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!

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.

Voice of the Mind

I subscribe to Classical Singer, a monthly, now-slick, printed magazine for classical singers (obviously enough).  In fact, I began reading it in the early 1990s, when it was the New York Opera Newsletter.  The subscription rate is somewhat high, but probably worth it for most of you who read this.  It may be found online at classicalsinger.com. In addition, find the article at Dr. Jahn’s own site: http://earandvoicedoctor.com/article_02_2009.html

One of the best–if not the best–feature(s) in the magazine is the regular column by Dr. Anthony Jahn.  Dr. Jahn is head of the medical staff at the Metropolitan Opera, one of the world’s leading laryngologists, and he is affiliated with us at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, through periodic visits to consult and examine students.  I have seen Dr. Jahn in his Roseland, NJ, office (also an office in Manhattan), and know him to be a personable, direct, and ultra-capable physician.

The February 2009 Classical Singer issue includes Dr. Jahn’s article, “Mind Control.”  Rather than rehash all the article’s points, I refer you to Classical Singer.  I am bringing my copy to the studio.  You will also find the magazine in Talbott Library at WCC.

Essentially, Dr. Jahn makes clear the difference between the brain and “the mind.”  He describes connections between mind and body–conscious control of reflexive neuromuscular activities (like laryngeal position and breathing), also hormonal influences.  These hormonal factors come courtesy of the thyroid, adrenals, pancreas, and so forth, delivered through the bloodstream.  Apparently, the mind (cortex) prompts the hypothalamus to activate those hormones that are needed in singing/performing.

This gets complex, but Dr. Jahn’s entire article is perhaps more clear and easily understood than my efforts to summarize it.  You should read “Mind Control” to understand the connections between technique and performance more deeply.

I recently skimmed an essay containing a long list of things to think about while singing.  In the ordinary sense of left-brain thinking, I strongly disagree with that writer’s approach.  “Thinking with your body,” though, is one way that I like to verbalize the process Dr. Jahn describes of making a mind/body connection.

I will write future posts along these lines, but for now here are 2 points:

1. There are occasional times that a singer chooses to think specifically about technique–a particular note, phrase, or section.  Boris Goldovsky called these “razor blade moments,” when the singer must be keenly attentive to an essential task.  Always (even alongside these moments of specific technical intention), the imagination is allowed to coordinate multiple tasks into a fluid process that seems easy, cohesive, spontaneous, honest, and ultimately convincing.

2. Singing in lessons, coachings, rehearsals and in the practice room is largely about learning to allow body and voice to perform under the guidance of the mind/imagination.  Understanding technical goals and their execution is prerequisite to the training that takes place, often over an extended period of time–however long is needed for that technique to become consistent, to become “second nature.”  In this undertaking, patience is not only a virtue, it is a must.

As both the body and the mind become stronger, it is easier for the imagination to artfully blend vocal and interpretive techniques into the performances that you dream of.  More to come, EE

YouTube

I am still amazed by all the clips on YouTube of singers (and pretty much everything else, for that matter).  Back when I was even younger, I would go to the library, check out a stack of 10-15 LPs (usually Fischer-Dieskau/”the Dietster”, Prey, Souzay/Baldwin, or choral and opera recordings) and take those discs (not compact ones!) home with me for the big stereo.  I have memories of the Atlanta Public Library, parking in the Davison’s garage, and getting the ticket validated, etc.  By the way, I never dreamed that Dalton Baldwin would become a performing and teaching colleague of mine, when I was all grown up.  Sometimes your dreams for the future should be vague enough to allow space for later developments that you didn’t anticipate, yet you know they were in your dreams.  You just didn’t recognize them.  Anyway…

Thanks to Harold Evans for bringing this particular clip to my attention.  Even if you are not a tenor…even a soprano or mezzo…this clip gives great insight into how we must approach the upper range.  As you may have already heard from me, it’s not so much about more and more space, it has to do with shape, particularly that of “inner space.”  This is not a one-dimensional clip though, by any means; there is much to be learned about line, musicality, legato, etc.  Maestro Pavarotti is working with American tenor Tonio di Paolo in a Juilliard master class, I think in the early 1980s, not certain.  I have sung with Tonio, in Cincinnati; he’s a terrific artist, a great and down to earth colleague, and a fabulous golfer!

While you’re at YouTube, be sure to see those “How to sing Bel Canto” clips, with Bonynge, Sutherland, Horne and Pav.  I haven’t watched them all the way through yet, but I am sure I can recommend them.  Enjoy, EE