illnesses affecting the voice.  In fact, one must not forget that any illness can affect his/her singing, even if the condition is not specific to the throat or respiratory system.  Since singing requires coordination of various physical and mental processes, a great chain reaction of interrelated events goes on, below the level of conscious control.

Every runny nose does not dictate that the singer go on vocal silence (more on “vocal silence” later).  In general, though, the body sends a message with pain; that message is usually, “Leave me alone!”

Once the singer is in better health and resumes practicing, he/she must not forget that a period of retraining and recovery of sensation is to be expected.  The voice will not respond normally for some time–even if the mechanism is back to a state of normalcy, with no swelling, etc.  Don’t get frustrated and think you have forgotten how to sing.  Remember:

In learning to sing well, patience is not only a virtue, it is a must!

View of Progress

Look back to understand how yesterday affects today.

Determine which past choices should continue into today.

Determine which new choices will avoid the repeat of past disappointments, moving you positively towards the future.

Sing and live in the present, with an eye to the future.

Progress (technical, artistic, and otherwise) will be guided by self-knowledge of past performance, but you have already dealt with the past.  Continuing to look back only distracts and discourages you, wasting energy and time.  The eye to the (not too distant) future helps you to make current choices that yield future options.  This translates into constant transition–a concept I often use in the studio for resonance, musical line/momentum, etc.

Do give yourself the option of occasionally looking back at successes (we will define “success” later), to be reminded that you can expect similar–even greater–successes in the present and future.  After all, those successes were not random, once-in-a-lifetime happenings… Keep moving ahead!

Bruson the Athlete!

You may know that I am a particular fan of the great Renato Bruson.  The more I listen with my current ears and sense, the more convinced I am that Bruson is perhaps the ultimate model for the young baritone singing Italian repertoire.  His voice seems very dark at first (it is), but that quality may be wrongly interpreted as forced or “manufactured.”  Quite the opposite is true, though, in my opinion.  Remember, my own opinions are the ones I generally write!  That’s why people blog.

I was in a barber shop, about a block from the Duomo in Florence, enjoying my first Italian haircut (what singer doesn’t want “Italian hair?!”).  The 2 barbieri were playing cassettes of Sinatra and Perry Como; Como, at least, was a shocking choice.  In my best Italian, I asked, “Who is the greatest Italian baritone?”  Immediately, without the slice of an ear, the answer rang out: “Bruson!”

I have a CD of Maestro Bruson singing hits from the 17th and 18th Century “yellow book.”  (He even does an impressive performance of “Se tu m’ami.”)  The first time I heard the disc, I  began to sing along.  My Bruson education accelerated when I realized that he was actually singing in medium high keys much of the time–quite higher than his timbre had led me to believe.  Knowing that warmth and darkness of tone result from so-called “head resonance,” I have reconsidered my younger (less seasoned) opinions of his singing, and I now realize that Bruson is a superb and lyrical singer, a master of Bel Canto technique.  It feels fabulous to empathize with this singer!

I find the following quote to be very illuminating as to how Maestro Bruson employs his athleticism to wonderful effect, delivered through the medium of artistic imagination: “I am self critic enough to understand what I can get at. Since I knew I did not have a thundering voice to make coarse effects, I sought the interpretation since I think it is more important that the public go home with something in their hearts than some sounds in their ears.”

This YouTube excerpt of Bruson’s Rodrigo (Don Carlo, the death scene) demonstrates visually and aurally the strength and coordination that this monumental artist has developed.  Viva Bruson!

ps — One of my regrets is that I never heard Bruson sing live; to my knowledge, he has retired from singing.  In summer of 2002, I was in Verona, at a performance of Nabucco in the Arena.  The program book listed him in that role the previous summer, 2001.  Timing is important.