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.

April 2, 2018

García & Lamperti in the Studio

What did these legendary voice teachers do in the studio? That's what I've been studying for a long while now. Aside from the differences in their approach (García taught privately, while Lamperti taught small classes of 4 or 5 students), they were after the same thing: beautiful singing. How did they achieve it? Firstly, by making their students do simple things like sing long tones on all  5 Italian vowels.

They would start in the middle of voice, then work their way up and down the scale. Often, they used the chromatic scale—which hardly anyone does anymore. It's unforgiving. Try it. Sing between—say— C and G—going up and down half-step by half-step. See if you can do it while keeping the voice clear, open-throated, steady and full. Not so easy, is it? If accomplished, the exercise teaches the student one very important thing, which is that the tuning of the piano is foreign to that of the voice (btw: earlier voice teachers used the violin as part of their tuition, which—as Tomatis has observed—introduces high frequencies into the awareness of the student—a centering mechanism). Lamperti called this enharmonic tuning. 

What did both García and Lamperti require the student to have? A good ear. What happened if the student didn't have that, and couldn't do the exercise outlined above? If they managed to have an audition, they would have been discouraged from the outset. But we aren't so discriminating, are we? Most schools today take just about everyone who can pay the tuition. And I've heard quite a few doctorate students who can't sing very well, and have witnessed others who began their studies with a good voice, but ended up Humpty-Dumpty fashion—seemingly broken beyond repair. But I am getting off track. 

Simple to complex. That was the trajectory of the old school teachers. The elimination of vocal faults was part of the deal. Students were not allowed to sing in the nose or in the throat. That means, of course, that most of the vocalism heard (and taught) today on the Broadway stage would not have passed muster. 

What else? 

The august teachers mentioned in this post did not allow their students to sing with words before their voices were fully formed, that is, before they could sing all 5 vowels clearly and beautifully within a 2 octave range on a plethora of vocal exercises. The high goal was to obtain an absolute vocal technique. Who approaches vocal study like that today? No one that I know of. Every teacher I know gives students songs to sing from the get-go—or allows students to sing them. Me? I will work on technique in every lesson, allowing songs and arias insofar as to keep the student's interest. It's a devil's bargain since the work to be down remains to be completed. But what student will submit to a year of exercises? The smart ones take what I give them and work for the long haul.

Back to the big boys. 

Those 2 old legends must have been either monsters to deal with or patient—or both. Lamperti had a baton he whacked students hands with and was known to be the most strict with those who were the most talented. García threw books at his students and ruled with an iron hand. If you did not follow his advice, studied with another teacher, and wanted to come back, you were refused outright. It was the survival of the fittest. Now? The voice lesson is student centered, product oriented, and market driven. 

Both men had their tricks of the trade, to be sure. Both taught multiple generations of great singers. Both insisted on beautiful singing. 

What do teachers do now? You tell me. 

March 9, 2018

Placing the Tone

Tone is the product of the whole resonator, which comprises three resonant spaces, the neck, the mouth and the nose. That in the neck is the most important for "tone" and general quality, the mouth for vowel quality and the nose a powerful accessory to be added in due proportion. Below the larynx, i.e. windpipe and lung cavities, there is no proper resonation, but some vibration transmitted through the air and through the attachment of the larynx to the breast-bone.

Tone may be defined as resonance within certain limited spaces. We must consider what those spaces are. There is a large space in the mouth, the space behind the uvula, and (most important of all from an individual characteristic point of view) the nasal cavity. In addition to these, there is the big tube below the larynx that runs right down to the lower depths, and of course there are the big spaces in the chest. Now, resonance being the thing we are aiming at, it follows that the bigger the spaces are the more resonance we shall get, provided we use those spaces. Therefore have the mouth as wide open as it can be with comfort, not stretched open but just easily wide open. The cheeks should be high (as in smiling), as this brings them away from the side teeth, thus increasing the width of the cavity, besides which it makes the singer look happy. You will never get a bright tone with a dull face. 

At the same time it is necessary and advisable to warn students against wearing a perpetual smile. It kills most of the vowels and stiffens the jaw. Freedom and looseness are equally necessary in both joy and sorrow. 

The space behind the uvula should be wide and gaping, but not stiff. The larynx as low as it can go and loose too (which it will be if the breath is taken correctly). It is unconsciously drawn downwards and forwards in relation to the sense of expansion, and is adjusted to the needs of every vowel position. It is drawn up in the guttural consonants K and G. 

As the voice ascends in the scale the larynx must not be allowed to rise up, as it will often want to do, but must remain low and loose exactly the same for the high notes as for the low ones. The tongue should lie flat and limp and forward on the floor of the mouth. The lower jaw should hang quite freely without the smallest feeling of tightness. 

The spaces in the mouth and behind the uvula can by these means be enlarged to their utmost. "Gaping" is the right word. When you sit on the edge of your bed and revel in your first great morning yawn, your throat is in just the right position for singing. 

Now, it will be obvious to everyone that those two spaces can be enlarged. We cannot enlarge either the big tube or the nasal cavity, but we can use them. 

There is nothing that will add character and individuality to the voice so much as the proper use of the nasal cavity. It must, of course, be used with discretion. It is all a question of balance. The larger you make your other spaces the more you can use your nose. There is a vast difference between a nasal and a nosey tone. The one is beautiful, the other is not. The use of the nasal cavity is like the pinch of salt in the soup. Without it the finest soup will taste insipid. 

Why is it, do you think, that if you hear twenty throaty tenors sing they all sound alike? It is not only caused by their contracting or closing their throats but to a very great extent because they don't use their noses. You can quite easily proves this by experiment. So, when you are teaching tone production, you must see to it that all the spaces are used in their proper balance for the purpose of obtaining the necessary resonance, and it follows that the more you use the back spaces the more you can use the nasal cavity. 

Remember that tone comes from below and must be focussed in the front of the mouth where it going forces with articulation. 

You will find that nearly every new pupil that comes to you will sing almost entirely at the back of the mouth. This is to a great extent caused by our damp climate. It doesn't happen in Italy. Nearly all the throats are wide open there. It is a fault that must be cured at once. Usually the root of the tongue will be clogging up the space behind it, and the cure for it is to being that unruly member forward and let it rest peacefully and flat on the floor of the mouth. It must not be stiffened, for, if it is, the lower jaw will be stiff too, and vise versa. The thing to be achieved is to bring the tone to the front of the mouth. It is quite obvious why this is essential. Singing is glorified speech. We speak on our lips and in the front of the mouth. Nearly all the consonants live there. If the voice is at the back and the speech is at the front the one is pulling against the other all the time and the result is a continual struggle. Get the student to say the syllables la, na, ta, da, and get get him to notice what part of the hard palate the tip of the tongue touches for all these consonants. It is just over the teeth. Call that the target, aim the focus of the tone at it and score bull's-eye every shot. Every note that we sing, high or low, loud or soft, must be kept focussed on that spot and must not be allowed to be back on to the soft palate. It will go back if you let it, but you mustn't let it. If you do away goes your tone-colour and you won't be able to get it back again until something drastic, such as a forte or a fresh breath (and consequently a fresh start), comes to the rescue. 

Remember that all the bright tone-colours are in the front of the mouth. You need not bother much about the dull colours. It is easy to be dull.

Many people approach the act of singing as a tremendous business. It is quite a usual thing to see a singer walk to the piano in a perfectly easy, natural and graceful manner, and then, just before the song begins, the body stiffens, the arms become rigid, the hand, perhaps, clenched tightly, the face and jaw and throat and the whole box or tricks become set fast, a frown makes its appearance, and a look of dull solemnity takes at the place of the bright and natural smile. The singer is making the awful, though silent, announcement, "Ladies and Gentlemen. I am about to sing." Why all that fuss? How much better it would be if he would retain his natural ease and attitude, and simply open his mouth and sing. The eased naturalness of the performance is half the battle, and the message of the song will go straight to the hearts of the listeners if it is unhampered by a whole cargo of unnecessary contortions, all of which are detrimental to the production of a beautiful tone. The tone must flow out in a continual stream, just touching the consonants on its way, not stopping it but touching them as it passes, unimpeded either by them or by anything else. It must be like a man walking past a series of posts and tapping them as he proceeds, his movements not being impeded, but in fact enhanced and embellished by the act. So it must be with the outward flow to tone. 

You will find that many students will stop the flow of the tone immediately they come against a consonant, obviously separating the one from the other. Try to get them to weld them together and take the tone through the consonant whenever possible. 

Having achieved beauty of tone, the next thing must be to enlarge it to it utmost. This will be done by the use of the crescendo on single sustained notes, beginning always in the middle of the voice (say A natural) and working downwards to, say, E natural, then starting again a note higher than before and working downwards again, and so on. The crescendo should be maintained on each note as long as the beauty of the tone remains unimpaired. The moment the smallest sign of strain of forcing appears, the pupil must stop and begin a new note. There must not be the slightest alternation or movement of any part of the vocal instrument at any time during the crescendo.

Try to make the student realize what he is doing, and that he must feel as if it is all coming from below and focusing in the front of his mouth. Sometimes he will feel something in the region of his diaphragm, but he should feel absolutely nothing in his throat. If he has those sensations at the bottom of his big tube and in the neighborhood of his front teeth and nowhere else, he will be will on the way to mastering the art of tone production. These rules apply to his loudest forte and his softest piano as well as to all intermediate stages. Never cease to impress on him the fact that if he feels any sensation in his throat he is doing something wrong.

Harry Gregory Hast, "Placing the Tone," The Singer's Art (1925) 13-18

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Harry Gregory Hast (1856-1944) made his first appearance on these pages in 2009. Unfortunately, then as now, his book is not available for download. However, having been published in 1925, the likelihood that The Singer's Art is now in the public domain is strong since British copyright law, which extends 50 to 70 years after the death of an author, places the outer limit for Hast's book in 2014.

The passage above contains some of the most cogent instructions that I have encountered. Find the book if you can.

Click on Hast's label below for more information. 

February 27, 2018

Blanche's Art

Here, we hear Blanche Marchesi (1863-1940), the daughter of Mathilde Marchesi—the great voice teacher and student of Manuel García—sing at the age of 73! Madam Marchesi, though noted as being the "greatest singer without a voice," was no slouch. Listen to her trills, the pathos in her voice, and its youthful quality even when singing in the lower register. She had real technique, my friends! Find more of her art at Youtube, which seems to have just about everything she recorded. 

Lastly, the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center has an amazing Marchesi Archive, which was given to the library by Blanche Marchesi's son—Ernest de Popper. Oh, the hours I have spent there! 

February 26, 2018

Madam Marchesi's Requirements

Blanche Marchesi (1863-1940)
A new addition to VOICETALK's download page can be found in the Singer's Pilgrimage (1923) by Blanche Marchesi—daughter of Mathilde Marchesi who was herself a student of the legendary Manuel García. I really don't know why I haven't included it earlier, though may have decided against  doing so since it is not a vocal pedagogy work per se. However, having read through it on a rainy Sunday, I am struck as much by Madam Marchesi's stories, advice, and gossip as her prescient thoughts about singing—which appear towards the end of the book. Two such passages appear below, and includes her fourteen essential requirements for the voice teacher. This is followed by timely words about character. As in her other book featured in earlier posts—The Singer's Catechism and Creed (1934)—Madam Marchesi is bracing, somewhat astringent, and as authoritative as you might expect a musical daughter of the Garcías to be.

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  1. To have sung—not necessarily to have been a famous singer. 
  2. To have studied with a great master of the true school.
  3. To have heard great artists. 
  4. To have genius for imparting knowledge. 
  5. To love one's profession. 
  6. To be a musician. 
  7. To possess knowledge of the world's ancient and modern vocal music. 
  8. To be able to impart all branches of the art of singing—opera, oratorio, church music, songs, part sing, etc. 
  9. To possess knowledge of the world's most important literature. 
  10. To know at least the four principle languages. 
  11. To have, if not understanding, at least interest, in all the other branches of art. 
  12. To possess pathological, physiological and psychological instinct—and, if possible, knowledge—because soul and body must be in perfect accord if the voice is to be trained to perfection. 
  13. To have energy necessary to guide mortals. 
  14. Patience. 

This last is one of the most necessary virtues of a teacher and a rare one. First of all, patience is the outcome and result of real knowledge. Only the person who knows exactly the difficulties to be overcome, and who can judge the intelligence before her, can have the patience to point out the faults day by day and to help the student to master them. For serious study is long and the path is strewn with difficulties of all sorts. I do not wish to insist upon the terrific ignorance that reigns nearly all over the world considering the study of singing. People admit and know that the study of instruments demands endless years of patience, but expect that singing be taught in a few weeks. In singing the human body and brain have to work simultaneously; there appears many a Rubicon on the journey which has to be bridged over, or swum over. Only time and patience can accomplish perfection is physical training, for the training of the voice is a physical training, and athletes know how long muscles and nerves take to acquire certain qualities of ability and endurance.

Blanche Marchesi, Singer's Pilgrimage (1923): 282-284

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Character is required by the teacher as by the pupil. When Rossini was asked: "Maestro, what is wanted to make a singer?" he would answer invariably: "Primo voce, second voce, terse voce." When García was asked: "Sir what is required to make a singer" he would answer: "Primo character, secondo character, terzo character," and I add that, endowed in a less measure with other required qualities, but with a character and will to succeed, many a pupil has gone ahead and surpassed those endowed by nature with all possible gifts except character. 

Blanche Marchesi, Singer's Pilgrimage (1923): 286