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.

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.

Warming Up

Aside from “warming up” the brain (rediscovering that deeply energetic coordination that enables good singing), the vocal warm-up is about activating phonatory, articulatory and support-related muscles.

Know that as muscle fibers get warm, they become more fluid, so that they stretch and contract more rapidly. Both florid and sustained singing (florid singing on fewer and longer notes…more on that topic later) become easier. The rapidity factor is important, since the vocal cycle happens on average 100-500 times per second for men and approximately 300-900 times for women. Related muscles must be very responsive, indeed, for such a trick!

The core, supporting muscles of the torso and lower body must also be able to vary the intensity of their engagement nimbly and sympathetically, in order for the vocal apparatus to work at peak efficiency and freedom. For this reason, simple breath-related exercises (even non-vocal) can be helpful in warming up the body. What we call “support” or “appoggio” in Classical singing has to do not only with breath management, but with providing stability for the body, thus allowing easier engagement of the articulators, and enhancing the ease of performance on every level. In addition to these low support muscles, the vocal folds themselves and related muscles of the upper body need some warm-up time to reach optimum function.

Athletes in various sports require warm-ups of varying character, intensity and length; some athletes seem to reach peak (or at least functional) level more quickly than others. I think of the pinch-runner in baseball, who jogs out to first base on very short notice and does a few stretches on the spot. To be sure, that runner has executed a more complete and generous warm-up a few minutes or hours earlier.

Some singers warm up very quickly — so much so, that it may seem no warm-up exercises are required. Depending on the repertoire, it may be true that a well-functioning speaking voice will sufficiently enable the desired result. I have heard singers say that they don’t need to warm up; in my experience, Classical singers who make such a claim are usually basses. Other singers more nearly “grind down” their voice, instead of warming it up, by vocalizing too much, too aggressively, and/or with inappropriate thought.

Though some of us can reach a functional level of singing almost immediately (often depending on time of day and energy level), a singer typically finds that after a few minutes of singing, he/she will reach a higher level of comfort, flexibility and power. Each of us must determine how much warm-up is enough, and must never expect technical mastery, intelligence or extra effort to compensate for an ineffective warm-up.

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.

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