Wolf on YouTube

The first of six segments, providing the complete Italienisches Liederbuch of Hugo Wolf, has been uploaded to YouTube. I am joined by my excellent colleagues and friends, soprano Faith Esham and pianist J.J. Penna, in this recent recital at the Schubert Geburtshaus in magical Vienna–the very place where Wolf flourished, along with Mozart, Schubert,  Brahms, Mahler, Strauss and so many other prominent composers. The remaining segments of our recital are also now available.

Link to “The Focus Vowel”

My friend, Daniel Shigo, writes/compiles an extensive, inspirational and helpful blog called VoiceTalk.

I recently read Daniel’s article on “The Focus Vowel,” which relates to methods of my own teacher, Margaret Harshaw. He is quite accurate in his comments about her teaching. We would usually vocalize in the order of [i,u,a] to find both core and focus (most often, with florid vocalises). We find brilliance and power in [i]. We find warmth and roundness in [u], and they combine in [a]. Each needs the other.

In the comments, Daniel makes the excellent point, to “think” about a vowel is the best way to positively impact your tone. As you know from my own writing, it is the imagination that brings about coordination and maintains the freedom to access flexible strength. Don’t “set” your primary articulators (tongue, jaw, lips) into a given vowel position. Rather, allow the thought of vowel to bring about subtle changes throughout the vocal tract. This is one place that support/appoggio and articulation intersect.

Bravo, Daniel, for this excellent post, and for your very interesting site!

Salt

His use of the language was surely better taken in by native German speakers. For me, it was not easy to understand much of the Sunday morning sermon in Vienna’s spectacular Augustiner-Kirche. The priest spoke considerably faster than those who had delivered sermons on previous Sundays. Come to think of it, even if he had spoken in English, I think the pace was a bit too quick. But that’s not the point.

The point is that I “got” a few essentials, largely because the woman who read the Gospel spoke more slowly. It also didn’t hurt that I already know the words of Matthew 5:13-16,  the lectionary assignment for that day. “You are the salt of the earth…”

The scripture speaks to what I believe is the chief reason we are here–to spice things up! But salt is more than a flavor enhancer. At least two other vital characteristics were highlighted in the sermon. Here’s where my thoughts began to turn towards singing…

Salt is a preservative. Before easy access to refrigerators and freezers, it was much more common for meats to be salted in order to keep them edible for months, not merely days.

Salt also melts ice. To melt ice and snow is essentially to destroy them. True, they actually only change form, but think about that the next time you want to build a snowman!

So, salt has the power both to preserve and to destroy–two dramatically different actions, yet both essential. Salt is less likely to destroy foods, and it certainly does not preserve the ice on your driveway.

Breath support/appoggio is a lot like salt. (Here it comes…you knew we would get around to vocal technique.) The basic nature of salt does not change, however it is used. The determining factor is how, when, where and in what measure it is applied. Likewise, the singer’s use of breath energy must be appropriate to the needs of each moment.

Active Passivity

Just as the performing artist must not confuse relaxed with collapsed/disconnected–or engaged with tense/effortful, do not think for a moment that activity is always about obvious motion. Technique and imagination are able to empower each other when the artist confidently “gets out of the way” and allows them to coordinate. Key to that relationship is that the artist know what degree of control to exercise.

I often write in this blog about imagination and choices that the artist makes, based on technical ability and good preparation. There is certainly more to performing effectively than good intentions or positive thinking. Yet, too often we performers don’t trust our preparation or our skills; we try to exercise a level of conscious control that actually weakens–even sabotages–performance. Speaking from personal experience, this is a major challenge for all of us who teach and perform.

As essential as technical fundamentals are (choose your own ideal here: low larynx, high palate, legato, mastery of breath control, etc.), there are vital benefits to what I call active passivity. One who learns what it feels like to allow or bring about desired activities will find efficiency (therefore, less fatigue) and concentration that lead to more expressive, consistent and powerful performances.

My students quickly learn that I love the game of golf (readers of this blog can also figure that one out!). There is much common ground with sports–golf, in particular–and good singing. The golfer may have frequent lessons (it is not unusual that tour professionals’ coaches travel with them) but they know the difference between the practice tee and a competitive round of golf. No doubt, a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of the swing should be helpful, but an excellent swing is not brought about through conscious thought of when to shift the weight, cock the wrists, square the clubface, pronate/supinate, etc. Things happen too quickly for that level of conscious control. However, it is typical that a golfer chooses one, possibly two, swing thoughts as they stand over the ball. This is not unlike positive imaging, whereby one sees the track of the ball’s flight before launching the swing, or imagines success with that difficult phrase or challenging aria prior to taking the stage.

Years ago, it was a revelation to me–the good Southern boy who tries hard to do the right thing–when a wonderful dramatic coach/director (James deBlasis) urged me to take it for granted that a certain dramatic choice was intact in my performance. I began to realize, this is how learning and growth work. “Big Brother” left brain has little responsibility when it comes to the moment of performance. Once skills and choices have become secure, second nature reality, the performer must take for granted that it all comes together. A plus B will always (OK…usually) equal C.

To be more specific, efforts to establish the low laryngeal position that most of us seek too easily lead to a depressed larynx. In this case, tongue/jaw tension is a problem; the neck tends to lock down, and mobility is lost. The ability to articulate pitches and text rapidly and effectively is hampered. One of the fundamentals that I was taught long ago is that a good, natural, deep inhalation releases the larynx down; it is not necessary to place or manipulate the larynx down, but we must commit to not moving it up. I now define low larynx as “the larynx that is not pushed or pulled up.” This balancing act is a prime application of active passivity.

One more fundamental that I will address here only briefly (arguably, the most basic element in singing) is breath support/control, appoggio, etc. We often worship at the Shrine of the Low Breath, and “the breath” becomes an object of mystery. I say we must demystify the whole process to master the specifics of breath management for singing. After all, as my favorite Alexander Technique colleague (my own teacher) often points out, it is toddlers who have mastered body management. They make a lot of sound, for a long time, without hoarseness, etc. In fact, the healthy baby makes a conspicuous entrance onto the world stage by breathing very deeply, then crying out with great power!

Through refining talent/instinct into an effective technique, the athlete–whether engaged in golf, another sport, or singing–discovers that mind, body and spirit must be in sync to perform at a high level. Learning to access technique fluidly and imaginatively is vital.

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 steels 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.

The Bottom Line

As simply as I can put it, the essence of vocal technique is this: full commitment to musical and textual truth at every moment, while keeping available as many options as possible. In other words, engage but don’t lock. Concepts like legato, support, and resonance are activities that are faithfully employed, moment to moment.

The true artist does not fret the past, fear the future, or fail to connect with the present. Free and expressive singing is empowered by constant change–sensitively responding to ideas and subtle attitudes.

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!