September 20, 2018

My Trick

During a new student's first lesson, I will—at some point—place their hand on my solar plexus (after asking for permission), blow all the air out of my body—and sing a long phrase with full voice. 

Eyes go wide. Mouths gape. The student stammers: "How do you do that?"

How indeed. 

I am singing on the residual air in my lungs—but it's more than that: I am singing on breath than is compressed by my whole body. Paradoxically, I don't need to breathe to compress the air. It happens even before I inhale and involves extension. 

I can croon or sing like a Wagnerian on this breath.

Real control. It was taught to me by my teacher during my first lesson, or, I should say—it was a result of that first lesson—a lesson that it took me a long time to learn. 

To have full control you have to be fully alive. You aren't thinking about thinking. That's what academics do. They think about stuff. Good luck trying to get a room full of them singing! They have no breath whatsoever, their thinking depriving them of any real voice. 

Singers live on another level. One that is instinctual, sensual, full of pleasure and being. 

Full of the strong desire to sing and touch the listener.

September 11, 2018

Remembering 9/11

It was a Tuesday.

The opening night of New York City Opera's production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.

But it didn't happen.

I was listening to WQXR during breakfast and heard an announcer say that all the airports were closed: it was a national emergency—a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. Stunned, I turned on CNN to see a plume of smoke coming out from one the towers; then later, bodies falling through the air. My mother called to see if I was Ok and I said: "I'm sorry I can't talk right now!"

It was surreal. The phone lines were nuts. But I did manage to call a colleague at the opera who lived in Brooklyn to tell her not to take the subway to rehearsal—as if she hadn't figured that out already.

Everyone was helping one another. Reaching out. Being fully present.

The Flying Dutchman opened that Saturday, the company assembling in front of a raised curtain with the flag hanging overhead; me standing far stage left—your right—in the front row—shaking. We sang the national anthem—and I swear, it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. The arc of emotion coming from the audience was so huge and overwhelming that I stood facing a wall afterwards in an effort to pull myself together. All I wanted to do was bawl my eyes out. And it's really hard to sing when you are sobbing.

Weeks later, pictures of fireman from the firehouse near Lincoln Center started appearing in the hallway backstage.

People stopped buying subscriptions. They found it hard to commit to a future when the present was so heartrending. Ticket sales dropped. Management made some really bad mistakes and NYCO left Lincoln Center; selling off the company's costumes and sets—its archives drowning in a basement on Broad street courtesy of hurricane Sandy—and wandering the streets of Manhattan like a beggar before declaring bankruptcy.

Yes, the company is back—a mere shadow of its former self—the diaspora of the original NYCO meeting for luncheons across from Lincoln Center: remembering, connecting, laughing, loving.


Bound together on a Saturday night.

June 24, 2018

Summer Recess

Rose Room, New York Public Library, 42nd & 5th Avenue 

Dear Reader,

I am taking a summer recess to work on important project. Look for more posts in the Fall. In the meantime: Please have some fun, get outside, and stay active in your community. 

Also: The world needs beauty right now, especially here in the United States of America. Please do what you can, ok? That includes acts of nonviolent resistance—a truly beautiful thing. 

Lastly: Need to be in touch? Contact me via my website(s) in the right hand column. It's always good to hear from you. 

Be well,  Daniel 

June 18, 2018

The Secret of Mme. Devine's Success

Mme. Devine, whose portrait appears on the front page of this issue, needs no introduction to the readers of The Musical Courier. She occupies an assured position in the front rank of New York vocal teachers. She is a San Franciscan, and made her home in this city some six years ago. A singularly large proportion of Californians who come to the metropolis attain prominence in their respective professions. Either the climate or sturdy ancestry seems to have bestowed upon them a more than ordinary amount of energy and ambition.

Lena Doria Devine
The secret of Mme. Devine‘s success is to be found in the possession of a very large share of this native energy, or capacity for hard work, combined with rare musical gifts and a thorough knowledge of the vocal art, derived from many years of study with Francesco Lamperti, one of the greatest of teachers. We may look upon him as the connecting link between the glorious old Italian school in the eighteenth century and what good there still remains in vocal art to-day. He received the traditions of that school from its last great disciples. such as Crescentini, Pasta, Velluté, and he has handed them down to us enriched by fifty years of experience and a record of achievements in teaching that stands absolutely unrivaled. No higher compliment could be given to the subject of this sketch than to say that she has shown herself worthy of this master in every respect, first as a singer, and now as a teacher. When Mme. Devine made her debut in BadenBaden, the late Herr Dr. Richard Pohl said in his criticism of the event: "Her voice is so well schooled that one immediately inquires with whom she has studied." On nearly every occasion the same praise is now bestowed on Mme. Devine’s pupil, Miss Duffield. At last then we have somebody who can give us Lamperti's results, and that is what we want. We are tired of Lamperti discussions, of "exponents," "representatives" and "certificates." We do not care how well a teacher can talk, lecture, write articles or books: We only ask for results: everything else is of no account.

Speaking of Miss Duffield to a representative of The Musical Courier, Mme. Devine said: “There is a case that illustrates what method and perseverance will do for a voice. Four years ago who would have thought that the little 'parlor voice' could ever sing before an audience of 10,000 people in an immense place like Convention Hall, Kansas City, and make the great hit that Miss Duffield did when she sang there with Sousa, a few weeks ago. Yes, it is wonderful what method can do for a voice. Given a pupil who has musical intelligence, artistic sensibility and undaunted perseverance, for such a one it is almost possible to create a voice. Did not Pistocchi make one of the most distinguished singers out of Bernacchi, whom nature had given an inferior vocal organ? Unfortunately the three qualifications mentioned are not often found in one individual. It is not so easy to find girls with the necessary mental and artistic endowments who will study consecutively for three or four years.

“Then you think that it is largely a matter of sticking to it long enough?"

"Yes, provided you are on the right track. No amount of time spent on a bad method can make a good singer."

Requested to give a few salient points in her methods of teaching, Mme. Devine said: "Two things I will speak of because I insist upon them particularly, and consider their general neglect responsible for many unsatisfactory results. The first is forbidding beginners to practice at home; the second, insisting upon the mastery of all technical difficulties, as far as possible, before taking up repertory and interpretation. In regard to the first I would say that the attack of tone and breath control are the foundation, and they are not easy to acquire. It is imperative that until the student knows the difference between right and wrong production the attempt should be made only in presence of the teacher. "Practice without active attention and competent discrimination is worse than useless. A beginner should take daily lessons. and not sing at all outside of the studio. "In regard to the study of repertory I believe that all technical difficulties should be mastered before it is taken up. It seems to me that the following paragraph, written by Arlo Bates in reference to the art of writing, applies likewise to singing:

"'There is great danger in allowing the emotions to be aroused, while training which is merely technical is going on. Awaken in the pupil all interest in technical perfection which is possible. To excite his emotional interest in subject or sentiment is dangerous and obstructs his progress in the cultivation of skill in form and technic. Technical facility is gained by work, not itself inspiring, but done with the most patient exactness for the sake of the power it gives.'

“When the student has advanced to the point where it is advisable to use words, I do not begin to give simple ballads; I then take up the old Italian arias, because they contain all the technical difficulties to be found in any piece of music, while the pure vowel sounds of the language are conducive to the development of pure tone. These arias are studied as exercises, and it does not matter at this stage of her training if the student is not sufficiently conversant with Italian to understand the text. Public taste may condemn these florid arias in the concert hall; in the vocal studio they will always remain the crucial test of good voice production. Whoever masters them will have the power, range and flexibility necessary to sing anything, even Wagner."

"Then you believe that the old Italian method is perfectly adequate to modern dramatic music?"

"There is only one way to sing: the way Sembrich was taught. The idea that modern music demands a different kind of training for the voice seems to me absurd. The old masters taught their pupils to find the beautiful tone, and worked with them for years till they could do anything with it. What more can modern music demand? lf tonal beauty is to be made a secondary consideration, singing ill-generates into a hybrid, inconsistent art, and the sooner we come down to plain speech the better. Are screeches and howls, if delivered with sufficient dramatic intensity, to compensate for lack of tone quality and true musical expression? Because the old Italian method gave singers such astonishing control over their voices that they were able to execute the most elaborate vocal pyrotechnics, it does not follow that their method of voice production did not also make them capable of emotional and dramatic expression. The greater includes the less, the more difficult the less difficult. Remember the story of how Farinelli, when rebuked by Charles VI for wasting his marvelous powers on ‘never ending notes and intricate passages' changed his style entirely, and became the most pathetic singer as formerly he had been the most brilliant coloraturist. And why not? Does it not seem reasonable that a voice under such control that it is like a precise instrument on which the most elaborate runs and cadenzas can be played with perfect case, is just the kind of voice that will be able to give most adequate expression to the deepest emotions of the human heart, because a singer thus equipped can give up his attention and imagination without restraint to the thoughts and feelings he is interpreting, and his voice will readily and without effort respond to every impulse of his inspiration. The present confusion in vocal art as shown in the numerous conflicting opinions about registers and voice placing, is largely an outcome of the futile attempt to find a new method of singing for modern dramatic music. I thoroughly agree with the able critic of the New York Time: that there is nothing in the music of Wagner that demands the application of new laws to singing either in recitative or cantilena, and that ‘the so-called Wagnerian school is an illusion, a delusion and a snare.’"

Mme. Devine evidently adds to her other qualifications an unbounded enthusiasm which makes her an eager student of everything connected with her art and makes the seemingly arduous work of voice training a pleasure to her. Earnest and talented pupils are sure to find in her not only a painstaking teacher. but a sympathetic adviser in whom they can place implicit confidence.

—The Musical Courier, April 11, 1900, page 17.

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See? There is it again! That whole thing about singing on exercises and scales for a long while before singing with words. The very same thing that I keep hammering and yammering about on these pages. No one wants to do it until they find out the good it does. Finding that "good" takes time, often more time than the student wants to allow.

Students arrive at my door, many of them with advances degrees and vocal flaws firmly intact. They know something is wrong, but don't know how to fix it, but have not been taught to work on technique in a focused and systematic manner, having spent their time singing songs and arias, hacking away for 30-45 minutes with no improvement in sight. They wonder why things aren't getting any better, and talk about not "moving the air" enough, or having the right "support." You'd think from all this that singing was simply a matter of moving one's muscles. And yes, while the muscles of the body do move in particular ways, that's the least of it. You have to know what to think and pay attention to that before you become aware of your muscles.

The teachers of the old school made the student do simple things, like shut the mouth and breath though the nose. This "route" was then then kept regardless of whether the mouth was closed or open. Then the teacher attended to the student's vowels. Breath and vowels. Not muscles. Not moving air. Not any of the mechanically-minded stuff students "do" today—their doing being manipulative rather than creative.

If there is one simple truth that reflects the teaching of the old Italian school of singing it is this: Meaning moves muscles. That's the correct order of things. The Italian on the street corner calling cross the square does not think to move his muscles to communicate his joy in seeing his old friend. No. This face opens wide as does his throat; and his greeting sails across the distance, ringing and clear. Of course, he hears what he's doing as he's doing it—whether he's consciously aware of it or not. The singer? He has to become conscious without being self-conscious. That is what makes it art.

May 19, 2018

Martha Graham Tells It Like It Is

There is no place for arrogance in the arts, but neither is there room for doubt or a perpetual need for affirmation. If you come to me with doubts about a particular move in a piece, or if you come to me and ask if what you've written has truth and power in it, these are doubts I can handle and respect. But if you come to me and moan about whether or not you really have a place in the dance or the theatre or film, I'll be the first one to pack your bags and walk you to the door. You are either admitting that you lack the talent and the will, or you are just looking for some easy attention. I don't have time for that. The world doesn't have time for that. Believe in your worth and work with a will so that others will see it. That's how it is done; that's how it was always done. —Martha Graham/Interview with James Grissom

May 5, 2018

García at the Palais Royal

Palais du Justice which adjoins the Palais Royal 

On a September day in 1854, I was strolling in the Palais Royal, preoccupied with the ever-recurring wish so often repressed as unrealizable, when suddenly I saw the two mirrors of the laryngoscope in the their respective positions as if actually present before my eyes. I went straight to Charrière, the surgical instrument maker, and, asking if he happened to possess a small mirror with a long handle, was informed that he had a little dentist's mirror which had been one of the failures of the London Exhibition of 1851. I bought it for 6 francs. Having obtained also a hand mirror I returned home at once, very impatient to begin my experiments. I placed against the uvula the little mirror (which I had heated in warm water and carefully dried); then flashing upon its surface with the hand mirror a ray of sunlight, I saw at once, to my great joy, the glottis wide open before me, and so fully exposed that I could perceive a portion of the trachea. When my excitement had somewhat subsided I began to examine what was passing before my eyes. The manner in which the glottis silently opened and shut, and moved in the act of phonation, filled me with wonder.

"The García Centenary," The British Musical Journal, March 25th, 1905: 683

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To walk where the great García walked—as I did in 2016—was nothing short of amazing even if part of the main complex no longer stood. García would have walked here and then gone to his studio/home which is only a few blocks away on the Rue Chabanais. 

Photo Credit: Daniel James Shigo 2016

April 30, 2018

Beauty Incarnate

I've been singing choral music since I started singing in ninth grade, slowly making my way deeper into classical music and then opera. Even during my whole 23-year onstage career with New York City Opera, I was singing choral music in churches: getting up at what seemed like that crack of dawn after singing two performances the day before and finding my place in the choir. 

All music is sacred to me, and while I can't say I have a definitive belief in the god department, I can say this: I believe in music. It's my tether to a transcendent place that I know is real, but you'll  forgive me if I don't give it a label. I'd rather let it be. For me, that's what the Muse wants.

So much of the choral music I have been privileged to sing is beauty incarnate like the piece by Morten Lauridsen above. And while incarnate is a religious word, how about we forget the association and simply let the music enter in through the top of our heads and find our hearts? Don't we all need a bit of that right now?

Meet you on the other side. Then find your way here.

Abandon entouré d'abandon,
tendresse touchant aux tendresses?
C'est ton intérieur qui sans cesse
se caresse, dirait-on;
se caresse en soi-même,
par son propre reflet éclairé.
Ainsi tu inventes le thème
du Narcisse exaucé.

Wildness surrounding wildness, 
Tenderness touching tenderness, 
It is your own core that you ceaselessly caress, ... as they say. 

It is your own center that you caress, 
Your own reflection gives you light. 
And in this way, you show us how Narcissus is redeemed.

TRANSLATED BY Matthew Dufresne

April 24, 2018

Greg Robbins: Jazz Man on the Rise

Greg Robbins at the Manderley
It's not often that I jump on a Citibike after dark to venture downtown to a jazz club, in this case the Manderley Bar in Chelsea, to witness a gifted young jazz artist drop his first album. But I'm glad I did. 

His name is Greg Robbins. His album is On Your Way. And you certainly will be hearing more of him: The kid sleeps, eats, and breathes jazz. It's in his bones, on his lips, and pulsing through his veins. You hear it in every sound he makes.

He's also a bass, which is not your usual voice-type for a jazz singer. Lucky for him that he studied voice at a small college in Georgia with a beloved friend of mine—Harry Musselwhite—also a bass. The kid knows what he's doing in the vocal department, his fine bel canto training enabling him to sing from top to bottom with a rich mellifluous voice—one that calls to mind something of Ol Blue Eyes. No, not imitation of that great artist, but rather, the speaking of a common language—one that is word oriented. And that's a bit unusual too: While many young artists can be heard making an impression, Greg Robbins is busy making music with real craft. Having studied the great jazz singers of the past, Greg Robbins is poised to become one of them. 

April 16, 2018

World Voice Day

World Voice Day is now a real "thing," having been created by a Brazilian laryngology society before spreading to other latin American countries, then Northern America through leading voice scientists. 

The purpose of World Voice Day? From the Wikipedia article we find: 

A goal of World Voice Day is to encourage all those who use their voice for business or pleasure to learn to take care of their voice, and know how to seek help and training, and to support research on the voice.

Seek help and training? That rings a bell if only because I currently have a number of students who've had training. Really bad training. They've been yelled at and harassed by their teacher(s) and came to me all muddled despite having earned advanced degrees—as if earning a degree teaches one to sing. Ain't that a trip! Here in America, you can spend a lot of money for an advanced degree in vocal performance/pedagogy and come out on the other end a total mess with no real technique. And to top it all off you can be gaslighted—made to think that your lack of technique is all your fault. 

So, on this World Voice Day, I would like to encourage the reader to conduct due diligence. If you are searching for a voice teacher, are young and applying for schools, find out all you can about the institution and its faculty. If the teacher teaches privately you can contact their students and listen to their performances. Does this take a lot of work? Yes. Did I do it when I was starting out? No. I was as clueless as most young students are today. 

What makes one clueless? Assumptions like the one that puts stock in the letters behind someone's name. Doctor this and Doctor that. All these letters really tell you is that the person who has them jumped through a lot of hoops. That's all. Did the hoops teach that person to sing as well as enable them to teach others to sing? These questions can't be answered without some investigation. What should investigation reveal? The teacher's ability to embody the principles they teach as well as the ability to impart those principles.

And speaking of imparting principles of singing: It can take a good six months to unravel the knots that a student has been tied-up in as a result of bad training. Yeah. It takes that long if not longer. No one wants to hear that. But that's the deal. And that unraveling only happens if both the teacher and the student are patient enough to do the work. 

The teacher who gave me the most would often say that learning to sing is like going into a jungle and hacking away a clearing, then keeping the clearing open. This takes a hell of a lot of work—work that is hard to do in an institution which requires repertoire from the get-go. Yet, if it is done the right way, the student can be rewarded with the ability to sing for a very long time. And isn't that the point? 

April 3, 2018

The First Law of Tomatis

I'm living proof. I swear I am.

I obtained new hearing aids about a week ago after acquiring my first pair nine years ago. My first pair were made by Phonak. Top of the line. With a music program and two microphones in each ear. Teflon coating that meant I could wear them in the rain. You get the idea. They were good stuff. 

Now I have two spanking new Resound aids from Denmark, which has taken the market by storm—zipping past competitors with a chip that processes higher frequencies better. My new guys even talk to one another and utilize an app which interfaces seamlessly with my iPhone—all fine-tuned by my excellent audiologist who tells me there were four leaps in technology while I was having fun with my Phonaks. Why didn't I get new ones sooner? They are expensive, and I was doing quite well until one of the four microphones started to give out. So I made the leap. 

But let's back up. Living proof of what exactly?  

Tomatis' First Law, which states that the larynx cannot produce sounds which the ear cannot hear. 

I do not say this lightly. After a week of tooling around, I believe I am singing with the full ability or function I was born with sans genetic hearing loss; which was first noticed—and dismissed—by the audiologist who tested me the year before I entered college.

My range has extended at either end and I am experiencing a delicious sense of ease—so much so that I am teased into thinking I'm not doing a damn thing at all. Of course I am. I know my P's and Q's technique-wise, which is the result of many years of teaching and working on my voice. Yes, the knowledge I have stuffed into my brain and the hours spent practicing counts for something. But here's the thing: give a guy the ability to process technical knowledge with better input to the brain via the ear and it will amount to something. All this to say: Tomatis was a genius—and I believe I prove him right since my new aids give me increased function via better perception of higher frequencies. It's a real kick and something of an odd sensation to hear one's voice as though for the first time. 

I've been singing all my life. I had a 23-year career with a major opera company. I wasn't doing badly. In fact, I believe the technique I was taught made my career possible. Yes, luck had something to do with it, but even luck needs preparation. But let's be clear: even a small drop in the listening curve isn't inconsequential.

Was I was intuitively interested in matters of technique as a result of hearing loss years before I knew it even mattered? Probably. You could also say that addressing that loss gave me the means to understand the principles of the old Italian school of singing in a new way. 

I have colleagues who are terrified of anyone finding out about their hearing loss. Not me. It's the deal, in as much as anything is the deal in our lives. Better to face it so that others can face it. That's why I write about it here. If you are a singer or voice teacher with hearing loss you owe it to yourself to do something about it. Your voice and students will thank you. On that score, I should mention that before one of my microphones starting failing, I had a 10-day tune-up via the Listening Centre in Toronto, which has proven to be the perfect jump-start for getting used to my new processors. Really good people who do life-changing work, I recommend the Listening Centre to you highly, especially if you are dealing with matters of audition.

Some day, a different kind of genius is going to invent a way to regenerate hair cells in the cochlea. Until that happens, those with hearing loss have better options than a decade ago.