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.

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!

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!