Good Golly Miss Molly, You Sure Talk Purty!

“That’s all poetry is, in a sense. It slows you down rather beautifully. And you just enjoy the bounce and heft and glory of one word following another.”                                                        -Stephen Fry, being interviewed on the subject of poetry.

As if you needed one more person to tell you how important diction is…..

I love this quote, not only because is so wonderfully exemplifying the very thing it describes, but because it reminds me of something I had the joy of experiencing in the recent past during a lesson – something which perhaps hadn’t truly occurred to me before.

I had the good fortune to briefly work with a young lady for the period of her regular teacher’s maternity leave. It was evident that she had a pleasant enough voice, and we set to work using exercises and looking to improve where we could. It is an easy thing to get very used to your regular exercises, and easier still to focus on what you are looking for- evenness of line, legato, intonation, etc. But when we turned to a song, I was struck by a certain inexplicable prettiness of sound that hadn’t immediately been apparent to me. It was beautiful, really. It wasn’t that her diction was so great that it rivaled Julie Andrews. It wasn’t even that it was completely correct throughout. But there was something distinct that the introduction of words had done to her sound…..

Now, all singers are usually taught about two things, at least: Beauty of tone, and good diction. Beauty of tone for obvious reasons, and diction for the purposes of clear communication. But what about good diction for the purposes of beauty? If I may clarify further, I don’t mean beauty of consonants themselves, trying to make Fat Beautiful Bs, Ts, and Ks into something very present and even elegant. We sometimes hear that too (thought not nearly enough.)

No, I mean what can our diction do for beauty of tone? They are usually considered separately. And as regards legato, they are often sometimes considered at odds with one another, text being the great interrupter of your carefully practiced tone.

It was after this lesson that I began to think that perhaps diction is very much like what Stephen Fry describes regarding poetic word choice. Every mixture is different and can highlight different relationships of sounds. In the case of diction in song, we first shape the sounds into vowels, and then the words cut, slice, carve, nudge, bump, kick, trip, push and pull the various vocalized vowels as they are emitted. It became apparent to me that enunciation of text, much like the cuts in a jewel or precious stone, are able to display facets of our voices and sounds. And it takes these cuts to highlight these unique qualities. Without them you are left with, well, just a stone, no matter how polished.

I am not entirely sure the degree to which such a thing can be identified and honed as a skill. Good diction? Sure. Elegant diction? Certainly. Identifying and exploiting the natural qualities diction can highlight in your native sound?…… Well, singing is challenging enough already, but I am still investigating. It may simply be that this is just one of the wonderful little elements that makes this art so magical. At the very least, though, it seems a good place to start to recognize this possibility, and to make text and diction a chief priority on the off chance that while you are absorbed in telling your story, the words themselves might bring a little unexpected shimmer or glimmer to your otherwise lovely sound.

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Posted in Observations/Philosophy of Singing, Pedagogy

The Time Before The Time Before….Yes, Those Were The Days…..

Recently, an article by Will Crutchfield from the 80s has been making the rounds on Facebook. It is a thinly veiled restatement of a common theme: The lament for an age now gone.

While the article purports to be about the tendency toward burnout and not about any lack of talent; it nevertheless seems to sing the same old song of praising a previous Golden Age and acknowledging a lack of “the right stuff” in our present singers.

I don’t want to suggest that this isn’t a valid line of inquiry. Is it wrong, after all, to assess the talent pool? To be attentive to the state of things? No. And any profession is naturally subject to the numbers of people interested balanced against talent. Suppose Medicine as a field became very unpopular, low-paying as a result, and had fewer takers. Over time, it might find it had fewer bright and brilliant minds attracted to it. Such things are subject to the whims of societal mood. Even so….

Crutchfield seems to think that the generations prior to this one demonstrated generally greater discipline, and greater proficiency than those at present. And yet, Francesco Lamperti, writing an hundred years (give or take) before Crutchfield said much the same thing about the very singers that Crutchfield is holding up as beacons of technical supremacy. Are we to believe that if we go back in time each century’s singers will just be exponentially better than the one later?

He even suggests giving a listen back to the older recordings. Well, perhaps we should. But what we find is that for every lovely Caruso “Com’e gentil”, you will find a Battistini “Largo” where he and his pianist can’t seem to find each other, for every charming lied by Lilli Lehmann, the occasional straight-toned and effortful (albeit clarion) note from Giovanni Martinelli. And no, Mr. Crutchfield, they do not all sing in tune.

Overall, I think the true insight of Crutchfield’s article is that regarding such valid factors as general trending toward impatience in society and young singers, the increase in travel, flights, busier schedules, long-advance contracts, etc. and the potential effects of these on singers. But the suggestion that our present generation has so far proven more negatively effected, or is somehow less up to combatting these factors, is simply not borne out in my opinion.

It is my sense that in each generation one is able to see the many singers who simply drop out of the game for various reasons. But those who went by the wayside in previous generations are not well known about in those generations that follow. So we are left only with the memory of those who lasted, those who thrived, those who made an indelible mark. This gives the false impression of a “Golden Age”. But here is another reality- Today’s vocal world would actually be hard pressed to provide fewer capable vocalists. After all, the generations to which Crutchfield refers are primarily culled from the Western world. Today, the field is full of wonderful artists from East Asia, India, South Africa, the Latin American countries, and many other places besides. There are so many singers that the sheer numbers suggest that we have vastly outnumbered the population of any previous “Golden Age”. And still, the cream always rises to the top, and we have a wonderful generation with us and coming. Someone would be hard pressed to convince me, for example, that Matthew Polenzani doesn’t sing as well or better than Ferruccio Tagliavini. One or more of Mozart’s sopranos, and Jenny Lind as well, had to take time off to retool their famous vocalism. I’ve never heard the same said of the reliable and lovely Hei-Kyung Hong.

All told, I am firmly of the opinion that each generation is subject to the same bad days, bouts with illness, bad choices and repercussions that have been the challenge of singers always. And nothing has shown me yet that this present generation somehow demonstrates less consistency or discipline. Not yet anyway. Frankly, I’d say that there are at least a handful out there that may be treating this music to the best vocalism it has ever enjoyed. The amazing Rossini of Lawrence Brownlee, the sweeping Strauss of Christine Brewer, the spectacular longevity and career rebirth of Gregory Kunde all come to mind. So to all you active singers- I, for one, thank you. Happy singing, and keep up the good work!!

Posted in Observations/Philosophy of Singing

Funny You Should Ask….. I Have No Idea

Over the last year I have had a handful of conversations with colleagues on the subject of “technical” content in vocal instruction. Some are strong proponents of in-depth technical instruction. Many find great success with their students teaching largely through sensory imagery. And there is certainly no shortage of strong opinion on which is more effective with students, especially as regards different learning “styles” and a corresponding teaching “style”. This is a longstanding debate, of course. There are, however, some underlying issues and points which I feel could use clarification and addressing-

The 4 Major Issues

Necessity

Is physiological and mechanical knowledge entirely necessary in order to begin to sing in a beautiful and healthy way? No, certainly not. Manuel Garcia Jr. observed this in his book Hints On Singing over an hundred years ago. Kirsten Flagstad’s teacher, Dr. Gillis Bratt, indicated the same. He did, however, ask her very directly if she ever intended to teach. When she assured him that she had no intention of ever teaching, he said that her development might be able to take a little less time. Even so, she was restricted to rigorous training (eg. only speech exercises for the first 6 months!) the likes of which would give contemporary teachers and students pause.

So here, perhaps, is the first issue identified: It is possible to develop your vocalism, but I’m not sure how far I would then stretch the word “learning” to include that. When pressed, many perfectly lovely vocalists actually find that they struggle to give even a simple explanation of how they do what they do.

What Is “Technical”, Exactly?

I think one big issue is defining exactly what we mean by a teacher being “technical” or “too technical”. It seems to me that this varies a great deal. For instance, rather than telling a student to “let the balloon float higher on that pitch”, a teacher might say, “on F# all tones must be placed securely in the mask…..”  This latter statement sounds very technical, but for the tricky problem of none of it being physiologically true or even possible. It is sensory (having a feeling in a “mask” region), it is image-based (the vague act of “placing” a tone). So why does this smack of technical instruction when it is decidedly not technical? Because it is specific.

Certainly, people can feel overwhelmed with too many specific directives insistently given. But let’s not damn technical knowledge as being one and the same.

The Unwilling Student

Similarly, much sway is given to the question of the “learning style” of the student. This is a fair question to be asked, and requires flexibility in a gifted teacher (more on that later). However, let’s not let the student entirely off the hook. We all have our hangups and our points of interest. But the learning of a skill or a field of study can’t always cater to such whims; not if we want to attain proficiency.

Frankly, I have found it astonishing that this is even a question. In no other field would that kind of willful ignorance be acceptable. Imagine a cellist who couldn’t identify the bridge on their instrument, or didn’t want to be bothered with the tedium of learning the pitch names of each open string. Imagine if a piano student felt pedagogically oppressed by the teacher insisting that they call it the “sustain pedal” rather than “ the one on the right”.

As I have become fond of saying recently, “Even James Bond had to fill out paperwork.” (It’s true! Read the books. He even has a shared office and a secretary!) And it may well be that the development of a pupil’s vocalism will be attained by means of metaphor and sensory imagery, but how is it not a blatant contradiction to purport to teach a skill while leaving out the entire matter of how it works? I struggle to call that education.

Moreover, omitting the mechanics only leaves a student unprepared should something goes wrong in the future. In my experience, yes, many lovely vocalists have sung for years without such knowledge, but only those who have been lucky enough to never encounter an issue. The people who find themselves rushing to learn this information are those who’ve hit a stumbling block and those who find themselves teaching and having to explain something to others that they never learned themselves. They typically come away wondering how they ever fared without it.

Now, it’s true and it happens all the time – how many people hate a particular subject because of a poor teacher in their past? Bad, awkward, insistent, and ill-informed teachers will be bad teachers no matter what. We shouldn’t vilify the information on their account. I think that a good teacher will know how to helpfully pass along information technical or otherwise. That, in essence, is pedagogy: the study of instruction. But rather than finding accessible ways to include the information, and to instead assume it is best to leave out the parts that a student doesn’t immediately enjoy is to assume that the student knows best and not the teacher. Which, I must say, is a very strange way to approach instruction.

The Financial Obligation

In my opinion a teacher’s job is, in principle, simple- to pass along their knowledge and skill to a pupil in a manner that helps the student to develop and retain that knowledge and develop that skill. To my mind that means all related knowledge.

With all the recent talk about tuition rates, and the rather high rates of some private voice teachers, I can’t help feeling that there is a certain professional obligation. The idea that young people can indebt themselves many thousands of dollars, and come out the other end with only a scant or passing knowledge of the very subject which they intended to master….. is astonishing to me. Certainly, if there is a division of labor (between a teacher/coach/pedagogy class, for example) such as in some schools, one needn’t expect it all from a single studio. Doctors, no doubt, study different aspects of medicine under different tutors. But if a future surgeon escaped med school with an admitted weakness and annoyance with the basics of the vascular system…. well, bad things…..very bad things.

Simply put, teachers, for that kind of money, you owe them.

Personally, I think the “technical” should be sensible, simple, and accessible. In my research, at least 75% of most treatises on vocal technique (even the most scientific ones) repeat the same handful of things. I don’t find the relevant* mechanics to really be that complicated, and frankly, it is the teacher’s job to help the student simplify it, order it, prioritize it, and execute it in the most natural way possible. And if the student balks at learning it, they should be gently reminded that knowledge is power, and that they can focus on their metaphors, etc. for development and practice, but that here and there they must also be taught the physiology. It can be handled in tandem rather than simultaneous. And this is where the talent of the teacher comes into question.

A good teacher must be armed with many different means of helping students, both technical and sensorially descriptive. The truly talented teacher can bounce comfortably back and forth, even being inventive and creating new paths to understanding. If a student doesn’t immediately engage with mechanical explanation, they needn’t dwell on it’s physical application if it isn’t the most immediately helpful to them in the moment. But one never knows, down the road, where all of it will come together and finally make all the sense in the world.

*By “relevant” I mean that almost no student, even if they know what they are, will ever be able to feel their corniculate cartilages. So, there is some serious degree of utilitarian difference between being able to identify those and being able to identify your soft palate or thyroid cartilage. But again, knowledge is power.

Posted in Pedagogy, Vocal Development and Mechanics

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 390 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Posted in Uncategorized

A Crackin’ Good Time!

A little unintentional yodeling around the holidays, anyone?

A few days back, my student load was mostly beginners. Throughout the day, this particular crop were shuddering any time their voices wiggled or cracked. Encouraging them to be bold in spite of this, I began to think about the degree of anxiety they demonstrated over cracking.

There is, in fact, a certain consistency to undisciplined vocalism. The pop singer who shows strain in ascending phrases, is nevertheless showing graduated strain. The next pitch in the phrase makes sense to the ear given the pitch before. To the ear of the average listener, this increase of strain is heard as a natural increase in the difficulty of the song, and is not heard as discomfort, but as a dsiplay of strength.

The very well-trained singer demonstrates consistency in an evenness of tone, and similarly graduated effort (not strain, one hopes!) as they reach the extremes of their range. Though the production is better and over a wider range, to the ear of the untrained listener, it is heard as roughly the same thing: consistency. And it was then that it occurred to me that this is the great criterion of the “good singer” for the average listener. And correspondingly, the “crack” is the greatest sin.

Counterintuitive to this common impression is the fact that, for the most part, the voice crack is actually not a bad thing. It is an earsore, to be sure. But though this mighty interruption in the vocal line is heard as something vocally disastrous by most listeners, it is actually not harmful. With the exception of something I refer to as “pressure cracks” (an occurrence for another discussion), the vast majority of voice cracks are an awkward release from built-up imbalance, a release of pressure, and feel like little or nothing. Perhaps experienced singers will recognize a growing, uncomfortable tension that resulted in a crack. But overall, the experience of the crack is not painful or harmful.

But because it is among the more jarring of vocal occurrences, it is not surprising that many people misread it as more than it is. But what does this matter? A crack is a crack is a crack…. But students are also among this population of misinformed listeners, and can be terrified of cracking. This is especially so with those young folk who fear that a voice crack might negate the “talent” they have be told they have. And so they will get cautious, and unduly careful. Because such caution can be a genuine impediment to progress, I have found it helpful to take pains to point out to students that a) boldness is requisite to improvement, but just as important to keep in mind is b) a huge part of learning to sing is a consistent undermining of bad habits and false strengths and supports. The natural outcome of this breaking of poor habit is a period of awkwardness that will be passed through.

The gradual will always win out for the average listener. As a result poor singers and great singers will both always fare better than the intermediate singer who, as a pendulum, swings between the way they used to sing and the way they are learning to sing.

Singing is a balancing act. And sometimes balance is lost. Though I generally don’t like to revel in other people’s misfortune, perhaps it a pedagogical blessing that those perle nere clips can be found on YouTube; maybe they can show students that even the best have a rough day, and that risk is built into the equation.

Posted in Pedagogy, Vocal Development and Mechanics

The Marionette Lesson

I have, of late, been doing some pedagogical reflection on the nature of the voice lesson. Over the last two years or so, I have felt increasingly old-school, all the while sensing that social notions of singing are trending quite the opposite direction. Feeling this tension I began to wonder what on earth is to become of the “voice lesson”… Will it simply become more and more a vague coaching/cheerleading session? Will critique and technique be forever lost to avoid wounding the ego of “the talented”?

Consequently, my mind drifted to the nature of music lessons in general, not solely voice. It occurred to me that no one who cannot play piano thinks they can play piano. No one who has never played violin thinks they can play violin, etc. Yet even those who admit to not having sung much arrive at a teacher’s door with plenty of opinions on the subject of singing. As a result, the teacher is left with an enormous amount of convincing to do. I have not infrequently felt in the last couple of years that I have spent more time trying to convince students A) that I know a thing or two, and b) that certain basic things (like sing above a whisper!) really are non-negotiable in studying voice. To be perfectly frank, I’ve been feeling lacking in the patience that perhaps I once had to deal with this. This set my mind down the road seeking resolution.

In considering this question I began to reflect on how often I and other teachers have commented on the unmotivated student. But even unmotivated students with other instruments often still learn to play up to some minimum standard, provided they don’t quit lessons. This is not always the case with voice. And this difference made me wonder…

The student of any other instrument walks in, attends to their instrument, and begins to do what is expected of them and receives correction. The voice student very often arrives, and awaits the instruction of the teacher. Many students simply come to lessons and present themselves to their teacher almost as an instrument waiting to be played. The degree to which this subconsciously absolves the student of responsibility for their own vocalism is, to my mind, significant. It seems a subtle thing, but in the voice studio, psychology can be a pivotal factor. And usually, the only other instrument in the room, the piano, is usually directed by the teacher as well, all the while gesticulating and conducting the young vocalist – again as if playing the student like a fiddle.

My question became, why this difference in instrumental instruction and vocal instruction? Is it necessary? Is it potentially unhelpful,hindering or even harmful? Is there any other possible way to approach lessons?

For years now I have been teaching according to this standard model. Within the last couple of years, however, it became apparent to me that younger generations (my own being the last perhaps) increasingly have no idea how to practice. As a result every five lessons or so (for beginners) the lesson would consist of them practicing while I observed and commented. This would give them a sense of what sorts of things they should be doing at home. But it put them at the keyboard and in the driver’s seat. As I began to do this bit of recent reflecting, it occurred to me that perhaps that is the new model. Perhaps this, given current generational considerations, is the best way to address the vocal student. No longer then is it a question of whether or not you think the teacher knows what they’re talking about. The lesson brings them face-to-face with their own vocalism and asking the far more important question “how well do I sing?”, or “Do I know what I am doing?”

I think that this addresses the critical dynamic for every singer from beginner through at least intermediate levels. This shift in dynamic addresses in a very immediate way all manner of deficiencies on the part of the student, from keyboard to theory, as well as the obvious vocal questions. From here the imparting of knowledge can happen in the customary fashion. But it makes the student a true seeker, rather than an extension of the teacher. Considering this element, I realized that voice teachers very often seem to develop followings, and not infrequently students declare they’d be lost at sea without their teacher. Being a popular teacher is one thing, but this dynamic is perhaps not ideal. After all, shouldn’t the object of a teacher be to empower their students? As I sometimes tell my students, “This is your vocal journey, not mine. I have my own. I am very happy to help you, and I know a thing or two about it, because I’ve been doing this for a long time. But this has to be your investigation and adventure.”

Happily, despite this slight funk in recent months, I have become excited again about the prospect of the lessons ahead of me each week, and so far this has met with positive results. In every case the students slow down, pay better attention, and are faced with the immediate results of their efforts. Exactly what they would get if they were playing an instrument. It’s funny to think that the way that voice lessons may need to evolve to address new social trends just might be by doing what instrumental instructors have been doing since the beginning…….

I would ask the reader to examine the following images and see where the focus is – on the student or on the teacher?

Violin lessons1   Piano-Lessons2 Piano lessons1

Voice Lesson1    Voice Studio2

*I want to make sure to add – these are web-borrowed images. I don’t know these teachers and I am sure they are perfectly wonderful. And of course, demonstration and imitation play a part in the studio. But I feel these images still serve to demonstrate my point which I suspect will be familiar upon reflection.

Posted in Observations/Philosophy of Singing, Pedagogy

Speak up, yes…. but speak.

The following thoughts are a sort of addendum to a previous post (Loud-louder-loudest!)

I was recently watching the video below and was astonished at how quietly, yet audibly, Ms. Bartoli sang through some of the latter portion of her aria. And yet, though not terribly loud, it was neither out of character, nor unsuitable. It was merely conversational, and it allowed for room to grow dynamically.

It is true that in terms of sheer decibels there are bigger voices and there are smaller voices, there are bigger works and smaller works, and there are larger houses and smaller houses. These are all important factors. It is also true that though the following text mostly refers to “dramatic voices”, Ms. Bartoli is not among that sort. But she nevertheless provides a stunning example of a voice used with dynamic variation. I was immediately reminded of words I had read in an interview with Jean de Reszke –

“I participated as a judge during the final examinations at the Conservatoire and, indeed, I was rather astonished by the notions of the contestants and what they do to their art. Suddenly I understood why “dramatic singing” does not have its past glamour. While listening, I thought of the Biblical phrase: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.” And that is the truth. Nine out of ten singers absolutely ignore what is coming from their throats; their voices are poorly supported and the consequent uncertainty constrains their performance. One cannot be ‘dramatic’ if one is concerned solely with vocal production. What I noticed more and more was that the contestants were screaming, as if they were burning up.… that’s what they imagine a singer ought to do with a formidable voice. When such singers leave the conservatory with such notions, they run into music directors who reaffirm them in their error. I was looking in vain during the voice competition for a pianissimo or a mezza voce. Instead I heard many wailing muezzins and their youthful raging saddened me very much.

But then if you look around the opera houses, you will be struck that so many singers have the identical defect. The tenor erupts, yells, and becomes hoarse. Can he “abuse”. the public in this way, performing words that have sense and are, nevertheless, calm? “Salut demeure, chaste et pure!” There is nothing menacing in that, is there? And where are the tenors who know how to use their voices to express such a sentiment? A director, whom I do not wish to name, developed a rather peculiar (and also Mediterranean) idea, saying: “A tenor must be virile.. And under such a tasteful pretext he burned out the throats of all his tenors! That director’s method for singers is disquietingly original and,unfortunately, he applies it to all his employees.

As you know, Werther is a melancholy role compounded of controlled passion and suffering. But can you find a tenor who agrees in it to produce just one mezza voce? For a part that requires at least twenty utterances in mezzo voce! Last year I had the joy of hearing at a dress rehearsal of a classical work with a tenor who made an exquisite nuance, but when I went back for the premiere to enjoy the treat a second time, the tenor screamed that phrase.

Well, I would like to act against such a pitiful tendency at the Opera by instructing young artists in nuances and mellowness, and I would like to strengthen their vocal security. Finally, I would like to give them a sense of theatrical styles and to stimulate their artistic temperaments…. I, who had the honor of receiving Gounod’s instructions, would like to transmit his indications accurately. I would like to instruct singers in the Wagnerian repertory. I will teach my younger colleagues how to sing Wagner and how to act his music…..”

Jean De Reszke in Interview (1907)

My wife and I have often mused, “If there is a mezzo piano and there is a mezzo forte, why don’t you hear about just a mezzo?” And it is that precisely that dynamic where I have often heard singing that carries the best. I have heard “loud” disappear, and I have heard soft carry beautifully. I firmly believe that the average singer would do well to practice speaking their text, raising their voice in pitch, as any stage actor might, but not expressly in volume, investigating where “speaking up” ends and raucous yelling begins. This would no doubt inform a singer’s dynamic choices, and spare them some degree of vocal exhaustion. It might even make for a more interesting performance.

Posted in Observations/Philosophy of Singing, Vocal Development and Mechanics